Earlier this summer, a panel of ESPN voters weighed in and rated hundreds of NFL players. Those ratings were used to create rankings, the top 100 of which will be revealed this week as part of the #NFLRank project. These sorts of ratings are notoriously hard to pull off, routinely focusing on players who had one recent standout season and guys who touch the football at the expense of longer-term success and linemen of all sorts. They're also very fun.
Like anyone, I have my issues with who appears on the list and in which order. That's the nature of consensus. Instead of getting angry about the snubs, though, I'm going to look ahead. There's going to be an #NFLRank Top 100 in 2017. I want to try to find the guys who didn't make it into this year's Top 100 who are most likely to end up on the list this time next year. A lot can change in a year -- three of the top 20 players from last year's list are the now-retired Peyton Manning, Marshawn Lynch, and Calvin Johnson -- but let's try and bridge the gap in looking towards next year's list.
In trying to find #NFLRank Top 100 candidates for 2017, I'm looking for players who have Top 100 talent but weren't able to make the list this year for various reasons. That means guys who have been great but were injured and out of sight in 2015. It means young players who emerged as the season went along without quite getting enough reps to push themselves into the top 100. Alternately, it could mean talents who might get their best chances to shine in a new scheme or within a new context. I'm also considering the relative way in which voters in these sorts of lists tend to value different positions, often weighted toward skill-position talents who generate fantasy football points.
With that in mind, I found 15 plausible candidates who could all easily make their way into the top 100 next year. When available, I'll give their ranking this year in parentheses.
Connor Barwin, DE, Eagles (145)
Barwin's calling card has been his versatility; he's been effective on the edge in both 4-3 and 3-4 schemes over his career, alternating seasons as a useful coverage linebacker with ones like 2014, when he recorded 14.5 sacks and 21 quarterback knockdowns. This year marks the latest move for Barwin: He'll be playing right end and going up against the league's best left tackles in new Philly defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz's wide-nine scheme. Defensive ends in Schwartz's schemes like Mario Williams and Kyle Vanden Bosch have been able to produce big seasons on the edge in years past; Barwin may be the next in line to benefit from Schwartz's magic.
Blake Bortles, QB, Jaguars (221)
I wrote about Bortles two weeks ago, and while I found that he hadn't made quite as much of an improvement as his numbers suggested, it would be impossible to argue Bortles isn't heading in the right direction. With a young offensive core surrounded by a defense which seems incredibly likely to improve, the Jaguars should be better in 2016. Bortles will drive some of that success and rightfully take credit as the Jaguars push toward -- or even past -- .500.
Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Cowboys (145)
The one rookie receiving enough attention to finish in the top 240, Elliott is about as safe of a bet as a rookie can be to make it into the top 100 after his debut season. I've made the case against the Cowboys drafting Elliott in the past, and I'm still pretty sure they could have gotten more bang for their buck by taking a defensive player fourth before grabbing a running back later in the draft, but that's a sunk cost and it shouldn't influence how we look at Elliott's production on the field.
By all accounts, that production should be great. Elliott is going to be running behind one of the best offensive lines in football and against defenses who will be terrified of stacking the line with Dez Bryant threatening them downfield. By one measure, the Cowboys face the easiest schedule in football this year, which doesn't hurt Elliott's chances. Elliott's struggled with a hamstring injury during camp, which is a nuisance, because injuries are one of the few reasons Elliott would miss out on this list in 2017.
Mike Evans, WR, Buccaneers (102)
Evans narrowly missed this list last season, as he led the league in drops (11) while turning just three of his 74 receptions into touchdowns. There have been 582 instances since the merger of players catching 70 passes or more in a given season. Just 57 of those players (9.8 percent) have caught three touchdowns or less. Evans' touchdown total will rise this season, and with drops an inconsistent statistic for top-level receivers, Evans will also likely hold onto more of passes this year. The cumulative result is a nice bounce-back campaign.
Joe Flacco, QB, Ravens (166)
After missing the final six games of 2015 with a torn ACL, Flacco should be back with one of the league's deepest receiving corps in tow. After his receivers were beset upon by injuries last year, Flacco's targets go two or three lineups deep. There's no guaranteed No. 1 target with Steve Smith returning from a torn Achilles, but as with Bortles, the Ravens are extremely likely to improve their record in 2016, and Flacco will be partly responsible.
Robert Griffin, QB, Browns (N/R)
The unrated Griffin was about as far from the top 100 as possible, given that he didn't play a single snap during his final season in Washington last year. Even if RG3 never returns to the MVP-caliber form he showed as a rookie in 2012, he should benefit from a fresh start in Cleveland, where the Browns have both a solid offensive line and a brilliant offensive mind in head coach Hue Jackson. Jackson coaxed a career year out of Andy Dalton in 2015 after everybody was sure that Dalton had established a given level of play. We shouldn't be so sure he can't drive a massive improvement in Griffin, either, and there are some interesting weapons in this offense.
