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: 50-1
We're going strong with our countdown and now we get to the fun part: The upper crust of the NFL. Who will be No. 1? Is it guaranteed to be a quarterback? Maybe it will be a defensive star who takes all the marbles. Let the discussion begin. — Peter Schrager
No. 50: Maurkice Pouncey, C, Steelers
Pouncey only played in 12 games in 2011 and still made the All-Pro squad. A fierce competitor with elite footwork, he’s arguably the most athletic center we’ve ever seen in the NFL. Fast and feisty, he’s been one of the lone bright spots on the Steelers offensive line over the past two years. Now 100 percent healthy, he’ll be able to elevate his game even higher.
No. 49: Jimmy Graham, TE, Saints
The scariest part about Jimmy Graham’s 99-catch 2011 campaign? He’s quite truly just starting to scratch the surface. Drew Brees’ top target in 2011, Graham will only get better and better as he learns the game. Like Jason Pierre-Paul, Graham didn’t pick up football until late in life, playing just one season at Miami after four years on the basketball squad. He’s the new breed of tight end — 6-foot-6, 265 pounds, and fast as the wind.
No. 48: Duane Brown, OT, Texans
When Brown was selected in the first round in 2008, many draft pundits rolled their eyes. He wasn’t ready, he wasn’t a first-round talent, and he wasn’t a left tackle. Sure enough, in five years with Houston, Brown’s started every game he’s played in and in 2011 was selected as a second-team All-Pro. He’s a road paver who protects the pass with great ability. Not a household name, just yet, but soon will be. Worth the 26th overall pick of the ’08 Draft? You better believe it.
No. 47: Steve Smith, WR, Panthers
After five straight seasons of 1,000 yards or more, Steve Smith’s numbers dipped dramatically in 2009 and 2010 seasons. Then, Cam Newton entered his life. In his 12th year of his career, Smith rallied with 79 receptions, 1,394 yards and seven touchdowns. As explosive as he’s ever been, he’s only going to get better as Newton matures and becomes the better QB. Still lethal, Smith’s a top-50 talent.
No. 46: Nick Mangold, C, Jets
The top center in the NFL, Mangold’s presence was felt when he was out of the lineup in 2011. He's perhaps the only player outside of Peyton Manning and Jay Cutler to see his team’s performance drastically dip without him in the lineup. The Jets offense clicks when he’s in and fails when he’s out. Simple as that. Gruff and nasty, he’s the anchor on that offensive line. Put him on any team and their offensive line instantly improves.
No. 45: Jason Babin, DE, Eagles
It’s not often that a guy posts the two best seasons of his career in years seven and eight. He had 12.5 sacks in 2010 with the Titans and blew up with 18 for the Eagles in his second go-around with the team in 2012. Babin and Trent Cole make for a mighty duo; though they don’t get the same press the Giants’ trio of defensive ends garner, they’re right up there.
No. 44: Geno Atkins, DT, Bengals
Not familiar with Atkins? Well, he doesn’t have a big social media presence, isn’t a regular on Sirius XM radio, and doesn’t have his own Fathead. Yet. But he’s right up there with Mr. Suh in the argument for the best young defensive tackle in the league. Atkins had eight sacks from the defensive tackle position last year, the most in the league, and made his first Pro Bowl. He’s still only 24 and is only getting better.
No. 43: Trent Cole, DE, Eagles
Jason Babin gets a lot of the love and Nnamdi Asomugha got all the press, but talk to NFL players and they’ll all tell you that Trent Cole’s the most troublesome part of that Eagles defense. His motor doesn’t stop and he is blessed with safety-like speed. Cole recorded 44 tackles and 11 sacks a year ago. Expect more in 2012.
No. 42: Carl Nicks, G, Buccaneers
The Vincent Jackson signing and the Greg Schiano hire made the biggest news out of Tampa Bay this offseason, but the addition of Carl Nicks instantly puts Tampa Bay back into the NFC South conversation. Nicks has started all but three games in his four-year NFL career in New Orleans and will team with Davin Joseph to form the top guard combo in all of football. Don’t be shocked when rookie Doug Martin runs for 1,500 yards this season. The Saints will miss Nicks far more than they’ll miss Jon Vilma.
