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100 Best Players in the NFL
You can find killer waves, darling panda bears and world-class golf courses in San Diego. But the best player in the National Football League?
Believe it or not, you can find him in San Diego, too, beneath the ruins known as the Chargers. One of the reasons you can be certain running back LaDainian Tomlinson is so good is the Chargers are so bad.
Playing behind what probably was the worst line in the NFL and with no threat of a passing game to prevent safeties from creeping up, Tomlinson did whatever it took to move the ball last season. He ran for an average of 5.3 yards per carry, which might have been about 10.3 if he had played behind the Chiefs' line. Often, this meant making like a mouse and squeezing through impossibly small crevices. Oh, and he also led the AFC with 100 receptions.
"He has everything -- great speed, great cutting ability, and he can catch the football," Broncos coach Mike Shanahan says. "In my opinion, he's the best back, without a question in my mind."
With the heart of a lion and the feet of a rabbit, Tomlinson gets many of his yards from the Chargers' "Power O" inside running play. Defenses know the play is coming again and again -- and they still can't stop it.
Tomlinson can beat you inside or outside, with power or speed, runs or catches. He can outthink you or outquick you. He can wear you down over four quarters or take your heart with one handoff. On one play, he'll leave you grasping at air; on the next, he'll leave you sucking it. Up the gut or down the field, he can do it all. That's why he is No. 1 on the Sporting News' annual list of the best players in football.
Tomlinson is a lot like Walter Payton was, except with more elusiveness. Like Payton, he'll do the dirty work and lay out a blitzing defensive back who underestimates him.
What stands out most about Tomlinson to Broncos defensive end Trevor Pryce is his vision. "I really think it's the way he sees the whole field more than anything," Pryce says. "He wears that (tinted) visor at times, so you don't know where he's looking. He seems to know where everybody is going to be before they get there, and before you even know you're going there. I bet he could see behind him if you really tested him."
Entering his fourth year, Tomlinson also uses his size to his advantage. At 5-10, 221, he runs low to the ground so defenders rarely get a clean shot on him. "You figure a guy his size wouldn't be so hard to bring down, but he's one of the hardest guys to tackle I've ever played against," Pryce says. "He's much stronger than people would think he is."
Last year's ranking is in parentheses.
1. LaDainian Tomlinson, RB, Chargers (19). His total of 2,370 rushing and receiving yards last year was the second most in NFL history.
2. Peyton Manning, QB, Colts (10). No player in the NFL is responsible for more of his team's success. The reigning co-MVP calls most of the Colts' plays at the line of scrimmage and is entrusted with more authority over his offense than any other quarterback.
3. Ray Lewis, MLB, Ravens (4). He's much more than a middle linebacker; he's practically a head coach. Nobody leads like Lewis. "The guys around him rally around Ray so much," Bengals right tackle Willie Anderson says. "They listen to him so much; they're so in tune to him. The whole team feeds off him. It's amazing a guy can have that type of impact on a team."
4. Randy Moss, WR, Vikings (15). Probably the most indefensible player in the NFL. With an unbeatable combination of speed and stretch, Moss is a big-play machine. He led the league last season with 16 catches of 20 yards or more and 17 receiving touchdowns. All he does is beat you deep, but he does it very well.
5. Brett Favre, QB, Packers (1). With his high-risk, high-reward style, he still makes something out of nothing better than any quarterback. "You'd follow that man into hell," Packers guard Mike Wahle says. "From a leadership standpoint, you can't get any better than Brett Favre."
6. Steve McNair, QB, Titans (5 . At 31, McNair, who shared MVP honors with Manning, still seems to be improving. "He sees everything, understands everything, doesn't put any pressure on himself and really turns it up on Sundays," Titans coach Jeff Fisher says. "As long as No. 9 is playing for us, we have a chance to win most of our games."
7. Michael Strahan, DE, Giants (5). Unlike most defensive ends, Strahan gets his sacks the old-fashioned way -- with technique. At 32, he remains a dangerous pass rusher and a top-notch run defender.
