By Mike Wilkening and PFW staff
The PFW staff, with the help of evaluators from around the NFL, presents the top 50 players of 2011. Players were ranked using the following criteria: production and value to team. All respondents participated on the condition of anonymity.
1. QB Aaron Rodgers / Green Bay Packers
Picking up where he left off the 2010 campaign, when he won the Super Bowl MVP award, Rodgers had about as close to perfect a season as any quarterback in recent memory. Quickly becoming a front-runner for league MVP honors after outdueling Drew Brees in a high-powered Week One shootout on a national stage, Rodgers went on to register a league-record 122.5 passer rating with 45 touchdowns and only six interceptions. A hardworking perfectionist, Rodgers can make every throw in the book with pinpoint accuracy and has few peers when it comes to buying time and making something out of nothing with his excellent scrambling ability.
2. QB Drew Brees / New Orleans Saints
Brees earned his way into the conversation for the MVP award by shattering Dan Marino's 27-year-old record for most passing yards in a season — Brees finished with 5,476 yards to easily outdistance Marino's 5,084 — and completing a league-best 71.2 percent of his passes. No quarterback threw for more touchdowns (46), although Aaron Rodgers likely would have bested him in that category had he played in Week 17. Brees' true value to the Saints can't be measured in numbers alone, though. He sets an example with his attitude, leadership and work ethic. He's about as close as one can get to being irreplaceable.
3. QB Tom Brady / New England Patriots
Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees might have made many forget about Brady, but he also passed Dan Marino's passing yardage mark, finishing with 5,235, and threw 39 TD passes, the second-most of his career. And it can be argued that Brady had more pressure on him than his counterparts, especially considering how often he had to put the team on his back because of the Pats' 31st-ranked defense. Brady dug the Pats out of holes often and he also had to play with four different starting centers.
4. QB Eli Manning / New York Giants
For whatever reason, Manning still doesn't get the respect he deserves — but he's elite. Although prone to a bad game here and there, Manning nonetheless has cut way down on his game-changing mistakes and became perhaps the NFL's best fourth-quarter quarterback this past season. With an evolving offensive line, a stagnant run game for much of the season and only four real targets in the passing game, Manning carried the Giants on his back with clutch throws, quiet leadership and underrated toughness.
5. WR Calvin Johnson / Detroit Lions
In a season marked by some remarkable passing performances, Johnson was the NFL's best receiver. He hauled in 96 passes for 1,681 yards and 16 touchdowns. Game-winning TDs at Dallas and Oakland helped propel Detroit to its first playoff berth since 1999. Teams frequently double-covered Johnson, daring the Lions to look elsewhere. Indeed, QB Matthew Stafford spread the ball around to a variety of capable targets. Even when Johnson wasn't getting the ball, his presence benefited the attack. But when the game was on the line, everyone knew where the ball was going — and with good reason.
6. OLB Terrell Suggs / Baltimore Ravens
Suggs earned PFW/PFWA Defensive Player of the Year honors after recording a career-high 14 sacks as the most disruptive force on one of the NFL's top defenses. Suggs, who is one of the game's better pass rushers, possesses a rare combination of strength and explosiveness. Not yet even 30 years old, the nine-year veteran cites increased maturity as a reason for his strong production the past two seasons (25 sacks).
7. CB Darrelle Revis / New York Jets
The Jets' defense didn't have its best season, but you can't blame Revis, who continually shut down one side of the field. The physical cornerback picked off four passes and showed his worth in the Jets' win over Miami in Week Six. In that Monday-nighter, Dolphins QB Matt Moore targeted Revis 14 times (unofficially) and completed only five passes with two picks, one of which Revis returned for a pick-six. Moore's passer rating vs. Revis was 11.01.
8. QB Matthew Stafford / Detroit Lions
In the first season in which he started all 16 games, Stafford was spectacular, throwing for 5,038 yards with 41 TD passes and 16 interceptions in a pass-happy Detroit offense. Stafford led Detroit back from second-half deficits of 13 points or more four times. "I think the biggest thing is, through experience, I think I've learned when and why sometimes the team needs the quarterback to just kind of take over the game and put it on his shoulders and go out there and play great," Stafford said at season's end.
9. QB Cam Newton / Carolina Panthers
The Panthers exceeded their point total from the 2010 season (196) by Week 11 in 2011, and they went from being the league's worst offense in '10 to seventh in the league this past season. Although there were several factors at play in the team's improvement, Newton's arrival was the most significant. He had his ups and downs but became the first player in league history to pass for more than 4,000 yards and rush for more than 500 yards in a season. He also set the single-season record for rushing TDs by a quarterback with 14.
10. TE Rob Gronkowski / New England Patriots
"Gronk" established himself as the league's best tight end this season, and no opponent found a way to slow him down. We saw last season, when he hauled in 10 touchdown catches, how lethal he was in the red zone. This year, Gronkowski continued to be a TD machine (18 total TDs) but also showed off his exceptional run-after-the-catch ability. A matchup nightmare in the passing game, Gronkowski also rarely missed an offensive snap as one of the team's better run blockers.
To find out who the next 40 players are on PFW's "Super 50," purchase a copy of the current issue of Pro Football Weekly online at the PFWstore.com. In this issue, you will also find an in-depth preview of Super Bowl XLVI, predictions by each PFW editor as to how the big game will turn out, as well as our columnists and handicapping coverage.