Prisco's Top 100

Yeah, quarterbacks rule, but the best player in the NFL universe entering the 2015 season is a once-in-a-generation defensive star.

By Pete Prisco /

Prisco's Top 100
Yeah, quarterbacks rule, but the best player in the NFL universe entering the 2015 season is a once-in-a-generation defensive star.
How do you decide the best player in the NFL?

The quarterbacks are the most valuable, which is why I almost always vote for one of them for MVP. But that doesn't necessarily mean one is the best player each season.

In 2014, that certainly wasn't the case. The best player in 2014 in was Houston Texans defensive end/tackle J.J. Watt. That's why he has the No. 1 spot in the Top 100, my annual ranking of the best players in the league.

I didn't vote for Watt as the league MVP last season, not when his defense was ranked in the middle of the pack and his team didn't make the postseason. But there is no denying he is the best player.

The reason is simple: He is so much better than anybody else at his position, while there is some debate at quarterback. There is none at defensive end/tackle.

Watt had 20 1/2 sacks last season, and double the amount of pressures. He spent games in the offensive backfield. He had seven multiple- sack games and two three-sack games, both against Jacksonville.

As part of my weekly After Further Review column, I watch every Watt play because he is so special. Some of the things he does are simply amazing, and I am not just talking numbers.

He might be a once-in-a-generation defensive player, which is saying something. That's why he gets the edge over Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers for the top spot. Rodgers is the best quarterback, but the best player is Watt.

There are two other quarterbacks in the top 10 and five in the top 15. So don't think the quarterbacks aren't getting their due. It's just that Watt is the man at the top.

1. J.J. Watt, DE, Houston Texans: He is just 26 years old, entering the prime of his career. The way he works and plays, there is no reason to believe there will be a drop in production in 2015. He is one of the most-popular players in the league for a reason.

2. Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay Packers: He is the best quarterback in the league and is just now entering his prime years. The Packers are a Super Bowl contender every year because of him. His ability to carry a team is second to none. He showed off his toughness playing hurt down the stretch last season.

3. Tom Brady, QB, New England Patriots: Yeah, he's done. That talk from last season is so laughable now after he won his fourth Super Bowl. The Delfategate crap might hurt him some in the court of public opinion, but it didn't really matter in terms of wins and losses. He's an all-time great.

4. Ndamukong Suh, DT, Miami Dolphins: There's a reason he's the highest-paid defensive player in the league. He is a force and makes all those around him that much better. He faces a ton of doubles and still wins. Forget the dirty talk. Every team in the league would love to have him.

5. Rob Gronkowski, TE, New England Patriots: There was some debate if he was the league's best tight end coming off ACL surgery last season. There isn't anymore. He is the best in the NFL, and key to the New England offense.

6. Andrew Luck, QB, Indianapolis Colts: He carries the Colts on his right arm. They came within a game of the Super Bowl last season with a lot of flaws because of him. Entering his fourth season, it's scary how good he can be.

7. Richard Sherman, CB, Seattle Seahawks: He is perfect for their scheme, but I think he could play in any scheme. He is physical mauler who is long and can play both zone and man schemes. He can be a bit thin-skinned, but he's earned his spot here.

8. Darrelle Revis, CB, New York Jets: After a down year in Tampa Bay in 2013, he reverted to his All-Pro form last season and helped New England win a Super Bowl. He can take your best receiver out of the game, which is key to any defense. He signed with the Jets, his original team, as a free agent.

9. Von Miller, OLB, Denver Broncos: He had 14 sacks coming off a torn ACL suffered late in 2013, which is truly impressive. But he was much more than that. He's become a good run player and his ability to influence the quarterback is much greater than that sack total.

10. Justin Houston, OLB, Kansas City Chiefs: He led the NFL with 22 sacks in 2014. His ability to come off the edge is huge for the Kansas City defense -- and he's only 26 years old. Can he come close to duplicating that sack number in 2015? That's the challenge now.

