10) Earl Thomas, FS, Seattle Seahawks
As one of the 50 voters for The Associated Press NFL awards, I really struggled with Defensive Player of the Year last season. It was just such a hotly contested field. At the end of the day, Thomas fell just short on my ballot, ranking No. 2. He wrecks the opposing team's game plan (see: Super Bowl XLVIII). In four NFL seasons, the cerebral thumper has never missed a game. Simply put: He's the best safety in the NFL.
9) Richard Sherman, CB, Seattle Seahawks
Like his "Legion of Boom" compadre, Sherman is the best player at his position. And if you don't believe me, ask him. Sherman has been in the league for just three years and he's already a bona fide play-making superstar. He led the league with eight picks in 2013 and also broke up 16 passes.
Sherman's a winner, with a ring to prove it. He's the best and most important member of the Super Bowl champs, as their leader and the face of the franchise.
Carlos Osorio/Associated Press
8) Calvin Johnson, WR, Detroit Lions
Megatron's a freak. There's nobody better -- or more dominant -- at receiver in the NFL. After posting one of the best ever back-to-back-season runs in 2011 and '12, Johnson's numbers dropped a tad last fall. And by "dropped a tad," we mean down to 84 catches for 1,492 yards and 12 touchdowns in 14 games. Must be nice.
Aaron M. Sprecher/NFL
7) Luke Kuechly, MLB, Carolina Panthers
Who beat out Earl Thomas in my aforementioned DPOY deliberation? This guy! He was a tackling machine, the leader and pulse for the overachieving 2013 Panthers, who finished second in both total defense and scoring defense. Kuechly has been in the NFL just two years and he's already earned Defensive Rookie of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year honors. This is only the beginning.
Michael Perez/Associated Press
6) Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans Saints
Brees has eclipsed 5,000 passing yards in three straight seasons. That's incredible. He's the maestro of the Saints' high-powered aerial attack, boasting surgical precision in his art form.
Tim Sharp/Associated Press
5) Adrian Peterson, RB, Minnesota Vikings
He's the best running back in the NFL. In a season marred by tragedy, injury and a horrible QB situation -- remember Josh Freeman? -- Peterson piled up 1,266 yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground -- one year after what I think is the single greatest regular season ever by a running back. Fresh off major knee surgery, Peterson posted 2,097 rushing yards in 2012, taking the Vikes -- with Christian Ponder at QB -- to the playoffs. That's no easy task.
Peterson said on my SiriusXM Radio show, "Schein on Sports," that he'll be more involved in the passing attack this fall, with Norv Turner assuming coordinator duties in Minnesota. And Matt Cassel should stretch the field in Turner's scheme, giving Peterson more room to work his magic.
Aaron M. Sprecher/NFL
4) J.J. Watt, DE, Houston Texans
Watt had a "down" year for the 2-14 Texans -- which meant sacking the quarterback "just" 10.5 times after notching a mind-boggling 20.5 sacks in 2012. (Remember, this dude's a 3-4 defensive end.) There isn't another defensive player in the league you'd rather build a team around.
Michael Dwyer/Associated Press
3) Tom Brady, QB, New England Patriots
He still amazes me. Brady's 2013 season was special, considering how many pass catchers he lost from 2012. And when you factor in all the Patriots injuries -- on both sides of the football -- it was a minor miracle Brady got New England back to the AFC Championship Game. Brady is still the epitome of toughness and clutch play. You clearly want the ball in his hands with the game on the line. He's one of the all-time great big-game quarterbacks.
Aaron M. Sprecher/NFL
2) Peyton Manning, QB, Denver Broncos
He's coming off of another MVP season -- his fifth, two more than anyone else in league history -- and arguably posted the single greatest regular season ever by an NFL quarterback. The numbers (55 touchdowns, 5,477 passing yards) were simply amazing. Denver had key injuries on the offensive line and significant absences on defense, yet the Broncos made the Super Bowl. Even as Peyton gets long in the tooth, there is no sign of him slowing down. It goes without saying that Peyton Manning is an all-time great.
Mike Roemer/Associated Press
1) Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay Packers
I wrote an entire column on it last week, so let's keep this short and simple: Aaron Rodgers is the best player in the NFL -- bar none -- and it's absurd his contemporaries voted him No. 11.
More Photo Essays:
- Mind-blowing stats for Week 12 of the NFL season
- Top 25 ranked players for Week 12
- Mind-blowing stats for Thanksgiving
- NFL's Best Cleats: Week 11
- Predictions for top 10 college games of Week 13
- Top 30 fantasy scorers for Week 11
- Next Gen Stats for Week 11
- Week 12 Fantasy Football Waiver Wire
- Week 11 Fantasy Stock Watch