I should probably start by qualifying what criterion I chose to evaluate while compiling this list. This is not the top 10 best players in the NFL. That list would likely look quite a bit different. Rather, this is a list of players that have the biggest impact on their teams’ performance on game days. That doesn’t mean that, if your player of choice does not make this list, that I view your player as a lesser player than someone who made it, I just don’t view said player as equally influential to the quality of product produced on Sundays by their given franchise. These are quite simply the best players that their teams could simply not do without. They’re the players with the greatest impact on the wins and losses of their teams. They’re the most influential. The most impactful. Without further adieu…
10. WR Steve Smith, Carolina Panthers
I know I will take some criticism for this choice, but before you go running for the pitchfork and torch, hear me out. Steve Smith, a miniature WR with blazing speed, unmatched determination, supreme body control and soft hands, has produced at an extremely high level over the course of his career. If you subtract his rookie season and 2004, where he missed most of the season with injury, he has averaged approximately 1,014 receiving yards and 6 TD catches per season. It sounds relatively mundane, at beat a borderline top 10 season, but then consider just how poor the QB play has been in Carolina. He has had to suffer through QB options like Chris Weinke, Jake Delhomme, Matt Moore and an aging Vinny Testeverde, not exactly prime gunslingers. Anyone that can go for a thousand and a fist full of touchdowns with that group should be given the Medal of Honor. On top of that, often times Smith has been the only legitimate threat in the Panthers passing game and faces obscene amounts of attention from opposing secondaries. Still, he produces. Smith has also been the primary offensive influence on Super Bowl teams and led an injury-plagued Panthers team to the NFC Championship in 2005. Smith is simply unstoppable when healthy and, even though it has become somewhat popular to doubt the mighty-mite, you won’t hear that from me anymore.
9. DL Haloti Ngata, Baltimore Ravens
Ravens defensive lineman Haloti Ngata may be the most complete defensive lineman in the league today, playing roles on both the interior and exterior of the defensive line based on situation and defensive look. Many folks have joked that the Ravens may not miss a beat if he were forced to play linebacker, but shockingly they may not be far from the truth. Ngata is an excellent pass rusher for a man his size (6 foot 4 inches and 350 pounds), but he is even better as a run stopper. The only thing keeping Ngata from being even higher on this list is that his defense is still a well above average unit without him. What makes the Baltimore defense elite is the flexibility that Ngata provides the front 7, which completely unmatched league wide (albeit Darnell Dockett does a good job of coming close). While elite with him, it would still be competitive if he vanished, keeping him from a top 3 sort of ranking on this list.
8. TE Antonio Gates, San Diego Chargers
They often say that a quarterback’s best friend is an elite tight end. If that’s the case, then Gates is Phillip Rivers’ BFF. Gates opens up the perimeter of opposing defenses unlike any other at the position today. Gates is a match up nightmare. Too big for a DB, too fast for a LB. Gates always commands a double team and often requires even more attention than that. Gates has also done a great job improving his blocking and is amongst the best blockers within the ranks of pass-catching tight ends. Gates has averaged 972 yards and 9.5 trips to the promised land since 2004, which is numerically inhuman for the position, especially considering the special attention he commands. Nobody will argue that he has been hurt by the talent level he has played with, specifically at the QB position, but no sane person will argue against his belonging on this list.
7. CB Nnamdi Asomugha, Oakland
Asomugha, affectionately known as “Scrabble” to many an internet-arm-chair-quarterback, is hardly a household name. Why? Probably because of a few reasons, one being that the average American cannot pronounce his name, another being that opposing quarterbacks avoid him entirely. Asomugha shuts down half of the field unlike any other CB in the game today. While his colorful cohort in New York receives all the press, Scrabble quietly dominates the CB position in the NFL, going to work for an otherwise hapless franchise with a business- like work ethic and class that is rarely found in sports at any level. While you may like the flashy picks and swagger of a Revis, give me the guy that quarterbacks won’t even throw at, now that is impact.
