An athletic freak for a guy his size, Jake Long has lived up to his No. 1 overall draft status from 2008. Long, 6-foot-7 and mobile, is tough to get around but can also drive defensive ends backwards. One of the big reasons the Dolphins’ wildcat offense had as much success as it did a few years ago, he was the lead road paver for Daniel Thomas and Reggie Bush in 2011. He missed two games but was still a Pro Bowler. That tells you something.
More Top 100: Nos. 40-21
NFL's top 100 players: 41-60
Champ Bailey and Ray Lewis are arguably the game’s top two defensive players of the past 15 years. And yet, neither player cracked the top 40 of our 2012 list. Where do you put Trent Cole and Jason Babin? The “Dream Team” Eagles struggled last year, but their two pass rushing stars had career years. We did our best in sorting Nos. 60 through 41 on this year’s list.
No. 60: Hakeem Nicks, WR, Giants
Victor Cruz gets a lot of the media love, but you can make the argument that it was Nicks who had the bigger 2011. The 2009 first-round pick caught 76 balls for 1,192 yards and seven touchdowns in the regular season, only to go nuts in the postseason, catching 28 balls for 444 yards and four touchdowns in the Giants' Super Bowl run. His Hail Mary touchdown reception in Green Bay silenced the Lambeau crowd before halftime. An injury will put the start of his 2012 campaign in jeopardy, but there’s no debate whether Nicks is a top-10 receiver.
No. 59: Nnamdi Asomugha, CB, Eagles
Sure, Nnamdi Asomugha didn’t have the best 2011 season. And sure, Michael Irvin spent the entire year calling Victor Cruz “The Nnamdi Killer.” But there’s still no better press coverage guy in the league. He was transitioning to a new team and suffered two injuries. No excuses this year. I’d still take him over 99 percent of the corners in this game as my lockdown No. 1 DB.
No. 58: Jason Witten, TE, Cowboys
Sure, Aaron Hernandez, Jimmy Graham and Rob Gronkowski are the next wave of NFL tight ends. And yeah, Antonio Gates and Tony Gonzalez probably have done more for fantasy football leagues over the past few years. But Jason Witten has been arguably the most consistent tight end over the past decade. Last season was another great year for the Cowboys star, as he caught 79 balls for 942 yards and scored five touchdowns. Dez Bryant and Miles Austin went down but the ‘Boys passing attack didn’t suffer. Laurent Robinson stepped up; Witten did what he does.
No. 57: Roddy White, WR, Falcons
The top Falcons player on this list, White’s solidified himself as one of the top No. 1 receivers in the game. He’s caught at least 80 balls in each of the past five seasons and 100 balls in the past two. He hasn’t done much in playoff games, though. Unfortunately, that story is similar for most of the Falcons’ top players.
No. 56: Eric Weddle, S, Chargers
After signing the biggest contract ever given to a veteran safety, Eric Weddle had all eyes on him in 2011. He didn’t disappoint. Though the Chargers had a down year, Weddle did his part, intercepting seven passes and recording 88 tackles. Tall and rangy, he’s seemingly in on every play. He got paid and he backed it up in 2011. More to come in 2012.
No. 55: Champ Bailey, CB, Broncos
One of the few corners who can just as easily lock up Calvin Johnson as Wes Welker as Mike Wallace, Champ Bailey’s still doing it at the age of 34. Though some have said he’s lost a step since his best years, Bailey is still one of the top combinations of strength and toughness when it comes to the cornerback position. He also seems to know where a receiver is going before even the quarterback does.
No. 54: Ray Lewis, LB, Ravens
Lewis wasn’t the first- or second-best linebacker in Baltimore last season, as both Terrell Suggs and Jarret Johnson had better years. But he’s the guts of one of the league’s most feared defenses. He's still the vocal leader in Baltimore and had a wonderful playoffs in 2011, but Lewis isn’t the guy he was five years ago. Still a top-100 guy, but don’t be fooled by other lists ranking him in top 20. That’s nostalgia, not reality.
No. 53: Vernon Davis, TE, 49ers
Davis recently told reporters that he thought the San Francisco 49ers should be Super Bowl favorites. With 11 defensive starters and a host of offensive additions joining the unit, it’s tough to argue. Davis plays in a strictly run-oriented offense, but shines as the team’s No. 1 receiver. In two playoff games last year, Davis caught 10 balls for 302 yards and four touchdowns.
