Who are the NFL’s best playmakers? With only three weeks of regular season action left before the playoffs, we’re definitely in crunch time. So, who are the players that can be expected to take over and dominate games?
Here, we look to answer that question. Before we get going, though, there are a few ground rules that need to be established.
As the title suggests, quarterbacks are not eligible. They handle the ball on every offensive play, so they’re naturally the most important and most dangerous players on the team. We’re looking at the guys who compliment them.
Also, we’re only looking at players on playoff contenders. If we’re wondering who the best players will be in crunch time, it doesn’t make much sense to look at players whose remaining games will tell us more about draft order than the postseason chase.
Which players should the top teams be most afraid of facing in a single-elimination game?
12. T.Y. Hilton, Indianapolis Colts, WR
While the Colts are tied for first place and can put a choke hold on the AFC South with a win on Sunday, it’s pretty fair to say that this season has not gone their way.
That hasn’t really reflected in the play of T.Y. Hilton, though. Despite having an injured Andrew Luck, Matt Hasselbeck, and Charlie Whitehurst throwing the ball to him, Hilton has amassed 58 catches for 987 yards.
Even with the sub-par play from the quarterbacks, Hilton has not only caught a lot of passes, but has shown that he can still stretch the field.
— The Sports Daily (@SportsDailyBlog) December 13, 2015
What makes him scary is that Colts don’t have many other options. If they’re going to get to the playoffs and make a run, T.Y. Hilton absolutely has to be prominently featured. That means that the Colts will have no choice but to take downfield shots with him. As Hilton’s stats in his three career playoff wins show, that’s been a winning proposition.
- 2013 AFC Wild Card Round vs. Kansas City Chiefs: 13 receptions, 224 yards, 2 touchdowns
- 2014 AFC Wild Card Round vs. Cincinnati Bengals: 6 receptions, 103 yards
- 2014 AFC Divisional Round vs. Denver Broncos: 4 receptions, 72 yards
Also worth mentioning. All three of those teams are possible playoff opponents, if the Colts advance.
11. Deone Bucannon, Arizona Cardinals, S/LB
So much about Arizona Cardinals’ season is impressive. Only Pittsburgh’s receivers can hold a candle to Arizona’s group, led by Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd, and John Brown. In Carson Palmer, those receivers have an MVP candidate at quarterback capable of getting them the ball.
No secondary has played as well as the Tyrann Mathieu, Patrick Peterson, Rashad Johnson, and Tony Jefferson led group. Only the Carolina Panthers and Denver Broncos have more pick sixes than Arizona.
But Deone Bucannon is the scariest player on that team.
His stats tell part of the story.
Quietly an impressive year for S Deone Bucannon: 99 tackles, 17 tackles for loss, 2 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, 2 fumble recoveries.
— Kyle Odegard (@Kyle_Odegard) December 15, 2015
While those are impressive, Bucannon is doing something that makes him different than any defensive player in the game. He’s changing the way the game will be played.
At 6-foot-1 and 211 pounds, Bucannon is listed as a safety but plays linebacker. In the pass-happy NFL, undersized players who cover ground will become more of a necessity if defenses are going to have any chance to compete. Guys we now think of as safeties will play linebacker. Guys we now think of as corners will be safeties.
Right now, Bucannon is really the only player like that. As his stats show, he’s doing a little bit of everything for one of the best defenses in the NFL. Coordinators don’t know what he’s going to do, so they can’t really prepare for him. That creates opportunities for the rest of the defense to thrive.
10. Tyler Lockett, Seattle Seahawks, WR
How good has Tyler Lockett been for the Seahawks? Well, consider some factoids about his quarterback, Russell Wilson.
- He needs only 186 more passing yards over the final three games to top his career high of 3,475.
- His next touchdown pass will be a new career best.
- Despite throwing more downfield than in past seasons, Wilson has only seven interceptions.
