How does one split hairs between some of the greatest athletes on the planet?
The NFL has almost 1,500 players active on any given Sunday. Without exception, those are some of the biggest, fastest and strongest people around. So trying to pick out the top three percent is an almost impossible task.
Know this: There are players whom you think will be on this list that aren't. I'm positive of that, because there are lots of players I thought should've been on here that didn't make the final cut. This doesn't diminish the performances of those players at all; it just puts the performances of the top 50 players in perspective.
Throughout the season, part of my job has been to watch every single game, every single week—usually re-watching the games in "coaches' tape" once it is released. On top of that, I've made heavy use of Pro Football Focus and Football Outsiders to quantify some of the elite performances of the season.
Finally, this list doesn't care about position value. We all know a team needs a quarterback more than they need a right guard, but that truth doesn't diminish the incredible performances of some of the league's linemen. So, if your favorite passer was left off the list, take this opportunity to learn about one of the league's best at another position.
Without further ado, the top 50 NFL players of 2012.
Note: This list was compiled before Week 17 and stats/rankings/etc are reflective of the first 16 weeks of play.
It puts a list like this in perspective when one of the legends of the tight end position ends up at No. 50.
Witten leads all tight ends in receiving heading into Week 17 and has almost 100 yards more than No. 2 (Tony Gonzalez). He has also been a valuable safety blanket for Tony Romo this season, leading the Cowboys with 52 receptions for first downs. That mark is third among tight ends and 14th overall in the NFL.
His touchdowns are lower than he would probably like, but Witten is a major reason the Cowboys are in playoff contention and remains a valuable weapon in Romo's arsenal.
The narrative never really seems to fit around Ndamukong Suh. Before he was drafted, he was known as a great leader. People talked about his high motor and ultra-competitive streak as major positives in his overall game. There was little talk of stomping, nut shots or driving violations.
Suh's star has fallen, as he's considered (by fans, media, players...just about everyone) the NFL's dirtiest player.
His rookie numbers were great (10 sacks, FF, INT), and he was hailed as the NFL's next great interior defensive lineman. Then, as the numbers dropped over his second and third seasons, the tape actually revealed a better overall player who was making players around him better.
For all the (deserved) negative talk around him, Suh has played well in 2012 and has been a huge part of the Lions' overall efforts in creating pressure—a lot more than his seven sacks would indicate.
While the image of Andre Smith running shirtless will haunt many dreams for years to come, he's starting to make a bigger name for himself haunting the defensive coordinators who try to stop the Bengals running game when they decide to run behind this mountain of a man.
Left tackles get all the love in the NFL, but Smith has been fantastic at right tackle this season and shouldn't be ignored. His teammate on the blind side, Andrew Whitworth, has been underrated for years, and you won't find many bigger fans of his play than me, but Whitworth isn't on this list. That should tell you a lot about just how great Smith has been this season.
Without No. 71, the Bengals aren't in the playoffs this season.
This slide is going to generate some discussion. First, because Redskins fans are going to click ahead and see other quarterbacks (even another rookie quarterback!) ahead of their new favorite son. Second, because fans of other teams are going to click ahead and not see their franchise quarterback.
C'est la vie.
From a physical perspective, Griffin is a special player that creates unquantifiable matchup problems for defenses. He makes his receivers better as a passer, he cuts down on line mistakes with his mobility, and he breaks down defenses with the continual threat of him breaking down the field.
For those reasons alongside the poise he's shown in his first season, he's one of the top players in the NFL already.
Yet, he's still a rookie.
Griffin is this low on the list because the degree of difficulty in the Redskins offense has been absurdly low. He's making a lot of low-risk passes in the short-to-intermediate range, and his receivers have been stretching those plays out. The zone-blocking scheme paired with his threat as a runner has kept defenses out of their subpackages and made them continue to stack the box.
All that adds up to one of the greatest rookie QB performances of all time and one of the top 50 players of the 2012 season. Think he should be higher? I'm sure you'll let me know, below.
The second of our tight end legends would probably be on this list regardless of his play, simply so I could use a picture of him dunking over the goal post. Thankfully, he actually deserves inclusion here at No. 46, so I didn't have to feel guilty.
Gonzalez is veganism's newest poster boy, as the 36-year-old has revitalized his career rather than fading off into the sunset. He is second among tight ends in yardage (889) and third among all tight ends in receiving touchdowns (eight). He also leads all tight ends in first-down catches (63)—a mark that is also seventh overall in the NFL.