11. Dez Bryant, WR, Dallas Cowboys: Bryant is a physical freak who loves the game. Forget his antics, he plays the game with a passion, which the Cowboys love. He is so big and strong and tough to cover in a one-on-one situation. His 16 touchdown catches led all receivers last season.

12. Peyton Manning, QB, Denver Broncos: There is a perception that he didn't play well last season. That's hot garbage. He threw 39 touchdown passes and was hurt late in the season. Don't let his playoff showing against the Colts fool you.

13. Odell Beckham Jr., WR, New York Giants: He had 91 catches and 13 touchdowns as a rookie, despite missing the first four games. Now that he knows the offense, look out. His is a physical specimen with rare talent.

14. Luke Kuechly, MLB, Carolina Panthers: He is a tackling machine who is also good in coverage. He has good range when he drops into his zone. He is the key to the Carolina defense, a player who offenses must account for on each snap.

15. Ben Roethlisberger, QB, Pittsburgh Steelers: He had his best season statistically in 2014, throwing for career-bests in yards (4.952) and touchdowns (32). His completion percentage of 67.1 was also his career best, showing his improved accuracy.

16. Marshal Yanda, G, Baltimore Ravens: He is the best guard in the NFL, and it's hard to argue that. He is a technician and a mauler all in one. He also moved to right tackle last season and played well.

17. Eric Weddle, S, San Diego Chargers: He is a rangy centerfielder who doesn't get the due he deserves. He was the league's best safety in 2015. The Chargers almost have to give him a new deal. His range is hard to copy.

18. Julio Jones, WR, Atlanta Falcons: He bounced back from an injury in 2013 to have an impressive season. He caught 104 passes for 1,593 yards and a 15.3 average. His touchdown number was low at six, but the troubles on the line didn't help there.

19. Earl Thomas, S, Seattle Seahawks: Injuries impacted his 2014 season some, but he still remains the key to the Seattle defense. His ability to cover a lot of ground in their scheme makes it go. He's a ballhawk and a willing tackler.

20. Antonio Brown, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers: He led the NFL in both catches (129) and yards (1,698). That's impressive for a player who is just 5-foot-10 and 190 pounds. He also had 13 touchdown catches.

21. Gerald McCoy, DT, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: He had 8 1/2 sacks last season, but he was much more dominant than that as an inside rusher. He got a lot of pressure. He isn't the same run player as Suh, which is why he's down a little lower on the list.

22. Chris Harris Jr. CB, Denver Broncos: He came into the league as an undrafted free agent and now he's one of the top corners in the game. He is a feisty, tough competitor who loves the battles. He can play outside or move inside into the tough slot corner position. That takes skill.

23. Le'Veon Bell, RB, Pittsburgh Steelers: He was second in the league in rushing to DeMarco Murray with 1,361 yards, but he led all backs with 854 yards receiving. He is the best dual-purpose back in the league and he's just entering his third season.

24. Demaryius Thomas, WR, Denver Broncos: He finished second in the NFL in receptions last season with 111 with 11 touchdown catches. He is a tough matchup outside because of his size and speed.

25. Marshawn Lynch, RB, Seattle Seahawks: He is the key to the Seattle offense. His ability to pound the football opens up the rest of it. He averaged 4.7 yards per attempt last season, with 13 rushing touchdowns. He is a bruising back who is tough to bring down. But he turns 30 next April.

26. Robert Quinn, DE, St. Louis Rams: His sack numbers dropped from 2013 after a slow start last season. But Quinn picked it up in the second half to total 10 1/2 sacks and get to the Pro Bowl. He remains one of the game's best edge rushers. I look for another huge sack year from him 2015.

27. Devin McCourty, S, New England Patriots: His ability to cover a lot of ground in the middle of the field was vital to the Patriots' Super Bowl run last season. This converted corner has the range that teams love from a free safety. He is prototype for the position the way the game is played now.

28. Jason Peters, T, Philadelphia Eagles: This 33-year-old remains one of the steadiest left tackles in the league. He is really good in pass protection, but can also be nasty in the run game. Playing him is a challenge for any defender lined up opposite him.

