No matter how bad your team, they still had some top-notch performances from some of your players this year. But who was your best player? And who deserves an honourable mention. I’ve picked a few from each of the 32 teams to highlight, including a team best. I’ve tried to treat each position equally, so there are some household names and some…not so much.
Matt Ryan, quarterback. Ryan’s MVP-caliber 2016 didn’t quite come out of nowhere, but wasn’t really expected. Ryan’s had spells of high performance and tends to throw up good year-long passer ratings, but in his second year in Kyle Shanahan’s offense it’s really clicked for him. Ryan threw 38 TDs, a high by 6. He threw 7 INTs, a low by 2. He averaged over 300 passing yards/game, also a record. Passer rating? 117.1 (Wow). A whopping 9.3 yards/attempt average. And in the playoffs, he’s actually got better, particularly in dispatching Green Bay. Everything is clinical, effective, he’s not just relied on elite weapons like Julio Jones, but also involved the Austin Hoopers and Taylor Gabriels of this world plenty often. What a season.
Honourable mentions: Julio Jones, wide receiver; Alex Mack, center; Vic Beasley, outside linebacker.
David Johnson, running back. You can argue til you’re blue in face as to whether David Johnson’s the best running back in the league. The truth is that he’s the most important to his team. Johnson’s excellence in all areas of the game on a team having a down year has been remarkable. He’s logged 1,239 rushing yards and 879 receiving, along with a combined 20 touchdowns. Topping 1,000 in both categories is very much within his compass in future seasons. To pick two games to highlight his importance: 175 total yards and 2 TDs vs Washington; 95 rushing yards and 3 TDs at Seattle in particular. Yet it’s his consistency which impresses the most. Until getting injured in Week 17 at Los Angeles, he’d recorded over 100 yards from scrimmage in each game. Arizona can rely on DJ.
Honourable mentions: Calais Campbell, defensive end; Chandler Jones, outside linebacker.
Justin Tucker, kicker. Tucker is of stratospheric quality as a kicker, and while kickers have to have very long and very distinguished careers to be considered for the Hall of Fame, you couldn’t ask for a better first five years. While he didn’t singlehandedly win a game this year, as he did against Detroit in 2013, he was still vital to the Baltimore team. To wit: Tucker made 38 of 39 field goals, with his only miss being due to a block against New England. He made 10 of 10 from 50+ yards, which ties an NFL record. He made 3 from 50+ yards in the same game in Week 12, also tying an NFL record. No kicker has anywhere near the effect or importance to their team as Tucker does to Baltimore.
Honourable mentions: Eric Weddle, safety; Marshal Yanda, guard.
Zach Brown, inside linebacker. Rex Ryan had a very weird – though obviously unsuccessful – effect on Buffalo’s defense. Proven contributors like Mario Williams, Kyle Williams and Nigel Bradham bombed or were shipped out. So, a bunch of journeymen had to step up, none more so than Brown. Brown stuffed the stat sheet with 149 tackles this year, but tackles don’t necessarily translate into high performance. Brown though was a monster in the run game, leading all linebackers in run stops and making plenty of plays in the coverage too.
Honourable mentions: Lorenzo Alexander, outside linebacker; LeSean McCoy, running back.
Greg Olsen, tight end. Olsen’s been Cam Newton’s most important target for several years now, and his most productive for the last two (he was tied-first among the Panthers in 2014 too). Olsen has topped 1,000 yards for the last three seasons now, and has been both a comfort blanket and an occasional big-play threat for Carolina. His route-running and awareness are fantastic, and he’s contributing more than ever as a blocker – which has been important as Carolina’s tackles have struggled with injury and regression. Tight ends have to be versatile, savvy and athletic: Olsen continues to be all three into his thirties.
Honourable mentions: Luke Kuechkly, inside linebacker; Kawaan Short, defensive tackle.
