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NFL Top-100 List: The joys of ranking players

Players and fans have weighed in on the NFL's very best. What do the results suggest?

Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sport

The Top 100 players schtick has turned into one of my favorite parts of the offseason.

It's not the ranking part that has appealed to me -- aside from the occasional head-scratcher, such as Jimmy Graham's conspicuous absence from the 2013 list (a clear oversight; don't let your upfront exposure to Graham's profound achilles heel of press coverage fool you. He's a tremendous player), the rankings themselves matter very little to me. What I find fascinating is who the players themselves hold in high regard, and how that aligns or differs with fan and analyst views.

And besides, the individual player video vignettes are sublimely delish. This year's crop's release has begun. Dialing up tape candy of the world's very greatest at their craft has somewhat pushed aside the joys and satisfaction that's come from endeavoring to become an amateur scout or draft analyst.

That can be fun, but it takes a lot of time and work, and the payoff doesn't register with me the way it used to, when you realize how frequently wrong all of us are, how relatively close behind the truly astute analysts many casual amateur analysts often are (I've referenced thin-slicing many times in this context), and how the level of even dominant college players compares to professional athletes in their prime transcending above their millionth-of-a-percent-er peers.

Being the fan of a championship team with a young, locked-up talent core may contribute to my diminished passion for the draft. But I devoured last year's tape candy multiple times. This year's release thus far only covers the rankings 91-100, and the players, good players, aren't yet the sort to really get excited about. But the Never Fail-to-Monetize league added a surprisingly interesting component to the fan experience this year. Something any half-way grounded football mind has no business appreciating, and I'm ashamed to find myself so taken by it:

player-vs-player voting app.

Again, rankings are arbitrary, subjective, and purely lacking in any significance. You won't find any sockdolager in the results of a fan voting app (yes, I did traverse through several layers of synonym web searches to find a word I'd never heard of, and then inserted this completely superfluous sentence into the article solely to feature it, and no, I won't apologize). Ranked lists are typically despicable and worthy of only the highest forms of deplore. Click-bait.

But I've found some interesting pieces of note, that I wanted to share.

The app only uses the top 100 players that the players themselves have selected. That somewhat ruins the surprise of their lauded countdown which will surely stretch out til training camp. Granted, most players won't come as a surprise, but some will, and some absences will as well. The voting process isn't without issue, and the reported turnout is a bit vulnerable to skewed results. So don't take it too seriously. I won't spoil who's in or who's out, but there are many Seahawks on the list. As you'd expect.

But still. Here we go. Vote a bunch of times on individual matchups, and the app produces your top 10. I've slowly been voting along probably over 300 clicks, today, and I still have some weird results, such as Shady McCoy continuing to dominate my top 10. This doesn't reflect accurately on my current views. I hold McCoy in high regard, but he sits at the top while Peyton Manning is sandwiched between Philip Rivers and Nick Foles, all largely on account of the near-random matchups these players have faced versus the dozen no-contests that McCoy was placed in.

With each vote, a graph displays the percentage of votes the players received by other fans.

  • Painting with a broad brush, the fans as a collective aren't as off-base as one might expect. Not that it's hard to identify most of the top 100 players in the NFL. But they're aware of recent breakout players, and aware of several long-tenured household names who have come into recent decline.
  • That said, it appears the fans generally favor, value and/or respect defensive players more than they do offensive linemen, and QBs, backs & receivers more than defensive players.
  • While in principle that sounds short-sighted of the value of defense and protection, I'm not sure how much I disagree with the apparent consensus. We still have a relative dearth of transcendent offensive linemen. On specific matchups, sure, I may roll my eyes or shake my head at the results. But some guys who I've held in good regard and assumed were more broadly overlooked, like DeAndre Levy, Tim Jennings, Tyron Smith and Matt Kalil, while I think they're really good, left me hard-pressed at times to choose them over higher-profile, somewhat-hyped offensive guys. Could I pick them over Nick Foles, Wes Welker? I honestly found that very hard. How about versus Arian Foster or Reggie Wayne, two guys I'd certainly choose over them, except for the fact that their injury-shortened seasons impeded their 2013 impact.
  • Yes, what exact criteria you use affects things. It's fan voting and I hope you can appreciate that rules mean very little here. For what it's worth, I adhered to 2013 performance, and injuries counted against you (not fully erasing a recognized transcendent player's impact, but somewhat reduced).
  • The area where voting results most greatly differed from my view of reality were those established QBs who have proven to not compare to Brady & Manning. Philip Rivers gathered few votes in most matchups. San Diego produced over 50% passing DVOA this year, but I guess the stigma from a high-interception season lingers if you're not Drew Brees. Matt Ryan played tremendously well this year, although I suppose when your team implodes it's natural for folks not to notice. Ben Roethlisberger's character probably precludes folks from seeing how good he still is, and I guess that's OK. And then of course there is Tony Romo.
  • Observe: Great QBs trounce great defensive players on the order of 9 to 1: Drew Brees 92%, Tim Jennings 8%. Tom Brady (92%) vs. Gerald McCoy (8%).
  • Yet: Ndamukong Suh (58%) vs. Philip Rivers (42%). Matt Forte (74%) vs. Tony Romo (26%). Julius Peppers (68%) vs. Tony Romo (32%). Derrick Johnson (65%) vs. Tony Romo (35%).
  • I honestly had never heard of Miami TE Charles Clay.
  • I found I had to skip a vote many, many times. So many were just too close to call, or some players I just didn't know enough about.
  • The Seahawks are very highly respected by the fans. Including Kam Chancellor.
  • No, especially Kam Chancellor. 46% vs. Cam Newton, 77% vs. Justin Houston, 82% vs. Ryan Kalil.
  • Richard Sherman (61%) vs. Earl Thomas (39%).
  • Chances are, anyone you think of as overrated is not. They may in fact be notably underrated by virtue of fan backlash, and widespread sentiment that the player is overrated. If you felt the likes of Justin Houston, Patrick Peterson, Chandler Jones, Randall Cobb or Doug Martin were getting more buzz than was due, or that the likes of Jason Pierre-Paul, Larry Fitzgerald, DeMarcus Ware, or Troy Polamalu have lost a step but name recognition has lost no momentum, you're not alone. You're in the majority.
  • All that said all this Eddie Lacy love is freaking ridiculous. 66% versus fringe DPOY candidate Dontari Poe. 13% versus Aaron Rodgers! The only non-QBs who reach double-digits against the likes of Rodgers are guys like Sherman & Thomas, who push higher double-digits. The fact that Lacy has more than 4% here verifies how cheeseheads are just crazy enough to eat their own.

As for the released player rankings so far, I feel Daryl Washington is not yet fully recognized, falling in the 90s with Brent Grimes and Louis Vasquez. That's about the only thought. The players have typically respected transcendent athletic talent with competent execution higher than fans, who typically have respected transcendent execution with competent athletic talent. The player list as exposed by the voting app suggests this year's crop is predicated a bit more on execution than last year.

The voting app has no effect on the rankings, but fan, analyst and player perceptions stem from viewing the same on-field performances. I predict the top 3 players will be Peyton Manning, Richard Sherman and J. J. Watt, in any order that has Manning on top.