NFL Network's "Top 100 Players of 2021" continues Sunday, Aug. 22. Players ranked 40-11 will be revealed Sunday over the course of three hours -- with each one-hour episode unveiling a new set of 10 honorees -- beginning at 4 p.m. ET. Six players from the 2017 NFL Draft class make an appearance in the list, which is voted on by the players themselves, between Nos. 20 and 11. With that in mind, NFL Network analyst Brian Baldinger provides his own ranking of the league's top 10 players from the '17 class heading into the 2021 regular season.
This spot is difficult to decide upon, as Marlon Humphrey, Jamal Adams and Ryan Ramczyk are all worthy. However, McCaffrey is a true one-man band. I saw him fumble in a training camp scrimmage in July of 2019, and he said it was the worst practice he'd ever had. Determined to push forward and not allow anyone to outwork him, he recorded 1,000-plus rushing yards and 1,000-plus receiving yards that season. After being banged-up for the 2020 campaign, McCaffrey looks ready to get back to his old ways. In a word, he is indefatigable.
Selected 41st overall by the Minnesota Vikings, Cook is a force to be reckoned with, now that he's figured out how to stay healthy. He's coming off a season in which he led the league in offensive touches per game (25.4) and scrimmage yards per game (137.0). His contact balance is second to none, and his ability to hit long runs from anywhere on the field makes him the most important weapon in a Vikings offense that has plenty.
The Saints' 2017 draft class elevated them from three straight 7-9 seasons WITH Sean Payton and Drew Brees to four straight postseason appearances. Lattimore loves the thrill of going up against pure No. 1 wide receivers, like Tampa Bay's Mike Evans, and shutting them down. The 2017 Defensive Rookie of the Year and three-time Pro Bowler excels at every phase of the game and is highly competitive. With 14 takeaways and 55 passes defensed in his career, Lattimore adds a great deal of fire to a Saints unit that finished 2020 ranked fourth in total defense and fifth in scoring defense.
Garrett could easily be higher on this list except for some injuries, a suspension that caused him to miss six games in 2019, and a bad case of COVID-19 last season. Nevertheless, the two-time Pro Bowler can rush from anywhere and is physically the most powerful pass rusher in the game today. Having the third-most sacks (35.5) in the league since 2018, he is one great regular season and one great postseason away from claiming the No. 2 spot here.
White is an anchor at cornerback in Buffalo. He can travel with the opponent's No. 1 wide receiver, but you will most likely find him on the left side, where he's made a name for himself in Western New York. His 15 interceptions, 54 passes defensed and 19 takeaways for his career each rank in the top six of the NFL since 2017. His production puts him in front of other great cornerbacks from this class, including Lattimore and Baltimore's Marlon Humphrey.
The lowest-drafted player -- taken 146th overall, Kittle was the ninth tight end selected -- in this list lands at No. 5. His draft standing didn't prevent him from quickly establishing himself as the league's premier blocking TE. The 49ers' feared rushing attack owns that status because of Kittle's ability to man up on the edge against elite linebackers. It's a thing of beauty to watch. In addition, he's an exceptional pass catcher, having previously held the NFL record for most receiving yards by a tight end in a season (now held by Kansas City's Travis Kelce). With his size, speed and run-after-the-catch ability, it takes numerous defenders to bring this man down.
The 30th overall pick and eighth edge rusher taken in 2017, Watt has set himself apart when it comes to sheer destruction. His back-to-back first-team All-Pro nominations show he is receiving the respect he covets. When it comes to consistent dominance, he can perhaps only be overshadowed by what we saw from his older brother, J.J. Watt, during his three-year Defensive Player of the Year run. T.J. Watt can win on the right or left side, standing up or with his hand in the dirt, or when in a roaming position (which he is prone to be in). With 49.5 career sacks (third-most in the NFL since 2017), Watt must be game-planned for on all important downs.
With the 67th pick, the Saints selected Alvin Kamara out of Tennessee. He was the fifth running back taken in this class, yet he's been the best and most consistent. The four-time Pro Bowler (yes, he's made it in each of his four NFL seasons) has registered 59 scrimmage touchdowns (second-most since 2017). With the perfect skill set for Sean Payton's offense, Kamara has made the most of his near-1,000 career touches.
For this exercise, I'm looking solely at what Watson has accomplished on the field in his four NFL seasons. That's not to say we shouldn't take the current allegations against him seriously. We should. But for the purpose of this piece, we'll stick to the gridiron.
Houston traded up to secure Watson in the 2017 draft, and though he didn't start Week 1, he quickly showed his dynamic skill set. If he never takes another snap for the Texans, what he's accomplished in four seasons can't be denied. He's improved with each passing season, making two postseason appearances and earning three Pro Bowl nods along the way. Even after the Texans traded away key offensive components (see: DeAndre Hopkins), Watson managed to lead the league in passing yards and log a 33:7 TD-to-INT ratio.
When I spoke with Patrick Mahomes and his agent, Leigh Steinberg, at the Super Bowl in 2017, the Texas Tech quarterback seemed fairly certain he would be drafted in the second round but wouldn't drop any lower than the end of that round. That was before the NFL Scouting Combine and workouts. Since then, his stock has risen -- and continues to rise each time he steps foot on the field. Mahomes is the cream of the 2017 crop and has done everything you'd expect from a high first-round draft pick ... and then some, taking the Chiefs to back-to-back Super Bowls (winning one) and being named Super Bowl LIV MVP and the 2018 league MVP.