No. 41: Jake Long, OT, Dolphins
An athletic freak for a guy his size, Jake Long has lived up to his No. 1 overall draft status from 2008. Long, 6-foot-7 and mobile, is tough to get around but can also drive defensive ends backwards. One of the big reasons the Dolphins’ wildcat offense had as much success as it did a few years ago, he was the lead road paver for Daniel Thomas and Reggie Bush in 2011. He missed two games but was still a Pro Bowler. That tells you something. More Top 100: Nos. 40-21
No. 40: Philip Rivers, QB, Chargers
Rivers had a “down” year in 2011 and still threw for 4,624 yards. A fierce competitor, he is often perceived as petulant or crabby. But his teammates love him, and that’s because he leaves it all on the field. In 2011, he completed 69 passes of 20 yards or more. His 20 interceptions were a career high and the Bolts missed the playoffs, but he threw 11 touchdowns and three interceptions while winning five of the team’s last six regular-season games.
No. 39: Tamba Hali, LB/DE, Chiefs
Hali followed up his breakout 2010 season with a solid 12-sack, 66-tackle campaign in 2011. He demands double teams, rushes quarterbacks with a plethora of moves and can defend the run. Hali’s total skill set was on display against the Packers in 2011, recording three sacks in Green Bay’s only regular-season defeat. Still only 28 years old, the two-time Pro Bowler is just hitting his stride.
No. 38: Victor Cruz, WR, Giants
Cruz came out of the blue in 2011 to grab 82 balls and break the Giants' single-season record for receiving yards with 1,536 yards. His 99-yard touchdown catch against the Jets on Christmas Eve kick-started a six-game winning streak that culminated in a Super Bowl title. If Wes Welker’s the top slot receiver in the league, Cruz is right there. He won’t sneak up on anybody in 2012.
No. 37: Wes Welker, WR, Patriots
I know, I know. How could I put a guy who’s caught 544 balls over his last five seasons anywhere outside the top 20? This is nothing against Wes Welker. Trust me. I respect his game. But as far as NFL wide receivers go, he’s not one of the top three guys I’d take to start my team. As a slot receiver, he might be the best that’s ever played, but I do understand the Patriots' hesitancy in giving him a huge long-term deal. At 31 years old, he’s still one of the most dangerous — and skilled — receivers in the game. But, I’d take all the guys above him if I were asked to start a team.
No. 36: Frank Gore, RB, 49ers
The 49ers defense is loaded with top-tier talent. The offense? Last season, it was Frank Gore, Vernon Davis, an offensive line and some other dudes. Gore was tremendous for the upstart 49ers, rushing for 1,211 yards and scoring eight touchdowns. Gore ran for 127, 125, 141, 134, and 107 yards in consecutive contests during a eight-game winning streak in the heart of the season. He was the NFC West champions' workhorse last year and could be even better with some weapons at receiver in 2012.
No. 35: Ray Rice, RB, Ravens
Another year, another tremendous season for Ray Rice. For the third straight year, Rice rushed for more than 1,200 yards and caught at least 60 passes. He’s the key cog in the Ravens offense, the straw that stirs the drink. He's shown no signs of slowing and continues to haunt the Steelers. Running backs aren’t as highly valued on this list as others, but Ray Rice is a special player.
No. 34: Jahri Evans, G, Saints
Jahri Evans has never missed a game in his NFL career. As incredible as he is in the run-block portion of the game, his pass blocking is perhaps better. He never gets beat, he’s nimble on his feet and he paves the road for a record-breaking offense in New Orleans. All that time Drew Brees has in the pocket? Look at Evans next time you watch the Saints.
No. 33: Ed Reed, S, Ravens
Reed’s getting up there in age but continues to make an impact in just about every big game he plays. Though Reed only made three interceptions in 2011, he had a big pick in the playoff win over Houston. Entering his 11th season, he’s still one of the most feared and dangerous safeties in the game. Teams throw away from him, game plan against him -- and are still often burned in the end.
No. 32 LeSean McCoy, RB, Eagles
McCoy got paid this offseason and deservedly so. Whereas the “Dream Team” Eagles were considered a disappointment in 2011, McCoy had arguably the best season of any running back in the league. He ran the ball 273 times for 1,309 yards, but also caught 48 balls and scored 17 touchdowns. A threat any time he lines up in the backfield, McCoy is still just 23 years old.
No. 31: Brian Cushing, LB, Texans
An outside linebacker in high school at New Jersey's Bergen Catholic, in college at USC and his first few years in Houston, Cushing finally made the move to inside linebacker in 2011 in Wade Phillips’ 3-4 scheme. The results were tremendous. Cushing recorded 114 tackles for the second-ranked defense in the NFL. With a full offseason to adjust to Phillips’ 3-4, he’ll be even better in 2012.
