2009 meant another MVP for the world’s most talented football player. In '09, Manning led his team to a 14-0 start, plus division and AFC titles. No Marvin Harrison or Anthony Gonzalez? No problem. Manning made stars of Pierre Garcon and Austin Collie. Healthy, focused and blessed with a healthy skill players, Manning will be even better in 2010. ALSO SEE: Schrager's Top 100 NFL players for 2010, Nos. 81-100 | 61-80 | 41-60 | 21-40
20. Ray Lewis, LB, Ravens (2009 Rank: 30)
Sure, he’s 35. He’s also coming off one of his most productive seasons of a 14-year NFL career. In ’09, Lewis was as good as he’s been since the 2000 season, earning All-Pro honors and tying for the lead in AFC tackles with 134. In 2010, the Ravens should be favorites out of the AFC North. On top of producing his usual results, Lewis will be looked upon to get rookies Sergio Kindle and Terrence Cody adjusted to the NFL and involved in the weekly game plans. As he’s done with countless young defenders before, he’ll have no problem whipping them into form.
19. Dwight Freeney, DE, Colts (2009 Rank: 26)
A member of the NFL’s All-Decade team, the 6’1 Freeney was an absolute terror coming off the edge in 2009. A first-team All-Pro selection for the third time in his career, Freeney recorded 13.5 sacks and forced a fumble during the Colts’ 14-2 AFC Championship campaign. In the Super Bowl, playing with an absolutely wrecked ankle, he got to Drew Brees for a sack in the first half. With him, the Colts defense is fast and fearless. Without him, they’re ordinary.
18. Joe Thomas, OT, Browns (2009 Rank: 46)
A Cleveland Brown in the top 20? I know it looks bizarre, but Thomas was recognized as an All-Pro for the first time in his career in 2009 and should only be more improved in 2010. With recent retirements of Jonathan Ogden, Walter Jones and Orlando Pace, Thomas joins Clady in heading up the league’s new breed of left tackles as one of the best—if not the best—in the game. For the first time in his four-year career, he’ll be blocking the blind side of a tested, veteran quarterback in Jake Delhomme. Long-term, that man will likely be Colt McCoy.
17. Ryan Clady, OT, Broncos (2009 Rank: 47)
A first-round pick out of Boise State, the 6’6 left tackle has made the Pro Bowl in each of his two pro seasons and was first-team All-Pro in 2009. Clady didn’t give up a sack his entire rookie season and was nearly impossible to beat in year number two. Entering his third season in 2010, he’s expected to get only better. Scary thought. The top offensive tackle on the list, Clady heads up a rich young crop of OTs across the NFL.
16. Andre Johnson, WR, Texans (2009 Rank: 13)
In ’09, the uber-talented Johnson was selected to his second straight All-Pro squad, catching 101 balls for a career high 1,569 yards. With a league-best 1,569 receiving yards, Johnson joined Jerry Rice as the only two receivers in NFL history to lead the league in receiving yards in consecutive years. He’s a beast in a high-powered offense with a great young QB feeding him. Plenty more to come from No. 80 in 2010.
15. Adrian Peterson, RB, Vikings (2009 Rank: 5)
Nicknamed “A.D.”—short for “All Day”—Peterson is still the most imposing, physical specimen of the rich crop of young RB's today. He’s undoubtedly a top-20 player in the NFL, as well. But there are some questions surrounding the three-time All-Pro heading into 2010. Has he resolved his fumbling issues, something that’s haunted him since the start of his career? Can he put together the same kind of season he’s used to without Chester Taylor spelling him on third downs? Will he work well with rookie Toby Gerhardt? Peterson’s still a beast—but he’s not the game’s number one back.
14. Troy Polamalu, S, Steelers (2009 Rank: 15)
Polamalu’s value to the Steelers D was never more evident than in 2009, when the unit tripped and fell without him in the lineup. Without their defensive leader in 2009, the Steelers D — the league's top ranked unit in 2008 — finished 20th in points per game in 2009 and missed the playoffs. Polamalu’s currently working out without a knee brace and looking healthy. "I don't think you stop getting better," Polamalu told Pittsburgh reporters last week. "I'm learning so much more about technique and all of these little things that I wish I would have known my first few years of the NFL." Yikes. He’s back in 2010, better and tougher than ever.
13. Nnamdi Asomugha, CB, Raiders (2009 Rank: 12)
Though he’s never played for a team that’s won more than six games in a season, Nnamdi Asomugha continues to be recognized as one of the NFL's top defensive players. A three-time Pro Bowler and three-time All-Pro selection, Asomugha is rarely challenged, keeping his fellow corners very busy on a weekly basis. If we aren’t going to consider “off-the-field” issues for Ben Roethlisberger, we probably shouldn’t weigh in the off-the-field life of Asomugha. Ah, maybe we should. On top of being one of the best corners in the game, he’s also one of the league’s top ambassadors.
Patrick Willis, LB, 49ers (2009 Rank: 21)
Willis cashed in big time with a $50 million, five-year extension in May. It’s well-deserved. The top MLB in the game, Willis has been to the Pro Bowl and an All-Pro all three years he’s played in the NFL. In 2009, he was named the NFL Alumni Linebacker of the Year and recorded a league-high 152 tackles. With big changes in Arizona and Seattle, many pundits have San Fran as the NFC West favorites. The Niners play on national TV four times in 2010 and are going out to London for a Halloween meeting with the Chargers. If Willis isn’t a household name already, he will be by the end of the season.
