Jul 17, 2020Michael RothsteinESPN Staff Writer ClosePreviously covered University of Michigan for ESPN.com and AnnArbor.com
Also covered Notre Dame for Fort Wayne Journal GazetteAhead of the August release of Madden NFL 21, we’re spending the week unveiling player ratings and rankings for the league’s best players.Here are the five players in the 99 club: Michael Thomas, Stephon Gilmore, Aaron Donald, Christian McCaffrey and Patrick Mahomes.Let’s get into the ratings for the defensive backs, pass-rushers, running backs and quarterbacks in Madden NFL 21, which launches to fans on Aug. 25:Wide receiversIn what has turned into a pass-friendly league, receivers have become dominant players when it comes to high rankings in Madden, often with long stays at or near the top, such as Calvin Johnson, Antonio Brown, Julio Jones and DeAndre Hopkins.There is, though, a new 99 — something all of those players but Jones has achieved — and that’s Michael Thomas. The Saints receiver in a pass-heavy offense was dominant last season and is the latest receiver to potentially challenge Johnson’s NFL-record 1,964 yards. It wouldn’t be surprising to see any of the top-4-rated receivers in Madden chase the record set in 2012 as half of the best receiving seasons in league history have come in the past decade.1. Michael Thomas, Saints (99 overall): Since 2011, there has been at least one pass-catcher with a 99 rating every year except for Madden ’18. So Thomas joins Hopkins, Brown, Rob Gronkowski, Calvin Johnson and Antonio Gates as pass-catching 99s. It’s a four-point leap for Thomas, who was fifth in the game last season.2. DeAndre Hopkins, Cardinals (98 overall): Hopkins had a stat dip in every area last season, but still produced a 104-catch, 1,165-yard, 7-touchdown season. Now in Arizona and with a potentially potent offense, he could very quickly earn back the 99 rating he had a year ago.3. Julio Jones, Falcons (97 overall): Somehow Jones has never been a 99 in the game at launch, but for the first time since Madden ’16, Jones won’t start off as a top-2 receiver in the game. Like Hopkins, he could move up fast after building off his sixth straight 1,000-yard season in 2019 (1,394 yards).4. Tyreek Hill, Chiefs (96 overall): Hill jumps up two rankings spots and ratings point in this year’s game as one of the game’s electrifying players. His numbers were down from a year ago — he missed four games with a clavicle injury — but he’s part of perhaps the most dynamic combination in the NFL with Mahomes.5. Davante Adams, Packers (94 overall): He was T-9 in the game last year and moves up to fifth while jumping two points as well. Like Hill, he missed four games last season and still almost had 1,000 yards — finishing at 997 — while making his third-straight Pro Bowl.6. Amari Cooper, Cowboys (93 overall): Cooper jumped from 89 to 93 in the ratings and from T-13 to No. 6. He had the best season of his career last year with 79 catches for 1,189 yards and eight touchdowns for his fourth Pro Bowl appearance.T-7. Stefon Diggs, Vikings (92 overall): Diggs essentially stays the same despite moving from Minnesota to Buffalo, going from No. 8 to T-7 and dropping from a 93 to a 92. Diggs had a career-best 1,130 yards last season, but fewer targets (94), catches (63) and touchdowns (six).T-7. Mike Evans, Buccaneers (92 overall): Evans goes from T-11 to T-7 this year and bumps up one ratings point after making his third Pro Bowl and having his sixth straight 1,000-yard season. Having Tom Brady as his quarterback could see Evans get a quick jump up if they connect well early in an offense with a bunch of options, including Chris Godwin, Gronkowski and O.J. Howard.T-9. Odell Beckham Jr., Browns (91 overall): The former Madden cover athlete dipped from fourth to T-9 and from a 96 to a 91 after posting his fewest catches (74), yards (1,035) and touchdowns (four) in a season where he played more than four games. He is a strong bounce-back candidate with a new coach in Kevin Stefanski and the same connection with Baker Mayfield.T-9. Keenan Allen, Chargers (91 overall): Allen moved down one point from a 92. Allen posted his third-straight 1,000-yard season and made his third consecutive Pro Bowl, but an uncertain quarterback situation could be worth watching for him — both in