Watching Jackson on these woeful Rams teams is like watching Pete Maravich toil away on those terrible New Orleans Jazz teams of the 1970s. Jackson, still a top back, carried the ball 324 times in 2009 behind a heinous O-line with little to no solid QB play. Somehow, facing eight in the box on a regular basis, he racked up 1,416 yards and caught 51 balls. The Rams should (hopefully) be better this year. So should S-Jax.
40. Elvis Dumervil, LB, Broncos (2009 Rank: Unranked)
Dumervil, who just signed his first- and third-round restricted free-agent tender, led the NFL with 17 sacks last year and has recorded 43 in the last four years, all the while making a combined $2.015 million. He’ll play for $3.168 million this year. A pass-rushing terror from the outside linebacker spot last year, Dumervil hopes to follow up on his All-Pro campaign under a new defensive coordinator.
39. Jay Ratliff, DT, Cowboys (2009 Rank: Unranked)
Ratliff had a career year in 2009, tying for the team lead in sacks with six. He made the Pro Bowl despite playing the entire season with pain from bone chips and spurs in both elbows. Ratliff missed the start of OTAs rehabilitating from the surgery but should be 100% free of pain for the regular season. Has all the success gone to his head? "That Pro Bowl thing is gone,'' Ratliff said last week. "We're just talking about right now.'' Watch out, NFC East.
38. Matt Ryan, QB, Falcons (2009 Rank: 32)
In two years in the NFL, Matt Ryan’s is 20-10 record as a starter. Last year his numbers all dipped from his rookie year, but he also faced a tougher schedule. While several other elite QBs duked it out in the playoffs, Ryan spent January and February in the film room, reportedly digesting the techniques of Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning, Phil Rivers and Tom Brady. This season Ryan gets a healthy Michael Turner, the return of Harry Douglas and another offseason with Tony Gonzalez. There’s talk of a no-huddle attack, too. The Falcons' offense could be downright nasty. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
37. Steve Hutchinson, G, Vikings (2009 Rank: 57)
Widely considered the top offensive guard in the NFL, Hutchinson was a Brett Favre interception away from playing in his second Super Bowl last season. A seven-time Pro Bowler and a first-team All-Pro six years in a row, Hutchinson’s on a fast track to Canton.
36. Jake Long, OT, Dolphins (2009 Rank: 94)
Another of the top young offensive tackles in the game, Long will battle with Joe Thomas and Ryan Clady for All-Pro first-team honors for years to come. With the addition of Brandon Marshall, big things are expected out of the Dolphins' offense. It will be on Long to keep second-year starting QB Chad Henne on his feet and in the lineup for 16 games.
35. Reggie Wayne, WR, Colts (2009 Rank: 41)
Wayne stepped into the top WR role vacated by Marvin Harrison quite nicely last season, catching 100 balls for 1,264 yards and 10 TDs en route to his second Super Bowl appearance in four years. This offseason his name’s been in the news for different reasons, including him missing this month’s minicamp while seeking a new contract. On the field he’s as good as he’s ever been (despite a below-average Super Bowl performance). Entering his 10th season, Wayne has been to four straight Pro Bowls. Ink him in for a fifth.
34. Antonio Gates, TE, Chargers (2009 Rank: 95)
Stat-wise, Gates had the best season of his seven-year career last year, catching 79 balls for 1,157 yards and 8 touchdowns. However, he’s not happy with the way the season turned out. Gates is yet another top player looking for a new deal. GM A.J. Smith came out last week and said Gates, not receiver Vincent Jackson nor left tackle Marcus McNeill, is the front office’s top priority. Hopefully something gets done before training camp.
33. Champ Bailey, CB, Broncos (2009 Rank: 31)
Still in the top 50? After all these years? You bet. At 32, Bailey still is one of the top cornerbacks in the game. In his last year of a six-year contract, he recently told reporters he plans on playing five more years, “at least.” Another player, we’d laugh. With Champ? We nod our heads and just wonder which team will be fortunate enough to have him.
32. Ray Rice, RB, Ravens (2009 Rank: Unranked)
Ravens beat writers left June’s OTAs collectively raving about the midseason shape and performance of Rice, the third-year back out of Rutgers. He’s locked in and ready to go ... in June. Rice rushed for 1,339 yards and 7 TDs last season and added 78 receptions for 702 yards and a TD. Those numbers will be tough to top, but with the addition of Anquan Boldin and Donte Stallworth on the outside, Rice very well might do even more this year.