No. 52: Johnathan Joseph, CB, Texans
Joseph signed a big deal with the Texans last offseason and responded with the first Pro Bowl season of his career. In 2011, he intercepted four balls and locked down opposing No. 1 receivers on a weekly basis for the NFL’s second-best unit. Long overshadowed by teammate Leon Hall in Cincinnati, Joseph emerged as one of the best cover corners in the league in 2011. Still just 28 years old, there’s plenty more to come.
No. 51: Brian Urlacher, LB, Bears
Urlacher’s still got it. Though he didn’t record a single sack, the heart of the Bears defense made 102 tackles and intercepted three passes in 2011. He’s still making plays in his 12th season and still leading defenders who love playing alongside of him. Every year, you’re expecting his production to dip and for him to take some time off the field. It hasn’t happened.
Check out Nos. 50-1
No. 50: Maurkice Pouncey, C, Steelers
Pouncey only played in 12 games in 2011 and still made the All-Pro squad. A fierce competitor with elite footwork, he’s arguably the most athletic center we’ve ever seen in the NFL. Fast and feisty, he’s been one of the lone bright spots on the Steelers offensive line over the past two years. Now 100 percent healthy, he’ll be able to elevate his game even higher.
No. 49: Jimmy Graham, TE, Saints
The scariest part about Jimmy Graham’s 99-catch 2011 campaign? He’s quite truly just starting to scratch the surface. Drew Brees’ top target in 2011, Graham will only get better and better as he learns the game. Like Jason Pierre-Paul, Graham didn’t pick up football until late in life, playing just one season at Miami after four years on the basketball squad. He’s the new breed of tight end — 6-foot-6, 265 pounds, and fast as the wind.
No. 48: Duane Brown, OT, Texans
When Brown was selected in the first round in 2008, many draft pundits rolled their eyes. He wasn’t ready, he wasn’t a first-round talent, and he wasn’t a left tackle. Sure enough, in five years with Houston, Brown’s started every game he’s played in and in 2011 was selected as a second-team All-Pro. He’s a road paver who protects the pass with great ability. Not a household name, just yet, but soon will be. Worth the 26th overall pick of the ’08 Draft? You better believe it.
No. 47: Steve Smith, WR, Panthers
After five straight seasons of 1,000 yards or more, Steve Smith’s numbers dipped dramatically in 2009 and 2010 seasons. Then, Cam Newton entered his life. In his 12th year of his career, Smith rallied with 79 receptions, 1,394 yards and seven touchdowns. As explosive as he’s ever been, he’s only going to get better as Newton matures and becomes the better QB. Still lethal, Smith’s a top-50 talent.
No. 46: Nick Mangold, C, Jets
The top center in the NFL, Mangold’s presence was felt when he was out of the lineup in 2011. He's perhaps the only player outside of Peyton Manning and Jay Cutler to see his team’s performance drastically dip without him in the lineup. The Jets offense clicks when he’s in and fails when he’s out. Simple as that. Gruff and nasty, he’s the anchor on that offensive line. Put him on any team and their offensive line instantly improves.
No. 45: Jason Babin, DE, Eagles
It’s not often that a guy posts the two best seasons of his career in years seven and eight. He had 12.5 sacks in 2010 with the Titans and blew up with 18 for the Eagles in his second go-around with the team in 2012. Babin and Trent Cole make for a mighty duo; though they don’t get the same press the Giants’ trio of defensive ends garner, they’re right up there.
No. 44: Geno Atkins, DT, Bengals
Not familiar with Atkins? Well, he doesn’t have a big social media presence, isn’t a regular on Sirius XM radio, and doesn’t have his own Fathead. Yet. But he’s right up there with Mr. Suh in the argument for the best young defensive tackle in the league. Atkins had eight sacks from the defensive tackle position last year, the most in the league, and made his first Pro Bowl. He’s still only 24 and is only getting better.
No. 43: Trent Cole, DE, Eagles
Jason Babin gets a lot of the love and Nnamdi Asomugha got all the press, but talk to NFL players and they’ll all tell you that Trent Cole’s the most troublesome part of that Eagles defense. His motor doesn’t stop and he is blessed with safety-like speed. Cole recorded 44 tackles and 11 sacks a year ago. Expect more in 2012.
No. 42: Carl Nicks, G, Buccaneers
The Vincent Jackson signing and the Greg Schiano hire made the biggest news out of Tampa Bay this offseason, but the addition of Carl Nicks instantly puts Tampa Bay back into the NFC South conversation. Nicks has started all but three games in his four-year NFL career in New Orleans and will team with Davin Joseph to form the top guard combo in all of football. Don’t be shocked when rookie Doug Martin runs for 1,500 yards this season. The Saints will miss Nicks far more than they’ll miss Jon Vilma.