8. Jason Taylor, DE, Dolphins (7). His lean, tall frame might not fit the part, but Taylor is an assassin of a pass rusher. He beats opponents with speed and unpredictable moves, and he's more powerful than you might think. Taylor also plays first-rate run defense.
9. Tom Brady, QB, Patriots (NR). He performs his duties as efficiently as any player in the NFL. "He's not going to be the fastest or have the strongest arm, but he has a way of winning," Dolphins linebacker Junior Seau says. "He's calm under pressure, and his mentality and demeanor gravitate to the whole team."
10. Priest Holmes, RB, Chiefs (3). This preposterously productive player is the linchpin in the NFL's best offense. "If you lined him up and had him run a 40, I don't know if he could beat the guy who backs him up," says Pryce. "But on the football field, he runs like a 3.8. He is absolutely, by far, the fastest back around."
11. Julian Peterson, OLB, 49ers (50). In addition to linebacker, Peterson can play defensive end or cover wide receivers. He probably is the most athletic player in the NFL. "He's a werewolf," says one NFC personnel man.
12. Jonathan Ogden, OT, Ravens (16). "Ogden is the best, period," the Dolphins' Taylor says. "He's 8 feet tall and has a wingspan that's crazy. He moves his feet very well. He understands the angles of the game. Once he gets his hands on you, it's over."
13. Marvin Harrison, WR, Colts (11). Harrison probably is the league's best route runner -- defenders say he makes all his routes look the same initially -- and has hands that rarely fail him.
14. Champ Bailey, CB, Broncos (36). "You think you know what a corner should be until you've seen him," Broncos general manager Ted Sundquist says. "He has uncanny instincts and anticipation at the break. Tremendous feet. Very good ball skills. He has speed to run with fast guys downfield."
15. Richard Seymour, DL, Patriots (46). His ability to morph between an end and tackle is one of the keys to a great defense. "Seymour is just a phenomenon," Colts tight end Marcus Pollard says. "He's a big guy. He can run. He's strong. He has all the tools. He's smart. He's an incredible player. I can't say enough about him."
16. Ahman Green, RB, Packers (39). It's easy to overlook him in the shadow of Favre, but Green is one of the finest all-around backs. He ran for an NFL-high 96 first downs last season and averaged 6.1 yards per carry on first-down rushes.
17. Simeon Rice, DE, Bucs (17). A premier edge rusher, Rice had 15 sacks last season and 15 1/2 in 2002. Rice flashes highly unusual athleticism and has developed a blue-collar side.
18. Terrell Owens, WR, Eagles (2). "T.O. is different than most," 49ers safety Tony Parrish says. "A lot of people don't realize how fast he is because he's a power runner. Run after the catch, he's the best."
19. Torry Holt, WR, Rams (40). "He's really the complete package," Falcons coach Jim Mora says. "He has an excellent release. He stretches you up the field and makes tough catches. He's strong and physical."
20. Chris McAlister, CB, Ravens (54). He's a physical corner who challenges receivers on every play and closes as well on the ball as anyone. No cornerback tackles better.
21. Jamal Lewis, RB, Ravens (NR)
22. Walter Jones, OT, Seahawks (23)
23. Jevon Kearse, DE, Eagles (30)
24. Clinton Portis, RB, Redskins (22)
25. Orlando Pace, OT, Rams (45)
26. Daunte Culpepper, QB, Vikings (81)
27. Patrick Surtain, CB, Dolphins (41)
28. Will Shields, G, Chiefs (64)
29. Donovan McNabb, QB, Eagles (12)
30. Willie Roaf, OT, Chiefs (4
In this group, we have the dance of the elephants -- also known as offensive linemen. Jones is the best in the league after Ogden, followed by Pace. Shields never has been better, and he ranks slightly ahead of teammate Roaf even though Roaf plays a more difficult position. Lewis is the top running back in this group by virtue of his league-leading 2,066 rushing yards in 2003, but you can't dismiss Portis' career average of 5.5 yards per carry. Some of Portis' production might have been due to the Broncos' system, but he would be outstanding in any system. Kearse would be ranked higher if he had no injury issues. Culpepper easily could be a top 20 player a year from now; he's the best after the top four quarterbacks. Say what you will about McNabb's accuracy, but he has won a lot of games with below-average receivers and avoids interceptions as well as any quarterback.
