The Star picked the top playmaker on each of the NFL’s 32 teams, with the help of Pro Football Focus grades (sorry offensive linemen, you’re excluded — you have to have a chance of meaningfully touching the ball to be considered a playmaker).
As a reminder, PFF evaluated every play of every game in 2014 and assigned each player a grade. The numbers in parentheses are the player’s cumulative grade in 2014. Tap the links about each player to view a GIF of him in action.
(This story is part of The Kansas City Star's Football 2015 special section that publishes Sunday, Aug. 30. Pick one up and check out more here.)
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▪ OLB Terrell Suggs (26.2): Suggs is 32, and he’s been terrorizing quarterbacks for a long time. Equally good against the run and pass, the six-time Pro Bowler used his strength and quickness to record 61 tackles and 12 sacks last season.
▪ DT Marcell Dareus (25.6): The Bills may not have a quarterback, but Dareus, Kyle Williams (20.2), Mario Williams (16.1) and Jerry Hughes (9.7) comprise one of the league’s best defensive fronts. No one is more disruptive than Dareus, who is particularly stout against the run. Dareus forced just one fumble last year, but his 10 sacks were an insanely high number for an interior lineman.
▪ WR A.J. Green (8.3): Star defensive tackle Geno Atkins wasn’t the same last year after an ACL tear, so Green leads the pack. Few can match the 27-year old’s combination of size (6 feet 4, 207 pounds), speed and ball skills. He caught 69 passes for 1,041 yards and six touchdowns last season.
▪ OLB Paul Kruger (9.8): Inside linebacker Karlos Dansby actually has the highest PFF score on the team for non-linemen (13.9), but the 29-year old Kruger has a knack for making impact plays, with 11 sacks, four pass deflections and four forced fumbles in 2014.
▪ OLB Von Miller (58.4): Peyton Manning certainly deserves a look here, but can he stay healthy? The safe bet is the 26-year old Miller, who’s a worthy rival to the Chiefs’ Justin Houston as the league’s top 3-4 outside linebacker. Miller is a monster, as his 2014 stat line — 59 tackles and 14 sacks — shows. He does tremendous work against the run and pass, just like Houston.
▪ DE J.J. Watt (107.5): Watt is the league’s best player. His PFF grade is nearly twice as high as the next closest player (Denver’s Von Miller). He is the definition of a wrecking machine, someone who stops the run, rushes the passer and even chips in on offense as a tight end. He finished last year with 78 tackles, 20 1/2 sacks, 10 pass deflections and three receiving touchdowns.
▪ QB Andrew Luck (15.4): Cornerback Vontae Davis had the league’s best grade among all corners (33.4) and deserves consideration, but Luck is perhaps the league’s best young quarterback and is already a legitimate star. The 25-year old threw for 4,761 yards, 40 touchdowns and 16 interceptions a year ago, and can hurt you equally with his arm and athleticism.
▪ DE Ryan Davis (19.9): Davis, 26, is one of the league’s most underrated pass rushers, but he won’t be for long. The second-year pro recorded just 19 tackles in spot duty last year, but his 6 1/2 sacks and two forced fumbles reflect his ability to bring it off the edge. And he should have a much bigger role this year.
▪ OLB Justin Houston (51.1): His grade was significantly higher than stud running back Jamaal Charles’ (13.0), which probably shouldn’t be a surprise considering Houston — who is also strong against the run — came within a half-sack of matching the single-season NFL record. Houston also recorded four forced fumbles, making him the total package.
▪ DE Cameron Wake (32.2): His grade was actually higher than $114 million man Ndamukong Suh’s a year ago (Suh had a 31.4). Wake can bring the heat from the edge. He has racked up 57 1/2 sacks the last five years, and he had three forced fumbles a year ago.
New England Patriots
▪ QB Tom Brady (26.7): Inside linebacker Jamie Collins deserves a look here — his PFF grade is higher (28.1) and he’s a true three-down linebacker — but come on. Brady posted the fourth-highest PFF grade of any quarterback last season and is coming off his fourth Super Bowl title. Deflategate foolishness aside, he’s the best quarterback of his generation.
New York Jets
▪ DE Sheldon Richardson (39.9): Richardson is suspended for the first four games of the year for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy, but there’s no doubting how good this dude is. He is a disruptive, quick interior force who was the NFL’s defensive rookie of the year in 2013. He had 67 tackles, eight sacks and a forced fumble last year.
▪ OLB Khalil Mack (55.3): Mack lost out to the Rams’ Aaron Donald for on defensive rookie of the year honors, but he emerged as a vital blue-chip piece in the Raiders’ quest to return to respectability. Mack is dominant against the run and still has upside as a pass rusher after a four-sack season. Nowhere to go but up for this guy.
▪ QB Ben Roethlisberger (29.3): The Steelers hope to average at least 30 points per game, according to Roethlisberger, and with this 33-year old gunslinger at the helm, they just might do it. Pittsburgh’s offense is outstanding, and while running back Le’Veon Bell (23.8) and receiver Antonio Brown (23.4) deserve plenty of credit, Roethlisberger remains one of the league’s top quarterbacks.
