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My Top 100: J.J. Watt could become defensive G.O.A.T.

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When it comes to NFL Network's "Top 100 Players of 2016," there's plenty of room for argument. So as the list is unveiled, NFL Media's Gregg Rosenthal, Chris Wesseling, Maurice Jones-Drew and Ike Taylor will be sharing their own takes on the top 100 for 2016, identifying who they think are the league's best heading into next season.

"The Top 100 Players of 2016" will conclude on Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET on NFL Network. The conversation will continue on the "Top 100 Players Reactions" show, airing immediately after at 10 p.m. ET.

» No. 1: J.J. Watt, DE, Houston Texans
» No. 2: Cam Newton, QB, Carolina Panthers
» No. 3: Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay Packers
» No. 4: Rob Gronkowski, TE, New England Patriots
» No. 5: Aaron Donald, DT, Los Angeles Rams
» No. 6: Tom Brady, QB, New England Patriots
» No. 7: Von Miller, LB, Denver Broncos
» No. 8: Ben Roethlisberger, QB, Pittsburgh Steelers
» No. 9: Antonio Brown, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers
» No. 10: Julio Jones, WR, Atlanta Falcons

This isn't the Most Valuable Player list or the "guy you'd want to start a franchise with" list. Those picks would inevitably be quarterbacks. This is the list of the best players at what they do, and J.J. Watt is the best defensive player to enter the NFL in the last 25 years. Watt could one day be considered the greatest defensive player of all time because he's already completed a four-year run that tops anything we've ever seen out of a defensive lineman. Watt has changed the way I watch Texans games. Play after play, I only watch him. Play after play, he wins.

Aaron Donald nearly matched Watt last year and has the quickest first step from a defensive tackle I've ever seen. He just needs to show he can stay at that level every year like Watt. Von Miller has reached that status: consistent excellence. He's been a top-five pass rusher since the day he entered the league and just finished a career-defining playoff run. Rob Gronkowski is an uncanny talent at tight end.

Four quarterbacks make my top 10. Cam Newton needs to build on the huge gains he made last season to maintain this ranking. His ceiling is higher than any other quarterback's -- and we saw what that ceiling looked like in 2015. Aaron Rodgers' ceiling is awfully close. But he gets knocked down a spot or two for a season where he bears some responsibility for Green Bay's offensive muddiness. Tom Brady wins before the snap more than any quarterback in football, but his arm strength and ability to move in recent years has been overlooked. Big Ben finally has the numbers that match up with his value. He's oddly the most underrated two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback ever, a top-five player at his position his whole career.

My final group rounds out with two receivers who help define this crazy era of No. 1 options. Julio Jones beats defenders with size and strength. Brown beats defenders with everything else -- an energetic combination of hands, guile, route-running, and after-the-catch ability.

» No. 11: Russell Wilson, QB, Seattle Seahawks
» No. 12: Adrian Peterson, RB, Minnesota Vikings
» No. 13: Khalil Mack, OLB/DE, Oakland Raiders
» No. 14: Odell Beckham Jr., WR, New York Giants
» No. 15: Luke Kuechly, LB, Carolina Panthers
» No. 16: Richard Sherman, CB, Seattle Seahawks
» No. 17: Ndamukong Suh, DT, Miami Dolphins
» No. 18: Le'Veon Bell, RB, Pittsburgh Steelers
» No. 19: A.J. Green, WR, Cincinnati Bengals
» No. 20: Philip Rivers, QB, San Diego Chargers

The rest of this list was highly debatable. As we hit the top 25, it feels like the best players in the league are almost without dispute. Chris Wesseling and I especially have awfully similar lists this week. Russell Wilson is the most likely player in this group to win an MVP this season. He's my fifth-ranked quarterback.

Odell Beckham Jr. is the only wide receiver in NFL history who could make 1,450 yards in his second pro year feel like a letdown. He's a huge part of an incredible crew of No. 1 receivers in the NFL today, alongside A.J. Green. Both of them are set up for big years. Adrian Peterson and Le'Veon Bell are my top two running backs, with Bell's injury knocking him off my top spot. Richard Sherman is my top cornerback because he does it every season with physicality and uncanny catch-up speed. Khalil Mack made the leap to superstar last year and has the skill set to someday be in Canton. That's also true of Ndamukong Suh, who is due for a bounceback season in Miami. I'd still take him over nearly any defensive tackle. Consider this ranking the backlash to the Suh backlash. Like so many players in this group, Kuechly is the 2016 prototype. Every team wants a leader at linebacker with his range, instincts, and explosion. Philip Rivers, quite a leader himself, remains surgical in the passing game. His ability to deliver under pressure is unmatched.

