PFN Top 100 NFL Players of 2020: 75 through 51
Commentary provided by PFN’s Matt Barr, host of the 4th & Gold Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @MattBarr_.
75) Xavien Howard, CB, Miami Dolphins
Head coach Brian Flores is busy putting together one of the best defensive rosters in football through multiple free agency additions. However, their best player on defense may just be the homegrown talent of cornerback Xavien Howard. The lengthy corner is known for jumping routes and taking advantage of quarterback mistakes which resulted in him tying for the league lead with 7 interceptions during the 2018 season. The former second-round pick was off to a strong 2019 before landing on IR with a knee injury.
Now paired with Byron Jones, these two will form one of the best cornerback tandems in the NFL. In a division that is up for grabs for the first time in decades, Howard and Jones will prove pivotal to the Dolphins taking the next step as a franchise. If Howard can bounce back from the knee injury, he could easily climb the 2021 list and crack the top 50.
74) Jason Kelce, C, Philadelphia Eagles
There is no question that center Jason Kelce will forever be a legend in Philadelphia for his Super Bowl LII Championship Ceremony display. Now Kelce will go down as one of the most criminally underrated players on this list. He has been an iron man for the Eagles, playing all 16 games in each of the last four seasons. At 32 years of age, he is showing no signs of slowing down, having earned three consecutive first-team All-Pro selections.
Kelce, who was penalized a career-low three times last season, is entering his tenth season as the Eagles starting center. With quarterback Carson Wentz entering a critical year, their relationship is more important than ever for Philadelphia. The NFC East is wide open and a strong season from Kelce could keep the Eagles atop the division for another year.
73) David DeCastro, OG, Pittsburgh Steelers
Ask any “yinzer” what they think about David DeCastro and after they are done waving their Terrible Towel at you, they will probably hit you with the word “stalwart.” The offensive guard has been incredibly consistent for the Pittsburgh Steelers, earning five straight Pro Bowls while sprinkling in a pair of first-team All-Pro selections. He dominates defensive tackles as a pass protector and is a mauler in the run game.
DeCastro was a key cog in the Killer B’s offense of Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell that set the league on fire. While two-thirds of that group has moved on, DeCastro still holds strong along the Pittsburgh interior. Running back James Conner certainly owes a debt of gratitude to him for opening up holes the size of Mack trucks to run through.
72) Marshon Lattimore, CB, New Orleans Saints
The New Orleans Saints had long been known as a team that had to outduel their opponents in offensive shootouts to consistently win. When CB Marshon Lattimore was drafted in 2017, that notion started to change in the Big Easy. He put the league on notice immediately with a stellar rookie season including five interceptions, 18 passes defensed and a defensive touchdown to go along with a Pro Bowl selection and being named the Defensive Rookie of the Year.
Lattimore’s interception numbers have not been able to match his rookie year, but he has still managed 26 passes defensed over the last two seasons and was a 2019 Pro Bowler despite dealing with a nagging hamstring injury. And at just 24 years old, the sky is truly the limit for Lattimore moving forward. He will surely be one of the next young corners to earn a mega-contract once his rookie deal is up.
71) A.J. Bouye, CB, Denver Broncos
The Jacksonville Jaguars have been a disaster since their loss to the New England Patriots in the 2017 AFC Championship Game. Their once-vaunted defense was quickly dismantled over the last few years, including the trade of cornerback A.J. Bouye to the Denver Broncos. Head coach Vic Fangio only had to ship a fourth-round selection to the Jaguars to acquire Bouye, who is an immediate upgrade and scheme fit in his defense. As a solid tackler who has the ability to play on both sides of the field, he should have no problem fitting in with his third NFL team.
Bouye’s numbers have fallen off since finishing tied for second in the league with six interceptions in 2017. How much of that is due to his own play and how much is down to a team that has completely imploded is up for discussion. Back-to-back seasons with just one interception and single-digit pass deflections are not ringing endorsements, but a change of scenery could be what is best for Bouye. And if anyone can figure out how to use his talents, it is Vic Fangio.