real life and in Madden.Dropped out of the top 10 from launch last year: T-2 Antonio Brown; T-6 Adam Thielen.SecondaryFor the first time since Madden ’15, with Richard Sherman, the secondary has a member of the 99 club. But in showing how little has changed year over year at the position, Sherman remains in the top 10 of defensive backs six years after being a 99.The rest of the top 10 saw a bit of a shakeup. While the elite remained the elite, the bottom half of the top 10 is almost entirely new from a season ago.1. Stephon Gilmore, Patriots CB (99 overall): Gilmore moved from tied for third to the No. 1 defensive back and picked up a five-point bump from 94 to 99. He led the NFL in interceptions (six) and passes defensed (20) last season and was named a first-team All-Pro and a Pro Bowler.2. Harrison Smith, Vikings S (95 overall): Smith continues to get better even as he hits his 30s. He moved to No. 2 among defensive backs (he was tied with Gilmore last year) and got a one-point rating increase. He had a career-high three forced fumbles last season, intercepted three passes and posted 80-plus tackles for the third time in four years.3. Jalen Ramsey, Rams CB (94 overall): Last year’s No. 1 DB, he’s now No. 3 after only one interception and five passes defensed between Jacksonville and Los Angeles. He dropped two ratings points, but if he returns to his 2018 form he could move up again quickly.play0:56Patriots CB Stephon Gilmore is surprised by his family with gifts to congratulate him for joining the Madden 99 club.4. Tyrann Mathieu, Chiefs S (93 overall): Tied for 21st last season with an 87, Mathieu made an impressive jump in his first season with the Chiefs. He intercepted four passes, defensed 12 others and had two sacks, with 75 tackles. He also was named a first-team All-Pro for the second time as a defensive leader on the Super Bowl champions.T-5. Jamal Adams, Jets S (92 overall): Adams, rated a 90 last year, was tied for 10th. Now he’s tied for fifth after earning his first first-team All-Pro nod and second consecutive Pro Bowl appearance. He defensed seven passes last season, had 75 tackles and posted one interception, a bright spot on a struggling Jets team.T-5. Richard Sherman, 49ers CB (92 overall): A 99 more than a half-decade ago, Sherman is still among the elite corners in the game at age 32. He intercepted three passes and defensed 11 others last season, making the Pro Bowl for the first time since 2016. His Madden rating dropped one point, but he remains tied for fifth.T-5. Devin McCourty, Patriots S (92 overall): The highest-rated free safety in the game, McCourty was an 89 last season. The 32-year-old had five interceptions last season — his best total since 2012 — and defensed seven passes. He has intercepted at least one pass in every season of his career, which started in 2010.8. Kevin Byard, Titans S (91 overall): An 89 last year and just outside the top 10, Byard moves into it this season after his third consecutive year of strong play, including five interceptions, nine passes defensed and 84 tackles.T-9. Jaire Alexander, Packers CB (90 overall): Alexander’s ascent has been coming. He started last season as an 83 overall and finished it as an 89. Now he’s one point higher and tied for ninth in the defensive back ratings. The 23-year-old had 17 passes defensed last season and two interceptions and could end up in the top five by next season.T-9. Justin Simmons, Broncos S (90 overall): Simmons got a 10-point ratings increase from the start of last season after a breakout campaign in which he had four interceptions, 15 passes defensed and 93 tackles. At age 26, he, along with Alexander and Byard, should continue to push their way up the rankings.Dropped out of the top 10 from launch ratings last year: No. 2 Earl Thomas; T-6 Patrick Peterson; T-6 Malcolm Jenkins; T-8 Eddie Jackson; T-8 Byron Jones; T-10 Chris Harris Jr.Pass-rushersThis is a combination of positions — defensive tackles, defensive ends and outside linebackers. Because pressure can come from anywhere. Heck, on a top-10 list that remained largely intact from a season ago, there are five defensive ends, three outside linebackers and two defensive tackles. And of the players who made the top 10, almost all of them can play more than one of those