April 20, 2020
Ranking the top 50 athletes in Philadelphia based on how good they are right now. It's a basic premise, but one that we found out is a lot more difficult than it first sounds.
Before we continue the rankings and unveil our Top 10, we should first remind you of our methodology and how we arrived at the final list.
For starters, this was limited to the five major pro sports teams in Philly: the Eagles, Phillies, Flyers, Sixers, and Union. Because we were keeping it limited to team sports, individual sport athletes like boxers, UFC fighters and golfers were not included.
Beyond that, the athlete must have appeared in a professional (read: big-league) game — but it doesn't necessarily have to be for a Philly team. That means that Phillies prospects like Alec Bohm and Spencer Howard were not included in the list, but recent Eagles acquisitions like Darius Slay and Javon Hargrave were. Similarly, if we had posted this after the Eagles draft, none of the Birds selections from this year would be eligible.
Then there's what the specific rankings are based on. In order to keep it consistent — since some leagues, like the NHL and NBA, hit the pause button mid-season while others, like MLB, never even got the chance to start — we're basing these rankings on not just what players did in their most recent season, but also what can realistically be expected from them in the coming season. Past performance (beyond the last season) and potential (beyond the upcoming season) won't really be factored in. After all, we're looking at who the best is at this very moment, not who has had — or is going to have — the best career.
Each of our four writers — Jimmy Kempski, Evan Macy, Matt Mullin and Kyle Neubeck — compiled a list of their top 50 players in the city and we averaged them out from there (with some help from Crossing Broad's Kevin Kinkead when it came down to where the Union players should be ranked). And then we took our individual rankings, averaged them out, and came up with final list we've been unveiling over the last week.
Now, let's wrap up the 2020 edition of PhillyRank with a look at the Top 10...
Prior to his injury in the Eagles' regular season finale, Brandon Brooks, who signed with the Birds in 2016 following four years in Houston, had played pretty much every offensive snap. And allowed just one (ONE!) sack the entire year. That comes one year after Brooks allowed — *checks notes* — just one sack in all of 2018. And in 2017 ... he didn't allow one the entire year. For his efforts, Brooks was named to his third straight Pro Bowl this last season and was ranked as the No. 1 guard in all of football by Pro Football Focus. He also earned himself a big payday, signing a massive four-year extension during the season that made him the highest paid player at his position.
Brooks' last two seasons unfortunately ended due to freak injuries — an Achilles' tear in 2018 and a dislocated shoulder in 2019 — but he'll be back at full strength again for the 2020 season. In addition to his work on the field, Brooks helped shine light on some of the mental health issues players around the league (and people in general) deal with when he was open and upfront about his ongoing issues with anxiety, something that's caused him to miss time in the past. Still, he's managed to play at least 87 percent of the snaps in each of his four seasons in Philly and, according to Pro Football Focus, has allowed just three sacks. Total. In four seasons.
Sean Couturier might be one of the most underrated players on the Flyers, especially among casual fans. They're used to hearing names like Giroux, Voracek, Provorov and Hart, but Couturier has quietly been one of the biggest reasons for the Flyers success this season and was considered among the favorites to win the Selke Trophy, given to the best defensive forward in the NHL. Not only does Couturier rank second on the team points, but he also anchors the Flyers' top power play and penalty kill units. While he might not have some of the flash of the team's other top scorers — which may be part of the reason he's yet to make an All-Star Game in any of his first nine seasons — Couturier isn't afraid of doing the dirty work.
Couturier first broke out in 2017-18, when he was on the ice for an astounding 142 of the Flyers' of the Flyers 219 goals (64.8%) — compared to just 92 of the 236 goals against (38.9%) — and finished with 76 points. His previous career high was 39 points (twice), but in the two years since, Couturier has remained a big part of the Flyers offense, finishing with 76 points again in 2018-19 and was on pace to finish with 70 points this season before play was suspended. At 27, he's clearly entering his prime and could find himself as the top ranked Flyer on our list by the time the next rankings come out.