31. Ed Reed, S, Ravens (NR)
32. Roy Williams, S, Cowboys (NR)
33. Brian Dawkins, S, Eagles (20)
34. Trevor Pryce, DE, Broncos (6
35. Deuce McAllister, RB, Saints (34)
36. Brian Urlacher, MLB, Bears (6)
37. Chad Johnson, WR, Bengals (NR)
38. Julius Peppers, DE, Panthers (25)
39. Kris Jenkins, DT, Panthers (96)
40. Darren Sharper, S, Packers (33)
The four best safeties are clustered between Nos. 31 and 40. Reed is ranked highest because he's the best in coverage and the most versatile. The freakish Williams is the best safety against the run, and Dawkins might be the highest-rated safety if he had stayed healthy. Sharper is an underrated player who might show more of his abilities in a new scheme. Urlacher dropped in the rankings after an off season but, like Sharper, could rebound in a different defense. As for defensive linemen, Pryce, Peppers and Jenkins get high marks even though they didn't have high sack totals last season. Sacks don't tell the whole story.
41. Ty Law, CB, Patriots (9
42. Olin Kreutz, C, Bears (63)
43. Tony Gonzalez, TE, Chiefs (27)
44. Dwight Freeney, DE, Colts (84)
45. Leonard Little, DE, Rams (NR)
46. Rodney Harrison, S, Patriots (NR)
47. Adewale Ogunleye, DE, Bears (NR)
48. Kevin Mawae, C, Jets (92)
49. Matt Birk, C, Vikings (47)
50. Mike Rucker, DE, Panthers (NR)
Kreutz is rated the best center because of his rare speed and recognition ability. "You see him outrunning linebackers and safeties," 49ers linebacker Jeff Ulbrich says. "It's unreal how athletic he is. And then at the point of attack, he's still extremely strong and physical." Gonzalez is the highest-rated tight end because he's the most consistent year in and year out, though some of the young guns might have more ability. Law and Harrison were important to the Patriots' success last year, as their rankings attest. Law jumped up in the rankings after having one of the best seasons in his nine-year career. It's a close call among sack specialists Freeney, Little, Ogunleye and Rucker. Ogunleye and Rucker are more complete players, but Freeney and Little have a little more speed off the edge.
51. Michael Vick, QB, Falcons (
52. Takeo Spikes, OLB, Bills (71)
53. Marcus Stroud, DT, Jaguars (NR)
54. Derrick Brooks, OLB, Bucs (9)
55. Zach Thomas, MLB, Dolphins (42)
56. Keith Bulluck, OLB, Titans (26)
57. Trent Green, QB, Chiefs (NR)
58. Todd Heap, TE, Ravens (44)
59. Kendrell Bell, ILB, Steelers (56)
60. Jeremy Shockey, TE, Giants (21)
Vick is ranked this low because he was injured most of last season. He has the potential to follow the lead of Tomlinson, the player for whom he essentially was traded, and ascend to No. 1 at some point. Likewise, Shockey drops to the third-ranked tight end because he couldn't stay on the field last year. Five linebackers make this group, with the hard-hitting Spikes leading the way. Brooks, going into his 10th season, remains the best cover linebacker. Thomas and Bulluck are the leading tacklers on outstanding defenses. As the quarterback of the NFL's most prolific offense, Green has earned his place in the top 100. Stroud makes it ahead of bigger-name defensive tackles because of his play against the run.
61. Matt Hasselbeck, QB, Seahawks (NR)
62. Corey Simon, DT, Eagles (94)
63. Antoine Winfield, CB, Vikings (NR)
64. Samari Rolle, CB, Titans (72)
65. Tony Parrish, S, 49ers (NR)
66. Steve Hutchinson, G, Seahawks (NR)
67. Shaun Alexander, RB, Seahawks (NR)
68. Edgerrin James, RB, Colts (29)
69. Al Wilson, MLB, Broncos (NR)
70. Adam Archuleta, S, Rams (NR)
A number of players in this group are here primarily on the strength of their successes in 2003. The Seahawks had a breakthrough season, and three of their players -- Hasselbeck, Hutchinson and Alexander -- are ranked in the 60s after not making the list a year ago. Parrish made a big leap after tying for the league lead in interceptions (nine). Winfield tends to be underrated because he's 5-9, but the Vikings recognized the value of the former Bill -- they signed him as a free agent -- and so do we. James dropped, but it wouldn't be surprising to see him in the top 20 in 2005. He now is two years removed from knee surgery and appears to be running like the James of old.
