PFF Senior Analyst Sam Monson released his top 101 players heading into the 2016 season last week, and with it, we saw plenty of discussion about who the best players in the league are on both sides of the ball. Here we are going to focus in on the offensive talent in the NFC, and highlight the top 10 players on offense in that conference, starting off with a certain signal-caller from Green Bay.
1. Aaron Rodgers, QB, Packers (No. 8 overall in Monson's 101)
Okay, so he wasn't the best offensive player in the NFC in 2015, but it was a rare down year for Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Our 12th-ranked quarterback in overall grade (80.8), Rodgers had his moments, with multiple Hail Mary passes to drag a struggling Packers' offense back into the game against the Lions, and in the playoffs against the Cardinals. The true greatness of Rodgers can be found over the balance of his career, where he graded as one of the top two quarterbacks in 2011, 2012, and 2014. Injury limited him to just 592 snaps in 2013, but he still finished the year tied for sixth in terms of overall grade.
2015 wasn't his best season, but it would be silly to drop him based on one year when his play has shown him to be arguably the best quarterback in the league over the past five years. The fact that he still ranked inside the top-12 quarterbacks in football during a “down year,” both for him and the Packers' offense, is a testament to his play, and the expectation is that he will return to the top of the mountain in 2016.
2. Julio Jones, WR, Falcons (9)
We're in the middle of an era in football where the best receivers in the league aren't just players who can make plays downfield, but guys you can feature 15+ times a game in order to maximize their impact. Like Steelers' wide receiver Antonio Brown in the AFC, Julio Jones of the Atlanta Falcons is the type of playmaker you want to force the ball to in space, like on wide receiver screens and crossing routes, allowing him make defenders miss. Jones forced 20 missed tackles as a receiver in 2015, more than all but three other players at the position, on his way to a league-leading 1,871 yards.
If you were building a wide receiver in a lab, Jones would be the guy you would make. Physical at the catch point and agile enough to make defenders miss in space and run past them, his physical skill-set helped him have one of the most complete route trees in the NFL last year, with at least 10 receptions on seven different types of route. His most successful route was the crossing route, though, picking up 375 yards and four touchdowns on 24 receptions.
3. Tyron Smith, OT, Cowboys (12)
For almost a decade, the poster boy for left tackle play in the NFL has been Cleveland Browns star pass-protector Joe Thomas. With the former Wisconsin Badger getting older, though, it might be time for Tyron Smith of the Cowboys to take his place as the top tackle in the league. Thomas edged him out (94.3 to 93.3) in terms of overall grade last year, thanks to a superior season as a pass-blocker, but in the running game, Smith had no peers. At 96.8, no offensive tackle in the league was within three points of his run-blocking mark, as Smith led the way for the dominant Dallas offensive line.
There is room for him to grow as a pass-blocker, but it's an area where he has trended upwards over the course of his career. After allowing eight sacks, two hits, and 20 hurries as a rookie back in 2011, he allowed just five sacks, three hits, and 14 hurries in 2015. Considering that the only season he finished with a negative grade in pass protection was when he moved from right tackle to left tackle (2012), it's clear that he is on the verge of becoming the best OT in all of football. Need more proof? Last season, he didn't allow a single sack, hit, or hurry in six of the 16 games he played in. If he can continue to improve slightly in that role, he should overtake Thomas as the best at the position.
4. Odell Beckham Jr., WR, Giants (17)
If Julio Jones is the type of receiver you would build in the lab, Odell Beckham Jr. is the one you create in Madden and force his spectacular-catch rating all the way to 99. With the exception of that heated game against Josh Norman and the Carolina Panthers, where both came off poorly thanks to ill discipline, he followed up an incredible rookie campaign with a second season that wasn't far behind it, once again wowing us with ridiculous catches.
Just how much better was he at those top end plays than his peers? In terms of grade distribution, the best marks of +1.5 and +2.0 (the best grades a player can receive for a single play), not including Beckham Jr., was four, shared by five different receivers across the league. Beckham Jr. had nine by himself, more than double the number of +1.5 or +2.0 receptions than the group of next-best receivers. That's bordering on Randy Moss-level of insane catches. At 2.43, he also had the third-best yards per route run average, our signature stat that tracks production on a per-route average, meaning that even if for some reason you aren't blown away by those catches, his base level is also very good, too.
5. Cam Newton, QB, Panthers (19)
His running ability gets all the credit, but Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton took a huge leap forward as a passer in 2015, grading positively as a passer in all but five of the 19 games he played in last year. Particularly impressive was his ability to push the ball downfield, completing 35 of the 85 passes of 20 yards or further downfield he attempted for 1,265 yards, 13 touchdowns, and two interceptions (including the playoffs). In fact, his touchdown-to-interception ratio of 11:1 in the regular season, was the best in the league among quarterbacks with at least 50 deep-passing attempts.
