The NFL is a cruel business for its players. I've always believed that, which is why players should enjoy it while they can. It goes so fast -- their time in the spotlight is limited, the big-money years coming and going, replaced by the reality that it's over.
That becomes even more evident each summer when I sit down to do the CBS SportsLine.com list of the Top 50 players, something I've been doing the past six years.
|Offseason knee surgery isn't expected to slow down Carson Palmer much. (Getty Images)|
Two years ago, the No. 3 player on our list was Tennessee Titans quarterback Steve McNair. The No. 4 player was Kansas City Chiefs running back Priest Holmes.
Want to know where they are on this year's top 50? Scan it all you want. You won't find them.
Injuries and age have sent those two falling like Tom Cruise's popularity. McNair, who might play for the Baltimore Ravens, can still get it done, but he isn't as good as he was in 2004, when he was coming off a co-MVP season.
In 2003, Holmes ran for 1,420 yards and scored 27 touchdowns, earning him the high ranking in our 2004 Top 50. Since then, he has played in a total of 15 games because of injuries and has rushed for 1,343 yards the past two seasons. There's talk he might be forced to retire because of a neck injury.
That's so cruel. That's the NFL.
The flip side is the emergence of young stars, players who have found their way into the top 10, a guy like Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer.
In June 2004, Palmer was coming off a rookie season in which he didn't take one snap. There was no way he could be ranked anywhere close to the top 50.
Two years later, he's the fifth-ranked player in the league, despite suffering a serious knee injury last January.
One thing that hasn't changed is the top-rated player. For the third consecutive year, Colts quarterback Peyton Manning tops the list. Manning had another outstanding season in 2005, leading the Colts to the best record in the league before they choked away their chance to win a Super Bowl.
Manning remains the game's best player, on his way to becoming perhaps the game's greatest passer. He is certainly on his way to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The reason he tops this list is simple. It's because he's the answer to this question:
If there was an open draft of all NFL players, who would be the first player taken?
Manning would top most lists.
Who is the best player in the NFL?
None of these schmoes
Total Votes: 43,651
So he stays at the top, followed closely for the second consecutive year by New England quarterback Tom Brady. They are a strong 1-2, where great quarterbacks should be. Palmer is right behind them, even with the major knee surgery. He's making progress in his rehab and might be there for the season opener.
When they say the NFL chews you up and spits you out, they aren't kidding. The rise can be slow -- McNair and Holmes are proof of that -- but the fall is usually swift.
Fame is fleeting. The NFL reminds of us of that every year, especially when it's time to rate the game's best.
1. Peyton Manning, QB, Colts: A lot of people will argue with this choice, but his remains the most important position. When he finally does win a Super Bowl, he will finally get his due.
2. Tom Brady, QB, Patriots: He had an amazing season in 2005, carrying an offense without a running attack. He is right up there with Manning, just a smidge under him in the ratings.
3. LaDainian Tomlinson, RB, Chargers: This is the game's best back and he's an MVP candidate every season. He will be forced to do more now that Drew Brees is gone. Here's hoping they don't beat him up.
4. Champ Bailey, CB, Broncos: There is no better cover corner in the league. He can take away the other team's best receiver. Don't believe the nonsense that he isn't the best at his position. And his position has a premium value to it.
5. Carson Palmer, QB, Bengals: He's coming off knee surgery, which is a concern, but he has made big strides in his recovery. He had an amazing season in 2005 and we can expect many more.
6. Walter Jones, T, Seahawks: He is the game's best offensive lineman. He dominates his opponents and plays light on his feet.
7. Randy Moss, WR, Raiders: He didn't have the type of season many expected in Oakland in 2005, but he is still the league's most explosive receiver. Just ask the opposing defensive backs.
8. Brian Urlacher, LB, Bears: After years of battling the overrated label, he finally played as well as advertised in 2005. He was the leader of that good Bears defense.
9. Chad Johnson, WR, Bengals: He talks a big game, but you have to love the fact he backs it up. This kid is good for the NFL, and he's a great player.
10. Ray Lewis, LB, Ravens: Has he slipped some? Maybe a little, but he's still among the best middle linebackers in the game. He only played six games last season. Watch how well he plays now that the Ravens are back playing the 4-3.
11. Marvin Harrison, WR, Colts: He's getting a bit up in years, but he's still a heck of a receiver. He remains Manning's go-to guy.
12. Richard Seymour, DE, Patriots: He missed time with injuries last season, and it showed up in a big way in the New England defense. He can dominate the line of scrimmage when he's on the field.
13. Julius Peppers, DE, Panthers: He started slow last season, but came on strong. He remains one of the premier pass rushers in the league.
14. Larry Johnson, RB, Chiefs: They used the word bust to describe him a year ago, and now he's a legitimate star. It's funny how things change in a year.
15. Terrell Owens, WR, Cowboys: Despite his off-field issues, he's still among the top offensive threats in the game. I'd take him on my offense any day of the week.
16. Dwight Freeney, DE, Colts: He has a unique ability to disrupt a game. The speed he has off the corner is what makes him so special. His special plays are what have him this high up.
17. Ben Roethlisberger, QB, Steelers: He made big strides in his second season, and we can expect more this season. He's just behind Carson Palmer on the quarterback pecking order for third place.
18. Clinton Portis, RB, Redskins: He looked much more comfortable in the Redskins offense last season than he did in 2004. Portis is one of the league's most explosive backs.
