'Top player' lists have been one of the go-to article types for sporting media for years, creating buzz, fostering debate and (best of all) eliciting strong responses and comments from readers during the other-wise dead period of the offseason. These types of list have become even more prevalent since the NFL Network began producing their own countdown in 2011, with their main draw being that the list is only voted on by active NFL players - though they don't make it as well known just how many players actually vote on the list.
The NFL Network's Top 100 is just a fifth of the way into its countdown (with no Buccaneers yet revealed), but football statisticians ProFootballFocus have unveiled their own countdown, their Top 101 of 2013, over the course of the previous five days, with them revealing their top ten over the past few hours. As PFF's reputation has become increasingly solidified as more and more organisations pay heed to their own unique grading system (including the Bucs' own media team), their list bears paying attention to.
Despite a poor season, the Bucs managed to have three of their players from last season get a place on the list - and all three were placed inside the top twenty (though one of those players is no longer a Buccaneer). In addition, two of the Bucs' recent free agent additions were also named to the list - though as the list is stylized as 'Top 101 of 2013', they are listed under their 2013 teams. In a move that may not be entirely unconnected to the recent all-offense draft, all five players named are from the defensive side of the ball.
So, which five players made the list?
#93 - Alterraun Verner (unranked in 2012)
The first Buccaneer on the list is technically a Titan. Verner's final season in Tennessee saw him named to his first Pro Bowl and his first All-Pro selection, as well as a pay day from the Buccaneers. PFF had the following to say about Verner's 2013 campaign:
Verner was on his way to a higher ranking with some excellent work in his first 10 games of the year that saw him earn just the one negative grade (and a -0.3 at that). But he fell off some as the season closed, unable to make the kind of plays that saw him catch the eye of everyone initially. Still, all told, it was a fine year for Verner who allowed just one reception for every 15 snaps in coverage (fifth-best in the league).
PFF also offered the following key stat for Verner, who will be the #1 corner in Lovie Smith & Leslie Frazier's defense: his 19 combined pass break ups and interceptions were the most in the league. That's the kind of stat Buc fans can get excited about.
#83 - Michael Johnson (unranked in 2012)
The next Buc to be revealed is the second player to have spent 2013 on another team - the team's biggest free agency splash, then-Bengals DE Michael Johnson. Playing under the franchise tag in 2013, the Bucs' new starting RDE had his sack total drop from 11.5 in 2012 to just 3.5 last season - but PFF actually considered last year to be the better season:
Grading out as our fourth-ranked 4-3 defensive end on the year, it was Johnson's complete play that really impressed us. Not only did he end up with 61 quarterback disruptions (12th most of his peers), but his run grade was only bettered by Rob Ninkovich. That's why the Buccaneers paid the big bucks for him.
If Johnson is able to continue to be a top 5 DE, it's scary to think what the Bucs' DL can accomplish next season. Johnson's key stat, according to PFF, was that he ranked 6th among 4-3 DEs in run stops - something that will be crucial in a defense that asks their defensive line to stop the run on the way to the quarterback.
#18 - Darrelle Revis (unranked in 2012)
It took a while until the next Buccaneer name appeared on PFF's list, but when they did, it was a player who's no longer even a Buc. Still, in the aftermath of the arguments over his misusage by the previous coaching staff and his eventual release by the team, it's easy to forget just how good Revis was - especially in light of just how he was deployed last season. PFF remind us exactly how good he was:
He wasn't quite at his best, but even at less than 100% he still put enough on tape that many can only dream of. The marriage with Tampa Bay may not have lasted nor been a perfect fit, but he made the most of his one year in Florida, allowing just 54% of passes into his coverage to be complete while intercepting two balls and breaking up another six. Not hugely eye catching numbers but great work nonetheless, particularly in the first half of the year.
With his key stat being an insanely impressive "yards per snap in coverage allowed" of just 0.72 yards - which PFF assures us lead all corners in 2013 - there's no question that the Bucs will not see cornerback play of his level in the forseeable future (though given the size of the contract, his release was still the right move for the team).
