For many high caliber players in the NFL, their individual talent sometimes does not match up with those around them. It takes the collective strength of a 53-man roster for a team to make the leap from mediocrity to contention. Unfortunately for the stars of teams that are perennial bottom feeders, these players are the brightest stars in the dimmest corners of the league.
Some of these elite players are franchise cornerstones that are willing to go down with the sinking ship. Others can see the light of free agency in their future and the potential giant pay day they may receive. What they all have in common is that they are in top tier of the talent in the NFL.
On this list, you will not find New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees, despite the Saints’ pitiful record, which may still net an NFC South crown. Considerations have to be made for being an All-Pro, future Hall of Fame player in what is truly a no-talent bunch. The players on this list are excellent talents that are premier skill players with plenty left to prove. Brees has multiple records and a Super Bowl to his credit. These fifteen players have either started to create impressive resumes or build an all-time great candidacy for themselves. These standouts have plenty to play for even if their respective teams may not.
15. Alfred Morris – RB – Washington Redskins
From sixth round pick to formidable rusher, Alfred Morris has made the leap from relative unknown to one of the most underrated running backs in the game. The Washington tailback had a great breakout year in 2012. However, Morris has been victimized by the lack of continuity on offense in the nation’s capital. A powerful, downhill runner, Morris shined during quarterback Robert Griffin III’s spectacular rookie season, benefiting from RG3’s athleticism and the read option scheme that former head coach Mike Shanahan employed. Injuries to Griffin and a coaching change have made Morris less of a threat. All of the mess in Washington aside, Morris is a star in the making thanks to his hard-nosed running style. Pinballing through tacklers, Morris is routinely a load to bring down.
14. Cordarrelle Patterson – WR – Minnesota Vikings
A dynamic, big bodied receiver, Patterson had an extraordinary rookie season in 2013 for the Minnesota Vikings. Patterson proved to be worth the gamble as a first round pick out of the University of Tennessee with a couple 11-plus yard kickoff returns for touchdowns. On a team like Minnesota, who is finding their way at quarterback, Patterson looks to be a part of the foundation of the Vikings’ rebuild. Teddy Bridgewater, the team’s second selection of the 2014 first round, needs to utilize the gifts of Patterson’s size and speed to complete Minnesota’s turnaround. As with any reconstruction project, Minnesota’s rebuild will take time, but Patterson has all the tools necessary to be a future All-Pro.
13. Kelvin Benjamin – WR – Carolina Panthers
In what is one of the most impressive rookie receiving classes in recent memory, Benjamin has become the main target of Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton. After the front office parted with all of Newton’s top four receiving targets in the offseason, the first round pick from Florida State became the default number one receiver. Benjamin has quickly proven to be worth the selection, exhibiting the physical play of a Megatron clone. Built like a power forward, Benjamin is the latest in a line of gargantuan receiving specimens to come along in recent years. With these physical tools, Benjamin should have a bright future of boxing out opposing defensive backs in jump-ball situations.
12. Khalil Mack – LB – Oakland Raiders
These days, being the best player on the Oakland Raiders is not a badge of honor. However, that is what has been bestowed upon rookie linebacker Khalil Mack. Mack was the fastest rising prospect on many draft boards ahead of the 2014 draft and has backed up that status in his first year as a pro. The hard nosed tackler from the University of Buffalo looks to be the prototypical middle linebacker. A beast in the middle of the Raiders’ defense, Mack is the first in what Oakland hopes to be many more sterling prospects to lift the Raiders out of a decade and a half’s worth of futility.
11. Gerald McCoy – DT – Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Not since Warren Sapp occupied the middle of the Tampa Bay defense has a defensive tackle been such a force inside. McCoy, who recently inked a mega extension, figures to be the cornerstone of the Buccaneers’ defensive line moving forward. Unfortunately for McCoy, Tampa Bay seems to be stuck in a never-ending limbo of mediocrity, especially at the quarterback position. Much like the Oakland Raiders, who the Bucs defeated in the 2003 Super Bowl, the organization has struggled to find its way to prominence for a sustained period.
10. DeSean Jackson – WR – Washington Redskins
The second Washington player to make the list, Jackson is one of the fastest receivers to ever play the game. However, the quarterback turmoil in D.C. threatens Jackson’s future as a number one target. World class speed does not matter if the team is changing quarterbacks every few weeks. Chemistry, especially with a personality as fickle as Jackson’s, is a huge deal as far as the locker room’s stability is concerned. The easy solution to all of this is getting Jackson the ball in space and letting his feet do the rest.
9. Robert Quinn – DE – St. Louis Rams
Quinn, the leader of one of the best defensive line units in the league, is one of the premier sackmasters today. Along with Chris Long, Quinn is part of one of the most underrated defensive end combinations around. In a division with both Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson to contend with as highly mobile quarterbacks, the Rams need all the edge rushing firepower they can get to remain competitive in the toughest division in football.