29. Jordy Nelson, WR, Green Bay Packers: He caught 98 passes and averaged 15.5 per catch with 13 touchdown receptions. He is much more than just a product of Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay offense. He would excel on any team.

30. Michael Bennett, DE, Seattle Seahawks: He is one of the more versatile defensive lineman in the league. He can play inside or outside and he is a big part of why the Seattle defense is so good. He plays hard all the time. His impact is much greater than his numbers.

31. Jamie Collins, OLB, New England Patriots: He is an all-purpose linebacker who can run and cover and blitz. His speed an athletic ability gives the Patriots so many options and ways to use him. He is a rising star.

32. Joe Thomas, T, Cleveland Browns: He is considered the best left tackle in the league by most. Thomas isn't as elite as guys like Tony Boselli and Walter Jones, but he is the best of this era.

33. Muhammad Wilkerson, DT, New York Jets: At 25, he is a force for the Jets up front. He is a big, power player who can also rush the passer. His sack numbers were down from 10 1/2 in 2013 to six last season, but he's still a power player who has to be accounted for on every snap.

34. Cameron Wake, DE, Miami Dolphins: He had 11 1/2 sacks in 2014 and continued to be a force off the corner. With Ndamukong Suh now on the line, that number should go up as he sees more single blocking. He is 33, so age is starting to be an issue.

35. Khalil Mack, OLB, Oakland Raiders: He had only three sacks as a rookie, but he was much better than the number would suggest. Offensive linemen I talked to about him raved about his skills. He will be a star.

36. Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans Saints: He had a supposedly "bad" season in 2014, yet tied Ben Roethlisberger in yards passing and was second in completion percentage at 69.2 among starting quarterbacks. He can still get it done at the age of 36.

37. Lavonte David, LB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: He has never been to the Pro Bowl, which is a shame. He is a run-and-chase linebacker perfect for the modern game. He has a great nose for the football and he excels in coverage.

38. Tony Romo, QB, Dallas Cowboys: With help from the Dallas running game, he had his best season. Romo threw 34 touchdown passes, which was fourth-best in the league. He averaged 8.5 yards per attempt, the best of any starter in the league. It's time this guy got his due. He is much better than most think.

39. Patrick Peterson, CB, Arizona Cardinals: He started slowly last year, but we later found out he was dealing with a blood sugar issue. He came on strong and continues to be one of the better corners in the league. Watch him against Dez Bryant last year. You will see.

40. Vontae Davis, CB, Indianapolis Colts: He had four picks last season and did a great job in man coverage. The Colts can lock him up on top receivers and not worry if he will do the job. He is their best defender.

41. DeMarco Murray, RB, Philadelphia Eagles: He is coming off a season that saw him lead the league in rushing with 1,845 yards with 13 rushing touchdowns. That led to his signing as a free agent with the Eagles.

42. Bobby Wagner, MLB, Seattle Seahawks: His ability to chase down plays and cover ground in the passing game are an overlooked factor to the success of the Seattle defense. The defense is so much different when he is not on the field. Wagner is up for a new contract, and he's about to be a rich man -- deservedly so.

43. Aaron Donald, DT, St. Louis Rams: He was a force as a rookie, dominating at times. He is undersized, but he is so quick and powerful. He had nine sacks last season after opening the season as a reserve. He will be much higher on this list next year.

44. Calais Campbell, DE, Arizona Cardinals: He doesn't pile up big sack numbers in their scheme, but the personnel men and opposing offensive coaches know all about him. He is a good run player and he does have 16 sacks the past two seasons and earned his first trip to the Pro Bowl last season.

45. Jimmy Graham, TE, Seattle Seahawks: He played through a nagging shoulder injury last season that clearly limited him. He still had 85 catches with 10 touchdown receptions. The Saints traded him to Seattle in March.

46. Tyron Smith, T, Dallas Cowboys: He is the best lineman on one of the best lines in the league. And he's doesn't turn 25 until December. That's unreal. He already has 63 starts in his career. He's always been good in pass protection, but he's improved his power game for the Cowboys' run-based offense.

