NFLRank -- our list of the top 100 players headed into the 2017 season -- is out. Debate the rankings how you want, but I'm looking ahead to what makes the top 15 great. Not the obvious, ridiculous skill sets that jump off the screen when you turn on the tape. What are the under-the-radar attributes that allow these guys to produce at a high level?
Let's break down the sneaky qualities of the 15 best players in the league, in order of how they appear in NFLRank:
1. Tom Brady, QB, New England Patriots
Sneaky quality: Eyes
Brady's ability to use his eyes to move and manipulate defenders allows him to create throwing windows inside of the numbers. Think of Brady moving the deep, middle-of-the-field safety to target the inside seam to Rob Gronkowski or working underneath to bump a linebacker off the spot. Check out this example:
Working on a post with the sneaky qualities of the top players in the NFL...Brady = Eyes. Create open windows. pic.twitter.com/uPlrTcsaRL— Matt Bowen (@MattBowen41) August 25, 2017
Here, Brady puts his eyes -- and shoulders -- to the weak side of the formation. This forces the Kansas City Chiefs linebacker to take the bait, opening up a clean window for Brady to hit the slant route. That's stealing -- and it puts Brady in total control of where he wants to go.
2. Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay Packers
Sneaky quality: Off-platform arm strength
We all know about Rodgers' rare talent to extend plays both inside and outside of the pocket. He's ridiculous. But his ability to sling the ball from an off-platform position creates an enormous amount of stress for opposing secondaries. I'm talking about vertical shots down the field and the velocity to hit deep, outside cuts when Rodgers has to adjust his arm angle or deliver the ball from an unstable position.
This allows Rodgers to attack the top of Cover 2 when he is on the run, drop his arm level down like a second baseman to hit tight-window throws or light up the middle of the field with his shoulders open to the boundary. As a defensive back, you have to know that every route is in play when Rodgers begins to move or when he starts to feel pressure. And that is a nightmare to defend when you know the quarterback can still dial up a throw -- with heat on it -- at any time.
3. Aaron Donald, DL, Los Angeles Rams
Sneaky quality: Hands
The first thing we see with Donald on the tape is that explosive first step off the ball. You can't coach that. And it's one of the reasons this guy lives in the backfield. But we can't forget about Donald's hands at the point of attack. Quick, violent and strong.
Donald is a true technician, a player who is mature when looking at the core fundamentals of the position. This has allowed Donald to pair that initial first step with lightning-quick hands and multiple counter moves. Engage the blocker, slap the arms or hands down, use the swim move and then take over with leverage. This puts Donald in a position to shoot through gaps against the run game and take over one-on-one matchups when he is rushing the quarterback.
4. Von Miller, OLB, Denver Broncos
Sneaky quality: Flexibility
Miller has the electric speed to win off the ball and also displays the power to put blockers in the lap of the quarterback. But the flexibility Miller shows on tape to bend and create a flat angle off the edge is extremely rare. Take a look here:
Von Miller = Flexibility. Watch him bend on the edge. Slap the hands down & get home to the QB. pic.twitter.com/Z0kI1ueq2M— Matt Bowen (@MattBowen41) August 25, 2017
Miller uses his 4.5 speed at the snap to get up the field and then slaps down on the hands of the Oakland Raiders offensive tackle. This opens the door for him to get home. Miller's flexibility stands out as he drops the shoulder, turns the corner and is almost parallel to the ground. That allows him to create a much shorter path to put quarterback Derek Carr on the deck.
5. Antonio Brown, WR Pittsburgh Steelers
Sneaky quality: Separation speed
I have no problem calling Brown the best, pure route runner in the game. It's a clinic with this guy on tape. The footwork, the stem, the hips at the break. Part of that, however, is the separation speed Brown generates when he comes out of his cuts.
To win matchups in the passing game at the NFL level, wide receivers must create some separation back to the football. That's how you win on the slant, out cut, comeback and curl. Brown immediately separates because of the speed he shows at the top of the route. This is why he can run an out cut from a reduced, pre-snap split (top of the numbers) that tells everyone in the stadium which route is coming. It doesn't matter, because Brown will separate from the defensive back and give Ben Roethlisberger a clean target to hit.
6. Julio Jones, WR, Atlanta Falcons
Sneaky quality: Ball skills
The first thing we always point to with Jones? Matchup ability. And I get it. He has a freakish combination of size and speed. This dude is rare. But we also need to discuss Jones' ball skills at the point of attack. This allows him to catch the ball outside of his frame, at a high point in the red zone, and showcase the body control to adjust to back-shoulder throws.
Plus, Jones will wait on the ball to gain an edge on a defensive back. Instead of extending his arms and looking back for the rock -- which allows defenders to read the eyes and hands of the wide receiver to "play the pocket" -- Jones calmly glides down the field and extends his arms at the last second to haul in the pass from Matt Ryan. That's a vet move, one perfected by Randy Moss during my time in the league. And it puts defensive backs in a tough spot to locate and play the ball.
7. Khalil Mack, OLB, Oakland Raiders
Sneaky quality: Converting speed to power
Like Miller, the 2016 NFL Defensive Player of the Year has the speed to get a jump on offensive tackles. He explodes off the ball. This forces blockers to "open the gate" (open the hips), and it puts Mack in the position to convert that speed into raw power at the point of attack.
When Mack gets an offensive tackle back on his heels, it's over. Forget about it. This is where Mack strikes aggressively with the hands, sinks his hips and walks the blocker back to the quarterback. Tip the big boy over and showcase that natural strength on the way to another sack. Speed first, then power. Nasty combo.
