Reputation doesn’t always equal production, and you only have to look at the Pro Bowl in a given season to see that.
There were some big-name players to miss my 101 list of the best players in the game this time around, but actually not many that are just getting by on reputation and have no place in the discussion.
Each of the five players below has a case to be made, and this is more about setting out my reasons that none of the five made the final list, which is after all, a very exalted place to be in a league of thousands of players.
1. Ezekiel Ansah, DE, Lions
It’s tough to get past sacks, but they simply aren’t a reliable way to measure pass-rushing performance. Pressures can become sacks and sacks become pressures based on the actions of the quarterback, and while Ansah racked up a good number of sacks in 2015, he didn’t match that number with his overall pass-rush. That’s not to say it was bad—he was very good—but there were enough edge rushers that graded better to push him off the list.
10 edge rushers posted more total pressures than Ansah did in 2015, in addition to another six interior defenders, and while his run-defense wasn’t bad, it was nowhere near as good as the best edge players in the league. It’s tough at times to navigate the shades of gray between the black-and-white terms everybody wants to see player evaluation in, but there were enough negatives in Ansah’s game to put him in those waters, and pointing to those negatives is not hating on the guy or declaring him a bad player, merely illustrating why he wasn’t among the 101 best in the game in my eyes.
2. NaVorro Bowman, LB, 49ers
While Ansah is a player that hasn’t hit the 101 level yet, NaVorro Bowman is a guy who has been there and done that, just not recently enough for me to have faith that he’ll be that guy in 2016. In his defense, he was coming off a major injury in 2015, and we have seen in the past that the first year back for players (think Geno Atkins) is often just a weak imitation of the guy they have the potential to be. Regardless, Bowman was a shadow of himself in 2015, despite the tackle numbers.
The 49er was actually still very good against the run in 2015; he led all linebackers in both tackles and stops by a significant margin, but his play fell away in coverage, where he allowed 90.3 percent of passes thrown his way to be caught and a passer rating of 110.9 when targeted. Bowman at his best was a complete linebacker, but the player of 2015 was far more one-dimensional. If he rediscovers the rest of his play this year, he will jump back onto the list.
3. Larry Fitzgerald, WR, Cardinals
Another player that has been there and done that, Larry Fitzgerald—on the evidence of 2015 alone—deserves to be on the list, but the question becomes about his game going forward. He had a fantastic year, but it was aided in no small part by Carson Palmer playing at a ridiculous and unsustainably-high level in an offense that attacks deep down the field. Fitzgerald in 2014 looked like a player that was verging on done, and while the true Fitz is likely somewhere between those two seasons, I think he drops off enough in 2016 that I put my faith in other receivers. I think if Palmer comes down to earth in 2016, Fitzgerald doesn’t look nearly as impressive.
4. Jason Peters, OT, Eagles
At a certain point in a player’s career, any dip in form is a potential beginning of the end of his career, and that’s where I am with Jason Peters, who at 34 years old is coming off his worst season since 2008.
He’s far from alone—the Eagles imploded in 2015 in a season that cost a lot of people jobs and roster positions, so there is certainly a case to be made that he has built up a little benefit of the doubt over the past decade or more, but at some point, his play will decline, and we could be witnessing the beginning of it. The five sacks he allowed last year was the most since 2009, and the 11 penalties was also his highest total since that season.
Peters is just a year removed from having arguably his best season—and one of the best in the NFL—so maybe he can bounce right back, but it’s enough of a question mark to keep him off the list in my eyes.
5. Jamaal Charles, RB, Chiefs
PFF has routinely been accused of hating on Jamaal Charles, but that just isn't the truth. Charles is actually a favorite of many of the PFF analysts, and anybody who watches football, really. There’s a certain grace to his speedy, gliding style of running that you can’t help but love to watch. In the 2013 Top 101 he was 11th, and only really the playoffs allowed Marshawn Lynch to jump him into the top 10, but his best play is now some time in the past.
Though his numbers stayed good in 2014, his grade wasn’t nearly as high as the year before, and though the Chiefs' line was often much-maligned, they were occasionally opening some very nice holes for Charles to exploit. He wasn’t bad, but he wasn’t nearly as good as the 2013 season. In 2015, he carried the ball just 71 times before injury ended his season, so to put him on this list we would be expecting him to return to something like his 2013 form coming off of injury. It may happen, but I just can’t have the confidence to put him on this list.
If we see the real Jamaal Charles for the whole 2016 season, it will be a pleasant surprise, and he’ll likely force his way onto this list in a year’s time.