Top 50 NFL players who will shape the 2018 season

Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images   David Eulitt/Kansas City Star/TNS via Getty Images   Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images   Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images   Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images   Photo by Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images   Photo by William Howard/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images   Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images   Photo by Mark Alberti/ Icon Sportswire   Photo by Stephen Lew/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images David Eulitt/Kansas City Star/TNS via Getty Images Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images Photo by Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images Photo by William Howard/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images Photo by Mark Alberti/ Icon Sportswire Photo by Stephen Lew/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images /

On Sept. 6, 32 teams with a combined 1,696 players (2,016 including practice squads) will begin the long and difficult journey through the 2018 NFL season. At the onset, some paths appear less determined than others, though any franchise or player can impact who emerges with the Lombardi Trophy come February.

The names and faces that shape the NFL change from year to year, though certain players have maintained their influence over long periods of time. Certainly, top-end quarterbacks affect the league due to their position and their shelf life. But those playing the increasingly challenging job of defense can alter the landscape significantly as well.

This list doesn’t document the 50 best players in the NFL nor does it attempt to rank them by ability. Rather, those included project to have the greatest influence on the NFL in 2018 and beyond.

50. Christian McCaffrey

Running Back, Carolina Panthers

It became clear early last season that the Panthers didn’t know how to utilize No. 8 overall pick Christian McCaffrey. Not a traditional between-the-tackles runner, McCaffrey excelled at Stanford when shifting around the formation and into the slot. Carolina eventually recognized the mistake and parted ways with offensive coordinator Mike Shula, though made the puzzling decision to replace him with 1990s retread Norv Turner.

The Panthers say they’ll use McCaffrey heavily and in more ways than as a rookie. While that sounds nice on paper, they have to actually follow through. Additionally, they also need to monitor McCaffrey’s workload to ensure he doesn’t wear down. If they manage to check all the boxes, they could have an Alvin Kamara-like player on their hands.

49. Baker Mayfield

Quarterback, Cleveland Browns

Even modern mathematics can’t fully quantify the amount of quarterbacking futility endured by the Browns since they returned to Cleveland in 1999. The Factory of Sadness has lived up to its reputation, starting more players under center than any other team in the league.

The Browns’ latest effort to locate the ever elusive franchise signal-caller saw them spend the No. 1 overall pick on Baker Mayfield, an unconventional 6-foot-1 passer who made headlines in 2017 for an ill-fated attempt to flee from police. Still, Mayfield represents the best shot Cleveland has to escape its QB quagmire.

The Mayfield era nearly kicked off months ahead of schedule when Tyrod Taylor left the Browns’ third preseason game with a wrist injury. Ultimately, it proved to be only minor and Taylor returned to action, but the incident underscored how little separates Mayfield from the starting lineup.

48. Bobby Wagner

Middle Linebacker, Seattle Seahawks

The defense that drove the Seahawks to back-to-back Super Bowl appearances has largely broken up over the past 12 months. Richard Sherman, Michael Bennett, and Cliff Avril have all played their final down for the team, with Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas all but officially in that category as well.

Their collective departure leaves Seattle with precious few defensive stars from their golden era.

One of the few that remain also ranks as one of the most impressive defenders around the league. Middle linebacker Bobby Wagner, a first-team All-Pro three times over the past four years and the rare defender to earn an MVP vote, gives Seattle an athletic presence in the center of their defense. Wagner can’t carry the unit by himself, but he can help funnel opposing offenses away from the middle of the field.

47. Marcus Peters

Cornerback, Los Angeles Rams

Marcus Peters quickly emerged as one of the NFL’s better cornerbacks during an award-winning rookie campaign in 2015. He followed with an All-Pro performance in 2016, seemingly cementing his status as one of the best young defenders in football.

That perception changed quickly last year when Peters feuded with his coaches and missed time to a team suspension. Kansas City dealt him to the Rams, where he will play with the best supporting cast of his young career.

Peters seems a strong fit in Wade Phillips defense and could help push the team to the Super Bowl. If he does, Peters can shake off any reputation he earned in 2017 and set himself up for a colossal payday.

46. Andrew Whitworth

Offensive Tackle, Los Angeles Rams

Sean McVay, Todd Gurley, and even Jared Goff received most of the credit for the Rams stunning turnaround last season. However, if not for the addition of left tackle Andrew Whitworth, perhaps none of the team’s success would have transpired. Despite his advanced age for an NFL offensive lineman (he turns 37 in December), Whitworth remains of the best pass protectors in the game.

