After years of being dismissed as a combine wonder and a draft bust, Davis emerged as one of the game’s top tight ends in 2009. Tying the NFL record for most TD catches by a tight end in a season with 13, Davis was selected to his first Pro Bowl. In 2010, Davis joins Alex Smith, Frank Gore, and Michael Crabtree on one of the league’s youngest — and most exciting — offensive units. Big things are expected.
For years, I’ve been killed for being a Jay Cutler “apologist.” After last season, in which I predicted he would lead the Bears to the NFC Championship only to see him toss an NFL-high 26 INTs, I ate quite a bit of crow. But I’m still a sucker for that cannon arm, and with Mike Martz and Chester Taylor in town there’s a lot to like about Cutler in 2010. The Bears WRs may not be household names, but there’s big expectations in the Martz offense. Despite the picks, Cutler still threw for 3,500+ yards and 27 TDs in '09. I’ll roll the dice: Forget the haters, Jay Cutler’s one of the top 100 NFL players.
99. Chad Ochocinco, WR, Bengals (2009 Rank: 86)
Chad’s been busy this offseason. He’s got a new dating show, he’s calling out the Ravens and he’s danced against Erin Andrews and Pam Anderson. One thing he wasn’t doing was hanging around Bengals camp. With Cincy undergoing what QB Carson Palmer describes as the biggest change in their offense since '03, Ochocinco was MIA during the team’s OTAs. Yeah, he’s a handful. But he’s in camp now, and from August through January — especially on Sundays — he’s one of the top receivers in the game.
98. Leon Hall, CB, Bengals (2009 Rank: Unranked)
Taken in the same draft as Darrelle Revis, Hall flew under the radar a bit in his first two years with the Bengals. In his third year, his work was recognized. A second-team All-Pro pick, Hall often matched up against the opposing team’s top wideout and shut him down. In ’09, his breakout year, the former Michigan star recorded 71 tackles, forced two fumbles, broke up 24 passes and picked six. Though the Jets and Broncos corner tandems get the bulk of the media love, you could make the argument that the Bengals’ Hall and Johnathan Joseph make up the NFL's best 1-2 CB duo.
The 2009 Offensive Rookie of the Year is the latest in a string of young game-breakers that contribute in running, receiving and kick returning games. In ’09, Harvin overcame a bout with migraines and countless pre-draft critics (he smoked marijuana in college) to catch 60 balls and score eight touchdowns, two of which came on kick returns. Harvin was selected to the NFC Pro Bowl roster as a kick returner. Many more of those to come.
The NFL’s career record holder for kickoffs returned for TDs (8), Cribbs makes Kordell Stewart look more like a hyphen than a “Slash” with his season last year. With what was nothing short of a putrid offense in 2009, the Browns relied on Cribbs more than ever. In a nationally-televised Week 13 win over the Steelers, he compiled over 200 yards of total offense, including 87 rushing yards out of the Wildcat formation. Named the Browns team MVP for '09, he was rewarded for his all-around efforts with a three-year $20 million contract extension in March.
95. Trent Cole, DE, Eagles (2009 Rank: Unranked)
Cole’s improved each year he’s been in the NFL and in 2009 was selected to his second Pro Bowl. Though he rarely is mentioned in the conversation of the league’s top pass rushers, he’s accumulated 47 sacks in six years, with 12.5 in 2009. The Eagles drafted Brandon Graham, a sack demon out of Michigan, to give Cole some help in the pass rush game in 2010. Another reason to like Cole? He’s one of the most entertaining guys in the league when the NFL Films mikes are on him. Check it out here.
I left Ward off this list last year and got ripped by Steelers fans for months. I wrote that Ward isn’t a Hall of Famer two weeks ago and got it even worse. But I can’t argue Ward’s place in the Top 100 this year. Last year, the eight-year veteran posted his best numbers since 2003, tying a career high with 95 catches. At 34, he’s still the game's best blocking WR. But 2010 will be a test. With no Big Ben for four games and no Santonio Holmes as the other wideout, there will be an even greater need for Ward to produce. If he can repeat ’09 despite those obstacles, I might be ready to start talking about a trip to Canton. Maybe.
93. Jason Witten, TE, Cowboys (2009 Rank: 96)
Witten had another outstanding season in 2009, catching 94 balls for 1,003 yards in a year in which America’s Team won the NFC East. If there was any knock on Witten’s ’09 campaign, it was that he only scored two touchdowns. Look for those numbers to increase in 2010.