11. Philip Rivers, QB, Chargers (2009 Rank: 16)
Considered immature and petulant by some in the past, Rivers came into his own in 2009, proving he’s one of the NFL’s top signal callers. During an ’09 season that saw the Chargers win 11 straight games and their fourth straight AFC West title, Rivers played nearly flawless football, tossing for 4,254 yards and 28 TD passes. A two-time Pro Bowler, he’s won big playoff games in the past (vs. Indy in ’08), but lost a heartbreaker to New York at home in ’09. In 2010, San Diego will be the heavy favorites out of the AFC West. All eyes will be on No. 17.
10. Jared Allen, DE, Vikings (2009 Rank: 8)
Though Brett Favre got the bulk of the national media attention during Minnesota’s Super Bowl near miss, Jared Allen was arguably the team’s MVP. A first-team All-Pro in each of his last three seasons, Allen set the bar high on October 5 vs. the Packers when the noted wild man recorded a career-high 4.5 sacks and a safety. In the playoffs, Allen and teammate Ray Edwards made the Cowboys’ offensive line look silly, coming off the edge with reckless abandon on just about every passing down. Allen’s the top pass rusher in the NFL and the only D-lineman to make this list’s top 10 two years in a row.
9. DeMarcus Ware, OLB, Cowboys (2009 Rank: 9)
The best 3-4 outside linebacker in the sport, Ware is the second defensive player on the list and a no-brainer top-10 choice. Ware’s heart, toughness, and leadership skills were on display in December when he came back six days after suffering a neck injury to force two fumbles in a crucial late season win over the eventual champion Saints in New Orleans. A member of the NFL’s All-Decade team and a first-team NFL All-Pro his last three seasons, Ware’s place on this list cannot be questioned.
Some may not agree with a QB with zero playoff wins in the top 10. But I can’t keep Rodgers out. If 2008 was Rodgers’ transition year, 2009 was his coming out party in Green Bay. With the ghost of Brett Favre still looming (this time, in purple), Rodgers put up career highs in every major category and led the Packers to their first playoff berth in the A.F. (After Favre) era. Despite spotty play out of his O-line and even worse play from his defense down the stretch, Rodgers threw for more yards than Favre ever did in Green Bay and earned his first Pro Bowl trip. Young, confident, and now experienced, Aaron Rodgers is a top five passer heading into 2010.
7. Darrelle Revis, CB, Jets (2009 Rank: Unranked)
Rex Ryan made his feelings for Darrelle Revis known following last January’s announcement that Packers CB Charles Woodson won the 2009 Defensive Player of the Year award: “A number I think is interesting would be eight. And no, that's not the amount of TD passes Green Bay gave up against Arizona. That is the number of TD passes we gave up all season. And the biggest reason for that is Darrelle Revis.” Forget numbers — how about the list of WR's Revis shut down during ’09? Randy Moss (twice), Steve Smith, Andre Johnson, Chad Ochocinco, Roddy White, Marques Colston and Reggie Wayne were all stranded on Revis Island. He’s the top CB in the game and the NFL’s premier defensive commodity.
6. Larry Fitzgerald, WR, Cardinals (2009 Rank: 4)
No team’s had as much offseason roster turnover than the two-time defending NFC West champion Cardinals. Kurt Warner’s retired, Anquan Boldin’s in Baltimore, Antrel Rolle is in New York and Karlos Dansby is down in Miami. But Arizona still has No. 11. And with that guy in the lineup, we’d be pretty foolish writing them off just yet. In ’09, Fitzgerald was as spectacular as ever, catching 97 balls for 1,000-plus yards and 13 TDs. Another year, another fantastic campaign—Larry Fitz is on a direct path to Canton.
5. Chris Johnson, RB, Titans (2009 Rank: 77)
In just his second year in the NFL, Johnson broke Marshall Faulk’s record of total yards from scrimmage in a season with 2,509 yards (2,006 of them coming on the ground). The ‘09 NFL Offensive Player of the Year, Johnson has an eye-popping career average of 5.3 yards per carry with 26 touchdowns to just four fumbles. Currently in the midst of contract negotiations with Tennessee for a new deal, Johnson enters his third season as arguably the most explosive player in the entire sport.
4. Ben Roethlisberger, QB, Steelers (2009 Rank: 3)
Say what you want, Big Ben’s gotten it done and brought two Lombardi Trophies to the Steel City in six years as a pro. In ’09, with the Steelers’ run game all but nonexistent, the D in shambles and the O-line woeful, Big Ben threw for a career-high 4,328 yards and 26 TD passes. He was 9-6 as a starter. Off the field, he has his issues. But this list isn’t judging ethics, morals or the law. It’s judging players and who you’d want on the field. If you ask me who I want leading my team down the field down four with two minutes left? You better believe I’m taking No. 7. Hell, in that situation? I might even take him over the three guys listed above him.
3. Tom Brady, QB, Patriots (2009 Rank: 2)
In his first season back from the devastating knee injury that kept him off the field in 2008, Brady led the Pats to their seventh AFC East title in eight seasons. The 2009 NFL Comeback Player of the Year had yet another Pro Bowl year despite three fractured ribs, a broken finger and numerous O-line injuries. A rough playoff loss at home to Baltimore left a bad taste in every Patriots fans’ mouth last January. Some seem to be down on the Pats and Brady this offseason, talking up the Jets and Dolphins as division favorites. I’ll take Brady and those three Super Bowl rings over Mark Sanchez, Chad Henne and 27 other NFL starting QBs.
2. Drew Brees, QB, Saints (2009 Rank: 7)
Though Manning took home league MVP honors in 2009, it was Brees who hoisted the Lombardi Trophy and Super Bowl MVP award. The man the Dolphins once passed on in free agency started the season by throwing a franchise record 6 TD passes vs. the Lions on opening day. He ended it with a Super Bowl record 32 completions. Brees finished the season with a completion percentage of 70.62%, an NFL single-season record. The Saints return the bulk of their offense in 2010 and should be the favorites to come out of the NFC.