Splash’s Top 100 (2021): Criteria and Honorable Mentionsby Ryan Potts July 26, 2021 4 comments
Welcome back, folks. It is July, and the season is just weeks away. This means it is time for the yearly task of ranking the top 100 players in the NFL.
For this list, nearly 250 players were considered. The preliminary list was organized by position and then organized into the Top 100.
Injuries are a reality in the NFL. While the perfect league would have no injuries and no suspensions, that is simply not the case in the NFL. With that said, some injuries were more catastrophic to players and their ranking.
While the list is by no means perfect, care was made to include the 100 players that deserve to be on the list. The following set of honorable mentions had some consideration, but they missed the ranking at the end of the day. Many of the players are young and will feature in the 2022 pre-season installment of the Splash Top 100, but as of July 2021, they do not belong in the Top 100.
Here are two players at each position and one quarterback that should make the 2022 Top 100. None of these players were within 10 spots of making the 2021 list, but they are expected to be staples of future Top 100s.
Quarterback: Joe Burrow, Cincinnati Bengals
Burrow’s rookie season was cut short with a torn ACL suffered against Washington. Overall, his season was a mixed bag. There were a handful of rookie mistakes including poor interceptions against the Chargers and Ravens, but otherwise, Burrow had a reasonable rookie season. Moving into Year 2, Burrow has been reunited with his college teammate Ja’Marr Chase. In 2019 at LSU, Burrow won the Heisman while Chase was named best receiver in the country. While it is unlikely the duo will connect for those legendary numbers, expect Burrow’s modest 89.8 passer rating and 13-to-5 touchdown-to-interception ratio to improve drastically in 2021. If Burrow posts a passer rating around 100.0 with 30 total touchdowns, expect him to slip into the top 10 in 2022.
Burrow was not considered for 2021 Top 100.
Running Back: Antonio Gibson, Washington Football Team & J.K. Dobbins, Baltimore Ravens
Gibson and Dobbins were both taken on Day 2 of the 2020 NFL Draft. Gibson is the unquestioned starter in Washington, and a productive two-way season will launch the Memphis product into top-10 running back conversations. For 2021 Top 100, he was the No.12 running back, but he should establish himself much higher next season
Dobbins has a more nuanced path. Unlike Gibson (and fellow 2020 pick Jonathan Taylor), Dobbins must compete with Lamar Jackson and Gus Edwards for snaps in the Baltimore rushing offense. However, expect Dobbins to improve as a pass-catcher and continue much of his rushing efficiency in 2021. Dobbins may only need 190 to 200 carries to get to 1,000 yards. Dobbins was running back No.15 in the 2021 list
Wide Receiver: Deebo Samuel, San Francisco 49ers & Brandon Aiyuk, San Francisco 49ers
Samuel and Aiyuk are unique wide receivers. Rather than being the traditional route-running type, Samuel and Aiyuk are closer to the prototypical gadget player. For most teams, these players became cult heroes as opposed to league-recognized stars. Samuel and Aiyuk have the necessary quarterback and head coach duo to succeed in more of a gadget role and post stats more in line with star receivers. With a limited Jimmy Garoppolo (or Trey Lance) and the ultra-creative Kyle Shanahan, Samuel and Aiyuk are primed for massive leaps in 2021. Samuel sits as wide receiver No.32 in the current ranking while Aiyuk takes the No.37 slot.
Tight End: Noah Fant, Denver Broncos & Jonnu Smith, New England Patriots
Fant and Smith are physical specimens who should have expanded roles in 2021. For Fant, he has had an additional year to gain rapport with Drew Lock. If the Lock experiment fails, Teddy Bridgewater would slide in and likely make Fant his favorite target. Fant should have a solid volume of passes sent his way even with the questionable quarterback scenario. Fant ranks as tight end No.8 currently.
Smith should quickly become Cam Newton’s best friend in New England. As Newton’s arm strength deteriorates, expect to see Smith featured in short and intermediate pass patterns. Smith is adept at breaking tackles after the catch and turning short plays into back-breaking plays. He will have to fight for snaps with Hunter Henry, but Smith could pull away with his ability to create outside of the main route. Smith currently ranks as tight end No.9.
Offensive Tackle: Taylor Decker, Detroit Lions & Mekhi Becton, New York Jets
Detroit will be a dumpster fire in 2021. However, they have figured out three of five offensive line spots for the future. Decker is one of the most underrated players in the NFL, and he needs one more season of high-level play to squeeze into the Top 100. While he was ranked No.12 for the 2021 list, the gap between the last tackle to make the Top 100 (No.8) and Decker is slim
Becton may be the easiest pick of the 21. Barring injury, Becton has the makings of being a superstar left tackle for the next decade for the Jets. Becton had a solid rookie season even with injuries, but he should make a sizable leap into the top 10 tackles and beyond in 2021. As of writing, he is offensive tackle No.18, but as mentioned with Decker, the gap in this group of not-quite-elite tackles is slim.
