Like NFL Network, Pro Football Focus decided a while back to take advantage of the dead-time on the NFL calendar by releasing a 'Top Players' list. It certainly doesn't hurt that NFLN publicizes the 'Top-100' on the small-screen airwaves—PFF might as well capitalize on the fan scrutiny.
No. 90: Derek Wolfe, DE (unranked)
Wolfe missed the first four games due to suspension, but came back as a man with a mission. He immediately turned around Denver's run defense and distinguished himself finally as a pass rusher. Here's a snippet from PFF's ranking:
It’s not too often a team re-signs one of its players during the season, only to see him perform even better once the money has hit his bank account. That’s precisely what happened with Wolfe, however, who ended the season with five straight positively graded games and didn’t have a single performance in the red all season long. He notched at least a sack in each of his final seven games and over that period totaled 34 pressures.
Wolfe established himself as one of the NFL's premier 3-4 defensive ends in 2015. In year-two under DL coach Bill Kollar, it'll be exciting to see Wolfe play a full season and spread his wings even farther.
No. 76: Evan Mathis. OG (59 in 2014)
Mathis was signed in late August and it took him some time to find his groove. He established himself as Denver's best run blocker but took a step back in pass protection—likely due to age. Mathis' season was also marred by the injury bug. PFF:
Injury and playing time hurt Evan Mathis, but we also saw him slip as a pass-blocker at times during the season. Pass protection has always been the weaker side of his game, but this season it was actually marginally below average, and he surrendered three sacks and 19 total pressures despite splitting time at the position. His run-blocking was still peerless, however, and he had the highest grade in the league among all guards. He may not destroy people, but he is the most consistent guard in football, rarely losing in the run game.
No. 75: Malik Jackson, DE (43 in 2014)
The $90 million man took a quantum leap forward in a contract year, making his presence felt consistently as a pass rusher and holding his own in the run game. However, in his new Jacksonville digs, Jackson will be called on to be 'the Man' and it remains to be seen whether he can be. PFF:
While Derek Wolfe signed an extension early, Malik Jackson held out until free agency and cashed in with the Jaguars after a big season in Denver. Jackson became an every-down player and posted 60 total pressures from 530 snaps rushing the passer during the regular season, and then added 15 more during the playoffs. He may have benefited from the sheer array of weaponry on the Broncos’ defense, but Jackson was one of the more impressive interior rushers in the league this past season.
No. 69: Emmanuel Sanders, WR (42 in 2014)
Shoddy quarterback play trickles down to the receivers, hence Sanders' 27-spot fall. But, as we know, he was Denver's most consistent and reliable receiving target, always a threat to make a big play. PFF:
You wouldn’t ordinarily expect to hear about a receiver being held back by having Peyton Manning as his quarterback, but that’s a very legitimate argument to be made for Sanders in 2015. (He didn’t see his fortunes improve much in the games Brock Osweiler was starting, either.) Despite the poor-to-average QB play in Denver, Sanders was extremely reliable and maintained that strong level in the postseason, notching at least five catches and 62 yards in each of his three playoff games.
No. 36: Chris Harris, Jr, CB (4 in 2014)
Harris still managed to earn a Pro Bowl nod in 2015, but he did take a slight step back from his dominant 2014 campaign. Getting torched by Antonio Brown in Week 15 didn't help his PFF ratings, but on that topic, I submit Patrick Peterson, who's good for allowing a handful of touchdowns in coverage each year. Harris went 36 games without allowing a score, before Brown dropped two on him. PFF:
If you take away the two games against the Steelers, Harris would likely have been in the top 10 once again. He earned a +23.4 cumulative overall grade against the rest of the league this season, and a -7.4 grade in those two games against Pittsburgh (keep in mind that 0.0 is considered average on PFF’s cumulative grading scale). Harris also played through a significant shoulder injury down the stretch and into the playoffs, and yet in the Super Bowl, gave up just one catch for 11 yards. He is one of the league’s best corners and showed it again this season—as long as he wasn’t asked to cover Antonio Brown and company.
No. 7: Von Miller, OLB (10 in 2014)
Miller had another stud season in 2015, earning another Pro Bowl selection, but let's face it. He didn't really come on strong until the playoffs, where he dominated the NFL tournament all the way to earning Super Bowl 50 MVP. What hurts most about his PFF ranking is the fact that Khalil Mack is ranked No. 6, one place ahead of Miller. PFF:
The postseason enjoyed by Von Miller catapults him up this list, ending in a Super Bowl in which he was the single biggest factor, coming hard on the heels of an AFC Championship game in which the same case could be made. Miller demonstrated that, at the peak of his play, there is no more fearsome edge rusher, as well as the effect a dominant rusher can have on an offense. Miller has an ideal blend of quickness, burst, and bend to completely perplex most blockers tasked with stopping him, and while many players are examples of what you can achieve if you don’t fit the NFL’s ideal prototype measurables profile, Miller is the embodiment of what can happen if you fit it to perfection. Over the regular season, he was a key player on the best defense in the league, but there was no better postseason than the one Von Miller displayed, ending with four-straight dominant displays (including a must-win Week 17 encounter) in which he totaled seven sacks and 30 pressures.
Honestly, it's hard to argue with any of the six Broncos' placement on PFF's Top-101 list this year. Give or take a spot or two, they got it right. However, the omission of ILB Brandon Marshall is glaring, and you could argue the same for DeMarcus Ware, Aqib Talib and Bradley Roby.
But, at the end of the day, what matters most is whether your team takes home the hardware in February. And the 2015 Denver Broncos did just that.
Chad Jensen is the Publisher of Mile High Huddle. You can find him on Twitter @ChadNJensen.
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