And then there were 10!
NFL Network's Top 100 Players of 2021 concludes this Saturday at 4 p.m. ET with the final countdown from No. 10 to No. 1. Now, we already know the 10 players voted into this prestigious group, as the names were revealed in alphabetical order:
- Davante Adams, WR, Green Bay Packers
- Josh Allen, QB, Buffalo Bills
- Tom Brady, QB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
- Aaron Donald, DT, Los Angeles Rams
- Derrick Henry, RB, Tennessee Titans
- DeAndre Hopkins, WR, Arizona Cardinals
- Travis Kelce, TE, Kansas City Chiefs
- Patrick Mahomes, QB, Kansas City Chiefs
- Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay Packers
- T.J. Watt, OLB, Pittsburgh Steelers
But we have to wait until Saturday to see how those guys stack up according to the players themselves. How would I rank 'em? Well, that's a fine question.
If I were starting from scratch, my personal top 10 wouldn't include every one of those names. And that list, of course, would feature Roquan Smith. But alas, that's not the job here. Fodder for another day.
In this assignment, I have been asked to provide a pecking order for the top 10 names produced by the players. Here goes!
Some of you have made the joke that Allen is the Christian Laettner on this Dream Team of a list. And I'm going to be honest with you: I don't like that one bit. Josh has been building into a better player each and every season of his pro career. This led to last season's MVP-caliber performance, when the guy logged 46 total touchdowns and rewrote the Bills record book. He's the only player to clear 4,500 passing yards, 35 touchdown passes and five TD runs in a single season in NFL history. I understand why AP voters ultimately picked Aaron Rodgers as MVP last year, but I'm telling you right now: Allen would have topped my ballot.
I'm still stunned the Texans could only conjure a second-round pick (along with David Johnson and some fourth-round swappage) for one of the best wide receivers in the game. Brandin Cooks has been traded for a first-rounder multiple times. But that doesn't matter right now. What does matter: D-Hop is one of the most incredible performers in the game. In his first year with a brand new team, Hopkins ranked top three in targets, receptions and receiving yards. And he's been just incredible since 2017, leading the NFL with 430 receptions and 5,522 receiving yards in this span. The scary thought is the Cardinals are just getting started, too, with Kyler Murray entering Year 3. Don't be surprised if Hopkins is even better in 2021.
For years, his brother manned the top 10 of this list. Now it's time for T.J. to take over. Kind of like when "Macho Man" Randy Savage moved past his older brother, "Leaping" Lanny Poffo. Oh, wait: Randy was older. Maybe Steph and Seth Curry? No, that doesn't work. Peyton and Eli? All right, the point is, it's time for T.J. to shine. In his fourth NFL season, the Steelers star led the NFL with 15 sacks, 23 tackles for loss and 41 quarterback hits. He's the third player since 2006 (when QB hits were first recorded) to log at least 15 sacks and 40 quarterback hits. One of those other guys was his brother. The third man? Somebody else on this list. No, not Travis Kelce. It's a defensive player. Come on.
Adams almost got a golden opportunity to prove that he is indeed the best receiver in the game. But no, he won't be catching passes from a first-year starter with zero regular-season snaps in Jordan Love. Aaron Rodgers is back. Not that Davante needs him. But their chemistry is pretty special, reaching its highest level yet last season. Adams led the NFL with 18 receiving touchdowns last year -- the third-highest total in league history -- despite missing two games. Only Hall of Famers Randy Moss and Jerry Rice scored more in a single season. (And yes, Rice's all-time high of 22 TDs came in just 12 games during the strike-shortened 1987 campaign. That's why he's the G.O.A.T.) According to NFL Research, Adams was the first player in league history to average at least eight receptions and one touchdown per game in a single season. Also the only guy with at least 100 receptions and 18 receiving touchdowns in a single season.
So, what would have happened had Rodgers retired? Because I'm sure we ALL took that seriously. [He said facetiously.] Yup, Rodgers is back for Year 17. And I'm glad the players, like me, think he'll pick up right where he left off last season, when he recorded a triple-digit passer rating in 14 games -- the most by any quarterback since at least 1950, per NFL Research. Another juicy nugget from our stat mavens: He was the first player to lead the NFL outright in passing touchdowns and passer rating since Tom Brady in 2010. I mean, he was amazing last year. He's going to be amazing this season. Nobody does petty better than Aaron Rodgers. And I mean that in a good way.
You know what's funny? A lot of people have said running backs don't matter anymore. "King Henry" missed that memo. And even in an era when RBs are also supposed to catch the football, Derrick said "Don't care" and became the eighth 2,000-yard rusher in league history. He had one game with fewer than 60 rushing yards ... and 10 with at least 100. Three with 200-plus! And he stiff-armed a bunch of dudes into oblivion. There is little wonder why Henry has the respect of his peers across the league. And I know fantasy dorks talk about regression. But this 6-foot-3, 247-pounder is built different. Way different.
Some of you might wonder how I have Travis so high on this list. I'm wondering if I have him high enough. We already discussed two quarterbacks on this list -- and still have two more to go. Travis is the only tight end on the list. And while you can make an argument for numerous QBs to be the top dog at the position, Kelce is in a class of his own when it comes to tight ends. He's led Kansas City's hyper-explosive offense in receptions and receiving yards in back-to-back seasons. This past year, he set an NFL TE record with 1,416 yards, catching 105 balls and scoring 11 touchdowns in the process. Kelce has now enjoyed five consecutive seasons with at least 1,000 receiving yards. That streak started before his current quarterback became the starter. But yeah, I'm still going to put that signal-caller ahead of him ...
Mahomes would have been the runaway favorite to top this list if the Chiefs had won another Super Bowl. Which I understand is a little unfair because it's not his fault the offensive line was an injury-riddled sieve in the title bout, while his receivers were out there setting -- not catching -- the ball like Misty May-Treanor. But you can't ignore that Mahomes is 38-8 as the Chiefs' starter. He's been to back-to-back Super Bowls. He also led the NFL with 316.0 passing yards per game. He was second only to Aaron Rodgers in touchdown-to-interception ratio last year, and four of his six picks came in the final three games -- which, by the way, were still all wins. He's pretty good.
Donald was the best player on the best defense last season. Unsurprisingly, he was selected as the 2020 Defensive Player of the Year, becoming the third guy in NFL history to win the award three times (J.J. Watt and Lawrence Taylor are the others -- saved you a Google). Despite playing on the interior, Donald tied for second in the league with 13.5 sacks, piling up four of them against the Football Team in Week 5 alone. Donald's also the guy I'd choose if I had to clone a player 22 times to create a football team. That should make him No. 1, but I predict the players go a different route. Like me!
I know some people like to believe Brady is just routinely in the right place at the right time. But the dude always delivers. For two straight decades. It's not a coincidence. He was amazing in the Super Bowl. And really, he was a much better quarterback in the 2020 regular season than people give him credit for. In his first year with a new team, Tom ranked third in passing yards (4,633) and second in touchdown passes (40). Tampa Bay was 7-5 when the calendar turned to December. Then Brady led the Bucs to eight straight wins, including the playoffs. And yeah, capping it all off by hoisting the Lombardi Trophy for a seventh time(!) kind of seals it for me. I have no doubt Brady is going to be just as good in 2021 -- and now that he's comfy with Tampa, you can make an argument that the 44-year-old's going to be even better. Nobody works harder. You see some of these players taking it easy out there in the preseason. Not TB12. He's always out there grinding. I have a feeling this won't be the last year he makes the top 10 of this exercise. Father Time has met his match.