It’s Saturday afternoon, which means I’m mailing it in.
Pro Football Focus, the grading company that I’ve too often promoted for their excellent work, has finished their Top 101 list for the year, a list that has explicit guidelines:
– This list is based solely on 2013 play. Nothing that happened in previous years or may happen in the future is accounted for. This isn’t about class or talent; it’s about form throughout 2013.
– This list is created with an “All Positions Created Equal” mantra. So you won’t see 32 quarterbacks heading the list, even though that is the most valuable position, instead seeing how guys played relative to what is expected from their position. You might disagree with this for doing a Top 101 list which is your right, but this is how we’ve done it for the past three years and will continue doing it. This way every player has a fair shot at getting the respect they deserve.
– A repetition because it’s often the most misunderstood: this is not a list about talent or a lifetime achievement award. It is solely, 100% based on what happened between the opening kickoff of the 2013 regular season and the final snap of the Super Bowl this past February. Anything outside those dates does not matter.
So, which Minnesota Vikings cracked the list? Not many, but two you’d expect and one that is a pleasant but mild surprise:
98. Phil Loadholt, OT, Minnesota Vikings
The only right tackle to make the list, Loadholt would finish the year our second-ranked overall right tackle (behind Zach Strief, but with a much better run block grade). He’s become the prototype right tackle, more than good enough with his pass protection and able to generate substantial movement in the run game. Throw in getting penalized just three times and he’s delivered on his contract so far.
I’ve criticized Loadholt’s contract in the past as he’d only put together one good season when he signed the highest-paying right tackle contract in the NFL (at the time—Doug Free’s contract was worth more, but he signed it when he expected to be a left tackle). But Loadholt has improved tremendously in the last two years as a tackle.
His rookie year was promising, but not stellar, and he committed 11 penalties (six declined) while allowing seven sacks, five hits and fifteen hurries. Combined with the next two years, he committed 35 penalties and allowed 19 sacks, 10 hits and 80 hurries. That wasn’t bad as a pass protector, it was just about average—over that same period, an average offensive tackle with a similar snap count would give up 20 sacks, 20 hits and 87 hurries (but only 22 penalties). During that time, Loadholt rarely lost ground for his reputation as a mauling run blocker.
And although Loadholt’s penalty total didn’t drop until this year (he had 11 in 2012), his play overall has improved dramatically. In the last two years, he’s given up 8 sacks, 9 hits and 50 hurries—compared to the 13/13/58 split that a generalized tackle would give up. The fact that he was PFF’s top-rated right tackle on the list (second in their grades) speaks to the kind of development Jeff Davidson has provided and the value Minnesota is getting out of him.
87. John Sullivan, C, Minnesota Vikings
He wasn’t able to match his 2012 season as he battled back from offseason surgery. A strong finish to the year showed that Sullivan was more than a one-season wonder and worthy of a spot in the Top 101. After turning his first eight games into a +4.5 grade, he was much stronger down the stretch as he finished the year with six grades in the green (something he replicated with his run blocking).
For my money, John Sullivan is the best center in football, and had a down year last year. Regardless, he still made the list after an incredibly strong finish to the season (likely in part because of recovery from a microfracture surgery late in the offseason). Sullivan finished as their third-best center last year despite that pedestrian stretch at the beginning of the season.
No one can speak better to his play that I’ve found than Robert Mays of Grantland, who wrote an incredible piece on Sullivan during the 2013 offseason. The entire thing is worth a read, but this is what defines his game:
No matter whom you ask, whether it’s coaches or teammates, the first answer anyone gives about what makes John Sullivan exceptional is the same — his mind. Sullivan went to Notre Dame after graduating from Greenwich High School in Connecticut; Musgrave still remembers recruiting him while he was the University of Virginia’s offensive coordinator. “He’s very sharp,” Musgrave says. “Nothing on the football field surprises John.”
That intelligence manifests in Sullivan’s preparation. Musgrave says that as Minnesota game plans on Monday and Tuesday, they do so at a graduate level, thanks in large part to his center. “He’s able to see the entire defense,” Davidson says. “He knows what to expect based on linebacker location, safety location, different alignments out of the nose guards. All the stuff that he can accumulate over the week, it all means something to him.”
Listening to Sullivan give examples is like listening to someone explain individual parts of a computer — we’re used to the basic function but are totally unfamiliar with what actually makes it run. “If a two-eye has his hand down and there’s a safety on his side rolling back to the middle of the field, do I think I’m getting pressure away from him?” Sullivan asks to no one in particular. “Yeah, I’m almost 100 percent certain I am.” Individual plays are won on Tuesday, not Sunday. “I generally have the answers to the test before I go out there,” he says.
I mean, look at him!
As a run blocker, he was very good last year, but it took some time for him to get to his pass-blocking prowess from 2012 (he gave up two sacks, two hits and eight hurries in 2012) but did well enough to climb in their ranking. This makes him their best center over the course of two years, with a cumulative grade 50% higher than the center in second place (Chris Myers of Houston), meaning the distance between him and second is as large as the distance between second and thirteenth. Hopefully, Sullivan can maintain this pace.
38. Adrian Peterson, RB, Minnesota Vikings
It was always going to be hard for Peterson to follow up his remarkable 2013 campaign and so it proved. Now that’s not to say he had a bad year, and without injuries limiting his playing time (and performance at times) he likely would have finished much higher. Still forced a very healthy 58 missed tackles that were second most of any running back while ending the year our third ranked runner. For most that would bring smiles to their faces while we suspect for Peterson it’s just extra motivation to finish higher next year.
Adrian Peterson is one of those players that the casual fan, film diehards and stat nerds can all appreciate. Not only does he stuff box scores, he does it impressively and with the kind of relentlessness a cannonball has. For reference, see the GIF above—impressive change-of-direction to fake into what would have been an obvious running lane to the defense were it not for Peterson’s cut.
Not only did Peterson rank tops in their 2013 Elusivity Rating metric (which takes into account how many tackles a ballcarrier forced, how many touches they had, and how many yards after contact they accrued), he ranks at the top of the list for any running back with 400 touches or more in the last three years. He tops their overall grade over the last three years.
He has the most yards after contact over that time, and the second-highest yards per rushing attempt (behind C.J. Spiller, who had 300 fewer carries) and has fumbled on fewer than 1% of his carries (which is the league average). All the while, he’s improved as a pass-blocker, going from the second-worst pass-blocking running back in 2007 (per Pro Football Focus’ Pass Blocking Efficiency metric) to league average in 2013.
Anyway, here’s a highlight video: