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Ultimate Madden 20 preview: Best NFL players, rookies, teams, more

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The life of a Madden ratings adjuster (6:59)

E:60 explores what it's like to walk in the shoes of a Madden ratings adjuster, from the conference room to the field and how the position came to be. (6:59)

Madden 20 should look and feel different. There are small in-game, on-field tweaks. And they overhauled a lot more, too, as those inside the EA Tiburon studios just outside of Orlando, Florida, wanted to try and increase the lifelike experience the game brings when it officially goes on sale Friday.

In are X Factors for superstar players, which increases the impact they have on a game, and a quarterback career mode called "Face of the Franchise: QB1." Out is Longshot. The Pro Bowl returns. In franchise mode, the contract apparatus received an overhaul.

Quarterback throwing trajectories are nuanced. Ratings themselves have been stretched out in an effort to make gamers notice when they are playing with a superstar -- or using a player with a far inferior rating.

As you're getting ready for the real and Madden NFL seasons to start, we've taken care of you with overall players, rookies, ratings subsets and players you should build your franchise around if you do a dynasty draft.

PLAYERS

Team 99

Khalil Mack, LOLB, Chicago Bears
Aaron Donald, RE, Los Angeles Rams
Bobby Wagner, MLB, Seattle Seahawks
DeAndre Hopkins, WR, Houston Texans

Fun facts: For the first time since 2017, a quarterback will not start the year with a 99 rating -- including cover boy Patrick Mahomes, who is the game's highest-rated QB at a 97. Mahomes or Tom Brady might get to a 99 once Dustin Smith and his ratings team start in-season adjustments, but considering the focus on quarterback this year, it is notable. The three players at 98, all of whom could easily get bumps to 99, are Atlanta Falcons receiver Julio Jones, Carolina Panthers middle linebacker Luke Kuechly and Oakland Raiders receiver Antonio Brown. For a league that's offense-dominated in real life, it's interesting that defensive players got the best ratings shine, with five of the top eight players in the game being in the front seven (and the other three being receivers).


Gotta start somewhere, Rook

Quinnen Williams, DT, New York Jets (80)
Ed Oliver Jr., DT, Buffalo Bills (79)
Nick Bosa, RE, San Francisco 49ers (78)
Josh Allen, LE, Jacksonville Jaguars; T.J. Hockenson, TE, Detroit Lions; Marquise Brown, WR, Baltimore Ravens (77)

Fun facts: This year, 1,177 players will start at 70 or above versus last year's 1,590 -- and rookie ratings were affected as well. Seven rookies were rated 80 or higher last year. This year only one is -- Williams. Smith wants to make rookies prove it, so don't be surprised if players like Williams, Bosa, No. 1 overall pick Kyler Murray (73 overall) and running back Josh Jacobs (74 overall) receive big bumps once games start. A sleeper to watch might be receiver JJ Arcega-Whiteside if he gets playing time in Philadelphia. He's a 73 overall, but with an 89 spectacular catch rating, he could be a guy who makes a big leap fast. Marquise Brown's 97 speed is tied for second in the game overall behind only Tyreek Hill, and Brown also has 95 acceleration. DK Metcalf could be a game-breaker, too, with a massive physical frame along with 95 speed and 93 acceleration. Minnesota Vikings tight end Austin Cutting is the lowest-rated rookie in the game (38 overall), followed by Cleveland Browns quarterback David Blough (48 overall). Blough tweeted that he would give $250 to the first person who wins league MVP and the Super Bowl with him as quarterback in All-Madden mode. So if you're looking for a goal ...


The 'Flash'

Tyreek Hill, WR, Kansas City Chiefs (99)
Marquise Brown; John Ross III, WR, Cincinnati Bengals (97)
Marquise Goodwin, WR, 49ers; Jakeem Grant, WR, Miami Dolphins; Damiere Byrd, WR, Arizona Cardinals; J.J. Nelson, WR, Raiders; Rico Gafford, WR, Raiders; Corey Grant, HB, free agent (96)

Fun facts: The top nine fastest players in the game are all offensive players -- eight receivers, one running back -- and only seven defensive players (all cornerbacks) are at 95 or faster. What does this mean? If you get a good receiver with a strong release against a lot of corners, it could be a way to win. Don't be surprised if Goodwin gets a speed bump pretty quickly because of his real-life track speed. The slowest players in the game are, unsurprisingly, offensive linemen. Free agent Damien Mama is at 50, along with Pittsburgh Steelers guard Ramon Foster and Ravens right tackle Orlando Brown Jr.


Most/least aware

Most aware: Tom Brady, QB, New England Patriots; David Bakhtiari, LT, Green Bay Packers; J.J. Watt, LE, Texans; Aaron Donald; Frank Gore, HB, Bills; Travis Kelce, TE, Chiefs; Luke Kuechly; Khalil Mack; Von Miller, LOLB, Denver Broncos; Bobby Wagner; Richard Sherman, CB, 49ers; DeAndre Hopkins; Antonio Brown, WR, Raiders (99)

Least aware: Alonzo Russell, WR, New York Giants; Gabe Holmes, TE, free agent (41)

What does this actually mean: This is a rating only for use in Madden -- one that doesn't totally correlate to real life. Boosting awareness used to do wonders for the overall rating, and it still helps, but it essentially is a gauge of how smart a player you are and how often you're in the right place. Rookies will usually have lower awareness because they are learning the game and if you notice, every player with 99 awareness is elite.


Strong vs. weak

Strongest: Aaron Donald (99); Linval Joseph, DT, Vikings; Ndamukong Suh, DT, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (98); Vita Vea, DT, Buccaneers; Quenton Nelson, LG, Indianapolis Colts; J.J. Watt (97).