He isn't the player he was in his prime, but Gonzalez is a huge reason the Falcons are heading into the playoffs with a No. 1 seed.
While Aldon Smith gets a lot of the love because of his sack numbers, Justin deserves a lot of credit for his contributions to one of the league's best rushing defenses.
Smith is third among all 3-4 DEs in tackles (49) and draws a lot of blockers off from the rush linebackers so they can collect their numbers. Still, he's effective as a rusher himself with 21 hurries—seventh among 3-4 DEs.
Perhaps most impressive: Pro Football Focus compiles a "Stop Percentage" (subscription required), which measures plays in run defense where a player creates a negative play for the offense. Smith's stop percentage was 11.7, second only to Houston's J.J. Watt.
In August, I attempted to tap the brakes on the whole Wilson hype train. The Seahawks QB just drove that train over the top of me.
My argument was never that Wilson couldn't be good, but that he had an uphill climb. If anything, it does Wilson a disservice when fans and media pretend his height was never a big deal or a detriment to his play. It was, and is, and he is just so good that he is able to overcome it and play at an extremely high level.
A lot can change in Week 17, but as of right now, my PFWA/PFW Offensive Rookie of the Year vote is going to Wilson. He's been phenomenal both as a passer and a runner, and he's done it with a lot of slightly-better-than-mediocre skill talent at receiver and tight end.
The scariest part about Wilson is that the training wheels are just now being kicked off of him. If he can continue to play at a high level as more is put onto his plate, he will quickly be mentioned among the best quarterbacks in the entire league.
Williams is one of the best linemen no one ever talked about. Even now, as people start to recognize that, he still seems overshadowed by flashier sack artists and bigger names—that's just on his own line!
Make no mistake about it, though, any success the Bills line has is a credit to the relentless motor and non-stop pressure Williams puts on opposing linemen. He's shorter than most lineman at 6'1" and has learned to use that leverage to his advantage on almost every play.
In 2012, Williams switched to a 4-3 defense and has become a better pass-rusher than many would have expected. He's never going to put up huge numbers in that area, but his ability to collapse the pocket from the inside makes him extremely valuable to the Bills defense.
The Redskins made a lot of flashy moves in the offseason, but re-signing Will Montgomery to a four-year, $12 million contract was one of their most important.
This season, Montgomery passed Chris Myers as the best zone-blocking center in all of football. In traditional blocking schemes, the center's role can be reduced, and you can "hide" a subpar blocker inside with double teams, moving the pocket and plays to the perimeter.
In the ZBS, if you want to have a good rushing attack, you better have a good center. Take one look at Alfred Morris' numbers, and chalk a solid amount of those up to the fantastic play of Montgomery.
Lest you think it's all about the run-blocking, Montgomery has also allowed only one sack all season. His mobility has been a perfect fit with RGIII, and he's developed an almost sixth sense about where to go when his QB is on the move.
If all one ever does is focus on interception numbers, bad things happen—bad things like handing DeAngelo Hall $55 million or ignoring Carlos Rogers so he can head to San Francisco and give their defense a huge boost.
Antoine Winfield has never been a huge interception guy. His high-water mark in 2006 was four...yes, four. A lot of that has to do with the scheme he plays in. In the Cover/Tampa-2, he's almost like another safety out on the perimeter.
Another reason Winfield doesn't get a lot of interceptions is teams avoid him. In 601 snaps so far in 2012, Winfield has only been thrown at 87 times. In those 87 targets, he hasn't allowed a single touchdown.
He's also the best cornerback in the NFL when it comes to run support. His 83 tackles are second only to Cortland Finnegan among cornerbacks. Remember that run-stop percentage from before? He's the best among cornerbacks in that metric, creating a negative play for offenses on 7.4 percent of snaps in which he's playing run defense.
Daryl Washington was voted by local media as the team MVP, which may not mean much in the grand scheme of things for the Cardinals, but don't let his team's losing record fool you.
The Arizona defense is one of the hidden gems in the league. It plays well and is among one of the best units, but statistically it is middle of the pack because the offense lets it down so often.
Washington didn't make the Pro Bowl this year, and it's probably going to take a miracle for him to outshine NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis in his own division, but the argument could be made that Washington was the best middle linebacker this season.
