All standouts are not created equal.
I routinely catch flak from football fans when I critique their favorite players in my analysis, but evaluators always go back to the tape to see if a guy's production is based more on his talent or the system that he plays in.
In the wake of NFL Network's "Top 100 Players of 2017," I thought I would take a closer look at some notable players who made the cut. Poring over the All-22 Coaches Film, I wanted to see if these particular guys are really stars or system players who thrive in schemes that are ideally catered to their talents.
Now, I will be the first to say that 80 to 85 percent of NFL players are system guys who must be placed in the right situation to maximize their talents. But the true stars in this league are able to thrive in any system or scheme.
With all that in mind, here are my judgments -- five stars and five system guys:
I've heard plenty of observers suggest that anyone could run for 1,000 yards behind the Cowboys' ultra-talented offensive line. And I get where that sentiment comes from, having seen 28-year-old Darren McFadden hit four digits in Dallas back in 2015. That said, while the Cowboys' front line can make an average runner look like a fine one, it takes a special player with extraordinary skills to make a run at 2,000 yards as a rookie. With 1,631 yards in just 15 games, I believe Elliott more than qualifies as a star in this league.
The 6-foot, 225-pound workhorse is a dynamic runner with a combination of strength, speed, balance and body control that allows him to play with power or finesse. He is one of the few runners in the league capable of scooting around the corner with sprinter's speed or bludgeoning defenders in the hole with fullback-like power. Although he is rarely touched in the backfield, Elliott's ability to run through contact is exactly what offensive coaches covet in elite RB1s.
As a receiver, Elliott flashes soft hands and polished route-running skills. The Cowboys haven't fully taken advantage of his receiving skills out of the backfield, but he is more than capable of being a 50-catch playmaker in an offense that will use more spread formations and concepts this season. To that point, Elliott's versatility as a dot back in a spread or I formation separates him from others and puts him in the conversation with Le'Veon Bell and David Johnson as the top backs in the game.
When I asked an NFC scout about Elliott's long-term prospects as a runner, he called him a "special player" with the potential to put a team on his back with his rare skill set. Having claimed a rushing title as a rookie, Elliott has already put the league on notice.
As a 6-5, 260-pound pass catcher with soft hands and NBA-like athleticism, Kelce can align anywhere in a formation (in-line, slot or out wide) to create a mismatch on a linebacker or safety in space. He blows past lumbering defenders on deep routes and easily boxes out defensive backs on spot-up routes over the middle of the field. Thus, the defense is always at a disadvantage when crafting a plan to slow him down on the perimeter.
To their credit, the Chiefs have done a masterful job maximizing his talent and potential by frequently aligning him on the back side of 3x1 formations to get him loose on verticals or deep crosses down the field. In addition, Andy Reid has used Kelce in the screen game to get him easy touches on the perimeter and take advantage of his underrated running skills in the open field.
With a 1,000-yard season under his belt and more opportunity to maximize his talent as the No. 1 option in Kansas City's passing game, Kelce is poised to continue the revolution at the tight end position.
After being dismissed as a bust following two injury-plagued seasons, the former No. 1 overall pick finally showed the football world why scouts were waxing poetic about his generational talents as a pass rusher at South Carolina. In Year 3, Clowney made his first Pro Bowl after serving as the Texans' Swiss Army Knife on the front line in J.J. Watt's absence.
While the raw numbers don't necessarily jump off the page (52 tackles, six sacks, and one forced fumble), when you pop in the tape, it doesn't take long to see his impact as a disruptive defender. Clowney's combination of strength, power and athleticism at 6-5, 270 pounds is hard to find, and few O-linemen are able to neutralize him when he revs it up at the point of attack. He simply overpowers blockers on the way to the football from an edge position or interior spot in the Texans' hybrid scheme.
Here's the scary part: He is still learning how to use his hands to defeat blockers at the line and hasn't fully developed a solid set of pass-rush maneuvers that will allow him to consistently top the 10-sack mark. Thus, he is only going to get better with more reps. And this season, he stands to see more one-on-one blocking with Watt -- the three-time Defensive Player of the Year -- returning from injury. With blockers already struggling to neutralize him, Clowney's poised to begin meeting the insane hype that preceded his arrival in Houston.
The 5-11, 198-pound cover corner held his own against premier receivers while showcasing a diverse game that allows him to fit into any scheme. As one of the few corners in the league who's equally effective in bump-and-run tactics and "off" coverage, Jenkins is capable of matching up with big or small receivers on the perimeter. He can offset big-bodied wideouts with his quickness, yet suffocate smaller receivers with his aggressive tactics at the line. In addition, Jenkins can also play as a "clue" corner and lean on his instincts to become a playmaker in zone coverage.