92. Darren Sharper, S, Saints (2009 Rank: Unranked)
Thankfully, Darren Sharper’s silly Twitter war (a “Twar?”) with Vikings tight end Visanthe Shiancoe’s been put to rest. So has his contract status. Sharper was locked up with an extension this past offseason. As he rehabilitates his knee from offseason surgery, Sharper will also be asked to groom his eventual replacement at free safety, 2009 first-round draft pick Malcolm Jenkins. Rest assured, he’s not giving up the gig just yet.
91. Jahri Evans, G, Saints (2009 Rank: Unranked)
Jahri Evans’ life story could be made into a movie. Drafted out of tiny Division II Bloomsburg, Evans has grown into an All-Pro and a Super Bowl champion. He’s also now a very rich man, having inked a seven-year, $56 million deal last month. One of the top two or three offensive guards in the league, he’s the glue to the Saints under-the-radar offensive line.
It was quite a bounce-back season for Cedric Benson in 2009. The player released by the Bears in ’08 averaged 23 carries per start last season and gobbled up a career-high 1,251 yards. Focused, ready and eager to help the Bengals defend their AFC North crown in 2010, there’s no way you can keep the ultra-productive Benson out of the Top 100.
A Pro Bowl pick for the first time in 2009, Dockett saw action at both DT and DE. With longtime teammates Karlos Dansby and Antrel Rolle now playing elsewhere, Ken Whisenhunt and coordinator Bill Davis will look to Dockett as the leader of the Cardinals defense.
88. Anthony Spencer, LB, Cowboys (2009 Rank: Unranked)
When the Cowboys parted ways with OLB Greg Ellis, there were some mild concerns in Big D. In his third year out of Purdue, Spencer put all worries to rest with a breakout 2009 campaign. He saved his best for last, though. In Dallas’s final six games, Spencer had six sacks, six tackles for a loss and 14 quarterback pressures. He’s only going to get better; nastier. News flash: Dallas is going to be very, very good this year.
87. Roddy White, WR, Falcons (2009 Rank: 56)
White is Matt Ryan’s No. 1 target and a two-time Pro Bowl participant. He finished 2009 with 85 receptions, 1,153 yards and a career-high 11 touchdowns. One of just two Falcons receivers to record 1,000 receiving yards three seasons in a row, he’s right on the cusp of the NFL’s top tier of receivers.
86. Michael Roos, OT, Titans (2009 Rank: 37)
An All-Pro selection in 2008, Roos had another solid season from the tackle spot in Tennessee in 2009. He’s started every game he’s played since joining the Titans in 2005 and played a huge role in Chris Johnson’s breakout campaign last year.
Finally out of Denver, Marshall joins the Dolphins with a new contract and jersey number (Davone Bess isn’t selling his No. 15). A two-time Pro Bowl pick, Marshall is a freakish physical specimen at WR. All-Pro Nnamdi Asomugha once called him “the toughest guy to bring down, one-on-one." Marshall’s eclipsed the 100-catch mark in each of the past three seasons. He’ll look to do that — and potentially more — in 2010. Huge things are expected out of this 2010 Dolphins team. All eyes will be on Marshall to deliver.
84. Curtis Lofton, LB, Falcons (2009 Rank: 69)
Who? Another under-the-radar budding superstar, Lofton emerged as one of the NFL’s best young linebackers in 2009. In just two years in the league, the former Oklahoma star has solidified himself as the point man and vocal leader of the Atlanta defense. He finished with 119 tackles in 2009, good for sixth in the league. If you haven’t heard of Lofton yet, you will in 2010.
83. Donovan McNabb, QB, Redskins (2009 Rank: 25)
McNabb starts the next chapter of his 10-year NFL career in Redskins colors. It still seems ... strange. He brings to Washington five NFC Championship appearances, six Pro Bowls and what has to be a tremendous chip on his shoulder. In 2009, McNabb started 14 games, but still eclipsed 3,500 yards and tossed 22 touchdowns to just 10 INTs. Impressive numbers, all around. ‘Skins fans will be more than pleased to have those numbers in Washington.
82. Karlos Dansby, LB, Dolphins (2009 Rank: 73)
Dansby, the Dolphins’ newly signed inside linebacker, is expected to be the leader of Mike Nolan’s new-look 3-4 defense. A seven-year veteran, Dansby comes to Miami with Super Bowl experience and fresh off two division titles in Arizona. He also comes with high expectations; in March, he signed a five-year $43 million deal.