Los Angeles has no viable backup plan if Whitworth were to suffer an injury or finally succumb to Father Time, making him one of the most important non-quarterback Jenga pieces in the league. Moreover, if the franchise fails to locate a successor in the near future, their championship window could close far sooner than many realize.

45. Patrick Mahomes

Quarterback, Kansas City Chiefs

For the first month of the 2017 season, Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith looked like the odds-on favorite to win the MVP award. His play regressed as the year moved along, but he remained one of the best quarterbacks in football for the duration.

Typically, such players return to their respective teams the following season, often with a lucrative new contract for their efforts.
Instead, Andy Reid and Kansas City’s brain trust dealt Smith to make way for 2017 first-round pick Patrick Mahomes.

To date, Mahomes has attempted just 35 passes and has yet to register a touchdown in a regular-season game, but Reid felt so convinced by his progression over his rookie year that the decorated Smith became expendable.

Certainly, that gamble could determine whether the Chiefs return to the playoffs in 2018, but it could also affect how much longer the 60-year-old Reid remains in Kansas City, especially if the young signal-caller fails to live up to expectation.

44. Demarcus Lawrence

Defensive End, Dallas Cowboys

The Cowboys haven’t fielded a dominant defense in more than a decade. The last time the Dallas D finished in the top 5 in DVOA, George W. Bush still had more than a year to go on his first term in the White House. The team hasn’t so much as produced a league-average defense since 2011, and that roster featured future Hall of Famer DeMarcus Ware.

If the Cowboys fix their defensive woes anytime soon, defensive end Demarcus Lawrence will probably play a major role in the turnaround. After an up-and-down start to his career, Lawrence emerged as one of the NFL’s top sack artists in 2017.

With a relatively anonymous group of linemates around him, Lawrence will have to maintain the quality of his pass rush while also rounding out his game as a run defender. Adding to the pressure, Lawrence will play out the season on the franchise tag. If he manages to pull it off, a life-changing likely contract awaits him next offseason.

43. David Bakhtiari

Offensive Tackle, Green Bay Packers

The Packers haven’t fielded a truly great offensive line since 2014, but the group has stayed largely on track due to the emergence of David Bakhtiari. Elite blindside protectors generally enter the league in the early rounds of the draft, but Bakhtiari became the rare Day 3 selection to an All-Pro left tackle.

And the Packers need top-shelf pass protection for Aaron Rodgers. The two-time MVP regularly extends plays with his mobility, putting added pressure on his O-line. Bakhtiari has to protect longer and with less certainty about his quarterback’s location than nearly any lineman in the league. Yet week after week, Bakhtiari stonewalls pass rushers.

42. Saquon Barkley

Running Back, New York Giants

With a rare opportunity to pick at the top of the draft, the Giants made the questionable decision to pass on a potential franchise passer in favor of Penn State running back Saquon Barkley. While Barkley possesses incredible physical gifts and produced at the highest levels in college, New York might come to regret hitching itself to what remains of Eli Manning.

As such, Barkley has the chance to alter how the public views his position if he succeeds early in New York. Alternatively, if he doesn’t push the Giants into playoff contention, many will come to think of his selection as a missed opportunity, rightly or not.

41. Kevin Byard

Safety, Tennessee Titans

Deion Sanders might not know Kevin Byard, but the Titans’ All-Pro safety has become one of the most valuable defensive backs in the NFL. Tennessee deploys Byard as a traditional deep safety, a sensible decision given Byard’s playmaking skills and athleticism. But the third-year defender also performs well close to the line of scrimmage, where he can stick with receivers (16 pass breakups in 2017).

With Earl Thomas’ future in doubt with the Seahawks and Harrison Smith liable to miss time to injury, another strong season could establish Byard as the best safety in the game.

40. Chandler Jones

Defensive End, Arizona Cardinals

In one of the more puzzling moves of his illustrious career, Bill Belichick dealt Pro Bowl pass rusher Chandler Jones from a defense already struggling to generate pressure. That decision has come to haunt the Patriots in the years since, but it has made the Cardinals one of the top defenses in the league.

Jones, whose 17 sacks led the NFL in 2017, has grown into Arizona’s most valuable front-seven defender. That shouldn’t change under new head coach Steve Wilks, whose defense produced an NFC-best 50 sacks last year.

