Rating the NFL's best players

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Luke Kuechly, the Carolina Panthers' dynamic, sometimes telepathic linebacker, laughed into the phone after a recent weight-lifting session. Still, you could almost hear the gears working in his mind.

He had just been congratulated on his significant spot in #NFLRank, ESPN.com's second annual top-100 player rankings. At 23, Kuechly is the youngest among our top 50 defenders (in 2013, only his second season, he was the youngest-ever Associated Press NFL Defensive Player of the Year), but he was just itching to know who the top three were.

Turned out, he already knew. In about a minute, Kuechly named the best of the best (along with a brief, complimentary scouting report) and got them in precisely the right order.

"There we go," Kuechly said, with impressive gusto, when told he had scored the hat trick. "Those are guys, great athletes, who have put in the hard work.

"Hey, now let me try and get the offense."

Next year, we might have to add him to our roster of 90 evaluators from the dizzying number of constituencies within the Worldwide Leader's NFL operation: NFL Nation writers from all 32 teams, ESPN NFL Insiders -- including former head coach Herm Edwards -- ESPN.com columnists and editors, Grantland writers, as well as the ESPN Stats & Information and fantasy football folks.

Today, we reveal the Nos. 100-91 players on both sides of the ball and continue over 10 days with the Aug. 29 culmination of the top 10s. There will be a page for each 10 players, supported by statistics, photo galleries, analysis and features.

If this almost frightening outpouring of inside skinny doesn't get you ready for your fantasy drafts, nothing will. This is the quintessential beach-reading package to get you through the doldrums of August training camps. And the spicy, subjective nature of this beast is sure to set off a social media tsunami. Some tasty morsels to tantalize you:

• A once-spectacular quarterback coming off a nasty injury was held at bay, failing to crack the top 100.  

"Wait, what?" said Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson, last year's No. 2 offensive player. "We talking about who I think we're talking about? Well, he's got time to correct that."

• Incredibly, two high-flying defensive teammates are ranked Nos. 2 and 3 -- no secondary feat.

"Oh," said Cardinals defensive back Patrick Peterson, sounding unconvinced upon learning their identity, "that's a possibility -- I guess."

• Three of the top-four-ranked offensive players come from the same bruising division. Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman correctly guessed them -- again, in the exact order.

"Hah!" he said. "I told you we study tape. We know who the top guys are."

• Two offensive teammates with a higher calling are ranked at Nos. 5 and 6.  

"Ah, I know that one," said Houston Texans defensive end Justin James Watt, the No. 1 defensive player in last year's inaugural rankings.

He also understands it will be exceedingly difficult to repeat.

"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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