70) Brandon Scherff, OG, Washington Redskins
There have not been many bright spots for the Washington “To-Be-Determineds” over the years. Brandon Scherff is one of those bright spots, having been named to three Pro Bowls in his five seasons. He excels as a run blocker that gets to the second level in order to wash out linebackers from any snap. Scherff’s play has been good enough that Washington slapped the franchise tag on the former fifth overall pick.
Over the last two seasons, Scherff has only allowed 2.5 sacks and has played a huge role in Adrian Peterson’s resurgence. Peterson has racked up 1,940 yards on the ground well into his thirties and he enjoyed much of that success running behind Scherff’s true road-grading style. With a contract year looming, Scherff can be expected to put together the best season of his career.
69) Kevin Byard, S, Tennessee Titans
Over the last three seasons, no one has more interceptions than the 17 that Kevin Byard has posted for the Titans. His 8 in 2017 led the league and landed him both a Pro Bowl selection and first-team All-Pro selection. Byard has also been an ironman in Mike Vrabel’s defense, having not missed a single game in his four-year career. Safety is a physically demanding position that takes its toll on everyone — except seemingly Byard.
Fans in Nashville will bemoan that he is woefully underrated when it comes to the top safeties in the league and this ranking likely will not quiet those voices. Tennessee certainly does not undervalue Byard when they inked him to a five-year, $70.5M contract before last season. As long as Byard stays healthy and continues to produce the way he has the last three seasons, he is going to be a very worthwhile investment.
68) Justin Simmons, S, Denver Broncos
Justin Simmons may have found himself taken 34 picks after Kevin Byard in the 2016 NFL Draft, but now finds himself one spot ahead on this year’s top 100 list. He is another player playing the 2020 season under the franchise tag as the Broncos try to see if he is worth spending the big bucks on. Simmons enjoyed a career year in 2019 with four interceptions and 15 passes deflections in his first season in Vic Fangio’s defense. That success led to his Second-Team All-Pro selection.
Fangio values versatility and Simmons has displayed the ability to play both safety positions. He is a natural athlete that uses his range and strength to patrol the back end of the Broncos’ defense. Simmons has progressed each year in the league and should continue to flourish in his second year in the same scheme.
67) Cameron Heyward, DT, Pittsburgh Steelers
Ask any yinzer what they think about Cameron Heyward and after they are done waving their Terrible…wait, that has already been said about David DeCastro. However, the point stands. Heyward, like DeCastro, has been a stalwart in Western PA for nearly a decade. His last three seasons have been particularly dominant from the defensive interior and have earned him a spot on two of the last three All-Pro first-teams.
Defensive tackle has been a position long overlooked as just run stuffers, but players like Heyward have been doing their best to transform that thought process. He has 29 sacks over the last three seasons and is consistently rated at the top of his position. Heyward is a powerhouse up the middle who works tirelessly to not only get his sacks but occupy blocks so T.J. Watt (more on him later) and Stephon Tuitt can get theirs. Steelers Nation has to hope that Heyward can get back to a fourth consecutive Pro Bowl this year.
66) Cooper Kupp, WR, Los Angeles Rams
Something about the Los Angeles Rams just screams blonde hair. Sean McVay, Jared Goff, and, of course, Cooper Kupp. Despite the Rams weathering the dreaded Super Bowl hangover, Kupp had a career year by topping 1,100 yards receiving while hauling in 10 touchdowns and finishing as WR3 in PFN’s Offensive Share Metric. Since being the 69th pick in the 2017 draft, Kupp has been a reliable target for Goff and a key component of McVay’s explosive offense. He has averaged five catches a game as a dynamic option out of the slot.
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The wide receiver unit in LA was crowded last season between Kupp, Robert Woods and Brandin Cooks. The latter became a cap casualty and was shipped to the Houston Texans. This should lead to an increase in targets for Kupp, who will be looking to eclipse his already stellar numbers. The slot receiver has become increasingly important and McVay has his slot receiver of the future with Cooper Kupp.