39. Dak Prescott

Quarterback, Dallas Cowboys

As a rookie, Dak Prescott performed like one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL and made 31 teams look foolish for letting him slip to the fourth round. One year later, he regressed in what became a lost season for the Cowboys.

Prescott doesn’t need to match the play of his breakout season to turn Dallas into a playoff team again; the offense has plenty of talent with Ezekiel Elliott and (when healthy) a premier offensive line. But Prescott becomes eligible for an extension for the first time next offseason, and how he plays could largely dictate the direction of the entire organization.

38. Earl Thomas

Safety, Seattle Seahawks

As of yet, Earl Thomas has not reported to the Seahawks nor has the team shown any serious inclination to sign him to an extension. That impasse could produce any number of results, including Seattle shipping out the All-Pro safety and, depending on where he goes, altering the NFL landscape.

Thomas can still cover more ground than any other elite player at his position, and his ability to take away center field can transform any defense. A bevy of contenders seem like plausible landing spots for Thomas, and each one creates a unique set of consequences for the rest of the league.

37. Luke Kuechly

Inside Linebacker, Carolina Panthers

Luke Kuechly established himself years ago. The linebacker has made the first- or second-team All-Pro list every season since 2013, scoring a Defensive Player of the Year honor along the way. In a defense that requires a sideline-to-sideline off-ball linebacker to thrive, no non-quarterback in Carolina carries more weight than Kuechly.

Which makes the defender’s concussion history particularly troubling. He has suffered three known concussions over the previous three seasons, enough to put his long-term health into doubt. The Panthers enter 2018 with Kuechly fully available, but one unfortunate play can alter the face of their entire defense.

36. Sam Darnold

Quarterback, New York Jets

Other than a few isolated seasons, the Jets haven’t possessed a true franchise quarterback since Joe Namath’s balky knees roamed the since-demolished Shea Stadium. They certainly didn’t intend for such futility at the position, investing early picks into the likes of Ken O’Brien, Browning Nagle, Mark Sanchez, and others over the years.

However, none developed into the field-tilting passer New York needed consistently challenge for a Super Bowl.

Sam Darnold has the potential to end the decades-long search for Namath’s successor. As it stands, the Jets appear ready to start him in Week 1 over proven options such as Josh McCown and Teddy Bridgewater. That would normally make national news by itself, but in a conference and division with fewer obstacles than usual, New York could conceivably push for a playoff berth if the rookie quarterback thrives … or return to the top of the draft for another year if he doesn’t.

35. J.J. Watt

Defensive End, Houston Texans

Not long ago, no reasonable person debated whether J.J. Watt ranked as the best defender in football. Watt’s run from 2012-15 saw him deliver an unrivaled 69 sacks, 18.5 more than the next closest total over that span. Watt regularly ranked high in pass breakups, an impressive achievement for any player but a remarkable achievement for a defensive lineman.

Not only had Watt become one of the faces of the league, he had begun generating legitimate discussion about whether he could become the greatest defensive player in history.

However, injuries have rewritten Watt’s narrative. He has played in just eight games over the last two years and looked impossibly human during his brief time on the field registering little pressure and showing uncharacteristic stiffness in his movement.

In 2018, Watt will either reveal that his recent struggles were minor speed bumps on his way to the Hall of Fame or he will prove that the world beater of that great early 2010s run no longer exists.

34. Matthew Stafford

Quarterback, Detroit Lions

Already paid like one of the best quarterbacks in the game, Matthew Stafford has yet to fully transform his potential into consistent, on-field dominance. Though his statistical output looks fantastic on paper — he has thrown for at least 4,250 yards every year since 2011 — the Lions offense has rarely finished among the NFL’s best nor has the team regularly competed for the playoffs.

Detroit has reached the postseason just three times during his near decade in Motown and never once won the division, and those frustrations likely cost head coach Jim Caldwell his job. A new regime took over this offseason. Stafford has to make good on his promise soon or else a full rebuild effort could begin in Detroit.

33. Tyron Smith

Offensive Tackle, Dallas Cowboys

The Cowboys could start the season without Zack Martin and Travis Frederick, two of the best players at their respective positions. Their absences reduce the team’s offensive line, generally considered the best in the NFL at full strength.

Still, even without Martin and Frederick, the Cowboys have the best all-around left tackle in football. Tyron Smith earned his status as a premier blindside protector long ago, earning the first of his five consecutive Pro Bowl nods in 2013.

However, Smith doesn’t turn 30 until December 2020, leaving plenty of runway ahead. Though he can’t cover up for the loss of two fellow All-Pro linemen, he can help keep Dallas’ offense on track until they return.

