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2016 NFL Player Rankings: Top 50

J.J. Watt

J.J. Watt

There’s no denying the NFL is home to the best football players in the world. But when it comes to the best of the best, who is king of the gridiron? Quarterback may be the glamor position of the league, but does it also lay claim to the league’s top player?

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To answer that question, Athlon Sports teamed up with Dan Shonka of Ourlads' NFL Scouting Services to not only rank NFL players by position for our 2016 NFL Preview magazine, but also to come up with an overall top 50 list. Not surprisingly, quarterbacks dominate the top five, as Cam Newton, Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers have combined to win five NFL MVP awards while starting eight Super Bowls.

While all that hardware and those multiple Super Sunday appearances are impressive, it’s not enough to dethrone the No. 1 player on our list. Last season, J.J. Watt joined Hall of Famer Lawrence Taylor as the only players in history to be named NFL Defensive Player of the Year three times. Watt has claimed the honor in three of the past four seasons and is without question not only the top defender in the league currently; he’s the top player period.

Rankings courtesy of Ourlads' NFL Scouting Services, which has been in the football talent evaluation business for more than three decades.

2016 NFL Positional Rankings: Top 50QB I RB I WR I TE I OL I DL I LB I DB

NFL’s Top 50 Players for 2016

1. J.J. Watt, DE, Houston

Collected his third NFL Defensive Player of the Year award in four years after leading all defensive linemen in sacks (17.5), quarterback hits (50), tackles for a loss (29) and passes defended (eight).

2. Cam Newton, QB, Carolina

Collected 48 of 50 votes to win the NFL’s MVP award for the 2015 season. The athletic competitor passed for 35 touchdowns and ran for 10 more scores.

3. Tom Brady, QB, New England

The future NFL Hall of Famer and 11-time Pro Bowl quarterback responded in the face of adversity with 4,770 yards passing and 36 touchdowns. He was intercepted only seven times. Will serve a four game suspension to start the 2016 season.

4. Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay

Had a blip on the career radar in 2015 after losing prime target Jordy Nelson. His 60.7 completion percentage was the lowest in his eight years as a starter.

5. Antonio Brown, WR, Pittsburgh

Set single-season franchise records in receptions (136), yards (1,834), 100-yard receiving games (nine) and receiving yards per game (114.6). Set a franchise record with at least 110 catches three straight years.

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6. Rob Gronkowski, TE, New England

The unanimous first-team All-Pro had 72 catches for 1,176 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2015. Tom Brady and Gronk have connected on 64 career touchdown passes, most by any pass-catch duo in team history.

7. Khalil Mack, DE, Oakland

The first player named to the AP All-Pro first team at two different positions in the same season, linebacker and defensive end. Only J.J. Watt tallied more sacks than the versatile and explosive playmaker.

8. Julio Jones, WR, Atlanta

Earned his second straight Pro Bowl selection after leading the NFL with 1,871 yards and tying Antonio Brown with 136 receptions. He scored eight times.

9. Le’Veon Bell, RB, Pittsburgh

He missed the second half of the 2015 season with an MCL tear, but before the injury, the Pro Bowl-caliber back was averaging 4.9 yards per carry and 92.7 yards per game.

10. Luke Kuechly, LB, Carolina

The instinctive warhorse recorded 118 tackles in the regular season and added 29 more in the postseason.

11. Richard Sherman, CB, Seattle 

Was voted second-team All-Pro in 2015. He’s smart, quick and reactive. Athletic and competitive in his play.

12. Adrian Peterson, RB, Minnesota

The workhorse led the NFL with 1,485 yards with over 20 carries per game. He scored 11 times and averaged 4.5 yards per carry.

13. Ben Roethlisberger, QB, Pittsburgh

With Antonio Brown and a healthy Le’Veon Bell, the Steelers can score on anyone. Big Ben holds numerous career franchise passing records.

14. Joe Thomas, OT, Cleveland

A nine-time Pro Bowl player and a six time first-team All-Pro in his nine years in the NFL. A total package of size, flexibility and explosiveness.

15. Von Miller, OLB, Denver

The Super Bowl MVP has been franchised by the Broncos as they work on a new long-term contract. In five years, Miller has gotten to the quarterback 60 times and has forced 16 fumbles.

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16. Patrick Peterson, CB, Arizona

A big and physical corner who was voted to his fifth straight Pro Bowl. The durable athlete has not missed a start since being drafted in 2011.

17. Earl Thomas, S, Seattle 

Since entering the NFL, Thomas has been one of the most dominant safeties in the league and leader of the Legion of Boom. An intense, focused and physical player.

18. Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans

The 15-year veteran averaged 7.8 yards per attempt and had 10 games of over 300 yards passing. It was the fifth time in his career he has done so.

19. A.J. Green, WR, Cincinnati

Is the first Bengal to make the Pro Bowl in each of his first five seasons. Ranked eighth in the NFL in receiving yards with 1,297, averaging 15.1 yards per reception.

20. Josh Norman, CB, Washington

The first-team All-Pro corner signed with the Redskins after Carolina released him from the franchise tag. The competitive corner totaled 56 tackles and defended 19 passes.

21. Tyron Smith, OT, Dallas

Was the first offensive lineman Jerry Jones selected in the first round since he purchased the Cowboys in 1989. The strong, athletic knee bender is the prototype for future NFL tackles.

22. Russell Wilson, QB, Seattle 

Wilson has won 46 regular season games, more than any quarterback in his first four years in NFL history.