65) Tom Brady, QB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
It is almost unfathomable to believe that a quarterback with six Super Bowl rings is this far down the list, but 2020 is a strange year. Just a few years ago, Tom Brady would have graced the top 5 without even a thought. Now, for the first time in his career that has spanned two decades, a 43-year-old Brady will not be playing in New England and will not playing for head coach Bill Belichick.
Brady, whose numbers have been declining for the past two seasons, will be joining a supporting cast of skill position players better than he has had in years. His new head coach Bruce Arians is also considered somewhat of an offensive guru that knows how to get the best out of his players and should have no problem coaxing whatever Brady has left in the tank. Brady will have to prove that he still has it justify Tampa’s Super Bowl talk.
64) Odell Beckham Jr., WR, Cleveland Browns
Odell Beckham Jr. is another player that is surprising to see ranked this low. While the consensus is that OBJ had a down year in 2019, he did post over 1,000 receiving yards for the fifth time in his career despite the struggles from the Cleveland Browns and quarterback Baker Mayfield. Beckham still displayed impeccable route running to create space and home run ability after the catch. However, his four touchdown catches were a career-low for a season in which he played at least 12 games.
2020 could bring OBJ back to the forefront of NFL wide receivers as Cleveland has made plenty of changes to the roster and organization. Gone is former head coach Freddie Kitchens, replaced by former Vikings’ offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski. His experience working with talented receivers like Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen will make utilizing Beckham’s incredible skillset all the easier.
63) Tyler Lockett, WR, Seattle Seahawks
The Seattle Seahawks have long been able to turn over the reins of a game to quarterback Russell Wilson and allow him to create as he pleases. Part of the reason is that he is surrounded by playmakers like Tyler Lockett, who finished 2019 as WR5 in PFN’s Offensive Share Metric. Once one of the most electric return men in the game, Lockett has grown each season as a receiver and was finally able to crack 1,000 receiving yards last year. His 12.9 yards per catch was down from 2018, but that speaks to his consistency as a receiver with 25 more catches.
Now lined up across from sophomore DK Metcalf, Lockett will continue to develop his skills as a possession receiver. Wilson will need the help when the Seahawks’ lackluster offensive line inevitably allows a play to breakdown. Lockett has worked hard to fill the shoes of the retired Doug Baldwin and succeeded during his first year in that role.
62) Terron Armstead, OT, New Orleans Saints
For a long time, quarterback Drew Brees has depended on Terron Armstead to cover his blindside and keep him upright. And for a long time, Brees has been very happy with Armstead’s ability to do just that. The 6’5”, 304 pound mountain of a man has made back-to-back Pro Bowls for his excellent pass protection and is known for just as much off the field as he is on. Armstead was named the Saints’ Walter Payton Man of the Year representative for 2019.
The main thing keeping Armstead from being higher on this list is durability. He has yet to put together a full 16-game stretch in any of his seven seasons. Last year was his healthiest when he only missed a single game — but before that, he had not played more than 10 since 2015. As Drew Brees progresses into the twilight of his career, he will have to hope that Armstead can go each and every Sunday.
61) Harrison Smith, S, Minnesota Vikings
Since being drafted at the tail end of the first round in 2012, Harrison Smith has been as consistent as it gets for the Minnesota Vikings. The Heartbreak Kid’s resume reads as follows: five consecutive Pro Bowls, one first-team All-Pro, 23 career interceptions, four defensive touchdowns and 13 career sacks from his safety position. That is the type of production that any coach dreams of.
More impressive is that Smith has been this successful despite never having a consistent partner at safety in Minnesota. While the other safety position has been in a never-ending flux, Smith just shows up and does his job well. Incredible athleticism and instincts make him seem like he is always in the right spot at the right time. Although, as he exits his prime, he may come to depend on the latter more and more.
60) Mitchell Schwartz, OT, Kansas City Chiefs
In eight seasons as a professional right tackle for the Cleveland Browns and Kansas City Chiefs, Mitchell Schwartz has missed exactly three offensive snaps. To reiterate, in 8,434 possible offensive snaps, Mitchell Schwartz has played 8,431 at one of the NFL’s most grueling positions. Those numbers are borderline incomprehensible in an age when defenders are bigger, stronger and faster than ever.
