With the lengthy list of the NFL's "Top 100 Players of 2013" now whittled to 10, each of the players left has a real reason to claim ownership of the top spot. Only one will land at No. 1, atop the NFL's mountain, but at this point the margin is razor-thin.
The difference between being ranked the best player in football according to his peers and, say, ranking No. 4, can be one or two plays. The way a voter remembers a touchdown or sack. The way a mental coin flip plays out on paper.
The truth is, every player still alive meets the criteria to end up as No. 1. With that in mind -- and knowing that I couldn't convince those in charge to give me a sneak peek at the actual results -- here are my arguments why each of the following players should end up in the top spot:
Tom Brady, New England Patriots, QB: His presence creates one of the NFL's sure-fire guarantees. When the playoffs come around, regardless of his supporting cast, Brady will give the Patriots a chance to advance to the Super Bowl and win it. It's why the Patriots have won nine of the last 10 AFC East titles, and why there is no panic in New England despite the uncertain futures of star tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. You got Brady? You got as good a chance as anyone. At 35 during a sparkling 2012, he didn't come close to slowing down. Just one starter threw fewer interceptions than he did, and is there anyone else you'd want with the game on the line? His ice water hasn't warmed since he entered the league.
Arian Foster, Houston Texans, RB: It's all about churning out yards for running backs, and Foster is as good a one-cut-and-go runner as there is. An opening in the line barely needs to be open for him to take it 40 yards. But it's his vision that makes Foster the best around. It's his vision that saw him gain 1,424 yards in his third-straight season over 1,200 and in double digit touchdowns. The offense isn't perfect in Houston. There was no big-play threat in 2012, and the offensive line was a notch below its standard. And there was Foster, carrying the load (351 times) and keying everything. Only the truly elite players perform regardless of the circumstances.
Calvin Johnson, Detroit Lions, WR: Megatron is officially more famous than the Transformer he was named after. When you hear the nickname, does anyone think of the Decepticons anymore? (Nope.) But that's not why Johnson should be No. 1. It's because the 6-foot-5 machine doesn't even play the same game as his opponents. He's the only receiver you just can't cover no matter how many guys you assign. Did the Falcons not know he was getting the ball in Week 16? They did. And he still ended up with 225 receiving yards. Bet the Vikings knew, too, and he torched them for 207. Johnson should claim the top spot if only for the sheer number of nightmares he gives cornerbacks. Poor little guys.
Peyton Manning, Denver Broncos, QB: Remember when we all wondered about his arm strength? And if he'd even come close to returning to the Peyton Manning we saw for the better part of the previous decade in Indianapolis? Wish I could get those thoughts back. (Mulligan?) After missing 2011 with a neck injury and introducing himself to a new team, Manning turned in what might have been one of his top two statistical seasons. All he did was help the Broncos close the Tebow era and become an instant juggernaut with a stroke of a pen. No one has impacted a franchise so drastically and so quickly. Even at 36 years old, Manning is still in his prime. That's almost unfair to those of us normal people who actually age.
Von Miller, Denver Broncos, LB: You don't need to have the ball in your hand to change the game. Miller proved that 18.5 times in 2012, which is how many sacks he had. But he did try. Six times he forced fumbles, and twice he batted down balls. That's how you change games. In the NFL, it's all about affecting the quarterback. Miller does that, but that's not all he does. Double-digit tackles for loss shows his growth toward being a complete player. What the former Texas A&M stud also does is perfectly complement Manning. The quarterback gets him the lead, and Miller puts his hand in the dirt and makes sure it's secure. Quite a tandem.
Adrian Peterson, Minnesota Vikings, RB: It's cute that teams tried to put eight and nine men in the box to stop Peterson. It's not cute how bad he made them feel for even thinking they could stop him. With a conservative passing game that asked Christian Ponder to do very little, with a receiving corps so bereft of talent that general manager Rick Spielman felt the need to retool it completely in the offseason, the man they call All Day just ran all game ... with a sports hernia for which he later underwent surgery. The nation watched as he came up nine yards short of the NFL's rushing record, but that wasn't the best thing he did. Nope, it was that Peterson hitched his young and inexperienced team on his back and carried them to the playoffs -- all with defenses knowing they had to stop him and only him. That's greatness.
Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers, QB: In his quiet and unassuming way, or as quiet as you can be as a superstar, Rodgers has entered Brady and Manning territory. And not just in wins, efficiency and leadership. The former understudy to Brett Favre transcends the talent around him. In a 2012 that was as sparkling a campaign as a quarterback can muster, Rodgers shrugged off injuries to Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson as if you can just stick anyone in there. He did the same to issues at running back, as if balance is just a cool thought. The Packers weren't perfect last year, but it took a near-perfect player to help us forget they had flaws. Thirty-nine touchdowns and only eight interceptions later, Rodgers made everyone else as good as he was.
Aldon Smith, San Francisco 49ers, LB: It's comedic to think back before Smith was drafted, as some scouts feared he was a one-dimensional player. Sure, maybe he is. But that dimension gives the NFL’s toughest and most hard-nosed defense its playmaking edge. Smith turned in 19.5 sacks -- 5.5 of which came in one dynamic game against the Chicago Bears -- and that’s impressive. More impressive? He actually did that in the first 13 games before a shoulder injury that led to offseason surgery helped him go sackless in his final three games of the regular season. At his best, is there a pass rusher you'd rather have on your team on third-and-long? He's long, he's lightning, and he is the spark of that nasty defense. Tackles just cross their fingers.
J.J. Watt, Houston Texans, DE: To attempt to quantity his effectiveness by offering a sack number is unfair. Yes, he led the NFL last season with 20.5 sacks, and yes, he'd win the Deacon Jones Award if it had been offered in 2012. But Watt is so much more than that. He's the NFL's most resourceful player, and that's made him its biggest defensive playmaker. Most D-linemen hate to get stuffed at the line. Watt uses it as an excuse to bat down passes (16 of them last year). He never thinks he's beat, which is why so many of his sacks come on second and third tries. When Watt is at his best, either lining up on the edge or inside, he simply ruins game plans. There is no better compliment for a defensive player.
Patrick Willis, San Francisco 49ers, LB: The wild card on this top 10 list, but also the key cog in one of the NFL's best units. Does this mean we can't call him underrated anymore? Does this mean his peers finally recognize the true and immense talent? The tackling machine is the 49ers' leader, on the field and off it. He calls the signals, he bats down balls like a defensive back, and he's brought NaVorro Bowman along next to him, creating the league's best linebacker tandem. Willis can run, stop the run, cover tight ends and he makes sure the entire defense is in the right spot. How much respect does he garner? Willis was only 21st in tackles. And players believe he's in the Top 10. They know he's the blood and guts of the 49ers, setting the tone of nastiness.
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