NFL Kickoff: The 15 Most Intriguing Players of 2017
There are the best players, then there are most fascinating players. The guys who tap into our emotional brain space because they are an underdog, mounting a comeback, a medical miracle, have a boatload to prove or just freakin’ awesome
The list below constitutes our picks for the most intriguing players in the NFL headed into the 2017 season. Obviously this list is entirely subjective and completely debatable. Also, I’m 100% sure this list would look different if we did again in a month as new stars emerge and the injury cloud makes its rounds. But for now, Here we go:
Honorable mention: Brock Osweiler, QB, Denver Broncos
Every season needs one. A quarterback that we love to mock. From Mark Sanchez, to Eli Manning, to Jay Cutler, there’s just some special about the collective schadenfreude of watching a quarterback who you know is going to fail, and then do so, while looking like a complete dope. Enter Brock Osweiler, who is now coming back home after being unceremoniously discarded by both Houston and Cleveland. Can he re-discover that second half of 2015 magic (i.e., competence) that positioned the Broncos for a Super Bowl run? Of course he can’t. But the fact that the Broncos are willing to try (for the league minimum salary), and give us a front row seat to a another round of failure, benefits all of us.
15. Jared Goff, QB, Los Angeles Rams
See if you can find where Goff ranked in passing last season. Keep going. Keep going some more. 2016’s no. 1 overall pick registered a measly 63.6 passer rating his rookie season, good enough for no. 60 among passers. Was his poor debut due to a lack of guidance, fundamentals, confidence or all of the above? We shall see as new Rams coach Sean McVay should provide Goff a much better template for progression. An NFL playbook can take a few years to master but Goff must show some semblance of improvement, especially since the Rams gifted him with Sammy Watkins. Otherwise the b-word may start to creep into the conversation.
14. Frank Gore, RB, Indianapolis Colts
The notion that age, either in the form of sharp decline or injury, would plague Gore has been floated for at least four seasons. Yet while droves of other rushers last about ten seconds in the league, the 34-year old Gore keeps ticking. In one of the more remarkable stats, Gore has not missed since a start turning 30, and in fact, last missed a game in December 2010. Gore’s yards per carries have slightly dipped from the low 4’s to the high 3’s in recent years but he has mostly been a model of consistency. 2017 is a contract year for Gore, and while Robert Turbin will provide him some company in the Colts backfield, he’ll have a sizable easel with which to prove his worth for the next contract. If you think Gore is even remotely eyeing retirement, think again.
13. Jalen Ramsey, CB, Jacksonville Jaguars
Ramsey has all the making of a shutdown corner – the measurables, the speed to hang with anyone in coverage, and the endless trash-talking. As a rookie last season he ragged on the refs, DeAndre Hopkins and even the venerable Steve Smith, calling the boisterous receiver “an old man” who he “doesn’t respect as a man.” Ramsey lived up to the hype on the field, collecting 65 tackles, 14 pass breakups and 2 picks while smothering most opposing receivers. Unfortunately he had little to no supporting cast and the mounting losses took their toll on the rookie. An emotional Ramsey welled up on the sideline in disgust during a Week 12 game against Detroit. He will inherently have more help in 2017 as the Jags signed emergent corner A.J. Bouye, who is also flirting with shutdown status. How Ramsey follows up year one, and coexists with Bouye on a team that likely won’t be playing in the postseason, comes with heavy intrigue.
12. Jay Cutler, QB, Miami Dolphins
Cutler retired, signed on as a Fox analyst, unretired to join the Dolphins and subsequently admitted to never practicing for his TV gig. The frequently mocked quarterback should give more of a damn in Miami where he is reunited with the Adam Gase, his coordinator for the 2015 season. Under Gase, Cutler had his best season as a pro in almost every facet, mostly importantly TD-INT ratio (21-11). Despite an opening presser where Cutler exhibited vintage Cutler body language, he has been all smiles since. Time to see if the Gase magic still works wonders on him.
11. Adrian Peterson, RB, New Orleans Saints
One marker for a new Peterson Era: he played in the preseason. The 32-year old signed with New Orleans after the Vikings declined to pick up his option. The former all-world rusher is on the decline, and is arguably only the third best back on his team behind Mark Ingham and Alvin Kamara. But it will still be fascinating to observe his effectiveness and usage, especially starting Week 1 against the team that kicked him to the curb.
10. Aaron Donald, DT, Los Angeles Rams
Our second member of the Rams on this list but for a vastly different reason. Donald is arguably the top defensive player in football, His ability to create pressure and allude tackles make him a impossible force for most opposing lines to handle. Too bad it’s looking more and more likely that he will be watching Week 1 (and possibly beyond) from the confines of his home. Donald’s team has been seeking a new deal to supplant the rookie deal that would pay him a paltry $1.8 million this year. The Rams want to get a deal done but with the first game almost here have yet to reach an agreement. Rarely do holdouts spill into the regular season but this one is looking like an exception.
9. Marshawn Lynch, RB, Oakland Raiders
Lynch may be the most unconventional player in the modern era. He has his own dialect, motivations and certainly his own timeframe. Lynch stunningly retired in early 2016 after a hernia injury cut short his previous season. After a season off he stunningly unretired to play for the hometown Oakland Raiders, not because he so greatly missed football but because he wants to produce memories for local kids before the team jumps ship.