Russell Wilson is having his best season. It’s not a coincidence that this is the first season he’s had Lockett at his disposal.
Seattle is on track to make the playoffs this season, but they’ve been doing things a little differently. The defense has been good, but not indestructible. The running game has had its moments, but hasn’t been at all consistent. The offensive line has generally done a poor job of protecting the quarterback and opening holes for the running backs.
But Lockett has given them a consistent element of game-breaking speed that hasn’t been there during the past three seasons.
December weather ain't cooling Russell Wilson down.
Wilson -> Locketthttps://t.co/geuPjguJwY
— NFL Network (@nflnetwork) December 13, 2015
Wilson’s last four games compare favorably to any in NFL history. In that stretch, Lockett has recorded 507 all-purpose yards with four receiving touchdowns.
If teams want to beat Seattle, containing Russell Wilson is a good way to do it. If they want to contain Russell Wilson, they’d do well to keep Tyler Lockett in check. Unfortunately for them, that’s easier said than done.
9. Von Miller, Denver Broncos, LB
The biggest hope from Von Miller is that he can recover from the devastating injury he suffered last Sunday.
Von Miller has a very high IQ pic.twitter.com/fTEZhry8WT
— Darryl'snotes (@DeeDub67) December 14, 2015
Might need to work on your acting, Mr. Miller.
Joking aside. There’s a common theme on some of the AFC’s best teams this season — incredibly shaky offensive line play. Sure, there are plenty of great receivers and elite quarterbacks in that conference, but if they’re to make big plays, they’ll need some time to do it. Going against Miller, that becomes quite the chore.
Miller’s 10 sacks are impressive. More impressive are the four fumbles he’s forced, which are tied for the league lead. That means that not only do quarterbacks need to have a quick mental clock to prevent a sack, but they’ll need to keep the ball secure to prevent a turnover.
Playoff games are often close. Not only could a Von Miller strip-sack sway the result of a game, but the threat of a Von Miller strip-sack could sway the play-calling of opposing offensive coordinators. That’s called making an impact.
8. Josh Norman, Carolina Panthers, WR
When you throw at Josh Norman, this happens:
With the game on the line?
— NFL (@NFL) December 16, 2015
Okay, maybe you’re not convinced by a great play. Anyone could get lucky and make a big play, right? Possibly, but you can’t get lucky this many times.
Josh Norman has held DeAndre Hopkins, Mike Evans, TY Hilton, Dez Bryant, Julio Jones to combined 9 rec/89 yards (@nflnetwork research).
— Andrew Siciliano (@AndrewSiciliano) December 16, 2015
That’s a shutdown receiver against some of the game’s very best. Remember, the Panthers have won every game this season. Some of those wins — notably the games against Dez Bryant and Julio Jones — have been in blowouts, so their opponents are passing the ball. You’d think that receivers that good in a pass-happy offense would accidentally make a big play or two, right? Not the case.
Spoiler alert. In addition to the ones we’ve already seen, we’re going to see a few more receivers listed here. With just a few big plays in a 60-minute game, receivers can change the outlook of a game. The Panthers are the best, most dangerous team in the NFL for many reasons, but having a shutdown corner like Josh Norman in a big asset for them.
7. A.J. Green, Cincinnati Bengals, WR
Much like the Colts with T.Y. Hilton, the Bengals’ chances at a deep playoff run will depend largely on A.J. Green making big plays. That’s the bad news.
The good news is that Green is more than capable of making big plays, regardless of who’s throwing the ball.
No Andy Dalton. No problem.
— NFL (@NFL) December 13, 2015
Not having Andy Dalton might be a problem if the Bengals have Super Bowl aspirations. But a big day from A.J. Green can end the season of any opponent Cincinnati comes across.
6. DeAndre Hopkins, Houston Texans, WR
If you can tell a lot about a man by the company he keeps, DeAndre Hopkins is doing alright for himself.