» No. 21: Dez Bryant, WR, Dallas Cowboys
» No. 22: Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans Saints
» No. 23: Patrick Peterson, CB, Arizona Cardinals
» No. 24: DeAndre Hopkins, WR, Houston Texans
» No. 25: Kawann Short, DT, Carolina Panthers
» No. 26: Michael Bennett, DE, Seattle Seahawks
» No. 27: Earl Thomas, FS, Seattle Seahawks
» No. 28: Fletcher Cox, DT, Philadelphia Eagles
» No. 29: Tyrann Mathieu, FS, Arizona Cardinals
» No. 30: Todd Gurley, RB, Los Angeles Rams

A decade after Philip Rivers replaced Drew Brees in San Diego, the 37-year-old Saint is still at the top of his game. He is one of the absolute best in the NFL at touch passes. Dez Bryant and DeAndre Hopkins are two of the six wideouts in my top 30. There might not be a better time in NFL history for premier No. 1 options in the passing game.

Kawann Short and Michael Bennett are somehow underrated for the impact they made last season. Short could have been a Defensive Player of the Year winner in a normal season, where J.J. Watt and Aaron Donald weren't so insane. Bennett is getting the ultimate compliment from NFL teams looking for "their version" of Bennett in drafts. Fletcher Cox, meanwhile, could be even more productive in Jim Schwartz's Eagles scheme this year.

Patrick Peterson's bounceback season showed off his natural cover skills, which are the best in the league. Tyrann Mathieu is coming off a torn ACL, but his versatility and instincts set him apart. Earl Thomas is coming off a down year, but remains in the prime of a Hall of Fame career.

Todd Gurley is a second-year running back, yet I'm worried that he's underrated in this exercise. His power and speed are obvious, but it's his vision that makes him special.

» No. 31: Josh Norman, CB, Washington Redskins
» No. 32: Andrew Luck, QB, Indianapolis Colts
» No. 33: Cameron Jordan, DE, New Orleans Saints
» No. 34: Geno Atkins, DT, Cincinnati Bengals
» No. 35: Muhammad Wilkerson, DE, New York Jets
» No. 36: Clay Matthews, LB, Green Bay Packers
» No. 37: Tyron Smith, LT, Dallas Cowboys
» No. 38: Harrison Smith, FS, Minnesota Vikings
» No. 37: Joe Thomas, LT, Cleveland Browns
» No. 40: Larry Fitzgerald, WR, Arizona Cardinals

Josh Norman and Joe Thomas are the two players from this group who are most likely to fall in next year's rankings. Norman has to prove he can excel in any scheme. Thomas turns 32 in December. Still, he's ranked just behind our gold standard at tackle, Tyron Smith, for now. Smith has every skill you want in a left tackle, and the best still should be ahead for him.

Cameron Jordan, Geno Atkins and Muhammad Wilkerson show that you don't need to be a traditional edge rusher to be a dominant defensive lineman. They are all exceptional pass rushers. Atkins has the best chance of the three to take another step toward Defensive Player of the Year status. Clay Matthews could also be in that mix after turning back to outside linebacker. Andrew Luck was one of the hardest players on this list to rank. Ultimately, his first three seasons -- where he looked like a future top-five quarterback -- mattered more to me than his ugly lost season of 2015. The Cardinals need Larry Fitzgerald to defy his age (33 in August) if the team wants to take the next step and make the Super Bowl.

» No. 41: Carson Palmer, QB, Arizona Cardinals
» No. 42: Ziggy Ansah, DE, Detroit Lions
» No. 43: Zack Martin, OG, Dallas Cowboys
» No. 44: Jamaal Charles, RB, Kansas City Chiefs
» No. 45: Eric Berry, S, Kansas City Chiefs
» No. 46: Robert Quinn, DE, Los Angeles Rams
» No. 47: Sean Lee, LB, Dallas Cowboys
» No. 48: Justin Houston, LB, Kansas City Chiefs
» No. 49: Darrelle Revis, DB, New York Jets
» No. 50: Allen Robinson, WR, Jacksonville Jaguars

I'm worried about Carson Palmer taking a step back in 2016, and it's not just because of last year's playoff performance. He had the best season of his career by far in 2015, but his aggressive approach can lead to cold streaks and more turnovers. Ziggy Ansah is an incredibly powerful run stopper who gets better at rushing the passer every year. He and Eric Berry should make big contract pushes. Robert Quinn and Justin Houston are both coming off serious injuries, but rank among the best pure pass rushers in football.