For now, Couturier will have to settle for being the second highest Flyer in our rankings, because while he may be one of the most underrated Flyers, his linemate Claude Giroux may be one of the most underrated players in the NHL. Sure, Giroux is a six-time NHL All-Star, but he's hardly ever one of the names brought up when discussing the best players in the NHL, despite the fact that he's been right there with the best of them for the last decade, ranking in the top 10 in total points six times and the top 10 in assists seven times — including a league-leading 68 in 2017-18.
As the captain of the Flyers, Giroux's impact on the team extends beyond what he's able to in the scoring column — and it seems like whenever the Flyers need a big play at a big time, Giroux is there to get it done. That continued this past season, as Giroux netted six game-winning goals for the Flyers, one shy of his career high, and was playing some of the best hockey of his career down the stretch for the Flyers before play was halted. Over the Flyers' most recent 15 game stretch, Giroux recorded 18 points, including eight goals on 43 shots. The Flyers were 12-3 during that stretch.
At 32, Giroux may be on the back end of his prime, but his play wouldn't show it. He's still the Flyers best player ... but for how long?
In case you didn't know, the right side of the Eagles offensive line is dominant. There's no other way to put it when you have two players at positions where it's hard to stand out both landing in the Top 10 of a list of the best athletes in the city. Not only are Lane Johnson and Brandon Brooks great friends off the field, but they are utterly unstoppable on it. According to PFF, the duo combined to allow just a pair of sacks, one each, in 2019. It's been a strength of the Eagles offense for years now, and assuming both can continue to stay healthy, it should continue to be going forward.
So why does Johnson get the nod over Brooks? They're both about the same age and are both dominant at their respective positions. Well, it's pretty simple. Tackles are considered a more valuable position that guard, given who they're matching up against and how important they are when it comes to protecting the quarterback. And, as we saw last season, the drop-off in Johnson's absence was much more noticeable then when Brooks was out.
Despite not cracking our Top 5, Phillies catcher J.T. Realmuto may be able to boast something only one other player on this list can: being the best in his entire league at his respective position. It's hard to argue that when you consider the fact that in 2019 he was not only an MLB All-Star, but also won both the Silver Slugger (given to the top hitter at each position) and Gold Glove (given to the top defensive player at each position). While most catchers bat near the bottom of the order, Realmuto was batting anywhere from second to fifth for the Phillies, and doing damage wherever they put him.
But perhaps the most important quality for Realmuto is his defense. In 2019, he led all catchers by throwing out 47% of baserunners. His 43 putouts were first in the league by a wide margin, with Yasmani Grandal second with 27. And, of course, there's his availability, another incredibly important characteristic for a catcher. In his first season with the Phillies, Realmuto started 130 games. Not only did that allow him to develop a better rapport with the pitching staff — and keep his potent bat in the lineup — but it also allowed the team to allocate resources they'd otherwise spend on a higher quality backup catcher elsewhere.
There's no question that Fletcher Cox had a down year in 2019. A year removed from setting a career high in sacks with 10.5, the perennial Pro Bowl defensive tackle finished this past season with just 3.5 sacks. Part of that may have been due to the fact that the guy who was supposed to come in and help take some of the pressure and constant double teams off Cox, Malik Jackson, missed nearly the entire season with a broken foot. That allowed teams to focus much more attention on Cox in their efforts to protect their quarterbacks. Another factor may have been that Cox got off to a slow start after offseason surgery.
But a lot of what Cox does for the Eagles doesn't show up in his individual stats, although those three forced fumbles certainly look nice. For the last several years, the Birds have had one of the best run defenses in the NFL — and that's in large part due to the dominance of one Fletcher Cox. Last year, the Birds finished third in the NFL in rushing yards allowed, and that was with a revolving door of defensive tackles next to Cox. If you need any more proof of how good he is, just listen to some of his peers talk about the big guy after he was voted as the 28th best player in the NFL in 2019.
We actually ran out room in the header to list all of Ben Simmons' impressive stats, and that's probably the perfect way to explain how Simmons wound up on fourth at our list. It's easy to forget, but Simmons is just 23 years old and still getting better each and every season — even if his jumper isn't where many fans would want it to be. We could harp on the one thing Simmons can't (or won't) do, but since this list is about highlighting the best athletes in the city, let's instead talk about the countless things Simmons can do.