Josh Sitton, guard. Chicago’s interior O-Line has been the only near-elite unit on their disappointing 2016 team. While center Cody Whitehair and guard Kyle Long have played well, it’s Sitton, picked up from the rival Packers, who’s been their best player. Sitton is a complete guard – he has the footwork, hands and strength to dominate any defensive tackle when pass-blocking. Sitton conceded 6 QB pressures in 13 games, helping to stop that pocket collapsing on any nervous Bears QBs. He was a key part of that interior line which allowed Jordan Howard’s fantastic rookie campaign to happen. He might be 30 now, but Chicago will get a few more years at least of Sitton’s excellent guard play.
Honourable mentions: Jordan Howard, running back; Jerrell Freeman, inside linebacker.
Andrew Whitworth, offensive tackle. Most Cincinnati players took a step back this year, but Whitworth remained an elite tackle. Whitworth allowed just 15 pressures all season on a middling offensive line. He was consistent from game-to-game, and remains adept at both pass-blocking and run-blocking, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ second best tackle across the league. It’s tricky to predict how much longer the 35-year-old will be elite, but he’s a key piece for Cincinnati to retain.
Honourable mentions: Geno Atkins, defensive tackle; Kevin Zeitler, guard.
Danny Shelton, defensive tackle. Even without the context of recent Browns drafts more closely resembling a clown car on fire than a professional gridiron team, Shelton’s second-year emergence has been nothing short of astonishing. Shelton’s 39 run stops were second among all tackles, and he played well enough to make PFF’s midseason all-pro team. The second half of his season slowed a bit, but he solidified the centre of that line, and if he can develop into a pocket-pushing presence in the pass game, Cleveland may have an anchor for the foreseeable future.
Honourable mentions: Joe Thomas, offensive tackle; Terrelle Pryor, wide receiver.
Danny Shelton (John Kuntz/Northeast Ohio Media Group)
Travis Frederick, center. It’s funny to think now that Frederick was considered a reach when Dallas took him in the first round of the 2013 draft. Thriving in Dallas’ exceptional O-Line, Frederick has become first a fantastic pass-blocker, conceding no sacks in 2016, and giving up only 9 pressures all season. That’s providing the core for the excellent protection that’s allowed Dak Prescott to thrive as a rookie. Yet Dallas are more known as a running team. Well, Frederick has thrived as a run blocker every since his rookie year. Frederick can shake a nose tackle, get traction against a powerful end, make key blocks in the second level, whatever you ask. This line is a key reason as to why Dallas’ rookies have developed, and Frederick was the best part of it this year.
Honourable mentions: Ezekiel Elliott, running back; Zack Martin, guard.
Aqib Talib, cornerback. Talib might be one of my least favourite players in the “decent human being” arena, but as a corner he was peerless this year. Talib didn’t allow a single touchdown this year, and allowed only 351 yards in passes thrown into his coverage, for a passer rating of 49.5. And all this while playing on the outside, up against a collection of elite receivers. What does all this mean? Put it this way: Talib played 76% of Denver’s defensive snaps. Consider his numbers as a receiver in that context – if a receiver played three-quarters of snaps, and managed just 351 yards and no touchdowns? You’d think that receiver was pretty terrible. Talib’s been making top receivers put up terrible numbers against him by the force (sometimes literally) of his coverage. He’s played like the platonic ideal of a shutdown corner this year.
Honourable mentions: Von Miller, outside linebacker; Chris Harris Jr, cornerback.
Matthew Stafford, quarterback. Stafford’s season has been unusual in that he’s been excellent without stuffing the stat sheets. Which, well, we’re used to him being actually middling, while still posting gaudy numbers. Lions Offensive Co-ordniator Jim Bob Cooter has reinveted Stafford as a fourth-quarter comeback-artist. Stafford’s stats aren’t as jawdropping as some other quarterbacks – 24 TDs and 10 INTs, 4,327 yards over the season. Remember though, his stats declined sharply following his Week 14 finger dislocation against the Bears. But there were multiple points during the first two-thirds of the season where it seemed like Detroit were winning games just by the sheer force of Stafford’s determination.
Honourable mentions: Taylor Decker, offensive tackle; Matt Prater, kicker.