The Chiefs might get more out of Jamaal Charles by letting him share carries with his excellent backups. Darrelle Revis is someone to watch on this list. He's coming off another surgery and wasn't quite his dominant self last year. If Sean Lee ever wasn't coming off surgery, he could win a Defensive Player of the Year award. (But he is coming off surgery again.) Lee's teammate, Zack Martin, gets my vote as the best interior O-lineman in the league. NFL receivers are paid to get deep and win jump-ball matchups, making quarterbacks look better. Allen Robinson does both as well as any receiver in the league, so he may be underrated here. I just want to see him do it again.

» No. 51: Tony Romo, QB, Dallas Cowboys
» No. 52: Marshal Yanda, OG, Baltimore Ravens
» No. 53: Gerald McCoy, DT, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
» No. 54: Brandon Marshall, WR, New York Jets
» No. 55: Anthony Barr, LB, Minnesota Vikings
» No. 56: Jurrell Casey, DE, Tennessee Titans
» No. 57: Greg Olsen, TE, Carolina Panthers
» No. 58: Cliff Avril, DE, Seattle Seahawks
» No. 59: LeSean McCoy, RB, Buffalo Bills
» No. 60: Joe Flacco, QB, Baltimore Ravens

Brandon Marshall is coming off a resurgent season with the Jets because he can outmuscle defenders, although he will make a few more mistakes than Allen Robinson (who's ranked one group above). Gerald McCoy gets eight sacks in a down year and has the talent to put up a Defensive Player of the Year award. Jurrell Casey had an incredible season for the Titans last year that no one noticed because he plays in Tennessee.

Cliff Avril is another defender that slips under the radar, but he seems to get better every year like his teammate Michael Bennett. Greg Olsen is my No. 2-ranked tight end, while LeSean McCoy is my No. 5-ranked running back. Shady looked like his young self for much of last season in Buffalo. Marshal Yanda has a strong case for "best guard in the NFL" status, while Anthony Barr can do everything at linebacker and is ready to build on his breakout year. Joe Flacco completes more difficult throws than any quarterback in the NFL.

Finally, Tony Romo was a tough player to rank. Before his boffo 2014 season, he was coming off his two worst seasons as a pro. Now he's 36 and coming off a lost season. The old Romo was a top-five quarterback, somehow underrated in his prime. Is this still the old Romo, or just old Romo?

» No. 61: Calais Campbell, DE, Arizona Cardinals
» No. 62: Doug Martin, RB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
» No. 63: Jamie Collins, OLB, New England Patriots
» No. 64: Demaryius Thomas, WR, Denver Broncos
» No. 65: Pernell McPhee, OLB, Chicago Bears
» No. 66: Terron Armstead, OT, New Orleans Saints
» No. 67: Keenan Allen, WR, San Diego Chargers
» No. 68: Chris Harris Jr., CB, Denver Broncos
» No. 69: Tyler Eifert, TE, Cincinnati Bengals
» No. 70: Matt Ryan, QB, Atlanta Falcons

Matt Ryan didn't play like a top-75 player last season, but he's still a quality starting quarterback who has shown he has the skill set and onions to bounce back. Tyler Eifert is a complete tight end, although I ranked him this high before learning that he needed ankle surgery this offseason. He hasn't proven he can stay healthy. Chris Harris Jr. and Keenan Allen are coming off seasons where they established themselves as premier players. Harris backed up his top-five cornerback season, while Allen showed he can be a true No. 1 wideout, despite missing eight games with injury. Demaryius Thomas is coming off his worst season as a regular starter -- and he still put up 1,300 yards.

Terron Armstead is the most unheralded left tackle in the league, while Pernell McPhee would be a superstar if he played on another team. He can do it all today. Other teams are looking for their version of Jamie Collins, which is the ultimate compliment. He can cover tight ends, rush the passer and run down ball carriers. It's impossible to find another Calais Campbell, because there is no one with his size, explosion and versatility. For one season, Doug Martin was the most complete back in the NFL. Can he back it up?

