The reigning MVP headlines this star-studded list
Everyone knows that the NFL is made up of the best players, but when it comes to this elite fraternity of athletes, who or which position reigns supreme?
It should come as no surprise that the quarterback position would feature prominently in this type of exercise, but as Athlon Sports' list of the top 50 NFL players entering the 2018 season shows, the other side of the ball has plenty of star power.
Quarterbacks are tied with defensive ends for the most representatives in the top 50 with eight each. If the number of defensive ends were combined with defensive tackles, then this position group would lead the way with a total of 10. Defensive backs (cornerbacks and safeties) also are well represented with eight in the top 50, followed by linebackers, offensive linemen (six each), and then wide receivers (five).
Leading this year's list is the reigning MVP, Tom Brady, one of three quarterbacks in the top 10. Brady is followed by a pair of Steelers (Antonio Brown and Le'Veon Bell) with the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year (Aaron Donald) checking in at No. 4. All told, the top 50 is basically split between offensive (26) and defensive (24) players, meaning there will be no lack of superstars to pay close attention to on either side of the ball during the upcoming season.
Athlon's player rankings are just one of the features that appear in the 2018 NFL Preview magazine.
NFL's Top 50 Players for 2018
1. Tom Brady, QB, New England
Still no signs of slippage as the 41-year-old prepares to enter his 19th NFL season. Added a third career MVP trophy and made eighth Super Bowl appearance in 2017.
2. Antonio Brown, WR, Pittsburgh
Since the Steelers began awarding a team MVP in 1969, no player has won it more times than Brown (four) -- including any of the franchise's 13 Pro Football Hall of Famers in that span. While compiling a league-high 1,533 receiving yards last season, he set the record for most catches (582) and receiving yards (7,848) by a player in any five-year span in league history.
3. Le'Veon Bell, RB, Pittsburgh
Didn't let the drama involving his contract holdout and inability to strike a long-term deal with the Steelers in 2017 affect his play when he finally reported just before Week 1. Led the AFC in scrimmage yards (129.7 per game) and set a franchise record for running backs with 85 receptions to complement his 1,291 rushing yards.
4. Aaron Donald, DE, Los Angeles Rams
First Ram to win NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors. The league's most disruptive interior lineman, Donald may actually be even more effective in 2018 with Ndamukong Suh beside him in defensive coordinator Wade Phillips' 3-4 scheme.
5. Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay
A fractured collarbone derailed what was turning into another stellar season (13 TDs, three INTs, 4-1 record before getting hurt). Should be right back in MVP mix in 2018.
6. Luke Kuechly, LB, Carolina
Wasted no time re-establishing himself as the NFL's top MLB after missing the final six games of 2016 with a concussion. Penchant for doing things the right way also led to his being named the NFL's 2017 Art Rooney Sportsmanship Award winner.
7. Von Miller, LB, Denver
8. Patrick Peterson, CB, Arizona
Per Next Gen Stats, no cornerback allowed fewer yards (22.6 ypg) or enjoyed a lower catch rate (44.4 percent) last season. That's why opposing quarterbacks threw his way on only 14.2 percent of their pass attempts.
9. Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans
Made it back into the playoffs for the first time since 2013 thanks to better support defensively and in the running game to complement his passing prowess. Posted his lowest interception total (eight) since the 2004 season.
10. Calais Campbell, DE, Jacksonville
Any thoughts that the Jaguars overpaid for a 31-year-old free agent were quickly dispelled. Set the team's single-season sack record with 14.5 and provided the strong veteran presence Jacksonville wanted when signing him to a four-year, $60 million deal.
11. Rob Gronkowski, TE, New England
No tight end causes bigger matchup problems. Gronk passed Dallas Clark as the NFL's all-time postseason leader among tight ends in catches (68) and receiving yards (972).
12. Travis Frederick, C, Dallas
Hasn't allowed a sack since 2014 and hasn't missed a snap since being Dallas' 2013 first-round pick.
13. Chandler Jones, DE, Arizona
New England rarely makes personnel errors, but trading Jones is one of them. Won the Deacon Jones Award in 2017 with a league-best and franchise single-season-record 17 sacks to go along with 28 tackles for a loss and 38 QB hits.
14. Julio Jones, WR, Atlanta
Gaudy totals for catches (88) and receiving yards (1,444) are par for the course. However, the three touchdowns produced last season were a ridiculously low total and something Steve Sarkisian must fix in his second year as Atlanta's offensive coordinator.