He is extremely adept at shedding blockers when teams try to run right at him and can flow through traffic when teams try to avoid him. Coverage isn't his strong suit, but he's hardly a liability there. When asked to blitz, he's money, picking up nine sacks this season. His 23 total pressures (sacks + hurries + hits) were tied for most among interior linebackers.
Like the last couple of guys, White was snubbed for the Pro Bowl, so I hope he takes this list as some form of consolation. (Note: Unlike the Pro Bowl, I will not be offering anyone $50,000.)
White's problem is that he's not as explosive or as much of a big-play threat as his teammate Julio Jones, but right now, in 2012, White is the better overall receiver. In fact, he continues to be one of the best receivers in the entire NFL even though he's rarely mentioned in that group.
On targets of 20 yards or more, Pro Football Focus had Julio Jones ranked fourth in the league, while White was not in the top 20. However, White is fourth in the league with 71 catches for first downs. He may not be the deep threat, but he is the piston that keeps the Falcons offense moving down the field.
It's worth noting that I'm not alone in ranking Roddy White as the fifth-best receiver in the league for 2012. PFF has him at five as well, while Football Outsiders has him at No. 3. If only we could get Pro Bowl voters up to speed...
Discussed this briefly on the Ndamukong Suh slide, but Jason Pierre-Paul is another good example of how sack numbers can completely inflate a player's value whether or not he's playing well.
Don't get me wrong, sacks are great and can stop an offense in its tracks (see: last year's Super Bowl). Still, there's more to bailing out against the pass on every play or simply collecting a number that can be inflated by the play of those around you.
JPP's sack number dipped from 16.5 to 6.5 so far this season. If you think his overall play has dropped that significantly, you haven't been watching him. He's hurried the opposing quarterback 44 times (seventh among 4-3 DEs). If you want to know how Stevie Brown has been collecting all of those interceptions, look no further than No. 90.
It's pretty crazy that Brees is this low on the list.
Crazy not only because Brees would normally be top 10, but also because he leads the league in both passing touchdowns and passing yards, yet he's dropped out of the "best QB" discussion entirely. Don't let this season's hiccup in New Orleans distract you from the fact that Brees has still played pretty darn well this season.
Where Brees has struggled this season is under pressure. When the Saints are able to move efficiently down the field with short-to-intermediate throws, Brees is still among the best passers in football.
When asked to go down the field, however, Brees doesn't have the chemistry with his speed receivers like he's had in the past, and his protection hasn't held up nearly as well.
Thirty-nine passing touchdowns and nearly 5,000 yards passing is rarefied air.
As much as I'm worried about the hate mail I'll get on the RGIII ranking, I'm almost as worried by putting Foster so low. Honestly, it surprised me!
When I started plugging away at the Google doc that I ranked these players on, Foster was a LOT higher. Then, he just kept on dropping and dropping as I added players at different positions and ranked them accordingly.
In all, being the 36th best player is still pretty amazing in a league that starts the offseason with 90 players per team and 2,880 players overall. Foster was undrafted, so that makes things that much more inspiring.
Yet, for Foster, this is a dip from last season, and the biggest reason is his carries are way up (from 278 to 338 through 15 games), while his yardage has climbed at a slower rate.
His yards per carry has dropped from 4.4 to 4.0. While that doesn't seem that huge, it's a difference of 135 yards over the course of his 338 carries. Over the course of a season, that's significant when splitting hairs among the top players.
A big reason for Foster's drop (and a big enough "excuse" that he's still on the list here) is the loss of Eric Winston. Last season, Foster ran for 4.3 yards behind his right tackle and 5.9 between the right tackle and guard. This season, those numbers have plummeted to 3.4 and 3.6.
Foster will need better blocking from the right side of his line if this ranking is going to improve in 2013.
The AFC Pro Bowl selections for safeties were a joke. Period.
Reshad Jones has been one of the best defensive backs in football this season. If you want to comment below that he's the best, I wouldn't argue that adamantly with you. Quarterbacks passing to his zone have a 39.3 passer rating—the best among the NFL's full-time safeties. He's also got four interceptions, which is tied for fourth among all safeties. He's allowed just one touchdown in over 1,000 snaps.
While we spent most of the season debating whether or not Ryan Tannehill was the next Dan Marino, too many people must've turned the channel when the Dolphins defense took the field.
