Rating the NFL's best players

"I leave that to all the people who talk on TV and the radio and write for the newspapers," Watt recently said after signing autographs at the Texans' training camp. "You work as hard as you can, and, hopefully, something good happens. Let everybody else weigh in with their opinions -- they're going to do that no matter what."

Oh, count on it.

Football, with 11 players per side, is the ultimate team game, which makes analyzing individual play a slippery slope. Watt's numbers were down last year compared to his incandescent 2012 season, but how much of that was a product of the Texans' 2-14 record?

"Individual numbers are a result of your teammates and the coaches putting you in the right position to win games," said Kuechly.

In just 32 games, the 6-foot-3, 235-pounder has produced a brilliant baseline. After the Panthers made him the No. 9 overall pick in the 2012 draft, Kuechly has been in on a staggering (literally) 320 tackles in his first two NFL seasons. And yet, if ESPN.com had been doing rankings his rookie year, he likely wouldn't have made the top 100.

Our voters have based their selections on professional production. Texans linebacker Jadeveon Clowney was the highest-rated rookie, but he finished at No. 162. His offensive counterpart Sammy Watkins, who has been making some sick one-handed catches in Bills' practices, is No. 221. Fans in Cleveland, Jacksonville and Minneapolis are fascinated by the possibilities of Johnny Manziel, Blake Bortles and Teddy Bridgewater, but they came in, respectively, at Nos. 306, 307 and 309. Another veteran quarterback, who shall remain nameless, was No. 308.

You should also know about our Next Man Up selection philosophy: If he's not playing, he won't be included. Cardinal linebacker Daryl Washington would have made the century club if he hadn't been suspended for one year following a substance abuse policy violation. Likewise, oft-injured Cowboys linebacker Sean Lee will miss the season after another ACL tear -- and a place among the NFL's finest. Bills linebacker Kiko Alonso, who was on our ballot, would have been No. 43 if he hadn't suffered a season-ending knee injury on July 2, before our balloting closed.

Some other overview #NFLRank fun facts:

• The biggest leaps inside the top 100 on offense and defense went to Eagles wide receiver DeSean Jackson and Colts linebacker Robert Mathis.
• The biggest falls: Texans offensive tackle Duane Brown (No. 33 in 2013) and Chargers cornerback Brandon Flowers (No. 39).
• The furthest crashes out of the top 100: Ravens running back Ray Rice (No. 15 in 2013) and Saints cornerback Champ Bailey (No. 25).
• Highest debuts: Browns wide receiver  Josh Gordon and Rams defensive end Robert Quinn.

In all, 30 first-time defenders enter the top 100, along with 21 offensive players. Peterson, ranked No. 19 a year ago, said players actually talk about these lists "once in a blue moon," but said he, too, was honored to be ranked among the best.

"In a certain perspective, it means something to you," he said from the Cardinals' facility in Arizona. "It goes to show that you've been very well respected around the league. It's a big deal."

Who is his No. 1 defender?

"No question," he said, laughing. "Patrick Peterson."

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