15. Ben Roethlisberger, QB, Pittsburgh
The NFL's version of Big Ben isn't shut down for repairs like its London namesake. Roethlisberger is now ranked in the top 10 all-time in passing yards (51,065) and touchdowns (329) after another strong season.
16. Zack Martin, OG, Dallas
Didn't commit a penalty and allowed just one sack while appearing on 96 percent of the team's snaps. Cowboys rewarded Martin with six-year contract extension worth $84 million, including $40 million guaranteed and a $20 million signing bonus.
17. Todd Gurley, RB, Los Angeles Rams
Got back on track under new Rams head coach Sean McVay with career highs in rushing yards (1,305) and touchdowns (13). Also became a major part of Los Angeles' passing game -- an area in which he was grossly underutilized the previous two seasons under McVay's predecessor, Jeff Fisher.
18. Jadeveon Clowney, LB, Houston
The first AFC player since 2015 with 20-plus tackles for a loss and 20-plus QB hits in the same season. Played in all 16 games for the first time since being the No. 1 overall pick of the 2014 draft.
19. Travis Kelce, TE, Kansas City
Kansas City had no answers offensively after Kelce was knocked out of the team's first-round playoff loss to Tennessee. He is especially good at gaining yards after the catch.
20. Sean Lee, LB, Dallas
The Cowboys' defense can't function effectively without him in the lineup. Still struggles with injuries, having never completed a 16-game season during eight years in the NFL.
21. Carson Wentz, QB, Philadelphia
Was on track to win the NFL's MVP award before suffering a season-ending knee injury in Week 14. Put the Eagles in position to capture home-field advantage throughout the playoffs thanks to a breakthrough campaign with 33 touchdowns and just seven interceptions.
22. Russell Wilson, QB, Seattle
Continued to excel in 2017 despite the Seahawks' failure to produce a respectable running game. Threw a league-high 34 touchdown passes while becoming the first QB to post a winning record in his first six NFL seasons.
23. Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Dallas
The NFL's 2016 rushing leader had zero chance to repeat thanks to a six-game suspension under the league's domestic violence policy. Should be primed for a major rebound now that the situation is behind him.
24. Harrison Smith, S, Minnesota
The NFL's best all-around safety with the range and size to hang tough against elite tight ends when called upon in coverage. Joined Buffalo's Jordan Poyer as the league's only defenders with at least 70 tackles, one sack and five interceptions in 2017.
25. Geno Atkins, DT, Cincinnati
Led all defensive tackles in sacks (nine) for the fifth time in his eight-year career. Holds the franchise sack record for interior defensive linemen with 61.
26. Xavier Rhodes, CB, Minnesota
Yearly improvement reflected by his first All-Pro selection in 2017. Combined with safety Harrison Smith to become the first duo in Minnesota's secondary to earn that honor since Audray McMillian and Todd Scott in 1992.
27. Earl Thomas, S, Seattle
Didn't skip a beat last year after suffering a broken leg late in the 2016 season. Ranks second among all safeties in interceptions since 2011 with 20.
28. Fletcher Cox, DT, Philadelphia
Flourished in the postseason with eight quarterback hits on Tom Brady in Super Bowl 52 and seven tackles during Philadelphia's second-round playoff win over Atlanta. Tied for fourth among all defensive tackles in sacks since 2015 with 21.5.
29. David Bakhtiari, OT, Green Bay
The ninth tackle drafted in 2013 has developed into the best of his class and earned his first Pro Bowl berth in 2017. "David clearly had a Pro Bowl season," Packers head coach Mike McCarthy said. "What he's put on film illustrates that."
30. DeAndre Hopkins, WR, Houston
No wide receiver has done more with less at the quarterback position over the past five seasons. Last season was more of the same with 96 catches for 1,378 yards and 13 touchdowns despite having to play with three different starting QBs. Hopkins and the Texans are hoping that carousel stops spinning when star sophomore Deshaun Watson returns from a knee injury.
31. Cameron Jordan, DE, New Orleans
Jordan's seventh NFL season was his best to date. Compiled career highs in sacks (13) and pass breakups (11) along with 62 tackles and two forced fumbles.
