He’s won three Super Bowls, played in five, and had yet another lights-out season in 2011, tossing for 5,235 yards and 39 touchdowns. Go back and watch the AFC divisional-round win over Denver and you’ll see the position being played as well as its ever been. Even in the Super Bowl defeat, Brady completed 27 of 41 passes for 276 yards and 2 touchdowns. If Wes Welker catches that pass in the fourth quarter, we’re likely having “The Best Ever” conversations this offseason. If I am building my NFL team for 2012 and have the choice of any player in the league, I’m going with Brady.
NFL's top 100 players: 1-20
Well, you won’t find Ray Lewis, Troy Polamalu, or any running backs in our Top 20. You will, however, find seven quarterbacks and six elite pass rushers. Would you rather have Julius Peppers or Jason Pierre-Paul? Drew Brees or Eli Manning? Calvin Johnson or Larry Fitzgerald? Here’s how we ranked the Top 20 players of the 2012 NFL season.
No. 20: Michael Vick, QB, Eagles
Vick in the top 25? You better believe it. He still strikes fear in the hearts of NFL coaches and defenders everywhere. And though the Eagles slipped and stumbled out of the gate in 2011, Philly finished the season with four straight victories and four straight mesmerizing performances out of Vick. With a full offseason to work with teammates, a healthy crew of receivers and a focus on the NFC East crown — don’t be shocked when Vick turns in the best season of his career.
19. Haloti Ngata, DT, Ravens
A bruised thigh bothered Ngata for most of 2011 and he still had an All-Pro season, his third in a row. Ngata ended the 2011 season with a career-high in tackles (64) and five sacks. As Terrence Cody continues to improve, Ngata becomes even more dangerous in Baltimore.
18. Joe Thomas, OT, Browns
The highest ranked offensive lineman on the list, Thomas gets better and better each season in the league. He’s incredibly smooth playing the position, powerful, and possesses excellent footwork. Just 27 years old, he’s entering the prime of his career. NFL Network ranked Thomas as the 82nd-best player in the sport. We’ve got him 18th. So, there’s that.
17. Julius Peppers, DE, Bears
Don’t be mistaken, Peppers still has it. Though his sack numbers were a bit down last season (11.0), he had an all-around tremendous season that showed he’s had no signs of aging. Peppers can still get to the quarterback, but with Henry Melton clogging up the middle, he showed he can do even more. Another guy you simply have to account for on every given snap.
16. Jason Pierre-Paul, DE, Giants
It’s scary to think how good Pierre-Paul, a guy who was essentially in his fourth year playing football in 2011, can be. Just 23 years old, the second-year defensive end recorded 16.5 sacks, blocked the division-winning field goal attempt in Dallas in Week 14, and batted down 7 passes in the Giants’ Super Bowl winning season. He’s explosive off the edge, has a non-stop motor, and is still learning how to defend against the run. He’s another freakish athletic talent who’s only getting better. Much better.
15. Terrell Suggs, LB, Ravens
As we noted in the introduction, this list is under the assumption that every player is 100 percent healthy. Suggs is undoubtedly a top 20 player if that’s the case. Suggs had 50 tackles and 14 sacks for the AFC North champion Ravens last year, taking home his first Defensive Player of the Year award. A terror to block off the edge, he’s stellar in pass coverage, too.
14. Jared Allen, DE, Vikings
With teams mostly running on the Vikings in the second half, with no Ray Edwards lining up across from him and double coverage on most NFL Sundays, Jared Allen still managed to record 22 sacks, force 4 fumbles and intercept a pass in 2011. This Vikings team won’t be very good in 2012, but Allen will still cause constant headaches for opposing offensive coordinators.
13. Andre Johnson, WR, Texans
An injury limited Johnson to just seven regular-season games last season, but he still managed 13 catches for 201 yards and a touchdown in Houston’s two playoff games. Everyone will be hot on the Texans this summer, a sexy Super Bowl pick out of the AFC, but there are questions about wide receiver depth. Besides he and Kevin Walter, no current receiver on the Texans roster has a single career reception on his resume. If Johnson’s at full strength, it shouldn’t matter.
12. Patrick Willis, LB, 49ers
If I was a high school football coach, I’d make my team’s defensive players watch the way Patrick Willis plays the game. The 49ers’ middle linebacker never misses a tackle, always takes the right angle, and is the field general for the NFL’s top defense. Willis makes his teammates better. He’s also a nightmare for opponents. The best middle linebacker since Ray Lewis was in his prime, he’s only getting better.
11. Justin Smith, DE, 49ers
I scoffed at Peter King’s selection of Justin Smith as his Defensive Player of the Year last season when I first read it back in December. Six months later, I’m here to admit that I was very wrong and my cynicism was off-base. Having gone back and watched the game tape of many of the 49ers' games, I can assure you that Smith did things in 2011 that the normal 3-4 defensive end simply does not. He was an absolute beast and the engine that fueled the 49ers’ ferocious defensive attack. Patrick Willis gets a lot of the headlines, Aldon Smith gets a lot of the sacks, and NaVorro Bowman gets a lot of the praise — but it’s Smith who teams are most worried about. Entire game plans are constructed to stop him up front.