Joe Thomas is heading to his sixth straight Pro Bowl. That's every year since he was drafted, and like other name-recognition guys, Thomas deserved this honor. He is the anchor on one of the more impressive young offensive lines in the league. If these guys stay together, Trent Richardson should have a pretty good career in front of him.
Thomas has allowed only three sacks and three hurries this season—especially impressive considering that the Browns are playing with a rookie quarterback. Thomas hasn't been as stellar in the run game this season, but his efforts in the passing game are more than enough to make up for it.
Anthony Spencer doesn't get the love (or the Pro Bowl votes) of his teammate, DeMarcus Ware, but he has been the better player this season. In fact, he's been the Cowboys' best player this season.
While Spencer is an all-around stud, where he truly excels is in the run game. Watch Cowboys opponents sometime—they have no idea how to run against Spencer. Some try to run right at him and put a blocker on him. He sheds the blocker. Others try to run away from him—he scrapes through traffic and brings the ball carrier down from behind.
He's also solid in the pass game and has picked up 11 sacks, more than any other 3-4 left outside linebacker (which means he's rushing from where most quarterbacks can see him coming).
Ryan Clady has only allowed one sack all season long.
When one factors in how much the Broncos pass, that is a pretty amazing stat. However, like with any stat, there are some caveats with this one. First, Peyton Manning has a quick release and even faster decision-making. He doesn't take a lot of sacks, even from his blind side.
Second, in the AFC West, that means Clady gets six games against the Chiefs, Raiders and Chargers. The Chargers are ninth in the NFL in sacks, but the Chiefs and Raiders are 29th and 31st respectively.
All those caveats aside, one sack is an absurd number and deserves to be trumpeted.
Clady is a perfect example of fitting linemen with schemes that fit. He had a poor season with Tim Tebow under center and really didn't ever come to understand the blocking schemes that go along with zone reads and quarterback power runs.
This year, however, Clady is back to business as one of the best players in football.
Like a few players on this list, Justin Houston was passed over for the Pro Bowl by voters who assume the teammate with a bigger name is playing better this season. Tamba Hali is certainly a good player, but Houston has been great this season.
Houston's 10 sacks are tied with Hali for fifth in the league. On top of those sacks, Houston has hit the quarterback seven times and hurried them 27 times.
Pro Football Focus has created a metric called "pass-rush productivity" that measures pressures on a pre-snap basis (weighted toward sacks). In that measurement, Houston is fourth in the league. Only Anthony Spencer has 10 or more sacks with less pass rushes than Houston.
Houston also shines in coverage. Quarterbacks throwing at Houston are completing 61 percent of their passes (low for a 3-4 OLB) for a 80.1 passer rating (absurdly low for a 3-4 OLB).
Houston is quickly turning into one of the more well-rounded defenders in the league. It's time people take notice.
When Gerald McCoy came into the league and was so overshadowed by Ndamukong Suh's rookie sack numbers, people started to whisper that maybe the Oklahoma product was just another in a long line of Sooner busts.
Now, just a couple of years later, McCoy is a walking matchup nightmare.
The sacks still aren't there because the Buccaneers' back seven has been terrible this season, but McCoy has been fighting off double teams almost constantly and has still collected 33 quarterback hurries. That number is second only to Geno Atkins (who is much higher on this list).
As the Buccaneers continue to put better players behind McCoy, he'll continue to find more ways to match the stats on the paper to his play on the field.
John Sullivan is the best center in football.
Don't believe me? Just ask Adrian Peterson, who has run for almost 35 percent of his total yardage this season behind the Notre Dame product. Sullivan is winning battles at the point of attack with regularity this season, and that allows the Vikings to grind against defenses that easily stop other ground attacks.
Sullivan has also been productive in pass protection this season. Bill Musgrave's offense calls for a lot of moving pockets, and that suits both Christian Ponder and Sullivan just fine. When Ponder rolls out, it is common to see his center dutifully in front of him, taking on linebackers and giving Ponder time to find targets out on the perimeter.
Calais Campbell is another fantastic defender on the Arizona Cardinals defense who doesn't get enough credit for his high level of play. While the NFC Pro Bowl roster is stacked with great defensive ends, the argument could be made (and I would make it) that Campbell deserved a spot.