Weakest: Phil Dawson, K, free agent (20); Robbie Gould, K, 49ers (25), Aldrick Rosas, K, Giants (30).

Things change -- and remain the same: Suh lost his strongest player crown to Donald, but he still possesses massive strength. The interior of the Tampa Bay defense should be really tough to play against with the tri-lettered-last-name duo of Suh and Vea. What remained the same? The kickers. The three weakest players in the game last year are the same for the third straight year. Travis Benjamin is the weakest non-kicker/punter in the game with a 38 overall rating -- a one-point bump up from last season.


The throw power change

Strongest: Josh Allen, Bills (99); Patrick Mahomes, Chiefs (96); Tyree Jackson, Bills (95); Aaron Rodgers, Packers and Matthew Stafford, Detroit Lions (94)

Least strong: Blake Sims, free agent (72); Matt Schaub, Falcons (73); Logan Woodside, Tennessee Titans; Austin Allen, free agent

Fun facts: The Madden raters wanted quarterbacks in the game to feel like their real-life counterparts. So this was one of the biggest shifts, combined with a revamped throwing trajectory in the game (more arc on balls). In all, 18 quarterbacks have 90 or above throwing power to start in this year's game, down from 53. Jackson is the intriguing one here because he's an outlier when it comes to the top throwers. Every other strongest thrower was a first-round draft pick. Jackson went undrafted and isn't a lock to make the Bills. It also, oddly, gives the Bills two of the three hardest-throwing quarterbacks in the game, although their overall ratings (74 for Allen and 64 for Jackson) are nowhere near good. Having three receivers with 92 or better speed (Isaiah McKenzie, Robert Foster and John Brown) makes Buffalo a sneaky, tricky offense to play with if you like to go deep.

TEAMS

Overall

Best: Eagles (89); Dallas Cowboys (88); Packers, Patriots, New Orleans Saints (87)

Worst: Dolphins (74); New York Giants (77)

Fun facts: The game clearly believes the NFC is more top-heavy this year, with four of its top five teams being in that conference -- the lone holdout the defending Super Bowl champion Patriots. All of them have strong offenses and defenses and -- other than the Packers -- are led by proven head coaches. The AFC East, other than New England, is particularly poor in this game. Besides Miami, Buffalo and the Jets are each a 78 overall. That likely means another divisional crown for Bill Belichick -- at least in the virtual world.


Offenses

Best: Saints (92); Colts and Patriots (91)

Worst: Dolphins (69); Bills and Jaguars (71)

Fun facts: The biggest quibble here is with the ratings of the Chiefs and Browns. The Chiefs are an 88 -- very good, but considering the options Kansas City has and the creativity of an Andy Reid offense, it feels like the Chiefs should be in the Top 3, perhaps in place of the Colts. Cleveland's options all around -- from Baker Mayfield to the Jarvis Landry/Odell Beckham Jr. combination at receiver along with Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt at running back -- should make the Browns much higher than an 83. No issues with the worst offenses, although Buffalo should be better to play with than the numbers suggest.


Defenses

Best: Texans and Bears (88)

Worst: Giants and Dolphins (72)

Fun facts: No issues here at the top or the bottom, although it'll be interesting to see Brian Flores' stamp on Miami's group in Year 1. The Dolphins might outperform that number. The Jaguars being an 82, with the talent they possess -- including Jalen Ramsey, A.J. Bouye, Myles Jack, Yannick Ngakoue and Calais Campbell -- seems low. They might be the most underrated in the game.

Five unexpected players to build your franchise around

Josh Allen, QB, Bills: If you play a certain style, throw deep and like to run with the quarterback, Allen is for you. He has the best throw power in the game (99), and among quarterbacks he's tied for the third-highest speed rating (84) and fourth-best agility. His awareness is terrible (69) and his accuracy ratings (73 short, 77 mid, 77 deep) are going to lead to some sailed throws and interceptions, but if you believe in your ability to make smart decisions and build a quarterback, Allen can throw on the run (85 rating) and at age 23 will have a good chance to improve. After the top tier of young quarterbacks are gone, he could be one to consider.

Kyler Murray, QB, Cardinals: The No. 1 pick in the draft, he has a 73 overall rating, which isn't terrible in this version of the game. But his intrigue comes with his speed/acceleration combo (91 speed, 92 acceleration) along with a throw power of 89. He has better accuracy ratings (82/78/82) than Allen and at 22 will continue to grow. He's also going to be incredibly fun to play with in the game, similar to Lamar Jackson last year.

Deion Jones, MLB, Falcons: There's no question Jones is a good player, but here's why he'd be intriguing to build around: If you're a player who likes to control the middle linebacker, he has a good overall rating (90), good speed/acceleration for a linebacker (90/91) and is good for a linebacker in man coverage (77) and zone (85). At 24, he'll continue to grow in the game as well. With a pass coverage archetype, it makes him even more valuable when you're playing certain opponents.

Denzel Ward, CB, Browns: Ramsey is too obvious here, but Ward is a good option to work with. With an 88 overall rating, he has 95 speed and 95 acceleration to go with a strong man coverage rating (90) and a decent zone rating (84). His 89 press rating is also second-best among corners 25 and under. That he's 22 -- two years younger than Ramsey -- gives you more time to build him as well.

Yannick Ngakoue, DE, Jaguars: He's intriguing. While he's 24, you can still get five to six good years from him as a player to build around. His overall rating of 84 is tied for fourth among young defensive ends/outside linebackers and his 83 speed will bring value. That he's a speed rusher versus run stopper as an archetype made him the choice over Darius Leonard. His pursuit (83) is good and his finesse moves rating (89) is second among young pass-rushers. Not a no-brainer like Myles Garrett or Joey Bosa, but he's an option to consider.