positions, depending on the defense they are in.Pass-rushers have become one of the most valuable pieces of any team, both in real life and in the virtual Madden world, and there can be staying power with the role, too, as half of the top 10 will be 30 or older this year.1. Aaron Donald, Rams DT (99 overall): Donald is a 99 for the fourth consecutive year as the game’s most dominant interior lineman. His 12.5 sacks in 2019 gave him his third straight double-digit sack season. He led the league with 20 tackles for loss, made his sixth consecutive Pro Bowl and earned his fifth consecutive first-team All-Pro honor. Simply, he’s one of the best players in the NFL.2. J.J. Watt, Texans DE (98 overall): Watt continues to hover around a 99 rating — which he had from Madden 25 (2014) to Madden NFL 17 — despite struggling with injuries from 2016 on. His lone full season in that span — 2018, when he had 16 sacks — showed he’s still dynamic, but of all the ratings on here, this one feels more like hope than anything else because Watt has been hobbled for almost a half-decade. He actually gained a point and moved up two spots even though he had four sacks in eight games last season.T-3. Khalil Mack, Bears OLB (97 overall): Mack was a 99 last season and is now tied for third with Von Miller, another former 99er. Mack had his first season without double-digit sacks since his rookie year in 2019 — he still had 8.5 — and made his fifth straight Pro Bowl, but the Bears’ overall struggles didn’t help. If Chicago’s defense returns to form, he could get his 99 back pretty fast.play0:56Aaron Donald’s fiancee welcomes him back to the 99 Club for the fourth year in a row.T-3. Von Miller, Broncos OLB (97 overall): Miller had a three-year stretch as a 99 from Madden ’17 to Madden ’19 and stayed put both at tied for third and a 97 overall from last year. His numbers fell to eight sacks last season and he had his fewest tackles since 2015, but he’s still a dominant force off the edge, with six consecutive Pro Bowls.T-5. Fletcher Cox, Eagles DT (96 overall): Like Miller, Cox stays put at No. 5 (although he’s tied this year) and at a 96. Cox didn’t produce at his 2018 level last season, notching only 3.5 sacks and 10 quarterback hits, but he made his fifth straight Pro Bowl and tied a career high with three forced fumbles.T-5. Cameron Jordan, Saints DE (96 overall): Some real movement here from Jordan, who went from tied for seventh to T-5 but improved from a 91 to a 96. The Saints edge rusher deserved it after a career-high 15.5 sacks last season and his third consecutive Pro Bowl appearance. He has been one of the league’s best pass-rushers the past half-decade.T-7. Chandler Jones, Cardinals OLB (95 overall): Jones took a big leap after starting as an 85 last season. That might have been a bit low considering Jones’ continued health and double-digit sack streak, but he responded with a career-high 19 sacks and eight forced fumbles, pushing him into the top 10 at T-7.T-7. Calais Campbell, Ravens DE (95 overall): Campbell jumped up three ratings points from a season ago and stayed in the top 10 among pass-rushers. He’s coming off his third straight Pro Bowl and had 6.5 sacks last season, breaking a streak of two straight years with double-digit sacks. Entering a favorable defensive system in Baltimore could bump his numbers right back up.T-9. Myles Garrett, Browns DE (93 overall): Garrett moved up two ratings points and the 24-year-old remains one of the game’s emerging talents. He had 10 sacks in 10 games in 2019 before his season-ending suspension and is a prime candidate to take a big leap in 2020.T-9. Chris Jones, Chiefs DT (92 overall): After making his first Pro Bowl appearance, notching nine sacks and 20 quarterback hits, Jones went from an 89 to a 92 overall and snuck into the top 10 pass-rushers at No. 10 after being tied for 11th last year.Dropped out of the top 10 from launch rankings last year: T-6 Jadeveon Clowney; T-7 Geno Atkins.Running backsIt’s a position where the fall can be swift and seemingly out of nowhere. How else to explain three of last year’s top five in Madden being out of the top 10 a year later? Some of the falls are more surprising than others, but there’s a reason why running back is one of the shortest-shelf-life positions in the league.A