Sports Outside the Beltway

NFL’s Best Players

Who are the best players in the NFL at their positions? CBS SportsLine’s Pete Prisco takes a shot at answering the question:


    1. Peyton Manning, Indianapolis: His Super Bowl ring clinches his spot here at the top.

    2. Tom Brady, New England: He’s not far behind. In fact, it’s 1 and 1A.

    3. Carson Palmer, Cincinnati: Now that he’s a year removed from the knee injury, he should be even better in 2007.

    4. Drew Brees, New Orleans: He is the perfect fit for the Sean Payton offense. He has the ability to find the right guy and get it out on time.

    5. Donovan McNabb, Philadelphia: Even coming off an injury-marred season, he’s still one of the league’s best.

It’s hard to argue with the top three. McNabb is a stud but I don’t think he’s top 5 anymore since he can’t stay healthy.

Running Back:

    1. LaDainian Tomlinson, San Diego: There is no debate at all who should top this list. He has a chance to break all the rushing records if he can stay healthy.

    2. Larry Johnson, Kansas City: He’s had two really big back-to-back seasons, proving that he isn’t a one-year wonder.

    3. Frank Gore, San Francisco: His breakout season came in 2006 and now he needs to show he wasn’t a one-hit wonder. The bet here is that he isn’t.

    4. Steven Jackson, St. Louis: He was fifth in the league in rushing last season, but he also caught 90 passes.

    5. Fred Taylor, Jacksonville: He averaged 5 yards per carry last season, rushing for 1,146 yards.

But how many games did Taylor miss because of injury — again?


    1. Mike Karney, New Orleans: He’s a load as a blocking back. How do you think Deuce McAllister and Reggie Bush get all those yards?

    2. Lorenzo Neal, San Diego: He’s the guy who paves the way for LaDainian Tomlinson.

    3. Kyle Johnson, Denver: He can catch it, block and run with it if needed. He’s a good, young player.

    4. Dan Kreider, Pittsburgh: He’s a sledgehammer when taking on linebackers. He paved the way for Willie Parker to get to the Pro Bowl.

    5. Ovie Mughelli, Atlanta: The Falcons paid him a lot of money to be their fullback for a reason. He can block.

I’m not even sure how to rank fullbacks, since teams use them differently and some barely use them at all.

Wide Receiver:

    1. Chad Johnson, Cincinnati: His 15.7 per-catch average was the best among the league’s best receivers. That’s why he is tops on this list.

    2. Andre Johnson, Houston: He’s big and strong and fast. He doesn’t get the due he deserves.

    3. Torry Holt, St. Louis: For some reason, he doesn’t get the attention he deserves. He’s right there near the top.

    4. Steve Smith, Carolina: When he was slowed by injury, it really affected the Panthers offense. When he’s on the field, he is a game-breaker.

    5. Marvin Harrison, Indianapolis: He’s consistently among the top receivers in the league. At some point, though, he will start to slow down.

I disagree with the order here but not the rankings. Harrison and Smith deserve to be even higher, given how long they’ve dominated.

Tight End:

    1. Antonio Gates, San Diego: He gets the slight edge over the Chiefs’ Tony Gonzalez because he’s in his prime.

    2. Tony Gonzalez, Kansas City: The most-prolific pass-catching tight end in the league can still scare teams down the middle of the field.

    3. Jeremy Shockey, N.Y. Giants: Love him or hate him — and that’s the way it is with him — he’s a good player. He loves to play the game, too.

    4. Kellen Winslow, Cleveland: After missing 2005 from injuries sustained in a motorcycle accident, he bounced back with an 89-catch season. If he stays on the field, he can be even better.

    5. Alge Crumpler, Atlanta — He’s the best blocker of the elite group. He doesn’t have blazing speed, but he knows how to get open.

Not to be a homer here but I think Dallas’ Jason Witten should be on this list. I’d certainly rather have him than Crumpler. Or, really, Shockey.

Offensive Guard:

    1. Shawn Andrews, Philadelphia: In his third season, he emerged as the best player on the best line in the league. He physically mauls his opponents.

    2. Steve Hutchinson, Minnesota: His play dropped down some after the move from Seattle to Minnesota as a free agent, but he’s still near the top.

    3. Logan Mankins, New England: Keep an eye on him. He’s one of the rising guards in the league.

    4. Brian Waters, Kansas City: With Will Shields gone, Waters will finally get the attention he’s deserved for a long time. He outplayed Shields in a couple of seasons.

    5. Kris Dielman, San Diego — On a good line, he was the team’s best player. He was rewarded for it with a huge contract after the season.


    1. Olin Kreutz, Chicago: He’s been topping this list the past few years. He keys that Bears rushing attack.

    2. Nick Mangold, N.Y. Jets: In his rookie season, he showed why he will be a perennial Pro Bowl player.

    3. Jamaal Jackson, Philadelphia: He has power and quickness, which you need at the position. He’s an emerging player.

    4. Tom Nalen, Denver: He’s getting up in the years, but he still keys the Denver run game. His ability to move is vital in the Denver blocking scheme.