10. Larry Fitzgerald, WR, Cardinals
Though it feels like he’s been in the league forever, Larry Fitzgerald is still only 28 years old. Hampered by shaky quarterback play for much of his career (minus those seasons with Kurt Warner), it’s amazing that he’s closing in on 10,000 receiving yards and 80 touchdowns for his career. Kolb or Skelton? Skelton or Kolb? That’ll be the big storyline in Arizona this offseason, but with the addition of Michael Floyd as the team’s No. 2 receiver, Fitzgerald is in good position to have his best season yet. Well-rounded, mature, and impossible to stop — he’s one of those rare talents that teams have to account for on every given down.
9. Calvin Johnson, WR, Lions
He’s 6-5, 240 pounds, and can burn you on the outside with his speed. Johnson’s the prototype for the ideal NFL receiver, and if his 1,681 yards and 19 touchdowns in the regular season didn’t make national headlines, his 12 catch, 211 yards, 2 touchdown effort in the playoffs undoubtedly did. He’s gotten better every year since he’s been drafted. The scary part? The best is yet to come.
8. DeMarcus Ware, LB, Cowboys
Offensive coordinators lose sleep the night before playing the Cowboys because of Ware. He needs to be identified and accounted for before every snap and does things on the field few men his size can even dream of. On the defensive line in a 4-3, lining up at outside linebacker in a 3-4, Ware’s the front-seven player you fear the most in today’s NFL. You better account for him in your game planning, or he’ll beat you. He quietly had 19.5 sacks last season. Quietly. More to come in 2012.
7. Darrelle Revis, CB, Jets
The first non-quarterback on the list, Revis is one of the rare defensive players who completely changes an NFL game when he steps on the field. Receivers far and wide attest to his greatness and quarterbacks — though they threw at him more than previous years in 2011 — all confirm he’s the best in the game. Revis can go man-to-man against any of the NFL’s top wide receivers — the 6-6 freaks or the 5-10 speed demons — and dominate. He’s not just the top cornerback in football now, but he may be the best we’ve ever seen.
6. Ben Roethlisberger, QB, Steelers
Again, fantasy football stats aren’t important here. Who do I want taking my team on a last-minute drive in a big game? You better believe Big Ben’s on the list. Though the Steelers fell to Tebow and the Broncos last season in the playoffs, Roethlisberger had another strong campaign, overcoming a shoddy offensive line and nagging injuries to take his team to the playoffs for the seventh time in nine years.
5. Peyton Manning, QB, Broncos
Remember, we’re assuming everyone’s 100 percent healthy. And based on the $90 million contract the Broncos just gave him, Denver’s front office is under the assumption the team is getting the Peyton Manning we’d last seen in 2010 for the 2012 season. If that’s the case, he’s a top-5 guy, no questions asked. I’m curious to see how he performs with a new team, in an outdoor stadium and with new offensive minds. I’m also curious to see how he handles a 2012 schedule that opens with top defensive squads Pittsburgh, Atlanta and Houston.
4. Drew Brees, QB, Saints
Brees had a career year in 2011, shattering Dan Marino’s all-time passing yards record in just 15 games and completing 71 percent of his passes. Brees is a great NFL quarterback. No questions, there. He also has a career 0-3 record in road playoff games, not counting the Super Bowl he played on a neutral field in Miami. My response to those who bring up that factoid anytime his name is mentioned? Brees’ stat line in last year’s playoff loss in San Francisco: 40-63, 462 yards, 4 TDs, 2 INTs. You’re going to pin that loss on him? 2012 will be an interesting year for Brees. Contract stuff aside, he’s without Sean Payton and without Carl Nicks protecting him up front. If Brees stays healthy, I have no doubt the Saints will be just fine.
3. Eli Manning, QB, Giants
Whoa. Now, the list gets interesting. Want to argue with me on this one? I’ll give you some facts to defend Eli at No. 3: two Super Bowl MVPs, seven fourth quarter comeback victories in 2011 and five road playoff wins in the two Super Bowl runs. The resume speaks for itself, but it’s the way Eli wins that puts him at No. 3., above a dozen quarterbacks you’ll draft in your fantasy league before him this August. On the road, in the fourth quarter, with the season on the line, Eli Manning always seems to deliver.
2. Aaron Rodgers, QB, Packers
It’ll go lost in the record books because of the way the season ended, but Rodgers’ 2011 campaign was one of the top-five quarterback seasons we’ve ever seen. Consider these stats — 14-1 record as starter, 4,643 yards passing, 45 touchdown passes, 6 interceptions — and then realize that he did all that with a target on his back and an abridged training camp due to the lockout. Sure, the Packers lost to the Giants in the playoffs. But Rodgers’ receivers, tight ends and running backs — usually reliable — dropped an uncharacteristic eight passes in that game. He’s mobile, he’s young, he’s a proven winner and he’s got nothing but a hunger to succeed driving him. After Brady, give me Rodgers.