The Countdown continues. Before we get into the top 10, a few honorable mentions:
· Keenan Robinson – If this list were 21 names long instead of 20, Keenan Robinson would be on it. He has great size and great movement for the ILB position, and always seems to be around the ball. He’s a name to watch for next year’s list.
· Orlando Scandrick – He would have been on this list, but alas, pop goes the ligament.
· Jason Kelce – Does a great job at center for the Eagles; just narrowly missed the cut owing partly to time missed last year due to injury. By the way, Kelce doesn’t get mentioned much among the injury concerns, but he’s missed 18 games since 2012. Something to keep an eye on.
· Dan Bailey – Hit 86.2% of his FGs in 2014, including a whopping 13/16 from beyond 40. Also nailed 55% of his kickoffs for touchbacks.
· Mychal Kendricks – Also missed some time in 2014 with a hamstring injury, but it’s impossible not to notice Kendricks when he’s on the field. Compiled 81 tackles in 12 games and 10 Tackles for Loss (that pace would have had him at about 110 total tackles and 15 TFL on the season, if he played all 16, both top 20 in the NFL territory). Also has a knack for blitzing the A gap. Only David Harris had more sacks from the ILB spot than Kendricks last year.
Back to the list:
10. Demarco Murray – Murray’s game has undergone some frankly ridiculous scrutiny in the offseason as the hype for Dallas’ OLine builds and builds, but if we try to somewhat divorce Murray’s achievements from the line’s, we see one of the best backs in the league. He led the NFL in yards after contact. The Cowboys ranked 2nd in the NFL in 2nd level yards and 2nd in the NFL in open field yards (i.e. yards mostly or exclusively attributable to the RB). Murray ranked 5th in the NFL in RB DVOA, 2nd in the NFL in rushing TDs and consistently set up the Cowboys in favorable down-and-distance on 2nd and 3rd downs. Expect his gross numbers to come down a bit in 2015 as he shares the backfield with Ryan Mathews and Darren Sproles, but don’t expect him to be any less effective.
9. Ryan Kerrigan – For whatever reason, Ryan Kerrigan doesn’t seem to get mentioned among the game’s premiere pass rushers, but he’s definitely one of them. Playing behind a DL that was, frankly, really bad and rushing opposite Brian Orakpo (who has two speeds: sleepwalking and injured), and rookie Trent Murphy, who was raised by wolves and Chuck Norris (as it turns out, neither wolves nor Chuck Norris apparently know very much about playing football). Kerrigan is also a solid run defender. In 2014, he racked up 13.5 sacks, good enough for 7th in the league, and 15 TFL, which tied him for 17th in the NFL. Hopefully he won’t be asked too much to play in space or cover TEs or RBs out of the backfield, because he struggles in pass defense, but the rest of his game is better than solid.
8. Jason Peters – The Dancing Bear. Freakish to see this man, at his age, with his injury history, get to the third level on a run play ahead of a running back who is going full speed. Hilarious to see the reactions of the CBs or Safeties when they see Peters coming toward them. It’s the rough equivalent of what my reaction would be if I were being attacked by a grizzly bear. A stud in pass protection and a beast in run blocking, Peters has been one of the top 3 LTs in the game consistently for the last seven years or so. He struggled just a bit down the stretch for the Eagles last season, allowing three sacks in the final four games, which is really the only thing placing him just behind our 7th ranked player…..
7. Tyron Smith – Like Peters, Smith is an athletic freak. The book on Smith says that once he gets his hands on you, your play is pretty much over. And it turns out he’s really good at getting his hands on you. Consider this: 36% of the Cowboys runs in 2014 went either left end or left tackle compared to the NFL average of 24%. No other team ran behind their LT more than the Cowboys and almost nobody was as successful doing it. Smith is certainly no slouch in pass protection either.
