Picking out the top 50 players in the NFL is among the hardest things to do. Even picking out the top five is nearly impossible, but sorting and ranking 50 players takes time and a lot of self-arguing. But that's what we did.
Which players offer the most impact and the most production and are the overall hardest to scheme against? If the playing fields were level, which players dominate at their position most? Those are the criteria we used in determining who the top 50 players are heading into the 2012 regular season.
The Dallas Cowboys will move second-year tackle Tyron Smith from right to left tackle this year. We expect that move to pay off in huge ways.
Smith was already one of the NFL's best right tackles as a rookie in 2011—and that was without much of an offseason thanks to the lockout. With a full summer to learn and work out, Smith will be an even better technician and overall player.
That'll mean being mentioned in the top five best left tackles in football.
The man they call "Seabass" reigns as the NFL's best overall kicker, and that's good enough to get him mentioned in the Top 50 players.
You may scoff at a kicker being listed here, but consider the overall talent of Janikowski. He's a rare commodity as a strong leg that can dominate on kickoffs, but he's accurate enough to be a precision field-goal kicker.
Put Janikowski on a better offense and he would lead the NFL in points.
He may not be the dominant player we saw in Oakland, but Nnamdi Asomugha is still one of the NFL's best cornerbacks.
The 2012 season will be a telling one for Nnamdi. Can he revert back to his shutdown ways, or is the scheme in Philadelphia too different for him to succeed as an elite cornerback? We're betting on the the talented cover man finding his groove and becoming elite again.
Graham is an amazing receiver for the New Orleans Saints. His size, speed and agility make him nearly impossible to cover with just one man. When you find Graham in the red zone, chances are he's going to beat anyone who comes up against him.
The Saints love to feed the ball to their big tight end, and with Robert Meachem now in San Diego, Graham could be in for an even bigger season.
Marshal Yanda is the best player no one talks about. Fans outside of Baltimore may not even know this guy exists, but NFL coaches sure do.
Yanda's a versatile right-side blocker who can line up at guard or tackle. He's big, with great length and a driving force behind his blocks. When you see Ray Rice escaping for big gains off the right side, chances are Yanda is the guy who sprung him.
Offensive linemen may not get as much national value as they should, but Yanda is a player that everyone should be talking about.
One of the most dangerous all-around players in the NFL, Darren Sproles deserves every bit of this ranking.
A deadly return man, receiver and runner for the New Orleans Saints, Sproles may be discounted by some because he's not a traditional running back. That doesn't matter. What matters is that every time Sproles touches the ball, defensive coordinators panic. His speed in space makes him a true threat to pick up big gains every time he sees the ball.
The top-rated right tackle following the 2011 season, Eric Winston will make his home in Kansas City after signing a free-agent deal with the Chiefs.
A dominant run-blocker who will immediately open up the Chiefs offense, Winston will be asked to kick out and lead block for a backfield loaded with talent. Jamaal Charles and Peyton Hillis will rest easy knowing that Winston is clearing their way.
The NFL's move to a pass-heavy league has meant that linebackers must become faster, quicker at changing direction and better in coverage. A model for that change is Sean Weatherspoon.
The Falcons outside linebacker deserved Pro Bowl accolades following the 2011 season—his breakout year as a second-year player. Weatherspoon's ability to track down both the run and the pass makes him one of the toughest defenders to account for.
New team, new city, same old Carl Nicks.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers guard is consistently one of the best at what he does, and that won't change now that he's opening holes for Doug Martin and protecting Josh Freeman. Nicks' technique and strength are first-class, and his impact as a lead-blocking guard is undoubtable.
Yes, a punter is worthy of the No. 41 ranking.
Consider that players are ranked on impact, not positional value, and Andy Lee is clearly a Top 50 player. No other punter comes close to being as impactful as Lee was in the 2011 season, and that trend should continue in 2012.
With an elite defense but questionable offense, Lee is arguably the San Francisco 49ers' most valuable player.
Duane Brown is a beast.
The Houston Texans have found an agile, quick left tackle who can dominate in the run game but is also elite when asked to stand in and protect the quarterback. Brown is a rarity in the NFL.
With zero sacks allowed all of last season, Brown enters the year closer to the Jake Longs and Joe Thomases of the league than many would admit.
Were it not for a potential four-game suspension, Joe Haden would be ranked higher here.
Haden has quickly become an elite cover man, but if he's only active for 12 games, how much of an impact can he have compared to the other players in the league? Haden's presence will be felt—and missed—this year in Cleveland.