Green Bay Packers
Aaron Rodgers, quarterback. We can get sick of writing about Rodgers excellence. We can start to wonder if a rough start to the season means he’s in terminal decline. And then he has games like the wildcard matchup against the Giants, and you just gape. All this season, he’s been excellent from the pocket, excellent outside the pocket. He’s hurled deep balls to receivers when both just know where to be and when, and boom. On target. Caught. Touchdown. He’s never put up the gaudy yardage totals that a Brees or Manning might manage, but he hasn’t had double-digit interceptions in a season since 2010. And has only two seasons with a sub-100 passer rating since getting the starting job. His continued excellence might have allowed Green Bay front (and back) office staff to get a bit lazy, but don’t hold Rodgers responsible for this team’s shortcomings.
Honourable mentions: David Bakhtiari, offensive tackle; Nick Perry, outside linebacker
A.J. Bouye, cornerback. I back-and-forthed between Clowney and Bouye for this, but Bouye’s rise has been so unexpectedly fascinating. A reserve and special teamer the first three years of his career, 2016 was the former undrafted rookie’s breakout year. Swiftly becoming a darling of ProFootballFocus, Bouye defended 16 passes and allowed an impressively low 53.1% completion rate for passes thrown into his coverage. His playoff performances particularly stood out, as he made an interception in both games, defending six of his passes between them. Bouye is athletic, agile, and has suddenly demonstrated an astute understanding of the game in his contract year.
Honourable mentions: Jadeveon Clowney, defensive end; Whitney Mercilus, outside linebacker.
Andrew Luck, quarterback. Indianapolis are now bound to Luck in the same way they were bound to Peyton Manning for so long. As such, it’s unsurprising that Ryan Grigson’s incompetence at building a roster around one of the most useful central pieces has seen him (eventually) ditched. It’s to Luck’s credit that he’s put up fantastic numbers and performances in spite of the lack of a supporting cast, especially on the O-Line. Luck scored 31 TDs to 13 INTs despite being sacked 41 times. His 63.5% completion rate is a career best, as is his 7.8 yards/attempt. He’s been winning games with little help. As ever, you can’t help but wonder how good they could be if a competent general manager came in and put even a decent roster around Luck.
Honourable mentions: T.Y. Hilton, wide receiver; Pat McAfee, punter.
Paul Posluszny, inside linebacker. For years, Poslusnzy has been the kind of linebacker who stuffs stat-sheets for tackles but actually plays poorly in the process. He’s been a bit of a one-dimensional player – a liability in coverage who despite high tackle totals still misses too many. Not this year. Posluszny became an efficient tackler, used slightly less but to greater effect as he combines more effectively with Telvin Smith. The big surprise was his coverage skills emerging from…well, nowhere, and him putting it together in a complete package – watch the Week 6 victory over Chicago for example. Jacksonville’s emerging defense at least made up somewhat for their freefalling offense, as young and veteran players all contributed.
Honourable mentions: John Cyprien, safety; Jalen Ramsey, cornerback.
Paul Posluszny and Telvin Smith take down Colts’ TE Dwayne Allen (Phil Sears/USA TODAY)
Los Angeles Rams
Aaron Donald, defensive tackle. With JJ Watt missing the year due to injury, Donald rose to the occasion as the consensus best defensive player in the league. Donald plays inside – where it’s harder to stuff the stat sheets or to get general pressure on the quarterback. Yet he still recorded 8 sacks (behind only Geno Atkins among defensive tackles), 2 forced fumbles, and 82 total QB pressures (fourth in the league total). Donald is a pocket-crushing, backfield-invading menace, possessed of the quickest first step of anyone that big in football. Now his excellence is so widely-appreciated, he’s having to beat double teams left, right, and centre. He is. He’s the key for the Rams defense, which mostly took a step back this year, but Donald is still dominant.
