Pro Football Focus has released their annual list of the NFL’s Top 101 Players (based on the 2015 season alone), and for the first time in four years, the top ranked player is not J.J. Watt. Four total Texans made the list, and they were all the names you may have expected – Watt, DeAndre Hopkins, Johnathan Joseph, and Whitney Mercilus. Without any of those names being on Houston’s roster last year, this ball club would have had no chance at making the playoffs in 2015. It is only fair to assume, then, that this quartet of playmakers stacks up well against the best that the rest of the league has to offer. Here are PFF’s individual write-ups on every Texan on the list in descending order.
96. Whitney Mercilus, OLB, Houston Texans (unranked)
It’s easy to forget that Mercilus was a former first-round pick, but this past season we finally got to see him deliver on some of that promise, with strong grades against both the run and pass. He notched 12 sacks and 58 total pressures as he partnered with Jadeveon Clowney to finally give J.J. Watt some help up front.
Best performance: Week 8 versus Tennessee: +5.4 grade
Key stat: Mercilus had the sixth-highest pass-rushing productivity for 3-4 OLBs at 12.3
42. Johnathan Joseph, CB, Houston Texans (unranked)
There hasn’t been nearly enough written about how good Jonathan Joseph was in 2015. He may have had just one interception, but also notched 16 pass breakups and was beaten for an average of just 9.7 yards per catch over the year, being flagged just twice in the process. Only Josh Norman and Jason Verrett had a higher coverage grade than the Texans’ veteran, and he showed that, when healthy, he can still cover with the best of them.
Best performance: Week 3 versus Tampa Bay: +5.5
Key stat: Joseph notched 16 passes defensed, and was only beaten for an average of 9.7 yards per reception—one of the few corners in the league to be under 10 yards in that regard.
18. DeAndre Hopkins, WR, Houston Texans (unranked)
At times during the season, it was like Houston didn’t have any other receivers, and every pass that went airborne was sent in the direction of Hopkins, who came down with an inordinate amount of them. "Nuk" ended the year with 111 receptions for 1,521 yards and 11 scores, despite a dreadful series of quarterbacks throwing him the football, fully emerging as one of the league’s best receivers and justifying his lofty spot on the Top 101 list.
Best performance: Week 6 at Jacksonville: +5.2
Key stat: Hopkins averaged 11.7 targets per game over the season, catching 59.4 percent of them for over 1,500 yards.
5. J.J. Watt, DE, Houston Texans (1)
It says something about J.J. Watt that he can have a relative "down" year, play through a broken hand for part of the season, and still finish fifth on PFF’s Top 101 list. At his best, there is no better player in the NFL, at any position. Aaron Donald is making the case that he does at least have an equal, but certainly nobody outdistancing him in performance; however, this season was not the best Watt we have seen. His hand injury is fine mitigation, but he was less-effective during that span, and even before that his grading had been slightly down from his otherworldly level of years past. In a season in which he broke his hand, Watt still notched a better grade than anybody we have seen since 2007 (other than Aaron Donald), and he still led the league in total pressures, sacks, and batted passes. He has become a true edge rusher, lining up outside the tackle on 63.9 percent of his snaps, and proving that 290-pound men can be just as dangerous on the edge as they are inside.
Best performance: Week 8 at Tennessee: +13.9
Key stat: Watt led the NFL with 90 total pressures over the regular season.
Watt did have a semi "down" year by his standards, all things considered, but even despite being limited by hand, groin, and abdominal injuries for most of the season, he was still the best edge rusher in the entire league. He is unquestionably the most dominant player at his position in the NFL, which likely explains why the only players ranked above him by PFF are also the most dominant players at their own respective positions – Rob Gronkowski, Luke Kuechly, Antonio Brown, and Aaron Donald. For a straight up comparison of defensive lineman versus defensive lineman, here is what PFF had to say about Donald wrestling the top spot away from Watt as a second year player.
1. Aaron Donald, DT, St. Louis Rams (18)
Dethroning J.J. Watt from atop of the PFF Top 101 takes some serious production. Coming into this season, Watt was the No. 1 name on the list for three straight years following his breakout sophomore campaign, and it looked like he would remain there as long as he stayed on the field. For Aaron Donald to force himself into the same kind of echelon already in his career is truly staggering.
Donald was the highest-graded interior defender in the league, and in his second season—just like Watt—he pushed that grade into the stratosphere. The Rams’ star may not have posted the kind of numbers Watt did, but Donald played exclusively inside as a defensive tackle, whereas Watt has become a true edge rusher, a position that typically generates far better stats than their interior teammates. Donald still ended the season with 79 total pressures and 51 defensive stops, and actually gained more pressure on a per-rush basis than the Texan.
Donald may have the quickest first step in the game among linemen, and was a constant presence in the backfield of offenses, blowing up plays against the run and pass with frightening regularity. He may not have the ideal size that teams look for, but there was no better NFL player in 2015.
Best performance: Week 1 versus Seattle: +10.7
Key stat: Aaron Donald was the highest-graded player in the NFL last season (99.9 on PFF’s new 1–100 scale).
It is hard for me to personally argue one way or another on the whole "Watt v. Donald" debate because that is like arguing for brisket v. ribs or for a good IPA v. a good wheat beer. At the end of the day, they are both amazing, so who really cares which one comes in first? The only thing Texans fans can honestly be upset about is that the fact that the front office decided to pass on Donald’s and Khalil Mack’s talent in favor of Jadeveon Clowney in 2014. Even then, Clowney’s injury issues are not really his fault at this point in his young career. This is all just a big pile of terrible luck, and it is the same terrible luck that caused Watt’s injuries to slow him down during the 2015 season in the first place.
Congratulations to Aaron Donald for finally getting the recognition he deserves. He sure as hell earned it.