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Top 100 NFL Players of 2021: 90-81

Throughout the offseason, Baseline Times will be ranking the top 100 NFL players for the 2021 season.

Every Thursday night, 10 players will be released with a short discussion about what separates them from the rest of the pack. Rankings are based on both past performance and projections for next year.

This week’s list is filled with veterans who took a big step forward last year, as well as some unsung young heroes.

Previous Entries: 100-91

90. Derwin James, S, Chargers

So far, James has lived up to his pre-draft evaluation: if he can stay healthy, he is a game-changing safety. He fell to the Chargers at No. 17 in the 2018 draft because of a leg injury and was a first-team All-Pro that season. However, his leg sidelined him for all of 2020 and most of 2019. He is reportedly fully healthy, and a successful start to the season could quickly change the narrative surrounding him.

89. J.J. Watt, DE, Cardinals

No one has dropped down this list as quickly and as suddenly as Watt. Once the consensus best player of his generation, it feels like much longer than three years since he recorded 16 sacks and was named a first-team All-Pro. Last year, he had five sacks and 17 quarterback hits, both career-lows for a full season.

Now, Watt will suit up for a team besides Houston for the first time. Expectations are low, and Watt has punched his ticket to Canton regardless of how he performs. But he will need to regain at least some of his old form if he wants to be remembered as one of the greatest defensive players of all time.

88. Stephon Tuitt, DT, Steelers

Tuitt bounced back from a 2019 injury and finally made the jump from “good” to “elite” in his seventh NFL season. One of ten players to post double-digit sacks, Tuitt made offensive lines pay for focusing too much attention on T.J. Watt.

87. Josh Jacobs, RB, Raiders

Making fun of the Raiders’ draft picks has become something of a national pastime, but Jacobs is no joke. He racked up 12 touchdowns and 1,303 yards from scrimmage in his sophomore campaign and made his first Pro Bowl. He lacks the explosiveness to compensate for a bad offensive line — his longest rush last year was 28 yards — but has emerged as a true every-down back in a time where that role is supposed to be dying out.

86. Leonard Williams, DT, Giants

Leonard Williams played the best football of his six-year career in 2020. (Adam Hunger/Associated Press)

Williams’ shaggy mane of hair and massive 6-foot-5 frame have become one of opposing linemen’s least favorite sights. He has been a true workhorse since entering the league in 2015, missing only one game in six years. But last year, he finally lived up to his status as the No. 6 overall pick.

He posted career-highs in sacks (11.5) and tackles for loss (14) while leading a rejuvenated Giants defensive line. His 62 quarterback pressures were more than double anyone else on the team. New York rewarded him in March with a $63 million dollar contract.

85. DeMarcus Lawrence, DE, Cowboys

Lawrence has not justified the five-year, $105 million contract he signed in 2019. However, he has been much better than his 11.5 sacks in the past two years suggest. Lawrence is disruptive and physical, two traits that were lacking in Dallas’ 28th-ranked defense last year. He could experience a resurgence if bruiser Micah Parsons draws enough attention from opposing offenses.

84. Allen Robinson, WR, Bears

While he has never matched the heights of his 2015 breakout season, Robinson’s quiet consistency has anchored the Bears’ offense with 200 receptions in the past two years. His 1,250 yards last year ranked ninth in the league, ahead of Pro Bowlers Keenan Allen and A.J. Brown.

Few players are better than Robinson at making contested catches, whose size and sure hands give him an edge over most cornerbacks. If Justin Fields meets expectations, Robinson could be in for a career year in 2021.

83. James Bradberry, CB, Giants

Bradberry hasn’t become a star quite yet, but New Yorkers know how intimidating he can be in pure man coverage. Bradberry is not an aggressive corner, but possesses elite instincts and keep up with the league’s best route runners. Don’t let that style fool you — he was instrumental in the Giants’ upset of the Seahawks last year, holding the 6-foot-4 D.K. Metcalf to five receptions.

The five-year veteran went to his first Pro Bowl last year. He also posted a 79.8 grade on Pro Football Focus — seventh-best among cornerbacks and better than stars like Stephon Gilmore and Tre’Davious White.

82. Joel Bitonio, G, Browns

Joel Bitonio is one of the most reliable players in the NFL. He has not missed a snap since 2016. (Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

The Browns’ offensive line was the biggest factor in their success last year. They have three lineman on this list, more than some entire teams. Their blockers are that good.

Bitonio is a head coach’s dream. He has not missed a snap at left guard in the past four years and has been a second-team All-Pro for three years straight. Guards rarely get credit for their team’s success, but Nick Chubb and Baker Mayfield may not have become stars without Bitonio’s steady prescence.

81. Joe Burrow, QB, Bengals

Burrow’s Week 10 ACL injury remains the most enduring and tragic image of the 2020 NFL season. Before his season was cut short, Burrow put up over 300 passing yards five times and was immune to most of the growing pains young quarterbacks experience. He is unquestionably the Bengals’ quarterback of the future.

However, Cincinnati questionably passed on left tackle Penei Sewell in the draft. Their offensive line is virtually unchanged from the group that at one point allowed Burrow to be sacked 16 times over three weeks. If he can not stay on his feet, it won’t matter how talented he is.

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NFL Draft: The Next Wave of Quarterback Prospects

2021 makes the fourth NFL Draft in a row that a quarterback has been selected with the number one overall pick and since 2001, 16 of the 21 first picks have been quarterbacks.

The quarterback position will always been the key target in the NFL Draft as, typically, it’s the difference in being a great team and a bad team.

Key to remember though that the top overall pick isn’t the only quarterback selected. In 2021 alone, there were five quarterbacks selected in the first 15 picks.