6. Desean Jaccson – After this selfish, egotistical diva was unceremoniously dumped by Chip Kelly, the Redskins once again snuck in at night and raided the Eagles trash can. We really need to get better lids. There was little doubt before 2014 that Desean was the best deep threat in the NFL. There is zero doubt after 2014 that Desean is the best deep threat in the NFL. While Desean was with the Eagles in 2013, there was a criticism unfairly aimed at him that he is a “one-trick pony” running 9 routes over and over. That wasn’t true with the Eagles. It’s actually kind of true with the Redskins, but when that one trick works so well, why mess with it? Desean led the league in pass plays of 40+ yards by a huge margin, better than 50% more than the next closest receiver and is a threat to score from anywhere on the field. I don’t miss him at all. I’ve got Josh Huff.
5. Odell Beckham, Jr. – Beckham missed the first four games with an injury and got off to a pedestrian start after that, totaling 10 catches for 106 yards in the first three games. After that, he broke out like a madman and finished in the top 10 in the NFL in receptions, yards and touchdowns. If you extrapolate Beckham’s 12 games to a full 16, he would have finished tops in the NFL in receptions and yards and tied for first in touchdowns. Simply the most productive receiver in the NFL on a per game basis last year and it wasn’t close. And the vast majority of that damage was done in 9 games. Beckham apparently still has some hamstring issues, so hopefully that doesn’t slow him down going forward. He gets bonus points for perhaps the greatest catch I have ever seen. He gets points deducted for having a stupid haircut and being a bit of a bitch.
4. Fletcher Cox – The stats will not show what a dominant force Fletcher Cox is. Playing 3-4 DE in a two-gap defense doesn’t allow for too many sacks or highlight reel plays, but the tape on Cox speaks for itself. In the latter half of last season, Cox was nearly unblockable, routinely taking on double teams, blowing up blocks and forcing blockers into the backfield as if they were wearing roller skates. Those 13.5 sacks that Connor Barwin got? Many of them were owing to Cox blowing up the left side of the pocket. He’s the rare talent that would excel in a 4-3 front or a 3-4 front, and even with three years experience he’s still doesn’t turn 25 until December.
3. Eli Manning – Eli has, by far, the most impressive resume in the division. Once could maybe be a fluke, but you can’t dismiss two Super Bowls, MVP in both, try as you might. Lost in the disaster that was the Giants’ season last year is the fact that Eli actually had a really good season. 30 TDs and 4,410 yards despite having really only one offensive weapon to throw to, no OLine and no running game. Unfortunately for Eli, he still has no OLine and no running game in 2015 and only one legitimate receiving threat, so prospects look sub-optimal.
2. Dez Bryant – The Cowboys added a play to their repertoire in 2014 that they should have added to their repertoire two seasons (at least) earlier. The play goes like this: Romo lines up under center and looks toward Dez. If there is single coverage, Romo snaps the ball, takes three-steps back and lobs the ball deep down the sideline and it works almost every time. Bradley Fletcher and all Eagles fans still have nightmares. It doesn’t matter much how the defense lines up or what they do once the ball is snapped, single-coverage on Dez is pretty much an auto-throw. He cannot be covered one-on-one by just about anybody, period. The best offensive plays are the ones that can’t be stopped, even if the defense knows what is coming. Dez gives the Cowboys that kind of power, both with the play I just described and that goal line back shoulder throw that they hit every time (in the last two seasons, 14 of Dez’s 29 Touchdowns have come from within the 5 yard line).
1. Tony Romo – Give credit where credit is due. Tony Romo was awesome in 2014. There were a number of games when just about everybody was just waiting for the Tony Romo collapse that seemed inevitable (Titans week 2; Rams week 3; Texans week 5; Seahawks week 6; Giants week 12; Eagles week 15; Lions in the Wild Card game…) and it just never came. Bolstered in 2014 with the best running game he has ever had and the first time his playcaller wasn’t a soft-headed idiot, he finished tops in the NFL in yards/attempt, tops in QB rating, tops in total QBR and 3rd in QB DVOA. Hard to argue with those results. Hopefully we see the return of the Romo we all know and love in 2015.
Good Luck Joey