Every summer, NFL Network unfurls its latest unveiling of the “NFL Top 100 Players,” a list of the upper echelon of NFL players voted upon by the athletes themselves.
Last July, five total Steelers cracked the rankings of the premier one hundred NFL players: T.J. Watt (93rd), Cameron Heyward (88th), James Conner (62nd), JuJu Smith-Schuster (47th) and Ben Roethlisberger (44th).
Following an undoubtedly eventful 2019 season, which players under Mike Tomlin’s tutelage can you expect to be voted among their colleagues as the best in the business entering 2020?
Here are my predictions for the Steelers who are most likely to earn a spot on one of the most prestigious hierarchies in all of football.
After accruing 13 sacks in 2018, Watt barely made it among the “NFL Top 100 Players of 2019” list. That should surely change in 2020.
The Wisconsin product was phenomenal once again in 2019: he emerged as a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidate (I still think he got robbed), made his second consecutive Pro Bowl and was even awarded a spot as a First Team All-Pro.
Watt’s ranking should skyrocket in 2020. I fully expect him to be inside the top 30 or even top 20.
Fitzpatrick was ludicrously snubbed from Pete Prisco of CBS Sports’ Top 100 NFL Players; however, he seems to have some added fodder for success in 2020.
I would be absolutely astonished if Fitzpatrick were not selected as a Top 100 player based on the merits of his teammates and competitors.
Fitzpatrick emerged as a true top-flight safety in 2019 after totaling 5 interceptions, 2 forced fumbles and 3 fumble recoveries— the ball just had a knack of finding him. Fitzpatrick’s numbers seemed to decline in the second half of the season, but quarterbacks simply stopped throwing near him. He had just 9 targets in Weeks 9-17 compared to 23 in the first 8 games of the season.
The man for whom the Steelers traded the #18 overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft should find himself between 30th and 40th in the players’ evaluations. For context, Eddie Jackson of the Bears and Derwin James of the Chargers were voted 30th and 31st , respectively, before last year after each made the AP’s First Team All-Pro in 2018— a feat Fitzpatrick accomplished in 2019.
Heyward was voted among the NFL’s premier 90 players before last season after positing 8 sacks and 18 QB Hits in 2018. However, his ranking should augment after being selected as a First Team All-Pro in 2019.
Heyward— especially in the past few seasons—has been the epitome of consistency at the defensive end position. In a league where fluctuation is a motif, Heyward has had at least 7 sacks in 5 of the past 6 years while earning Pro Bowl nods from 2017-19. Likewise, he seems to be heralded among his peers as a sage player who is willing to speak up while also engaging in altruistic efforts— he was selected as the Steelers’ 2018 Walter Payton Man of the Year nominee.
I expect Heyward to be between 40th and 50th; for example, Cameron Jordan of the Saints, DeMarcus Lawrence of the Cowboys, Melvin Ingram of the Chargers and Myles Garrett of the Browns were each in the top half of players picked after all made the 2018 Pro Bowl.
Haden returned to his bonafide lock-down form in 2019— in fact, he had arguably his best season since 2014, a year after which he was picked as the #23 overall player in the NFL.
For the first time in his career, Haden started all 16 games a year ago. His 5 INTs transcend what he amassed 5 seasons prior; similarly, his 17 pass deflections and 65 total tackles were also quite close to his metrics in such categories from 2014.
Unlike several years ago, Haden is no longer the best corner in the NFL, though he is still an elite one. His third career Pro Bowl berth in 2019 should propel him to around the 80th-100th ranking in this year’s installment of the NFL’s Top 100 Players.
On the Bubble
DeCastro was snubbed from last year’s player-voted top echelon of NFL stars, possibly because he missed two games due to a hand injury.
After a 2019 season in which he was healthier, DeCastro should have a better shot at earning a spot among this year’s Herculean Hundred.
DeCastro was picked to participate in his 5th straight Pro Bowl last year and is certainly one of the better guards in the NFL. I do think he will make this year’s Top 100 list, though I had similar sentiments last year.
Without a doubt, Dupree had a career year in 2019. The former first round pick wreaked havoc to the tune of 11.5 sacks and 17 quarterback hits last season; both numbers were easily the best he had put together in a single season.
Dupree played well enough to earn the franchise tag from Kevin Colbert, a one-year deal he signed on April 23rd worth around $15.8 million for 2020. The Steelers have 49 days to negotiate a long-term extension with the Kentucky product.
In my opinion, Dupree was snubbed from his first career Pro Bowl bid in 2019; his lack of recognition could very well proliferate this summer. It won’t be easy for him to make the Top 100 rankings, as just 6 true OLBs earned a nod last year. Further, 2019 selections Watt, Jadeveon Clowney, Von Miller and Khalil Mack all have a solid chance at being repeat picks.
Big Ben slotted in at #44 last year after pacing the NFL in passing yards and passing for 34 touchdowns in 2018, though he also led the league in interceptions with 16.
After missing most of 2019, Roethlisberger has a slim chance to make the Top 100 rankings entering 2020. His view around the NFL is seemingly wide-ranging. Some perceive him to be a franchise signal-caller, while others fear a drop in statistical excellence post-elbow surgery.
It seems that many NFL players still respect Roethlisberger, but the emergence of a plethora of young quarterbacks— such as Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson, Arizona’s Kyler Murray, Dallas’ Dak Prescott and maybe even Buffalo’s Josh Allen— might be enough to keep the two-time Super Bowl champ off of this year’s installment.
Smith-Schuster was voted as the 10th best receiver in the NFL among his counterparts a year ago, largely due to his 1,426 receiving yards and 7 touchdowns. However, his Top 100 status is certainly tenuous for this year after playing in just 12 games and barely surpassing 550 receiving yards.
Smith-Schuster’s decline was generally due to severely below-average QB play as well as the injury bug; with young, burgeoning receivers like Seattle’s D.K. Metcalf, Tennessee’s A.J. Brown, San Francisco’s Deebo Samuel and more all on the upswing, Smith-Schuster may not have done enough to make this year’s list.
To me, Nelson is one of the most underrated corners in football. In his first year in Pittsburgh, Nelson never allowed more than 100 receiving yards in a game while being targeted, and he never surrendered a receiving touchdown all of last season (though Odell Beckham, Jr. got awfully close).
The worst-ranked CB on last year’s Top 100 list was new Miami Dolphin Byron Jones, who came in at #97. Even then, he still made the 2018 Pro Bowl, and his 14 pass deflections that season were nearly double what Nelson aggregated this year.
Nelson is, without a doubt, a very solid corner, but it seems almost a foregone conclusion he will not make the “NFL Top 100 Players of 2020” list.
T.J. Watt: #26 (Up 67 spots)
Minkah Fitzpatrick: #31 (Not Ranked)
Cameron Heyward: #44 (Up 44)
Joe Haden: #89 (Not Ranked)
David DeCastro: #95 (Not Ranked)
Ben Roethlisberger: #98 (Down 54)