Who are the game’s most explosive players in 2015?
The conversation of who is deserving of the Most Valuable Player in the NFL seems to always conclude with a quarterback as the recipient. However, this isn’t a ranking of the most valuable players, in case you misread the title. This is the first part of a two-part series ranking the BEST overall players the NFL had to offer in 2015. With that being said, here are the five offensive players who were consistently torching the opposing defenses this season.
5. Carson Palmer, QB, Arizona Cardinals
A comeback player of the year candidate, Palmer has reemerged as an elite quarterback in 2015. The 2004 first overall pick entered the year with 35,365 passing yards, 224 touchdowns, and only 155 interceptions already in his career. After first tearing his left ACL in 2005 with the Cincinnati Bengals, Palmer suffered the same injury in Week 7 of 2014.
With the help of new technology, Palmer has been able to come back bigger and better than ever. He posted career highs all across the board, including 4,671 passing yards, 35 touchdowns, a 104.6 passer rating, and a 82.15 QBR (which led the NFL in 2015).
One of Palmer’s biggest accomplishment was his ability to get the most out of the weapons he was given. This includes elevating Larry Fitzgerald back into the top-10 wideout conversation as well as the continued development of Michael Floyd and John Brown. Palmer dealt with a revolving door at running back. The Arizona Cardinals were one of three teams to have three running backs each rush for at least 285 yards.
Despite that, Palmer simply made everyone around him better. Led by Palmer, it’s no coincidence the Cardinals finished with a 13-3 record, best in franchise history. Everyone talks about the Cardinals defense, but Palmer is responsible for leading the NFL’s most explosive offense.
Best Game: Week 14 vs. Minnesota Vikings
In a Week 14 matchup pitting two of the top teams in the NFC together, playoff implications were on the line. Palmer stepped up to the occasion going 25-35 (71%) with 310 yards, two touchdowns, and zero interceptions. Palmer boasted a 117.6 passer rating as he led the Cardinals on a game winning drive to defeat Minnesota.
Top Play: Week 2 vs. Chicago Bears
Cruising past the Chicago Bears to a 48-23 victory in Week 2, offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin dialed up a flea flicker because why not? Palmer executed it perfectly throwing a dime right to Fitzgerald for one of his four touchdowns on the day.
Flea flicker! pic.twitter.com/gj1t6PupDS— SB Nation GIF (@SBNationGIF) September 20, 2015
4. Adrian Peterson, RB, Minnesota Vikings
Fans have become accustomed to seeing Adrian Peterson’s name on lists like these. After all, Peterson is less than 400 rushing yards away from becoming the leading rusher among all active running backs (Frank Gore; 12,040). He’s notched seven pro bowls, four All-Pro’s, and was the only non-quarterback to win the MVP award since LaDainian Tomlinson in 2006. His 2,097 rushing yards that season still stand as the second most in a single-season in NFL history.
Peterson missed almost all of last season and dealt with intense trade rumors over the offseason. After a rough start in Week 1, pundits were wondering if Peterson would be the same force he was now that he’s on the wrong side of 30.
Opposing defenses still knew Peterson would be given the rock early and often throughout the season (327 rushing attempts; most in NFL). That didn’t stop him from finishing the year with a whopping 1,485 rushing yards. Peterson became the first player over 28 years old to be crowned the rushing king since Curtis Martin in 2004. His 11 rushing touchdowns led the league as well.
The Vikings rode Peterson all the way to the postseason and were only a 27-yard missed field goal from becoming a serious Super Bowl threat. As he ages, Peterson somehow finds a way to get even better than before. Peterson’s ability to plant his feet, cut back, and change directions is still among the league’s best. The league’s leading rusher sits comfortably at No. 4 on the list.
Best Game: Week 10 vs. Oakland Raiders
The Vikings were riding a four-game win streak heading into their Week 10 matchup against Oakland. Oakland’s 4-4 record put them right in the midst of the wild-card picture. Despite that, nobody could stop Peterson from carrying the Vikings to victory. Peterson’s 203 rushing yards and 7.81 yards per carry were both season highs. Peterson lived up to his nickname as he was running on the Raiders ALL-DAY.
Top Play: Week 3 vs. San Diego Chargers
After silencing his critics with a 29-carry, 134-rushing yard performance against Detroit in Week 2, Peterson couldn’t stop there. Facing the Chargers in Week 3, Peterson saw an opportunity to grow the legend. After breaking a couple tackles behind the line of scrimmage, Peterson wiggled his way all the way to the house for an epic 43-yard touchdown.
3. Julio Jones, WR, Atlanta Falcons
When the Falcons swapped two first round picks, two second round picks, and a fourth round pick for Julio Jones on draft day in 2011, it was clear Jones had big shoes to fill. It’s probably safe to say Jones has lived up to the hype. While Jones has emerged as one of the games’ elite wide receivers, the Cleveland Browns turned those draft picks into absolutely nothing.
With great size (6‘3, 220 lbs) and speed (4.39 40-time), the Falcons were drooling over the potential of the Alabama product. Here in his fifth season, Jones has turned that potential into production. Jones led all wideouts in receptions (136), receiving yards (1,871), yards after catch (620), and first downs (93).
With the sudden deterioration of Roddy White, Jones had to step up as Matt Ryan‘s go-to receiver. The pocket consistently collapsed in front of Ryan’s face behind one of the league’s worst offensive lines. Ryan had no choice but to force the ball to Jones often, and Jones would regularly make plays, even in double coverage.
Jones elevated himself into the top-tier receiver conversation in 2015. Only 26 years old, Jones has the chance to solidify himself as one of the best wideouts in history. With crisp route running and world-class ball skills, Jones imposed fear to opposing defenses all season long. Jones was awarded with his first career All-Pro appearance while claiming the No. 3 spot on the list.
