It's not the numbers. Nor is it the name, as some might think.
|Peyton Manning has done it all except win a Super Bowl.(Getty Images)|
Injuries? He hasn't missed a game in six years. He's as clean as any player in the league from that standpoint.
There are no blemishes aside from the fact he still has not won a Super Bowl, but that will come. Manning was the choice as the top player in the SportsLine.com Top 50 in 2001, a pick ripped by many when it was made.
For whatever reason, Manning has a large group of haters. That makes anything written positive about him a sore spot, bound to generate nasty responses.
Manning's 2003 season, which included a searing postseason that left him a game short of the Super Bowl, is reason enough to put him atop the list.
Can he stay there? What's to think he won't?
There is an entire league of players ready to chase him down, especially at the running back spot. In doing this top 50, the one thing that stands out is the number of great backs there are in the league right now.
There are six in the top 20, eight in the top 50, and that doesn't include Seattle's Shaun Alexander or Carolina's Stephen Davis, who were close.
Holmes, fresh off another impressive season, is ranked fourth overall in the top 50, although a case could be made for him being at the top.
Not on this list. He has some work to do to get Manning, who earned the right to be looking down at the rest of the league's players in the list that follows.
1. Peyton Manning, QB, Colts: He has been the best quarterback, and now he's clearly the best player. The only thing missing is a Super Bowl victory.
2. Ray Lewis, LB, Ravens: This is the best middle linebacker to play the game, which is high praise. Some said Lewis' play tailed off some last season when a shoulder injury forced him to change his tackling some. But he still gets to the football better than any middle/inside linebacker in history.
3. Steve McNair, QB, Titans: The co-MVP from last season has made major strides the past two years because of his ability to stay in the pocket. He can carry a team: and he does.
4. Priest Holmes, RB, Chiefs: The numbers he puts up are simply amazing, especially when you consider he was not drafted. So much for that hip injury slowing him down.
5. LaDainian Tomlinson, RB, Chargers: He is a special player on a not-so-special team. He may never get his due playing for the Chargers, which isn't right.
|Randy Moss tops the field of receivers if you ask those who face him.(AP)|
7. Marvin Harrison, WR, Colts: He didn't put up the same numbers as he did in 2002, but still put up some impressive numbers. Manning spread the ball more last season, which helped the Colts offense, but hurt Harrison's numbers.
8. Kris Jenkins, DT, Panthers: The best inside player in the game, a force who can play the run and also get pressure on the quarterback. The argument about Warren Sapp or Jenkins is over now. This may seem high, but ask the offensive coordinators who face him.
9. Champ Bailey, CB, Broncos: Bailey and Charles Woodson of the Raiders are the two best corners in the game (sorry, Ty Law). Some scouts said Bailey tailed off some last year, but others say he remains the league's best.
10. Jonathan Ogden, T, Ravens: Remains the best tackle in the game, a dominant run blocker who also is one heck of a pass protector. Only downside is a lack of a mean streak.
11. Clinton Portis, RB, Redskins: He may be the best pure runner in the game, and now he can show that he wasn't just a product of the Denver system. Joe Gibbs will love this guy.
12. Tom Brady, QB, Patriots: He has made a believer out of us. He's perfect for what the Patriots want him to do, which is to be effective in the high-percentage passing game. Two Super Bowls in three years. Wow.
13. Jamal Lewis, RB, Ravens: His legal issues aside, this is a player coming off a 2,000-yard rushing season, playing for a team that didn't throw it that well, either. He's a powerful runner.
14. Richard Seymour, DE, Patriots: Can dominate at end and tackle, depending on the scheme being used. Really came on late last season to dominate after a slow start.
15. Ahman Green, RB, Packers: In a league where the running backs are king, he is among the best. Green can run with it and catch, making him a duel threat.
16. Chris McAlister, CB, Ravens: A physical corner who can beat up a receiver, yet still turn and run with them. Coming off his best season.
17. Mike Strahan, DE, Giants: Quietly had one heck of a season in 2003, but now must deal with playing for a coach he obviously cares little about.
18. Brett Favre, QB, Packers: He's still one heck of a gunslinger, owning the big arm and demeanor to be great. His skills have eroded a bit, but not much.
19. Michael Vick, QB, Falcons: The leg injury set him back a bunch last year, but he has the skills to move into the top five next year. He does have to grow as a pocket passer.
20. Deuce McAllister, RB, Saints: A big-play threat who can also get the tough yards. He is another undervalued player who doesn't get his due.
21. Charles Woodson, CB, Raiders: Battled through injuries last season, but still played at a high level. Teams did pick on him a little more than in the past, but he still is a shut-down corner.