Best wide receiver in the NFL?
The fans voted… & the Top 3 are:
— NFL Network (@nflnetwork) December 13, 2015
When you look at what he’s capable of doing, even against blanket coverage, such high praise is justifiable.
"DeAndre Hopkins one handed https://t.co/Wqx2GUzToK"
— Donach O'Donnell (@DonachODonnell) December 9, 2015
Houston’s quarterback situation needs a lot of help. But they’ve got a No. 1 receiver that can make any quarterback look a lot better than he really is.
They’ve also got a pretty good defensive lineman.
5. J.J. Watt, Houston Texans, DE
How good is J.J. Watt? Well, speaking ahead of last Sunday’s loss with the Patriots, Bill Belichick gave Watt the highest praise that any defensive player could ever receive.
“Watt’s a major force, there are very few players I would put in same conversation with Lawrence Taylor, I would put J.J. in there,” said Belichick, adding that Watt is Most Valuable Player-worthy and joked that he wished Watt would take the week off, per Aaron Wilson of the Houston Chronicle. “He’s a dynamic player. He can ruin a game. He’s a special player. He was the defensive MVP last year. He’s already earned that award this year even if he didn’t play the last four games.”
It showed on Sunday. While Watt’s statistical day was pretty bland, Jadaveon Clowney sacked Tom Brady twice, while Whitney Mercilus got to Brady once. Playing with a broken hand sustained in practice, Watt only had one tackle for a loss, but in addition to Clowney’s two and Mercilus’ one, Brian Cushing recorded two.
When teams focus on taking Watt out of the game, they have to to devote so much attention to him that the rest of the Houston front seven can wreak havoc in the opponent’s backfield. Yet Watt is so dangerous that coaches like Belichick see that and prefer it to Watt dominating. Honestly, the Patriots won the game 27-6, you can’t argue with it.
Despite the low statistical output against New England, Watt has recorded 13.5 sacks this year, tying him with Ezekial Ansah for second in the NFL, only one-half sack behind Khalil Mack. Watt also leads the NFL with 25 tackles for a loss, five ahead of Mack.
If Houston is going to be a championship contender, they need better play from the quarterback and their running game. But in DeAndre Hopkins, they have a star on the outside. In J.J. Watt, they have one of the most dominant forces that the game has ever seen.
4. Adrian Peterson, Minnesota Vikings, RB
Adrian Peterson still has it.
— NFL (@NFL) December 11, 2015
Much like T.Y. Hilton and A.J. Green, the problem opposing teams will have when facing the Vikings is not only how good Peterson is, but how good he is compared to the rest of his teammates.
The Vikings’ defense can keep them in a game. But if they’re going to win in the playoffs, Minnesota will need score points and move the ball consistently. If that’s going to happen, then Adrian Peterson has to be the focal point. There shouldn’t be any danger of Mike Zimmer and Norv Turner relying a lot on Teddy Bridgewater’s right arm — not if they want to win, anyway.
The offense has to run through Adrian Peterson. When it does, opposing defenses will have to deal with the man who’s still the game’s best running back.
3. Odell Beckham Jr., New York Giants, WR
As the likely wild card teams, it’s a pretty safe bet that the Seattle Seahawks and Minnesota Vikings are hoping that the Washington NFL team or Philadelphia Eagles win the NFC East to claim the No. 4 seed in the conference.
While those teams may be more complete than the New York Giants, they don’t stack up to the Seahawks or Vikings. Unlike the Giants, they also don’t have a player capable of dominating a game. In Odell Beckham, the Giants most definitely have that, and his ridiculous skills could swing the results of a playoff game New York’s way.
Granted, it’s not likely that the ‘Hawks or Vikings would simply forget to guard Beckham like Miami did.
I'm gonna put my Pro Football Focus hat on and go ahead and grade this F- coverage https://t.co/z7CCNcmc7U
— Mike Mutnansky (@MutWEEI) December 15, 2015
But like Hopkins, Beckham has proven that he’s more than capable of making the catch with good coverage, even on the sidelines.
