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What ESPN's 'NFLRank' really says about the best players in football

August 29, 2017

On Tuesday, ESPN released their annual 'NFLRank', a clicky, sticky SEO windfall that seeks to determine the 100 best football players on earth via an expert 53-person committee. The idea, as ESPN explains it at least, is to predict 2017’s top performers based not on past accomplishments or positional value, but instead by pure, simple “greatness.” How that greatness is measured, exactly, is something of a mystery. Is it an advanced algorithm like Total QBR? Is it a bunch of people sitting around eating ice cream and throwing darts like the CFP? ESPN is coy about its methodology, but perhaps we’re asking the wrong question anyway.

What’s fascinating about the upper-echelon of this list is not necessarily the individual players, whose every follicle we will examine and re-examine over the course the next four months, but what the makeup of those players say about the league as whole. To that end, we took the top 10 predicted performers on 'NFLRank' and analyzed each based on total guaranteed money, original draft position, and years of NFL experience. What we discovered was an interesting set of trends (and, of course, outliers) relating to value, success rate, and peak positional performance in the trench warfare gameshow we call football. Let’s begin.

Guaranteed Money

Denver Broncos Media Day

Andy Cross

10.) J.J. Watt - $51,876,000

9.) Odell Beckham Jr. - $10,406,198

8.) Le’Veon Bell - $12,120,000 (unsigned franchise tag)

7.) Khalil Mack - $18,676,999

6.) Julio Jones - $47,000,000

5.) Antonio Brown - $19,000,000

4.) Von Miller - $70,000,000

3.) Aaron Donald - $10,136,500

2.) Aaron Rodgers - $54,000,000

1.) Tom Brady - $28,000,000

At first blush, there appear to be some pretty solid values (by the NFL’s Ebenezer Scrooge-ian financial standards, at least) in the top 10, but let’s pump the brakes on that. Odell Beckham Jr.’s 5th year rookie option is up in 2019 and he is already on record saying he wants to be the NFL’s highest-paid player, period. Meanwhile, Le’Veon Bell has gone on strike for a raise, Khalil Mack is only two years into his rookie deal, and Aaron Rodgers will likely become the NFL’s first $200 million player by 2020. The money is coming. Just wait.

More concrete, however, is the fact that two of the three highest-paid players—and four of the overall top 10—on this list are pass rushers by trade, highlighting the NFL’s ever-growing emphasis on pressuring the quarterback, even if the quality of quarterback play is rapidly declining (see: the NFL’s ever-growing emphasis on pressuring the quarterback).

Finally, on a league-wide level, this premier tier also proves that there is little correlation between contract size and quality of play. Ndamukong Suh and Matthew Stafford’s current contracts, for instance, guarantee them $59,555,000 and $92,000,000 million respectively, yet neither rank in ESPN’s top 25. If anything, these massive contracts are as much a sign of organizational ineptitude (it’s the Dolphins and Lions, after all) as actual on-field output.

Round Drafted

New York Giants v Cleveland Browns

Joe Robbins

10.) J.J. Watt – 1st round

9.) Odell Beckham Jr. – 1st round

8.) Le’Veon Bell – 2nd round

7.) Khalil Mack – 1st round

6.) Julio Jones – 1st round

5.) Antonio Brown – 6th round

4.) Von Miller – 1st round

3.) Aaron Donald – 1st round

2.) Aaron Rodgers – 1st round (after that infamous free-fall)

1.) Tom Brady – 7th round

We’ve all heard the story of poor Tom Brady’s rise from 7th-round draft pick to the greatest quarterback of all time so many times it’s begun to distort reality. Sports media loves an underdog and pushes their narratives (looking at you, David Johnson) over and over until we start prorating them out to the NFL as a whole. ESPN’s predictive elite suggests a far-less compelling reality, however: The players that are supposed to excel do so more often, and at a higher level, than those who are not. Seven of the top 10 players in the NFL were 1st round draft picks, with only Brady and Brown falling past the second round. This might sound crazy, but Maybe Mel Kiper Jr. knows what he’s talking about after all…

Seasons Played

Super Bowl Winner - Press Confernce

Bob Levey

10.) J.J. Watt – 6

9.) Odell Beckham Jr. – 3

8.) Le’Veon Bell – 4

7.) Khalil Mack – 2

6.) Julio Jones – 6

5.) Antonio Brown – 7

4.) Von Miller – 6

3.) Aaron Donald – 3

2.) Aaron Rodgers – 12

1.) Tom Brady – 17

6.6. That is the average number of NFL seasons played by each player in the top 10. In other words, the NFL has one hell of a learning curve, and the most successful players are given time to navigate it. The amount of time it takes to become “elite” is dependent on position—only two quarterbacks make this list and neither has played less than a decade, for instance—but as this analysis proves, a truly great player may not hit their prime for over half a decade.

It’s difficult to preach patience to an antsy boardroom and a bloodthirsty fan base, and that’s why every year has become a “win now” year in the NFL, but the organizations who are able to slow things down—New England, Seattle, Pittsburgh, Green Bay—are there year after year, while the other 28 all vie to turn last year’s 7-9 into this year’s 9-7. In the process, the competitive balance of the NFL is crippled and promising young careers fizzle (WHERE ART THOU GONE, ANDREW LUCK?), all because franchises aren't willing to wait until Christmas morning to open their toys.