    5. Kevin Mawae, Tennessee — For a young line, he was just what they needed. Vince Young should be happy he has him.

Offensive Tackle:

    1. Walter Jones, Seattle: Year after year, he’s the best overall lineman in the league. That won’t change in 2007.

    2. Jammal Brown, New Orleans: In his second season, he really came on after moving from the right side to the left. He will be a Pro Bowl player for a long time.

    3. Jonathan Ogden, Baltimore: He might not be the player he was a few years ago, but he still plays at a high level.

    4. Marcus McNeil, San Diego: As a rookie he was a dominant left tackle. When he truly learns the position, watch out.

    5. Tarik Glenn, Indianapolis: He has protected Peyton Manning’s backside his entire career — and done a heck of a job.

I’m not really sure how to rate offensive linemen, since there are no meaningful stats.

Defensive End:

    1. Julius Peppers, Carolina: He’s always around the ball, producing a team-high 13 sacks, 38 quarterback hits, three forced fumbles and two recoveries. What I like most is that he never leaves the field. He can play the run. He’s a top pass rusher. He can drop into coverage. And he’s adept at batting down passes, with a team-high 12 last season.

    2. Jason Taylor, Miami: The NFL Defensive Player of the Year at 32, and, yes, there’s a reason. He’s a ferocious pass rusher who disrupts everything. Tackles. Forced fumbles. Sacks. You name it. Hey, he even scored twice last year — half the total of Chris Chambers. He has outstanding speed and quickness and has made himself into a decent run defender.

    3. Dwight Freeney, Indianapolis: So he didn’t have a great season. He has produced four in a row of double-digit sacks and led the club in pressures last year with 33. He’s fast, quick and tenacious and hasn’t missed a game in three years. One critic labeled him as one-dimensional, but so what? He explodes to the pocket and is brutal to defend.

    4. Aaron Kampman, Green Bay: I love this guy’s motor. He always, always is working. You have to love his productivity, too. He was second in the NFL in sacks in 2006 with 15.5 and was the Packers’ third-leading tackler. Translation: He plays the run as well as the pass.

    5. Will Smith, New Orleans: He was named to the Pro Bowl because he’s the top defender on a club that didn’t play much defense in 2006. I know, you want to talk about Charles Grant, and he’s solid. But Smith is quick, pursues well, reads well, works hard and produces. Look at last year’s stats: He led the Saints in sacks, not Grant.

Defensive Tackle:

    1. Kevin Williams, Minnesota: In talking to GMs and personnel directors, Williams was a consensus choice. Nobody plays the position better. He’s quick, solid against the run and an inside force in the pass rush. When you wonder why the Vikings are so effective against the run, you start here.

    2. Richard Seymour, New England: He can play inside or out and is always a force. That is, when he’s healthy. He wasn’t last year, and his play suffered. When he’s right, there’s no better defensive lineman. He’s big, strong and versatile, with the ability to run over blockers or beat them on the edge.

    3. Jamal Williams, San Diego: He plugs the middle of the Chargers 3-4, and he does it effectively. He’s big. He’s strong. He sheds blockers, and he makes stops. For years he was the best-kept secret in San Diego. Then the league caught on. Now he has made the Pro Bowl the past two seasons.

    4. John Henderson, Jacksonville: I’ll take Pete’s word on this: He tells me Jags coach Jack Del Rio thinks Henderson is the best three-gap tackle out there. So why isn’t he rated higher? He can be inconsistent.

    5. Marcus Stroud, Jacksonville: He’s big and powerful, and he’s a problem for opposing teams — especially with him paired with Henderson. One scout called him “a poor man’s Richard Seymour,” and that’s not bad, folks. He’s quick off the ball and can penetrate.

Inside Linebacker:

    1. Brian Urlacher, Chicago: Once, I thought he was overrated. Not anymore. He’s one of the most disruptive forces on any defense. He can rush. He can drop into coverage. He pursues. He tackles. He punishes ball carriers. Plus, he’s a team leader. In short, he’s does it all. One of today’s elite players.

    2. Jonathan Vilma, N.Y. Jets: He was supposed to be hurt by the Jets’ move to a 3-4, and he was. At times it seemed he was lost out there. Still, he produced a team-high 116 tackles, the second consecutive year he led the Jets. He’s athletic. He’s a sure tackler. And he’s outstanding in coverage.

    3. Ray Lewis, Baltimore: He’s a step slower than he was and can be taken out of plays. Nevertheless, he’s still better than most of what’s out there. The guy plays with a rare passion and ferocity, is instinctive and still has big-play ability. But this is what’s most impressive: He led the Ravens in tackles despite missing two games.

