Insider | Notebook
It is a question we hear a lot, a question that really can't be answered but one we sure as heck will debate over a beer or two.
Who is the best player in the NFL?
Steve McNair has turned himself into a solid pocket passer as well as a runner. (Getty Images)
Most of the time, especially in this space, the choice will be a quarterback. Building any team starts with a quarterback, and having one eases the ills at other spots. That's why if given the first pick in an NFL free-agent draft, where the entire league is up for drafting, a quarterback would always be the first pick.
That doesn't mean that player, whether it's Michael Vick, Rich Gannon or Peyton Manning, depending on your style preference, is simply the best NFL player. It means he's the most important.
The best NFL player is just that, the player who plays his position better than anyone else. Based on 2002, with a look toward 2003, that player is Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker Derrick Brooks. He may be quiet, soft-spoken and in the building-sized shadow of teammate Warren Sapp, but Brooks was clearly the best player on the best part of the best team last season.
"It's humbling, first of all," said Brooks when asked about being the best defensive player or even best player period. "At the same time, I know I have to come to work even harder. I want to be considered the best. To do that, there is nothing I can say. I just have to lay it down and show it to them on the field. It's a challenge to step up and answer that bell every time."
He has done so in a big way, defying those scouts who told him when he came into the league that he might be forced to move to strong safety. At 210 pounds coming out of Florida State, he remembers at least 12 teams saying he couldn't play linebacker in the NFL.
Now he has redefined the position, making coverage linebacker chic again.
He is the anti-LT, a linebacker that doesn't need to rack up huge sack numbers to show how much value he brings to the field. Brooks has 6½ sacks in his eight-year career, which was a two-game total for Lawrence Taylor in his prime.
Brooks had just one sack last season, yet was named the NFL defensive player of the year. That came in large part because of his wonderful all-round game, which led to five interceptions and four defensive touchdowns. Brooks also led the Bucs in tackles with 87, but his numbers don't do him justice.
He has outstanding speed and an uncanny knack for being around the ball. Strong safety? Yeah, right.
"I felt in my heart I was a linebacker," said Brooks. "By not working out for teams that wanted to look at me at strong safety I gambled, and it worked. I see the past seven years people drafting guys of similar size and speed trying to create a position with a player with my size and speed. In this past draft, I saw a lot of guys being compared to Derrick Brooks. I just sat back and laughed at what the so-called experts told me when I was coming out."
In a league of copycats, many defensive coordinators are looking to duplicate the Bucs' style following their Super Bowl win last season. That means a smallish, quick defensive front with speedy linebackers who can run and cover.
Good luck finding another Derrick Brooks.
"Monte Kiffin, our defensive coordinator, told me that coaches come in here and wonder how we play the coverages that we play," said Brooks. "He honestly tells them that's Derrick. You can't duplicate the way he does it. Most people see us playing these coverages. They try to get players to imitate it. In my mind, you can't teach my awareness, you can't teach my God-given ability. You can't teach the way I work in this defense to help make me the player that I am. That's the advantage, the things that enable me to do the things that I can do."
Those things are what have him looking down at the rest of the SportsLine.com Top 50 NFL Player Rankings, including the best quarterbacks in the league.
"I've made a lot of plays my whole career," said Brooks. "It's just now the games are bigger. You keep doing it over a period of time, and people start to take notice. I'm not one to self promote. If I come out four or five years ago and talk about how good I am, who knows? But that's not me. I just remain humble and show up and work hard and everything will take care of itself."
The SportsLine.com Top 50
1. Derrick Brooks, LB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: There was no better defensive player last season. Brooks seemed to be everywhere for the Super Bowl champs. At 30, he is in top shape and insists he can play at a top level for several more years to come.
2. Brian Urlacher, LB, Chicago Bears: The guy seems to be everywhere. He can do it all: run, blitz, defend and tackle. He is special, bound to be one of the all-time greats.
3. Randy Moss, WR, Minnesota Vikings: Forget the numbers, Randy Moss is the best receiver in the NFL. Just ask the defensive backs the receiver they fear the most. And he sees the double on nearly every play.
4. Priest Holmes, RB, Kansas City Chiefs: He has been dominant the past two seasons, but he's coming off a severe hip injury. That impacts his ranking here, although word is that he will be healthy for the regular season. Would top this list if completely healthy.