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23. Aaron Donald, DT, Los Angeles

The Pro Bowler was second among all interior defenders with 69 tackles, including 11 sacks. Has been a force since Day 1 in the league.

24. Muhammad Wilkerson, DE, New York Jets

Registered 12 sacks and defended seven passes in 2015 en route to his first Pro Bowl berth.

25. Justin Houston, OLB, Kansas City

May miss part of the 2016 season rehabbing his knee from February surgery. He exploded with 22 sacks in 2014 after collecting 26.5 sacks in his previous three years in the league.

26. DeAndre Hopkins, WR, Houston

Has started 48 straight games since being drafted in 2013, recording 239 receptions, 3,533 yards and 19 touchdowns. He is averaging 14.8 yards per reception over his career. Earned first Pro Bowl berth in 2015.

27. Philip Rivers, QB, San Diego

Rivers is the franchise leader in career completion percentage and passer rating. He completed a career-high 437 passes in 2015.

28. Odell Beckham Jr., WR, New York Giants

Backed up his record0setting rookie campaign with a more impressive second year. He had 96 receptions, 1,450 yards (15.1 per catch) and 13 touchdowns.

29. Ezekiel Ansah, DE, Detroit

The relentless and talented ascending defender racked up 14.5 sacks on his way to his first Pro Bowl berth in 2015. He earned second-team All-Pro honors.

30. Geno Atkins, DT, Cincinnati

The quick-twitch and high-motor Atkins returned to form last season. Had 11 sacks, tying for the most in the league among interior linemen.

31. Jamie Collins, OLB, New England

Recorded eight tackles and sacked Peyton Manning twice in the AFC Championship Game at Denver. Forced five fumbles in 2015.

32. Kawann Short, DT, Carolina

Worked and pushed his way to 55 tackles and 11 sacks last fall. The power player delivers an explosive jolt to the blocker with his hands.

33. Clay Matthews, OLB, Green Bay

The dynamic Pro Bowl pass rusher added to his overall game by playing inside linebacker the past year-and-a-half and made all the defensive calls. He has 67.5 sacks in six years.

34. Chris Harris Jr., CB, Denver

Played in 79 regular-season games and started 63 times in his first five season with the Broncos. He had 12 interceptions in that span. Second-team All-Pro in 2015.

35. Greg Olsen, TE, Carolina

Dependable and consistent, Olsen caught 77 passes for 1,104 yards and seven touchdowns in 2015. He has played in 142 consecutive games.

36. Ndamukong Suh, DT, Miami

After signing a huge contract in 2015, Suh had a large target on his back, but fought his way through double- and triple-teams to register 61 tackles and six sacks.

37. Mike Daniels, DE, Green Bay

Is one of the Packers’ featured interior rushers in the team’s nickel sub packages. The short but explosive leverage defender consistently pressures opponents’ quarterbacks.

38. Tamba Hali, OLB, Kansas City

Has spent his entire 10-year career with the Chiefs, recording 86 sacks and forcing 32 fumbles. Started out as a 4-3 defensive end before moving to outside linebacker.

39. Doug Martin, RB, Tampa Bay

Re-signed with the Bucs as an unrestricted free agent in 2016. Only Peterson rushed for than his 1,402 yards in 2015.

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40. Malcolm Jenkins, S, Philadelphia

A playmaker who earned his first trip to the Pro Bowl in 2015. He posted career and team highs with 109 tackles, three forced fumbles and 10 passes defended.

41. Jamaal Charles, RB, Kansas City

The explosive back has rushed for 7,220 yards and caught 283 passes heading into the 2016 season. Suffered a season-ending knee injury for the second time in his career in ‘15.

42. Demaryius Thomas, WR, Denver

Joined Marvin Harrison, Torry Holt and Jerry Rice as the only players in NFL history with four consecutive years of at least 90 catches and 1,300 receiving yards.

43. Calais Campbell, DE, Arizona

The angular but explosive edge defender has consistently been one of the top defensive linemen in passes defended over the past five years.

44. Carlos Dunlap, DE, Cincinnati

Led the Bengals with a career-best 13.5 sacks. The long-armed defender also earned a Special Teams’ Player of the Week award by blocking a key field-goal attempt versus the 49ers.

45. Fletcher Cox, DT, Philadelphia

Will make a position scheme move from a 3-4 defensive end to a 4-3 tackle. Regardless of the alignment, Cox closes off running lanes as an impact hitter and pressures the quarterback.

46.  Eric Berry, S, Kansas City

Has been elected to four Pro Bowls and was a first-team All-Pro pick in 2015 in his first year back after overcoming cancer.

47. Derrick Johnson, ILB, Kansas City

The 11-year veteran earned his fourth Pro Bowl bid by registering 116 tackles this past season. Has totaled 990 tackles and defended 68 passes over his


48. Delvin Breaux, CB, New Orleans

Suffered a serious neck injury and did not play football in college. Signed as an undrafted free agent with the Saints and started all 16 games in 2015. One of league’s emerging stars.

49. NaVorro Bowman, ILB, San Francisco

Led the NFL in tackles during the 2015 season with 154 — a remarkable total after sitting out 2014 rehabbing from a severe knee injury.

50. Todd Gurley, RB, Los Angles

Voted the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year, Gurley exploded on the field with 146 yards on 19 carries during the fourth week of the season and hasn’t looked back.