32. Kirk Cousins

Quarterback, Minnesota Vikings

The biggest free-agent signing of the offseason, Kirk Cousins joined a Vikings roster with more non-quarterback talent than any other in the league, replacing breakout passer Case Keenum of Minnesota Miracle fame. As such, Cousins immediately became a so-called franchise savior, a player on which the hopes of countless Minnesota fans rests.

The veteran signal-caller has never dealt with expectations quite this massive in the past, and his fully guaranteed three-year, $84 million contract will ensure that he doesn’t receive any slack or patience from anyone.

Despite the attention, the Vikings didn’t sign Cousins to improve upon Keenum’s magic 2017 season. Rather, Cousins offers a higher floor and more consistency than his predecessor, reducing the risk of an offensive drop-off that could doom Minnesota’s title hopes.

31. Ben Roethlisberger

Quarterback, Pittsburgh Steelers

At some point, Ben Roethlisberger will follow through on his threats to retire, leaving the Steelers without the best quarterback in their history. When that time comes remains unclear, as Big Ben has taken a Brett Favre-esque approach to the twilight of his career, hinting at his plans through the media before shifting course as it suits him.

Pittsburgh will put up with the act as long as he continues to produce, though 2017 suggested a steep decline on the horizon. Such could shift the landscape in the AFC and, along with the eventual demise of the Patriots dynasty, open up the conference in a manner not seen in nearly two decades.

30. Joey Bosa

Defensive End, Los Angeles Chargers

Bad breaks have turned the Chargers into the NFL’s ultimate what-if proposition over the past decade. They have dealt with near-historic injury rates during that stretch, with virtually every main contributor not named Philip Rivers going down for a significant period of time.

The 2018 season has already brought more health issues.  Starting cornerback Jason Verrett and promising tight end Hunter Henry have already suffered season-ending injuries, removing a needed playmaker on each side of the ball.

The Chargers cannot cover up those losses, but they can compensate with strong performances from their remaining stars. That list includes Joey Bosa, their top defensive lineman over the last two seasons and a player ready to make a star turn this year.

Bosa, who just turned 23 earlier this offseason, has recorded 23 sacks since 2016 and looks primed for a breakout. Los Angeles wisely has taken a cautious approach as he nurses a foot injury, but he should return to action by Week 1.

29. Deshaun Watson

Quarterback, Houston Texans

Deshaun Watson burst onto the NFL scene in 2017 with seemingly unsustainable play, including a ridiculous 9.3 touchdown percentage, 8.3 yards per pass, and 7.5 yards a carry. Even if not for his ACL tear, those figures would have fallen over a larger sample size.

That doesn’t mean Watson would have fallen from the ranks of the elite quarterbacks, however. If he returns fully healed from his knee injury — and every sign out of Houston indicates that he will — the Texans have the most exciting signal-caller at their disposal in a highly winnable AFC South.

Given the overall weakness of the conference, a path towards more than just a playoff berth appears on the table.

28. Cameron Jordan

Defensive End, New Orleans Saints

Between the rookie breakout campaigns of teammates Alvin Kamara and Marshon Lattimore, Cameron Jordan might have flown under the radar of the casual observer. Jordan delivered easily the best season of his career, registering 13 sacks (fourth most in the league) and establishing himself as a robust run defender.

For his efforts, Jordan earned first-team All-Pro honors and received votes for Defensive Player of the Year.

While Jordan remains in his prime, he might have a difficult time replicating last season’s success. That could have ramifications for the entire defense, which doesn’t have a comparable presence along the defensive line.

27. Patrick Peterson

Cornerback, Arizona Cardinals

Just a few years ago, NFL pundits debated whether Darrelle Revis, Richard Sherman, or Patrick Peterson ranked as the best corner in football. Revis has since retired while Sherman ruptured his Achilles and moved on from the Seahawks. Meanwhile, Peterson continues to shut down receivers in Arizona.

Peterson has still never missed a Pro Bowl in his seven-year career and could take more risks in the defense new head coach Steve Wilks installed this offseason. That could lead to a surge in takeaways for the veteran defensive back in 2018 and, likely, another trip to the Pro Bowl in the process.

26. Carson Wentz

Quarterback, Philadelphia Eagles

Though Tom Brady made a strong case for MVP last season regardless of context, Carson Wentz likely would have earned the hardware if not for the ACL he tore last December. The injury didn’t ultimately sideline the Eagles, who went on to win the first Lombardi Trophy in franchise history behind the unexpected heroics of backup Nick Foles, but it did leave Wentz as an afterthought.