5. Steve McNair, QB, Tennessee Titans: Moved among the elite quarterbacks in the NFL last season with his performance. In addition to his ability to run with the ball, McNair is now a confident pocket passer. His recent arrest for DUI shouldn't slow him down.
6. Marvin Harrison, WR, Indianapolis Colts: The guy is on the fast track to the Hall of Fame and seems to be getting better every year. The numbers he put up last year were amazing.
7. Peyton Manning, QB, Indianapolis Colts: They should make a quarterback clinic video based on what he did last November against the Eagles. It was flawless. He still remains one of the better passers in the NFL -- playoff win or not.
8. Rich Gannon, QB, Oakland Raiders: Gannon flourished in the up-tempo offense last year, showing that he might be getting better with age. At 38, though, the Raiders have to be concerned some he might start regressing.
9. Terrell Owens, WR, San Francisco 49ers: Sure, he talks a lot. So what? He's a great player who may not get his due because of his antics. But he plays hard and practices hard. That's all a coach can ask.
10. Brett Favre, QB, Green Bay Packers: The old gunslinger can still carry a team. He's the reason why Green Bay is again a playoff threat. Favre's arm still can bring the magic, but for how long?
11. Michael Vick, QB, Atlanta Falcons: He is only scratching the surface of his greatness, which isn't good for opposing defenses. Once he learns to be effective inside the pocket, he's going to be even more dangerous. Wow.
12. Ray Lewis, LB, Baltimore Ravens: He missed most of last season with a shoulder injury that required surgery, but the Ravens say he's healthy again. If he is, he is among the top five players on any list -- this one included. He might even be tops.
13. Jonathan Ogden, T, Baltimore Ravens: Consistently the best tackle in the league. He is overpowering in the run game and is a mountain to get around for a pass rusher.
14. Clinton Portis, RB, Denver Broncos: Had an outstanding rookie season in which he showed big-play speed and the ability to make people miss. That's a lethal combination.
15. Orlando Pace, T, St. Louis Rams: Just a notch below Ogden on the tackle level. He is an overpowering run player who has improved immensely in pass protection from his rookie year.
16. Ricky Williams, RB, Miami Dolphins: He wouldn't have been this high on the list a year ago, but by getting in shape and dropping some weight, he became a better runner. Still runs with power, but has more big-play speed.
17. Jason Taylor, DE, Miami Dolphins: He has been a dominant pass rusher for a few years, but he has taken his game to a new level against the run. Plays hard all the time, which helps him overcome his lack of size.
18. Jeremy Shockey, TE, New York Giants: Stated his case, loudly, we might add, as the best tight end after an impressive rookie season. It's scary when you think he will only get better.
19. Brian Dawkins, S, Philadelphia Eagles: He earned a big-money contract extension with another outstanding season in 2002. Dawkins is an all-around safety that can tackle and cover.
20. LaDainian Tomlinson, RB, San Diego Chargers: L.T. continued to grow in his second season in 2002 and should be even better this time around. He's a powerful inside runner who can rip off the big run.
21. Simeon Rice, DE, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Remember all that talk that he was one-dimensional? Does that matter anymore? He had 15 1/2 sacks and showed he was more than capable as a run player last season.
22. Patrick Surtain, CB, Miami Dolphins: After playing in the shadow of Sam Madison the past couple of seasons, Surtain clearly outplayed his teammate last season. Surtain excels in man coverage.
23. Donovan McNabb, QB, Philadelphia Eagles: The one thing he has to work on is his accuracy. Until he becomes better inside the pocket, he won't be in the top 10.
24. Keith Brooking, LB, Atlanta Falcons: Moved inside last season and continued to play at a Pro Bowl level. Some scouts say he could end up being better than Urlacher.
25. Marshall Faulk, RB, St. Louis Rams: Injuries slowed him in 2002 and age is starting to become a factor. Has taken a fall down this list some.
26. Mike Strahan, DE, New York Giants: Strahan didn't put up the monster sack numbers last season (he did have 11), but he also didn't get much support from the rest of the line. Teams really focused on shutting Strahan down.
27. Drew Bledsoe, QB, Buffalo Bills: One of the more underrated passers in the league, he is coming off one of his best seasons. When given time, and outside receivers, he is one of the best deep-ball throwers in the league.