Schwartz played a pivotal role in getting quarterback Patrick Mahomes an unprecedented ten-year extension. That extension does not necessarily happen if the Chiefs had not snapped their 50-year title drought. Schwartz’s performance in the playoffs was as close to legendary as it gets. He allowed zero sacks and had zero penalties despite Kansas City rallying from double-digit deficits in each of their three playoff victories. Offensive line is often a thankless position but I think Mahomes may have something in mind for Schwartz and company in KC.
59) Mike Evans, WR, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
What is more important to Mike Evans’s production — arm talent or quarterback IQ? That will be answered very early in the 2020 season as Evans goes from having Jameis Winston hucking the ball around to playing with one of the greatest of all time, Tom Brady. Evans’ ability to stretch the field as a big-bodied receiver has allowed him to never finish a season with less than 1,000 yards receiving.
His consistency is almost nauseating to defensive coordinators that must scheme how to stop him on a weekly basis. While never playing in a steady quarterback situation, Evans remained one of the top targets in the game. Frankly, this is a player that should not see themselves outside of the top 50 on a list such as this one. Evans has only missed six games in his six-year career. The name of the game for him is reliability — the exact opposite of the quarterbacks Evans has spent his career carrying.
58) David Bakhtiari, OT, Green Bay Packers
Aaron Rodgers can be added to the list of players that have benefitted from a resolute left tackle over the years. David Bakhtiari has been one of the best left tackles in the league over the past four seasons, earning either first or second-team All-Pro nods in each. Playing opposite right tackle Bryan Bulaga, they formed an incredible tackle tandem to anchor the high-powered Green Bay offense. Now that Bulaga has joined the Los Angeles Chargers, Bakhtiari, and his beer-chugging skills, will be counted on to lead a revamped offensive line in Green Bay.
Bakhtiari’s pass blocking skills are still top-notch as he enters his age 29 season. As head coach Matt LaFleur looks to ease the pressure on Rodgers, Bakhtiari will also have to continue to develop as a run blocker. He is on the last year of his deal and will be looking to either snag a lucrative extension from the Packers or will be one of the most sought-after free agents in recent memory. Either way, Bakhtiari’s success in 2020 will have far-reaching consequences felt around the league.
57) Matthew Stafford, QB, Detroit Lions
The curious case of Matthew Stafford, who finished an injury-shortened 2019 season as QB2 in PFN’s Offensive Share Metric, will always perplex football fans. The former first overall pick has long been one of the supreme arm talents among all the quarterbacks, but he could never lead his team over the top. Many point to the Detroit Lions being unable to surround him with the right talent, coaching or depth. When he was linked together with wide receiver Calvin Johnson, it was much-watch TV for anyone that enjoyed big play highlights. Since Megatron’s early retirement, the spark has left the Lions.
Stafford’s career numbers are very impressive when you look back at his eleven years in Detroit. Compiling over 40,000 yards passing, 256 touchdowns and a 62.5% completion percentage has landed him in the conversation of elite quarterbacks. However, his career record of 69-79-1 has kept him from joining those ranks. For better or worse, quarterbacks get too much credit for wins and too much blame for losses and Stafford’s legacy will reflect such.
56) Fred Warner, LB, San Francisco 49ers
The 49ers swung and missed big time when they drafted linebacker Reuben Foster in the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft. Foster flamed out spectacularly after multiple off-field incidents and left a void in the middle of the San Francisco defense. That void was filled with Fred Warner, who was drafted a year later in the third round. Since then, he has vaulted himself into the upper echelon of three-down linebackers in the NFL.
Warner’s experience as a safety in college has served him well at the next level as the game continually moves more and more towards a passing league. His pass coverage skills are unmatched as a linebacker and allowed Warner to stand out on a 49ers defense full of standouts. He led San Francisco in tackles in both years with the team and added a pair of important interceptions, one returned for a touchdown against the Rams and one in the Super Bowl. If his play continues to trend upward, this could be the last time he is featured in the back half of our top 100.