22. Al Wilson, MLB, Broncos: The Broncos did the right thing signing him to a long-term deal. Wilson plays the game with an attitude and he has the speed to chase down backs and play the pass.
23. Ty Law, CB, Patriots: He was outstanding last year in helping the Patriots win the Super Bowl. Has wonderful man cover skills, but also has a knack for playing the ball in zone coverage.
|Brian Dawkins is a force from the safety position.(Getty Images)|
25. Derrick Brooks, LB, Bucs: With Warren Sapp and John Lynch gone, this is clearly Brooks' defense -- if it wasn't already. Brooks topped this list last year, but he falls a bit this time around.
26. Orlando Pace, T, Rams: He doesn't always seem to care about the game, reflecting a lack of passion. But he has the tools to dominate when he wants to do so. Has amazing feet for a man his size.
27. Julian Peterson, LB, 49ers: His multi-dimensional skills shined last year, but a nasty contract situation could impact his season. When he's on the field, he's an all-round player and key to the 49ers defense.
28. Tony Gonzalez, TE, Chiefs: He still rates as the best pass-catching tight end in the game, a weapon who helps offset the fact the Chiefs do not have big-play receivers.
29. Torry Holt, WR, Rams: No matter who plays quarterback, Holt is a consistent threat down the field. Holt's skills have improved each year, and he's now in his prime.
30. Brian Urlacher, LB, Bears: The trendy talk is that he didn't play that well last season, that he tends to run around blocks. He's not the power linebacker Dick Butkus was when he played for the Bears, but he's a playmaker, which is why he's one of the best. Not in the Lewis' class.
31. LaVar Arrington, LB, Redskins: He isn't as good as people rate him, in large part because he freelances too much. But he has all the tools. Gregg Williams will make him a better player.
32. Terrell Owens, WR, Eagles: This is a hard-working player who takes far too much grief for his antics. He's a big-play receiver who will help change the Eagles offense.
33. Marcus Stroud, DT, Jaguars: A riser on this board, Stroud went to his first Pro Bowl last season. It won't be his last as he moves near the top of the defensive tackle ratings.
34. Jason Taylor, DE, Dolphins: Even though there's a perception that Adewale Ogunleye is the better end on the Miami defense, more scouts would still take Taylor.
35. Jeremy Shockey, TE, Giants: He hasn't lived up to the hype, but every single team would take him in a minute. He has to stay healthy, and that's questionable now.
36. Walter Jones, T, Seahawks: He excels in pass protection, but, like Pace and Ogden, he doesn't play with a nasty streak.
37. Ed Reed, S, Ravens: Reed had a break-out year in his second season, showing outstanding cover skills and the ability to come up and thump against the run.
38. Donovan McNabb, QB, Eagles: After a slow start last season, McNabb bounced back to play well. Now the pressure is on even more with the no-receivers excuse gone with the signing of Terrell Owens.
39. Fred Taylor, RB, Jaguars: Two years without a missed game has helped him throw away the "Fragile Fred" label. He is the most underrated player in the league.
40. Todd Heap, TE, Ravens: His numbers are stunted by the offense he plays in, but he has the same type of tools as Shockey. As Kyle Boller grows this season, look for Heap to put up better numbers.
41. Takeo Spikes, LB, Bills: Had his best season last year, his first with the Bills. Has the speed coaches love, and has learned to harness it and play under control more.
42. Simeon Rice, DE, Bucs: His play tailed off some from 2002, but he still remains a threat off the corner. Look for a bounce-back year from Rice.
43. Roy Williams, S, Cowboys: This will be the season where his skills really shine now that he is comfortable with the defense. He has amazing ability for a safety his size.
44. Patrick Surtain, CB, Dolphins: In the past two years, he has clearly moved way past teammate Sam Madison in terms of coverage ability.
45. Keith Bulluck, LB, Titans: Another of the more underrated players in the league. Bulluck is an active player who always seems to be around the ball.
46. Chad Johnson, WR, Bengals: There is no more doubting that he is better than his more heralded cousin, Keyshawn. This is a big-play receiver. Just ask him.
47. Ricky Williams, RB, Dolphins: Miami's poor line play last season hurt Williams, but he also didn't have the same burst to the hole as he did in 2002. The alleged failed drug test is hanging over this season already.
48. Andre Johnson, WR, Texans: The leap for receivers going from their first to second seasons is usually a big one. That doesn't bode well for defensive backs readying to face Johnson.
49. Jevon Kearse, DE, Eagles: If his foot injury holds up, he is capable of a 15-sack season. That's a big if, though. Would be higher if he had been healthy last season.
50. Steve Hutchinson, G, Seahawks: He is the best guard in the league, which is why he's on this list. Has great athletic ability, but he's also a mauler when need be.