A lot of what the Cardinals defense does best rotates around the fantastic play of Campbell at the point of attack. Without him, linebackers like Daryl Washington and Paris Lenon would not be able to flow as easily to their targets.
Campbell also commands a double team more often than not and frees up valuable passing lanes for the Cardinals blitzers.
It can be hard to watch Cardinals games, but when one does, it's impossible to do so without seeing the fantastic play of Campbell.
As a unit, the San Francisco 49ers offensive line has been one of the best in football this season. A large part of that is their stalwart left tackle, Joe Staley.
Take a moment to realize how crazy it is to make the switch from a (mostly) pocket passer like Alex Smith to all-of-a-sudden blocking for Colin Kaepernick. This isn't just like being handed a new page to the playbook—it's a complete re-training of what you've been drilling for months.
Staley made the switch admirably.
As I watched Staley, one of the things that impressed me most was his almost uncanny ability to feel the pressure around him and know where Kaepernick was moving—or, at least, where he should've been moving.
The rest of the NFL media is starting to come around on Evan Mathis, as he was one of the loan bright spots on the Philadelphia Eagles offense this season.
As a guard, only allowing one sack isn't that impressive, as pressure tends to come either from the perimeter or up the middle while a player like Mathis is otherwise engaged. On the Eagles, however, a team that has been so ridiculously porous, it is nearly a miracle.
Mathis has also been the only credible run-blocker on the Eagles front and is a major reason the transition from LeSean McCoy to Bryce Brown was so seamless. Brown has run behind Mathis 39.8 percent of the time for over five yards per carry.
When Brandon Marshall went to Chicago to reunite with Jay Cutler, everyone knew the combination would be special. The two former Broncos haven't missed a beat as they've combined to help the Chicago Bears get into playoff contention. The defense carries the load, and the offense just needs to stay out of the way.
While the offensive line has kept Cutler down this year (literally, at points), Marshall has been fantastic and is second in the NFL is receiving yards. His 11 receiving touchdowns are tied for third among all receivers.
His high volume of passes leads to a greater number of drops than his quarterback might like, but with Cutler under pressure (and more of a gunslinger anyway), some of those passes aren't as catchable as Marshall might like.
It will be fun to watch these two continue to gel as the Bears offense adds more and more talent.
Marshal Yanda made his second straight Pro Bowl this season as the unsung hero of a Baltimore Ravens offense that saw its share of ups and downs. He is at his best when the Ravens slow down the tempo and move deliberately down the field. If anyone could have possibly suffered more under Cam Cameron than Ray Rice, it was probably Yanda.
Known as a mauler, Yanda was also able to pass-block effectively this season, not giving up a single sack.
Said it on the Reshad Jones slide, but the Pro Bowl voters really screwed up with the AFC safety spots. What's crazy, however, is that Jones was a huge snub, but Weddle (who has played better) was left off even though he's started to become a big name in recent seasons. That's less of a "snub" and more like selective amnesia.
With the ball in the air, there were few people better in center field than Weddle. Quarterbacks throwing at him accumulated only a 42.6 rating—second among full-time safeties.
Like many on this list, Weddle's true value is in being well-rounded. His 81 tackles were second to none when it came to players who played free safety full time. (Some, like LaRon Landry and Morgan Burnett, have split time between free and strong.)
The Chargers have a lot of work to do in the 2013 offseason, but Weddle should be a cornerstone playmaker for years to come.
Andrew Luck doesn't have a ton of help around him, but Reggie Wayne is about as great a No. 1 target as a rookie quarterback could ask for.
Luck has been asked to go downfield a lot this season, and Wayne has been the recipient of a lot of those targets. According to Pro Football Focus, Wayne has been targeted 32 times over 20 yards. Sixteen of those have been "catchable" balls, and Wayne has caught 15 of those for 390 yards. That mark is fourth best among wide receivers.
It isn't just the deep shots that make Wayne valuable: He's also fifth in the league with 70 catches for first downs and sixth in total yardage.
San Francisco 49ers fans may be upset that someone with 19.5 sacks is so low on this list, but it's important to remember that Aldon Smith is just a year removed from being a part-time player and one-dimensional pass-rusher.
However, as much as that is the narrative around Smith, he's played 976 snaps so far this season—second among 3-4 OLBs. He's also become solid in coverage, allowing only 10 receptions this season and picking off a pass.
