PFN Top 100 NFL Players of 2020: 10 through 1
Commentary provided by PFN NFL Contracts & Betting Analyst Ben Rolfe. Follow him on Twitter @benrolfe15.
10) George Kittle, TE, San Francisco 49ers
For many years now, the first tight end that has come to mind when the position was mentioned has been Rob Gronkowski. Kittle is now ready to take that title (if he hasn’t already) as a tight end that can be a threat both as a receiver and a blocker.
In terms of his receiving skills, Kittle has been superb since entering the league. In his three years with the 49ers, Kittle has ranked in the top 10 at the position in Pro Football Network’s Offensive Share Metric (OSM). Additionally, he has gone over 1,000 receiving yards in each of the previous two seasons, ranking in the top 20 in the league when it comes to yards per game. His hands are also as safe as they come, with just two drops and a 79.4% catch rate in 2019.
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However, if this placement was all about pass-catching then we might be looking at Travis Kelce in the top 10 rather than Kittle. What Kittle brings to the table on top of his pass-catching is his physicality, be that after the catch or in his blocking assignments. That ability to be dominant in both facets of his game is what makes Kittle a top-10 player when we are discussing the very best players in the NFL.
— NFL (@NFL) December 8, 2019
9) Khalil Mack, OLB, Chicago Bears
Mack is coming off his worst season since his rookie year back in 2014. However, even a down year for Mack is still a strong year on the stat sheet, with 8.5 sacks, 4 passes deflected, 5 forced fumbles, and 14 QB hits. While he ranked tied for 27th in sacks and tied for 46th in QB hits, he was fourth in forced fumbles.
In terms of pressures according to Pro Football Reference, Mack ranked tied for seventh in the league in 2019 with 45. He also ranked second in the league when it came to quarterback hurries, behind just Aaron Donald with 30. Those numbers are extremely close to what he put up in 2018, demonstrating that his sub-par production numbers in 2019 are perhaps more due to circumstance than his own performance.
In the six years that Mack has been in the league, he has been named a first-team All-Pro three times. Only three defensive players and five players in total have received that honor more times than Mack while he has been in the league.
8) Michael Thomas, WR, New Orleans Saints
Ever since he entered the NFL, Michael Thomas has been a good receiver. But over the last two seasons, he has taken that jump to be considered the very best receiver in the league. The 2018 and 2019 seasons saw Thomas go over an 80% catch rate, both of which rank in the top 5 all-time at the wide receiver position since targets and catch percentage were first tracked in 1992.
In 2019, Thomas led the league in targets, receptions, and yards per game, as well as finishing tied for fourth in touchdowns with nine. That was the third time in four seasons that Thomas has caught nine touchdowns in a season since entering the NFL. 2019 was also the third year in a row in which Thomas had over 100 receptions, as well as the fourth-straight season over 1,000 yards receiving. Thomas was so dominant in 2019 that he broke Marvin Harrison’s long-standing reception record with more than a game to spare.
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When it comes to his PFN OSM ranking, Thomas has finished third and fourth in the last two years respectively. That demonstrates that despite playing in a great offense, he has been performing strongly when it comes to factors within his control. What makes his catch rate over 80% even more impressive is that Thomas ranked in the bottom half of the league in separation, meaning that he is usually covered tightly.
Thomas’ effect on the Saints’ offense was clear to see in 2019, as he ranked first in the league in expected points added (EPA) by pass catchers. When that EPA is broken down on a per-play basis, only Chris Godwin and Tyreek Hill ranked above Thomas while seeing over 100 targets last season. Thomas may not be the most devastating receiver in the league when it comes to breaking games open, but no pass-catcher is more reliable than Thomas right now.
7) Lamar Jackson, QB, Baltimore Ravens
After entering the league with a number of question marks about how his game will translate from college to the NFL, Jackson has taken the league by storm in the last year and a half as the Ravens starting quarterback. While Pro Football Network’s Shane Tyler ranked Jackson eighth in his recent top-25 quarterback rankings, he also stated that “no quarterback graded higher than Jackson in 2019.”
