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?
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.
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.
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.
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.