Honourable mentions: Johnny Hekker, punter; Alec Ogletree, inside linebacker
Kansas City Chiefs
Travis Kelce, tight end. Kelce’s always been an athletically-talented work-in-progress, but this year it all clicked for him and he became an elite tight end. Having topped 800 yards in his first two healthy seasons, this year’s 1,125 yards included six 100-yard games including Week’s 16’s 160 yards-and-a-touchdown effort. Kelce’s unusual in that he’s a deeper threat as a receiver than your average tight end, and perhaps isn’t so useful as a comfort blanket (a la Jason Witten). But his route-running’s improved, his hands have improved, and he’s more of a tackle-breaker than ever. The key though? Blocking. A truly reliable tight end can be on the field for all snaps – run or pass. Kelce’s blocking is now damn good; he can be trusted to set the edge on a rush, or hold the pocket in-line on a pass. Throwing a flag on a referee was pretty funny, too.
Honourable mentions: Eric Berry, safety; Marcus Peters, cornerback
Jay Ajayi, running back. Ajayi’s emergence basically gave Miami some sort of offensive identity, and enabled Adam Gase to develop a gameplan that limited Miami’s flaws. Bursting onto the scene in Weeks 6 and 7, he put up 200-yard rushing games against Pittsburgh and Buffalo. While he only topped 100-yards twice more (including another 200 yards against Buffalo), he racked up multiple solid performances, ending up with 1,272 yards on essentially 12 starts (and three early-season cameos), at 4.9 yards/carry. You’ll want more consistency from Ajayi next year, but Miami have the building blocks of a very strong run game. And look, I got through this entire paragraph without mentioning Ajayi’s from London! Oh sh–
Honourable mentions: Cameron Wake, defensive end; Ndamukong Suh, defensive tackle.
Harrison Smith, safety. Minnesota’s defense functions much like Seattle’s insofar as the unit plays with a general excellence that it can be hard – and unfair – to single out specific players for praise. Nonetheless, that’s what we’re here to do. Smith has been consistently excellent since entering the league in 2012. While this year was a quieter year in pass defense stats, Smith was excellent in the run-game, posting a career best in tackling totals, and generally stepping in to act as that, er, safety blanket Minnesota needed. His second half – like the rest of the team – was weaker just to injuries and fatigue, but he’s still an elite safety and vital for Minnesota.
Honourable mentions: Linval Joseph, defensive tackle; Xavier Rhodes, cornerback.
New England Patriots
Tom Brady, quarterback. It’s stupid really, isn’t it? Writing about Brady, I mean. He’s 39 years old and just had a 28TD-2INT season. Admittedly a 12 game one, but still. Okay, this year wasn’t as overwhelming as his 2007 (50 TDs and 8 INTs, don’t forget!), but it was Brady’s highest yards/attempt since 2011, his highest passer rating since 2010, and his lowest interception percentage, well, ever. As funny as it is to call Brady a “system quarterback”, the truth is that he and Bill Belichick have spent the last fifteen years evolving as required to build near-unbeatable system after near-unbeatable system, and are still doing it in Brady’s 17th season in the league, with no sign of this dominance ever, repeat ever, coming to any kind of end.
Honourable mentions: Dont’a Hightower, inside linebacker; Devin McCourty, safety; Malcolm Butler, cornerback.
New Orleans Saints
Drew Brees, quarterback. I feel like you could chalk Brees’ name in here for any season since he signed for New Orleans, he’s been that consistently good for that long. After passing for 5,208 yards this year, Brees now owns five of the nine 5,000 yard passing seasons in NFL history. In the same way people get blasé about Radiohead releasing another fantastic album, now we’re all “it’s just Drew Brees, that’s what he does”. This year’s 37 TD/15 INT season also included a two-game stretch with no touchdowns and six interceptions, making the rest of the year even more impressive in comparison (but also making the future a little more uncertain). The Saints may not have built a quality roster in years, but surrounding Brees with talent and protecting him well continues to work wonders.
Honourable mentions: Zach Strief, offensive tackle; Cameron Jordan, defensive end.