Best Game: Week 16 vs. Carolina Panthers
After starting the season 5-0, the Falcons had the playoffs in reach. Unfortunately, after only winning two of the next nine games, the Falcons’ playoff chances were slim to none by Week 16’s matchup. Still, Atlanta had an opportunity to prevent their division rival from being the second team to ever start an NFL season 15-0.
They needed a career day from Julio Jones against one of the game’s best cornerbacks in Josh Norman. Jones would go on to catch nine of his 11 targets for 178 yards and a touchdown. Having a remarkable performance against arguably the best cornerback in the league and defeating the NFL’s best team was just a bonus.
Top Play: Week 16 vs. Carolina Panthers
In this same Week 16 matchup, the Falcons were trailing by three points late in the third quarter. On third and long, Ryan did what he did all season. He escaped pressure and just threw it up hoping Jones would snag it. Jones evaded the double coverage and leaped as high as he could over 2014 defensive player of the year Luke Kuechly. After making the catch, Jones turned around and casually jogged into the endzone for a game changing touchdown.
2. Antonio Brown, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers
Ranking Antonio Brown higher than Julio Jones was a tough decision, but it’s one that comes with merit. Unlike Jones, Brown entered the league as an unheralded receiver out of Central Michigan. He was only 5‘10, 180 lbs, and most evaluators believed he would be limited to return duties in his NFL career.
Now, Brown is viewed as the best receiver in the game. He’s even getting comparisons to the greatest receiver of all time, Jerry Rice. After really elevating his play last year, Brown took it up a notch this season.
Brown finished the year with 136 receptions, 1,834 receiving yards, and 10 touchdowns. While he trailed Jones by 37 receiving yards, he was able to score two more times and had a better catch percentage (71.6 vs. 70.5) as well. Brown was awarded with his fourth pro-bowl appearance and his second All-Pro.
What’s more impressive is that Brown was without his starting quarterback for a fourth of the season. When Big Ben did suit up, Brown averaged an insane 133.25 yards per game and scored all 10 of his touchdowns. If Brown kept up that production with a healthy Ben all season, he would have finished with an NFL record 2,132 yards and 13 touchdowns. It’s scary to think about what this duo can accomplish over the next few seasons.
Brown is hands-down the best route runner in today’s NFL. His ability to change directions at the drop of a dime is unmatched by any other player. Brown consistently gets open against even ”lockdown” cornerbacks. This was never more evident than in Brown’s best game of the season.
Best Game: Week 15 vs. Denver Broncos
His 17-catch, 284-yard performance against the Oakland Raiders in Week 9 was definitely considered here. However, what he was able to do in Week 15 was even more impressive. Being covered by Chris Harris Jr. (Pro Football Focus’ No. 3 Cornerback) and constant double teams in a must-win game, the spotlight was on Brown. Brown shined bright by putting up 189 yards on 16 catches and taking it to the house twice. Brown’s incredible Week 15 performance was the difference in the Steelers making the playoffs.
Top Play: Week 10 vs. Cleveland Browns
Against an abysmal Cleveland defense, Antonio Brown does what he does best getting himself wide open. He made the catch, turned on the Jets, and sprinted down the field for a 56-yard touchdown. The flip into the endzone was just the icing on the cake.
1. Cam Newton, QB, Carolina Panthers
A quarterback doesn’t necessarily have to be the best offensive player of the year. Cam Newton earned the right to be called the best offensive player of the year. He’s the clear favorite for the MVP award after leading the Carolina Panthers to a 15-1 record, despite having no weapons around him.
The 2011 first overall pick did it all this year. He threw for 3,837 yards, 35 touchdowns, and only 10 interceptions. He also led the Panthers on four game-winning drives this season (most in NFL). Newton shredded defenses with his legs as well. He added 636 yards on the ground, along with 10 rushing touchdowns. That’s only one less touchdown than leading rusher Adrian Peterson.
After Kelvin Benjamin was ruled out for the season, the odds of the Carolina Panthers making the playoffs instantly decreased. After all, Newton’s go-to receivers became Ted Ginn Jr., Philly Brown, Devin Funchess, and Jericho Cotchery. Still, Newton found ways to orchestrate an efficient offense that only failed to win a single game.
When you put it all together, nobody’s 2015 season comes close to Newton’s. His ability to move around in the pocket to extend plays, and possibly take off for a huge gain, kept defenses on their toes. Not only is Newton the Most Valuable Player in 2015, but he was also the best offensive player.
Best Game: Week 15 vs. New York Giants
Coming into Week 15 with a 13-0 record, the pressure started mounting. The Panthers were chasing the 2007 Patriots as the second team in NFL history to finish with a 16-0 record. The Giants threw their best at Cam and company in this Week 15 matchup. Newton brought his A-game, though, passing for 340 yards, running for another 100, and adding five passing touchdowns to his stat line as well.
More importantly, the Giants would come back from a 35-7 deficit to tie the game at 35 apiece. After an Odell Beckham Jr. touchdown with 1:46 left on the clock, the Panthers undefeated season was never in more doubt. Newton drove the ball down the field and led the Panthers into field goal position, which culminated in their 38-35 victory.
Top Play: Week 6 vs. Seattle Seahawks
Facing the Seahawks in Seattle has been no easy feat for teams in recent years. Pete Carroll’s ‘hawks owned a 27-2 record in front of the 12th man heading into that game. With Seattle leading by three late in the game, Newton led the Panthers down the field for a game-winning fourth quarter comeback. He threw a perfect strike to Greg Olsen with only 33 seconds remaining to give Seattle their third defeat in their last 30 home games while keeping their own undefeated record in 2015 unblemished.
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