28. Julius Peppers, DE, Carolina Panthers: He proved as a rookie that he will be a special pass rusher. A late-season suspension was all that dampened his season.
29. LaVar Arrington, LB, Washington Redskins: Started the 2002 season slowly playing in Marvin Lewis' system. But came on as the season moved along and he became more comfortable playing in a structured system.
30. Torry Holt, WR, St. Louis Rams: Has clearly moved past Isaac Bruce as the best receiver on the Rams. Holt does have occasional lapses of dropped balls, but he is still a feared receiver.
31. Takeo Spikes, LB, Buffalo Bills: He hasn't received the attention he deserved when he was in Cincinnati. A new venue should help, even if it is a city smaller than the one he left.
32. Tony Gonzalez, TE, Kansas City Chiefs: The Chiefs didn't get him the ball as much as they would have liked last season, but he is still one of the best pass-catching tight ends in the league.
33. Champ Bailey, CB, Washington Redskins: Some say he didn't play as well last season as he has in the past, but he remains a very good cover corner. He's another who can become an unrestricted free agent after the season.
34. Deuce McAllister, RB, New Orleans Saints: When a back has the big-play ability that McAllister brings, it can open up an offense. He makes defenses hold their breath every time he carries the ball.
35. Warren Sapp, DT, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: OK, so maybe his numbers were down. But he's still one of the better inside defensive lineman in the NFL.
36. Donnie Edwards, LB, San Diego Chargers: Clearly outplayed fellow Chargers linebacker Junior Seau last season. He's a terrific run-and-chase linebacker.
37. Eric Moulds, WR, Buffalo Bills: Now that Peerless Price is gone, he will see a lot of doubles outside. That might make his numbers go down some, but he is still one of the better receivers.
38. David Boston, WR, San Diego Chargers: The only questions about him are off-field issues. He is a huge receiver (242 pounds), who can run. When he's healthy, he's almost unstoppable.
39. Kris Jenkins, DT, Carolina Panthers: Played at a dominant level last season to earn a Pro Bowl berth. A powerful inside force, he proved he can also get to the quarterback.
40. Fred Taylor, RB, Jacksonville Jaguars: He was finally able to play all 16 games last season, showing his ability to be an effective runner. It's scary to think what he could do if this team had an offensive line that could run block.
41. Walter Jones, T, Seattle Seahawks: After missing time in a contract dispute, Jones returned to the Seattle lineup last season and was again a dominant player. He excels in pass protection, but has improved as a run blocker.
42. Trevor Pryce, DE, Denver Broncos: He moved outside to end last year and dominated early but tailed off as the season moved along. Was too heavy, which led to his losing 15 pounds this offseason. That should help his quickness.
43. Corey Dillon, RB, Cincinnati Bengals: Despite playing on some really bad teams, Dillon continues to put up good numbers. Too bad he hasn't been on a winner.
44. Kurt Warner, QB, St. Louis Rams: Injuries wrecked his 2002 season, as did a woeful line, but he is still one of the best passers in the NFL. Wait until this season. You'll see.
45. Tiki Barber, RB, New York Giants: He was the Giants' MVP last season, rushing for 1,387 yards and catching 69 passes. He has proved to be much more than a third-down back.
46. Charles Woodson, CB, Oakland Raiders: Injuries slowed him in 2002 but when he's healthy he's among the best cover corners. Can become a free agent after the season, so he's in a contract year.
47. Leonard Davis, T, Arizona Cardinals: He doesn't get much attention playing for the Cardinals, but Davis is a mauler who can play both guard and tackle. He is one the verge of greatness.
48. Kerry Collins, QB, New York Giants: It might seem shocking to see his name here, but he has clearly become one of the better passers in the NFL. His 2002 numbers, when he threw for 4,073 yards, earn him a berth into the top 50.
49. LeCharles Bentley, G, New Orleans Saints: Remember the name. It's going to be one you'll see in the Pro Bowl for years to come. Has the nasty streak that all great linemen need.
50. Edgerrin James, RB, Indianapolis Colts: This rating is far lower than if he were truly healthy. He wasn't the same runner in 2002 after 2001 knee surgery. Will soar up this list if he can get back to his pre-injury form.