New York Giants
Landon Collins, safety. Collins looked like a bust as a rookie, which neatly demonstrates the folly of writing someone off after one year. It often takes a year or safeties and cornerbacks to adjust to the NFL, and Collins has turned into a tough, versatile safety in his second year. Primarily a hard-hitting tackler, the Giants moved Collins closer to the line of scrimmage. Being in prime position to work against the run, he recorded 26 run-stops, stopping runs on 6.8% of his snaps – an impressive total for a safety. In passing play, he was able to rack up 4 sacks and 5 interceptions, and everything combined to record an impressive total of 125 tackles on the year. Tackles alone is a meaningless stat, but combined with the above demonstrates Collins’ versatility, hustle, and general lust for a hit.
Honourable mentions: Damon Harrison, defensive tackle; Odell Beckham Jr, wide receiver.
New York Jets
Leonard Williams, defensive tackle. Williams looks less and less like a luxury pick with every year, as the Jets’ defense continues to fall apart around him. Williams was drafted as a defensive end yet played at all positions across the Jets’ front this season. The majority of his snaps were at tackle, and so his 7 sacks look all the more impressive in that context. Williams is fleeter of foot and more agile than your average defensive tackle, meaning that he can collapse the pocket or even just break right through it. His ability to line up anyway also gives the coaching staff the opportunity to exploit matchups. That versatility should do wonders for the Jets as they (hopefully!) progress through their much-needed rebuild.
Honourable mention: Bilal Powell, running back.
Kelechi Osemele, guard. You could pick Osemele or any of the three “honourable mentions” below for this, so let’s give an interior O-Lineman some love. Oakland paid through the nose to get Osemele, but sometimes big-money signings pay off! Osemele didn’t surrender a sack all season, and allowed 11 QB pressures all season. He’s a run-blocking monster, creating big holes for whoever got carries in Oakland’s running-back-rollercoaster. So often when you saw Latavius Murray finding a hole to squirt through, it was behind that left guard. Osemele’s versatility helped keep Oakland’s offense ticking over, giving Carr time to throw and runners space to run.
Honourable mentions: Khalil Mack, defensive end; Donald Penn, offensive tackle; Derek Carr, quarterback
Kelechi Osemele executes a block to spring Latavius Murray (John Storey/San Francisco Chronicle)
Brandon Graham, defensive end. Philadelphia are a team with some very weak, and some very strong position groups. Graham was the jewel of their best set – their defensive front seven. Despite recording only 5.5 sacks, Graham was regularly pressuring quarterbacks into throwaways. His record of 82 QB pressures and 40 defensive stops indicates his power in both the pass and run game. Why is this valuable? Philly can keep Graham on the field for all three downs, and while a pressure isn’t quite a sack in terms of outcome, it still means a QB is throwing with less accuracy, or throwing the ball away. Every little helps, and Graham is a master of doing the small things to aid the big picture.
Honourable mentions: Jordan Hicks, inside linebacker; Brandon Brooks, offensive guard.
Le’Veon Bell, running back. Bell’s running style has legitimately become “a thing”, which is a surefire sign he’s affecting the league. Sure, you need a top-notch O-Line and some wily blocking schemes to give Bell the chance to wait for a hole, but you need vision, patience, and agility to pull it off. Watching Bell run, gently putting a hand on linemen engaged in a vicious block as he scampers through, is unique in the modern NFL. Most importantly, it’s incredibly effective. Bell notched up 1,268 rushing and 616 receiving yards in just 12 games, failing to total 100 scrimmage yards in only one game. The threat of Bell running opens up the passing game for deep-bomb-lusty offensive coordinator Todd Haley to go to town, and create the Pittsburgh identity fans know and love.
Honourable mentions: Antonio Brown, wide receiver; Stephon Tuitt, defensive end.
San Diego (Los Angeles?) Chargers
Joey Bosa, defensive end. Don’t let yourself forget that the Chargers nearly ballsed up Bosa’s near-historic rookie season by being cheapskates with his contract. The reason? Offset language – basically, what guaranteed money would the Chargers owe Bosa if he bombs as a rookie. Boy, do those Chargers look like idiots now. It’s fair to wonder how their season would have gone if Bosa had been playing from Week 1. As it is, Bosa recorded 10.5 sacks in 12 games, and was an all-round terror flying off the edge into opposing quarterbacks. His terrifying games against the very good O-Lines of Atlanta and Oakland look especially impressive. His run-stop work is also strong, though not as elite as his pass-rushing. Chargers fans that haven’t been alienated by the move to L.A. should be very excited for Bosa’s next few years.