47. Sheldon Richardson, DE, New York Jets: As a rookie, he dominated from the opening week. He finished with 3 1/2 sacks to earn Defensive Rookie of the Year honors. It's rare you see a first-year player do well as a rusher and against the run. He followed that up last season with eight sacks and again was stout against the run.

48. Matt Ryan, QB, Atlanta Falcons: Playing behind a bad line, on a bad team, he threw for 4,694 yards and 28 touchdown passes. There were times he took a physical pounding and just kept on making throws, showing off his toughness.

49. Calvin Johnson, WR, Detroit Lions: He turns 30 this September and he missed three games last season for injury. He still caught 71 passes in the new offense, and averaged an impressive 15.2 per catch, but that's his lowest since 2010.

50. Philip Rivers, QB, San Diego Chargers: Here's another quarterback who took a ton of hits last season, but kept on battling. He was sacked 36 times, yet still threw for 4,266 yards and 31 touchdown passes.

51. Marcell Dareus, DT, Buffalo Bills: He has developed into a force in the middle of the Buffalo defense. When his weight is in check, he has the ability to dominate inside. It's too bad he will miss the opener this season for a league-imposed suspension.

52. Andrew Whitworth, T, Cincinnati Bengals: This veteran left tackle was outstanding in 2014 and continues to be a consummate pro. Yet there is a chance this could be his last season with the Bengals. That's too bad.

53. Russell Wilson, QB, Seattle Seahawks: He's a good quarterback who has a chance to be special. He's not there yet, but he does have the skills to make up for his limitations in the pocket. He is dangerous outside of it. Once he improves in it, he will be higher on this list.

54. Clay Matthews, OLB, Green Bay Packers: He had 11 sacks playing both inside and outside. His move to the inside on early downs helped key the Packers defense late in the season. But I still think he's better served playing outside.

55. Fletcher Cox, DE, Philadelphia Eagles: It's a shame he didn't go to the Pro Bowl last season. He was hurt by his lack of sacks with just four, but he is much more of a presence each week than that number. He dominated games at times.

56. Terrell Suggs, OLB, Baltimore Ravens: He's getting up in the years, but he is still a tough, physical edge player. He had 12 sacks last season, and he continued to be a good run player.

57. Josh Sitton, G, Green Bay Packers: His move to the left side the past two years has paid off. He has been their best lineman and one of the best guards in the league. He is smart and knows what it takes to flourish in the Green Bay system.

58. A.J. Green, WR, Cincinnati Bengals: He missed three games because of injury last season, and his numbers were down. He had 69 catches after having over 90 each of the previous two seasons. His average was up to 15.1, but this is a big year for him as he's in the final year of his contract.

59. Jason Pierre-Paul, DE, New York Giants: He had 12 1/2 sacks in his bounce-back season in 2014, again showing off his rare talents. Now entering his sixth season, he's still just 26 years old. He is capable of having a 15-sack season, but hasn't topped that number since he had 16 1/2 since 2011. Injuries have held him back some.

60. Joe Staley, T, San Francisco 49ers: He is the steady force on the 49ers line. Rams defensive end Robert Quinn said he's the best he faces each season. That's good enough for me. He's a pro's pro. Shows up and just gets the job done.

61. Zack Martin, G, Dallas Cowboys: He was a dominant guard as a rookie, showing up big time in the run game and having a solid season in pass protection. He earned a trip to the Pro Bowl, which should be the first of many.

62. DeAndre Levy, OLB, Detroit Lions: He is an all-purpose linebacker in their defense who has the speed to chase down plays and excel in coverage. He can also blitz and attack the quarterback. Speed is the key to his game.

63. Desmond Trufant, CB, Atlanta Falcons: It's too bad he played on an awful defense last season because he played well. He is the best defender on that bad unit. He needs some pass-rush help up front to really take the next step.

64. Adrian Peterson, RB, Minnesota Vikings: He missed all but one game last season and he's 30 now, which isn't a good thing for a back. In his prime, he was way up this list. He might never get to that level again, but he can still be a 1,200-1,400-yard rusher.