He is also getting better in run support and has only missed one tackle on the year.
Smith still has plenty of upside and should climb these rankings in 2013 and beyond.
C.J. Spiller would almost certainly have been higher on this list if only Chan Gailey could remember his name when he's calling plays. Spiller leads all running backs in yards per carry (6.5) and is tied with Adrian Peterson for the most yards after contact per carry (3.9).
Spiller is also deadly in the run game and has joined backs like Darren Sproles and Ray Rice as the most dangerous receivers out of the backfield.
While it's too early to put Spiller in the elite category of backs, it's pretty simple to connect the dots and wonder what would happen if he got the same level of burn. He only carried the ball 183 times through 15 games—that's fewer than guys like Mikel Leshoure and Michael Turner. If Spiller were able to keep up his averages with 50 more carries, he'd have over 1,500 yards and be second in the league in rushing.
Those kinds of extrapolations can be misleading, but one thing is for certain: It will be awesome to see what Spiller can do when he is used as much as he deserves.
Look at that picture. If a casual observer didn't know better, he would assume it was a Bears receiver making a great play on a Cardinals cornerback who had just gotten his ankles broken.
That's how it goes with Charles Tillman, who often runs better routes than the receivers he is covering.
Tillman also doesn't get beat deep. Receivers covered by Tillman are only averaging 9.1 yards per catch—best among starting corners—and he's only given up three touchdowns in 880 snaps. He's also managed to excel in coverage while not committing many penalties (two on the year).
The Jets didn't have a lot of elite play to hang their hats on this season, but Wilkerson was a huge (literally) exception to that rule. The 3-4 defensive end was a major piece in the Jets' ability to maintain a top-10 defense after the loss of Darrelle Revis.
Wilkerson was one of the best run defenders in the entire league in 2012. He's always had a strong bull rush, but he found ways to create penetration this season and add some polish to his already impressive game. His 55 tackles led all 3-4 defensive ends.
The Jets pass rush lagged this season, but when they add bodies in the years to come, Wilkerson will be a huge help to them as he holds the point of attack and allows them to move in space.
A few slides ago, I wrote how Arian Foster has had trouble running behind the right side of his line this season. Thankfully for the Texans, Duane Brown has stepped up to allow him to get yardage to his left.
Brown isn't just a one-trick pony, however. He's paying back the Texans for "reaching" for him in 2008, as he's become one of the top pass-blocking LTs in the entire league. His ability on the edge has allowed Matt Schaub to be sacked only 23 times. Only three of those sacks came around Brown's edge.
The steady play of Brown has been a huge reason why the Texans have a chance to get home-field advantage throughout this year's playoffs.
"Beast Mode" may not get the headlines of his rookie quarterback, but he is a huge part of the Seahawks' success this season. He is second in total rushing yards, and his five yards per carry is the best of his career.
It's important to remember, as well, that much of Marshawn Lynch's success this season was without a full strength offensive line. Russell Okung, John Moffitt and James Carpenter have all missed games this season.
Most impressive about Lynch is his ability to be bottled up and still get yards. Shifty feet, strong legs and phenomenal vision combine to create extra yardage that most other backs would not get.
With his line now at full strength heading into the playoffs and Wilson playing at a high level, the best of Lynch could be yet to come.
Johnson is No. 3 in receiving yards so far this season. He's achieved that mark without a very talented receiving corps around him and in an offense that, at times, seems content with three yards and a cloud of dust.
When the Texans can't move the chains on the ground, they go to Johnson. He is second in the NFL with 73 first-down receptions and fourth with 489 yards after the catch.
While his skills have hardly diminished, Johnson's ranking outside of the top 10 is a product of his surroundings. With more talent around him or a scheme that focused more on the pass, he could easily put up even bigger numbers and more explosive plays.
Clay Matthews' 13 sacks is third most among all 3-4 OLBs even though he has missed four games.
While the Packers defense hasn't been elite this season overall, it has been greatly improved from last year. Matthews' contributions to the pass rush have helped the Packers amass 46 total sacks (tied for third most in the NFL).
On top of his nose for the quarterback, Matthews has yet to allow a touchdown in coverage all season and has become one of the better 3-4 OLBs against the run. His run-stop percentage from PFF is tied for ninth in the league.
"Gronk" has missed five games this season but is still leading all tight ends with 10 touchdowns. He is also top-10 in yards even though he splits tight-end targets with Aaron Hernandez.