6. S Laron Landry, Washington Redskins
For some reason Landry has fallen out of favor with many Redskins fans, but one has to wonder why. Only Troy Polamalu can cover more ground from the safety position than Laron Landry. Landry, who leads the NFL in tackles through week 6 this season, has been used to play everything from deep zone coverage to playing something relatively close to a linebacker role depending on the situation. His versatility allows Washington to utilize coverages and personnel groupings it would be otherwise unable to. Landry is obscenely physical, has one of the quickest first-steps in the NFL and is truly undervalued by many Washington Redskins fans. I know I would welcome him on any football team I’m rooting for, regardless of current personnel.
5. OLB Clay Mathews, Green Bay Packers
Mathews is electric. He creates an instant pass rush, just add Gatorade. Mathews is the lone pass rushing threat, and a good one at that (leading the league in sacks through week 6, in spite of missing some time due to injury), on a team with an overrated defense extremely dependent on the pressure he creates. Turn on any Packer game and you’re bound to see the QB being smothered by Mathews and his flowing-blonde locks. Turn on any Packer game that features Mathews out with injury and, well, I bet you’ll feel like you just turned on the Bills game…. Except the Packers would score some points too.
4. WR Calvin Johnson, Detroit Lions
I love any opportunity to make a Transformers reference, so any opportunity to write about Calvin “Megatron” Johnson is always a bonus. This guy is oozing with skill, dripping with upside and, if he were any more moist, would be surpassed in moisture only by Pizza the Hut. Johnson, often draped in double and triple teams, may be the only man in the NFL you can throw a jump-ball to and EXPECT the completion. Anything less would be uncivilized. Megatron possesses astounding size, speed, strength, leaping ability and body control, with the baditude to match. Go ahead, turn on the Lions game, it is worth your 3 hours just for the opportunity to see this guy make a half a dozen plays in spite of all of the special attention he requires and less-than-stellar QB play.
3. DT Brandon Mebane, Seattle Seahawks
Seeing Mebane this high on the list may be a surprise to the casual fan, but the hardcore fan KNOWS about Mebane. They KNOW that Mebane is currently the premier run stuffing DT in the game and is the driving force behind the Seattle Seahawks 2nd ranked run defense (based on yards per game allowed, trailing only the Steelers). Boss Hogg runs the middle of the field in a way that would make his name sake proud. A bonus statistic- Mebane was actually the 2nd best penetrating DT in the league in 2008, trailing only the monetarily motivated Albert Haynesworth. You’ll find more 411 about that in one of my previous rantings complaining about one of his previous Madden ratings (forgive me, I’m an addict).
2. S Troy Polamalu, Pittsburgh Steelers
See Laron Landry. Add speed. Add instinct. Add aggressiveness. Throw in the obvious evidence- the Steelers defense is pretty average without Polamalu, just look at their performances sans the Head and Shoulders spokesman, but is an elite unit with him. Polamalu frees up other defenders to be used in more efficient ways due to the ground he can cover and the quickness at which he can read a play. His hair alone could probably cover more ground than Michael Boulware in his prime (whenever that was). He may sound like a fruit cake, but he drives opposing quarterbacks nuts.
1. QB Peyton Manning, Indianapolis Colts
Lets face it, the Colts are probably a 4 win team without Peyton Manning. Even when the Colts defense can’t stop an opposing offense, Manning can out fun-and-gun them. When the Colts D holds, nobody protects a lead like Manning. Manning has had many offensive (and defensive for that matter) pieces come and go, but he always makes the pieces fit and the Colts are a virtual lock every season for a minimum of 12 wins as a result. That’s scary good. Manning statistically is a virtual lock for 4,000 yards and around 30 touchdowns. That’s better than some teams’ single season records for the position (like the Seahawks, for example). Manning is a lock first ballot Hall of Famer and he’s still not done. I may venture to say, you’re getting a chance to see the greatest QB of all time live and in person- don’t take it for granted.