31. Charles Woodson, CB, Packers (2009 Rank: 58)
It’s not often you see a 33-year-old win Defensive Player of the Year. It’s even rarer to see that 33-year-old play cornerback. Woodson was spectacular last year, winning Defensive Player of the Month three times and saving his best performances for nationally-televised games: a 17-7 win over the Cowboys in November and a Thanksgiving Day blowout of the Lions. Woodson and the Packers are the early summer media darlings out of the NFC.
30. Ed Reed, S, Ravens (2009 Rank: 10)
There was quiet chatter of possible retirement after a debilitating hip injury sidelined Reed for multiple games last season. He’ll be back. When healthy, there’s arguably no better defensive back in the game. You know the numbers and the career accolades. What you might not know is that Reed wasn’t on the 2000 Ravens roster. He’s still searching for a Super Bowl ring. The Ravens have never been better — on paper, at least — than they are heading into this season.
29. Kevin Williams, DT, Vikings (2009 Rank: 40)
Williams has been a first-team All-Pro four seasons in a row and serves as half of Minnesota’s great interior defensive line clog known as the Williams Wall. Catlike quick for his size, Williams recorded 6 sacks and 22 tackles last year. He’s missed just two games over his seven-year career.
28. Randy Moss, WR, Patriots (2009 Rank: 30)
It’s been a busy offseason for Moss. He recently said he has no intention of retiring anytime soon and indicated that 2010 will most likely be the last season he plays for the Patriots. At 33, Moss is still one of the most talented and feared receivers in the NFL. Last year he caught 83 passes for 1,264 yards and hauled in 13 TDs, making the seventh Pro Bowl of his career. Folks seem to be down on the Patriots this offseason, talking up the Dolphins and Jets as the new powers of the AFC East. If Brady and Moss are jelling, though, all of that talk can be put to rest.
27. Steve Smith, WR, Panthers (2009 Rank: 18)
At 31 and entering the final year of his deal, Smith is suddenly the senior leader of a Panthers squad now without Julius Peppers, Jake Delhomme and Mushin Muhammad. No one questions Smith’s ability, when he's not playing in adult flag football leagues and breaking his arm. But his teammates? Whether it’s Dwayne Jarrett, Brandon LaFell or Armanti Edwards, someone needs to give Smith some help. If not, we could be looking at another unspectacular 65-catch season amidst constant double teams.
26. Mario Williams, DE, Texans (2009 Rank: 27)
Williams went to the Pro Bowl for the second straight year in 2009. The former top overall pick has been everything the Texans expected he would be when they defied draftniks and selected him before Reggie Bush in 2006. The Texans' D finished 13th in the NFL last season, but lost top corner Dunta Robinson in free agency. Rookie Kareem Jackson will be expected to step up in his absence, but eyes will be focused on Williams to do even more up front.
25. Tony Romo, QB, Cowboys (2009 Rank: 28)
Last year at this time, talking heads were all down on Romo, still vexed about his vacations in Cabo, musing about playoff losses and December collapses and fixated on his love life and off-the-field “distractions.” Twelve months later, he’s the unquestioned leader of the defending NFC East champions. He’s also one of the league’s very best QBs. We already know what Romo can do with Miles Austin and Jason Witten. Give him a Dez Bryant and the results could be scary.
24. Eli Manning, QB, Giants (2009 Rank: 33)
Critics be damned, Manning continues to put together solid seasons one after another in New York. Last year, with his defense falling apart and a crop of new wideouts under his wing, Manning threw 27 TDs to 14 INTs and started 16 games for the fifth straight season. List all the quarterbacks you want ahead of him on your fantasy football team — Manning’s the guy to lead your real NFL team. He’s got the goods. And the ring.
23. Julius Peppers, DE, Bears (2009 Rank: 6)
Fresh off a new $91.5 million deal, Peppers was reportedly a terror in Chicago’s recent minicamp. Rotating on both left and right sides of the D-line, the eight-year vet looked as fit and as motivated as he’s ever been, drawing false starts and blowing by O-linemen. The knock on Peppers? It’s been the same since he entered the NFL in 2002 — that he has a tendency to take plays off and not play up to his potential. The Bears need him to be at his very best. Chicago’s defense was last in the league in third-and-long in '09.
22. Maurice Jones-Drew, RB, Jaguars (2009 Rank: 60)
Built like a human bowling ball, MJD more than lived up to his hefty contract extension last season with a career year. With tackles Eben Britton and Eugene Monroe both entering their second years and WR Mike Sims-Walker on the cusp of making this list himself, the Jags' offense could be much improved. You know what you’re going to get from Jones-Drew: 1,250+ rushing yards, 10+ TDs, 50 catches and a whole lot of star power in a 5-foot-7 frame.