NFL Nation: 2011 Top Players Power Rankings

From Tuesday: Congratulations to the NFC North, which placed two players among the first six listed in ESPN.com's Power Rankings of the NFL's top 10 players. Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers finished No. 4 overall, while Minnesota Vikings tailback Adrian Peterson ranked No. 6.

You'll see that our list is pretty quarterback-heavy, accounting for the top four players and six of the top 10. So goes the position's importance, be it the Year of the Quarterback or the Year of the Rabbit. (It's both, actually.)

We debated Rodgers' standing among quarterbacks in April, and I continue to maintain my position that he deserves to be No. 2 behind Tom Brady of the New England Patriots. Simply put, that's why I voted Rodgers the No. 2 player in the league. As I noted in the award-winning video below, the No. 2 quarterback in the NFL is the No. 2 player for me.

For those who missed the original debate, I've included the chart I compiled to help explain why I ranked Rodgers ahead of Peyton Manning of the Indianapolis Colts and Drew Brees of the New Orleans Saints. For those wondering why I sentenced Brees to the No. 8 position, I just felt that I needed more diversity at the top and cut off the quarterback run with Manning at No. 3.


I gave Peterson his highest ranking at No. 4, and he was surprisingly left off three of the eight ballots. Ultimately, at No. 6, Peterson was the highest-ranked offensive player who isn't a quarterback.

I hope you've enjoyed the madness that has been our offseason Power Rankings. I know I've learned a lot, mostly about how seriously these lists are taken. Point noted.

Looks like my colleague Paul Kuharsky woke up on the wrong side of the debate again.

Our esteemed (steamed?) AFC South blogger took a few shots at ESPN.com’s Power Rankings for top overall NFL players. He specifically took offense with those of us who refused to rank more than a few non-quarterbacks on our 10-man ballots.

Quarterbacks held eight of the top 11 spots in the composite rankings. There was a tie for the 10th spot between Michael Vick and DeMarcus Ware.

"If we rate these quarterbacks so highly," Kuharsky said in Dan Graziano's main piece, "how can we not rate the guy we said was tops at disrupting quarterbacks highly too? Makes no sense."

Kuharsky was referring to Ware, who finished 12th overall, receiving votes only from AFC North blogger James Walker (No. 5) and from Kuharsky (No. 10).

Quarterbacks filled out the top seven spots on my ballot. I would have considered listing QBs 10 deep had I known so much heat would radiate from my AFC South brother.

Here’s a question for Paul: If he values pass-rushers so much, why not find room on his ballot for Dwight Freeney, the player he ranked as the NFL’s best pass-rusher back in March?

"I think Freeney is the best pass-rusher, but DeMarcus Ware is the better overall player and a tremendous pass-rusher, too," Kuharsky said when I called him Tuesday.

That thinking makes sense. Kuharsky ranked Ware as his No. 1 linebacker and No. 2 pass-rusher in those power rankings. After ranking quarterbacks first through fourth in the overall rankings, he went with Adrian Peterson, Chris Johnson, Andre Johnson, Troy Polamalu, Clay Matthews and Ware. He considered finding a spot for Freeney, but figured the vote would have been wasted.

"Maybe I gave in a little bit there to the crowd in terms of how well he was liked by everyone else, knowing Freeney wasn’t getting in there no matter how I voted," he said. "I presumed Ware would definitely make our top 10. I knew Freeney would not because I was his lone advocate."

Kuharsky and I weren’t all that far apart in our thinking, after all. I ranked Freeney second among pass-rushers on my ballot. The other voters ranked him between third and eighth.

We both ranked Peyton Manning over Tom Brady for the top overall spot. I would take the much younger Aaron Rodgers over both if building a franchise to contend for the longer term. I could see Rodgers assuming the top spot a year from now.

Manning got the edge over Brady on my ballot because he's more important to his team's success, and Brady's longstanding edge in playoff games hasn't held up recently.

I rounded out my overall top 10 with Johnson, Polamalu and Patrick Willis. Finding room for Ware and Matthews would have been ideal, but there wasn’t room for everyone. Matthews' value as an outside pass-rusher makes him more valuable, arguably, than the San Francisco 49ers' Willis. But Willis can do it all, and he did have six sacks last season while anchoring a defense that allowed less than 3.5 yards per carry.
The AFC West was represented by one player in the top-10 Power Rankings for best overall players in the NFL, regardless of position.

Not surprisingly, that player is San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers. He is ranked ninth. I ranked Rivers sixth. Rivers was ranked on three of the eight ballots. NFC West blogger Mike Sando had Rivers ranked fifth, while AFC East blogger Tim Graham ranked him sixth as well. So, Rivers was either highly thought of or shunned.