David Johnson, RB, Cardinals (190)
Sign me up. Johnson was an absolute monster at times as a rookie, terrifying teams (including his own) with big plays early in the year before settling in as an impactful starter later on. In his five season-ending starts, the Northern Iowa product averaged 131 yards from scrimmage and a touchdown. Arizona hasn't exactly been shy about talking him up since, with Cardinals general manager Steve Keim saying Johnson was the best receiving back he had ever seen. The uncommonly honest Cardinals have been wildly optimistic about Johnson's 2016 all camp long, and unless Chris Johnson takes a bigger share of the workload in his return from injury, David belongs on this list.
DeAndre Levy, OLB, Lions (119)
Alongside Thomas Davis of the Panthers, a healthy Levy is one of the rangiest cover linebackers in all of football, capable of covering anyone who lines up across from him. Detroit badly missed Levy last year, given that the Wisconsin product played just 17 defensive snaps last season thanks to a hip injury. Without Levy, the Lions' defense fell from eighth in the league in DVOA against tight ends in 2014 to 29th in the NFL last season. Levy should improve those numbers in 2016, and he could very well join another Detroit defensive absentee on the 2017 list if the league finally recognizes cornerback Darius Slay (115th).
Kyle Long, G, Bears (114)
Stretched as a tackle last year, Long did enough as a guard during his first two seasons to make you believe that he'll be just fine in returning to that role in 2016. Long will also have a better tackle next door in former Cardinals starter Bobby Massie, who should be an upgrade on the likes of Jordan Mills from years past. Long is one of just five linemen since 1990 to make the Pro Bowl in each of his first three seasons, a list which includes the unrelated Jake Long, Maurkice Pouncey, Joe Thomas and Richmond Webb. Good company.
Pernell McPhee, OLB, Bears (180)
If the Bears do get better on defense, McPhee is likely to be their best player. In his first year with Chicago, McPhee was an impactful pass-rusher before playing through a painful knee injury. The former Ravens contributor had five sacks and 14 quarterback knockdowns across his first eight games, only for a knee injury to sap his explosiveness and limit McPhee to one sack and three knockdowns the rest of the way. McPhee is still recuperating from arthroscopic surgery, but if he comes back looking like the guy from last fall, watch out.
Lamar Miller, RB, Texans (212)
Opportunity is everything, and a bet on Miller here is a bet that the Dolphins were wrong to give him 20 or more touches in a game just 10 times over the last four seasons, which is 27th in the NFL over that time frame. Arian Foster had 29 such games over his final four years in Houston, and while Bill O'Brien wasn't around for all of them, the former Penn State head coach will unquestionably want to rely on Miller as he breaks in new starter Brock Osweiler. The result could be a workload befitting Miller's talents.
Ryan Shazier, ILB, Steelers (127)
If I'm being honest, the 127th spot flatters Shazier a bit given his level of play last season. Shazier was occasionally dominant and made his fair share of spectacular plays, but he was also inconsistent. If I'm also being honest, though, Shazier is going to keep getting better. He's too athletic to wash out on such a veteran defense, and his instincts will continue to improve. With fellow inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons in the final year of a massive deal, 2016 will be the season that the defense transitions to Shazier as their leader in the middle.
Jason Verrett, CB, Chargers (144)
The opposite is true for Verrett, who already plays at an extremely high level but is stuck doing so on a bad defense. The Chargers only got pressure on 25.7 percent of opposing dropbacks last season, which was 25th in the league. With more pressure, Verrett wouldn't have to hold up quite as long in coverage, which would make life easier for one of the league's most underrated defenders. The Chargers will be better on defense this season with or without the still-absent Joey Bosa, but the 25-year-old Verrett would only benefit from an improved rush in 2016.
Leonard Williams, DE, Jets (140)
Williams should be in the discussion among players who might take an enormous leap this season. Known as a great run defender coming out of college, Williams only had three sacks as a rookie, but he accrued 21 quarterback knockdowns, which is usually a strong indicator of a coming rise in sacks.
Jameis Winston, QB, Buccaneers (207)
ESPN Insider's Matt Bowen ranked Winston second among young quarterbacks in terms of upside heading into the 2016 season, and it's not hard to understand why. After a very slow start to the 2015 season, Winston got into the flow of running an NFL offense and began to make smarter decisions with the football. He still has work to do in that category and needs to avoid trying to make the perfect throw when the windows simply aren't there, but there are plenty of young quarterbacks who turn the ball over a bunch and get better as their careers go along. Winston should be the next passer in line there.