55) Marcus Peters, CB, Baltimore Ravens
Marcus Peters has had a rollercoaster of a career. He is a supremely talented cornerback that has worn his welcome thin on two separate teams. Case in point, he had pick-sixes for both the Rams and Ravens last season. His ability to read the quarterback’s eyes and jump routes are second to none. Peters’ boom-or-bust play style has allowed him to lead the league with five interceptions returned for touchdowns since being drafted 18th overall in 2015.
For now, it appears that Peters has found a comfortable home with the Ravens. He produced three interceptions and ten passes defensed during his ten games in the purple and black last season. The Ravens boast one of the deepest cornerback groups in the league and they will need that group to keep the wide receivers locked down with the weakness of their defense being up the middle.
54) Alvin Kamara, RB, New Orleans Saints
When he was drafted in the third round in 2017, Alvin Kamara entered the league and set it on fire as one of the most dynamic dual-threat running backs. His numbers took a dip in 2019, however, which led to him landing outside the top 50 on our list. Kamara’s 18 total touchdowns during his sophomore campaign vaulted him to stardom, a level of production and excellence that has proven hard to maintain. His 1,330 total yards and six touchdowns last season were both career lows.
While Kamara has never cracked 900 yards on the ground as a rusher, he has had 81 receptions on the nose for three consecutive seasons. He will look to make it four straight Pro Bowls in 2020 in head coach Sean Payton’s potent offense. If the Saints want to overtake the 49ers in the NFC, they will need Kamara to get back to his dominant 2018 form.
53) Za’Darius Smith, OLB, Green Bay Packers
The Green Bay Packers worked hard to overhaul their pass rush before the 2019 season by bringing in the Smith Brothers: Preston and Za’Darius. Both enjoyed career years, but Za’Darius stood out as particularly impressive. His 13.5 sacks were more than he had the three previous seasons combined. Smith added his first Pro Bowl to his resume in defensive coordinator Mike Pettine’s scheme.
Smith went from being primarily a pass rush specialist in Baltimore to much more of an every-down player last season. His 84% of defensive snaps were easily a career high and 17% higher than his final year in a Ravens’ uniform. That jump in play time led to not only a jump in numbers but a jump in effectiveness. Next Gen Stats credited Smith with a league-leading 84 disruptions as his plethora of pass rush counters make him unpredictable. The Packers are entering a pivotal season for the franchise and will depend on Smith to repeat his career-best numbers.
52) Dalvin Cook, RB, Minnesota Vikings
To holdout or not to holdout, that tis the question for Dalvin Cook. The former second round pick is entering his contract year, a key moment for running backs who have the shortest lifespan of all players. Cook has demonstrated that once he was healthy, he could live up to the potential that everyone saw in him coming out of Florida State University. He had career highs in most major categories, including 1,135 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns on the ground.
Cook was named to his first Pro Bowl in 2019 and was the first Vikings running back not named Adrian Peterson to cross 1,000 rushing yards since 2006. The Vikings offense relies on Cook to balance out the somewhat unpredictable Kirk Cousins. Will a different scheme under new offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak bring Cook the same amount of success that leads to a big payday?
51) DeForest Buckner, DT, Indianapolis Colts
Rounding out the bottom half of PFN’s Top-100 Players is DeForest Buckner, a player who made a name for themselves in San Francisco before being shipped to Indianapolis for a first-round pick. Buckner is an exceptionally large man. At 6’7”, 300 pounds, he is one of the more imposing individuals in the league. Buckner utilizes his length to burst through offensive lines and disrupt plays before they even have a chance to get started.
Elite defensive tackles will always be better than their numbers suggest, and Buckner is no exception. He has only broken double-digit sacks once in his career, but playing alongside the remarkably talented 49ers defensive line caused his numbers to take a bit of a dip. The Colts must be drooling at the thought of Buckner eating up blocks in front of Darius Leonard. It is only fitting that one of the most underrated players in the game is underrated on this list, too.