Carolina Panthers: Peyton Manning

No surprise, Peyton Manning is the most respected player in the NFL according to our confidential survey.

But what may surprise you is four members of the Carolina Panthers received at least one vote. Wide receiver Steve Smith led the way, followed by middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, left tackle Jordan Gross and quarterback Cam Newton.

Here's my take:

Smith: At 5-foot-9, 185-pounds, there's probably not a more physical, tough-nosed, hard-working player in the league for his size -- or any size. He demands respect on the field with 836 career catches for 12,197 yards -- numbers that make him a future Hall of Fame candidate. He demands respect off the field for the way he's matured in 13 years to become a locker room and community leader.

Kuechly: He was the NFC Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2012 with a league-best 164 tackles. He made the Pro Bowl this season with a team-best 156 tackles, including an amazing 24 in a 17-13 victory over the New Orleans Saints. That game alone deserves respect. He truly is a tackling machine. Plus, he's your clean-cut All-American type.

Gross: No player in the Carolina locker room is more respected than the 11-year veteran. Many of his teammates credit his "Highlanders'' speech before an October game at Minnesota as the turning point in an 1-3 season. The Panthers won eight straight and 11 of their final 12 regular season games after that. It's good to see somebody outside the Carolina locker room was paying attention.

Newton: This one may surprise you the most since he was criticized for his lack of leadership in his first two seasons. That he has changed enough to garner at least one vote in this poll shows he's headed in the right direction.

Rivera's take on Manning in NFLN Says

October, 3, 2013
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Peyton Manning has had four seasons in which he's thrown 10 or fewer interceptions, and he's working on another during this record-setting year for the Denver Broncos.

Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera was a part of a San Diego Chargers defense that intercepted Manning 10 times -- in two games.

Here's what Rivera and others have to say is the secret to slowing -- but not stopping -- the future Hall of Famer in this week's NFL Nation Says:
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Mike Mitchell faces a familiar face in Arizona quarterback Carson Palmer on Sunday, but on Monday the Carolina Panthers safety wanted to talk about Peyton Manning.

Why not? Everybody else in the league is talking about Manning and his record-setting touchdown pace.

"It's stupid,'' Mitchell said of Manning's 16 touchdowns, two better than the league record after four games. "He's the man.''

Mitchell, 26, has been playing football since the age of six. He says Manning is without question the best quarterback "I've ever played against.''

He faced Manning twice last season with Oakland. Neither was pretty as the future Hall of Famer completed 30 of 38 passes for 338 yards and three touchdowns in a 37-6 victory and 26 of 36 attempts for 310 yards and a touchdown in the second.

Mitchell's best advice for future Denver opponents is to at least try to stay a step ahead.

"The way we were figuring it out, say you're in Cover 3 and you put your foot up and then when you're in Cover 2 you stand like this,'' Mitchell said. "He knows that. So he'll be able to check out of it.

"Now you've got to play the game within the game. OK, he knows what I do in Cover 2. I'm going to show him Cover 2 and then play Cover 3. You have to mix it up with him because he's so smart.''

If you don't, the result will be what it was on Sunday when Manning threw for 327 yards and four touchdowns in a 52-20 victory over Philadelphia.

"That's what makes it so hard to play against him,'' Mitchell said. "You're basically going up against an offensive coordinator that is throwing the football.''

Mitchell also knows a thing or two about Palmer, his teammate with the Raiders the past two seasons. Palmer is the engineer of an offense that head coach Bruce Arians called "putrid'' after a 13-10 victory over Tampa Bay.

In four games, he has four touchdown passes and six interceptions.

In other words, nowhere close to Manning.

"He's a real big timing quarterback,'' Mitchell said. "So if you can knock some timing off I believe he'll struggle a little bit.''

Struggle isn't even in Mitchell's vocabulary when it comes to Manning.

"He really is the man,'' he said.