    4. DeMeco Ryans, Houston: I’m reluctant to put rookies in here, but this guy is too good to be left off any list. He led the Texans in tackles with 156, including 126 solos, and was the league’s Defensive Rookie of the Year. He’s physical, good at blitzing and airtight in coverage. Most important, he’s productive.

    5. Antonio Pierce, N.Y. Giants: All he does is make plays. He had a career-high 132 tackles last season for the Giants, but that’s not what makes him special. He diagnoses plays, is a good blitzer and works well in space. Plus, he has a solid work ethic. In short, he can do virtually everything.

Outside Linebacker:

    1. Shawne Merriman, San Diego: Yes, he’s one-dimensional, but what a dimension: He’s a dominant pass rusher. Merriman led the league last year with 17 sacks despite missing four games. So he’s ordinary in pass coverage. Big deal. There is no one I’d rather have attacking the pocket from this position.

    2. DeMarcus Ware, Dallas: Now that Wade Phillips is in Dallas, Ware might be the next Merriman waiting to happen. He’s an outstanding pass rusher who plays the run well, can shift to pass coverage easily and who has terrific back-side pursuit. He’s more of a complete player but isn’t at Merriman’s level as a pass rusher.

    3. Adalius Thomas, New England: An extraordinary athlete, he can play almost anywhere on defense. In fact, he has. He has speed, quickness and an ability to take over a game. Plus, he has a knack for making big plays. New England paid him the big bucks for a reason: He’s a perfect fit for its defense.

    4. Shaun Phillips, San Diego: One of general manager A.J. Smith’s best draft picks, Phillips was a backup until Steve Foley bowed out. Then San Diego found out what it was missing: A marvelous pass rusher who produced 11.5 sacks in 2006 and make big plays while Merriman was out.

    5. Lance Briggs, Chicago: The Bears won’t let him go because they like what he does for the league’s stingiest defense. He’s instinctive, good at blitzing, good vs. the run and solid in coverage. He isn’t fast, but he always hustles. Plus, he’s terrific on back-side pursuit.


    1. Champ Bailey, Denver: The closest thing to a cover corner, he’s so good that opponents try not to throw in his direction anymore. Still, they threw enough last season that he had 10 interceptions –- a testament to his hands, speed and ability to cover. His feet might be his biggest asset, with scouts impressed with the guy’s quickness and change of direction.

    2. Nate Clements, San Francisco: He has the size, speed, quickness and change of direction you look for at the position. Plus, he can play either side. He’s tough, unafraid to make tackles and has excellent ball skills. No wonder the 49ers made him a rich man in the offseason.

    3. Chris McAlister, Baltimore: There are a couple of things I like about this guy: 1) his size and 2) his ability to play press coverage. His long arms are an advantage, as his ability to make tackles. Sure, he’s older, but he’s consistent and is outstanding in bump-and-run coverage.

    4. Terence Newman, Dallas: When you watch the Cowboys, the first thing you notice is opponents trying to exploit Anthony Henry. That speaks to their respect for Newman, who can fly and match up with any receiver -– either on the outside or in the slot. Hey, he once was matched with Atlanta tight end Alge Crumpler. Newman is an outstanding athlete who’s unafraid to play the run.

    5. Dunta Robinson, Houston: He doesn’t get much attention because he plays on a dreadful team, but Robinson is legit. He’s fast, physical, has good hands and reads well. He’s also a hard worker. You will hear more of him if the Texans ever discover what it’s like to have a winning season.


    1. Ed Reed, Baltimore: A big-time hitter who can cover the field. Like teammate Ray Lewis, he’s slowing down, but he’s smart, anticipates plays, has good range and reads quarterbacks as well as anyone in the game. He’s also a great technician and a team leader.

    2. Brian Dawkins, Philadelphia: Two years ago, he was supposed to be slipping. Yeah, sure. He might not have the quickest feet, but so what? He’s smart, anticipates plays and rarely is caught out of position. He’s also the quarterback of a defense that propelled the Eagles to division championships five of the past six years.

    3. Adrian Wilson, Arizona: Pete loves this guy, and I can see why. He’s murder on quarterbacks, whether it’s sacking them or picking them off. He’s physical, has outstanding speed and decent range. Plus, he’s a hard worker. He was named to his first Pro Bowl last season, and it’s about time.

    4. Dawan Landry, Baltimore: The brother of Redskins’ rookie LaRon, he is smart, physical and instinctive. He’s OK in coverage, but, at 220 pounds, is a force in the box. I was reticent to put him here, but I had a couple scouts insist that he belongs. “He plays like a seasoned vet,” said one.

    5. Kerry Rhodes, N.Y. Jets: He’s a secret outside of New York, but that won’t last. Rhodes has great size, good range and good speed. He’s also fluid, able to turn out of his backpedal to cover a deep receiver. The Jets kept moving people in and out of the position until he showed up, and watch him. You’ll discover why.

Roy Williams should probably be high on this list, even despite his weaknesses in coverage.

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