It won't be long before we're talking about Haden on a level near Darrelle Revis.
How can Aldon Smith possibly top his 14-sack rookie season? By becoming a more complete player.
Smith was a dominant pass-rusher in 2011, but he only contributed on obvious passing downs. The San Francisco 49ers will ask Smith to become an all-around threat this year—rushing the quarterback, stopping the run and even dropping into coverage.
Smith is athletic enough, and smart enough, to become one of the game's most dominant defenders.
Von Miller took home the Defensive Rookie of the Year award last season. What's scary is that he should be even better this year.
Miller struggled at times last year with assignments and alignment pre-snap. He's a smarter, more mature player now, which should absolutely terrify opposing offenses. Miller was a beast during the 2011 season, and any improvement has the potential to put the second-year linebacker in an All-Pro situation.
It is no coincidence that so many second-year players are grouped together. Aldon Smith, Von Miller and wide receiver A.J. Green all hit the NFL running at full speed last season. Smith and Miller dominated, but Green has the potential to transcend the game.
What Green was able to do in his first season was unreal, but when you look at how much better he can get as a route runner and as a technician, it's easy to see that Green's potential is unlimited. We could be talking about Calvin Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald as Green's equals after this season.
It's easy to have forgotten about Eric Berry after he missed his second NFL season due to a knee injury. Berry is back for the Kansas City Chiefs this season, and his impact will be felt early.
Berry was already one of the NFL's most promising safeties before injury. With more time to learn, watch film and increase his overall strength, Berry should take his game to another level this year. Even if slowed slightly post-surgery, Berry is still dominant enough in his short-area quickness and awareness to be great.
Julius Peppers has been dominating the NFL for so long that it's easy to overlook his greatness on a year-to-year basis. He's more than deserving of a spot in the NFL's Top 50 players.
Peppers has changed his game as he ages, becoming more of an all-around player than a pure pass-rusher. While Peppers is still able to crash the edge and chase down quarterbacks, he's playing better against the run.
Easily one of the NFL's most athletic defensive ends, Peppers' impact is a key to Chicago's success on defense.
How well Adrian Peterson plays coming off injury will dictate where he lands on this list by Week 8 and when the season ends. If healthy, Peterson can be one of the league's best.
Peterson jumped out to an amazing start to the 2011 season, showing his most complete running style since entering the league. Never known for his breakaway speed, AP may be able to return easier than other backs post-surgery due to his amazing work ethic and strength.
If he's back to full health, Peterson will see his stock rise.
Hard-hitting. Tough. Ball hawk. Everywhere.
Polamalu has changed the way young safeties play the game, as he's a rare hitter and cover man for the position. His ability to fly all over the field, running alleys and making plays, continues to make Polamalu one of the most respected defenders in the game.
It is tough to argue against a player who has 27 touchdowns in 32 career games.
Rob Gronkowski gets considerable credit for being a great receiver, but he's also a dominant blocker. While scouting him for the B/R NFL 1,000 project, it was evident early on that few NFL tight ends were better when asked to step up and block on run downs. Gronk doesn't just block, he clears paths.
Fans may be quick to point out that he has Tom Brady throwing his way, but good luck finding a better tight end in today's NFL.
Talent, production, impact—Matthew Stafford has them all.
In his first full season as a starter, Stafford became the fourth quarterback to throw for 5,000 yards in a single season. Before the 2011 season, only Dan Marino had thrown for over 5,000 yards in one year.
Stafford's first 17-week season also meant a return to the playoffs for the Detroit Lions. His impact as the leader and key producer for the offense allowed Detroit to change their momentum as a franchise and break out of a streak of top-10 draft picks.
Give Stafford another two or three seasons and we'll be talking about him alongside Aaron Rodgers and Cam Newton as the best in the game post-Tom Brady.
There are two types of football fans: those who know Geno Atkins is an absolute beast, and those who apparently don't watch the Cincinnati Bengals play.
Atkins dominated the scene in his first season as a starter, posting 7.5 sacks and otherwise teasing the interior offensive linemen in the AFC North. Atkins' potential as a pass-rusher and run defender puts him high on the list as a player who could find himself ranked higher than No. 29 once the season ends.
You can make a fine argument for LeSean McCoy as the best all-around running back in the NFL. Whether or not he's first, there is no doubting he's in the top five.
McCoy has freakish agility that allows him to exploit defenders in space, but he's also quick enough to spin out of arm tackles and pick up yards after contact. And unlike so many running backs today, McCoy can play all three downs and contribute as a runner and receiver.