» No. 71: Alshon Jeffery, WR, Chicago Bears
» No. 72: Devin McCourty, S, New England Patriots
» No. 73: Mike Daniels, DL, Green Bay Packers
» No. 74: DeMarcus Ware, OLB, Denver Broncos
» No. 75: Aqib Talib, CB, Denver Broncos
» No. 76: Bobby Wagner, MLB, Seattle Seahawks
» No. 77: Josh Sitton, OG, Green Bay Packers
» No. 78: Delanie Walker, TE, Tennessee Titans
» No. 79: Jordy Nelson, WR, Green Bay Packers
» No. 80: Marcell Dareus, DT, Buffalo Bills

This group is highlighted by two great deep threats: Alshon Jeffery and Jordy Nelson. Following knee surgery, Nelson needs to show that he can still nab 50-50 passes down the sideline like Jeffery did all last season.

DeMarcus Ware is on the downside of his career and had to take a pay cut because of it. Yet he's still capable of taking over games. Mike Daniels is one of the most versatile and underrated linemen in the league. Devin McCourty gets bonus points for being a star at a scarce position (center field safety). Bobby Wagner has rare speed and is the complete player that MJD is projecting Eric Kendricks to become -- Wagner just didn't go to UCLA. Delanie Walker only gets better as his career wears on. Josh Sitton has proven to be one of the best guards of this era. Marcell Dareus isn't coming off his best season, but I'm betting on a bounceback effort in 2016.

» No. 81: Eli Manning, QB, New York Giants
» No. 82: Thomas Davis, LB, Carolina Panthers
» No. 83: Julian Edelman, WR, New England Patriots
» No. 84: Darius Slay, CB, Detroit Lions
» No. 85: Chandler Jones, DE, Arizona Cardinals
» No. 86: Malik Jackson, DE, Jacksonville Jaguars
» No. 87: Travis Kelce, TE, Kansas City Chiefs
» No. 88: Sheldon Richardson, DE, New York Jets
» No. 89: Blake Bortles, QB, Jacksonville Jaguars
» No. 90: T.Y. Hilton, WR, Indianapolis Colts

The two quarterbacks in this group are at vastly different stages in their careers. Eli Manning is hoping to hold on to his current level, and he's much more reliable (if unexciting) than the team around him. Blake Bortles is the most exciting young quarterback in football, but he needs to cut down on his mistakes to reach the next level.

I'm interested to see how Chandler Jones does away from the Patriots. He's a complete player, but his pass-rush ability came and went at times in New England. Thomas Davis was the Panthers' best defensive player on the field in the playoffs before he broke his forearm, and then he played through the injury in Super Bowl 50. Darius Slay is a riser among the best cornerbacks in the league. Peak Julian Edelman is just as valuable to Tom Brady as Wes Welker was. Edelman is even more dynamic after the catch and on punt returns. Sheldon Richardson will miss the first game of the year due to suspension, but I think he'll quickly make up for lost time. Travis Kelce has a chance to climb these rankings; he hasn't reached his potential yet. T.Y. Hilton proved he's not just product of the Colts' system. He topped 1,100 yards despite a mess around him last season.

» No. 91: Jordan Reed, TE, Washington Redskins
» No. 92: Jason Verrett, CB, San Diego Chargers
» No. 93: Golden Tate, WR, Detroit Lions
» No. 94: Reshad Jones, SS, Miami Dolphins
» No. 95: Devonta Freeman, RB, Atlanta Falcons
» No. 96: Derek Carr, QB, Oakland Raiders
» No. 97: David Johnson, RB, Arizona Cardinals
» No. 98: Malcolm Butler, CB, New England Patriots
» No. 99: Jason Pierre-Paul, DE, New York Giants
» No. 100: Kyle Long, OG, Chicago Bears

JPP is back! The Giants' pass rusher was surprisingly disruptive last season and should be much better this year playing with a glove instead of a club on his hands. We're buying low! Kyle Long is moving back to guard this year, where he's already proven he's one of the best players in the league. Malcolm Butler pulled off an incredible trick of following up one of the greatest plays in football history with a Pro Bowl season in his first time as a starter. Jason Verrett, like Butler, shows that aggressiveness is often more important than size in the secondary. David Johnson is another player on the rise. True three-down running backs are hard to find, and we put him in the top eight at his position, along with Devonta Freeman after his breakout year.

Derek Carr made a massive jump in his second season and doesn't need to get any better to be a huge asset for the Raiders for years to come. Reshad Jones is a rare safety who can do it all; he's underrated even by his own team. Golden Tate has been one of the best receivers after the catch since arriving in Detroit, and he can show this year he has the skills to be a true No. 1. Jordan Reed exhibited late last year that he is exactly the type of matchup nightmare teams are looking for from tight ends.

Editor's note: Tyron Smith, who was initially inadvertently left off the list, has been added at No. 37. To make room, Sammy Watkins, who had been No. 79, was taken off.

Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.

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