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"This is really hard," longtime NFL personnel man Mike Lombardi said one day in June, staring at my original list of the top players in the NFL, ranked 1 through 500. He shook his head. He rubbed his forehead. He chuckled. "This is impossible."
"You should have heard my first idea," I told Lombardi, who's now with the Broncos. "I wanted to rank every player in the league, 1 through 1,696. I was even looking into the long snappers. But people wisely talked me out of it."
Lombardi looked at me as if I had two heads, or maybe none. Ranking the top 500 is an insane task, one during which I woke up thinking (and I'm dead serious), Am I nuts to rank Maurice Jones-Drew ahead of Brian Westbrook and Joseph Addai? Is there any way the best cornerback in football is better than Carson Palmer? Adam Vinatieri--144th? Ahead of 14 starting quarterbacks? What the heck do I do with Pacman Jones, that knucklehead? Is he 49th, or 449th, or 14,449th?
Plus, a lot of colleagues whose opinions I respect told me I'd make more enemies than friends with this exercise. I could just hear my next call to Rodney Harrison, the Patriots safety--or, rather, his call to me: "Two hundred and thirty-sixth?! Behind Leigh Bodden, Michael Roos, Jahri Evans? I never heard of Jahri Evans!"
Settle down, settle down. Give me a minute or two to explain why I did this and how I did this. And to defend the list.
The genesis of the idea came when I saw a player the same size as Bears return demon Devin Hester--5' 11", about 180--skyrocket up the draft charts in April. I'm talking about Ohio State wide receiver-return man Ted Ginn Jr., and though there were questions about his durability, he was as fast as Hester (page 84) and had similar quick-strike capability. Hester was the 57th pick in the draft in 2006; Ginn went ninth this year, to a Dolphins team with big needs at quarterback, offensive line, cornerback and pass rusher. "We've got a great defense, and we're going to be in a lot of close games in the fourth quarter," Miami coach Cam Cameron said. "What if Ted can make six or seven plays like Devin Hester made last year? How many games could he change?"
So I thought I might make a list, the best of the best. The criteria: importance of the position (I had quarterback, left tackle, pass rusher and cornerback at the top, but with room for the explosive player), talent level and age--with a nod to young players on the cusp of a breakout season (I rank opportunistic Jets safety Kerry Rhodes 29th) and to team-oriented guys (selfless Javon Walker 80, selfish Terrell Owens 103). Though part-time players, four impact return men (in order, Hester, Jones-Drew, Pacman, Wes Welker) were placed among the top 126. The best special teams player last year (outside of return men and kickers), Chiefs safety Bernard Pollard, landed at 320. Keeping in mind what Bill Parcells said in his most recent incarnation as an NFL coach--"It's incredible what a field-position game this has become"--I made room on the list for six kickers and six punters.
Then, as I toured training camps this summer, I showed the list to G.M.'s and personnel men (six), coaches (four) and players (three). I asked each of them to list the most important positions, in order. Interestingly, Kansas City vice president Bill Kuharich was the only one to say he'd favor a franchise left tackle or pass rusher over a quarterback, unless that passer was Peyton Manning, or close to it. And Jets coach Eric Mangini picked quarterback, interior defensive lineman, left tackle, running back. "The game has changed," he said. "A disruptive tackle up the middle can collapse the pocket oftentimes quicker than the rusher coming around the edge."
As I crisscrossed America, getting input from those NFL sources, I kept reworking the list. Kuharich, for example, wanted me to move Seahawks tackle Walter Jones from 10 into the top five, thought I had Donovan McNabb way too low at 91 and felt I was too enamored of Drew Brees at 8. "But it's your list," he said. "The great thing about it is, it's not wrong." (I kept Jones at 10 and Brees at 8, but I moved McNabb up to 72 because a cacophony of voices told me he was too low.) I decided I wouldn't make a significant change unless at least two people whose judgment I trusted could make persuasive arguments. Most told me I was loony to have Rhodes ranked in the 20s and Bills tackle Jason Peters in the 30s. I believe Rhodes comes closest to Ed Reed (12), the best impact safety in the game, and I believe Peters, a converted tight end, will be an All-Pro within two years. So I wouldn't move them down even if Bill Belichick called and said, "Neither of those guys could make my team."
But I was swayed by the masses to make a few major shifts. Up: Bears defensive tackle Tommie Harris (to 25), Browns linebacker Kamerion Wimbley (to 81), Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (to 85). Down: oft-injured Colts safety Bob Sanders (to 196) and quarterback Michael Vick, who may next play football in 2010 (to 214).