Wes Welker caught 122 passes during the 2011 regular season, the most of any pass-catcher. It helps that Tom Brady is throwing those passes, but Welker's ability to get open allows Brady to find him for league-leading numbers.
Welker isn't big. He's not super fast. He's just good. Whether it's a quick slant or an option route against zone coverage, Welker is always open, and Brady knows that No. 83 is his most reliable and consistent weapon in the passing game.
You can knock his size, his Super Bowl drop or even his lack of elite athletics, but you can't knock Welker's production.
The Houston Texans have to consider themselves lucky for finding Arian Foster in the undrafted free agent pool, as he's now their most talented offensive weapon. High praise on a team loaded with Pro Bowl-caliber players.
Foster is a throwback to the days when running backs were thick and tough. He's a runner between the tackles with enough patience and quickness to bounce outside when the time is right. Foster, unlike so many others, actually knows how to block, run routes and catch passes.
He's a modern day Renaissance Man at the position, and you wouldn't hear many arguments if you called him the best in the game.
He's won a Super Bowl. He's been a consistent winner. Now it's time for Ben Roethlisberger to do it all again.
The Pittsburgh Steelers play with constant Super Bowl aspirations, and in today's NFL that means relying on the quarterback to carry you to the top. Big Ben is capable (he's proven that), but he's also been inconsistent at times. The talent is there around Roethlisberger for him to have his best season as a pro.
There's no doubting that Roethlisberger is a top quarterback, but to get back into the conversation near Brady, Rodgers and Brees, he needs to do more.
How will Maurice Jones-Drew's holdout affect his 2012 impact? We'll soon find out.
Jones-Drew took on a huge risk by sitting out until the preseason was over in an effort to get a better contract. That didn't happen, and now he's coming to the team with less than a week to learn a new playbook and get into football shape.
If he's healthy, in shape and not in the coaching doghouse, MJD can be the best running back in the NFL. He proved that last season with league-leading numbers and could do even more in 2012 with an offense that now has a passing threat to pull defenders out of the box.
Ask yourself this: Would you rather your defense face Ben Roethlisberger or Cam Newton?
Impact is the key word here. Few players had a bigger impact than Cam Newton during the 2011 season. A year smarter, Newton is poised to have a great year.
We all saw Newton's running ability and arm strength last season en route to his Offensive Rookie of the Year award. This year we'll see a new and improved Cam—one who can look off safeties, check down in the red zone and better dictate when to run and when to throw the ball away.
If Newton improves even a little, he'll be in the talk as one of the most impactful quarterbacks in the game.
The Green Bay Packers are listing Charles Woodson as a safety this year, but that won't change how big of an impact he makes on this defense.
Woodson has found a way to defy age and continue his run as one of the best defensive backs in the game. He is a walking turnover machine who has seemingly improved with age as his game transitions to one of more opportunity and insight rather than pure athletic ability.
Woodson is entering his elder statesman years in the NFL, but that doesn't mean he won't alter the game plan of every NFL offensive coordinator the Packers face this season.
Hindered by injury during the 2011 season, Jake Long was still an elite left tackle when it came to pass protection. Fully healthy in 2012, Long will return to his every-down dominance of seasons past.
Long has been a prototype of sorts for NFL scouts and evaluators who look at college left tackles. Can they move like Jake? Do they have the strength and length of Jake? Do they have Jake's killer instinct?
Few college or NFL tackles do, and that's what makes Jake Long so unique—and so good.
When you are good enough to overshadow Patrick Willis, you're pretty darn good. NaVorro Bowman wasn't a household name when the 2011 NFL season began, but we all know him now.
Bowman's athletic ability makes him rare for the inside linebacker position, and it makes him stand out when you're viewing on a week-to-week basis. Bowman is elite in terms of range and pursuit, having the speed to put himself in the right place at the right time.
The duo of Willis and Bowman rivals any linebacker duo in the NFL. Hands down.
With Mario Williams moving back to a 4-3 defense, expect a double-digit sack season and All-Pro credentials from the former No. 1 overall pick.
Williams joins a defensive line that is loaded with talent. You could make a strong case for Marcell Dareus as a Top 50 player, and Kyle Williams at nose tackle is one of the best at that position. Add in Williams and you can expect many one-on-one matchups on the outside—and those are matchups that Williams will win every time.
The two-time Super Bowl champion isn't without his flaws, but there is no doubting that Eli Manning is an elite quarterback in big spots.
Eli may be shaky at times in the regular season, but when it's an elimination game, he finds ways to thread passes a little tighter or hold off a pass rush for that extra second. Manning, like his brother, finds a way to become a better player when the most pressure is placed on his shoulders.