San Diego Chargers
▪ FS Eric Weddle (18.9): Weddle is heading into a contract year, and chances are the 30-year old will be better than ever. He is a complete safety who can defend the run and the pass, recording a stunning 229 tackles to go with 17 pass deflections and three interceptions the last two years.
▪ DT Jurrell Casey (21.2): Casey, 25, has reportedly put on 10 pounds this offseason, which only spells more trouble for offensive linemen. Casey is one of the most disruptive interior defensive linemen in football. He had 68 tackles and five sacks last year.
▪ DE Calais Campbell (32.6): This 6-foot-8, 300-pounder uses his length and athleticism to disrupt offenses vs. the run and pass. He had 58 tackles and seven sacks a year ago.
▪ QB Matt Ryan (20.3): Star receiver Julio Jones (17.0) gets a lot of love, but it’s Ryan — a top-five quarterback — who makes the Falcons’ offense go. He’s thrown for at least 4,000 yards and 26 touchdowns in each of the last four seasons.
▪ ILB Luke Kuechly (33.5): Teams up with Thomas Davis (25.5) to form one of the finest linebacker pairings in the league. Kuechly stands out with his elite anticipation, instincts and motor. His ridiculous 2014 stats (153 tackles, three sacks, one forced fumble, one interception) reflect the impact he makes.
▪ RB Matt Forte (-0.6): Forte’s PFF grade isn’t great — his blocking hurt him, in particular — but any time a player rushes for 1,038 yards and catches 102 passes in a single season, he is a productive playmaker. Forte, 29, scored 10 touchdowns last season.
▪ WR Dez Bryant (20.9): Bryant is the league’s best receiver. He is competitive and tough and has rare athleticism for his outstanding size (6 feet 2, 220 pounds). The 26-year-old has three straight seasons with at least 1,200 yards and 12 touchdowns, and is just entering his prime.
▪ OLB DeAndre Levy (23.3): Levy, 28, has emerged as one of the league’s best all-around linebackers, earning a four-year extension he signed in August. Levy didn’t miss a single snap last year and is solid as a run-stopper, pass-rusher and in pass coverage. At 29, receiver Calvin Johnson (16.8) is on the back side of his prime but still deserves consideration.
Green Bay Packers
▪ QB Aaron Rodgers (44.7): Big shock. The reigning NFL MVP also holds the title as the league’s alpha dog quarterback. Few have the accuracy, anticipation and arm strength of Rodgers, which means the Packers will always be Super Bowl contenders when he’s healthy. The 31-year old threw for 4,381 yards, 38 touchdowns and a ridiculously low five interceptions last season.
▪ RB Adrian Peterson (-0.2): Peterson, 30, sat out most of last year because of legal trouble, and he’s on the wrong side of his prime. Still, it’s probably a bad idea to bet against the most physically gifted back of his generation returning to his old form. Safety Harrison Smith (92 tackles, three sacks, five interceptions) also merits some consideration here.
New Orleans Saints
▪ QB Drew Brees (32.6): Brees is 36, but he’s still an elite quarterback who uses his accuracy and outstanding anticipation to compensate for his lack of size. He threw for 33 touchdowns and nearly 5,000 yards last season.
New York Giants
▪ WR Odell Beckham Jr. (20.4): Two words: The Catch. Beckham’s one-handed stab against the Cowboys on “Monday Night Football” was an instant classic, and his play all season backed up the hype: 91 catches, 1,305 yards and 12 touchdowns.
▪ DE Fletcher Cox (30.5): This 24-year old was the Eagles’ 2014 defensive MVP, and with good reason. The 6-foot-4, 300-pounder is dominant against the run and good against the pass, racking up 61 tackles and four sacks last year.
St. Louis Rams
▪ DT Aaron Donald (34.4): The 2014 NFL defensive rookie of the year is already one of the league’s best players at his position. Few interior linemen have Donald’s combination of quickness and strength, which he used to pile up 47 tackles and nine sacks last year as a legit force against the run and pass.
San Francisco 49ers
▪ SS Antoine Bethea (12.7): The 49ers lost a ton from their 2014 defense, but they do return this 5-foot-11, 206-pounder who was chosen team MVP after recording 86 tackles, 10 pass deflections and four interceptions.
▪ RB Marshawn Lynch (20.5): Defensive end Michael Bennett has the highest PFF grade on the team (34.8), but it’s hard to imagine another running back who defines the term playmaker better than the determined, hard-charging Lynch, who makes the Seahawks’ offense go. He churned out 1,306 yards and 13 touchdowns a year ago.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
▪ DT Gerald McCoy (29.7): The Bucs locked up McCoy to a $108 million deal last October — a no-brainer for a 27-year-old interior lineman who has recorded 18 sacks the last two years.
▪ LB Ryan Kerrigan (19.3): Kerrigan, 27, is coming off an offseason knee procedure, but that does not diminish his status as one of the best edge rushers in football. Kerrigan racked up 13 1/2 sacks and five forced fumbles last year and is just entering his prime.