Wentz hasn’t yet played his first live snaps since his knee reconstruction, but most expect he will start Philadelphia’s season opener or return soon thereafter. It remains unclear how the ACL will affect him, but for a quarterback that relies on his mobility, he could struggle early.

Even so, the team and its fan base expect the MVP-caliber Wentz to show up immediately.

25. Kareem Hunt

Running Back, Kansas City Chiefs

Kareem Hunt ultimately fell behind Alvin Kamara for Offensive Rookie of the Year honors, the Chiefs running back had to carry a much larger workload throughout last season. Hunt led the NFL with 1,327 rushing yardage and 12 runs of 20 or more yards while still managing to catch 53 balls for another 455 yards.

Hunt’s 11 total touchdowns trailed only Kamara for most among rookies. Though Alex Smith, Tyreek Hill, and Travis Kelce all contributed to Kansas City’s strong offensive showing, the unit probably falls to the middle of the pack without Hunt’s immediate impact. That burden will only grow greater with first-time starter Patrick Mahomes under center.

24. Everson Griffen

Defensive End, Minnesota Vikings

On a star-studded Vikings defense, no one instills more fear in opposing offensive linemen than Everson Griffen. The veteran defensive end recorded double-digit sacks before the end of October, earning frontrunner status in the Defensive Player of the Year race. If not for the foot injury that derailed the second half of his campaign, Griffen might well have walked away with the hardware.

Unfortunately for Minnesota, Griffen continues to battle lower-body injuries. He missed the team’s third preseason game with a leg injury and probably will not appear in their final exhibition against the Titans. How well Griffen rebounds from his health woes could determine whether the Vikings have the top defense in the league or a merely a good one.

23. Keenan Allen

Wide Receiver, Los Angeles Chargers

Even after moving to Los Angeles, the Chargers often seem invisible in the national discussion. That has obscured the greatness of several players, including wide receiver Keenan Allen. The wideout broke out in 2017, recording his first 100-catch campaign and a career-high 1,393 receiving yards.

That Allen put together his best season only a year after tearing his ACL makes his numbers even more impressive.

Now without question, Allen has become Philip Rivers’ go-to receiver, picking up the torch from future Hall of Famer Antonio Gates. Unless the injury monster lurking at Chargers headquarters claims another victim, Allen should continue to embarrass defenders in 2018.

22. Alvin Kamara

Running Back, New Orleans Saints

It seems humorous now that Alvin Kamara managed to slip out of the first two rounds of the 2017 NFL Draft. The Tennessee product defines the modern NFL running back and played a tremendous role in returning the Saints offense to the top of the NFC.

For his efforts — 1,901 all-purpose yards, 13 total touchdowns, and nine yards per touch — Kamara earned Offensive Rookie of the Year honors and his first trip to the Pro Bowl.

Heading into 2018, Kamara has a clear path for an even more productive follow-up campaign. For the first quarter of the season, the Saints will play without Pro Bowl running back Mark Ingram.

While Ingram’s absence doesn’t necessarily mean a sizeable uptick in Kamara’s workload, New Orleans will need the latter to remain highly efficient in both the ground and passing game until the backfield returns to full strength.

21. Harrison Smith

Safety, Minnesota Vikings

Cornerback Xavier Rhodes arguably ranks as the top member of the Vikings’ secondary given his position and dominance over the past few seasons. However, the defense would suffer significantly in the absence of Harrison Smith, its most valuable player and, perhaps, the best safety in football.

Smith allows head coach and defensive guru Mike Zimmer to play aggressively, no small feat in a division that includes Aaron Rodgers and Matthew Stafford. Smith not only patrols centerfield, but he also moves down towards the line of scrimmage to take out slot receivers and tight ends. He even blitzes regularly, as his nine career sacks attest.

20. Cam Newton

Quarterback, Carolina Panthers

Cam Newton ran away with the MVP award in 2015 and then endured the most difficult two-year stretch of his career, leading to significant changes on the Carolina coaching staff. The Panthers still reached the playoffs a year ago, but they did so largely in spite of Newton and the offense, which ranked just 17th in DVOA and outside the top 10 in scoring.

So which Cam can the Panthers expect this season? The addition of offensive coordinator Norv Turner further clouds Newton’s projections, as the long drops and deep passing attack that made the play-caller famous have fallen out of vogue in recent years. The odd pairing should make for a fascinating season in Charlotte.

19. Fletcher Cox

Defensive Tackle, Philadelphia Eagles

The Eagles don’t lack many luxuries on defense. A unit that already ranked among the league’s best added former All-Pro linemen Michael Bennett and Haloti Ngata this offseason, each projected to play smaller roles on fewer snaps than in their previous locations.

Few teams could afford to give such tiny workloads to prominent players, but those defenses don’t have Fletcher Cox. Cox garners less attention than others at his position, and as a result, he has yet to earn a first-team All-Pro selection in his career. That could change in 2018, especially if Aaron Donald’s holdout lasts into the season.

18. Russell Wilson

Quarterback, Seattle Seahawks

Russell Wilson has played behind bad offensive lines, thrown to forgettable receivers, and worked under mistake-prone play-callers in the past, but 2018 might offer his greatest challenge yet. The Seahawks have entered their first rebuilding period since Wilson arrived in 2012, a reaction to a decaying roster and the team falling short of the playoffs last season.

So many of the figures that carried the team to back-to-back Super Bowl appearances earlier this decade have retired or departed, leaving little help for Wilson.

If he can squeeze decent offensive production from Brandon Marshall, an already injury-depleted backfield, and an O-line featuring Germain Ifedi and D.J. Fluker, the veteran quarterback will have a strong claim for the MVP.

17. Matt Ryan

Quarterback, Atlanta Falcons

Much of the blame for Matt Ryan’s regression from his 2016 MVP campaign fell on new offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, a reasonable target given the success his predecessor, Kyle Shanahan, enjoyed in his first year coaching the 49ers.

At the same time, Ryan didn’t click with Shanahan until their second season together.

Whether Ryan and Sarkisian can realize a Year 2 jump could dictate whether Atlanta reaches the playoffs and, perhaps, whether head coach Dan Quinn makes a significant change on his staff next offseason. With All-Pro wideout Julio Jones back in the fold, the Falcons’ quarterback and play-caller have no excuse for another underwhelming campaign.

16. Rob Gronkowski

Tight End, New England Patriots

Even entering his ninth NFL season, Rob Gronkowski remains an All-Pro tight end and the best at his position. He also hasn’t missed nearly as much time over the last four seasons as his reputation would lead one to believe. The Patriots have lost some significant firepower in their receiving corps in recent years, but “Gronk” can deliver results for the offense that few other pass catchers can.

Like his teammate Tom Brady, how much longer Gronkowski plans to play could either extend the Patriots dynasty or hasten its demise. Until further notice, no other member of New England can reliably beat one-on-one coverages or help secure the edge in the ground attack. Certainly, none of his teammates can cut through the Earth’s crust via a touchdown spike.

15. Andrew Luck

Quarterback, Indianapolis Colts

Andrew Luck entered the NFL with as much prestige as any recent quarterback prospect. Despite hefty expectations and the pressure that comes with replacing future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning, Luck has largely lived up to his billing, helping the Colts to the playoffs in each of his first three seasons.

Few players at his position have done more with less talent around him, a factor which elevates Luck to the upper reaches of the quarterback hierarchy.

At the same time, Luck hasn’t taken a regular-season snap since December 2016. Multiple medical procedures and a wave of changes for the Colts have transpired in the interim, and neither Luck nor the team truly know what to expect of him moving forward.

If Luck can reclaim his old form, Indianapolis has a realistic path to title contention in just a few years. If he doesn’t, the front office might need to strip down and rebuild the entire roster.

14. DeAndre Hopkins

Wide Receiver, Houston Texans

Owner of the best hands in the NFL, DeAndre Hopkins has become the wide receiver’s wide receiver. His footwork and route running alone would rank him among the league’s top pass catchers, but his incredible grip and in-air balance turned the Texans offense into appointment viewing long before Deshaun Watson joined the program.

Hopkins already ranks No. 2 in franchise history for receptions (413), receiving yards (5,865), and touchdown receptions (36) and should start to close in on some of Andre Johnson’s marks over the next two years. If he and his quarterback remain healthy, Hopkins can challenge for the league lead in any and all major receiving categories this season.

13. Von Miller

Outside Linebacker, Denver Broncos

The historically dominant Broncos defense that Peyton Manning rode to his final championship has largely broken apart. Aqib Talib, DeMarcus Ware, Malik Jackson and other key pieces to that unit have departed, leaving Von Miller as the most important figure remaining from the 2015 title run.