Odell Beckham Jr is just on another level pic.twitter.com/cxGLv6DC5b
— NFL Retweet (@NFLRT) December 15, 2015
His hands are incredible. His feet are incredible.
His immeasurable athleticism is why no receiver since the merger has caught this many touchdown passes in the first 25 games of his career. Also, unlike the similarly skilled DeAndre Hopkins, Beckham has a quarterback in Eli Manning with the chops that allow his best receiver to dominate the game. Brian Hoyer and T.J. Yates don’t exactly have that.
There’s no way that any head coaches, defensive coordinators, or defensive backs are looking forward to a playoff game against Beckham.
2. Antonio Brown, Pittsburgh Steelers, WR
There’s been plenty of talk about Antonio Brown’s punt return touchdown two weeks ago against the Colts. The celebration was, of course, quite funny. Coach Mike Ditka’s reaction the following night on ESPN was classic while the NFL’s fine for the celebration was expected, and ludicrous.
But something kind of got lost in the reaction to all of that. That’s the NFL’s second leading receiver altering the game on special teams. Julio Jones has more receptions and yards and would certainly be on this list if the Falcons were a better team. But as good as Julio is, he doesn’t return punts. Right now, Brown is a (much) more lethal version of Tyler Lockett.
We know that Brown can sway the results of an NFL playoff game as a receiver, and he’s now caught more than 100 passes for three consecutive seasons. But playoff games often come down to field position, or making a big special teams plays. He can sway that part of the game, too.
With Antonio Brown, the Steelers not only have a guy that can score on any play but one that can impact a game when the offense isn’t even on the field.
1. Rob Gronkowski, New England Patriots, TE
Over the past five seasons, no non-quarterback has meant more to his team than Rob Gronkowski has meant to the Patriots.
Don’t believe us? Just check out the overwhelming evidence.
- 2011: Gronk gets injured during the AFC Championship game victory against the Ravens. A clearly hobbled Gronkowski plays in the Super Bowl two weeks later, a game the Patriots lose to the Giants 21-17.
- 2012: An injury to Gronk costs him most of the season’s last several weeks. He comes back for the playoffs but re-injures himself in New England’s first game — a lopsided win. He is then unable to play in the next week’s AFC Championship Game, which ended up as a 15-point loss to the Ravens.
- 2013: A December injury costs Gronkowski the remainder of the regular season and playoffs. The Pats do earn a bye and advance to the conference championship game but lose to the Broncos.
- 2014: Gronkowski remains healthy through the season and postseason. The Patriots get through the AFC playoffs and win the Super Bowl. While Gronk’s totals in the Super Bowl were fairly modest by his standards — six catches, 68 yards, one touchdown — the attention Seattle has to give him opens the door for an 11-catch day from running back Shane Vereen and nine receptions for 109 yards and a touchdown from Julian Edelman.
- 2015: Despite a myriad of injuries, New England starts the season 10-0. An injury to Gronkowski late in a game against Denver slows the offense down. They do force overtime, but lose their first game of the season. The following week, the Patriots suffer a home loss to Philadelphia, a team with a sub-.500 record. When Gronk returns, the Patriots get back on track with a lopsided win over the Texans.
There isn’t a touchdown-maker in the league to compare with Gronkowski, who is doing this at a historical pace.
Rob Gronkowski now has 64 touchdowns in his first 77 career games. Antonio Gates: 43 TDs in his first 77. Tony Gonzalez: 28 TDs.
— Bruce Arthur (@bruce_arthur) December 14, 2015
If he’s on the field and healthy, then the Patriots are the odds-on favorites to at least return to the Super Bowl. If he’s not, then the Steelers, Broncos, and even a healthy Bengals would all have a decent chance at beating the Patriots.