Part seven of nine in a series dedicated to ranking the best players of the past decade brings us to the back-third of the first round. This is where we begin to see a stupid amount of production and impact over an extended time.

These five players have put in a combined 41 years of NFL service, having been voted to 19 Pro Bowls and five All-Pro teams. Like Round 2, four of these men play offense—but you deranged fans of defense need not worry, because there are plenty of hard-hitting beasts left to cover over the final two entries in this series.

There is much to discuss, so let’s skip the foreplay and get right to it.

5. Heath Miller, Tight End (Pittsburgh Steelers, 2005, No. 30 overall)

USA Today Images — Steelers tight end Heath Miller (83)
USA Today Images — Steelers tight end Heath Miller (83)

Never a top receiving target like two of the other tight ends in the series, Miller has been a consistently well-rounded player for the Steelers from Day 1. He stepped in as a rookie in 2005 and started 15 of 16 regular-season games en route to helping Pittsburgh win Super Bowl XL.

In 10 seasons, Miller has missed only seven games, starting 152 of the 153 games in which he has played. He has 532 receptions for 6,034 yards and 43 touchdowns—all franchise records for the tight end position by a landslide.

Miller has been a solid release valve for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for a decade, but he is one of the best blocking tight ends in the league, to boot.

Arizona Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians, who coached Miller from 2005 through 2011, had high praise for the two-time Pro Bowler during the 2014 NFL Combine:

I’m old-school. You’ve got to block first, then catch passes. That’s why I loved Heath Miller. I still think [Miller] is the best tight end in the NFL. Not because he catches 90 passes, but because he blocks big defensive ends—and he catches about 60 to 70 passes. The guys that line up as wide receivers might get tagged as wide receivers. Tight ends, for me, block first [and] catch second.

4. Nick Mangold, Center (New York Jets, 2006, No. 29 overall)

USA Today Images — Jets center Nick Mangold
USA Today Images — Jets center Nick Mangold

If the Jets had a quality young quarterback under Mangold’s backside at any point during his career, the Jets might have made a Super Bowl or two over the past nine years. They were close during Mark Sanchez’s first two seasons, but despite the former top-10 pick playing well, he could not lead Gang Green over the threshold.

Regardless, Mangold has been a top interior lineman since putting on his Jets jersey for the first time in 2006.

In the eight seasons Pro Football Focus (subscription required) has graded every play of every game, Mangold has been graded as a top-two center six times—including last season at age 30. He participated in 563 passing plays in 2014 and allowed a staggeringly low seven total pressures.

Seven. That’s one pressure every 80 dropbacks, or about one every two games.

Center is a position that does not require much athleticism or movement—certainly not on an equal plane with running backs, linebackers or wide receivers. To think he could continue to be one of the top centers in the league for the next four seasons is not a reach.

Mangold has six Pro Bowls and two All-Pro votes under his belt.

3. Clay Matthews, Outside Linebacker (Green Bay Packers, 2009, No. 26 overall)

USA Today Images — Packers linebacker Clay Matthews
USA Today Images — Packers linebacker Clay Matthews

Our lone defender on the list has made five Pro Bowls and was named an All-Pro for his 13.5-sack performance during the 2010 season. But after 61 sacks in six seasons, could he be on the verge of a position change?

It’s not crazy to think the Packers could ask Matthews to make his late-2014 move to inside linebacker permanent moving forward. Green Bay’s defense was a sieve up front in the run game over the first eight games. Then Matthews moved from his usual outside linebacker spot to the inside, and things suddenly got better.

How much of a difference did he make? Before the move, the Packers ranked 30th, allowing 4.8 yards per carry. From Week 9 on, they ranked sixth, letting up just 3.6 YPC.

While a move to the inside may not be permanent yet, Matthews expects to play at least part of the time there in 2015 and said in February he is fine with it, according to Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

We talked. Moving forward I see from not only our coach’s expectations, but my own expectations (are there) for playing inside.

