The reigning MVP leads 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 2019 season shows, the other side of the ball has plenty of star power.
Quarterbacks and defensive ends are tied for the most representatives in this list with eight each. If you added the two defensive tackles to that total, then defensive linemen would lead the way with 10. Defensive backs (cornerbacks and safeties) and linebackers are next with seven reps each, followed by wide receivers (six), and then running backs and offensive linemen (five each).
It's only fitting that the reigning MVP (Patrick Mahomes) and NFL Defensive Player of the Year (Aaron Donald) lead off this list, followed by the guy with six Super Bowl rings (Tom Brady). Also in the top 10 is a trio of linebackers (Khalil Mack, Von Miller, Luke Kuechly), as well as the guys who led the league in rushing (Ezekiel Elliott) and receiving (Julio Jones) last season, and the NFL's all-time leading passer (Drew Brees). Overall, the top 50 leans towards the defensive side of the ball with 34 total reps, meaning this league isn't just about offense these days.
Athlon's player rankings are just one of the features that appear in the 2019 NFL Preview magazine.
NFL's Top 50 Players for 2019
1. Patrick Mahomes, QB, Kansas City
So much for the expected growing pains from a first-year NFL starter. His ridiculous arm talent was on display throughout a 2018 campaign in which Mahomes joined Peyton Manning and Tom Brady as the only QBs ever to throw for 50-plus touchdowns in a single season.
2. Aaron Donald, DE, Los Angeles Rams
The reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year was even more spectacular en route to winning the award for a second straight season. He set a Rams franchise record with an NFL-high 20.5 sacks, throwing quarterbacks for an unprecedented 183.5 yards in losses.
3. Tom Brady, QB, New England
The greatest QB in NFL history continues to pad his Hall of Fame resume with Super Bowl victories (six and counting after last season's win over the L.A. Rams). His 30 postseason victories individually are more wins than all but four entire franchises have earned in their history.
4. Khalil Mack, OLB, Chicago
Proved he was worth every penny of his record-setting contract following his preseason acquisition from Oakland. Became the first player ever to force a fumble in the first four games of an NFL season en route to finishing the year with a team-high 12.5 sacks.
5. Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Dallas
Became the fifth rusher since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970 to win rushing titles in two of his first three seasons. Three of those RBs — Earl Campbell, Eric Dickerson and Emmitt Smith — are in the Hall of Fame; the fourth (Edgerrin James) was a 2019 finalist.
6. J.J. Watt, DE, Houston
Regained his dominating form in 2018 after two injury-ruined seasons. Is the all-time NFL leader in average sacks per game at 0.88 (92 in 104 games), and furthered his penchant for impact plays by forcing seven fumbles, which were four more than any other end last year.
7. Julio Jones, WR, Atlanta
Matt Ryan’s reliance on No. 11 is reflected by Jones' 2018 NFL-high total of third-down catches for first downs (24). Led the NFL with 1,677 receiving yards, making Jones the first player in NFL history to record five straight seasons with 1,400-plus receiving yards and 80-plus receptions.
8. Von Miller, OLB, Denver
Rookie Bradley Chubb was able to flourish (12 sacks) in part because of all the attention opposing defenses continue to give Miller, whose career average of 0.82 sacks per game ranks third among players with at least 100 games played.
9. Luke Kuechly, ILB, Carolina
Acumen at pre-snap diagnosis reflected by his franchise-record 20 tackles for a loss in 2018. He has more tackles (948), interceptions (17) and takeaways (25) than any other linebacker since entering the NFL as a 2012 first-round pick.
10. Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans
Breaking the NFL's all-time passing record was just one of the things that made 2018 special for Brees. He also set new standards for all-time completions (6,586) and single-season completion percentage (74.4) on a Saints team that reached the NFC title game for the first time in a decade.
11. Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay
A down 2018 season for him is the equivalent of a career year for most other QBs. But now playing in a different offense under new head coach Matt LaFleur, Rodgers will be looking to lift his completion percentage (62.3) and improve his lowest touchdown total (25) in a season in which he started 16 games
12. Bobby Wagner, ILB, Seattle
Seattle's defense has allowed an average of just 17.4 points in the 103 career games he has played since being a 2012 second-round pick. Only Jack Lambert (15.4) and Ray Nitschke (17.3) have a lower career average among Hall of Fame linebackers.
13. Antonio Brown, WR, Oakland
After a disastrous end to the 2018 season in Pittsburgh, "A.B." got what he wanted this offseason — a fresh start away from Ben Roethlisberger along with a pay raise. Now it’s on Brown to leave the past behind and resume the elite-level play that is producing Hall of Fame-level production.
14. Ben Roethlisberger, QB, Pittsburgh
His prowess as a team leader has come into question, but there's no denying what Big Ben provides on the field. The NFL's 2018 passing leader (5,129 yards) has thrown at least 15 touchdown passes in each of his first 15 NFL seasons, which no QB has ever done before.
