Facebook will be the demise of mankind. No longer are we forced to have continuous interpersonal interactions. The time of needing to go out of your way to talk to someone has been dead for years now. They’ll always be posting. You’ll always know. We have been allowed to hide in our esoteric circles reading headlines sculpted around our own biases and opinions, talking only among those who feel the exact same way. Different opinions and points of view are hit with dislikes and blocks, killing the ability to work together, resulting in us staying cozy and comfy all the time.
It didn’t used to be like this. Social media used to have heart. It was about connecting, not selling likes and cookies to advertisers to toss into the algorithm to deliver an ad of a romphim that you want but will never buy, because it makes you feel bad, because you would never look as good in it compared to the perfect being in the screen. No, before, it used to be about who your best friends were, not how many you had.
In the mid 2000s, there was Myspace. What mattered were grainy digital bathroom photos where the flash scoured the entire person. What mattered were the eight people you cared most about in the world. No matter how down and out you were, Tom was always there for you.
When it comes to football, it’s no different. We can sniff around our individual team blogs (like this one) and subreddits. We can troll writers on Twitter we disagree with until we are blue in the fingers and blocked, never having to read a different opinion again. If you write about the game, it’s all about trying to know any and everything about every player and every team. We ignore the enjoyment of it in the pursuit to try and be right all the time.
This is an objection to that. This isn’t about the best players. This isn’t film study. This is all about the eight players in the league I watched last year who brought me the greatest entertainment, lifted my heart the highest, and made my smile the brightest. These were my eight favorite players to watch last season.
8.) T.J. Clemmings
To appreciate, to truly understand the beauty in all things, you need the bad stuff. You need love to rot your heart to a black, goop-pumping scab. You need to go through two win seasons. You need the bad for the good.
T.J. Clemmings was the worst player I saw in the NFL last year. He was so terrible that even the idiot whose skin is singed to the couch was correct when he hollered that he could play better while tossing Zimas through his glass windows. It was incredible how bad Clemmings was last year.
I feel bad for writing all of this. Clemmings is a former fourth round pick who wasn’t supposed to play last year or probably ever at all. He should have been able to hide from committing football atrocities. Then both Vikings’ starting tackles, Matt Kalil and Andre Smith, were injured. Clemmings was forced to fill in and attempt to do the impossible—play NFL football.
Because of his play—a combination of hoping to get in front of someone in the run game, and being unable to time his punch and feet in the pass game--Jerick McKinnon had to slog through concrete and mangled backfields to the tune of 3.4 yards a carry. Sam Bradford tossed immediate, sad, shallow crosses for seven yards an attempt while maneuvering around stampedes of defenders. Teddy Bridgewater probably added a few years to his career by snapping his leg in half and spending the season in a cast and hoodie instead of behind this miserable collection of offensive line play.
When you forget about how great Duane Brown is, or how being alright is perfectly fine when watching Anthony Castonzo, watch Clemmings. Savor it.
Understand how difficult playing football is and truly see what terrible is. You need the bad for the good.
7.) Philip Rivers
It’s a quarterback-driven league, and Rivers is my favorite quarterback. I love how slow he is.
I love his pocket presence. He doesn’t need blocking. With instincts, like the cat running away from the dog, his brain quiets and his body takes over to step up in the pocket and away from exterior rushes. Without fear, Rivers throws with defenders in his face, staying big and strong with monsters lurching towards him.
I love his ability to attack both the short and deep parts of the field no matter what the pocket is like. He’s a great combination of anticipation and accuracy.
He’s also certifiably insane. Everyone loves the Manning Face. The crumpled forehead you can eat your second plate at Golden Corral off of, or the younger version, an alien forever flummoxed by human life beamed down here to beat New England. But the Rivers Face is the best. There’s the cuckoo’s nest. There’s the I just threw my 21st interception this year. There’s the competitor. There’s the sad boy. There’s the gosh dangit, gee willickers, butter my biscuit, screaming monster. There’s my favorite quarterback, losing close games and reacting to the absurd just how human beings should.
