With 20 days to go until the regular-season opener between the Giants and the Cowboys, I have decided to embark on a treacherous quest: To rank the top 20 players in the NFC East -- one per day, in reverse order, with the top player revealed on the day before the start of the season. You're going to love this feature and you're going to hate it. You're going to disagree and debate and argue and yell, and it's going to be awesome.
The rankings are mine alone. They reflect my opinion based on a number of factors -- career accomplishments, 2011 performance, performance relative to others at the same position, value to the team ... you name it. I used a number of sources to help form my opinion, but in the end that's what it is -- my opinion, which I expect to differ from yours and those of many others.
You want clues to try and figure out who's on it? The list includes seven New York Giants, six Philadelphia Eagles, five Dallas Cowboys and two Washington Redskins. It includes five defensive linemen, four wide receivers, three quarterbacks, three linebackers, two running backs, two offensive linemen and one tight end. (Jason Peters, though I consider him the division's best offensive lineman, is not on it since he's out for the year with an Achilles injury.)
It starts today, with one of the two running backs, and ends on Sept. 4, the day before that Cowboys-Giants game. In the meantime, let's have some fun with it.
No. 20 -- Ahmad Bradshaw, Giants RB
The Giants' running back is often underappreciated for his overall body of work. Not only is he an effective power runner when healthy, he's a vital part of the Giants' passing game as a receiver and a blocker. There's no running back in the league who picks up the blitz better than Bradshaw does, and prior to the recurrence of his foot injuries last season, he was the target of a higher percentage of his team's screen passes than any other player in the league. Pro Football Focus ranked him as the best overall running back in the NFC East and the eighth-best in the league. His grade as a runner was only 24th, but he ranked as the second-best blocking back in the league behind Buffalo's Fred Jackson.
Bradshaw's numbers have not ranked with those of the top backs in the league, in part because of those foot injuries of the past few years and in part because he's generally been in some sort of time-share situation in New York. But with Brandon Jacobs gone and Bradshaw's feet feeling (he says) better than they have in years, he's poised to be the unquestioned lead back with the Giants and challenge his career-best numbers from 2010. That year, he carried the ball 276 times for 1,235 yards and eight touchdowns and caught 47 passes for 314 more yards.
Bradshaw is tough. He plays through pain. He's motivated and eager to seize the role of No. 1 running back. He's only 26 years old, and if those feet hold up, there's little reason to think big things can't be in store. Bradshaw does all of the little things you need your running back to do, and he does them as well as anyone. All that remains is for his stats to catch up with his ability. Assuming the Giants' offensive line can block the run better than it did in 2011 (which really shouldn't be very difficult), I believe 2012 is the year in which that happens.