Lynch’s prime may be in the past – he last averaged 3.8 yards per carry and seemed slow and not as decisive. But his mere presence in Oakland ha come with a lot of hype. Jack Del Rio has encouraged the whole roster to exhibit “Beast Mode.” There is certainly promise on the field, especially behind a line that could be one of the league’s best. The real question with Lynch is whether or not he can stay healthy.
8. Odell Beckham Jr., WR, New York Giants
Three years in and Beckham is undoubtedly an elite wide receiver, finishing with double-digit touchdowns every season. Far more than a one-handed one catch wonder, Beckham has improved in most facets of the game, including his route running. He is an electrifying fan favorite who has seemingly toned down his off-field antics. Beckham is currently suffering from a left ankle injury which has threatened to sideline him against the Cowboys. Once he returns action, he has a real opportunity to crack one the top two wide receiver slots currently occupied by Julio Jones and Antonio Brown.
7. J.J. Watt, DE, Houston Texans
If this piece were written a year ago, Watt would not have been on this list. After coming off consecutive Defense Player of the Year honors in 2014-2015, a Hard Knocks lovefest, commercial overexposure, and even a cameo in Bad Moms, I think we were all suffering from J.J. Watt fatigue. But after a virtual disappearance in 2016 due to back troubles, the league is sorely missing a dominant #99 terrorizing offensive lineman. Can he, though? Back injuries are notoriously difficult to recover from, making Watt’s performance a huge question mark for 2017. And if he returns to form, he makes an already great Texans defense potentially historically great. Watt has already solidified his greatness off the field with a YouCaring campaign in the wake of Hurricane Harvey that has raised almost $30 million as of this writing.
6. Cam Newton, QB, Carolina Panthers
No player in the NFL is more dissected than Newton. His words, his attire, his body language. Newton on the field should be just as compelling this season. With the Panthers’ improved offensive line and new rookie rusher Christian McCaffrey, Newton has the tools in place to perform more like the 2016 MVP than what we saw last year. Part of what makes Newton so compelling is that he doesn’t fit into any box. He is a modern hybrid passer comfortable in the pocket with a strong arm, but also adept with his fun. This season should tell us whether he can be elite for a good chunk of time.
5. Michael Bennett, DE, Seattle Seahawks
With Kaepernick unemployed, Bennett has deftly taken the baton to become the face of the activist athlete. The realism of his messaging reached another level when he shared the harrowing story of recently being held at gunpoint by Vegas police simply because of the color of his skin. ESPN has called him an activist disguised as a football player. That is not entirely accurate. Bennett happens to be one of the best defensive ends in football who has been voted to the Pro Bowl two years running. Unlike his brother Martellus who has a second round pick, Michael went undrafted and that underdog mentality has driven him to greatness on and off the field.
4. Kirk Cousins, QB, Washington Redskins
Cousins, who was franchise tagged, had quite the statistical 2016. He finished third in passing with almost 5,000 yards (4917 to be exact) and an impressive 67% completion percentage. But his red zone efficiency (25 TDs) was low given his other numbers. As questions of his overall value swayed, Cousins’ camp negotiated with Redskins brass over the summer but the sides were reportedly way off. So Cousins was again given a franchise tag and will make a not so paltry $24 million before becoming an unrestricted free agent at season’s end. He lost both Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson to free agency but gained the explosive Terrelle Pryor and has an emergent Josh Doctson. All lenses will be on Cousins as he showcases his worth.
3. Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Dallas Cowboys
Elliott’s rookie year could not have gone more swimmingly. He power rushed his way to 1,631 yards, just short of Eric Dickerson’s rookie record, landed in the end zone 15 times and had buckets of fun along the way. Elliott’s swagger harkened us back to the days when premiere running backs were king. But…things are hardly as rosy heading into year two. An NFL-led investigation into allegations that Elliott assaulted his ex girlfriend domestic violence finally concluded with the league suspending Elliott six games. Elliott has appealed that decision and filed a motion for temporary restraining order. He will play Week 1 and his fate remains up in the air given that the NFL seemingly bungled its own judicial process.
Even if exonerated, Elliott probably needs a chaperone. In the last year he was immersed in the scene of a late night altercation in Dallas, pulled over for speeding over 100 mph, pulled up a random women’s short at a parade and visited a dispensary while his team was on a road trip in Seattle.
2. Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay Packers
It feels like Rodgers should have more than one Super Bowl ring. He is the most talented quarterback in football with an exceptional ability to read defenses, release the ball and fit it into the tiniest of windows. Turns out Rodgers is pretty sage as well. After Week 11 last season when a postseason berth seemed slim for Green Bay, Rodgers deftly said his team could run the table. That’s exactly what happened until they lost to Atlanta in the NFC Championship. Rodgers was absolutely phenomenal in that period and managed not to throw an interception for seven straight games, a remarkable feat given the degree of difficulty of his throws. As this season neared with the Packers a darling Super Bowl pick, we got a deep look at Rodgers off the field in a wide-ranging interview with ESPN’s Mina Kimes. The fact that Rodgers off the field is so self-aware and intellectually curious makes on field Rodgers all the more compelling.
1. Tom Brady, QB, New England Patriots
What is there to say at this point? Brady’s hands are adorned with rings and his trophy case is the size of an island. From a fascination standpoint he could almost be considered boring if he wasn’t so incredibly compelling. Brady tops this list not because of his achievements or the fact that he has a top notch supporting cast in New England even without Julian Edelman. Compelling, sure, but Benjamin Button Brady has the opportunity to achieve something far more transcendent: crush the notion that athletic primes are non-existent past 40. Let’s Gooooo see if Brady can one up himself yet again.