8. Odell Beckham Jr. – WR – New York Giants
Of course, by now you have witnessed Beckham Jr.’s spectacular, one-handed grab for a touchdown against the Dallas Cowboys. However, that highlight reel-capping catch is only half of the story on the rookie receiver from the New York Giants. Beckham Jr.’s stride at the 40-yard dash was compared to the fluidity of an Olympic-level sprinter by scouts at the NFL combine. So far, Beckham Jr. has not disappointed in giving Eli Manning a world-class talent at the receiver position after Victor Cruz went down for the season. Without Beckham Jr., the woeful Giants offense would be much worse off than it already is. There’s no denying that Beckham Jr. is a special talent on a team in desperate need of a spark.
7. Brandon Marshall – WR – Chicago Bears
No matter where he has played, whether it be Denver, Miami, or Chicago, Brandon Marshall has produced numbers as big as his personality. The Bears receiver has a great relationship with quarterback Jay Cutler that makes the pair one of the most successful combinations in the league. Sure, Cutler may throw some questionable balls, but there is no questioning Cutler and Marshall’s chemistry. Combined with Alshon Jeffery and Martellus Bennett, the trio are more comparable to a trio of towering forwards on the basketball court than receivers. Marshall is the stable veteran among this crew, who is a one of a kind talent for his extraordinary size. Jump balls are a go-to move to break a defense’s back in a goal-to-go situation, for sure.
6. Julio Jones – WR – Atlanta Falcons
Giving up a future first round pick for the right to draft a bonafide number one receiver has proven to be the best move the Atlanta Falcons could have made. A superior athlete with breakaway speed, Jones is a star on the quick surface of the Georgia Dome turf. Matt Ryan and company have struggled since nearly winning the NFC title in 2013. However, Jones and Roddy White are still one of the top receiving duos in the league. White may be sliding down towards the back half of his career, but Jones still has plenty of peak years ahead of him to help turn Atlanta’s fortunes around.
5. Arian Foster – RB – Houston Texans
Perhaps it is Foster’s undrafted status that fuels the Houston running back’s fire. Since entering the league, no other tailback has been as consistent at tallying up all purpose yards. Foster has proven to be a reliable runner as much as he is an adept receiver out of the backfield. He may not have the shifty moves of a LeSean McCoy or the straight ahead power of an Adrian Peterson, but Foster is a magician when it comes to making yardage appear where there was none before. While Houston figures out its quarterback situation, Foster is the key to making the Texans’ offense move.
4. Matt Forte – RB – Chicago Bears
Forte is a great receiving back who often gets lost in the shuffle with the three titanic receivers in Chicago. However, Forte has rightfully earned the title as the most underrated running back in the league. Whether it is eating up the tough yards between the tackles or catching swing passes out of the backfield, Forte gets the job done every time his number is called. Invaluable once the harsh Chicago winters take hold, Forte is the unsung hero of the Bears’ offense.
3. Jimmy Graham – TE – New Orleans Saints
Each generation of football players has their own unique characteristic that sets themselves and the game itself apart from days of old. The linemen are larger, the receivers are taller, and the tight ends are even burlier. New Orleans’ Jimmy Graham is the epitome of the latter. Tight ends used to be the safety valve or a lineman-turned receiver. Graham is neither one of those. The Saints tight end is big, fast, and a load-and-a-half to bring down. Pulling in more touchdowns in a season than most receivers tally in a couple years, Graham is a cut above the rest. No wonder he wanted to be designated as a wide receiver for his recent franchise tag and contract issues.
2. Luke Kuechly – LB – Carolina Panthers
It would not be outlandish to think of Kuechly as superhuman. The Carolina Panthers middle linebacker seems to be anywhere and everywhere the ball carrier is. A tackling machine, Kuechly is automated to seek out the opposing running back or wide receiver like a heat-seeking missile. The league’s leading tackler for 2013, Kuechly is a force to be reckoned with in only his third NFL season. If coaches around the league could clone Kuechly to take over their middle linebacker position, they would do so in a heartbeat.
1. JJ Watt
An unstoppable force would be the succinct way of describing Texans linebacker JJ Watt. Whether he is taking down quarterbacks, swatting down passes, forcing fumbles, or even catching touchdown passes, Watt is one of the most complete players in the game. A year removed from a 2-14 record, Houston is hovering around the .500 mark in 2014. Without Watt, the Texans would be pushing for another two- or three-win season. Still, the climb back to contention is not within reach. However, Watt is a one-man wrecking crew in need of reinforcements to push Houston back to the top again.
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