Now Rivers is 35 years old. The Chargers are already starting to prepare a world without Philip Rivers. They selected two guards in the first three rounds of the 2017 NFL Draft, Forrest Lamp and Dan Feeney, positions of lesser importance with the skillset Rivers has. They’ll build a bridge to their next quarterback with Melvin Gordon, Hunter Henry, interior blocking, and two great outside wide receivers.
Time doesn’t exist, but mortality does, and it’s a damn shame.
6.) Jadeveon Clowney
The Texans’ dreaded tornado of terror is wrapped with lobed shrunken leather flesh from past vanquishes, has a femur through his septum, and skin forever stained with iron. We waited three years for the athleticism, potential, and skill all to intersect. Last year it did. Clowney became one of the league’s best edge defenders. He made runs at him impossible and runs away from him a horrifying affair because of his first step, strength, and closing speed. He was who I watched specifically on Sunday to wash away thoughts of wasted life while the Texans’ offense drowned attempting to score at least 20 points.
Of all the players on this list, Clowney’s highs are the highest. He does things nobody can do. You know, things like tossing a blocker for a few yards into the running back to make a tackle for a loss.
The problem was Clowney’s pass rush. Too many of his one-on-one matchups were stifled. When he couldn’t run around or through blockers, Clowney was snuffed out like a dust bunny hopping into a dirt devil. Too may plays were wasted. Too often the mind wandered.
However, with J.J. Watt back, the talent on the rest of the defensive front seven, and an additional year of life, Clowney should add a brain-melting pass rush box score to go along with his run squashing ability. No longer will there be lulls. It should be all chaos all the time.
5.) Devonta Freeman
Thanks to my old man, one of the first smart football things I learned was the importance of a running back who can catch a football. During those Blue Pepsi Sundays in the late 90s/early 2000s, I would watch Marshall Faulk, amazed by his ability to run for 12 yards easily one down, and then turn a simple swing pass into 20 on another. He could do it all with a fishbowl in his mouth.
Freeman is a similar player. He’s a runner who can move faster sideways than most defenders can run vertically, a vicious cutter who runs the outside zone perfectly. He eases the pain of Arian Foster retiring to his Twitter account.
Freeman is a spectacular pass catcher who snagged 54 of his 65 targets for 462 yards.
The Falcons became an all-time great offense last year because of ball distribution. They went from force feeding Julio Jones the ball to using the attention drawn to him against defenses. They spread the ball everywhere. Because of this change, Freeman emerged as a star, and Taylor Gabriel, Mohamed Sanu, Tevin Coleman, and a dozen others turned from sideshows into integral parts of an offense.
This season, the Falcons’ offense won’t be as good by default. The young defense will be better. Regardless of the impending regression and the change in team performance, Freeman is still going to make eyes bleed with leg snapping cutbacks, floundering sprints, and swing passes that turn from benign to malignant once the ball reaches his hands.
4.) Jalen Ramsey
Cornerback seems like the hardest thing in the world to do. They stand there all alone, across from one of the world’s greatest physical specimens, having to react to whatever it is they do, all while getting in trouble for touching them past an arbitrary distance with other very fast men buzzing all around you. It seems damn near impossible.
This is what I love about Ramsey. He turns a reactive position the other way around. He’s the one in control of most plays. He’s stronger than most receivers and can jam just about anyone on the line of scrimmage. Wide receivers are stuck to him out of their breaks. His closing speed ensures no one ever really gets away, allowing him to break and make plays on the ball. Routes are pretty pictures painted by steps and camouflaged movement. Ramsey covers these water colors with slop before they can be completed.
Despite playing off the screen for the majority of the game, Ramsey commands attention until he exceeds the limits of cable television. He’s always a must-watch come Tuesday when the All-22 drops again. For fellow AFC South apostles, these Ramsey versus DeAndre Hopkins battles are going to make all the years of disgusting 2-10 v. 3-9 fart fests worth it.
3.) Brandon Brooks
Back when I spent my time laying on the couch waiting for the words to come, delaying adulthood and job searches, spending the waning days of freedom learning about and writing and watching Texans football, I would argue about Brandon Brooks being good and that Derek Newton could be good. Both of these things came to fruition. Together, Brewton become my favorite offensive line combination to watch for the next few seasons.