Honourable mentions: Casey Hayward, cornerback; Melvin Ingram, outside linebacker.
San Francisco 49ers
Joe Staley, offensive tackle. There’s very little to get excited about on San Francisco’s roster, but Staley remains a solid player. Staley was particularly solid in run-blocking, which coincidentally is where San Francisco’s best other offensive player can shine. Staley took a dip in his pass-blocking, allowing more sacks and pressures than he had in previous years, albeit blocking for two quarterbacks adept at taking more sacks than necessary. That said, Staley is the weakest player among all teams’ best players this season.
Honourable mentions: Carlos Hyde, running back; DeForest Buckner, defensive end.
Bobby Wanger, inside linebacker. Seattle have been enough of a ‘team’ team the past few years there are multiple players who deserve this. Wagner gets it because he’s the arguably best at his position in the NFL. His 167 tackles lead the NFL comfortably, and demonstrate his dominance in run defense – the number of 1 or 2-yard gains opposing running backs had against Seattle was so high thanks to Wagner going straight in and blocking off a hole. In passing terms, Wagner excels more finding a hole to collect a sack than in coverage, though it’s only really his hand skills, rather than his movement, that hold back. Playing alongside K.J. Wright, Seattle have a linebacker duo – and a defense – that can do everything. This year, Wagner was its star.
Honourable mentions: K.J. Wright, 4-3 outside linebacker; Cliff Avril, defensive end.
Bobby Wagner – a terror in the middle of the defense (Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Mike Evans, wide receiver. There’s barely a player I enjoy watching more than Mike Evans. Six-feet-five with a heck of a wingspan, speed, agility, nous, determination. He’s becoming the complete package at receiver. I even wrote a piece last year to that effect. This season, Evans caught 96 passes for 1,321 yards and 12 touchdowns even as the rest of the offense fell apart around him, particularly the offensive line. Tampa was in contention for the playoffs late in the season purely because of Evans and the secondary. He’s a competitive, tough, huge target who a quarterback with a tendency to overthrow can rely on to bail him out.
Honourable mentions: Brent Grimes, cornerback; Gerald McCoy, defensive tackle.
Taylor Lewan, offensive tackle. Ho ho ho, “exotic smashmouth”? What a superannuated buffoon this Mike Mularkey is. Ho ho ho, the Titans are going to be ass this year! Oops. Turns out that much-ridiculed gameplan consisted of a terrifying run game, a quarterback developing solidly in his sophomore year into a redzone demon, and an elite O-Line. ProFootballFocus rate the Titans O-Line as the best in the league, and Lewan is its gem. Lewan’s forte is as a run-blocker, where he can use his reach and strength to help open huge holes for Murray, Henry and co, and help push the edge. As a pass-blocker, he’s still been invaluable in keeping Mariota upright and able to develop. The only lowlights? Well, getting ejected for ‘making contact with a referee’ isn’t amazing.
Honourable mentions: DeMarco Murray, running back; Jack Conklin, offensive tackle.
Trent Williams, offensive tackle. It’s a bit odd giving this to Williams in light of his four-game suspension in the middle of the season. But either side of that, Williams was excellent (and it helped that fill-in Ty Nsekhe wasn’t a liability). Williams’ pass-blocking from the blind side was dominant – he allowed a total of 16 QB pressures in 12 games. That’s insane. Some left tackles allow nearly that in a single game. Williams was also Washington’s best run-blocker, and only picked up 3 penalties the entire season. Every facet of his game was elite. Except the suspension, of course.
Honourable mentions: Ryan Kerrigan, defensive end; Brandon Scherff, guard.
What do you think? Is this spot on? Did Nick miss your favourite player? Give him some hate (or some love!) over on Twitter.