His game isn't all touchdowns, though. He was able to catch 43 first-down receptions in 10 games—a rate that would've put him best among all tight ends had he played the entire season.
Oddly enough, it isn't Gronkowski's nose for the end zone or the imaginary yellow line that sets him apart from every other tight end in the NFL. It's his ability to do that on top of being one of the more capable blocking tight ends in the entire league.
Matt Ryan is fifth in passer rating, but for a truer sense of his value, look at his total QBR, which is the metric ESPN uses to assess QB play more completely than the standard passer rating measurement. Using that measurement, he is third in the league behind Tom Brady and Peyton Manning—good company to be in.
Using "wins" as a stat to qualify quarterback performance is a crutch. Better yet, it's putting the cart before the horse.
Rather than using the Falcons' record as proof of Ryan's greatness, it's easier to look at his play and use that to explain the Falcons' wins. With two elite receivers and one of the game's greatest tight ends, Ryan finally has the talent around him to put up huge numbers.
Ultimately, the narrative around Ryan will be governed by his play in the upcoming postseason. However, win or lose in the playoffs, Ryan's play in 2012 has been fantastic.
In six seasons, Patrick Willis has been to six Pro Bowls and named to five first-team All Pro teams. So, it should come as no surprised that he has continued his high level of play as he nears his 28th birthday and what should be the beginning of his best years of football.
The only thing Willis doesn't do these days—and he could if the 49ers asked him to—is rush the passer. He leaves that to Aldon Smith.
In the meantime, Willis has become the best interior linebacker when it comes to coverage. A quarterback's passer rating drops to 71.9. Only teammate NaVorro Bowman, the Steelers' Lawrence Timmons and the Rams' James Laurinaitis have better marks.
On top of that, Willis has two interceptions and five passes defended.
Willis is also a stud in run support and has only missed one tackle this year against the run. He fights through blocks with both speed and power, and he single-handedly changes the way offenses can approach the 49ers.
Where Rodgers has excelled this season is using his mobility to move around more behind the line of scrimmage rather than taking over and running—something he's certainly adept at. He finds receivers like Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson (as well as tight end Jermichael Finley) and lets them extend the plays with their feet rather than use his.
The trust he's shown in James Jones this year (after an unimpressive 2011) has been important as well, as Jones has caught 13 touchdowns.
Statistically, Rodgers is having an MVP-like season, but the bar is being set so high in this new era of offensive explosion that he may not even garner a single vote. Still, he has been one of the best players of 2012.
The top cornerback in the NFL this season has also been the year's biggest Pro Bowl snub. After testing positive for PED use, Richard Sherman won his appeal and will be eligible to play in the playoffs even if he won't be playing in Hawaii after the season.
Passes thrown at Sherman have earned a passer rating of 45.6 this season—that's the lowest mark for any full-time corner. He also has 15 passes defended, which is second in the NFL.
Sherman is big and physical. He can throw bigger receivers off their game as well as stick with smaller receivers through double moves. He doesn't just cover people; he wears them down over the course of the game and frustrates the rhythm of offenses.
With Darrelle Revis gone, Sherman has been the NFL's best corner in 2012, and it hasn't been that close.
In almost any other season, Cameron Wake would be a legitimate candidate for Defensive Player of the Year. Fifteen sacks (fourth in the league) is just the beginning of what Wake has been able to do as a pass-rusher.
His 23 quarterback hits lead the NFL, meaning that he's wearing down and punishing quarterbacks even when he's not picking up the official sack. His 46 hurries (tied for third) mean that he's throwing off their timing.
All this as Wake has transitioned into a 4-3 defensive end this season after starting his NFL career as an outside linebacker. He's made the transition well.
Even though Geno Atkins made the Pro Bowl, it's almost like people still aren't recognizing just how great he's been this season. (Actually, the past couple of seasons.) Some players are "underrated" right up until they become "overrated" from so many people saying that no one is talking about them. Others, like Atkins, continue to shine brighter and brighter until everyone is forced to watch what they're doing.
If Atkins performs half as well in the postseason (for a national audience) like he did during the year, people will notice.
The best thing about Atkins is his burst off of the ball, continually re-establishing the line of scrimmage immediately after the snap. When locked up, he powers through and drives blockers back into traffic.