Miller continues to produce at a high level, registering double-digit sacks in each of the past four seasons. But with fewer pass rushers around him (barring a strong rookie campaign from Bradley Chubb), Miller might need a career year to keep Denver’s defense — and possibly the entire team — from slipping further away from its peak.

12. Todd Gurley

Running Back, Los Angeles Rams

Todd Gurley’s disappointing sophomore campaign became little more than a distant memory after he turned into a genuine MVP candidate within Sean McVay’s new offense.

Gurley, who had a well-earned reputation as a power back from his Georgia days, suddenly had as many receptions in 2017 as he produced the previous two seasons combined. He also nearly reached 20 total touchdowns, a remarkable achievement for any tailback.

The Rams have already rewarded Gurley with a long-term deal that could keep him in Los Angeles through the 2023 season, an unusually lucrative extension for his position. Now, Gurley must do more than replicate last year’s success; his team needs him to carry the offense.

11. Jimmy Garoppolo

Quarterback, San Francisco 49ers

Jimmy Garoppolo hasn’t even started half a season over the course of his four years in the NFL, but he already ranks as one of the most highly paid players in NFL history.

As such, the 49ers have completely hitched their wagon to Garoppolo, spending much of the offseason improving his supporting cast (namely versatile running back Jerick McKinnon and first-round offensive tackle Mike McGlinchey).

But while San Francisco has plenty of reason for optimism, Garoppolo has revealed warts during his brief time as a starter. He threw interceptions on nearly three percent of his passes in 2017, one of the highest figures among starters. That figure actually looks better than it should, as defenders dropped three would-be picks thrown by Garoppolo, according to Football Outsiders.

The 49ers will soon know whether they committed $27.5 million per year to the next great signal-caller or a turnover machine.

10. Le’Veon Bell

Running Back, Pittsburgh Steelers

After contract negotiations left Le’Veon Bell without a long-term deal, the veteran running back enters his farewell season in Pittsburgh. The Steelers, not tied to Bell past 2018 and expected to let him walk next offseason, will ride the veteran running back into the ground à la DeMarco Murray’s final year with the Cowboys.

That approach could lead to career-high usage for Bell, but it could also hurt him once he hits the open market in March.

Every running back in the league will pay close attention to how he fairs in that environment as it will impact their future earnings as well.

9. Khalil Mack

Defensive End, Oakland Raiders

Like fellow California resident Aaron Donald, Raiders pass rusher Khalil Mack has established himself as a premier defender in need of a massive contract extension.

Mack’s outrageous production and accolades — 40.5 sacks since 2014, two first-team All-Pro honors, and a Defensive Player of the Year award — would seemingly make signing a new deal a relatively easy call for Oakland. However, the franchise has played hardball since the return of Jon Gruden. Mack hasn’t reported to the team and could potentially stay away much longer to generate leverage.

A player of Mack’s pedigree would significantly affect the NFL in almost any scenario. However, Mack’s holdout could conceivably force his way out of Oakland. Field-tilting pass rushers in their prime almost never become available. But Mack could garner trade offers from a wide swath of the league, changing the balance of the league in the process.

8. Julio Jones

Wide Reciver, Atlanta Falcons

Antonio Brown has few peers, but Julio Jones has the skills and physical tools to challenge his case as the NFL’s best receiver. In the years since the Falcons traded the farm to acquire Jones in the 2011 draft, he has developed into the league’s most physically imposing wideout as well as one of its most productive.

Jones has amassed at least 1,400 receiving yards in each of the last four seasons and should join the 10,000-yard club this season, all before celebrating his 30th birthday.

But for Jones to close the gap with Brown, he’ll have to make more trips to the end zone. Jones has only posted double-digit touchdowns once in his career (10 in 2012) and has generated only nine over the past two years.

7. Jalen Ramsey

Cornerback, Jacksonville Jaguars

Besides giving NFL observers an exhaustive list of which quarterbacks do and do not suck, Jaguars corner Jalen Ramsey has established himself as perhaps the top player at his position. On the most feared defense in football, Ramsey reigns supreme, giving Jacksonville upper-echelon playmaking and shutdown pass coverage.

The Jaguars still don’t have a clear identity on offense due to Blake Bortles’ inconsistencies, which places more pressure on Ramsey and the defense to carry the team back to the postseason. Ramsey’s physical play will also test the NFL’s new helmet-contact rules. As such, Ramsey carries more weight on his shoulders than arguably any other cornerback.