His ability as a runner does make him a unique weapon in today's NFL. Unlike a lot of athletic quarterbacks who can use their scrambling ability to create big plays, Newton is big and strong enough that the Panthers have actually been able to build an offense around his ability. Few displays in the NFL are more impressive than watching Newton keep the ball behind a pulling guard on QB Power, and with his improved ability as a passer, that makes him one of the most dangerous offensive players in the entire NFL.
6. Russell Wilson, QB, Seahawks (25)
Like Newton, Wilson's ability as a runner and passer make him special in today's NFL. Despite an offensive line that could be described as struggling (at best), Wilson has continued to keep the offense ticking. His 15 touchdowns of 20 yards or more downfield in the regular season were three more than the next best quarterback, while his 49.2 percent adjusted completion percentage on those deep passes ranked third in the league. He was under pressure on 42.5 percent of his dropbacks, second only to Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, yet his adjusted completion percentage of 71.6 under pressure was the third-best mark in the league.
As a runner, Wilson carried the ball off left or right end on designed quarterback runs 27 times in the regular season, going for 201 yards and forcing three missed tackles on the way. He added another 406 yards and forced eight missed tackles on 58 quarterback scrambles. By the time all was said and done, he rushed for 591 yards and a touchdown, often making plays that didn't look like they were there to keep the Seahawks' offense moving. Not many quarterbacks could handle the pressure he faces on a weekly basis from opposing defenses, but Wilson continues to take it in stride.
7. Travis Frederick, C, Cowboys (27)
The second Cowboys' offensive lineman to make this list, Frederick was the best center in football last year. He allowed just 10 total pressures all season, and just one sack over the past two years. His pass-blocking efficiency rating, which measures pressure on a per-snap basis, with weighting towards sacks and hits, was tied with Rodney Hudson (Raiders) for the best mark in the league.
Yet to miss a single snap in his career, Frederick has routinely been one of the best run-blockers in the league. In his first three seasons, Frederick has been among the top two centers in the league in terms of run-blocking grade. Coupled with his success as a pass-blocker—especially in 2015—the Cowboy has established himself as the best at his position in just three seasons in the league, and is one of the very best offensive linemen in the entire NFL.
8. Zach Martin, G, Cowboys (35)
Not content with two of his teammates being among the top 10 offensive players in the conference, Zach Martin becomes the third Dallas Cowboys' offensive lineman on this list, highlighting just how dominant that unit has become. Martin has graded among the three best guards in football in each of his first two seasons in the NFL. Like Frederick and Smith before him, he adjusted to life in the NFL with ease, becoming one of the best players at his position straight away.
As a pass-blocker he has allowed just two sacks since entering the NFL, and just 27 total pressures. To put that in perspective, more than 20 guards allowed at least 27 pressures last year, with Martin giving that up over two seasons. The Cowboys' run-blocking is one of the strengths of their team, and running backs averaged 5.1 yards per carry off Martin's right guard position last year. Over the past two seasons, only Ravens guard Marshal Yanda has graded higher at the position, and if he continues to improve, 2016 might be the year he pushes him for the top spot. Consider that, by the end of 2016, we might be talking about the Cowboys owning the best tackle, guard, and center in all of football.
9. Terron Armstead, OT, Saints (37)
This list is quickly becoming dominated by the offensive line, but New Orleans Saints left tackle Terron Armstead has very quietly become one of the best O-linemen in the NFL over the past few years. A third-round draft pick from Arkansas-Pine Bluff, Armstead has graded higher every season since entering the league three years ago, finishing 2015 with the third-highest overall grade among offensive tackles (behind only Joe Thomas and Tyron Smith).
He improved significantly as a pass-blocker in 2015, with a pass-blocking efficiency that tied for second among offensive tackles. This was up from 2014, when he tied for 19th. Like the other offensive linemen on this list, his play is definitely trending upwards, and Armstead could be the dark-horse candidate for the best tackle in the NFL next year if we see another jump in his performance.
10. Carson Palmer, QB, Cardinals (40)
Were it not for that performance in the NFC Championship game, Palmer would probably be higher on this list. One performance shouldn't define a player, but the lowest-graded game in the playoffs by a quarterback in eight years of grading is tough to ignore. It's also an issue because, as good as Palmer was in 2015, it was a level that we'd never seen him play at before. With just one negatively-graded season in the PFF era, it's not a case of him playing poorly in the past, but 2015 was a completely different level and very much an outlier for his career so far.
Still, just because we've never seen him at that level before doesn't mean that he will revert back to previous form in 2016, and there's every chance that the PFF 2015 regular-season MVP can produce back-to-back spectacular seasons. Excellent on intermediate passes, Palmer went 121-for-188 for 1,958 yards, 15 touchdowns, and five interceptions. Should the same player turn up in 2016, expect him to jump much higher up this list, especially if he can avoid breaking his own record for the worst-graded playoff game in PFF history.