Jackson led the league in touchdown passes and touchdown percentage in 2019, while also ranking in the top 10 in completion percentage, interception percentage, quarterback rate, and adjusted net yards per attempt. According to PFN OSM, Jackson ranked 14th at the position — but that ranking does not take into account the significant portion of value that he brings using his legs as a runner.
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Jackson led the quarterback position when it came to rushing yards and even ranked sixth in the entire league. He contributed seven touchdowns and 71 first downs with his legs, demonstrating the value to the Ravens that his running game brings. At 6.9 yards per attempt, he led the entire league when it came to qualified players, topping second-placed Raheem Mostert by 1.3 yards per attempt.
Jackson was the second quarterback in as many years to win the MVP in his first full year as a starter, following in the footsteps of Patrick Mahomes. Jackson will need to continue to improve as the league now has an entire season of tape with which to study. If Jackson can continue to be as dominant in 2020 as he was in 2019, then expect to see him even higher on this list next year.
6) Christian McCaffrey, RB, Carolina Panthers
The value of running backs in the NFL has been something of much scrutiny over the past decade. With the position seemingly becoming more replaceable on a season-by-season basis, it is somewhat surprising to see a running back in the top 10 of our rankings.
That ranking is further called into question when McCaffrey ranked just 14th amongst running backs when it came to his PFN OSM grade in 2019. McCaffrey ranked just ninth in the league in terms of yards per carry, but did manage to find the end zone the third-most with 15 rushing touchdowns last season. However, McCaffrey is far more than just a running back, as he doubled as a receiver in the Panthers offense in 2019.
McCaffrey ranked first among running backs with 142 targets, which placed him eighth in the league overall. With a catch rate of over 80%, he ranked second in the league in receptions per game, adding 1,005 yards receiving and four receiving touchdowns. In 2019, McCaffrey ranked 13th in the league in terms of EPA/play on receptions as well as 12th among the position in EPA/play when it comes to rushing.
5) Quenton Nelson, OG, Indianapolis Colts
Since entering the league as the sixth overall pick in the 2018 NFL draft, Nelson has become something of a legend. When he scored a touchdown in November 2019, Twitter exploded with delight to see such a respected player get his opportunity in the limelight. The touchdown may not have counted, but the reaction told you everything about the way Nelson is viewed.
— Charles Robinson (@CharlesRobinson) November 17, 2019
The Indianapolis Colts offensive line had widely been viewed as a joke for much of retired quarterback Andrew Luck’s time with the team. However, the arrival of Nelson changed all of that, as the Colts offensive line immediately became a top-10 unit. While that is not all thanks to Nelson, his presence in the middle of the line goes a long way towards giving that line the solidity required.
To be selected as a first-team All-Pro twice in your first two seasons is an extremely impressive feat. Nelson’s strength, agility, and technique saw Pro Football Network’s Matt Valdovinos refer to him as his “1B” among the top interior offensive lineman in the league back in May. However, Nelson’s raw skills are arguably on another level compared to Valdovinos’ number one in Zack Martin, so to see him as the top interior offensive lineman and a top-5 selection on our list is no surprise.
4) Stephon Gilmore, CB, New England Patriots
Gilmore was already considered among the best in the league at the cornerback position prior to his 2019 season. Leading the league in both interceptions and passes deflected has only served to increase his reputation as the top of the position.
When it comes to his completion percentage allowed in 2019 (50.5%), Gilmore ranked 18th in the league, and seventh among players to have seen more than 75 targets. In his 101 targets in 2019, Gilmore did not allow a single touchdown to be scored, while allowing the third-lowest QB rating when being targeted.
The 2019 season was the second in a row that Gilmore was voted a first-team All-Pro. His numbers in 2019 were extremely impressive, especially the six interceptions and being the only cornerback to see over 100 targets and not allow a single touchdown. Gilmore is consistently viewed as a player that opposing teams need to throw the ball away from, which he demonstrated to great effect last season.
