NFLTR Top 100 Players: 50-41

Every summer, NFL Media releases a list of the top 100 NFL players as voted on by the players, supposedly. And every summer, the results kick up their fair amount of controversy. 

This year, we decided to throw our hat in the ring with the first NFLTR Top 100 Players list to see if we could do better. We didn’t poll any players but we did use a rigorous process that factored in basic and advanced stats, awards, career trajectory, injuries and of course the highly scientific gut check. 

We’ll be rolling these out over the rest of the summer to pass time until training camp, so be sure to keep an eye out for the rest of our NFLTR Top 100 Players list!

50: Texans LT Laremy Tunsil

A hand injury limited Tunsil to just five starts in 2021, and those probably weren’t the best starts of his career. That aside, Tunsil is still only 27 and has made clear steps in his game over the past few seasons. He’s cut down on the penalties, going from a staggering 18 in 2019 to just six in 2020 and only one in those five starts last season. He’s an excellent pass protector and has flashed some competency in the run game as well. For a team like the Texans without many clear foundational pieces, Tunsil qualifies as probably their best player by far right now. 

49: 49ers WR Deebo Samuel

Samuel had a truly unique 2021 season. Pressed into service at running back because of injuries, he ended up being a revelation for the 49ers and a huge part of their run to the NFC title game as a No. 6 seed. While Samuel isn’t as good at the finer points of the receiver position as some of his contemporaries, his physicality and ability to break tackles is a truly special talent. He racked up more than half of his 1,405 receiving yards after the catch. He was also a big-play threat — four of his six receiving scores were from 40 yards out or more, and all but one of his eight rushing touchdowns were eight yards or longer.

How much Samuel will play running back going forward is up for debate, as it was apparent in the playoffs his body was starting to break down from shouldering so much of the offensive burden for the 49ers and that’s rumored to be part of the current tension between him and the team. What’s clear though is that Samuel is San Francisco’s most dynamic offensive player, and getting the ball in his hands as much as possible ought to be one of their top priorities. 

48: Chargers S Derwin James

We finally got to see a healthy James on the field in 2021 after injuries limited him to just five games in 2019-2020. He was an All-Pro as a rookie and he was excellent again in 2021, finishing the season with 118 total tackles, seven tackles for loss, two sacks, two interceptions and three forced fumbles. Los Angeles uses James all over the defense, he spent almost equal snaps in the box, at free safety and in the slot (361, 326 and 224 respectively, plus 41 snaps at defensive end and nine at outside corner). He’s also a terrific blitzer, finishing second in the NFL among DBs in QB hits with seven. 

47: Ravens TE Mark Andrews

Andrews had been a solid tight end for three seasons entering 2021 and was Baltimore’s most reliable weapon on offense for QB Lamar Jackson. With the team forced to pass more due to a decimated running back group, though, Andrews took another step forward and turned in an absolutely massive season. He had 107 receptions for 1,361 yards and nine touchdowns. Those marks are No. 3 all-time in a single season for tight ends.

46: Titans S Kevin Byard

It always seems like Byard has had a harder time earning his plaudits than other safeties. Hall of Famer Deion Sanders infamously didn’t know who he was, and although he was just named first-team All-Pro in 2021 for the second time in his career, he was snubbed from the Pro Bowl for a couple of years in between. But in this list, Byard is our top-rated safety in the entire league. Since 2017, he leads all safeties and is third among all defensive backs with 23 interceptions, proof of how his range and instincts make him an eraser on the back end of the defense. In a league that asks a lot from its safeties, Byard excels, as PFF rated him No. 7 among all safeties when asked to come down and stop the run. 

45: Colts LB Darius Leonard

Even Leonard would admit 2021 wasn’t his best season, as he soldiered through an ankle injury all year. Asked about it, the best he could say was “it’s attached.” He had a career-low four tackles for loss, no sacks and was clearly limited from his usually speedy and explosive self. And still, Leonard stuffed the stat sheet with impact plays, finishing the season with four interceptions, eight pass deflections, three fumble recoveries and a staggering eight forced fumbles. He was named first-team All-Pro for the third time in his career and at this point is clearly the best linebacker in football. For Indianapolis’ sake, hopefully he’s not too limited by his back injury this season. 