Interior Offensive Line: Michael Onwenu, New England Patriots & Chris Lindstrom, Atlanta Falcons
Onwenu was one of the breakout unknowns from the 2020 draft class. As a sixth-round pick, Onwenu earned an impressive 84.3 overall PFF grade (84.9 run-blocking, 72.5 pass-blocking) while logging at least 100 snaps at both guard spots in addition to more than 600 snaps at right tackle. Onwenu’s long-term home is likely to be in the interior, but no matter where he is lined up, Onwenu is a future star. He was listed as the 12th-best interior offensive lineman.
Essentially the opposite of Onwenu, Lindstrom was the No.14 pick in 2019. After an injury-plagued 2019, Lindstrom logged more than 1,100 snaps at right guard for the Falcons in 2020. Lindstrom earned a respectable 77.1 PFF grade, a grade that should only go up in 2021. While it may be difficult to steal an All-Pro or Pro Bowl spot in 2021, Lindstrom will play at that caliber. Heading into the 2021 season, he is ranked as the 17th-best interior offensive lineman.
Interior Defensive Line: Quinnen Williams, New York Jets & Shelby Harris, Denver Broncos
Williams was the closest player on this list to making the Top 100, finishing as interior defensive lineman No.11 while the top nine made the list. After a mediocre rookie season, Williams made massive strides in Year 2. He evolved into one of the best run defenders on the interior while doubling his pressure rate. The upper echelons of interior defensive lineman rankings will be difficult to reach, but Williams is the favorite to lay siege to the top five
Harris may be the single most underrated player in football. Since being drafted, Harris has been exceptional as a run defender and a pass rusher. Many interior linemen specialize in one or the other, but Harris is as well-rounded as it comes. While he does not have spectacular sack numbers, he has swatted 23 passes in four seasons with Denver. Only five players, including four in the Top 100, have exceeded Harris’ 15.5 sacks and 23 pass deflections. Harris was ranked as interior defensive lineman No.14 heading into 2021.
EDGE: Montez Sweat, Washington Football Team & Carl Lawson, New York Jets
Versatility is key, and Sweat does everything well as an edge. He was one of the best run-defending edges in the NFL in 2020, He also rushed the passer at a strong clip, posting 47 pressures on 401 pass-rush snaps. His 78.8 pass-rush grade was nearly 20 points higher than his grade as a rookie. With a developing Washington front, expect Sweat to continue to be productive and dominant. Sweat was ranked as edge No.17 entering 2021.
Lawson had a coming-out party of sorts in 2020. Hee had a career-high 64 pressures, recording at least one in every game, and even securing 14 against Pittsburgh across two games. While he has been nothing more than an average run defender, Lawson has elite upside as a pass rusher. There might be a learning curve in a new scheme, but when Lawson hits his stride, he could be a top-10 edge. Heading into 2021, he is the No.21 edge.
Linebacker: Alexander Johnson, Denver Broncos & Foyesade Oluokun, Atlanta Falcons
If Johnson were the middle linebacker of a team that was better than Denver, he would likely be a fixture in the top 10 linebacker lists across sports media. However, he has been toiling away in a mediocre defense for the last two seasons. Johnson was special in 2019, earning an 88.5 overall grade. He took a step back in 2020, but if he can split the difference in 2021, expect Johnson to be in 2022 Top 100. Heading into the 2021 season, Johnson is linebacker No.11.
The snap-to-snap consistency lagged in 2020, but Oluokun made up for it by making as many splash plays as any other defensive player made, let alone a linebacker. Oluokun was one of six players to log multiple sacks, forced fumbles, interceptions, and pass deflections. When Oluokun adds any semblance of snap-to-snap consistency, he will be top 10 at the position. Heading into 2021, he is ranked as linebacker No.12
Cornerback: William Jackson, Washington Football Team & Carlton Davis, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The former first-round pick has never quite matched his magical 2017 campaign, but Jackson should have a stellar season with Washington in 2021. Jackson will get the benefit of playing behind one of the best defensive fronts in the NFL. Expect Jackson to be a household name by Halloween. He is currently ranked as cornerback No.15.
A popular breakout candidate heading into 2020, Davis replied with a solid season. Cornerbacks around the league were obliterated, but Davis held his own. Outside of an abysmal game against Tyreek Hill, Davis was generally an above-average corner. In 2021, expect his league-average games to become above-average-to-good performances. With enough good performances, Davis will jump from cornerback No.19 to a top-10 spot
Safety: Antoine Winfield Jr., Tampa Bay Buccaneers & Jeremy Chinn, Carolina Panthers
Speaking of talented Buccaneers, look no further than Winfield. Winfield was excellent for much of 2020, logging more than 1,200 snaps for the Super Bowl champions. Winfield was primarily deployed as a free safety, but he logged 202 snaps in the box and 120 snaps as a slot corner. Moving forward, Winfield will be a playmaking free safety. He will be elite in 2021. Heading into the season, Winfield ranks as the No.15 safety
Staying in the division, Chinn had a strong rookie season. While the highlight of his season was a two-play sequence in which he recovered two fumbles and turned them into touchdowns, Chinn was one of the few safeties to not be massacred in 2020. Chinn projected as a pure physical specimen, but he surprised in coverage, earning an above-average 64.4 PFF grade. In 2021, expect Chinn to clean up his 18 missed tackles and be among the best strong safeties in the NFL. Chinn is the No.22 safety heading into 2021.
Follow Ryan Potts on Twitter @MrSplashMan19
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