Ignore those Week 3 interceptions; they'll ultimately mean nothing. When the games matter most, Eli rises to the occasion.
It's tough separating Joe Thomas and Jake Long when talking about the best left tackle in the NFL. You could easily pick either one and have a great argument for why. Thomas gets my vote based purely on consistency and the talent around him.
Thomas left Wisconsin as one of the most polished and accomplished offensive linemen in the last 10 years. He stepped in to the NFL and has never stopped improving. What Thomas has been able to do on some very bad teams in Cleveland gives him a slight edge over Long.
For what it's worth, Ray Rice is the top running back in the NFL.
Rice isn't a clear-cut answer, and there's a good debate about who is best, but Rice gets the edge based on his ability in every phase of the game. Rice is a runner—inside and out. He's a receiver, both from the backfield and in the slot. He's a blocker, even when oversized defensive linemen burst through the line.
Rice doesn't do any one thing better than Arian Foster, LeSean McCoy and Maurice Jones-Drew, but the combination of his talents, impact and production makes him the game's best.
Teammate Jason Babin may have just missed the cut, but Trent Cole pushes his way into the top 20.
Cole is often overlooked as being "just" a pass-rusher, but that's not true. ProFootballFocus rated Cole as their top 4-3 defensive end, and part of that rating was his mark as the No. 10 defensive end against the run.
Cole is a true three-down threat, despite what you might hear or see from announcers and various media.
Which Peyton Manning will we see in 2012? Ranking him the No. 14 overall player heading into the season is based on Manning being good, but maybe not the elite player we saw in 2010.
Manning looked "back" in the preseason, but that was often in very scripted environments against defenses that may or may not have been game-planning. It was encouraging to see Manning take hits, throw in various body positions and otherwise take the grind of playing quarterback.
Physically, Manning may not be the same as he was pre-injury, but mentally we're still talking about an all-time great. And that's worth betting on.
Eric Weddle had a dominant 2011 season, but you may not have heard about it.
Weddle notched 70 tackles, picked off seven passes (a league best) and held opposing quarterbacks to a passer rating of 25.8 when they dared throw his way. Weddle locked down the opposition, allowing just one touchdown all season.
It may seem odd to place a free safety above Peyton Manning and Joe Thomas (among others), but Weddle is increasingly elite and an impact playmaker at a position that has become more important in the age of heavy passing from NFL teams.
Just imagine if Larry Fitzgerald had a good quarterback throwing to him?
Fitzgerald's stats may never again be in the top five of any regular season unless major changes happen in Arizona, but there is absolutely no doubting that when talking pure talent and impact, few can match up with Fitzgerald's ability.
One of the best route runners in the NFL, Fitzgerald is among the best big men who could effectively move in and out of routes. The total package, Fitzgerald has hands, speed, agility and vertical skills to make plays anywhere on the field.
Players like Calvin Johnson can thank Fitzgerald for making the big-bodied athlete at wide receiver an en-vogue need for NFL general managers.
Haloti Ngata has no true position—he doesn't need one. But whatever position you want to list Ngata at, he's probably the best in the NFL at it.
Ngata's ability to move around in the Baltimore Ravens defense is the key to their hybrid scheme. During the 2011 season, Ngata lined up at nose tackle, under tackle and defensive end along the front for the Ravens, and he's capable of doing more.
A freakish athlete for his size, Ngata is able to draw consistent double-teams from offensive lines. That's something few players in the NFL are able to do.
When the criteria is impact, production and ability, you won't find many players better qualified than Jason Pierre-Paul.
In 12 NFL starts and 32 games played, JPP has 21 sacks. Most of those came in 2012, when Pierre-Paul was a starter for 12 games in the regular season. And yes, that production is freakishly good. What's more exciting is that JPP is only entering his third NFL season.
A rare athlete, once Pierre-Paul catches up from a technique standpoint, he has a chance to be the most disruptive player in the NFL. In fact, he might be already.
When you get All-Pro recognition at two positions, you're doing something right.
After the 2011 season, Justin Smith was voted a first-teamer at defensive tackle and finished in third place at defensive end. His play was so dominant that writers awarded him twice.
Smith may get lost in the shuffle of Aldon Smith, Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman, but when you break down what really makes the San Francisco 49ers defense click, you see that Smith is the key. His ability to penetrate the offensive line, stop the run on the edge and get to the quarterback against constant double-teams makes this defense as dominant as it is.
