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#NFLrank 25-1: J.J. Watt tops list of NFL's best players -- again

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Watt hoping to be back before opener against Bears (0:38)

ESPN Texans reporter Sarah Barshop breaks down the latest on J.J. Watt, who is hoping to be able to return to the field by Houston's season opener against Chicago. (0:38)

This is not an MVP vote. It was a simple process, detailed here:

The parameters: Rate players based on how good they are -- not what positions they play or how many endorsements they have. All NFL players were eligible.

The process: Rate every player on a scale of 1-100. A score of 100 implies an all-time level of excellence; a 1 is for a player who doesn't belong in the NFL.

The panel: More than 50 voters. NFL analysts, reporters and statisticians -- both from ESPN and outside ESPN -- including former players and NFL front-office members.

That's it. We considered all NFL players and had a deep group of analysts rate them based on how good they are -- nothing more.

We'll be counting down the list in three installments, starting with players ranked from 25-1.

Players No. 100-51 | Players No. 50-26


25. Ndamukong Suh, DT, Dolphins

Avg. rating: 88.42 | 2015 rank: 4

Few defensive tackles beat one-on-one blocking as well as Suh, who has averaged seven sacks per season over the course of his six-year career. One of his best attributes is penetrating the line of scrimmage and disrupting opposing offenses. "Suh's a man," Dolphins rookie guard Laremy Tunsil said after facing him in training camp. "That's a good person to go against. He's one of the best in the game, so if you continue to go against him, you're going to be one of the best in the game also." -- James Walker


T-23. Eric Berry, S, Chiefs

Avg. rating: 89.00 | 2015 rank: NR

Berry's quick comeback last year from a bout with cancer -- he was diagnosed with lymphoma in November 2014 -- was remarkable enough. But Berry responded with perhaps his best NFL season in 2015 and has made the Pro Bowl in four of his six NFL seasons. He played only partial seasons in the other two. -- Adam Teicher


T-23. Tyrann Mathieu, DB, Cardinals

Avg. rating: 89.00 | 2015 rank: NR

The "Honey Badger" established himself as one of the best young defensive backs in the league last season, intercepting five passes, including one that he returned for his first NFL touchdown. But Mathieu was more than an interception machine when he was healthy in 2015. He played more than 100 snaps at three different positions, and lined up at five other spots on the Cardinals' defense. His nose for the ball led to the "Honey Badger" nickname in college at LSU, and it has continued to hold true in the NFL. -- Josh Weinfuss


22. DeAndre Hopkins, WR, Texans

Avg. rating: 89.02 | 2015 rank: NR

Hopkins took his spot among the NFL's elite receivers last season. He caught an impressive 111 passes for 1,521 yards, ranking third in the NFL in both categories. And he caught them from four different quarterbacks, none of whom will be a starter in the NFL in 2016. Through his first three seasons, Hopkins has 3,533 receiving yards. He's only 24 years old, so the best is yet to come. -- Sarah Barshop


21. Russell Wilson, QB, Seahawks

Avg. rating: 89.27 | 2015 rank: 33

In Wilson's four years in the NFL (2012-15), he ranks first in yards per attempt (8.05), third in touchdown-to-interception ratio (3.12) and second in passer rating (101.8). Wilson's 2,430 rushing yards during that span ranks second among quarterbacks (Cam Newton is first). Wilson took his game to a new level in 2015, leading the NFL in passer rating and finishing the regular season on a 25-touchdown, two-interception tear. -- Sheil Kapadia


20. Tyron Smith, OT, Cowboys

Avg. rating: 89.49 | 2015 rank: 29

There isn't another tackle in the game who possesses the athleticism and power of Smith. Even when he doesn't use proper technique, he can still win battles with his powerful hands. DeMarcus Ware, who ranks No. 63 in #NFLrank, once said that if Smith gets his hands on you, it's over. The amazing part of Smith's success? He's just 25 and this is his sixth season. -- Todd Archer


19. A.J. Green, WR, Bengals

Avg. rating: 90.29 | 2015 rank: 22

A human highlight reel, Green has out-of-this-world leaping ability, which in itself would put him in the top 20 on this list. What else has him ranked so high? The fact that he and Randy Moss are the only receivers in NFL history to have 1,000 receiving yards in each of their first five seasons. Moss ultimately did it six straight years, and Green's goal is to join Moss in the record book. -- Coley Harvey