Given his diverse skills, disciplined approach and competitive spirit, Jenkins is quietly emerging as one of the elite playmakers on the island and opponents are starting to notice his impact potential as a CB1. I had an NFC scout tell me that Jenkins has always shown flashes of being a premier player, but "he finally took his game up a notch" in New York to cement his status as a lockdown corner. With three interceptions and 18 pass defenses against a who's who of wide receivers on the island (Dez Bryant, A.J. Green and Antonio Brown, to name a few), Jenkins must be included in the discussion of the game's top cornerbacks.
Whenever a quarterback starts his career with back-to-back 4,000-yard seasons, coaches and scout zero in on his game tape heading into Year 3. Evaluators want to dig into the film to see if the gunslinger has inflated numbers because he was "chasing points" or was the product of playing in a quarterback-friendly scheme that allowed him to generate production on layups and simple throws from the pocket. Having studied the All-22 Coaches Film on Winston myself, I can tell you that it's pretty obvious he is a transcendent talent with a set of skills that will make him one of the top passers in the game for the next decade.
Now, this certainly won't surprise evaluators who've seen the young quarterback carve up defenses since his days as a freshman starter at Florida State. He has always exhibited outstanding arm talent and impeccable timing as an anticipation thrower. But we all wondered if he would be able to avoid the turnovers that plagued his game as a collegian.
While he still throws too many picks (33 through his first two seasons), Winston has shown that he is a fearless anticipatory thrower capable of delivering darts into tight windows. He routinely connected with Mike Evans, Adam Humphries and Cameron Brate on hotly contested throws tossed at intermediate range. Without a deep threat to stretch the coverage last season or a legitimate running game to create one-on-one chances in the passing game, Winston was rarely able to string together completions on a handful of "gimme" throws outside of the numbers. Thus, he should earn a gold star for racking up spectacular production on challenging throws.
In 2017, that gold star could turn into another Pro Bowl honor, with DeSean Jackson and O.J. Howard coming on board to create more big-play opportunities. Winston will have a legitimate home run threat outside the numbers to target on go and post routes, as well as a dynamic "MOF" (middle of the field) threat to attack the voids between the hashes. With Evans, Humphries and Brate poised to shine in their assigned roles, Winston has a supporting cast in place that should allow him to reach his potential as an elite passer in this league.
I'm sure the sight of their QB1 on this list will make plenty of Cowboys fans @ me on Twitter, but hear me out before you compose your 140-character missives. The 2016 Offensive Rookie of the Year certainly looked like a star as a surprising first-year starter for "America's Team," but he landed in a perfect situation for a young quarterback with the league's best offensive line and a pair of elite playmakers at the RB1 (Ezekiel Elliott) and WR1 (Dez Bryant) spots. Not to mention, he had one of the most reliable tight ends in NFL history at his disposal (Jason Witten), which provided the rookie with a security blanket when things got chaotic in the pocket.
Think about it this way: The Cowboys have five former first-round picks (Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick, Zack Martin, Elliott and Bryant) in their projected starting offensive lineup, which significantly exceeds the number of top picks surrounding the likes of Drew Brees (3), Philip Rivers (3), Tom Brady (2), Ben Roethlisberger (2) and Aaron Rodgers (1). Thus, it's easy to make the argument that the Cowboys' supporting cast alleviates the burden on Prescott's shoulders to carry the offense.
Now, I certainly understand that the Cowboys' offense was originally constructed with Tony Romo in mind, but the rookie quarterback clearly benefitted from the star-studded group around him. He had the luxury of leaning on a powerful running game or a quick-rhythm aerial attack that allowed the offense to operate with an efficient point guard at the helm. To that point, the Cowboys crafted a system on the fly that played to the strengths of Prescott's game as a quick-rhythm passer with outstanding athleticism. The team operated extensively out of spread and empty formation in obvious passing downs, which put the rookie in his comfort zone based on his experience at Mississippi State. As a result of a brilliant scheme and player deployment, Prescott posted a passer rating above 100 in 11 regular-season games and recorded a ridiculous 23:4 TD-to-INT ratio, helping the Cowboys take the division crown.
Naturally, Prescott supporters will suggest that the young QB's poise, charisma, leadership skills and overall efficiency as a passer keyed Dallas' resurgence -- but I don't think the team initially envisioned the fourth-round selection as a legitimate franchise quarterback, based on reported attempts to snag Paxton Lynch and Connor Cook on draft day before settling on the Mississippi State star. That certainly doesn't diminish what Prescott has been able to accomplish against long odds, but it does speak volumes about how the Cowboys viewed the field general as a prospect.
It's on Prescott to prove to defensive coordinators around the league that he can continue to thrive when opponents sit on his fastball (Prescott's ability to work short and intermediate areas as a passer). If the Cowboys' QB1 can play well when forced out of his comfort zone, we will be able to move him into the "star" category.
Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. were teammates at LSU -- and now they're sharing a spot in the NFL record book, with 288 receptions apiece over their first three pro seasons. Landry has a pair of 1,000-yard seasons on his resume, but he is really a "get open" playmaker as the Dolphins' WR1. The 5-11, 206-pounder is at his best catching the ball on the move where he can utilize his rugged running skills and superb stop-start quickness to turn short passes into big gains. Whether it's a bubble screen or an option route between the hashes, Landry is a dangerous weapon as a chain mover in the slot.
To that point, I don't believe Landry is a classic WR1 with the potential to routinely impact the game at a high level (like Beckham does). Sure, Landry can rack up first downs and extend drives with clutch catches between the hashes, but he lacks the size, speed or big-play potential to command a double-team, and his mere presence doesn't necessarily make his teammates better. Not to mention, he isn't necessarily a polished or precise route runner, which limits his ability to anchor a passing attack when opponents make a concerted effort to take him out of the game.
That's why Landry is in a great situation with Adam Gase serving as his play designer and play caller in Miami. The clever schemer has positioned Landry perfectly in the slot and called a number of catch-and-run plays at or near the line of scrimmage. Although Landry lacks the diverse game to function as a WR1, the Dolphins have found a way to maximize his skills as an electric slot receiver.
No matter how I much I rave about Hayward's spectacular combination of ball skills, instincts and playmaking ability, there are going to be a lot of folks who take offense to me listing him as a "system guy." Although he essentially shut down one half of the field for the Chargers with his ballhawking skills on the island, Hayward isn't a traditional shutdown corner in the truest sense of the term. Instead of blanketing WR1s with a suffocating bump-and-run technique, he specializes in delivering splash plays as a "see ball, get ball" cornerback in a zone scheme that allows him to "pattern read" (recognize route combinations) from a distance.
Utilizing a traditional backpedal or a "bail" technique (side-shuffle), Hayward keeps enough distance between himself and the receiver to see the big picture and react accordingly based on the route combination. This makes him a perfect fit for a team that employs a lot of zone coverage because this allows a corner to play with vision on the quarterback instead of locking in on his man.
This might be why Hayward has played at an "A" level with the Chargers after a pretty nondescript four-year tenure in Green Bay. Last season, the Chargers employed a lot of simple zones under former defensive coordinator John Pagano -- and the team will continue to feature zone-like principles with Gus Bradley in charge. In fact, Bradley told me this offseason that he expects Hayward to have a big year because he is a "perfect fit" as a field corner in his scheme, being a zone playmaker who plays with outstanding vision and awareness.
With that in mind, it is possible that Hayward remains a top playmaker at his position due to a scheme that allows him to play to his strengths.
It is uncommon for a player with Pro Bowl credentials and a spot among the top five rushing leaders to be viewed as a system guy, but the Dolphins' RB1 is a straight-line runner with the right amount of power and pop to thrive in his team's scheme. Sure, he just posted three 200-yard games in one season -- joining an exclusive club of runners (O.J. Simpson, Earl Campbell and Tiki Barber) -- but he is not a transcendent star at the position.
While I'm certainly not dismissing his talent or accomplishments, Ajayi is ideally suited to play in a zone scheme that allows him to attack the line of scrimmage with his shoulders square to the defense. He flashes a little wiggle at the point of attack and hits the crease with a burst. He finishes runs with authority and has an impressive leg churn that allows him to run through contact at the second level. Those traits are certainly commendable, but they aren't enough to place him among the elites at the position.
"He has size and speed," an NFC scout told me. "But I don't know if there is anything special about his game other than he runs hard and has some pop in the open field."
Looking at all of his work during 2016, it is hard to ignore Ajayi's long stretches without significant production. He finished eight games with fewer than 60 yards and averaged less than four yards per carry in six contests. Thus, I view him more as a "boom or bust" runner made for a zone system that provides plenty of creases at the point of attack.
It might've surprised some observers to see Graham's name on the "Top 100" list, but the veteran defender is one of the NFL's most disruptive playmakers off the edge. While it doesn't necessarily show in his sack production (5.5 in 2016), he led the league in disruptive impact when you combine his sacks, quarterback hurries and knockdowns (80). Not to mention, he finished the season with 14.5 tackles for loss.
As an undersized defensive end (6-2, 265 pounds) with explosive first-step quickness, Graham relies on his athleticism and movement skills to blow past blockers at the point of attack. In an Eagles' scheme, which features a number of angles and slants that allow him to play on the move, Graham's combination of quickness and explosiveness enables to destroy plays at the line of scrimmage, particularly runs directed to the other side of the field. In addition, the constant movement at the line of scrimmage allows him to make the battle on the edges a quickness contest instead of a street brawl that forces him to win against hand-to-hand combat against longer blockers.
If Graham were forced to play in a static scheme without the movement-based tactics designed to free him up off the edge, he would have a tougher time creating disruption as an undersized defender.