10. Adrian Peterson, RB, Minnesota Vikings (-) (5)
Just like Calvin Johnson and J.J. Watt, Adrian Peterson set the bar so high in 2012 that his 2013 season was a disappointment, by his standards. And that's a shame, because he was still one of the best running backs in the National Football League.
Although he missed two games to injuries, AP rushed for 1,266 yards and 10 touchdowns on 4.5 yards per carry. As usual, he was the focal point of his team's offense. In fact, just like the previous season (and most of his career), he was the only weapon on the offense.
The five-time Pro Bowler turned 29 years old this offseason and likely has just one or two more elite years left in his career. His last hope at that elusive Super Bowl ring hinges on rookie Teddy Bridgewater developing—quickly—into one of the game's elite quarterbacks.
9. Richard Sherman, CB, Seattle Seahawks (+) (11)
There is no player in professional sports who is better at talking the talk and walking the walk than Richard Sherman. There's no denying that he is one of the most polarizing players in the game.
Sherman has played just three years, but he's already considered to be among the league's top shutdown corners over the last two decades. In 2013, he surrendered just two touchdowns while intercepting eight passes. His 36.2 passer rating allowed ranked first in the NFL.
But he stepped up his game to an otherworldly level in the postseason. He allowed just two completions on seven pass attempts in three postseason games. Those completions went for a measly 10 yards.
He also provided arguably the signature play of the entire NFL season, deflecting a pass from Colin Kaepernick intended for Michael Crabtree in the final seconds of the NFC championship game. The pass, which was intercepted by linebacker Malcolm Smith, is probably the most memorable play in the history of the Seahawks' franchise (except for maybe Marshawn Lynch's "Beast Mode" run).
Sherman is the best player on the best team in the NFL and he's certainly not shy about sharing his opinions with the rest of the world. At just 25 years old and just entering the peak of his career, Sherman is revolutionizing the cornerback position before our very eyes. His potential is completely unlimited.
8. Darrelle Revis, CB, New England Patriots (9)
Make no mistake: Revis still has the it factor that made him the league’s top shutdown corner over the last half-decade, and one of the best ever.
In fact, he ranked as the top cornerback in the NFL in 2013, per Pro Football Focus. He ranked first in yards per cover snap (0.72) and second in coverage snaps per reception (16.4). He did all of this less than a year removed from a torn ACL. By his own admission, he played the 2013 season at less than 100 percent health.
As far as one-year rentals go, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers got every penny’s worth from cornerback Darrelle Revis in 2013. Revis has been surpassed by Richard Sherman as the game’s top cornerback in the eyes of many (not me) and in turn, it’s actually caused Revis to become underrated.
The difference between Revis and Sherman is that Revis can shadow an opponent's best receiver all over the field. He's capable of shutting down a Dez Bryant, Calvin Johnson or whoever else he is called upon to stop. But Sherman only covers the left side of the field. He's dominant, but he can't shadow players all over the field. He's the best player on the best defense in the NFL, but he's not asked, or able, to do as much as Revis.
Just 29 years old, Revis is one of the most important players in the NFL in 2014. Now on the New England Patriots on what could be a one or two-year deal, Revis is still young enough—and talented enough—to essentially cash on a final massive contract. Just as rival Richard Sherman was the best player on the best team in the NFL in 2013, Revis will look to do the same with the Patriots this season.
7. Andrew Luck, QB, Indianapolis Colts (+) (45)
There's a big dropoff between the game's four elite quarterbacks and Andrew Luck. That gap will likely not exist one year from now.
Just 24 years old, Luck has everything you'd want in a franchise quarterback. He's big, strong, fast, accurate, incredibly intelligent and a natural-born leader. He's the best player on what is quietly one of the worst rosters in the National Football League. He's the sole reason why the Colts have reached the postseason in each of the past two seasons.
He led the Colts to 11 victories in 2013 despite a brutal running game, his top wide receiver suffering a midseason torn ACL, a bottom-five offensive line and a weak defense. His performance in the wild-card round of the postseason was a thing of epic proportions. Despite throwing three interceptions, Luck led the Colts back from a 38-10 deficit to a 45-44 victory, the second-largest comeback in NFL postseason history.
Take away Luck and the Colts have had absolutely no business playing in the postseason in each of the last two seasons. Just imagine Luck in Chip Kelly's offense, or Luck throwing to Demaryius Thomas, Julius Thomas and Wes Welker, or Luck handing off to Marshawn Lynch, backed by the best defense in the game. He's already asked to do so much, basically everything, in the Colts' offense. For a young quarterback to accomplish what Luck has done is virtually unheard of throughout history.
My expectations are through the roof for Luck. He's a top-10 player in the NFL after just two seasons. He showed significant improvement from his first to second season. How good will be he next season? How good will he be in five years?
I expect Luck to be an MVP candidate every year for the next decade, possibly longer. I expect every team he plays on for the next decade to be a Super Bowl contender. I think he's the next Peyton Manning. Perhaps even better.
6. Calvin Johnson, WR, Detroit Lions (6)
Without question, Calvin Johnson is the most physically gifted wide receiver in the National Football League. He may be the most physically gifted receiver in league history. He's big, strong, fast and virtually unstoppable.
Calvin Johnson set the bar so high in 2012 (single-season record 1,964 receiving yards) that a year like the one he had in 2013 is actually disappointing by his standards. All he did was catch 84 passes for 1,492 yards and 12 touchdowns despite missing two games with injuries. That's more than 100 yards and almost a touchdown per game.