Usually, it’s the later-drafted quarterbacks who have the most success. Since 2001, the only number one overall selected quarterbacks to win a Super Bowl are Peyton and Eli Manning. The quarterback with the most Super Bowl wins? Tom Brady; a sixth-round selection in the 2000 NFL Draft.

We may spend a ton of time talking about names like Trevor Lawrence, Joe Burrow, Kyler Murray, and Baker Mayfield, but based on recent history, it’s likely only one of those four, if any, ever make an appearance in the Super Bowl.

Speaking of Super Bowl quarterbacks, we are witnessing a “changing of the guard” in the NFL at the position. With players such as Drew Brees, Eli Manning, and Philip Rivers retiring in the last two seasons; Ben Roethlisberger and Matt Ryan losing a battle with Father Time, and legends like Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers still at the top of their game, but getting long in the tooth, the next wave of quarterbacks is upon us.

While the league is actually rather young at the quarterback position currently with the majority of teams set with their “Franchise” quarterback, or at least, a projected starter under the age of 30, we all now how quickly that can change.

Teams such as Atlanta, Carolina, Denver, Detroit, Green Bay, Houston, Indianapolis, Las Vegas, Los Angeles Rams, Minnesota, New Orleans, New York Giants, Pittsburgh, Seattle, Tampa Bay, and Washington all could be looking for quarterbacks in the next three draft classes according to future draft predictions by Walter Football’s website.

That doesn’t necessary mean that all these teams will draft a quarterback, or even need one as they could make trades, use free agency, or develop a quarterback that isn’t on anyone’s radar just yet.

Nonetheless, it’s a good sized list which makes it easy to look at the next crop of quarterbacks with the thought that many will be starters by 2024. Looking for the next Trevor Lawrence? As of now, there isn’t a “sure thing” guy like that on the watch list of now, but still some big names that’ll be available over the next two drafts.

Let’s start with the upcoming 2022 NFL Draft.

We recently looked at the top 32 prospects on the Big Board and found a few quarterbacks that may go at the top of the draft and that list begins with North Carolina’s Sam Howell.

Howell is not a Trevor Lawrence-like prospect, but does remind a lot of scouts of Baker Mayfield. Standing at 6-1, 225-pounds, Howell has thrown for over 7,000 yards with 68 touchdowns at North Carolina under Mack Brown and as of now, seems like the top quarterback in the Class of 2022, but he has a bunch of guys right on his heels.

Speaking of Mayfield, another high quality Oklahoma prospect is projected as a first-round pick in Spencer Rattler. A redshirt freshman last season, Rattler had some ups and downs in his first season as a starter, but for my money, he’s the one must-see QB on the board for 2022.

Rattler is a playmaker and showed outstanding growth in the final few games of the 2020 season and plays in the same system that has created some outstanding NFL talent. Mayfield as well as Kyler Murray went from Oklahoma to the Heisman Trophy ceremony to the top pick in the NFL Draft; could Rattler be the next Sooner to do so?

Time will tell, but neither Rattler nor Howell is built like a prototypical quarterback which is where the name Kedon Slovis comes in.

Slovis, out of Southern Cal, is a classic quarterback that has thrown for nearly 50 touchdowns the last two seasons. Slovis will need to turnover the football much less, but if Slovis and USC get on the right track, there’s a good chance that teams looking for an accurate, polarizing quarterback prospect will select Slovis early.

The 2022 quarterback draft class isn’t nearly as top heavy as the 2021 class, but it is deeper as there is potential of eight quarterbacks to be drafted in the first two rounds.

Outside of Howell, Rattler, and Slovis; J.T. Daniels out of Georgia, Desmond Ridder out of Cincinnati, Tyler Shough out of Texas Tech, Carson Strong out of Nevada, and Matt Corral out of Ole Miss have shown potential to become NFL quarterbacks and all will have a great chance to climb up the draft board in 2022.

Plus, there’s always a name that’s not brought up much that makes a wild rise up draft boards. From Joe Burrow to Zach Wilson, quarterbacks are just a handful of great plays and wins away from going from unknown to potential first-round pick.

Jayden Daniels of Arizona State is a dark horse Heisman candidate that could gain some NFL attention while Malik Willis of Liberty already has some scouts trying to get a jump on what he could become at the next level.

2022 is a loaded defensive draft class, so if none of these quarterbacks grade high enough for some teams, this would be the draft to select a potential defensive superstar instead of reaching on a quarterback.

With players like Derek Stingley Jr., Kayvon Thibodeaux, Christian Harris, and Kyle Hamilton, it would make sense for a team that didn’t feel they were a QB-away from contending to reach with a top five pick with some future All-Pro defensive prospects available.

Feels like forever away, but hey, it’s the Draft after next and it doesn’t feature as large of a quarterback class, but features a class similar to 2021 with three big time players with high pro potential.

In 2023, the NFL Draft will be headline by a three quarterback battle for the top spot as Clemson’s D.J. Uiagalelei, Alabama’s Bryce Young, and Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud all already look like pro prospects entering 2021.

Wait, quarterbacks from Clemson, Alabama, and Ohio State?? Has this ever happen before?

Entering 2021, there will be other prospects that emerge this season that will be added to the 2023 Draft watch list, but as of now, it’s hard to imagine anyone passing up that trio.

The 2023 NFL Draft could be the next to feature three straight quarterbacks taken with the first three picks as we seen in this year’s draft. So, if your team didn’t get their “guy” this season, don’t sweat it: plenty of talent is on the way in the next two NFL Drafts at the quarterback position!

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