'Top 100 Players of 2017': Tantalizing storylines of the rankings


The draft is done. Minicamps are weeks away. And the regular season won't kick off for another four months. Sigh.

With so many Sundays in between Mr. Irrelevant and real, live FOOTBALL!!, we have some time to kill. OK, we have a lot of time to kill. So why not step back and think big picture? Let's spend our hours rehashing the 2016 season, recounting the year's greatest moments and, yes, ranking the top players in football.

Once again, NFL Network will be counting down the league's best footballers on "The Top 100 Players of 2017," broadcast weekly on Mondays at 8 p.m. ET, starting tonight. Last season, then-MVP and Panthers quarterback Cam Newton took the top prize. But one year later, the league's hierarchy has changed dramatically.

Before the first episode airs, let's break down seven of the most tantalizing storylines surrounding this year's list:

1) Will Tom Brady rank higher than league MVP Matt Ryan?

Three months after the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history, Brady and Ryan will meet again near the top of this list. But which quarterback will rank higher? History tells us Ryan, the league's Most Valuable Player, will: Five of the six No. 1s in this exercise's history won MVP in the season prior. (J.J. Watt was the lone exception in 2015, when he was named Defensive Player of the Year.) But if there ever was an icon to shake up that trend, it's Brady, whose 25-point comeback performance in his fifth Super Bowl victory reminded fans of his eternal greatness and worthiness of this year's coveted top spot.

2) Which team will boast the most players?

No one's handing out Lombardi Trophy look-a-likes to teams with the most players on this list; in fact, no Super Bowl champion has featured the most "Top 100" players since the Packers did in the poll's very first edition in 2011 (with seven). Last year, Kansas City, who lost to the Steelers in the Divisional Round, led the way with nine players. (Justin Houston was the highest at No. 26.) The Chiefs are still a contender to pace the league this time around, as they returned most of their defensive stars. But something tells me that the NFC's young risers in Atlanta and Dallas, both of whom had just two players in '16, could surprise with a slew of new faces, including Vic Beasley, Deion Jones, Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott.

3) How far will Cam Newton fall?

Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown. (Bill Shakespeare would've loved football.) 2016 was a rough campaign for Cam Newton, who went from conference champion, league MVP and No. 1 on this esteemed list -- compiled by his peers -- to out of the postseason, recovering from shoulder surgery and "dripping goo" at Coachella. (That can't be kosher.) After rising 72 spots to the top of the mountain in '16, the Panthers signal caller is a top candidate to fall the farthest. Other potential free-fallers for performance reasons include Carson Palmer (No. 12 in 2016), Brandon Marshall (25), Allen Robinson (31), Muhammad Wilkerson (39) and Blake Bortles (56).

4) How will injuries affect four top-10 players?

How do you judge a player who is never on the field? Yes, you remember how J.J. Watt pummeled offensive linemen and how Adrian Peterson stiff-armed misguided cornerbacks in years past, but if they spent the majority of 2016 on the sideline, can you truly give an accurate characterization of their present greatness? That's the question players polled must confront with four notable guys from the 2016 list. Watt (No. 3 in '16), Peterson (5), Luke Kuechly (7) and Rob Gronkowski (9) all suffered injuries that kept them off the field for long stretches of time. Watt, who ranked No. 1 two years ago, played just three games and recorded eight tackles. How will players treat these giants of the game? Take Andrew Luck's 85-slot drop in '16 as a glimpse of what could come. One year removed from entering the top 10, the Colts QB missed nine games due to shoulder, kidney and abdominal issues and subsequently dropped into the 90s. While we might see a similar fate for A.D., whose production had dropped off before his injury, we couldn't possibly have Watt, Kuechly and Gronk drop past No. 25, right? Right?!

5) Brown, Beckham or Julio: Which wideout will lead the pack?

Wide receivers dominate tabloid headlines, commercials, "Dancing With the Stars" and pre-postseason boat bashes, so why wouldn't they commandeer the 'Top 100'? Wideouts have been the most prolific position group in this annual ranking of players since its initiation in 2011, with an average of 16.7 per season. For four years -- 2012 through 2015 -- Lions legend Calvin Johnson had been the pace car, always placing high in the top 10. But with his retirement came a receiver vacuum at the head of the list, one Antonio Brown, Julio Jones and Odell Beckham Jr. filled with respective fourth-, eighth- and 10th-place rankings in '16. But which wideout will reign supreme this year? Will Brown's Facebook Live folly set him back amongst players? Could Julio's marvelous Super Bowl catch vault him into the top five? Might Beckham's penchant for yachting sink his chances at the top slot? More on this ... after the break.

6) How many rising sophomores will make the list?

I believe the children are our future, but do the players? Guys fresh off their rookie season rarely get respect on the "Top 100" list -- in 2016, only Todd Gurley and Marcus Peters broke through -- but last season's deep crop of freshman footballers is sure to be full of change agents. The Cowboys' breakout dynamic duo in Elliott and Prescott should be near shoo-in. Then there are Joey Bosa and Jalen Ramsey, two top-five defensive selections who lived up to expectations (and then some). Chiefs game changer Tyreek Hill and Falcons standouts Deion Jones and Keanu Neal also should be in the mix. And don't be surprised if under-the-radar offensive linchpins Michael Thomas and Jordan Howard snag slots.

7) So, where will Zeke and Dak land?

Dallas' prodigious pair drove the Cowboys to the top seed in the NFC in 2016, ushering in a new era of Lone Star football, while putting the old guard (read: Tony Romo) out to pasture. When it comes to Elliott and Prescott, it's their Jerryworld and we're just marveling at it. But how will veterans grade their rookie performances? And which Cowboy will ride side-saddle? Prescott beat out Elliott for the Offensive Rookie of the Year award to much surprise. After all, the tailback did lead the entire league in rushing, clearing his closest competition by 318 yards. Not to diminish Dak and his sparkling 104.9 passer rating, but Elliott went from a top pick to the top back quicker than anyone since Adrian Peterson. Does that achievement warrant a top-10 finish for Zeke, and what does that mean for Dak's status in the poll?

Follow Jeremy Bergman on Twitter @JABergman.



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