15. Calais Campbell, DE, Jacksonville
Continues to defy Father Time at age 32 as the NFL's best all-around 4-3 defensive end. Led all edge defenders with a career-high 43 run stops in 2018 per Pro Football Focus, to go along with 10.5 sacks.
16. Chandler Jones, OLB, Arizona
Dropped 25 pounds in anticipation of the shift back from defensive end in Vance Joseph's 3-4 defense. He led the NFL in sacks at OLB in 2017 with 17 as part of the league-high 41 he has posted since the 2016 season.
17. Odell Beckham Jr., WR, Cleveland
The Browns were ecstatic to capitalize upon the dysfunctional relationship between OBJ and the Giants that led to his offseason trade. A happy OBJ working with quarterback Baker Mayfield and fellow wideout (and close friend) Jarvis Landry should make opposing cornerbacks miserable.
18. DeAndre Hopkins, WR, Houston
An overwhelming first-team All-Pro selection who has always produced regardless of adverse circumstances such as injuries at QB (Deshaun Watson in 2017) and wide receiver (Will Fuller V in 2018). Played on a higher percentage of offensive snaps (99.09) than any other wide receiver, running back or tight end in 2018.
19. Stephon Gilmore, CB, New England
It took a year, but a rare big-money foray into free agency by the Patriots paid huge dividends in 2018. Forced the NFL's second-highest total of pass break-ups (20) while allowing opposing QBs to complete just 42 percent of their attempts with a 56.3 passer rating.
20. Zach Ertz, TE, Philadelphia
Shattered the NFL's single-season receiving record for tight ends with 116 grabs for 1,163 yards and eight TDs. His 437 career catches are also the most ever by a tight end through his first six seasons.
21. Fletcher Cox, DT, Philadelphia
Now the all-time leader in sacks (44.5) and Pro Bowl appearances (four) for an Eagles defensive tackle. Three of his eight career multi-sack games came in 2018, contributing to a career-high 10.5 sacks for the season.
22. David Bakhtiari, OT, Green Bay
Might have done his best work in 2018 considering it took Aaron Rodgers an average of almost three seconds to fire off a pass, which ranked as the NFL's fourth-slowest release time last season. He is Green Bay's first first-team All-Pro tackle selection since Forrest Gregg in 1967, although as one long-time NFL offensive lineman said: "He still probably doesn't get the credit he deserves."
23. Saquon Barkley, RB, New York Giants
Say what you will about the Giants passing on top QB prospects with the No. 2 overall pick in last year's draft, but Barkley did everything on his part to justify his selection. He capped the greatest rookie season for an RB in franchise history (2,028 scrimmage yards and 15 TDs) by being named the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year.
24. Todd Gurley, RB, Los Angeles Rams
Voted an All-Pro running back for a second straight year in 2018, but there are legitimate concerns about future production because of knee issues that flared late last season. Rams head coach Sean McVay has said Gurley's workload will be more closely monitored moving forward.
25. Andrew Luck, QB, Indianapolis
His 2018 comeback from major shoulder problems couldn't have gone any smoother as Luck instantly meshed with new head coach Frank Reich. Set single-season career highs in completions, attempts, completion percentage, and passer rating while leading the Colts to wins in nine of their final 10 games to reach the playoffs.
26. Travis Kelce, TE, Kansas City
Eclipsing single-season franchise records for catches (103) and yards (1,336) set by 2019 first-ballot Hall of Fame selection Tony Gonzalez highlighted Kelce's third straight 1,000-yard receiving campaign. Particularly adept at out routes, with his biggest strength the ability to create downfield mismatches.
27. Myles Garrett, DE, Cleveland
No Browns player has ever posted more sacks in his first two seasons (20.5) since it became an official NFL statistic in 1982. Should be even more lethal this season with the Browns acquiring complementary end Olivier Vernon from the Giants in an offseason trade.
28. Eddie Jackson, S, Chicago
Copious video study that included regular nighttime film sessions at team headquarters heavily contributed to his elite-level play in 2018. That included six INTs, three turnovers returned for touchdowns, 15 pass break-ups and 51 tackles in 14 games.
29. Michael Thomas, WR, New Orleans
The first Saints receiver elected to consecutive Pro Bowls since Joe Horn in 2001-02 — and for good reason. His 321 career catches are the most ever by a player through his first three NFL seasons.
30. Kyle Fuller, CB, Chicago
Chicago’s decision to match Green Bay’s four-year, $56 million offer sheet during the 2018 offseason was wise. Fuller tied for the league lead in interceptions and is now tied for the most passes defensed (43) in the league over the past two seasons.
31. Patrick Peterson, CB, Arizona
Peterson’s 2018 season was considered a down year, but that was primarily the result of his being miscast in a zone scheme. Expect a rebound with the Cardinals shifting back to press coverage under new defensive coordinator Vance Joseph.
