Top 20 NFL Players from 2015

May 19, 2016 by T.I.

We’re officially counting down until the 2016 NFL season! We can almost feel the September sun and taste the whiskey and lemonade cocktails at our Sunday NFL tailgate party…cannot wait! That being said, it’s time to start prepping for your 2016 fantasy football draft. Start taking notes on the league’s top performers from the 2015 season. We grabbed the top 20 NFL players from 2015, courtesy of profootballfocus.com.

Before looking at the list, just a few FYI’s:

  • This list is based solely on 2015 play. Nothing that happened in previous years or may happen in the future is accounted for. This isn’t about class or talent, it’s about performance throughout the 2015 NFL season.
  • This list is created with an “all positions are created equal” mantra. So, you won’t see 32 quarterbacks heading the list—even though that is the game’s most valuable position. Instead, we take a look at how guys played relative to what is expected from their position.

 

1. Aaron Donald, DT, St. Louis Rams (2014 season ranking: 18)
Dethroning J.J. Watt from atop of the PFF Top 101 takes some serious production. Coming into this season, Watt was the No. 1 name on the list for three straight years following his breakout sophomore campaign, and it looked like he would remain there as long as he stayed on the field. For Aaron Donald to force himself into the same kind of echelon already in his career is truly staggering.

Donald was the highest-graded interior defender in the league, and in his second season—just like Watt—he pushed that grade into the stratosphere. The Rams’ star may not have posted the kind of numbers Watt did, but Donald played exclusively inside as a defensive tackle, whereas Watt has become a true edge rusher, a position that typically generates far better stats than their interior teammates. Donald still ended the season with 79 total pressures and 51 defensive stops, and actually gained more pressure on a per-rush basis than the Texan.

Donald may have the quickest first step in the game among linemen, and was a constant presence in the backfield of offenses, blowing up plays against the run and pass with frightening regularity. He may not have the ideal size that teams look for, but there was no better NFL player in 2015.

Best performance: Week 1 versus Seattle: +10.7

Key stat: Aaron Donald was the highest-graded player in the NFL last season (99.9 on PFF’s new 1–100 scale).

 

2. Antonio Brown, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers (7)
The best wide receiver in the game right now, Antonio Brown is simply unstoppable against any conventional coverage. Broncos CB Chris Harris Jr. hadn’t allowed a touchdown for 36 straight games before facing Brown in Week 15—the Steelers wideout grabbed two TDs in Harris’ coverage that game. Brown isn’t a physical specimen in the way some of the NFL’s top receivers are, but excels at every fundamental aspect of the position. He earned the highest grade for a wideout PFF has ever given, and was only slowed down when the Steelers lost Ben Roethlisberger to injury and were forced to play Landry Jones and Michael Vick. Had Brown been paired with Roethlisberger all season, his stats project out as 158 catches for 2,114 yards and 15 touchdowns; the first two of those three numbers would be all-time single-season records.

Best performance: Week 9 versus Oakland: +8.5

Key stat: Brown’s cumulative overall season grade of +36.1 was the highest for any NFL WR in the PFF era (since 2007).

 

3. Luke Kuechly, LB, Carolina Panthers (9)
Luke Kuechly won PFF’s inaugural Dick “Night Train” Lane Award for the best coverage defender in football this past season. That’s not to say that you would choose him over any cornerback in the league to split out wide and cover Antonio Brown, but rather an indication of just how superior he was compared to the peers at his position group when it came to coverage. At middle linebacker for the Panthers, Kuechly makes plays no other LB in the NFL makes, including a pass breakup in the divisional round of the playoffs against Seattle—breaking towards the sideline and getting fingertips to a pass intended for Doug Baldwin to prevent a reception on a coverage bust he had no part in. In fact, Kuechly only enhanced his season in the playoffs, earning three straight positive grades. But for missing time early in the year with a concussion, he could very easily have found himself atop this list.

Best performance: Week 8 versus Indianapolis: +5.0

Key stat: Kuechly allowed a passer rating of just 48.7 into his coverage (playoffs included), 50 points lower than the LB position average.

 

4. Rob Gronkowski, TE, New England Patriots (11)
With the draft only recently completed, it’s worth remembering that Rob Gronkowski was a second-round selection in 2010, chosen 42nd overall by the Patriots. Injuries caused him to slip (and have dogged his career), but when he has been on the field, he’s been one of the most dominant forces at any position in the entire league. This season was just another reminder of how much better than the rest of the league he is at the TE position. His numbers were impressive, if not staggering, but when you add in the fact that he also led the league in blocking grade among TEs, you start to see what separates Gronk in an era of move-TEs for whom blocking is a theoretical exercise. A throwback to the days where TEs were genuine do-it-all players, Rob Gronkowski does exactly that.