65. Cam Newton, QB, Carolina Panthers: This is a player whose numbers from 2014 don't do him justice. He had only 18 touchdown passes in 14 games, but he passed for 3,127 yards and ran for 539 yards without a lot of help around him.

66. T.Y. Hilton, WR, Indianapolis Colts: His big-play ability is huge in the Colts offense. He is small at 5-9, but he can fly. He averaged 16.4 per catch last season with seven touchdown receptions. With more weapons this season, those numbers should go up.

67. Julius Thomas, TE, Jacksonville Jaguars: He had 12 touchdown catches last season, then got hurt, and it impacted his role with the Broncos. He signed with the Jaguars as a free agent. He is a tough matchup for any defense.

68. Randall Cobb, WR, Green Bay Packers: He was a sought-after free agent this year, but opted to re-sign with the Packers. He had 91 catches with 12 touchdown passes last season, and is considered the best slot receiver in the league. He doesn't turn 25 until August.

69. Mario Williams, DE, Buffalo Bills: He had 14 1/2 sacks last season for the Bills as a part of one of the league's best defenses. Williams had a sack in all but four games last season, getting four against the Dolphins in one game. He's also solid against the run.

70. Pernell McPhee, OLB, Chicago Bears: The Bears signed him as a free agent from the Ravens where he was used as a situational player. He can line up outside, inside, up or down, which was key to his success. With the Bears, he will be a 3-4 rush linebacker, which should help his sack numbers.

71. Travis Frederick, C, Dallas Cowboys: His ability to move people in the middle of the Dallas line is a big reason why DeMarco Murray led the league in rushing. His next step is to improve in pass protection.

72. Sen'Derrick Marks, DT, Jacksonville Jaguars: He finished with 8 1/2 sacks last season and was clearly the best player on the Jacksonville defense. He is fast and strong and does a nice job of pushing the pocket inside.

73. Nick Mangold, C, New York Jets: Mangold is a good player in the middle of the Jets line, especially when it comes to run blocking. Now 31, he is getting a bit older, but his play hasn't tailed off. He can struggle with pass protection at times.

74. Dont'a Hightower, ILB, New England Patriots: He took over when Jerod Mayo went down and was outstanding in the middle of their defense. He had eight sacks as a blitzer and did a solid job in coverage.

75. Kam Chancellor, S, Seattle Seahawks: He is the big-hitting safety in the Seattle secondary, a thumper in the run game who is more linebacker than safety. He is so key to what they do in the run game.

76. Emmanuel Sanders, WR, Denver Broncos: He fit in perfectly in Denver's offense in his first season with the team. He had 101 catches with nine touchdown catches. He is a nice complement to Demaryius Thomas.

77. Haloti Ngata, DT, Detroit Lions: He isn't the player he used to be, but he is still an effective force inside. The Ravens would have loved to keep him, but he was too pricey. The Lions have to be thrilled.

78. Evan Mathis, G, Philadelphia Eagles: The Eagles always seem like they want to get rid of him. Why? All he does is continue to play well and be one of the better guards in the league.

79. Jimmy Smith, CB, Baltimore Ravens: He was having a heck of a season before he went down in 2014 with a Lisfranc injury in Week 8. That's why the Ravens gave him a long-term deal, despite the injury. They know his value.

80. Xavier Rhodes, CB, Minnesota Vikings: By the end of the 2015 season, he might be in the top 30 on this list. He has a ton of talent and he is capable of being one of the five best corners in the league.

81. Kyle Long, G, Chicago Bears: He has been to two Pro Bowls in two years and is quickly emerging as one of the better guards in the league. With a little more experience, he will be dominant. He is already outstanding in pass protection.

82. Jason Witten, TE, Dallas Cowboys: He's coming to the end of what could be a Hall of Fame career, but he is still an effective pass-catching tight end who can also block. Those guys are rare.

