Reviewing The Top 50 Players of the 21st Century

Reviewing The Top 50 Players of the 21st Century
Reading Time: 5 minutes.

Earlier this week, we released a podcast with the top 50 players of the 21st century, voted on by British NFL personalities. The survey had some amazing results and here we go through the biggest talking points. Let’s get started:

Undervalued positions

Not to give anything away but here are how the 50 players are broken down by position:

7 QBs
2 RBs
6 WRs
3 TEs
10 Offensive Linemen (5 LT, 2 LG, 2 RG, 1 C)
5 Defensive Ends
2 Defensive Tackles
4 Middle Linebackers
3 Outside Linebackers
3 Cornerbacks
4 Safeties

Given the importance of Rob Gronkowski, as well as Travis Kelce and Mark Andrews, Nick Boyle and Hayden Hurst in the Ravens 2019 offence, it is perhaps a surprise to see only three Tight Ends on this list. However it is no surprise who they are (Gronkowski, Tony Gonzalez & Antonio Gates). The likes of Jason Witten and Kelce will be disappointed not to make it. However, with the growing importance of versatile Tight End, it will be interesting to see if Tight Ends would be more prominent if this list was done in ten years’ time.

There are two running backs within the top 50, both showing highly. Is there such a gulf between the top two and the field? Perhaps it shows the impact of backs only having two or three years at the top before dropping off the pace. That said, in comparison, there are at least a couple of players who can feel hard done by to not compare with the best of the past two decades.

Flashy Cornerbacks not matching up to talent

The real shock though is there are only three Cornerbacks on this list. Of course it is no judge of ability but CB is perhaps the most high profile position on defence – alongside pass rusher. There were three on this list, compared to four Safeties – which is traditionally seen as an under-rated position. Of the three, it is hard to argue with Darrelle Revis, Champ Bailey & Richard Sherman. Personally, I would have expected a bigger gap between Revis & Bailey (12th & 15th respectively), especially with Sherman ranked only 32nd. Meanwhile, two men who  missed out on the list entirely: Patrick Peterson, who admittedly has some lapses or Charles Tillman, famous for his ‘Peanut punch’ causing fumbles. That shows the standard we are talking about, with neither men making the top fifty.

Is Aaron Donald the benefactor of recency bias?

Within the top fifty, there are seven defensive linemen. Five are Defensive Ends, showing the value of pass rush. I would have expected more Ends on the list, though it is clouded by the split between 3-4 and 4-3. Overall there are eight pass rushers on this list. Inside, there are two men making the list, with Warren Sapp edging in at 47 and Aaron Donald the highest lineman at 14.

While, yes, Donald is a dominant specimen and future Hall of Famer, is he that far ahead of the pack over the past 20 years? Has recency bias created a bigger gulf to other DTs, that would have been smaller if Donald weren’t a current player – even if the Ram was still number 1? When you put it that way, beyond Vince Wilfork, Ndamukong Suh or Haloti Ngata, it is tough to find a competitor for Donald. Perhaps, the ranking, thirty places higher than fellow Tackles, shows the dominance of Donald.

Linemen rule the roost

One of the major things that stood out me was offensive linemen taking the most positions in the top 50 as a position group. It’s especially impressive as it is often noted that it is tough to rate individual linemen.  Indeed overall, 34% of top 50 play in the trenches. Five LTs made the list, but no RT, though that is likely because teams play their best Tackle on the blindside. However, it showcases the importance of good linemen. Indeed, as a Ravens fan, I worry how they will replace number 33 on this list, Marshal Yanda.

It is noticeable that there’s a divide between Tackles and interior linemen, with the five Tackles ahead of the IOL on the list. However, no linemen made the top ten on this list, with Walter Jones and Jonathan Ogden heading the list in 16th & 18th respectively. While linemen were clearly valued, they lacked the star power to break into the top ten.

Julio Jones done a disservice

I mentioned this on the podcast but I still can’t believe the disparity between Julio Jones and Calvin Johnson. If anything I think that one is slightly overrated and one marginally underrated. Let’s take a look at a direct comparison. However it should be pointed out that Randy Moss (23rd) and Marvin Harrison (42nd) sit between them.

 GamesCareer YardsYards/ ReceptionTDsYards/ GamePlayoff GamesPlayoff Yards
Calvin Johnson1351161915.98386.12296
Julio Jones1261212515.25796.28834

Looking at the numbers, Johnson does just edge it, showing as a redzone threat and a slightly higher average per reception. This comparison removes the stick to beat Calvin Johnson with – retiring early, as the pair have played nearly the same number of games (135 v 129). Despite playing nine fewer games, Jones has 500 more yards (from 60 more receptions). Clearly Jones is a bigger part of the Falcons offence than Johnson for the Lions. Jones has had more team success with eight playoff games and a Super Bowl appearance. However Johnson did have a monstrous playoff game against the Saints with 211 yards and 2 TDs, (though the Lions did lose 45-28 with 116 of those yards coming in the second half as the Saints pulled ahead. But I digress, I would agree that Johnson ranks ahead of Jones, but 33 places seems a little harsh.

Is Randy Moss the second greatest ever?

On the subject of Wide Receivers, Randy Moss is conspicuously low on this list. Moss, commonly regarded as the second best receiver of all time, is 23rd overall and the third WR – with the GOAT not included. Of course he was drafted prior to 2000, and his monster rookie season falls outside of these parameters. Regardless, the majority of his career was over the last twenty years, and one would have expected Moss to rank higher.  Perhaps it shows how much Moss’ later years and antics impacted his reputation.

QBs are king – but should more have made it?

As you might expect there are a number of QBs still to come in the top ten. However, with only seven QBs in the top 50 there is no room for the likes of Matt Ryan, Cam Newton, Eli Manning or Tony Romo. It may be a case of how many can you include but it is surprising not to see one or two more QBs. That being said, with Ben Roethlisberger being ranked at number 49, there is a clear question to ask when considering which QBs should be added to the top 50 – were they better than Big Ben?

So there you have it, that’s our list. Of course, there will be debate. Even I have my minor quibbles but that’s the fun of a theoretical question like this. Find out who sits in our top ten in our next podcast and let us know your thoughts.

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