We are beginning our NFL Top 100 series, in which NFL Analyst Charlie Bernstein ranks the Top 100 players in the league. There are no backup quarterback media darlings, punters, kickers or long-snappers in this list, just the most elite players for the 2012 season.
41. Dwight Freeney, Defensive End, Indianapolis Colts
Even with 10 years of service behind him, Dwight Freeney continues to be a dominant pass rushing force. The undersized future Hall of Famer will have to adjust to a new system under head coach Chuck Pagano in 2012, but Pagano’s 3-4 should suit Freeney well.
42. Maurkice Pouncey, Center, Pittsburgh Steelers
Pouncey has played at an elite level ever since being drafted by Pittsburgh in 2010, and should continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Pouncey and rookie David DeCastro should return the Steelers to the physical style of play that helped them win Super Bowls.
43. Steve Smith, Wide Receiver, Carolina Panthers
Much of Steve Smith’s resurgence was credited to quarterback Cam Newton, but Smith helped Newton develop considerably as a rookie. Smith went from a malcontent to a Pro Bowl wideout and there’s no reason he won’t have another big season in 2012.
44. Roddy White, Wide Receiver, Atlanta Falcons
Roddy White is also one of the most targeted wideouts in football, because he consistently gets open. White has averaged nearly 100 catches per season for better than 1,300 yards since the arrival of Matt Ryan.
45. Philip Rivers, Quarterback, San Diego Chargers
After playing at an elite level for five seasons Rivers inexplicably took a step back in 2011. Rivers is healthy entering 2012 and if he stays that way history tells us he should bounce back and have another Pro Bowl season.
46. Jimmy Graham, Tight End, New Orleans Saints
The former college basketball player has become one of the game’s elite tight ends in just two seasons. Graham uses his 6-foot-8 inch frame to box out defenders and he’s fearless catching the ball over the middle of the field in traffic.
47. Terrell Suggs, Defensive End/Outside Linebacker, Baltimore Ravens
Why would the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year be ranked so low on the list? Because he blew out his Achilles in the offseason and he might not play at all in 2012. The Achilles injury is normally a career killer for pass rushers and Suggs will have to have a miraculous recovery considering his age (29) and position.
48. Champ Bailey, Cornerback, Denver Broncos
Champ Bailey is no longer the best cornerback in the game, a title he held for much of his career, but he’s still very good. The 11-time Pro Bowler may not strike the fear in quarterbacks that he did just a few seasons ago, but he remains one of the best at a very premium position.
49. Cam Newton, Quarterback, Carolina Panthers
Cam Newton rewrote the record books for rookie quarterbacks in 2011 and expectations are very high in 2012. Newton has as strong of an arm as anyone in the game, is an unstoppable force in goal-line situations and had a greater grasp of the mental part of being a quarterback than anyone thought. Still, he must avoid a sophomore slump as teams have more film to try and figure out ways to defend him.
50. Ryan Kalil, Center, Carolina Panthers
Ryan Kalil doesn’t receive anywhere near the fanfare and accolades as the man who puts his hands underneath his rear end, but he’s almost as important to the Panthers. Kalil is one of the smartest linemen in football and is excellent as a run blocker and pass protector.
To see players ranked 51-60, click here.
To see players ranked 61-70, click here.
To see players ranked 71-80, click here.
To see players ranked 81-90, click here.
To see players ranked 91-100, click here.
Charlie Bernstein is the NFL Insider for ESPNFlorida.com and ESPN 1080 and 1040 in Orlando/Tampa and Editor-in-Chief of Sports Media Interactive, covering the National Football League, NCAA, and National Basketball Association. Charlie covers the Jacksonville Jaguars for FoxSports and has been featured on the NFL Network and Sirius NFL Radio. Charlie is also a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. You can follow Charlie on Twitter @nflcharlie