Single blocking, double team, cut blocking...it doesn't matter, Atkins has fought through it all this season and has been the NFL's best interior defensive lineman.
For a few weeks toward the end of the season, it looked as if Tom Brady was going to make a strong showing in the MVP race. He's leading the NFL's best offense, and he's doing so without Rob Gronkowski.
He's thrown 32 touchdowns so far in 2012 and only eight interceptions. Only Aaron Rodgers has been better in that regard. Brady's accuracy—both short and long—has been money, even after people asked if his deep ball had disappeared.
Perhaps most impressive, he's taken every wrinkle Bill Belichick has thrown at him and mastered it. He remains one of the most poised and intelligent quarterbacks the league has ever seen.
It's crazy for any player to have 17.5 sacks, but in today's NFL, it's even crazier for a standup 4-3 linebacker to get that many.
He isn't just a pass-rusher—he's also been asked to drop into coverage more than ever, and he's quickly getting the hang of that facet of the game as well. Against the run, he's extremely productive, throwing blockers aside or ducking to get to ball-carriers who should be out of his grasp.
But pass-rushing will always be his first love, and he does it so well. In addition to his sacks, his 52 hurries leads the NFL and showcases how often quarterbacks are off-balance while playing the Broncos.
The margin between the top four or five players this year is razor-thin. In fact, in the first couple of iterations of this list, Peyton Manning was on top and will have a solid chance to garner my MVP vote this season. (He has an even better chance to win the award.)
So, what pushed Manning down the list was a slow start to the season. It isn't his "fault" that he was coming off of injury, learning a new system, trying to gain chemistry with new receivers and acclimate himself to playing in Denver. It's just the reality of the situation.
Overcoming all of that is a credit to his ability, but the Manning who is playing late in the season isn't anything like the QB we saw early on.
Since he hit his stride, however, Manning has been phenomenal.
He is ranked fourth in passer rating, first in total QBR, sixth in total yards, third in completion percentage, fourth in yards per attempt and third in passing touchdowns. He's only thrown 11 interceptions.
Manning makes everyone around him better. While this Broncos team has lots of young talent, their new quarterback has taken all of them to a whole new level of excellence.
J.J. Watt is quickly redefining the 3-4 defensive end this season.
Not only does Watt lead the league with 20.5 sacks (giving him a Week 17 shot at Michael Strahan's sack record), but he's also third in the league with 15 passes defended. This is because of Watt's uncanny ability to rush the passer, yet elevate at a moment's notice to deflect passes that come anywhere near him.
Pro Football Focus also lists Watt as the league's best run defender, creating a negative play for offenses on 17.4 percent of all runs. That mark would be elite for any 3-4 end, but that Watt has become such a good pass-rusher from the position while maintaining the position's foremost responsibility is almost superhuman.
That word is thrown around a lot when it comes to Watt. He's ridiculously athletic and still plays with a huge chip on his shoulder and an intensity that overwhelms opponents. He will be my pick (and a lot of others' pick as well) for Defensive Player of the Year.
As good as the last few players on this list have been (very good, great, excellent, whatever superlative you want), Megatron has looked history in the face and watched it blink.
The Lions have been bad this season, terrible in fact. Matt Stafford, while throwing at an incredibly high volume, has been spotty and inconsistent at times. Nate Burleson, Titus Young and Ryan Broyles have all gone down, leaving a bunch of street free agents to try and draw coverage away from the Madden cover boy.
Calvin Johnson's 1,892 receiving yards leads the NFL. No, not in 2012. It leads the NFL for all time. Anytime one erases Jerry Rice from a section in the record book, it deserves high praise.
Adrian Peterson is doing things a normal human being should not be able to do.
His 1,898 rushing yards leads the NFL, and he is awfully close to entering his name in the hallowed hall of 2,000-yard rushers. He also has an outside chance at breaking Eric Dickerson's single-season rushing record.
He is doing all of that while coming off of major knee surgery.
Just looking at the numbers, however, is unfair to Peterson. To get a fuller picture of his greatness in 2012, watch him jump-cut through the line of scrimmage or churn through a tackle and regain speed almost immediately to pull away from a defensive back.
In a season full of superlatives and fantastic performances throughout the league, Peterson has been the best player in the NFL.
Michael Schottey is the NFL national lead writer for Bleacher Report and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff at The Go Route.