I’ve still watched Brooks even after he left for a tad bit more money to Philadelphia. There are better guards out there. David DeCastro may make the most spectacular blocks in the league, Marshal Yanda is a model of consistency and perfection. Kelechi Osemele treats 350 pound men like Billy Madison in a kindergarten dodgeball game. But Brooks is my favorite. I grew up with him. Forever, he’ll be here.
What I love about Brooks, aside from nostalgia, is his combination of strength and quickness. At almost 350 pound,s he can still make every block. He reaches, pulls, and can lead the way in space on screens.
With his size, you can count him to make one-on-one blocks against anyone while also getting some absurd double teams.
When football starts, it’s going to be a beautiful life to watch this Philly offensive line, to see Brooks sandwiched between Lane Johnson and Jason Kelce, all while enjoying the present and cherishing, but not regretting, the past.
2.) Khalil Mack
In Mack’s second career game, a 2014 loss to the Texans, I thought he was going to be spectacular. He already had an arsenal of pass rush moves, spins, rips, and counters. He was an incredible intersection of strength and quickness. In that game, he routinely beat Duane Brown, getting close, but never fully getting to, the quarterback. Nothing has changed much since then. Except the box score numbers.
The best thing about Mack is that he’s really good against the pass and really good against the run. Teams couldn’t run at him last year. They could run everywhere else against Oakland, but they couldn’t run at Mack. Say a prayer for Kendrick Lamar, and say a prayer for every tight end who is stuck solo blocking Mack.
Pass blocking Mack, like eating a single Taki, is an impossible endeavor. What I admire most about Mack is that he’s one of the rare players who played with skill his rookie year. He can and always has been able to rush the passer in every way imaginable. This clip is just one of many. It’s an edge rush that becomes a quick flip inside and across the face once the tackle over-sets. You gotta feel for the tackle. It’s such a horrifying thing. You gotta feel for Eric Fisher and Russell Okung for what they have to put up with.
If you want to spend your finite amount of time on this planet watching a perfect combination of run stopping and pass rushing ability, Mack is the man to watch.
1.) Von Miller
Von Miller won a Super Bowl. His postseason dominance during that playoff run will never be appreciated enough. He was the reason why the Broncos took out Pittsburgh, New England, and Carolin before winning a Lombardi Trophy with a corpse at quarterback. Miller dragged a purple-tongued old man into the sunset and rewarded Peyton Manning for being the worst quarterback to ever win a title.
During that run, Miller accumulated 6 sacks, 1 quarterback hit, 16 quarterback pressures, 8 tackles, 10 stops, and had 1 interception. He evolved past the biological limits our bodies are attached to. He achieved transcendence.
He did things like jam Rob Gronkowski at the line of scrimmage, pick off the pass, and set up one of Denver’s precious scores.
He ripped past Andrew Norwell, and then ripped the ball from the titanic Cam Newton, crawling for the ball until Malik Jackson picked it up to score.
He stripped Newton again and showed the entire world Newton’s lack of grit.
On the field, Miller is among the league’s best edge rushers. He’s like a video game protagonist at the end of his journey. Every move unlocked. Every weapon available. He’s a 0-60 roller coaster whose body is filled with magnets clicking off, springing him forward once the ball is snapped. From there, it’s despicable untouched edge rushes and get-over-here yank down rips.
He has the best spin move in the game. Sometimes he even tosses out the fake spin (spin halfway then spin back the other way).
Once tackles get light on their feet, Miller turns all 250 pounds of sinew into a locomotive that evaporates men with 100 pounds on him.
The other thing about Miller is he’s one of the few players in the league whose personality exudes past the limits of the helmet, shoulder pads, and pad stuffed pants that contains him. Unlike basketball, which is all about the players, football is primarily about the team, and secondly about the quarterback. Everyone is hidden in layers of armor. They make plays that are difficult to appreciate during the LIVE telecast. But Miller’s conception-inducing sack dances, chicken farming, cowboy hats, large frame glasses, Madden commercials, and interviews have made him one of the rare defensive players to be a glossy magazine star.
Those are my eight. Who are yours?