71. Hines Ward, WR, Steelers (53)
72. Derrick Mason, WR, Titans (NR)
73. Anquan Boldin, WR, Cardinals (NR)
74. Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila, DE, Packers (86)
75. Alan Faneca, G, Steelers (90)
76. Fred Taylor, RB, Jaguars (NR)
77. Steve Smith, WR, Panthers (NR)
78. Laveranues Coles, WR, Redskins (77)
79. Keith Brooking, OLB, Falcons (43)
80. Sam Madison, CB, Dolphins (74)
There are more fine receivers in the NFL than can make the top 100, but five of them are ranked between 71 and 80. Ward is the best of this group -- and the highest-ranked receiver after Chad Johnson (35) -- because he finds more ways to beat you than any receiver. Mason has been highly productive for three years, and he caught 71.4 percent of the passes thrown to him last season -- the best figure in the NFL. Boldin was special as a rookie last year, leading all receivers in yards after the catch while playing in a subpar offense, but he could miss half of this season because of a knee injury. If Smith and Coles continue on the paths they are on, they have a chance to climb into the top 50. Gbaja-Biamila is ranked below some of the other pass rushers with similar numbers because he wears down more easily. Taylor doesn't always get the respect he deserves because of his injury history, but he started every game the past two years.
81. LaVar Arrington, OLB, Redskins (75)
82. Marcus Trufant, CB, Seahawks (NR)
83. Flozell Adams, OT, Cowboys (NR)
84. John Tait, OT, Bears (NR)
85. Donovin Darius, S, Jaguars (NR)
86. Travis Henry, RB, Bills (91)
87. Stephen Davis, RB, Panthers (NR)
88. Kevin Carter, DT, Titans (NR)
89. Mike Vrabel, OLB, Patriots (NR)
90. Tiki Barber, RB, Giants (62)
Underrated players define this group, starting with Trufant. Darius, an excellent run enforcer, tends to be overlooked. He makes the cut ahead of the next best safeties, ballhawking Corey Chavous of the Vikings and Mike Brown of the Bears. Carter has been reborn at tackle after playing most of his career at end. Vrabel makes this list because of his instincts and intelligence. Adams and Tait made the top 100 ahead of Green Bay's Chad Clifton and Cincinnati's Anderson, but it was close. Henry, Davis and Barber edge out Curtis Martin of the Jets because they are better runners at this point in their careers.
91. Donnie Edwards, ILB, Chargers (73)
92. Peter Boulware, OLB, Ravens (87)
93. Warren Sapp, DT, Raiders (13)
94. Anthony McFarland, DT, Bucs (79)
95. Charles Woodson, CB, Raiders (1
96. Andre Carter, DE, 49ers (83)
97. Chad Pennington, QB, Jets (100)
98. Terrell Suggs, OLB, Ravens (NR)
99. Terence Newman, CB, Cowboys (NR)
100. Jake Delhomme, QB, Panthers (NR)
The only Raiders to make the top 100 took big falls from last year's rankings. Though Sapp remains a solid player -- he averaged 6.2 sacks the past three seasons -- he is showing signs of age. Woodson's play also fell off last season. Edwards remains highly productive and edges out Buffalo's London Fletcher for the last inside linebacker spot. Pennington can make a big leap in the ratings if he can stay on the field. Despite producing 12 sacks as a rookie, Suggs barely made the list because he's not yet a complete player. Delhomme, who nearly guided the Panthers to a Super Bowl championship with his tremendous heart and resourcefulness, is the choice for the last quarterback, ahead of Denver's Jake Plummer and St. Louis' Marc Bulger.
Senior writer Dan Pompei covers the NFL for Sporting News. Email him at [email protected]