83. Jurrell Casey, DT, Tennessee Titans: He made the move from 4-3 defensive tackle to 3-4 end last season and continued to play at a high level. He is quick, tough and athletic.

84. Elvis Dumervil, OLB, Baltimore Ravens: He had 17 sacks last season for the Ravens, third best in the league. He can still come with a speed rush and creates problems for slower tackles. He had eight double-digit sack games at the age of 31.

85. Eddie Lacy, RB, Green Bay Packers: He averaged 4.8 per carry and had 13 touchdowns. He also caught 42 passes. His ability to run inside the tackles is a nice complement to Aaron Rodgers and the passing game.

86. Sean Smith, CB, Kansas City Chiefs: With a lot of turnover in the secondary for the Chiefs, Smith was one of the better corners in the league last season. He's always had the talent, but he seemed to put it together in 2014.

87. Lawrence Timmons, ILB, Pittsburgh Steelers: He earned his first Pro Bowl trip last season when he was the Steelers best defender. He is a fast linebacker who has made a nice transition inside and is finally getting the attention he's earned the past few seasons.

88. Jamaal Charles, RB, Kansas City Chiefs: His numbers have gone down each of the past three seasons, which has to be a bit of concern. He did average 5.0 yards per rush, but had just 206 rushes. His receptions were down from 70 to 40.

89. LeSean McCoy, RB, Buffalo Bills: McCoy was traded to the Bills in March in a blockbuster deal that will make him the feature back in Rex Ryan's ground-and-pound attack. McCoy's numbers dropped some last season for the Eagles, but he is still only 26. The concerning number is his yards-per-rush went down to 4.2 last season from 5.1 the year before.

90. Johnathan Hankins, DT, New York Giants: He is a good run player who also improved as a pass rusher last season, getting seven sacks, including 2 1/2 in a game against the Redskins. Now in his third season, he could be ready for a Pro Bowl selection.

91. Ryan Kerrigan, OLB, Washington Redskins: He had a career-high 13 1/2 sacks last year to go along with his solid run defense. He also tied for the league lead with five forced fumbles.

91. Charles Woodson, S, Oakland Raiders: He is closing in on 40, yet he continues to be a playmaker in the secondary. He has started all 32 games the past two seasons for the Raiders and had a career-best 113 tackles last season.

92. Joel Bitonio, G, Cleveland Browns: He stepped in as a rookie starter and looked right at home. He was one of the better guards in the league and has a bright future inside after making the move from college tackle.

93. Mike Evans, WR, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: He averaged 15.5 per catch as a rookie with 12 touchdown catches. Now that he has Jameis Winston, look for those numbers to go up.

94. Harrison Smith, S, Minnesota Vikings: He had five picks, three sacks and had 92 tackles to show off his range. He is a prototype for the way the game is played now with his ability to cover a lot of ground.

95. Greg Olsen, TE, Carolina Panthers: He caught 84 passes for 1,008 yards and six touchdowns. He is also a capable blocker, making him the rare dual-threat tight end. He was the primary weapon in an offense that needs more help outside.

96. DeSean Jackson, WR, Washington Redskins: Despite some bad quarterback play, Jackson averaged 20.9 yards per catch and had 13 receptions of 40 yards or more to lead the NFL in that category. He had 56 catches.

97. C.J. Mosley, LB, Baltimore Ravens: He was great against the run as a rookie, but did have some issues in coverage. With a year under his belt, look for that to improve this season and for him to rise up this list.

98. Robert Mathis, OLB, Indianapolis Colts: He is coming off a season lost to suspension and a torn Achilles tendon. But he is expected to be ready to go for the 2015 season and he should be back to his double-digit sack ways.

99. Alshon Jeffery, WR, Chicago Bears: His numbers were down some from 2013, but he still caught 85 passes for 1,133 yards and 10 touchdowns. His average per catch was down from 16.0 to 13.3, which is concerning.

100. Kyle Williams, DT, Buffalo Bills: He had 5 1/2 sacks last season and continued to be a good run player for a smallish defensive tackle because he plays with such good leverage.