32. Le'Veon Bell, RB, New York Jets
Made the unusual decision of sitting out the entire 2018 season rather than play under a $14.5 million franchise tag while in a contract dispute with Pittsburgh. The Jets are expecting Bell to regain his previous tip-top form after signing him to a four-year, $52 million deal.
33. Zack Martin, OG, Dallas
Should return to elite status provided the knee injuries that hindered his 2018 season don't linger. Still gutted his way through 82 percent of the Cowboys' offensive snaps and committed only one penalty — a false start.
34. Alvin Kamara, RB, New Orleans
A red zone nightmare for opposing defenses, having rushed for a franchise-record 14 touchdowns in 2018 while adding four more scores as a receiver. Likely to play an even bigger role in the ground game this season with Mark Ingram having departed for Baltimore.
35. Jason Kelce, C, Philadelphia
The first Eagles player to receive consecutive first-team All-Pro nods since 1991-92.
36. Cameron Jordan, DE, New Orleans
With another 12-sack season in 2019, Jordan (71.5) would climb to second on the franchise's all-time list behind Pro Football Hall of Fame selection Rickey Jackson. Jordan also played a key role on what was the NFL's second-ranked run defense (80.2 ypg) in 2018. New Orleans rewarded their best defender with a three-year, $52.5 million contract extension ($42 million guaranteed) in early June.
37. Jamal Adams, S, New York Jets
One of the few bright spots in an otherwise dismal Jets season. Versatility showcased by Pro Football Focus factoid pointing out he led all NFL safeties in total defensive stops (44) and quarterback pressures (22).
38. Joey Bosa, DE, Los Angeles Chargers
Was never truly 100 percent after returning from a preseason foot injury in Week 11. Should be able to regain the form in 2019 that led to double-digit sacks each of his first two NFL seasons.
39. Derwin James, S, Los Angeles Chargers
Took the NFL by storm en route to becoming the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year runner-up. He’s the first rookie in franchise history to record 100-plus tackles while also logging 3.5 sacks and three interceptions.
40. Ryan Kerrigan, OLB, Washington
Broke the franchise record once held by Dexter Manley for most seasons leading the Redskins in sacks with six. He enjoys the longest active starting streak among NFL linebackers with 128 dating back to Week 1 of his 2011 rookie season.
41. Philip Rivers, QB, Los Angeles Chargers
"Old Man Rivers" shows no signs of slowing down at age 37. Among his highlights in 2018 was completing an NFL-record 25 consecutive passes in a rout of Arizona.
42. Russell Wilson, QB, Seattle
Now the highest-paid player in NFL history, Wilson has enjoyed more wins (75) in his first seven seasons than any other starting QB in league history. Thrived in new coordinator Brian Schottenheimer’s offense last season with a career-high 35 touchdown passes.
43. Danielle Hunter, DE, Minnesota
Ex-teammate Sheldon Richardson praised Hunter last season, saying he has "everything you want in a young defensive end." The 24-year-old Hunter compiled career highs in tackles (72) and sacks (14.5) in 2018.
44. Demarcus Lawrence, DE, Dallas
"Tank" continued to steamroll opposing offensive linemen en route to a 10.5-sack season in 2018. Valuable enough to the Cowboys defense that he was re-signed to a five-year, $105 million contract this offseason.
45. Julian Edelman, WR, New England
It's no coincidence that New England’s passing offense averaged 60.9 yards more per game (281.4) for the final 12 contests last season after Edelman returned from a four-game PED suspension. His 115 postseason receptions rank second all-time behind Jerry Rice (151).
46. Darius Leonard, OLB, Indianapolis
The NFL's Defensive Rookie of the Year has the potential to become this generation’s version of Derrick Brooks in the Colts’ Tampa-2 defense.
47. Chris Jones, DT, Kansas City
Ascended to the ranks of the NFL's elite interior pass rushers in 2018, which is a distinction that shouldn't change even with his pending move from 3-4 end to 4-3 DT in new Chiefs coordinator Steve Spagnuolo's scheme. Set the NFL's all-time record for consecutive games with a sack (11) en route to 15.5 on the season.
48. Devin McCourty, S, New England
The secondary injuries that led to McCourty being shifted from cornerback to safety in 2012 couldn't have proven more fortuitous considering how he has excelled at the position. He's now tied, along with fellow Pats safety Patrick Chung and four others, for most all-time Super Bowl starts (five) behind Tom Brady (nine).
49. Mitchell Schwartz, OT, Kansas City
Pro Football Focus proclaimed him the NFL's best lineman last season after he allowed just 23 pressures on 687 drop-backs and was one of only three tackles to rank in their top 10 for both run and pass blocking. Has never missed an NFL snap with his streak now at 7,000-plus entering his eighth season.
50. Andrew Whitworth, OT, Los Angeles Rams
He must be drinking from the Tom Brady Fountain of Youth. Still among the best all-around blockers and pass protectors at age 37.