18. Ben Roethlisberger, QB, Steelers

Avg. rating: 90.82 | 2015 rank: 24

Roethlisberger's vertical passing prowess the last two seasons has strengthened his case in the debate about the NFL's best quarterbacks. Roethlisberger typically falls somewhere in the top three or four of that discussion, and he's the unquestioned engine of the Steelers' offense. Antonio Brown gets a lot of credit, but Big Ben makes it all work; he has averaged nearly 320 passing yards per game in 2014 and '15. In the past 21 games that Roethlisberger has been healthy, the Steelers have been a 30-point-per-game offense. "Roethlisberger, Brady, Rodgers -- those guys, when they have the ball in their hands at the end of the game, it's scary for a defense," Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said. -- Jeremy Fowler


17. Joe Thomas, OT, Browns

Avg. rating: 90.93 | 2015 rank: 17

Some say the definition of being a professional is being at your best when you feel your worst. By that definition, Joe Thomas has been the NFL's ultimate pro since the day he was drafted in 2007. Thomas is one of only eight players in NFL history -- and the only offensive lineman -- to be selected to the Pro Bowl in each of his first nine seasons. He has started every game since he was drafted, 144 in a row, and has not missed a single snap since he was drafted, 8,959 in a row. He has played for teams that have gone 47-97, and he has played through three sprained MCLs and two high ankle sprains in his career. Thomas has been the epitome of excellence and professionalism since he joined the Browns. -- Pat McManamon


16. Patrick Peterson, CB, Cardinals

Avg. rating: 91.24 | 2015 rank: 49

Five Pro Bowls. Three All-Pro teams. Defensive captain. Peterson has established himself as a standard in the NFL at cornerback. Yes, he had only two interceptions last season, but that's because not many passes were thrown his way. Peterson said last season he learned to not let boredom on the field get the better of him, and he has worked to be focused on every play. After controlling his diabetes, Peterson had a stellar season in 2015, and he's only 26 years old. -- Josh Weinfuss


15. Earl Thomas, S, Seahawks

Avg. rating: 91.71 | 2015 rank: 15

Since Thomas was drafted in 2010, the Seahawks' defense has limited opposing quarterbacks to a passer rating of 76.5, the lowest number in the NFL. Thomas' range and intensity are unmatched. "In walk-throughs, he doesn't let people catch the ball," said teammate Richard Sherman. "He doesn't let people execute their plays when we're supposed to let the offense catch it. He just doesn't live his life that way." -- Sheil Kapadia


14. Richard Sherman, CB, Seahawks

Avg. rating: 91.73 | 2015 rank: 8

His 26 interceptions in the past five years are tops in the NFL. Sherman shuts down one side of the field, and last season he started shadowing opposing No. 1 wide receivers more than ever. Two aspects of Sherman's game are underrated: his leadership and his durability. He has never missed a game and has embraced his role as a mentor to the team's younger defensive backs. -- Sheil Kapadia


13. Odell Beckham Jr., WR, Giants

Avg. rating: 92.16 | 2015 rank: 21

Nobody has had more receiving yards (1,755) in his first two professional seasons than Beckham. Nobody has had more touchdown receptions in the past two years than Beckham. The 2014 Offensive Rookie of the Year and two-time Pro Bowl wide receiver can do it all. And he's only 23 years old. His potential is endless. "Watching what he has done in his first two seasons is tremendous," Panthers coach Ron Rivera said late last year. "He really has an opportunity, I think, to be one of those guys -- you'll talk about him and Jerry Rice." -- Jordan Raanan


12. Adrian Peterson, RB, Vikings

Avg. rating: 92.60 | 2015 rank: 11

Last season, Peterson became the first 30-something running back in 11 years to lead the NFL in rushing, and he needs only 1,065 yards this season to move into seventh place on the NFL's all-time rushing list. Another rushing title would be Peterson's fourth, and would tie him for the second-most in league history. -- Ben Goessling


11. Khalil Mack, OLB, Raiders

Avg. rating: 92.62 | 2015 rank: 53

All Mack did last year, besides racking up 15 sacks in his second season, was make history by being the first player named first-team All-Pro at two positions in the same season: defensive end and outside linebacker. But there's more to Mack than being a disruptive force in the mold of Von Miller -- and, yes, some have made comparisons to Lawrence Taylor. "With Khalil, I think the beautiful thing is that he's got natural humility," said Raiders coach Jack Del Rio. "He loves this game and he's driven to play great at his position. He wants to develop the skill level. He's working tirelessly to do that." -- Paul Gutierrez


10. Cam Newton, QB, Panthers

Avg. rating: 92.91 | 2015 rank: 85

Newton's size and ability to be a threat as a runner and passer has allowed to 2015 NFL MVP to redefine the quarterback position. "God's not making another Cam Newton for a long time," Hall of Fame wide receiver Cris Carter said at the Super Bowl. "He broke the mold when he made him.'' Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young said Newton has reached "rare air." -- David Newton


