Throughout the offseason, Baseline Times will be ranking the top 100 NFL players for the 2021 season.
Every Thursday night, 10 players will be released with a short discussion about what separates them from the rest of the pack. Rankings are based on both past performance and projections for next year.
This week’s list is filled with veterans who took a big step forward last year, as well as some unsung young heroes.
Previous Entries: 100-91
90. Derwin James, S, Chargers
So far, James has lived up to his pre-draft evaluation: if he can stay healthy, he is a game-changing safety. He fell to the Chargers at No. 17 in the 2018 draft because of a leg injury and was a first-team All-Pro that season. However, his leg sidelined him for all of 2020 and most of 2019. He is reportedly fully healthy, and a successful start to the season could quickly change the narrative surrounding him.
89. J.J. Watt, DE, Cardinals
No one has dropped down this list as quickly and as suddenly as Watt. Once the consensus best player of his generation, it feels like much longer than three years since he recorded 16 sacks and was named a first-team All-Pro. Last year, he had five sacks and 17 quarterback hits, both career-lows for a full season.
Now, Watt will suit up for a team besides Houston for the first time. Expectations are low, and Watt has punched his ticket to Canton regardless of how he performs. But he will need to regain at least some of his old form if he wants to be remembered as one of the greatest defensive players of all time.
88. Stephon Tuitt, DT, Steelers
Tuitt bounced back from a 2019 injury and finally made the jump from “good” to “elite” in his seventh NFL season. One of ten players to post double-digit sacks, Tuitt made offensive lines pay for focusing too much attention on T.J. Watt.
87. Josh Jacobs, RB, Raiders
Making fun of the Raiders’ draft picks has become something of a national pastime, but Jacobs is no joke. He racked up 12 touchdowns and 1,303 yards from scrimmage in his sophomore campaign and made his first Pro Bowl. He lacks the explosiveness to compensate for a bad offensive line — his longest rush last year was 28 yards — but has emerged as a true every-down back in a time where that role is supposed to be dying out.
86. Leonard Williams, DT, Giants
Williams’ shaggy mane of hair and massive 6-foot-5 frame have become one of opposing linemen’s least favorite sights. He has been a true workhorse since entering the league in 2015, missing only one game in six years. But last year, he finally lived up to his status as the No. 6 overall pick.
He posted career-highs in sacks (11.5) and tackles for loss (14) while leading a rejuvenated Giants defensive line. His 62 quarterback pressures were more than double anyone else on the team. New York rewarded him in March with a $63 million dollar contract.
85. DeMarcus Lawrence, DE, Cowboys
Lawrence has not justified the five-year, $105 million contract he signed in 2019. However, he has been much better than his 11.5 sacks in the past two years suggest. Lawrence is disruptive and physical, two traits that were lacking in Dallas’ 28th-ranked defense last year. He could experience a resurgence if bruiser Micah Parsons draws enough attention from opposing offenses.
84. Allen Robinson, WR, Bears
While he has never matched the heights of his 2015 breakout season, Robinson’s quiet consistency has anchored the Bears’ offense with 200 receptions in the past two years. His 1,250 yards last year ranked ninth in the league, ahead of Pro Bowlers Keenan Allen and A.J. Brown.
Few players are better than Robinson at making contested catches, whose size and sure hands give him an edge over most cornerbacks. If Justin Fields meets expectations, Robinson could be in for a career year in 2021.
83. James Bradberry, CB, Giants
Bradberry hasn’t become a star quite yet, but New Yorkers know how intimidating he can be in pure man coverage. Bradberry is not an aggressive corner, but possesses elite instincts and keep up with the league’s best route runners. Don’t let that style fool you — he was instrumental in the Giants’ upset of the Seahawks last year, holding the 6-foot-4 D.K. Metcalf to five receptions.
The five-year veteran went to his first Pro Bowl last year. He also posted a 79.8 grade on Pro Football Focus — seventh-best among cornerbacks and better than stars like Stephon Gilmore and Tre’Davious White.
82. Joel Bitonio, G, Browns
The Browns’ offensive line was the biggest factor in their success last year. They have three lineman on this list, more than some entire teams. Their blockers are that good.
Bitonio is a head coach’s dream. He has not missed a snap at left guard in the past four years and has been a second-team All-Pro for three years straight. Guards rarely get credit for their team’s success, but Nick Chubb and Baker Mayfield may not have become stars without Bitonio’s steady prescence.
81. Joe Burrow, QB, Bengals
Burrow’s Week 10 ACL injury remains the most enduring and tragic image of the 2020 NFL season. Before his season was cut short, Burrow put up over 300 passing yards five times and was immune to most of the growing pains young quarterbacks experience. He is unquestionably the Bengals’ quarterback of the future.
However, Cincinnati questionably passed on left tackle Penei Sewell in the draft. Their offensive line is virtually unchanged from the group that at one point allowed Burrow to be sacked 16 times over three weeks. If he can not stay on his feet, it won’t matter how talented he is.