Matthews didn’t repeat his outstanding 2010 performance in 2011, but he's still one of the most feared outside linebackers in the sport. Perfect in Dom Capers’ 3-4, he’s a matchup nightmare and a skilled pass defender. He can change a game — see his interception return for a TD against the Giants in Week 11 or back in Super Bowl XLV — and can get to the quarterback with the best of them. More Top 100: Nos. 20-1
NFL's top 100 players: 21-40
Who’s the best running back in the game? Is it Maurice Jones-Drew, a guy who led the league in rushing despite playing in one of the worst passing offenses the NFL’s ever seen? Or is it Arian Foster, a guy who gobbled up nearly 1,300 yards in just 13 games last season? Ray Rice? Frank Gore? Adrian Peterson? Check out how we ranked them all, in our ranking of the 40th to 21st best players of 2012.
No. 40: Philip Rivers, QB, Chargers
Rivers had a “down” year in 2011 and still threw for 4,624 yards. A fierce competitor, he is often perceived as petulant or crabby. But his teammates love him, and that’s because he leaves it all on the field. In 2011, he completed 69 passes of 20 yards or more. His 20 interceptions were a career high and the Bolts missed the playoffs, but he threw 11 touchdowns and three interceptions while winning five of the team’s last six regular-season games.
No. 39: Tamba Hali, LB/DE, Chiefs
Hali followed up his breakout 2010 season with a solid 12-sack, 66-tackle campaign in 2011. He demands double teams, rushes quarterbacks with a plethora of moves and can defend the run. Hali’s total skill set was on display against the Packers in 2011, recording three sacks in Green Bay’s only regular-season defeat. Still only 28 years old, the two-time Pro Bowler is just hitting his stride.
No. 38: Victor Cruz, WR, Giants
Cruz came out of the blue in 2011 to grab 82 balls and break the Giants' single-season record for receiving yards with 1,536 yards. His 99-yard touchdown catch against the Jets on Christmas Eve kick-started a six-game winning streak that culminated in a Super Bowl title. If Wes Welker’s the top slot receiver in the league, Cruz is right there. He won’t sneak up on anybody in 2012.
No. 37: Wes Welker, WR, Patriots
I know, I know. How could I put a guy who’s caught 544 balls over his last five seasons anywhere outside the top 20? This is nothing against Wes Welker. Trust me. I respect his game. But as far as NFL wide receivers go, he’s not one of the top three guys I’d take to start my team. As a slot receiver, he might be the best that’s ever played, but I do understand the Patriots' hesitancy in giving him a huge long-term deal. At 31 years old, he’s still one of the most dangerous — and skilled — receivers in the game. But, I’d take all the guys above him if I were asked to start a team.
No. 36: Frank Gore, RB, 49ers
The 49ers defense is loaded with top-tier talent. The offense? Last season, it was Frank Gore, Vernon Davis, an offensive line and some other dudes. Gore was tremendous for the upstart 49ers, rushing for 1,211 yards and scoring eight touchdowns. Gore ran for 127, 125, 141, 134, and 107 yards in consecutive contests during a eight-game winning streak in the heart of the season. He was the NFC West champions' workhorse last year and could be even better with some weapons at receiver in 2012.
No. 35: Ray Rice, RB, Ravens
Another year, another tremendous season for Ray Rice. For the third straight year, Rice rushed for more than 1,200 yards and caught at least 60 passes. He’s the key cog in the Ravens offense, the straw that stirs the drink. He's shown no signs of slowing and continues to haunt the Steelers. Running backs aren’t as highly valued on this list as others, but Ray Rice is a special player.
No. 34: Jahri Evans, G, Saints
Jahri Evans has never missed a game in his NFL career. As incredible as he is in the run-block portion of the game, his pass blocking is perhaps better. He never gets beat, he’s nimble on his feet and he paves the road for a record-breaking offense in New Orleans. All that time Drew Brees has in the pocket? Look at Evans next time you watch the Saints.
No. 33: Ed Reed, S, Ravens
Reed’s getting up there in age but continues to make an impact in just about every big game he plays. Though Reed only made three interceptions in 2011, he had a big pick in the playoff win over Houston. Entering his 11th season, he’s still one of the most feared and dangerous safeties in the game. Teams throw away from him, game plan against him -- and are still often burned in the end.
No. 32 LeSean McCoy, RB, Eagles
McCoy got paid this offseason and deservedly so. Whereas the “Dream Team” Eagles were considered a disappointment in 2011, McCoy had arguably the best season of any running back in the league. He ran the ball 273 times for 1,309 yards, but also caught 48 balls and scored 17 touchdowns. A threat any time he lines up in the backfield, McCoy is still just 23 years old.