No other AFC West player received a vote. In all, 20 players received votes. I had Oakland free-agent cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha 12th on my ballot before I pared it down. This is the best of the best, so it’s not a knock that not more than one player from the division cracked the list.

The NFL is a quarterback league and my list reflected it. I had seven quarterbacks on the list. Rivers was sixth on my list in the quarterback Power Rankings in the spring and that’s why he was No. 6 on my list this week . He is my highest rated quarterback not to have won a Super Bowl. He was the sixth ranked quarterback in this current Power Ranking list and he was the first quarterback not to win a Super Bowl.

What do you think? What would your top 10 list look like?
The ESPN.com Power Rankings for the 10 best players in the NFL are out and we’ve got only one NFC South representative.

Brees
Brees
As you probably guessed from the above sentence, it’s New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees at No. 3. He came in slightly ahead of Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers. That’s pretty impressive, because Rogers is still riding the championship wave, while Brees has a little more distance from his Super Bowl title.

New England’s Tom Brady finished No. 1 and Indianapolis’ Peyton Manning is No. 2. Manning and Brady were somewhere in the first two spots on every ballot, except for two. NFC North colleague Kevin Seifert put Rodgers at No. 2, one spot ahead of Manning. I put Brees at No. 2 and had Manning at No. 3.

Before the mailbag gets filled up by Indianapolis fans, let me just be clear that I have the utmost respect for Manning. He might well be the best quarterback to ever play the game. But I looked at a three- to-four year window on this one and Brees’ numbers are as good as Manning’s in most categories. In some cases, they’re even better. I just feel that, right now, Brees means even more to the Saints than Manning does to the Colts.

Quarterbacks carried the voting on this one. Seven quarterbacks were ranked and that didn’t leave much room for NFC South players. I included Atlanta wide receiver Roddy White on my ballot, but that wasn’t enough to get him in the top 10.

Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan also got a vote, but that came from AFC East colleague Tim Graham. I think very highly of Ryan, but think he’s probably a year or two -- and a playoff win or two -- from appearing on a list of the best 10 players in the game. Same goes for Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman.
A lot of you have wanted to see “Power Rankings” and “finale” in the same sentence for some time. Congratulations, today’s your day.

We wrap our offseason, conversation-starting series with the crown jewel: The top 10 best players in the NFL.

I represent the AFC South aggressively in Dan Graziano’s piece on the voting results and in the attached video.

Peyton Manning finished second to Tom Brady. You’ll hear my familiar refrain about Manning: He’s simply asked to do more than anyone in the league, and he does it very well.

Feel free to look back at this post from last summer, where I respond to the basic complaints of Manning’s critics.

None of this is meant as a slight to Brady, who’s obviously also a superb player.

I do think we blew it in the overall results. I completely understand being quarterback heavy. I probably could have and should have been more so. But chasing those quarterbacks down is a monstrous element of the game, and to not have at least one pass-rusher make this list is a mistake.

At any rate, here is my ballot. I remind you it’s just one eighth of the results that you’ll find in Graziano’s fine piece.
  1. Peyton Manning
  2. Tom Brady
  3. Drew Brees
  4. Aaron Rodgers
  5. Adrian Peterson
  6. Chris Johnson
  7. Andre Johnson
  8. Troy Polamalu
  9. Clay Matthews
  10. DeMarcus Ware

Tom Brady or Peyton Manning? It's the debate of the moment in today's NFL. Which superstar quarterback is the best? Who, between that pair of excellent, future Hall of Fame signal-callers, would you pick if you had the choice? That's not the question that was asked of our Power Rankings panel this week, but it turned out to be the one we answered.

Yes, after weeks upon weeks of power-ranking everything we could think of in the NFL, we've decided to throw all qualifiers and designations out the window and make it very simple: Who are the best players in the league?

As was the case when our panel was asked to rank the league's top quarterbacks, Brady beat out Manning for the top spot in this week's power rankings. Six of the eight NFL bloggers polled ranked Brady No. 1 overall, and the two who didn't -- Mike Sando and Paul Kuharsky -- ranked him second behind Manning. The top four players in our rankings and seven of the top 10 (of the top 11, technically, since Michael Vick and Andre Johnson tied for the No. 10 spot) all play the same position -- quarterback -- which says a lot about the way we value that position.

"Quarterback is the most significant position on the field and can make the difference between a lopsided losing record and the playoffs," said AFC East blogger Tim Graham, whose ballot had quarterbacks in each of the first seven spots and eight of 10 overall. "It takes a truly special running back or defensive player to outweigh the importance of a quarterback. For example, Adrian Peterson is a sensational player. But without Brett Favre producing at quarterback, Peterson couldn't carry the Vikings to the playoffs."

