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J.J. Watt, Rob Gronkowski top NFL's best non-QBs

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As much as it might stagger the imagination of a 21st century football fan, quarterbacks weren't always atop the NFL's salary-structure food chain. Back in the late 1970s, Hall of Fame running backs O.J. Simpson and Walter Payton were the highest-paid players in the league.

The subject is back in the news of late, with Von Miller's quest to become the highest-paid defensive star and Fletcher Cox's new contract that rewards him as the second-highest paid non-quarterback in NFL history.

With that in mind, let's take a look at the most valuable non-quarterbacks entering the 2016 season:

1. J.J. Watt, DE, Houston Texans: Winner of three of the past four Defensive Player of the Year awards, Watt is the dominant, game-wrecking defensive force of his generation. He now ranks with Lawrence Taylor and Reggie White as the most devastating defenders ever to stalk the gridiron.

This isn't the first time we've wondered if Watt might just be more valuable than several of the NFL's franchise quarterbacks.

2. Rob Gronkowski, TE, New England Patriots: The offense's answer to Watt, Gronkowski is such a freakishly stellar specimen that NFL Media analyst Nate Burleson once suggested he was "built in a lab" or "pieced together by the football gods." Stopping Gronk is a Herculean task that would require a Frankenstein-like mashup of Jamie Collins' size and athleticism, Richard Sherman's playmaking ability and Patrick Peterson's speed and quickness.

Cardinals general manager Steve Keim explained earlier this offseason that NFL teams no longer find complete tight ends. Today's tight ends are either inline blockers (Y) lacking the skill set of pass catchers or overgrown wide receivers (F) who get blown up at the point of attack. Gronkowski is not just the exception to the rule. He's the best to ever do it.

3. Aaron Donald, DT, Los Angeles Rams: What separates Donald from other stud defensive tackles is his unparalleled first-step burst off the snap. That quickness is enhanced by a swashbuckler's strong but dexterous hands, a relentless array of moves and the ferocious closing speed of an apex predator.

"Extremely. Extremely (disruptive)," Buccaneers coach Dirk Koetter raved late last season. "Our scouting department scouts teams a couple of weeks in advance, and they told me that he was on the same level as J.J. Watt. And I thought to myself, 'Wow! That's hard to believe.' "When it came my time to watch the tape, I said, 'Oh, wow! He's on the same level as J.J. Watt!' I mean, this guy's having a fantastic year, definitely a game-wrecker for this game."

4. Von Miller, LB, Denver Broncos: A true outcome shifter, Miller was the difference between the Broncos and the losing teams in the AFC Championship as well as Super Bowl 50. When an offensive tackle overcompensates for his dynamic speed off the edge, Miller unleashes a devastating spin move that accounted for 16 QB pressures alone last season, per Pro Football Focus. He's going to be rewarded as the NFL's highest-paid non-quarterback when he signs his next contract.

5. Luke Kuechly, LB, Carolina Panthers: The Panthers ask more of their linebackers than any team in the league, and Kuechly is driving force with freakish athleticism and the ability to process reads at an uncanny speed. His closing speed in the run game and range in the passing game jump off film, as evidenced by his Thanksgiving Day performance that ranks as one of the most impressive by a linebacker in the past half-decade. If not for Miller's MVP performance, we would have spent the offseason recounting Kuechly's own dominant playoff run.

6. Antonio Brown, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers: Chris Harris is one of the NFL's premier cornerbacks, earning Pro Bowl nods in back-to-back seasons. Football's best route runner flat-out tortured him in a December shootout, hauling in 13 of 15 targets in Harris' coverage for 147 yards and a pair of scores.

"It was the best versus the best, and he won," Harris conceded. "I haven't given up a touchdown in two years. ... He's a great player. The best receiver in the game right now."

7. Julio Jones, WR, Atlanta Falcons: If Brown stands atop the NFL's wide-receiver hierarchy, Jones is nipping at his heels. In fact, Jones is clearly the more physically dominant of the two. He closed out the 2015 season with the second-most receptions (136) and receiving yards (1,871) in league history.

More valuable than franchise quarterback Matt Ryan, Jones has been the unique power/speed dynamo making the Falcons offense go since he entered the league in 2011.

8. Odell Beckham, WR, New York Giants: Brown and Jones should enjoy the attention now, because the greatest pure athlete in the league is coming like a freight train. No receiver in NFL history can match Beckham's production through two NFL seasons. Since he debuted in Week 5 of the 2015 season, Beckham has 25 touchdowns. Gronkowski is the only player in the league within five receiving scores of Beckham over that span.

What makes Beckham so special? Let's start here: vertical explosiveness, incredible leaping ability and hang time, improvisational creativity, mid-air dexterity, rare suddenness, easy separation, ability to play every wide-receiver position and run a full route tree, humongous suction-cup hands and world-class athleticism.

9. Khalil Mack, LB/DE, Oakland Raiders: Just two seasons into his career, Mack is already pushing Miller as the NFL's best all-around edge rusher. He made history last year as the first player selected at two different positions (defensive end, outside linebacker) on the Pro Football Writers Association's All-NFL team. After watching his teammate close out 2015 with 10 sacks in his final six games, Derek Carr believes Mack can break Michael Strahan's single-season record this year.

"I think he's going to sack the quarterback 30 times," Carr recently told Adam Schein on SiriusXM's Mad Dog Sports Radio. "Watch the tape. He's held every play. He's like nobody else in the league. He's talented."

10. Patrick Peterson, CB, Arizona Cardinals: Peterson has long been viewed as football's most physically gifted defensive back. Prior to last season, though, there was a sense that his annual spot in the Pro Bowl and on the All-Pro's first team was due more to reputation than results. After dropping weight and getting his Type 2 diabetes under control last offseason, Peterson put it all together in 2015. The NFL's stingiest shutdown cornerback, Peterson topped all cornerbacks with a 45.6 passer rating and 18.9 coverage snaps per reception.

Just missed: Geno Atkins, Ndamukong Suh, Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas, Le'Veon Bell, Adrian Peterson, Todd Gurley, DeAndre Hopkins, Dez Bryant, A.J. Green, Fletcher Cox, Tyrann Mathieu

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