Johnson's performance against the Dallas Cowboys in Week 8 is one of the all-time great single games in league history. Johnson caught 14 passes for 329 yards, including an 87-yard touchdown. His final reception, a 22-yarder down to the one-yard line in the final seconds, set the stage for Matthew Stafford's game-winning touchdown sneak.
Expect Johnson, who's still just 29 years old, to be one of the league's most feared players for at least five or six more seasons. He's been the focal point of the entire Lions offense for the past few years, so the offseason additions of Golden Tate (free agency) and Eric Ebron (draft) should result in fewer double teams for Johnson. What does that mean? More yards and more touchdowns.
5. Tom Brady, QB, New England Patriots (-) (1)
It was a pretty frustrating year for Tom Brady and the New England Patriots. As always, they won the division title and their 12 regular-season victories earned them the AFC's No. 2 seed.
But Brady posted his worst statistical season since 2006, throwing for 4,343 yards but just 25 touchdowns and a passer rating that was only slightly higher than league average.
Things weren't easy with Wes Welker in Denver, Aaron Hernandez in prison and Rob Gronkowski suffering yet another major injury. Brady's receivers dropped 53 passes, the second-highest total in the league.
But you get the feeling that Brady could and should have done a little bit more, especially in the AFC championship game when the Patriots bowed out against Peyton Manning's Broncos without even putting up a fight.
The clock is ticking on the end of the Belichick and Brady era and whether it ends with a fourth Super Bowl title remains to be seen. The big question in New England right now is whether Brady suffered just a down year or if the two-time MVP is beginning his gradual decline.
4. Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans Saints (4)
Before 2008, only one quarterback in the history of the National Football League had thrown for more than 5,000 yards in a season. Over the last six seasons, Drew Brees has accomplished the feat four times. That includes each of the last three seasons.
Drew Brees's 68.6 completion percentage, 5,162 passing yards, 39 touchdowns and 104.7 passer rating were typical numbers for a quarterback who basically posts MVP numbers each year. His 12 interceptions were the most impressive aspect of his season, as he tied a career-high with his 1.8 interception percentage.
He also led the Saints to an impressive road victory in the wild-card playoff game against the Philadelphia Eagles before falling victim to the best defense the NFL has seen in years in the divisional round.
3. J.J. Watt, DE, Houston Texans (7)
J.J. Watt is the best defensive player in the National Football League and it's not even close. He's the modern version of Reggie White or Deacon Jones. He's a defensive end capable of playing anywhere on the defensive line, a player frequently double and even tripled-teamed by opposing offenses.
He's well-established as a monster in the pass rush but he's just as dominant against the run. He basically doesn't have a weakness on the football field.
Like Megatron, Watt set the bar so high for himself in 2012—collecting 20.5 sacks and 16 batted passes—that his 2013 season was viewed as a disappointment by some. That shouldn't be the case at all. Although his sack total dropped to 10.5 and he knocked down just six passes, his production goes well beyond the stat sheet.
Take his game against the St. Louis Rams in Week 6. The Rams stopped Watt, as much as any team can stop him, but they also focused their entire offensive game plan on the other side of the field from the reigning Defensive Player of the Year. That won't happen in the future with Jadeveon Clowney on the Texans. The addition of Clowney will only make Watt more disruptive.
His potential is completely unlimited. He's going to challenge for the league lead in sacks every year for the next decade. There's absolutely nothing he cannot do on a football field. He is as close to a perfect football player as there is on the planet. He has a legitimate chance to end up as the greatest defensive player in league history.
2. Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay Packers (2)
On the Aaron Rodgers level of success, the 2013 season was nothing but a big disappointment. That's how high the game's second-best quarterback has set the bar.
For starters, Rodgers missed seven games due to a broken collarbone. He returned in the season's final game, where he led the Packers to a victory over the Chicago Bears to capture the division title. His final pass, a 4th-and-8 bomb to Randall Cobb in the final minute, is probably the most clutch pass of his career.
But the postseason ended with yet another disappointing loss to the San Francisco 49ers. Although Rodgers played well, he was once again outplayed by Colin Kaepernick.
It's been three straight seasons for Rodgers without a deep postseason run. He's so dominant statistically, holding the all-time record for passer rating, touchdown-to-interception ratio and adjusted yards per pass attempt, that he's entered into the Peyton Manning or LeBron James territory. Anything he does in the regular season is almost worthless unless he wins another championship. It's not fair but that's how it works when you're one of the best ever.
1. Peyton Manning, QB, Denver Broncos (3)
Peyton Manning isn't just the best player in the National Football League right now. He might be the greatest player this league has ever seen.
The 2013 season may be the best Manning has ever played, and that's simply incredible for a 37-year-old who many thought was done his NFL career just two seasons ago. Manning threw for 5,477 yards and 55 touchdowns, both all-time single-season records. He led the Broncos to an insane 606 points, an average of 38 per game. He earned his fifth regular season Most Valuable Player award, which is one more than every other active player in the league combined.
His disappointing performance in the Super Bowl was his only blemish on a near-perfect season, but in fairness, there's no quarterback in the sport, perhaps ever, who could have beaten the Seattle Seahawks during Super Bowl XLVIII.
It's unclear how many years Manning has left in his career but at this point, every additional year he provides is something special. He's shown no signs of slowing down at an age when most players have been out of the league for a number of seasons.
For what it's worth, I've ranked Manning second or third among quarterbacks for each of the last five seasons. This year, he vaulted to the top of the rankings, not just at quarterback, but in the entire National Football League.