I really enjoyed it. I enjoyed the change. At the same time, I’m very good at getting after the quarterback off the edge, so I think there’s a fine line. So, we’ll see. Week in and week out you never knew if I was going to be there 100 percent of the snaps or only 10. We’ll see what that means moving forward.

Matthews leads the 2009 draft class in sacks by 21. Brian Orakpo, who went 13th overall to Washington, has 40, while Connor Barwin has 38.5 and Paul Kruger has 31. Michael Johnson rounds out the top five, coming in with 30.5 sacks in six seasons.

2. Dez Bryant, Wide Receiver (Dallas Cowboys, 2010, No. 24 overall)

Dez Bryant SN
USA Today Images — Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant

One of seven players in NFL history with at least 50 touchdown catches in his first five NFL seasons, Bryant burst onto the scene as a rookie and hasn’t looked back. His most-recent three-year stretch has been incredibly impressive, hauling in a league-high 41 touchdowns over that span.

The former Oklahoma State star may have been an even higher pick in 2010 if not for off-the-field issues that continue to follow him to this day. Those issues are the reason team owner Jerry Jones is reluctant to give his star receiver the enormous contract extension Bryant feels he’s worth.

If it were only about his play, Jones surely would have penned an agreeable deal long ago. But in today’s NFL, when players get fined and suspended for anything deemed out of order by commissioner Roger Goodell, it is wise of Jones to be apprehensive.

Bryant has the potential to be one of the greatest receivers ever to put on an NFL uniform, but his personal life could interrupt that if he does not get his act together.

NFL Media Insider Ian Rapoport reported last November the Cowboys’ concern for Bryant’s future in the league:

This is a genuine concern. The Cowboys … do not trust Dez Bryant off the field. The feared—and they have feared for a while—that it will all blow up in his face, that a variety of small incidents will all come back to haunt him.

1. Aaron Rodgers, Quarterback (Green Bay Packers, 2005, No. 24 overall)

USA Today Images — Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers
USA Today Images — Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers

It wasn’t easy. You know, not a lot of teams, I think, needed quarterbacks. After you got to a certain number … we knew after 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23 … it was probably not going to happen. That was the toughest part, just the wait, but good things happen to those who wait.

That was Rodgers the day after he sat in the green room at the 2005 NFL draft long after every other name sitting in the room with him had been called.

Rodgers’ wait on draft day was nothing compared to his wait in Green Bay. Being Brett Favre’s backup for three years was likely the best thing for him in hindsight. Had he gone No. 1 overall to San Francisco, as most had predicted he would, he would have started from Day 1; but he also would have had to endure six different offensive coordinators in six seasons, which could have derailed a potential Hall of Fame career.

[mks_pullquote align=”right” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#009607″ txt_color=”#eded00″]”…but good things happen to those who wait.”[/mks_pullquote]

He sat behind Favre for three seasons, then took the reins and earned a six-year, $63.5 million contract extension just seven games into his career as Green Bay’s starting quarterback.

Two seasons later, he took the Packers to Super Bowl XLV and beat the Steelers, bringing the Lombardi Trophy back to its rightful spot at 1265 Lombardi Avenue in Green Bay.

What Rodgers has done in seven seasons as a starter is unmatched in league history. His career 106.0 passer rating is far-and-away the best in NFL history. His six seasons with a rating of at least 100.0 are tied for the most in history, with Peyton Manning and Steve Young.

Manning had one such season through his first seven; Young had three. Rodgers’ six consecutive seasons of a 100.0-plus rating is another NFL record.

With a fast start to 2015, he could become the quickest in history to reach 30,000 career passing yards. The record is held by Dan Marino and Kurt Warner, who both did it in 114 games. Rodgers has played 110 games and needs only 1,422 yards to break the record. Based on his per-game average over the past three seasons, that equates to roughly five games.

If he were to retire right now, it’s possible Rodgers has already done enough in seven seasons to garner Hall of Fame honors. But he’s not done. Not even close. The 31-year-old is fresh compared to other 31-year-old quarterbacks thanks to those three learning years at the outset of his career.

Photo: USA Today Sports

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Round 7

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