44: Seahawks WR D.K. Metcalf

Football can be a complex game, but sometimes it’s pretty simple. Get the ball to the guy who’s bigger, faster and stronger than everyone trying to tackle him. Metcalf is an absolute freak of nature at the receiver position, with 4.3 speed in a 6-4, 230-pound body. He didn’t crack 1,000 yards receiving due in part to Seattle’s struggles on offense in 2021 but he was a force with 12 touchdowns and looked like the same player who popped off for more than 1,300 yards and 10 scores in his second season. Assuming the Seahawks work out a deal to keep him, that’s the kind of production they can expect once they figure out who’s throwing the ball.

43: Eagles WR A.J. Brown

Rounding out the stellar group of young receivers from the 2019 class is Brown, who is my personal favorite of the bunch. Samuel and Metcalf are physical freaks who can make up for some of the nuances they lack at the position by sheer brute strength. Brown is a bully at receiver too, playing the position like a power forward. But he also has mastered some of the finer points of route running and receiving, as evidenced by his work against press coverage, the gold standard in how NFL receivers should be measured.  

Brown’s raw stats have been limited somewhat by playing in one of the league’s run-heaviest offenses in Tennessee the past three seasons. The Eagles were run-heavy in 2021 but HC Nick Sirianni showed in the first quarter of the season he wants to pass the ball. Sooner or later, that’s what Philadelphia will do, either with Jalen Hurts or someone else at quarterback. And once that happens, it will be easy to see Brown rocket toward to the top in rankings like this. 

42: Browns CB Denzel Ward

Ward doesn’t talk as much as some other cornerbacks, a notoriously vociferous bunch. That and playing in Cleveland means he flies under the radar a little bit compared to some of the other top players at his position. The Browns gave him more than $20 million a year for good reason, though. Consistency in coverage is hard to find and Ward stepped in right away as one of the better cover corners in football. Per Pro Football Focus, here are his targets (82, 69, 69, 71), receptions allowed (44, 31, 38, 44) and yards allowed (451, 426, 439, 419) for each season.

41: Cardinals QB Kyler Murray 

In terms of raw physical talent, Murray is right up with any other quarterback in football. He and Ravens QB Lamar Jackson would probably be a photo finish in a 40-yard dash, and his diminutive stature has little impact on his arm power. PFF rated him as their No. 1 deep ball thrower in 2021, citing a few impressive stats but most notably his perfect placement percentage of 48.5 percent, a tier above any other thrower. If it all comes together in a season for Murray, the ceiling is as high as anyone’s. We’re talking gaudy numbers like 4,000 yards passing, 1,000 yards rushing, an MVP and a Super Bowl. 

The trick of course has been getting it all together. Something has always been holding Murray back in his first three seasons. Sometimes it’s been injuries. The past couple of seasons, he’s rocketed out of the gate before getting dinged up sometime around midseason and seeing both his production and the team’s success slip. Like a high-end sports car, Murray is capable of elite performance, but it seems like a little bit of grit in the machine will shut the whole thing down. 

Sometimes it’s been his supporting cast. Last year the Cardinals struggled to replace WR DeAndre Hopkins when he went down. Although he was extended this offseason, HC Kliff Kingsbury has also come under fire, including sometimes from Murray, either for his play-calling or ability to adjust. Kingsbury-coached teams have a long history of wilting in the second half of the season, not just in Arizona. 

And sometimes it’s Murray. He can do anything you want physically, but the finer points of the position take even the greats years to master. There have been signs Murray may not understand the mental investment needed, and criticisms of his leadership bubbling up is partially why things between him and the team seemed so tense earlier this offseason. Things seem to be headed in the right direction with contract talks, and Murray’s talent will dictate an enormous deal likely well above $40 million a season. It’ll be fascinating to see how things play out from here, though. 

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