new running back has emerged as a 99, though, joining Barry Sanders, Marshall Faulk, LaDainian Tomlinson, Chris Johnson and Adrian Peterson since 1999 as backs with a top rating: Christian McCaffrey. Behind him will be some Madden stalwarts, but also a bunch of new names moving up the ranks.1. Christian McCaffrey, Panthers (99 overall): The first running back to earn a 99 rating since cover athlete Adrian Peterson in Madden 25, McCaffrey earned it by rushing for 1,387 yards and 15 touchdowns while also catching 116 passes for 1,005 yards last season. He made an eight-point ratings jump and moved from tied for fifth to first among running backs.play0:57Barry J. Sanders welcomes former Stanford teammate Christian McCaffrey back to the Madden 99 Club for another season.2. Derrick Henry, Titans (93 overall): The bruising Henry wasn’t even the highest-rated running back on his own team last year (that was Dion Lewis), but Henry made a 10-point jump from 83 to 93 and from RB T-22 to RB 2 this season. This happened due to a 303-carry, 1,540-yard, 16-rushing-touchdown season — leading the NFL in all those categories.T-3. Nick Chubb, Browns (92 overall): Chubb was another big riser, going from RB T-16 to RB T-3 and from an 85 overall to 92. Like McCaffrey and Henry, Chubb is an ascending running back after gaining 1,494 yards with eight touchdowns in 2019.T-3. Ezekiel Elliott, Cowboys (92 overall): Elliott dipped a little bit from last year, when he was RB 2 in the game and a 94 overall. That might have more to do with the ascension of Chubb, Henry and McCaffrey than his own play, which saw him end last season with 1,357 yards and 12 touchdowns.T-5. Dalvin Cook, Vikings (91 overall): After being tied for 16th at RB a year ago (85 overall), Cook’s health combined with his first 1,000-yard season (1,135 yards) and 13 touchdowns vaulted him to fifth overall this year. Like Henry and Elliott, his high workload should mean he’ll ascend in the game for the next couple of seasons.T-5. Saquon Barkley, Giants (91 overall): Barkley’s numbers fell from his rookie season, although some of that is due to him missing three games, but his rating remains the same from last year. He did average fewer yards per attempt (4.6) and yards per game (77.2) last season. But he could end up moving up quickly if the Giants’ offense is better than in 2019.7. Aaron Jones, Packers (90 overall): Even more than Henry, Jones made a massive leap — going from tied for 26 last season with Matt Breida, Jerick McKinnon, Austin Ekeler, Marlon Mack and LeSean McCoy — to RB 6 and an eight-point jump from 82 to 90. Like Cook, he had his largest workload last season and rushed for 1,084 yards and tied Henry with 16 rushing touchdowns.8. Joe Mixon, Bengals (89 overall): One of the few running backs to remain in the top 10 from last year, Mixon moves from No. 10 to No. 8 while also jumping up one ratings point. This makes sense after his stats largely stayed the same from 2018 to 2019 (1,137 yards rushing, 287 yards receiving).T-9. Josh Jacobs, Raiders (88 overall): Jacobs made a 14-point jump from the start of last season, which makes sense due to the prove-it nature Madden takes with rookies. Jacobs started last season as the third-best Raiders running back in Madden. Now, he’s tied for ninth among all backs in the game after a 1,150-yard, seven-touchdown first season.T-9. Alvin Kamara, Saints (88 overall): One of the best dual-threat backs in the game, Kamara takes a slight dip from last season, when he was a 90 overall and tied for seventh. He had fewer rushing yards (797), touchdowns (five) and receiving yards (533) last season than he did in 2018. An interesting nugget, though, is he has caught 81 passes in each of his first three seasons.Dropped out of the top 10 from last year: No. 1 Todd Gurley; T-3 Melvin Gordon; T-3 Le’Veon Bell; T-7 Kareem Hunt; T-9 Devonta Freeman.QuarterbacksThere’s a new 99 overall and the old guard of quarterbacks, for the most part, is starting to decline. Four new quarterbacks entered the top 10, and they should remain part of this list for the majority of the next decade.That includes the cover athlete, Lamar Jackson, and a bunch of other 20-somethings who will be the faces of the league in the 2020s.1. Patrick Mahomes, Chiefs (99 overall): Mahomes