By Kenneth Arthur
Even if the NFL has over 1,500 players on an active roster at any given time and churns through another 500 to 1000 every year through the summer rosters and camps and in-season practice squads, professional football players are an elite group. The best of the best.
And it takes a lot to stand out.
We're not quite at the midpoint of the season, but it's clear that there are several players on their way to career years. Some are expected names; some may be suprising, given past inconsistencies. But all of their names strike fear into the hearts of opponents.
Here's our short list for the most powerful players in the game right now.
Before the season there was a good case to be made for Rivers as "the fifth Beatle" standing outside the quartet everyone could agree on as elite quarterbacks (Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees), but through six weeks he stands alone upon the stage. It's not completely shocking to see Rivers play well -- he is a five-time Pro Bowler that's led the NFL in yards per attempt three times -- but it is a little unusual to see a 32-year-old old make this kind of transition to the top.
Rivers is the NFL MVP thus far after having led the Chargers to a 5-1 record, first place in the AFC West, and leading all passers in completion percentage, yards per attempt, passer rating, and QBR.
He is only the fourth player in NFL history to have at least 15 touchdowns and two or fewer interceptions through six games, joining Brady (2007), Manning (2013), and Rodgers (this year). Yes, it's become more and more common to see quarterbacks do things we've never seen before, but Rivers does not even have Demaryius Thomas or Jordy Nelson. He's spreading the field -- six players have at least 120 yards receiving but none more than 400 -- and doing so without any support from running backs Ryan Mathews or Donald Brown (San Diego is 32nd in the league in yards per carry).
This is not a team that gets by on much else besides Rivers and they are looking like an early favorite to grab the one seed in the AFC just a year after they went 9-7 following a dynamic performance from Rivers. The defense has played well (though they haven't really been tested much) and head coach Mike McCoy has unleashed a magic genie that laid dormant in Rivers, but this is happening because of Rivers and his ability to improve the performances of those around him.
Rivers may be the MVP, but Watt is hands down the most dominant player in the NFL today. Certain players dominate the game the way that it's meant to be played, and then every once in awhile a player will change the way the game is played.
Watt is the latter.
Through six weeks, Watt isn't just leading the rest of the league in some categories, he's lapping it. According to Pro Football Focus, Watt has an unfathomable 20 QB hits in six games. Since people do not pay attention to QB hits like they do sacks, let me give a point of reference.
The 3-4 defensive end (the position that Watt plays) who has the second-most QB hits is the Chargers' Corey Liuget . He has eight. He's second. Watt has well more than double the QB hits of any player at his position. When you look around at other positions, it doesn't really change.
Michael Bennett and Lamarr Houston are 4-3 DEs that also have eight QB hits apiece, and Terrell Suggs and Trent Cole are 3-4 OLBs that have nine each. There isn't a player in the NFL that has reached half as many QB hits as Watt. If you think it's impressive enough that he dominates, no, transcends, one category, it doesn't end there.
Watt leads his position in QB hurries, at 17, one more than Jason Hatcher and more than double all but 11 other 3-4 DEs. Out of all positions, only Ryan Kerrigan, Dwight Freeney, Von Miller, and Wallace Gilberry have more, with the leader being at only 20.
Watt is also averaging a batted pass per game for the second time in three seasons. Since 2012, Watt has 29 pass deflections from the defensive end position, which is 14 more than any other defensive lineman over that period of time. It's right up there with any cornerback, as well. His six batted passes this year are twice as many as any other defensive lineman.
Watt is a dominant force that's quite valuable, and even if the Texans struggle around Watt, they'd be in even more turmoil without him.
Mentioned briefly above alongside Watt, Miller doesn't often come in second to anybody in anything. This despite the fact that his 2013 season was sullied and tainted to a point where we couldn't be sure if he'd ever be the same player again.
If he's not the same player in 2014 that he was in 2012, then he's better.
Miller is a 4-3 outside linebacker that rushes like he's in a 3-4. He has 19 QB hurries this year, which is only 13 more than second-place DeAndre Levy at his position. His seven sacks are five more than anyone at the 4-3 OLB spot. His game is vulnerable to nothing and the signs of a torn ACL suffered last December are non-existent. The six-game suspension he served for violating the substance abuse policy may haunt him forever, but you aren't hearing about it while he's dominating opposing quarterbacks like they're asking for it.
No matter the scheme, there isn't a better outside linebacker in football. Except for Watt, there might not be a better overall defensive player.
Every once in awhile a player enters the draft with so much hype that he overshadows those around him out of existence. In 2010, that player was not Gerald McCoy -- it was fellow defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh.
Five years later they are the two best defensive tackles in the NFL, but McCoy is probably a little bit better and doesn't carry the same cap concerns and "will he one day go too far" suspension worries as Suh. He's just a dominant player on a terrible team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Last year McCoy had almost twice as many sacks as Suh, one more QB hits, and two more QB hurries; all told, he led his position in the two latter categories with 14 and 56, respectively. But one thing that McCoy does not do to opposing offensive lines is respect them.
He's as dominant from his position as anyone else is at theirs.
McCoy is just as dominant this year, tied for the lead in QB hits this season for defensive tackles and keeping pace in hurries and sacks but there's one caveat that he has to deal with that his peers probably don't: McCoy broke his hand against the Rams in Week 2 and missed a game, but is back at it playing with a fracture.
No big deal.
Finally, a surprise of sorts. Unlike the other four, Hilton is not a physical specimen, he was not a high draft pick (the lowest drafted of the above four was Watt at 11th overall, Hilton was picked 92nd) and many would argue that he's not the best receiver in the game. Clearly Calvin Johnson would make more sense because of how dominant of a force he has been, but Johnson has suffered injuries this year while Hilton has delivered highlights.
Though some receivers manage to put up big numbers because of a high number of targets but a low catch-percentage (Vincent Jackson), Hilton has been able to manage both production and efficiency for the Colts this season. His 69.8 percent catch rate is a number you're more likely to see from a slot receiver or a tight end than you are a player who is averaging 15.1 yards per catch.
Compare him to some other receivers having good seasons this year:
You could make a case for a number of receivers dominating the game in various ways, but why not go with the guy who has been overlooked in each of his first two seasons and now seems poised to be Andrew Luck's "Marvin Harrison" for the next 12 years?
Hilton has been targeted on 11 deep pass attempts (over 20 yards in the air) and Pro Football Focus notes that five of those targets were catchable. Hilton has caught all five for 198 yards gained. His one knock thus far is that he only has one touchdown through the air, but some of those close calls will start to break through for scores.
Which is fitting for a breakthrough player.
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Kenneth Arthur is a freelance writer currently covering the NFL at Rolling Stone and the Seattle Seahawks at FieldGulls.com. His work has also been found at Football Outsiders, SB Nation, and he thinks that Andrew Luck is "just okay."