9. Julio Jones, WR, Falcons

Avg. rating: 93.29 | 2015 rank: 20

The 6-foot-3, 220-pound Jones has the combination of size and speed that makes him nearly unstoppable. His 1,871 receiving yards last season, the second-highest total in NFL history, proves the point. Jones might become the first pass-catcher to reach 2,000 yards in a season. -- Vaughn McClure


8. Aaron Donald, DT, Rams

Avg. rating: 94.11 | 2015 rank: T-47

Donald has racked up 20 sacks in his first two seasons in the NFL, both of which ended with an invite to the Pro Bowl, and he is widely considered the NFL's best interior pass-rusher. Pro Football Focus named Donald the most impressive player at his position last year, with a 98.8 pass-rush grade. His combined sacks-and-hits total of 37 was 14 more than any other positional peer, and his pass-rush productivity of 12.4 was second-best among defensive tackles in nine years of grading NFL games. In short: Donald is arguably the best at his position. -- Alden Gonzalez


7. Luke Kuechly, ILB, Panthers

Avg. rating: 94.36 | 2015 rank: 13

All Kuechly has done is lead the NFL in tackles (620) since entering the league in 2012 and win the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award in 2013. "Cam [Newton] is known as Superman, but Luke actually looks like Superman," Carolina defensive end Mario Addison said. -- David Newton


6. Tom Brady, QB, Patriots

Avg. rating: 94.71 | 2015 rank: 3

The two-time NFL MVP (2007, 2010) is 194-60 (.764) in regular-season and playoff games, which is the best record of any NFL quarterback with at least 100 starts in the Super Bowl era (since 1966). Brady's competitive drive and work ethic, coupled with the two traits the Patriots value most at the position -- accuracy and decision-making -- have him defying Father Time. He turned 39 on Aug. 3. "I've said many times there is no quarterback I'd rather have than Tom Brady," said coach Bill Belichick. -- Mike Reiss


5. Von Miller, OLB, Broncos

Avg. rating: 95.67 | 2015 rank: 28

When asked last season what separated the Broncos' defense from others, Colts coach Chuck Pagano said it best. "Well," he said, "it's not like guys like Von Miller fall out of the sky." Miller has speed, quick-twitch athleticism and the flexibility to get under blockers and turn his speed into power to drive blockers backward. And as his postseason run showed, even after 60 sacks in 72 games, he's still an ascending player. -- Jeff Legwold


4. Antonio Brown, WR, Steelers

Avg. rating: 95.73 | 2015 rank: 10

Brown reached a new stratosphere after posting an NFL-record 265 catches over two seasons. He has crossed over from one of the game's best receivers to undeniably one of the league's best at any position. He made elite defenses look foolish last season, including the Broncos, prompting coach Gary Kubiak to call him an MVP favorite. "Watching that kid play -- I mean, he's something else," Kubiak said. Brown's footwork is unmatched, particularly when making difficult catches by the sideline. -- Jeremy Fowler


3. Rob Gronkowski, TE, Patriots

Avg. rating: 95.78 | 2015 rank: 5

Gronkowski is the only tight end in NFL history to post three seasons of 1,000 yards receiving and 10-plus touchdowns (2011, 2014, 2015). Said quarterback Tom Brady, "I can't say enough good things about Gronk because what he brings to our offense is just -- no one in the league has someone that is just as tough a mismatch as Gronk is. He's big, fast, tough, dependable, consistent." -- Mike Reiss


2. Aaron Rodgers, QB, Packers

Avg. rating: 97.02 | 2015 rank: 2

How many different players have to say Rodgers is the best quarterback in the game before you believe it? Sure, it's a regular occurrence in the Packers' locker room, but consider this from new tight end Jared Cook. He said the biggest reason he decided to sign with the Packers in free agency is the chance to play with Rodgers. "It was imperative that I find a person that's known for getting the job done and is good at what they do," Cook said. "I think that he's probably one of the best in the league at doing it, clearly." Even in what many considered a "down" season last year, Rodgers threw 31 touchdowns and just eight interceptions. That's a good year for anyone not named Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady. -- Rob Demovsky


1. J.J. Watt, DE, Texans

Avg. rating: 97.87 | 2015 rank: 1

By the age of 27, Watt has done something that only Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor has done in NFL history: win three NFL Defensive Player of the Year awards. Over the past four seasons, Watt leads the NFL with 69 sacks, and he should have many stellar years ahead of him. Watt is currently on the physically unable to perform list after having back surgery in late July, but the Texans are hoping he can return for the start of the regular season. Said Saints quarterback Drew Brees: "Obviously, he's an impact player, he's a difference-maker. And I'm sure they miss him." -- Sarah Barshop