is the first quarterback not named Drew Brees, Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers in a decade to earn a 99 overall rating to start a season. Last year’s cover athlete and the highest-rated quarterback for the second straight year, Mahomes threw for 287.9 yards per game and led the Chiefs to a Super Bowl win.2. Russell Wilson, Seahawks (97 overall): Wilson played at an MVP level last season and could have maybe won the award had Jackson not had a transcendent season. Wilson threw for over 4,000 yards for the first time since 2016 and hit 30-plus touchdown passes for the third consecutive season, jumping him up from a 91 overall to start last year and from sixth to second among quarterbacks.3. Lamar Jackson, Ravens (94 overall): Jackson, this year’s Madden cover athlete, took a massive jump from the start of last season, when he was a 76 overall and the No. 25 quarterback, to his current spot as the No. 3 signal-caller in the game. After an MVP season in 2019, the question will be whether Madden developers made him too good — a la Michael Vick in Madden ’04 — causing him to theoretically break the game.play0:44Tre’Davious White and Lamar Jackson are among the NFL stars waiting to find out how they’ll be rated for Madden 21, which will be revealed July 13-17 on ESPN.4. Drew Brees, Saints (93 overall): Showing age has no bearing on the start of the game, Brees actually improved one point from where he started last season, as a 92 overall (tied for fourth). One of the most accurate passers ever, Brees completed 70% or more of his throws for the fourth straight season in 2019.5. Tom Brady, Bucs (90 overall): Twenty years after appearing as QB No. 12 in Madden ’01, it’ll be a first for the future Hall of Famer again — a new team. Going from the New England Patriots to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Brady has seen his overall rating drop from a 96 last year to a 90 this season (his worst starting rating since the early 2000s), and moved from second to fifth in QB ratings. This makes sense after Brady had one of his worst statistical 16-game seasons (4,057 yards, 24 touchdowns, 60.8% completions) in a decade. This could be a rating that jumps up quickly, though, considering the offensive options he has around him.6. Aaron Rodgers, Packers (89 overall): Two years ago, Rodgers was a 99 overall. Last season, he started the year as a 90. Now, for the first time in over a decade, Rodgers will start a season below a 90 at 89 — which is where he ended last season. Rodgers’ completion percentage has dropped each of the past four seasons, and he hasn’t thrown for 30 touchdowns in a season since 2016. Yet Rodgers still moved up a spot in the overall QB ratings from last season, in part due to the decline of Philip Rivers and the retirement of Andrew Luck.7. Matt Ryan, Falcons (87 overall): Ryan dropped two ratings points and moved up one spot from his start last season (89 overall, eighth overall) after a season where he had his highest interception total (14) since 2015.8. Deshaun Watson, Texans (86 overall): Watson, after his second Pro Bowl appearance, jumped four ratings points even though he had a lower completion percentage, fewer yards and more interceptions than 2018. But Watson is clearly an ascending player, and his rating reflects that.T-9. Dak Prescott, Cowboys (84 overall): While Prescott’s contract discussions won’t affect his play in Madden, his on-field performance a year ago saw him make a three-point ratings jump. Prescott threw for 30 touchdowns for the first time in his career and 4,902 yards — over 1,000 yards better than his previous best. Like Watson, figure that he’ll continue to move up the QB rankings in years to come.T-9. Carson Wentz, Eagles (84 overall): Wentz took a two-point jump in the ratings and moved up three spots in the QB rankings to No. 10 after playing 16 games for the first time since his rookie season and throwing for over 4,000 yards for the first time in his career.Dropped out of the top 10 from last year: No. 3 Philip Rivers; T-4. Andrew Luck (retired), No. 9 Ben Roethlisberger; No. 10 Cam Newton.Check out more position ratings coming this week.
Jul 17, 2020Michael RothsteinESPN Staff Writer ClosePreviously covered University of Michigan for ESPN.com and AnnArbor.com