First of a five-part series
With the help of coaches and evaluators from around the NFL, we present the top 50 players of 2010, beginning with the players ranked 41st through 50th. Players were ranked using the following criteria: performance and value to team. All respondents participated on condition of anonymity.
41. WR DeSean Jackson / Philadelphia Eagles
Jackson is one of the NFL's premier deep threats. Anyone with the speed to run under one of Michael Vick's bombs is a nightmare to cover, and that's Jackson, who had 21 of his 47 catches this season go for 20 yards or more. He is capable of burning coverages designed to take away the deep ball, and he is exceptionally dangerous after the catch (see his 91-yard run at Dallas on an injured ankle). And, of course, he can be a game changer as a punt returner (see Week 15 vs. the Giants).
42. MLB Ray Lewis / Baltimore Ravens
Lewis, still going strong with 15 seasons in the books, remains a vital part of the Ravens' defense and an integral team leader. He has kept himself in remarkable shape and continues to rank among the game's best inside linebackers. His 139 tackles were the most he has registered since 2004.
43. WR Larry Fitzgerald / Arizona Cardinals
The Cardinals tried, tried and tried again to find a quarterback to replace Kurt Warner in 2010. Nothing really worked, but at least they had Fitzgerald, who hauled in 90 passes for 1,137 yards and six TDs. Cards QBs targeted him 173 times, and rightfully so.
44. TE Antonio Gates / San Diego Chargers
Gates played just 10 games because of a foot injury, but when he played, he was far and away the premier pass-catching threat at his position.
45. WLB Cameron Wake / Miami Dolphins
The former CFL star finished third in the league with 14 sacks. He helped the Dolphins' defense improve from 22nd in 2009 to sixth in '10. He is a relentless pass rusher, using his speed to get past tackles to the quarterback. His playmaking abilities helped a Dolphins team that struggled offensively to win a few games, thanks to its "D."
46. OLT Jake Long / Miami Dolphins
Long has established himself among the elite at his position. Despite knee and shoulder injuries, he started all 16 games for the third consecutive season.
47. QB Matt Cassel / Kansas City Chiefs
In the Chiefs' lone start without Cassel, they were shut out. In his 15 starts, he was productive and prudent, throwing 27 TD passes against only seven interceptions and leading Kansas City to first place in the AFC West.
48. C Nick Mangold / New York Jets
The Jets' offensive line is one of the NFL's best, and Mangold is the team's most important player up front. He hasn't missed a start in five NFL seasons.
49. RILB Jerod Mayo / New England Patriots
Mayo seemed to always be around the ball in 2010, leading the league with 175 tackles and adding three fumble recoveries. The veteran of a LB corps that included two rookies, Mayo was a key part of a Patriots' run defense that ranked ninth in the league. With injuries on the defensive line and lots of youth, Mayo picked a good year to have his best season, considering he was one of the more consistent guys on the Pats' defense.
50. TE Jason Witten / Dallas Cowboys
Witten, an exceptional short-and-intermediate receiver, hauled in 94 passes for 1,002 yards with nine touchdowns in 2010. He was targeted 128 times, most among tight ends. Time and again, he gets open.
Honorable mention (in alphabetical order): Vikings DRE Jared Allen, Rams QB Sam Bradford, Bears WLB Lance Briggs, Packers FS Nick Collins, Saints ORG Jahri Evans, Jets OLT D'Brickashaw Ferguson, Ravens QB Joe Flacco, Panthers OLT Jordan Gross, Chiefs ROLB Tamba Hali, Browns RB Peyton Hillis, Rams RB Steven Jackson, Broncos WR Brandon Lloyd, Colts DLE Robert Mathis, Eagles RB LeSean McCoy, Raiders RB Darren McFadden, Giants WR Hakeem Nicks, Steelers C Maurkice Pouncey, Eagles CB Asante Samuel, Texans QB Matt Schaub, Giants ORG Chris Snee, Steelers RILB Lawrence Timmons, Steelers WR Mike Wallace, Patriots WR Wes Welker, Patriots NT Vince Wilfork, Steelers LOLB LaMarr Woodley.
The following PFW editors contributed to this story: Arthur Arkush, Dan Arkush, Michael Blunda, Eric Edholm, Kevin Fishbain, Mike Holbrook, Eli Kaberon, Alex Mayster and Dan Parr.
Wednesday: PFW's Super 50: 31st through 40th