ESPN.com unleashed its #NFLRANK Top 100 players on Tuesday and yes, there are some eye-openers among the choices. Four New England Patriots made the list, with Tom Brady coming in at No. 3 overall, behind only Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers (No. 2) and Houston defensive end J.J. Watt, ranked the best player in the league by the panel of more than 70 voters. Tight end Rob Gronkowski barreled his way to No. 5 while safety Devin McCourty ranked 56th and linebacker Jamie Collins came in at No. 97.
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Forget for a moment what you think of the fact that a defensive end, as good as he is, was deemed better than the two best QBs in the league or that the Seattle Seahawks placed seven players in the Top 40 (cornerback Richard Sherman was deemed the best at his position and eighth best player overall, one spot ahead of ex-Patriot Darrelle Revis). Instead, think about a couple of key names on the New England roster who didn’t make the cut.
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Neither wide receiver Julian Edelman nor linebacker Dont’a Hightower, both burgeoning stars, are on the list. The criteria, referred to by ESPN as “The Process” and described as rating “every player on a scale of 1-100. A score of 100 implies an all-time level of excellence; a 1 is for a player who doesn’t belong in the NFL,” by the group of voters (identified as “NFL analysts, reporters and statisticians — both from ESPN and outside ESPN — including former players and NFL front-office members.”) did not have room for the Pats’ No. 1 receiver or best linebacker.
Say what you will about content like this or NFL Network’s annual Top 100, lists such as these always elicit their fair share of hot takes. The fact that only four Patriots made the cut while the team they beat in the Super Bowl seven months ago places the same amount in the Top 25 means very little in the grander scheme of things.
But omitting Edelman and Hightower from this group should raise the hackles of Patriots fans at least a little bit.
Edelman replaced Wes Welker as Brady’s favorite non-Gronk target in 2013 and responded by catching 197 passes for 2,028 yards and 10 TDs in 30 games since, becoming the premiere slot receiver in the NFL while maintaining his status as one of the best punt returners in the game in the process. He also has 42 catches for 454 yards and two scores in the postseason over that stretch, among them a handful of key grabs in Super Bowl XLIX including the game-winning TD.
Hightower may have been overlooked by the voters due to missing four games last season. And Collins, his partner in linebacker power, is a flashier, more athletic, more explosive player, which perhaps overshadows Hightower’s more traditional, workmanlike game (and while we’re here, supporting Hightower for a spot on this list is by no means an attempt to diminish the presence or accomplishments of Collins, who looks like a budding superstar).
But Hightower stabilized the Patriots’ front seven when Jerod Mayo went down for the year in Week 6 last season, grading out as the second best inside backer in the entire NFL as per Pro Football Focus. He proved that he could shine as a pass rusher with a career high six sacks along with 38 pass disruptions (also per PFF) while holding down the middle of the defense following Mayo’s injury and, along with Akeem Ayers, made the tackle in the Super Bowl that set the stage for Malcolm Butler’s heroics.
Overall, there are 10 wide receivers on the list (all in the Top 50) and seven inside linebackers, one of whom — the 49ers’ NaVorro Bowman — didn’t even play in 2014. That Hightower is not considered on par with or better than a player who hasn’t seen the field in almost 20 months feels a bit odd.
So have at it, Patriots fans. Is this yet another slight fired at your favorite team or are you OK with the results?
It’s safe to assume Edelman and Hightower couldn’t care less. They may not be on the list but they have something big and shiny that the majority of the players who are on it do not.
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