So the question then became which quarterback was the best. The debate these days seems to be squarely between Manning and Brady, though two of our eight bloggers did rank Manning third on this week's list. We'll get to them in a minute. We'll start with the majority opinion -- that Brady is the best player in the league right now.


I was one of the six who ranked Brady in the top spot, and the main reason was that I think Brady has attained a level of excellence in New England that's beyond what Manning has been able to attain in Indianapolis. Brady's accomplishments in 2007, when he combined with Randy Moss to set all kinds of offensive records and went undefeated until losing the Super Bowl to the Giants, were all-time legendary. But what people may not realize (perhaps because of the ludicrous level at which Brady excelled that year) is that the past two seasons have been the second-best and third-best statistical seasons of Brady's career. If Brady hadn't hurt his knee in the first game of the 2008 season and missed the rest of that year, it's very possible he would be on the kind of run right now that would make a Brady-Manning debate seem silly.

After the Patriots traded Randy Moss in the middle of 2010, the question was whether they were giving up on the season. What they were doing instead was committing to a midseason overhaul of the offense that wouldn't have been possible without the confidence they had in Brady to manage it. All Brady did was muster the second-best completion percentage and second-highest touchdown-pass total of his career while throwing just four interceptions and winning at least 14 games for the fourth time.

Not everybody agreed, however.

"Manning is simply asked to do more than any player in the league is asked to do," Kuharsky said. "He's superb at it. I love Brady. But Manning can do more, is asked to do more, and has to do more. Jim Caldwell is an OK coach so far. Bill Belichick is an all-time great. The guy making up the gap in order to have the Colts stay in range of the Patriots is Manning."

But the Colts really weren't in range of the Patriots this year, and for that reason Manning's star has dimmed in the eyes of a couple of our panelists. NFC North blogger Kevin Seifert ranked Aaron Rodgers No. 2 and Manning No. 3. And NFC South blogger Pat Yasinskas ranked Saints quarterback Drew Brees in that No. 2 spot ahead of Manning.

"I'm not trying to diminish Peyton in any way. He's going to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. But, if you look at his numbers and Brees' numbers over the last three or four years, they're similar and, in some ways, Brees' numbers are better," Yasinskas said. "Brees and Manning each have won one Super Bowl title. My argument is that, right now, Brees is even more valuable to the Saints than Manning is to the Colts. Times change and circumstances change. But right now I think Brees is the perfect quarterback for the Saints and is in the perfect situation with their offensive system and coaching staff. In fact, I considered voting for Brees No. 1 overall, but couldn't quite bring myself to rank him ahead of Tom Brady."

Steelers safety Troy Polamalu, who came in first in the defensive player power rankings, ranked fifth on the overall list. AFC North blogger James Walker ranked Polamalu fourth, and Seifert ranked him fifth. Walker's ballot was the most generous overall to defensive players, as he ranked Polamalu fourth, Cowboys pass rusher DeMarcus Ware fifth, Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis eighth and 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis ninth.

Walker and Kuharsky (who ranked him 10th) were the only ones who ranked Ware at all, and Kuharsky seemed a little chapped about it.

"If we rate these quarterbacks so highly, how can we not rate the guy we said was tops at disrupting quarterbacks highly too," Paul asked. "Makes no sense. I had him too low at 10. For six of you guys to leave him off entirely dents your collective credibility. Next I imagine you'll say the E Street Band isn't the all-time best backing band."

Paul is grouchy.

"I value pass-rushers, and no player has more sacks the past two seasons than DeMarcus Ware (26.5)," Walker said. "Getting to the quarterback is the best way to combat the league's increasing number of pass-happy offenses, and no one does it better right now than Ware."

The highest-ranked offensive player who wasn't a quarterback was Peterson, who came in sixth after being named on five of eight ballots. Sando, Walker and AFC West blogger Bill Williamson left the Minnesota running back off their ballots -- the third time in three tries that Williamson has ranked Peterson lower than most of the rest of us did.

"This is a quarterback league and that's how I built my top 10," Williamson explained. "There were only three non-quarterbacks on my top 10. After I constructed the quarterback rankings, I went to the best available non-quarterbacks, and the list was quite short. But to reiterate, this is the top 10. The best of the best. I think Peterson is probably a top-15 guy and that’s pretty good in a league of 1,800-plus professionals."

Pretty good indeed. But as Bill said, it's a quarterback league. And for that reason, the debate about the best player in the league came down, once again, to Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady.

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