No. 31: Brian Cushing, LB, Texans
An outside linebacker in high school at New Jersey's Bergen Catholic, in college at USC and his first few years in Houston, Cushing finally made the move to inside linebacker in 2011 in Wade Phillips’ 3-4 scheme. The results were tremendous. Cushing recorded 114 tackles for the second-ranked defense in the NFL. With a full offseason to adjust to Phillips’ 3-4, he’ll be even better in 2012.
No. 30: Matthew Stafford, QB, Lions
Though technically his third season in the NFL, Stafford had his first injury-free campaign in 2011. The results? Just 5,000 passing yards and the first Lions playoff appearance since 2000. Stafford’s just getting started. Blessed with a cannon for an arm, he’s always been able to sling the ball. But in 2011, Stafford overcame injuries to Detroit’s top two running backs and showed he’s capable of being a leader, too. Long in the shadows of fellow 2009 quarterbacks Josh Freeman and Mark Sanchez, Stafford leaped over both in 2011.
No. 29: Adrian Peterson, RB, Vikings
Peterson’s no longer the top all-around running back in the game (I have MJD and Arian Foster rated higher), but he could still be the most dangerous. On any given play, A.D. (short for All Day) can turn a typical 4-yard scamper into an 85-yard run touchdown score. His numbers were down in 2011 and the Vikings offense was a mess. The injury will hamper his 2012 season. He’s still, without a doubt, a top-five back in this league.
No. 28: Cam Newton, QB, Panthers
In Newton’s first NFL game, he threw for 422 yards. In Week 2, he broke his own record. He never looked back. The critics thought he’d struggle adjusting to the NFL in his first season in a pro-style offense. With basically no training camp, he went out and shattered just about every rookie passing record … in a pro-style offense. Oh, he can run, too -- broke that touchdown record as well. If I need a quarterback to lead my team on to the field in 2012, Cam Newton’s certainly in the conversation.
No. 27: Rob Gronkowski, TE, Patriots
Gronk! The Patriots' third-year tight end got the big bucks earlier this month and I’ve got no problem with that. After one of the best seasons we’ve ever seen from the tight end position — 90 receptions, 1,327 yards, 17 touchdowns — the Patriots locked him up for six years, $54 million. Gronkowski’s the prototype for the new breed of NFL tight ends. He’s 6-6, weighs 270 pounds and runs like the wind. He can block and has great speed. Would he put those numbers up in another offense? One that didn’t have Welker and Hernandez and the all-world quarterback? I’m not certain.
No. 26: Arian Foster, RB, Texans
Arian Foster went undrafted in 2009, led the league in rushing in 2010, and took the Texans to their first playoff berth and victory in 2011. What’s next? It’s wide open. The do-everything back racked up 1,224 yards in just 13 regular-season games last season, catching 53 balls, too. Foster’s one of the most unique talents in the game and definitely one of the most unique personalities. With a healthy Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson in the lineup, Foster can have his best year yet in 2012.
No. 25: Maurice Jones-Drew, RB, Jaguars
How good was Maurice Jones-Drew last season? On perhaps the worst offense in the NFL and with probably the worst starting quarterback, and facing a constant look of eight men in the box, he led the league in rushing with 1,606 yards and averaged nearly 5 yards per carry. I don’t value the running back position as much as others might, but I do think the rare talents who can carry an entire offense belong in the top 30.
No. 24: Ndamukong Suh, DT, Lions
The "dirty player" label will haunt him, but nobody can deny Suh’s strength, skills and tenacity. With nine personal fouls in just two seasons, he’s acquired a bad rep. Relentless, Suh is going to go 100 percent every play.
No. 23: Vince Wilfork, DT, Patriots
Wilfork had the best season of his career in 2011, and his dominance in the playoffs was noticed by most educated football viewers. He takes on double teams, can’t be moved, and is still somehow mobile inside. The footwork, strength and technique are unique. Out of nowhere, he recorded two interceptions in 2011, his first two picks of his career. There are few guys who do what Vince Wilfork can do. Very few.
No. 22: Mario Williams, DE, Bills
Out of the lineup with a torn pectoral muscle for much of the 2011 season, Williams signed a mega contract with Buffalo this offseason. The Bruce Smith comparisons may be a bit much, but with a healthy Kyle Williams and emerging stud Marcel Dareus alongside, Williams could have a huge year. The 4-3 scheme suits him far better than Wade Phillips’ 3-4. He’s an early favorite to lead the league in sacks and I think Buffalo’s got a legitimate shot at its first playoff berth since 1999.