The 2008 NFL Defensive Player of the Year and a Super Bowl XLIII star, Harrison had an under-the-radar outstanding season for the underachieving Steelers in 2009. Though Pittsburgh took a step back, Harrison recorded 79 tackles - 60 of them being solo - and had 10 sacks en route to another Pro Bowl invite. In 2010, he’ll have Troy Polamalu back behind him and two young rookies to groom in Thaddeus Gibson and Jason Worilds.
What’s with all these ageless defensive backs? Dawkins is 36 years old and still one of the top playmaking defenders in the game. After eight Pro Bowl seasons in Philadelphia, he put together yet another one in his first year in Denver. The unquestioned leader of the young Broncos defense, Dawkins has become a Rocky Mountain fan favorite already.
59. LaMarr Woodley, LB, Steelers (2009 Rank: 82)
Though he sometimes takes a back seat in the media love department to teammates Troy Polamalu and James Harrison, Woodley’s emerged as one of the top OLBs in the game. In 2009, he racked up 13.5 sacks, 62 tackles and made his first Pro Bowl.
58. London Fletcher, LB, Redskins (2009 Rank: 71)
After being named a Pro Bowl alternate nine times in his underappreciated NFL career, Fletcher finally suited up for a Pro Bowl in 2009 when he replaced Jonathan Vilma on the roster. The decade’s leading tackler, Fletcher led the Skins in tackles with 142 in 2009. He’s been vocal about Albert Haynesworth’s absence this offseason, and he’s allowed to be. Regardless of salaries, Fletcher’s the unquestioned leader of this defense.
57. Dallas Clark, TE, Colts (2009 Rank: Unranked)
In 2009, Clark became only the second tight end in NFL history to catch 100 balls. He’s caught 20 more than the year before in each of his past three seasons and has truly evolved into Peyton Manning’s go-to man over the middle. Clark surprisingly earned just his first trip to the Pro Bowl in 2009, though he didn’t play due to the Super Bowl. With 18 catches in the postseason, he set the NFL record for career postseason receptions by a TE (64).
56. Albert Haynesworth, DT, Redskins (2009 Rank: 14)
When Haynesworth is actually on the field and motivated to excel, he’s one of the top defensive players in the game. When he’s sitting out of practices and bellyaching, he’s one of the game’s great pariahs. How do you rank someone like that? You put him at No. 56 and move on to the next player, that's how.
55. Carson Palmer, QB, Bengals (2009 Rank: 23)
The guy Adam Schein refers to as “The Human Jugs Machine” looked more like “The Human Pellet Gun” last season. In what was a very successful season for his team, Palmer had his worst year statistically since 2004. Big things are expected for the Bengals in 2010, and with the addition of Antonio Bryant, Jermaine Gresham and Jordan Shipley at receiver, there are expectations for Palmer to return back to his usual form as well. I have no doubt he will.
54. Wes Welker, WR, Patriots (2009 Rank: 48)
A first-team All-Pro for the first time in his career last year (123 receptions), Welker’s currently working very hard to return from devastating season-ending shoulder and ACL injuries suffered last winter. A recent study suggested players coming off injuries like the one Welker had will usually return to about 66 percent of their previous production. If anyone can defy those odds, it’s Welker, an undersized, undrafted free agent who’s already led the league in catches twice.
Though he had a monster rookie campaign in 2008, last season was Jackson’s real breakout year as a pro. In 2009, he became the first player in NFL history selected as a starter in the Pro Bowl at both receiver and kick returner. Voted an All-Pro punt returner as well, he’s the ultimate weapon. Whether he can have the same production with Kevin Kolb at quarterback as he did with Donovan McNabb, however, is the great unknown.
As Aaron Rodgers’ game continues to grow, so will Jennings’ stature among the league’s top wideouts. In 2009, Jennings caught 68 balls for 1,113 yards and four touchdowns. Though the fantasy football nerds looked at those numbers as disappointing, the Packers were more than pleased with their No. 1 receiver’s production. Look for even more out of Jennings in 2010.
51. Jordan Gross, OT, Panthers (2009 Rank: 24)
One of the best left tackles in the game, Gross had his 2009 season cut short with a broken leg in Week 10 vs. Atlanta. Because the fractures were clean, doctors say there should be no lingering effects of the injury down the road. "I don't think I've been 100 percent since about 2002 (my senior year of college)," Gross said last week. "I feel good. I don't have any fears or any lingering issues with my leg. I've been doing all the normal running and lifting. I'm extremely pleased." Whoever ends up playing QB for the Panthers this season is extremely pleased, too.