8. Le'Veon Bell, RB, Pittsburgh Steelers
Sneaky quality: Patience
Every running back coach in the league preaches patience. It's what allows blocks to develop, creating cutback opportunities for ball carriers. Read the defensive pursuit, stick the foot in the ground and go. Bell is ultra-patient at the point of attack. And because of that, his running style is unlike any other back in the league.
Coaches at the lower level won't teach this level of patience, but that makes Bell's game even more rare. There are times when he almost comes to a complete stop behind blockers before he finds daylight to get up the field. And when he goes? Watch out. He can accelerate to the second level and then shake defenders anywhere in the open field. But it starts with his unique style, that patience -- and confidence -- to find the exact running lane he wants before he rips through the small crease to expose the defense.
9. Odell Beckham Jr., WR, New York Giants
Sneaky quality: Sudden burst
Beckham ran a 4.43 40-yard dash at the combine, but he plays so much faster than his stopwatch time because of the sudden burst he shows after the catch. That speed is apparent in the Giants' quick passing game. This allows Eli Manning to throw a basic slant route, with Beckham turning on the jets once he catches the ball to eliminate defensive pursuit angles. Watch this:
This is just a simple slant route. Beat the coverage outside and then separate to the ball. But look at the sudden blast of speed Beckham creates after the catch. The free safety coming downhill here? No chance. Beckham will expose any false step and poor angle in the open field. And it allows him to create explosive plays on high-percentage throws in the three-step passing game.
10. J.J. Watt, DE, Houston Texans
Sneaky quality: The "rip" move
Watt produced 17.5 sacks in 2015 and has two other seasons with more than 20 sacks. He's a monster with power, speed off the ball and the technique to destroy blockers at the point of attack. And the move that flashed consistently when Watt attacked the pocket in his last full season? It was the old-school "rip," the same technique that is taught during board drills at the high school level. Take half a man and use the "rip" to defeat the block.
Think pad level first with Watt. Low man wins, right? Of course. Get under the pads of the blocker, display force and power on the rip and then create leverage to the quarterback. After an injury-shortened season in '16, I fully expect Watt to produce high sack totals again with the "rip" move as a key part of his pass-rusher toolbox.
11. Rob Gronkowski, TE, New England Patriots
Sneaky quality: Route running
The discussion about Gronk always focuses on his frame and catch radius in the passing game. He's the ultimate matchup weapon for Brady. Put the ball up top and let Gronk use his size to shield defenders from the ball. But we also need to look at his route running, because this is an area of his game that is vastly underrated. Check out this clip:
I like this example against the Steelers because we get to see Gronk use his lateral mobility at the line to win off the snap. This allows him to stack on top of the safety in the coverage, stem to the post and then break on the 7 route (corner). The finish here is classic Gronk, but the route-running skill set is the reason he can consistently gain leverage on the seam route, create space on the dig (square-in) and win on the quick stick/option route. And that generates even more matchup issues for defenses.
12. Luke Kuechly, ILB, Carolina Panthers
Sneaky quality: Pursuit
With crazy athleticism, speed and a football IQ that is off the charts, Kuechly is always around the football. And part of that traces back to his ability to pursue the ball carrier. Whether we are looking at the clean lines in Kuechly's run to track the back hip of the ball carrier or the angles he creates against toss plays, swing routes, bubble screens or edge runs, he puts himself in a position to make a solid tackle while taking away cutback alleys.
A major aspect of defensive pursuit is playing fast but under control. We see that from Kuechly as he quickly diagnoses his run-pass keys, attacks the gap or drops -- with speed -- to get to his zone responsibility. From there? It's time to play ball, eat up space in his pursuit and put the runner on the ground.
13. David Johnson, RB, Arizona Cardinals
Sneaky quality: Body control
Johnson is an excellent route runner out of the backfield, and that speaks to his versatility in the Cardinals' game plan. But if there is one trait that stands out when I watch the film, it's his body control in both the run and the pass game. Even as a tall runner at 6-foot-1, 224 pounds, Johnson consistently shows the core strength and lower-body balance to shed tackles, make defenders miss and create daylight to rip off an explosive run. Watch the body control on this touchdown run against the New York Jets:
Johnson sets up the initial block, makes a quick jump cut and then smoothly accelerates to the outside lane -- before skipping over a DB lunging at his legs. This is a play in which the runner is dictating the end result. And it starts with the balance, or body control, of Johnson.
14. Patrick Peterson, CB, Arizona Cardinals
Sneaky quality: Backpedal
I bet you can't even hear Peterson's feet when he backpedals. He's silky-smooth, just gliding along the top of the grass with his shoulders square. That's Football 101 in the secondary. And it's also a core fundamental of the top cornerbacks in the league. Pedal, keep your cushion and then break on the ball.
We all know that Peterson can play press and challenge the release, and he has the quickness to match any wideout in the league. Ball skills, too. But that backpedal allows Peterson to play off his man, weave through that initial stem of the wide receiver and then showcase his transition speed (plant and drive) to finish plays. I love it.
15. Zack Martin, OG, Dallas Cowboys
Sneaky quality: Mobility
The Cowboys can lean on zone schemes and the inside duo-blocking concept because of Martin's mobility on the interior. Sure, he has all the traits and the intangibles of a top-tier guard at the point of attack, but his ability to climb to the second level is the reason Dallas can consistently gash defenses in the run game.
Combo-block and then climb. Chip to the linebacker. That allows Martin to move in space to create a positive angle to that second level. This is where Martin can cut off defensive pursuit angles and clear a path for Ezekiel Elliott or Darren McFadden to push the ball into the secondary. Martin is one of the best guards in the league, and he plays in a scheme that caters to his athleticism.