Best performance: Week 3 at Indianapolis: +4.3

Key stat: Gronk led all NFL TEs in yards, yards per reception, touchdowns, yards after the catch, receiving grade, and blocking grade.

 

5. J.J. Watt, DE, Houston Texans (1)
It says something about J.J. Watt that he can have a relative “down” year, play through a broken hand for part of the season, and still finish fifth on PFF’s Top 101 list. At his best, there is no better player in the NFL, at any position. Aaron Donald is making the case that he does at least have an equal, but certainly nobody outdistancing him in performance; however, this season was not the best Watt we have seen. His hand injury is fine mitigation, but he was less-effective during that span, and even before that his grading had been slightly down from his otherworldly level of years past. In a season in which he broke his hand, Watt still notched a better grade than anybody we have seen since 2007 (other than Aaron Donald), and he still led the league in total pressures, sacks, and batted passes. He has become a true edge rusher, lining up outside the tackle on 63.9 percent of his snaps, and proving that 290-pound men can be just as dangerous on the edge as they are inside.

Best performance: Week 8 at Tennessee: +13.9

Key stat: Watt led the NFL with 90 total pressures over the regular season.

 

6. Khalil Mack, OLB, Oakland Raiders (39)
In his rookie season, Khalil Mack was a dominant run defender whose pass-rushing grade was good, but not great. In his second NFL season, he became the total package. With a little more help on the Oakland defensive line, Mack was able to match Olivier Vernon’s grade for the best among edge defenders, posting 16 sacks and 82 total pressures on over 1,000 snaps. His improved pass-rush performance also came without a dip in run defense, meaning Mack has quickly become one of the most complete and destructive players in football after only his second season. He also posted 54 defensive stops, which led the league among edge defenders; only Olivier Vernon could come within 18 over the entirety of the season.

Best performance: Week 14 at Denver: +15.4

Key stat: Mack recorded 54 defensive stops over the regular season, four more than any other edge defender.

 

7. Von Miller, OLB, Denver Broncos (10)
The postseason enjoyed by Von Miller catapults him up this list, ending in a Super Bowl in which he was the single biggest factor, coming hard on the heels of an AFC Championship game in which the same case could be made. Miller demonstrated that, at the peak of his play, there is no more fearsome edge rusher, as well as the effect a dominant rusher can have on an offense. Miller has an ideal blend of quickness, burst, and bend to completely perplex most blockers tasked with stopping him, and while many players are examples of what you can achieve if you don’t fit the NFL’s ideal prototype measurables profile, Miller is the embodiment of what can happen if you fit it to perfection. Over the regular season, he was a key player on the best defense in the league, but there was no better postseason than the one Von Miller displayed, ending with four-straight dominant displays (including a must-win Week 17 encounter) in which he totaled seven sacks and 30 pressures.

Best performance: AFC Championship Game versus New England: +8.5

Key stat: Miller notched 105 total QB pressures last season (postseason included), the most among all NFL 3-4 OLB by 23 pressures.

 

8. Cam Newton, QB, Carolina Panthers (unranked)
Had this list been for the regular season only, we would have seen Cam Newton rank lower, and likely not as the first quarterback. His postseason performance, however, was excellent even if it will only be remembered for an ugly defeat, the failure to fall on a football, and a petulant press conference display. Newton became a true MVP over the final weeks of the season, leading the Panthers to the Super Bowl and actually playing reasonably well in that game in the face of overwhelming pressure and a questionable game plan. Newton threw some of the most impressive passes of the season, and unlike any other passer, is an integral part of the team’s rushing attack, not simply as a threat to keep the ball on the occasional option play, but as a viable threat to carry the ball at any time on genuine scripted running plays.

Best performance: Week 13 at New Orleans: +6.7

Key stat: Rushing scores included, Newton posted 45 touchdowns over the regular season and added another five in the postseason.

 

9. Julio Jones, WR, Atlanta Falcons (53)
In any other season, we would likely be giving Julio Jones far more plaudits, but in this particular case, he was beaten into second place even among receivers by Antonio Brown. There are few, if any, more physically-dominant receivers in the NFL right now, and his blend of size and speed makes him almost impossible to cover at times. Jones also managed to post 1,871 yards and 136 receptions despite no real alternate threat in Atlanta, something the team hopes to rectify with their offseason moves. Jones gained more yards per route run this season than any other receiver, and also notched 20 broken tackles after the catch, averaging nearly 5 yards per reception of additional work with the ball in his hands. He was only held below seven catches four times over the season, and never held to fewer than four.