No. 30: Matthew Stafford, QB, Lions
Though technically his third season in the NFL, Stafford had his first injury-free campaign in 2011. The results? Just 5,000 passing yards and the first Lions playoff appearance since 2000. Stafford’s just getting started. Blessed with a cannon for an arm, he’s always been able to sling the ball. But in 2011, Stafford overcame injuries to Detroit’s top two running backs and showed he’s capable of being a leader, too. Long in the shadows of fellow 2009 quarterbacks Josh Freeman and Mark Sanchez, Stafford leaped over both in 2011.
No. 29: Adrian Peterson, RB, Vikings
Peterson’s no longer the top all-around running back in the game (I have MJD and Arian Foster rated higher), but he could still be the most dangerous. On any given play, A.D. (short for All Day) can turn a typical 4-yard scamper into an 85-yard run touchdown score. His numbers were down in 2011 and the Vikings offense was a mess. The injury will hamper his 2012 season. He’s still, without a doubt, a top-five back in this league.
No. 28: Cam Newton, QB, Panthers
In Newton’s first NFL game, he threw for 422 yards. In Week 2, he broke his own record. He never looked back. The critics thought he’d struggle adjusting to the NFL in his first season in a pro-style offense. With basically no training camp, he went out and shattered just about every rookie passing record … in a pro-style offense. Oh, he can run, too -- broke that touchdown record as well. If I need a quarterback to lead my team on to the field in 2012, Cam Newton’s certainly in the conversation.
No. 27: Rob Gronkowski, TE, Patriots
Gronk! The Patriots' third-year tight end got the big bucks earlier this month and I’ve got no problem with that. After one of the best seasons we’ve ever seen from the tight end position — 90 receptions, 1,327 yards, 17 touchdowns — the Patriots locked him up for six years, $54 million. Gronkowski’s the prototype for the new breed of NFL tight ends. He’s 6-6, weighs 270 pounds and runs like the wind. He can block and has great speed. Would he put those numbers up in another offense? One that didn’t have Welker and Hernandez and the all-world quarterback? I’m not certain.
No. 26: Arian Foster, RB, Texans
Arian Foster went undrafted in 2009, led the league in rushing in 2010, and took the Texans to their first playoff berth and victory in 2011. What’s next? It’s wide open. The do-everything back racked up 1,224 yards in just 13 regular-season games last season, catching 53 balls, too. Foster’s one of the most unique talents in the game and definitely one of the most unique personalities. With a healthy Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson in the lineup, Foster can have his best year yet in 2012.
No. 25: Maurice Jones-Drew, RB, Jaguars
How good was Maurice Jones-Drew last season? On perhaps the worst offense in the NFL and with probably the worst starting quarterback, and facing a constant look of eight men in the box, he led the league in rushing with 1,606 yards and averaged nearly 5 yards per carry. I don’t value the running back position as much as others might, but I do think the rare talents who can carry an entire offense belong in the top 30.
No. 24: Ndamukong Suh, DT, Lions
The "dirty player" label will haunt him, but nobody can deny Suh’s strength, skills and tenacity. With nine personal fouls in just two seasons, he’s acquired a bad rep. Relentless, Suh is going to go 100 percent every play.
No. 23: Vince Wilfork, DT, Patriots
Wilfork had the best season of his career in 2011, and his dominance in the playoffs was noticed by most educated football viewers. He takes on double teams, can’t be moved, and is still somehow mobile inside. The footwork, strength and technique are unique. Out of nowhere, he recorded two interceptions in 2011, his first two picks of his career. There are few guys who do what Vince Wilfork can do. Very few.
No. 22: Mario Williams, DE, Bills
Out of the lineup with a torn pectoral muscle for much of the 2011 season, Williams signed a mega contract with Buffalo this offseason. The Bruce Smith comparisons may be a bit much, but with a healthy Kyle Williams and emerging stud Marcel Dareus alongside, Williams could have a huge year. The 4-3 scheme suits him far better than Wade Phillips’ 3-4. He’s an early favorite to lead the league in sacks and I think Buffalo’s got a legitimate shot at its first playoff berth since 1999.
No. 21: Clay Matthews, LB, Packers
Matthews didn’t repeat his outstanding 2010 performance in 2011, but he's still one of the most feared outside linebackers in the sport. Perfect in Dom Capers’ 3-4, he’s a matchup nightmare and a skilled pass defender. He can change a game — see his interception return for a TD against the Giants in Week 11 or back in Super Bowl XLV — and can get to the quarterback with the best of them. More Top 100: Nos. 20-1
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.