In order to name the best active players from the last three years, there had to be some parameters put in place.
First and foremost, anyone who missed all or a good part of 2010, 2011 or 2012 for injury or other reasons was basically ineligible. For that reason, a number of names that might otherwise be on this list (Wes Welker, Peyton Manning, Jamaal Charles, Maurice Jones-Drew, Darrelle Revis, Logan Mankins, Adrian Peterson and Navarro Bowman) aren’t on here. By the way, if you’re wondering about an honorable mention list, you just read it. Secondly, we had to keep in mind that football is a 22-man team game, and some positions just don’t generate a lot of measurable or meaningful stats on which to base things. Consistency over peaks and valleys, and impact over simple stats were heavily favored. Beyond that, it’s all subjective. All of that said, here, in no particular order, is our list of the 10 best players over the last three seasons.
RAY RICE, RB
There’s really no argument that Ray Rice is the best “all-purpose” back in the NFL. That’s code for being able to run and catch. And look at the numbers: three straight 1,100+ yard rushing seasons, three straight 60+ catch seasons. He won a Super Bowl last year and led the NFL in total yards from scrimmage in 2011. Rice is that rare combination of a workhorse back who’s also a spectacular playmaker. Baltimore’s offense would be toast without him.
DREW BREES, QB
New Orleans Saints
If anyone tries to sell you on the idea that the “new era” of quarterback is embodied by run-option guys like Robert Griffin III and Colin Kaepernick, smack them. The “new era” of quarterback started about 10 years ago, and it’s still going on, and Drew Brees is basically a poster child for it. Brees isn’t built like a linebacker and doesn’t run like a wide receiver. But he’s as smart as any quarterback in football (except possibly Peyton Manning) and is one of the most accurate passers in the history of the NFL. He led the league in completion percentage, passing yards and touchdowns in two of the last three seasons and has kept the Saints in the playoff mix despite having one of the worst defenses in football behind him.
DEMARCUS WARE, OLB
Remember what we said about consistency? Nobody gets to the quarterback like DeMarcus Ware, who has posted seven straight double-digit sack seasons. He’s made six straight Pro Bowls. He led the league in sacks in 2010 and was first-team AllPro in 2011. He’s also forced 32 fumbles in his career, including five last season, putting him in the all-time top five (the stat has only been tracked since 2000, however). More significantly, Ware is the one guy on the Dallas defense every team must account for and every team game plans around. Once you draw that kind of attention on the defensive side of the ball, it would be only natural if someone else started cutting into your stats, but in Ware’s case it hasn’t happened. He is the ultimate QB nightmare.
TOM BRADY, QB
New England Patriots
Tom Brady is a guy a lot of people love to hate, but this list would be a joke without him on it. For starters, there’s his wonlost record of 39-9 over the last three seasons. That’s easily the best in football over that time. He’s also completed 64.8 percent of his passes, thrown for nearly 14,000 yards and averaged 36 TDs per season. He is the key player on the best offense in football. No wonder everybody hates him.
RODDY WHITE, WR
This is the selection that I’ll bet a lot of people are hot to disagree with, but believe me, when I sat down and looked at Roddy White’s numbers over the last three seasons, I was quite surprised to see just how good this underrated No. 1 receiver really is. He caught 115 balls in 2010 (a league best), 102 in 2011 and 92 last season. The yardage numbers are equally consistent and impressive: 1,389, 1,296 and 1,351. White basically has the same very good season every year. In that sense, he’s a lot like his team, the Falcons. Consistently very good, but people tend to overlook them. Other players may get more press, but White is a terrific No. 1 receiver and a big part of the reason the Falcons have won so many games over the last three years.
ARIAN FOSTER, RB
Arian Foster came out of nowhere in 2010 to lead the NFL in rushing, rushing touchdowns and total yards from scrimmage, but he didn’t go back to nowhere after that. Despite missing three games in 2011, he still managed 1,224 yards and 10 touchdowns, and then led the league in carries (an insane 351) and rushing touchdowns again in 2012. Houston’s throwback offense would never work without a back who could handle a ton of carries and still just keep right on rolling. Foster is the very definition of a workhorse or feature back that is the focal point of the Texans’ offense and the “must stop” feature every defense game plans for.
JOE THOMAS, OT
Offensive linemen don’t generate stats, but their value to a football team is incalculable anyway. Ever had to sit through a season watching your favorite team when half of their offensive line was out with injury? All of a sudden, your All-Pro running back can’t find any daylight, and your rocket-armed quarterback is spending half the game on his back picking dirt out of his helmet. Finding a franchise offensive tackle is the goal of every team in the draft. Cleveland certainly has theirs in Joe Thomas, who has made the Pro Bowl in all six of his seasons, and was a first-team All-Pro in 2009, 2010 and 2011. The Browns haven’t been very good for the last three years, but Thomas has. He’s one piece the Browns don’t need to keep looking for.
AARON RODGERS, QB
Green Bay Packers
The leader of the Pack has certainly made fans forget all about Brett Favre, hasn’t he? Aaron Rodgers has led the league in passer rating the last two years, and has posted passer ratings of better than 100 in five of the last six seasons. Over the last three years, he’s averaged 4,200 yards passing and 37 TDs. More importantly, Rodgers is the kind of quarterback who makes you feel like you’re never out of the game, no matter what the score or how the team has looked up to that point. While Rodgers doesn’t post gaudy rushing totals (he averages about 18 rushing yards per game), he is a gifted scrambler who keeps plays alive and, when needed, gains the first down or scores using his legs. Rodgers is one of the most exciting quarterbacks in football, and one of the best.
HALOTI NGATA, DT
6’4,” 335 lbs. Haloti Ngata won’t ever lead his team in tackles or sacks. It’s rare for a defensive tackle to do so. But Ngata’s presence in the middle of Baltimore’s defensive line makes almost everything else the defense does possible. It is widely accepted that drafting Ngata helped extend Ray Lewis’ career, as Lewis was able to roam free reeking havoc knowing that Ngata was engaging blockers at the line and generally clogging up the opposing offense. And it’s not as if Ngata doesn’t make plays – he’s averaged 5 sacks and 40 tackles a year over the last three. He’s also made four straight Pro Bowls and was a first-team AllPro in 2010 and 2011. He missed that honor in 2012, but I’m sure he’ll settle for what he did get…a Super Bowl ring.
CALVIN JOHNSON, WR
Although these names weren’t put in order, in some sense we saved the best for last. “Megatron” is simply the most unstoppable offensive player in football right now, and he’s also one of the game’s most exciting players to watch. Calvin Johnson has led the league in receiving yards in each of the last two seasons, including an amazing 1,964 yards last year when he also led the league in receptions with 122. In 2010, with Matthew Stafford hurt and a backup quarterback (and then later that backup’s backup) throwing to him, he still managed to put up 77 catches, 1,120 yards and 12 touchdowns. Johnson made the Pro Bowl each of the last three years and was a first-team All-Pro in 2011 and 2012. In just six seasons with Detroit, he is already in the all-time top 100 for receiving yards. And he just entered his prime a year or two ago. Calvin Johnson is one player who is truly worth the price of admission.