Best performance: Week 1 versus Philadelphia: +5.7

Key stat: Jones gained 3.04 yards per route run, the highest mark among NFL WRs in 2015.

 

10. Tyrann Mathieu, CB, Arizona Cardinals (unranked)
Tyrann Mathieu was robbed of a chance of appearing higher on this list by a torn ACL late in the season, causing him to miss the final two games and the playoffs. At the point he went down, he was enjoying a Defensive-Player-of-the-Year kind of season, and even with the two missed games, he finished on our shortlist for that award. Whether you view him as a safety (where he is listed by Arizona) or a cornerback (where he plays 67.5 percent of his snaps), you have to appreciate the sheer playmaking ability of a DB who has quickly become one of the league’s great matchup weapons on defense. Capable of playing in a variety of different roles and positions, Mathieu just has a nose for making plays, and showed that this season.

Best performance: Week 7 versus Baltimore: +5.9

Key stat: Listed by Arizona as a safety, Mathieu was PFF’s highest-graded cornerback in 2015, where he played 67.5 percent of his defensive snaps.

 

11. Josh Norman, CB, Carolina Panthers (unranked)
The raw statistics were there for Josh Norman in 2014, but his grade never quite matched the numbers. In 2015, the two met in spectacular fashion, as for most of the season, opposing quarterbacks were better off statistically just throwing the ball into the turf every play than challenging Norman and throwing it in his direction. He finished the season having allowed just 51 percent of passes thrown his way to be caught, for a passer rating of only 54.0, picking four passes off in the process and scoring twice himself on those returns. There were a couple of hiccups to his season, most notably against Odell Beckham Jr. and the Giants before that encounter descended into farce; but at his best, Norman was truly a shutdown corner in an era where that term has practically lost all relevance.

Best performance: Week 4 at Tampa Bay: +4.4

Key stat: Norman allowed the fewest yards per coverage snap among corners, at 0.63.

 

12. Joe Thomas, LT, Cleveland Browns (20)
Since entering the league, Joe Thomas has been the standard by which pass protection on the quarterback’s blindside has been measured. This season, he was once again the best pass-blocking tackle in the game, surrendering two sacks, but only 24 total pressures in an offense that asked more of its line than many other systems. Thomas ended the year as PFF’s top-graded tackle with a 94.3 mark, just clear of Tyron Smith in second place (93.3); he also earned PFF’s Bruce Matthews Award, which goes to the league’s best lineman over a season.

Best performance: Week 5 at Baltimore: +5.9

Key stat: Thomas remains the standard of pass protection at tackle, posting a pass-blocking efficiency of 97.4—the best mark for the position.

 

13. Tyron Smith, LT, Dallas Cowboys (54)
There is virtually nothing to separate Joe Thomas from Tyron Smith over the 2015 season, so it’s fitting that they appear back to back in this list, with each among the best 15 individual seasons we saw. Smith was the best run-blocking tackle in the game, but couldn’t match Thomas in pass protection. He surrendered a total of 22 pressures over the season, but was able to distance himself from any other tackle when it came to run-blocking, and was part of an offensive line that was able to get Darren McFadden to 1,000+ rushing yards, actually generating Pro-Bowl levels of production from the RB in the games in which he saw a significant workload.

Best performance: Week 8 versus Seattle: +6.6

Key stat: Smith posted the highest run-blocking grade among OTs (96.8), more than three points better than his closest peer.

 

14. Tom Brady, QB, New England Patriots (27)
Tom Brady lost nearly every receiving weapon of consequence at some point over the season, and was working behind one of the worst offensive lines in the game—yet he displayed such a complete mastery of the system that he was barely affected. Brady’s ability to understand where the ball needs to go and manufacture himself easy completions is peerless in today’s NFL, and in terms of “value” to an offense, there may be none moreso—a fact the Patriots may discover over the first four games of 2016 if his suspension survives. Like Carson Palmer, only a poor final game to the season drags him down the list from the position he would have occupied at the end of the regular season, though his bad day at the playoff office wasn’t quite as bad as Palmer’s.

Best performance: Week 8 versus Miami: +7.6

Key stat: Brady suffered from 44 drops by his receivers, tied with Derek Carr for most in the league last season.