6. Odell Beckham Jr.

Wide Receiver, New York Giants

Not only does Odell Beckham hold the keys to the Giants offense — his ability to take short passes and turn them into long gains often functioned as the only reliable component of New York’s passing game — but his new extension will determine the pay rate for bona fide superstar wideouts across the NFL.

Between Antonio Browns’ $17 million average salary and the five-year deal Beckham agreed to earlier this week topping it, receivers can now command compensation bordering on quarterback money.

Beyond just receiver financials, how well Beckham plays in his first year with new head coach Pat Shurmur could well determine how the Giants approach next offseason. The team already pushed its chips in on 37-year-old Eli Manning by passing up on a quarterback with their first-round pick, but general manager Dave Gettleman could look to reverse course if Manning doesn’t rebound.

The veteran signal-caller needs Beckham to make that happen.

5. Drew Brees

Quarterback, New Orleans Saints

Tom Brady receives all the attention for defying his age, but Drew Brees will turn 40 before Super Bowl LIII. While he has lost a little heat off his fastball, Brees remains the most accurate quarterback in the NFL and one of its most feared.

Brees also enters the 2018 season with an offensive supporting cast that includes a bona fide No. 1 receiver (Michael Thomas), the top backfield combination in the NFL (Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram), and one of the better pass-blocking offensive lines in football.

If Brees stays healthy, the conditions look primed for him to take home his first MVP award.

4. Antonio Brown

Wide Receiver, Pittsburgh Steelers

While reasonable minds can debate the best wideout in football today, none have produced more than Antonio Brown. Over the last five seasons, the All-Pro wideout has essentially lapped the field, ranking No. 1 in receptions (582, 101 more than second place), receiving yards (7,848, 951), and touchdown receptions (52, six).

That statistical dominance reflects not only Brown’s tremendous athletic skills but also his incredible durability. He has missed just three regular-season games since 2013.

And Brown’s impact on the Steelers could grow in the coming seasons. Ben Roethlisberger has toyed with retirement for so long that he has become a year-to-year proposition. Meanwhile, Le’Veon Bell appears headed for free agency in March as the team has essentially given up on re-signing him. That could leave Brown as the lone field-tilter on Pittsburgh’s roster by this time next year.

3. Aaron Donald

Defensive Tackle, Los Angeles Rams

In the time since J.J. Watt’s health issues kept him largely off the field, Aaron Donald has emerged as the league’s new unstoppable pass rusher. No interior defensive lineman has produced more than Donald’s 39 sacks over the last four seasons, nor has any matched his three first-team All-Pro selections.

Donald stands as the true heir to Watt’s throne as the best defensive player in football.

Which makes the Rams’ contract standoff with Donald all the more confusing. Donald has more than earned the record-setting contract he will eventually receive, and Los Angeles’ defense would suffer significantly in his absence.

The 2017 Defensive Player of the Year will eventually report so as to register an accrued year towards free agency, but the Rams should think long and hard about ending this stalemate before the start of the season.

2. Aaron Rodgers

Quarterback, Green Bay Packers

In any given season, Aaron Rodgers can lay claim as the NFL’s best player, making him one of the most influential figures in the sport. However, after a broken collarbone cost Rodgers more than half of 2017 and shattered the Packers’ streak of eight consecutive playoff berths, the two-time MVP has returned healthy and ready to carry the weight of the franchise on his repaired shoulders.

The NFC features multiple teams more talented top to bottom than the Packers, with one (the Vikings) residing within the division. Still, because of Rodgers’ sheer talent and 13 years of experience, Green Bay has the chance to top them all. The last time he broke his collarbone, he rebounded with an MVP-winning campaign. Few will feel surprised if Rodgers manages to reprise the feat in 2018.

1. Tom Brady

Quarterback, New England Patriots

Fresh off his eighth Super Bowl appearance, Tom Brady enters uncharted territory for a quarterback. Few at the position have maintained their dominance into their age-40 season, let alone become the oldest MVP winner in league history. Brady has shown virtually no signs of aging, though the end could conceivably come at any moment.

All of which makes Brady one of the most influential players in the NFL. Should he continue to thrive well past his expected expiration date, the Patriots can remain in the title hunt and quiet criticism for their trade of promising young quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo.

If Father Time finally wins out over the seemingly indefatigable Brady, the New England dynasty will shatter, leaving a void for a new league superpower to fill.