Simmons, who was nursing a back injury when play was suspended, is the only player in the entire NBA to average at least 16 points, 7 rebounds, 8 assists and 2 steals per game this season. Even if you take out the steals, he's still one of just three players averaging 16/7/8 this year. The others? LeBron James and Luka Doncic. Sure, he doesn't shoot from the outside, but he passes like a point guard, rebounds like a forward, runs the floor like a guard in a power forward's body, and can cover pretty much any player on the opposing team, regardless of position. He deserves this ranking, and who knows how high he could climb if he can become a shooting threat.
In the end, 2019 was not Carson Wentz' best season statistically speaking, but it might have been his most impressive performance as a starting quarterback since the Eagles traded up to draft him in 2016. With a wide receiver corps that was struggling even before it was ravaged by so many injuries that Greg Ward became the team's top wideout, Wentz willed his team to the four straight wins down the stretch to capture the NFC East title, including throwing game winning touchdown passes in the final moments in two of those four games — all of which were must-wins in order to beat out the Cowboys in the division.
For his efforts, Wentz was rewarded with his first playoff start after missing the previous two postseasons with injuries. But a questionable hit from Jadeveon Clowney cut Wentz' postseason debut — and the Eagles' playoff run — short.
Next season, the hope is that the Eagles trot out an improved group of targets for Wentz, who should continue to grow in Doug Pederson's system — however, the fact that they've gone entirely defense in free agency isn't a great start. Still, we expect another strong year from Wentz.
Realmuto wasn't the only player acquired during the Phillies' record-setting offseason in 2019 to crack out Top 10. It's been just over a year since the organization made good on its promise to spend crazy money by signing Bryce Harper to a 13-year, $330 million contract. And, despite a disappointing year for the team in 2019, there's reason for optimism in 2020 — at least, there was right up until the season got put on hold.
Still, Harper lived up to expectations in 2019, even if the team as a whole did not. Following a down first half that had him left out of the MLB All-Star Game for the first time since 2014, Harper came alive during the second half and finished with a career high in RBI in his first season playing at hitter-friendly Citizens Bank Park.
Harper has quickly become a fan favorite in the city, both with his comments off the field and his play on the field. And, of course, this helps...
It shouldn't come as much of a surprise that the Sixers' big man tops our list of the best athletes in Philadelphia right now. Not only has he been an NBA All-Star starter each of the last three seasons, but he's also been named All-NBA Second Team and All-Defensive Second Team for two years runnings as well.
Defensively, he's one of the most dominant players in the NBA and can change the entire course of the game when he's on the floor. Even with how good Simmons is on D, the drop-off the team suffers when Embiid exits is far more noticeable. He protects the rim with the best of them, but isn't afraid to step out and defend on the perimeter either, sometimes with mixed results. And on the offensive end, he can terrorize you in the post, from the high post, and even from beyond the arc.
Still, there was some hope from Sixers fans that Embiid would take the next step this season and cement himself as an MVP candidate, but instead he appeared to hit a plateau. Recently, our own Kyle Neubeck took a look at how Joel Embiid stacks up to some other Sixers greats at the age of 26, and just the fact that he's being compared to guys like Wilt Chamberlain, Allen Iverson, Charles Barkley and other Hall of Famers is an indication that Embiid is among the best players in the game.
The bottom line — whenever Joel Embiid has been on the floor for Philadelphia, they have played like an elite team. Even when he was propping up the likes of Sergio Rodriguez and Gerald Henderson during his rookie year, he was dominant on both ends, inviting the comparisons to all-time great bigs that have faded during a rocky season this year.
It has become popular to cite this season as an example of his own stagnation, but it is worth noting that it feels that way because of how successful his first three years were. From the moment he stepped onto an NBA floor, he was one of the most impactful players in the sport, full stop. Even with the world's most expensive backup plan in town this season, the Sixers have been unable to make up for his absence whenever Embiid has had to miss time.
Embiid has barely been playing organized basketball for a decade, so there's clearly still some growing to be done. But he's a dominant force on the court with a larger-than-life personality off it. We have no question he's the best the city has to offer. At least right now.
We trusted the process, and this is where it led us. Now, tell us what we got wrong...
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