19. Ed Reed, S, Ravens: He missed six games in 2005 with an injury, but he's healthy again, which isn't good news for opposing QBs. Reed is the league's best safety when healthy.
20. Shaun Alexander, RB, Seahawks: He was the MVP in 2005, quieting some of his critics. Yet there is still a perception that he isn't exactly an elite back. We'll find out now that Steve Hutchinson is gone.
21. Antonio Gates, TE, Chargers: The top tight end in the league is a weapon few teams can handle. The scary thing is that he continues to get better.
22. Steve Smith, WR, Panthers: Smith moved to the elite class of receivers with an amazing 2005. He makes it look easy for a little man.
23. Troy Polamalu, S, Steelers: He became a force for the Steelers defense in 2005. He seemed to be all over the field. He does need to improve in coverage before he moves higher up this list.
24. Marcus Stroud, DT, Jaguars: He's part of the league's best tackle combination with John Henderson. Stroud battled injuries last year, yet still made it to the Pro Bowl. He is a force when healthy.
25. Tiki Barber, RB, Giants: He had an MVP-like season in 2005, but how much more does he have left? The Giants rely on him a lot.
26. Sean Taylor, S, Redskins: He is on the verge of being a superstar. He has range and he can tackle. Watch out for him in 2006.
27. Torry Holt, WR, Rams: When most lists of elite receivers are mentioned, his name isn't among the top guys. That's a mistake. He is a special player.
28. Steve Hutchinson, G, Vikings: Minnesota paid him a ton of money for a guard, but he is the best in the league at his position. He mauls the opposition.
29. Larry Fitzgerald, WR, Cardinals: He came into his own last year and expect him to get better as he matures. He has big-time skills.
30. Shaun Rogers, DT, Lions: Playing for a bad team, he doesn't get the attention some others do, but he is a power player in the middle of the Lions defense. He has to be doubled.
31. Jonathan Ogden, T, Ravens: He isn't as good as he was a few years back, but he's still one of the game's best left tackles. If only he played with a mean streak.
32. Donovan McNabb, QB, Eagles: Without a go-to receiver, he didn't play as well in 2005 as he did the year before. Injuries slowed him last season as well. This is a big season for him.
33. Orlando Pace, T, Rams: He remains one of the game's best left tackles. He can overpower an opponent, but he's getting up in years.
34. Tony Gonzalez, TE, Chiefs: This future Hall of Fame player is getting up in years, but he remains one of the league's best. He can still create problems in the middle of the field.
35. Michael Vick, QB, Falcons: Once he improves his passing, he will be higher up this list. That has to happen soon for his team to get to a Super Bowl.
36. Derrick Brooks, LB, Buccaneers: He's getting older, but he's still one of the best linebackers in the game. He's an even better person.
37. John Henderson, DT, Jaguars: Henderson played better than Stroud in 2005 and should have been in the Pro Bowl. He is a load at the point of attack.
38. Kevin Williams, DT, Vikings: He is a dominant force in the middle of the Minnesota line. He is good against the run and the pass. And he's only getting better.
39. Edgerrin James, RB, Cardinals: The Cardinals hope he has some good years left, but how many is the question. He's still a good back, but not nearly as good as some think.
40. Simeon Rice, DE, Buccaneers: He had 14 sacks last season, which shows he can still get after the passer. He remains a heck of a player in his 11th season.
41. Al Wilson, LB, Broncos: Wilson is a nasty tackler who brings a ferocious attitude to the defense. He plays the game the way it's supposed to be played.
42. Steven Jackson, RB, Rams: He wasn't used right by the previous regime, but under coach Scott Linehan look for him to put up huge numbers. This is the next star runner, which is why he is this high.
43. Shawne Merriman, LB, Chargers: He had 10 sacks as a rookie and that's just the start. This kid will be a disrupter for 10 years coming off the edge.
44. Brett Favre, QB, Packers: Is he as good as he has been in the past? No, but he didn't have a lot to work with last year. He can still be an effective quarterback.
45. Jonathan Vilma, LB, Jets: This tackling machine has quickly become a force in the middle of the Jets defense. It's too bad his team isn't that good.
46. Jason Taylor, DE, Dolphins: Taylor continues to play at a high level, getting 12 sacks in 2005. He has improved greatly as a run player, too.
47. Anquan Boldin, WR, Cardinals: Playing opposite Fitzgerald, Boldin gives the Cardinals the best one-two receiving duo in the league. He has two seasons over 100 catches in his first three. That's special.
48. Michael Strahan, DE, Giants: Now late in his career, he trimmed his body into shape and had one of his best seasons in 2005. He is still a force at his left end spot.
49. Adrian Wilson, S, Cardinals: If he were on any other team, he'd be considered among the top defensive players. If the Cardinals win this year, he'll get his due.
50. Osi Umenyiora, DE, Giants: He had 14½ sacks last season to finish second in the league. He is just now coming into his own as a player, which is scary.
Just missed: Mike Peterson, LB, Jaguars; Takeo Spikes, LB, Bills; Todd Heap, TE, Ravens; Willie Roaf, T, Chiefs; Brian Dawkins, S, Eagles; Trent Green, QB, Chiefs; Andre Johnson, WR, Texans; Hines Ward, WR, Steelers; Cadillac Williams, RB, Buccaneers; Ken Lucas, CB, Panthers.