3) Russell Wilson, QB, Seattle Seahawks
Wilson has been one of the most consistent quarterbacks since he entered the league in 2012. In the past five years, he has thrown for over 3,950 yards four times, and thrown more than 30 touchdowns passes four times. Amazingly, Wilson is still somewhat underrated, with other quarterbacks seemingly stealing the spotlight from him on a yearly basis.
While Wilson did not lead the league in any positive statistical categories over the past two seasons, he is consistently in the top 5 or 10 across the board. In 2018, his touchdown percentage was 1.3% higher than the player who ranked third, Ryan Fitzpatrick, but was overshadowed by the incredible season put together by Patrick Mahomes. Then in 2019, everything Wilson did was seemingly overshadowed by Lamar Jackson.
However, the reason Wilson is so incredible is that he succeeds despite not always having the most talented supporting cast. This is emphasized by his PFN OSM grades over the past four years, which have seen him ranking in the top 5 at the position three times and includes a QB3 finish in 2019. Wilson has succeeded despite ranking in the bottom 5 in sack percentage in the past two years playing behind offensive lines that have ranked 30th and 24th in pass blocking in 2018 and 2019 respectively.
The Seahawks have always had a strong defensive unit during Wilson’s time in the NFL. However, he has put up strong numbers offensively despite being surrounded by a generally mediocre group of players on offense. Sure he has had the odd standout, such as Marshawn Lynch and Doug Baldwin, but rarely has he been surrounded by elite offensive talent.
Entering 2020, Wilson is finally looking at an offense loaded with playmakers. Could this be the year that we finally see Wilson win the coveted MVP award, of which he has shockingly never even received a single vote in his career?
2) Patrick Mahomes, QB, Kansas City Chiefs
Patrick Mahomes’s impact on the NFL over the past two seasons has been huge. In his first full season as a starter, he led the league in touchdowns, touchdown percentage, and adjusted yards per attempt. The only thing that stood between him and the Chiefs winning the Super Bowl that season was an ill-timed Dee Ford offsides penalty helping the New England Patriots advance to the Super Bowl and win their third championship in the last six years.
In his recent top 25 quarterback rankings, PFN’s Shane Tyler ranked Mahomes second but acknowledged just how close it was between Mahomes and Wilson for that number one spot. Part of that reasoning is how much Wilson elevates his team compared to Mahomes, who has the privilege of playing with a superb collection of offensive talent. Across the last two seasons, Mahomes has ranked 15th and 17th when it comes to PFN OSM in 2018 and 2019 respectively.
However, when you watch the film on Mahomes, the talent is obvious. Mahomes has a rocket for an arm and ranked in the top 10 in Intended Air Yards per attempt. Additionally, he carries the ball smartly, averaging 4.75 yards per attempt, having picked up 34 first downs with his legs in the last two seasons. On top of that, he is capable of producing huge plays with his legs when his team needs him to step up, such as in the AFC Championship Game last season.
Another somewhat underrated element of Mahomes’ game is his ability to avoid sacks. Across the past two seasons, he has ranked in the top 6 in the league in sack percentage, with there being numerous instances of Mahomes avoiding pass rushers and making plays with his legs.
1) Aaron Donald, DT, Los Angeles Rams
There were really only ever two candidates for this top spot and Donald just edged Mahomes in our voting. Donald has now earned five-straight first-team All-Pro selections, racking up double-digit sacks in four of those five years in addition to winning the AP Defensive Player of the Year award twice. He has also led the league in tackles for loss in each of the last two seasons.
His 12.5 sacks last season placed him seventh in the league, while he ranked 11th in QB hits. If we dig deeper into the stats, Donald also ranked second in pressures while leading the league in QB hurries. In fact, it is the second-straight season that he has ranked in the top two of those two categories.
Only a select few defensive players see opponents devise entire game plans in an attempt to neutralize them. What is even rarer is when that player is still able to be among the very best at his position despite opposing coaches’ best efforts to minimize his impact. Donald is a gameplan destroyer and frankly one of the very best to ever play.