 

15. Carson Palmer, QB, Arizona Cardinals (unranked)
Whether it was his injured thumb or just a postseason meltdown, Carson Palmer’s playoff performance drags him out of the top 10 and away from the very highest spots of the Top 101. At the end of the regular season, Palmer had earned PFF’s vote for both MVP and Offensive Player of the Year. In a passing system that saw him have the highest average depth of target (11.3) in the league, Palmer should have been one of the most inaccurate quarterbacks in the league, but actually completed 63.7 percent of his passes and threw just 11 interceptions over the regular season. He was our highest-graded QB over that span, but in two playoff games, he went from bad to worse, ending with the lowest passing grade we have ever given a quarterback in a postseason game to send the Cardinals home.

Best performance: Week 15 at Philadelphia: +6.7

Key stat: Palmer led the NFL in average depth of target (11.3 yards downfield), and yet still completed 63.7 percent of his passes.

 

16. Marshal Yanda, G, Baltimore Ravens (5)
The best guard in football in 2015, Marshal Yanda was one of the few bright spots on a Baltimore offensive line that is not what it once was. Yanda trailed only Evan Mathis in run-blocking grade over the year, but was the best pass-blocking guard in the league, surrendering just one sack over 1,155 snaps and comfortably topping the overall grading list. Interior linemen don’t get the ink that more glamorous positions are awarded, but Yanda has been one of the league’s best players for years now, and this was just another season of dominant displays from the former Iowa product.

Best performance: Week 12 at Cleveland: +5.3

Key stat: Yanda allowed just 17 total pressures last season, and was PFF’s highest-graded guard (92.5).

 

17. Geno Atkins, DT, Cincinnati Bengals (unranked)
2014 was something of a write-off as the first year back from a serious knee injury, but 2015 showed us the best of Geno Atkins once again, having last seen that guy back in 2012. Atkins trailed only Aaron Donald in PFF grading among defensive tackles, and ended the year with 14 sacks and 82 total pressures. Like Donald, Atkins is an undersized DT, but one who plays with exceptional quickness and leverage to destroy plays deep in the backfield. There are few better interior linemen than Atkins when healthy, and we saw this season that his peak has not been stolen by injury.

Best performance: Week 13 at Cleveland: +9.2

Key stat: Atkins recorded the second-highest pass-rushing productivity among DTs in 2015.

 

18. DeAndre Hopkins, WR, Houston Texans (unranked)
At times during the season, it was like Houston didn’t have any other receivers, and every pass that went airborne was sent in the direction of Hopkins, who came down with an inordinate amount of them. “Nuk” ended the year with 111 receptions for 1,521 yards and 11 scores, despite a dreadful series of quarterbacks throwing him the football, fully emerging as one of the league’s best receivers and justifying his lofty spot on the Top 101 list.

Best performance: Week 6 at Jacksonville: +5.2

Key stat: Hopkins averaged 11.7 targets per game over the season, catching 59.4 percent of them for over 1,500 yards.

 

19. Patrick Peterson, CB, Arizona Cardinals (unranked)
Finally at full health, Patrick Peterson had arguably his best season as a pro for the Cardinals, and shut down a who’s-who of receivers over the course of the year. Peterson wasn’t beaten for more than 56 yards in any one game, and was one of the few players to enjoy success against Pittsburgh WR Antonio Brown, limiting him to just two receptions for 26 yards on six targets when the two met, albeit in one of the games Brown was without Ben Roethlisberger as his quarterback.

Best performance: Week 13 at St. Louis: +2.6

Key stat: Peterson averaged 18.9 coverage snaps per reception allowed, the best mark among CBs.

 

20. Anthony Barr, LB, Minnesota Vikings (unranked)
An edge rusher in college, Anthony Barr has developed into one of the league’s more impressive young off-the-ball linebackers. He graded well as a pass-rusher in 2015, but it wasn’t as a situational edge rusher for Minnesota, rather just on the blitz from conventional linebacker alignment. He also graded well against the run and, most impressively for a pass-rushing convert, in coverage. Barr closes on plays in front of him very quickly, can hit landmarks, and gets in the way of passes, as he demonstrated by picking off Peyton Manning when facing Denver in Week 4.

Best performance: Week 4 at Denver: +4.5

Key stat: Barr finished the season with an overall PFF grade of 93.4, trailing only Luke Kuechly among all linebackers.

Top 101 NFL Players from 2015 originally posted on Profootballfocus.com

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