50. Asante Samuel, CB, Eagles (2009 Rank: 50)
A two-time Super Bowl champion, three-time Pro Bowl participant and two-time All-Pro, Samuel's evolved into a senior leader in the Eagles locker room. Though he rarely plays press coverage and isn’t exactly Dick Butkus when it comes to tackling, he's one of the league’s premier interception artists. In the last two seasons, the 29-year-old's recorded 13 regular-season interceptions, including two in the playoffs. His nine picks last year were tied for most in the NFL.
49. Matt Schaub, QB, Texans (2009 Rank: Unranked)
Schaub had a breakout year in 2009, leading the NFL in yards passing and guiding the Texans to their first winning record in franchise history. For the first time in his career, he started all 16 games, despite battling a nagging ankle injury the bulk of the season. He threw for an eye-popping 4,770 yards and 29 touchdowns and will look to top those numbers in 2010. A playoff berth, however, is the real goal.
One-half of the top running back combo in the NFL, Williams is expected to be the alpha dog in the Carolina backfield yet again. After a monstrous 2008, he ran for 1,117 yards in just 13 games in 2009, making the Pro Bowl for the second straight year. Whether it’s Matt Moore or Jimmy Clausen under center, even more will be expected out of Williams than in previous years. If he’s healthy — he had ankle surgery over the winter — look for the same type of production we’ve gotten used to.
47. Joe Flacco, QB, Ravens (2009 Rank: Unranked)
Joe Flacco? Ahead of Carson Palmer, Donovan McNabb and Matt Schaub? Yep. Flacco’s been to the playoffs twice in two years as a starter, has a 3-2 record in those postseason appearances (all wins came on the road) and has improved steadily. In 2010, he gets two new WRs in Anquan Boldin and Donte' Stallworth, two new tight ends in rookies Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson and QB guru Jim Zorn to work with. Zorn’s said his goal is to make Flacco a Pro Bowl passer. If the progress he’s made over his first two seasons is any indication, a Pro Bowl and Super Bowl could be real possibilities in 2010.
Will he or won’t he? Honestly, I don’t have the energy to think about it at this point. I refuse to let my third straight July 4th weekend be dominated by Favre retirement coverage. If he plays, great, he’s a top 50 player, no question. If he doesn’t, he doesn’t. See ya in Canton in five years. Next …
45. David Harris, LB, Jets (2009 Rank: Unranked)
Nick Mangold and Darrelle Revis aren’t alone. Harris is another top 50 player in green who’s in the hunt for a new, long term deal. The middle man in Rex Ryan’s “organized chaos” defense, Harris finished the ’09 season as the leading tackler on the No. 1 defense in the league. A second-team All-Pro, the three-year vet had 127 tackles, 5.5 sacks and two interceptions last season.
44. Justin Tuck, DE, Giants (2009 Rank: 34)
The Giants defense didn’t have the season they hoped they would in 2009, falling to the bottom of the league in most statistical categories. Big Blue missed the playoffs for the first time in several years. In 2010, there’s optimism for the unit to rebound under new defensive coordinator Perry Fewell. Tuck heads up a D-line crew that includes another Pro Bowler in Osi Umenyiora and exciting first-round pick Jason Pierre-Paul. Chris Canty’s back and Antrel Rolle’s added as well. Look for Tuck to get his stats and production back to 2008 levels.
43. DeMeco Ryans, LB, Texans (2009 Rank: 62)
In Patrick Willis, Jon Beason and the Texans’ Ryans, you have three of the best young middle linebackers in all of football. In ’09, Ryans recorded 123 tackles and joined teammate Brian Cushing on the AFC Pro Bowl roster. He was rewarded for his play to the tune of a six-year, $48 million extension in March.
42. Jon Beason, LB, Panthers (2009 Rank: 20)
Beason’s the heart and soul of the Panthers defense. Without Julius Peppers in the lineup, he’ll be asked to do even more in 2010. In ’09, he played in his second Pro Bowl and was a second-team All-Pro selection with a career-high 141 tackles. In three seasons in the NFL, he’s never missed a game, having started every one. There are question marks all over the field (and on the sidelines) this season in Carolina. However, there’s nothing but a definite at middle linebacker.