32. Khalil Mack, DE, Oakland
Despite a weak supporting cast, Mack leads all players with 256 QB pressures the past three seasons (per Pro Football Focus) to go along with his 36.5 sacks.
33. Matt Ryan, QB, Atlanta
Slumped coming off his 2016 MVP season like all of Atlanta's offense under new coordinator Steve Sarkisian. Still guided the Falcons to the second round of the playoffs and reached 40,000 career passing yards in fewer games (151) than any QB in NFL history.
34. David DeCastro, OG, Pittsburgh
Mobility to pull in the running game while strong enough to maintain his base against the pass rush. Reduced penalties from 11 to six and yielded 1.5 sacks in 2017.
35. Odell Beckham Jr., WR, New York Giants
The season-ending ankle injury he suffered in Week 5 played a huge role in the 2017 Giants' 3-13 finish. Expected to resurface as the NFL's top big-play receiver this season now that he's healthy once again.
36. Cam Heyward, DE, Pittsburgh
Yeah, it's been that long: He's the first Steelers defender to register double-digit sacks (12) since James Harrison in 2010. The effort fueled Pittsburgh's NFL-high 56 sacks in 2017.
37. Malcolm Jenkins, S, Philadelphia
Kept the Eagles' defense strong as it navigated through growing pains at cornerback and the loss of linebacker Jordan Hicks (Achilles). Known for big plays with four interception returns for touchdowns since signing with Philadelphia in 2014.
38. Bobby Wagner, LB, Seattle
Would surpass Eugene Robinson (942) as Seahawks' all-time leading tackler in 2019 at his current pace. Just one tackle away from passing Joe Nash (779) for third place on Seattle's list.
39. Joey Bosa, DE, Los Angeles Chargers
No sophomore slump for the 2016 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. No player has ever posted more sacks (19) during the first 20 games of his NFL career. Also increased sack production from 10.5 to 12.5 in 2017.
40. Jalen Ramsey, CB, Jacksonville
Elite size-speed combination allows the rambunctious 23-year-old to back up his trash talking. Ramsey and A.J. Bouye tied for the most pass breakups (35) of any cornerback duo in 2017.
41. Ryan Kerrigan, LB, Washington
Kerrigan's 47 sacks rank second among all defensive players since 2014. One of only eight players to have started every game since entering the NFL in 2011.
42. A.J. Bouye, CB, Jacksonville
The high-priced 2017 offseason signing from Houston (five years, $67.5 million) was worth every penny. Bouye didn't surrender a touchdown pass with quarterbacks posting the NFL's lowest rating (33.8) when throwing in his direction per Next Gen Stats.
43. Matthew Stafford, QB, Detroit
Entered the 2017 season as highest-paid QB in NFL history (five years, $135 million) and proved worthy of the payoff. Posted a career-high 99.3 quarterback rating despite Lions fielding the NFL's worst rushing attack.
44. Alex Mack, C, Atlanta
Remains one of GM Thomas Dimitroff's best signings. Surrendered just one sack and committed one penalty all of last season.
45. Landon Collins, S, New York Giants
Missed the offseason program following forearm surgery. The silver lining: Collins shouldn't need much time getting up to speed in coordinator James Bettcher's new defense, which may utilize his skills in a safety/linebacker hybrid role.
46. Zach Ertz, TE, Philadelphia
The most prolific tight end through five seasons in franchise history. Caught the game-winning TD in Super Bowl XLII and led Philly in receiving during the regular season and postseason.
47. A.J. Green, WR, Cincinnati
Despite posting another 1,000-yard receiving season, Green had a disappointing 2017 because of drops and five games in which he caught three passes or fewer. On the bright side, he should become the franchise's all-time leader in career 100-yard games (32) and receiving touchdowns (67) while looking to bounce back in 2018.
48. Tyron Smith, OT, Dallas
Back and groin injuries forced him to miss three games last season and hindered his performance in several others. Should re-solidify himself as the NFL's top blind-side protector if healthy.
49. Everson Griffen, DE, Minnesota
Tied a franchise record with at least one sack in eight consecutive games to open 2017. Finished the year with career highs in sacks (13) and forced fumbles (three).
50. David Johnson, RB, Arizona
Unable to follow through on a breakthrough 2016 campaign after suffering a season-ending wrist injury in Week 1. Will be expected to carry the Cardinals offense with Arizona's quarterbacking situation among the NFL's shakiest following Carson Palmer's offseason retirement.