The NFL's leading passer in terms of yardage during the 2011 season, Drew Brees could be ranked as high as the No. 3 overall player. Few would complain.
The only reason that Brees isn't ranked higher is the loss of Sean Payton as head coach and play-caller for the New Orleans Saints this year. Fans will defend Brees' ability to manage this offense without Payton, but that's too high of a hurdle for any one player to take on alone.
Brees is amazing, no doubt about that. His accuracy, ability to move in the pocket to find windows and his deep ball placement are picture-perfect. There are few players more talented than him in all of the NFL. To be specific, there's only seven of them.
You might not rank Patrick Willis this high based solely on his 2011 season, but this is about now. And a healthy Patrick Willis is one of the NFL's top players right now.
What Willis does is so often overlooked or lost in a televised broadcast. What should stand out is that Willis is everywhere for the San Francisco 49ers defense. As the captain, he not only gets this defense set up each play, but he's their best all-around player.
Willis is the new mold from which middle linebackers will be scouted. His athleticism, strength and vision are what every NFL scout would love to have from their linebackers. The only problem is that Willis' combination of talents is incredibly rare.
If you were hired tomorrow as an offensive coordinator for the Philadelphia Eagles, Washington Redskins or New York Giants, your first order of business would be figuring out how you were going to stop DeMarcus Ware.
The Dallas Cowboys outside linebacker has dominated the NFL since entering the league in 2005. Since that time, in 112 games, Ware has 99.5 sacks. That's an incredible rate of success considering every player and coach in the NFL knows they must stop Ware's pass rush.
What No. 94 has been able to do in the face of constant attention from offenses is nothing short of spectacular.
Jared Allen was one sack away from setting the NFL's regular-season sack record. And if you remember that Brett Favre took a dive to give Michael Strahan the record, you could easily say that Allen is technically tied for the record already.
Allen has been a fixture on All-Pro and Pro Bowl ballots since moving to the Minnesota Vikings in 2008. Since that time, he has 62 sacks in just 64 games, a rate that is comparable to DeMarcus Ware's domination for the Dallas Cowboys.
Allen is an all-around great end, and one who is becoming harder and harder to game-plan around.
There were times during the 2011 season when Calvin Johnson was triple-teamed by opposing defenses. Not just double-teamed. Triple-teamed.
That doesn't happen to other players. Maybe Randy Moss in his prime, but even that would be a stretch. Johnson's level of talent and athleticism may be unmatched in NFL history. Now it's time to wrack up the stats.
Johnson's production will spike with a healthy Matthew Stafford playing catch with him on Sundays. As the two mature and grow together as a duo, Johnson's ticket for a gold jacket in Canton gets closer to being punched.
Darrelle Revis was very close to being ranked No. 2 overall on this list. He should really be ranked as "1C."
Revis dominates at his position in a way that few other players can, regardless of position. According to the great stats of ProFootballFocus.com, Revis allowed a league low (among starters) 41.2 percent of passes to be completed. His allowed passer rating was 45.6, also a league low for any starter.
Revis stands head and shoulders above any other cornerback in the NFL. He's close to being far ahead of any other player.
What more can be written about Tom Brady that hasn't been already?
You can look at his track record as a starting quarterback, his individual passing records or his Super Bowl rings as evidence of his greatness.
Brady has never been on a team with a losing record in the NFL, and he's played with some less-than-amazing talent. His Super Bowl record of 3-2 isn't at a Joe Montana level, but the fact that he's appeared in five Super Bowls in his career is worth its own mention. Brady has done it all in his career, and he'll rightfully be considered an elite all-time quarterback when he decides to retire.
But talking about right now, Brady is still dominant. This isn't some old man hanging on by his reputation alone. Brady continues to tear apart NFL defenses (see his 5,235 yards last season) even as he nears an age when most quarterbacks start to slow down.
So, yes, for any doubters out there. Tom Brady is this good.
How do you determine who the best player in the NFL is? Simple. Who is the hardest individual player to stop?
During the 2011 season, that was Aaron Rodgers. A good case can be made for Brady, Revis and Calvin Johnson, but no player came close to matching Rodgers' brilliance last season. There's no reason to think Rodgers will be any less dominant this year.
Rodgers is helped by the talent around him, but every quarterback in NFL history has been. What matters most is what Rodgers does with that talent. Does he make the players around him better? Does he rise to the occasion when the game is on the line? Rodgers does all that and more as a passer, runner and leader of the NFL's Super Bowl favorites.
After a decade of Manning and Brady, we're entering the Rodgers Era, and the future is bright for the Packers.