#5 - Lavonte David (82nd in 2012)
Finally, a Buccaneer who is still a Buccaneer who was a Buccaneer in 2013 on the list! Lavonte David finished fifth in PFF's countdown, which was the highest of all linebackers - in fact, the next best non edge-rushing linebacker (i.e. 3-4 OLBs) was Patrick Willis, who finished a whole 19 spots below David. As David finished in the top 10, he gets an entire article about his play, which is linked above. David's play last season was simply ridiculous:
It's been a while since we've seen a true outside linebacker perform like him, throwing himself around with reckless abandon in the run game while having the awareness to make plays in coverage. Grading in the green in 10 of his 16 games, David was an every down playmaker. He lead his position in tackles for a loss, defensive stops (he had 21 more than any other) and finishing behind just DeAndre Levy with five picks.
David's so good, he gets two key stats - one in the overall top 10 article, and one in the article focusing just on David. The stats - that David's 17 tackles for a loss was the most of any linebacker; and that David made 83 defensive stops - twenty one more than the next 4-3 OLB. They go on to delve into that second stat further:
In fact, he more than doubled the stop total for all but seven other 4-3 OLBs. David was making plays closer to the line of scrimmage than anybody else and did it without sacrificing his position in coverage, finishing just behind Carolina LB Thomas Davis at the top of the coverage grades for the position. In short, David was the perfect WLB in that 4-3 scheme in 2013, and may well have been every bit as good as Gerald McCoy in front of him.
Speaking of McCoy...
#4 - Gerald McCoy (20th in 2012)
On the one hand, McCoy 'only' finished third among all defensive linemen on PFF's list. On the other hand, that was still good for being the fourth best player in 2013. McCoy silenced the critics in 2012, but he blew everyone away in 2013, with the best performance Bucs fans have seen from an interior defensive lineman since #99 was at his peak.
It may have been a bad year in Tampa Bay, but it was a great year individually for McCoy who stayed healthy and remained incredibly productive. His work against the run (which earned a +7.8) grade is never going to be his calling card but saw him make more than his fair share of plays, while his work rushing the passer was something to behold. Operating on a line where he was the only legitimate pass rushing threat teams still couldn't slow him down. McCoy earned the highest pass rushing grade (and overall one) of any defensive tackle. You don't often see defensive tackles get graded above +5.0 six times in one season.
As with David, McCoy has the honour of being given two key stats. The first stat - that his 11.1 grade at "pass rushing productivity" was the best of all defensive tackles (which was almost a whole point higher than the next-best DT, Ndamukong Suh). The next stat - that his 80 total pressures was fifth best in the league, with three of those finishing above him being edge rushers (and the fourth being JJ Watt, who ended up #1 on PFF's list):
Gerald McCoy has become the prototypical 3-technique or under tackle in a 4-3. He is the pass-rushing player on the interior of a four-man line and the player usually tasked with beating a guard one-on-one and disrupting plays in the backfield. McCoy has become as good as anybody at shooting gaps and playing on the opposing side of the line of scrimmage. The level of pressure he has been able to generate playing on the inside, despite little help around him, is remarkable.
All in all, it's remarkable that a defense which finished as bang-on-average in 2013 managed to still generate three of the best twenty players in the NFL in 2013, including the best linebacker and the best defensive tackle. With David & McCoy particularly, they already have drawn comparisons to Derrick Brooks and Warren Sapp - and that's despite playing in a scheme which hampered McCoy being at his most effective!
Bucs fans, even if it was just David & McCoy on this list, the thought of what they could do in a true Tampa 2-orientated scheme, which will put them in the best possible position to succeed, should send shivers down your spine. But to add to that Johnson and Verner? This 2014 defense has the potential to be something truly, truly special; you might already know that in your gut, but it's clear that PFF's stats back you up. Frankly, it's time to get excited.