Posted: Thursday October 21, 2010 12:16PM ; Updated: Thursday October 21, 2010 12:30PM
Don Banks

NFL Awards Watch: Brady leads MVP race; Bradford, Suh top rooks

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Arian Foster leads race for Offensive Player of the Year

Cases could be made for many Steelers for top defensive honor

E.J. Williams, coming off a broken leg, has dominated for the Vikings

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With stats that aren't eye-popping, Tom Brady is making an impact by leading the young Patriots to a 4-1 mark.
Lou Capozzola/SI

When he looks around his huddle these days and barks out the play call, could you blame Tom Brady for wondering, "Who are these guys?'' Here's a quick check of who the Patriots' franchise quarterback sees staring back at him in New England as Week 7 of the NFL's regular season looms:

• His running backs at the moment are the little-known or relatively unheralded Danny Woodhead (undrafted free agent), BenJarvus Green-Ellis (undrafted free agent) and Sammy Morris, an 11th-year veteran and former fifth-round pick who has made a fine career out of being a role player. Kevin Faulk is rehabbing a season-ending knee injury, and Fred Taylor can't seem to stay healthy and in the lineup.

• His receiving corps, now minus future Hall of Famer Randy Moss, is led by slot man Wes Welker (undrafted and coming off ACL surgery), and includes other smallish pass-catchers like converted collegiate quarterback Julian Edelman (7th rounder), the unproven Brandon Tate (who played just two games last year as a rookie), and the recently reacquired Deion Branch (who is 31 and hasn't logged a 750-yard receiving season since 2005). Promising rookie tight ends Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski round out his collection of targets.


• His offensive line isn't exactly a fortress, either. Pro Bowl left guard Logan Mankins continues to hold out, and his expected replacement, former starting right tackle Nick Kaczur, underwent back surgery in August and won't play this season. Left guard Dan Connolly and right tackle Sebastian Vollmer entered this season with a combined 13 starts worth of experience in the NFL, and left tackle Matt Light is now in his 10th year of service as a Patriot.

And still, Brady and the Patriots are enduring and prospering, sitting 4-1 and in second place in the AFC East after grinding out that tough, 23-20 overtime defeat of visiting Baltimore on Sunday. Is there any other elite quarterback in the league doing more with less at his disposal this season? And don't try comparing the weapons Peyton Manning gets to use in Indy, where Reggie Wayne, Pierre Garcon, Austin Collie, Dallas Clark and Joseph Addai would all instantly upgrade the Patriots roster. Let Brady and Manning switch rosters and see whose numbers rise and whose fall. As his work with the just-arrived Branch on Sunday showed, Brady makes his receivers relevant.

Yep, we're starting the MVP debate as October winds down, and my vote at the moment belongs to Brady. He may not be at the statistical head of the pack among NFL quarterbacks, but when it comes to deciding his team's fortunes, he's the biggest difference-maker there is. Take him out of the lineup, and New England is a third-place team in its division, miles behind both the Jets and Dolphins.


1. Tom Brady, QB, Patriots -- Again, it's not the raw numbers with Brady this season. He's only throwing for 240 yards per game on average, and his 10 touchdowns and four interceptions aren't eye-popping. It's what he's doing with what he has to work with that's notable. And his 98.5 passer rating isn't too shabby either.

2. Peyton Manning, QB, Colts -- True, the Colts have lost a couple games, but not because No. 18 is letting them down. His 13 touchdowns, two interceptions, and NFL-best 103.4 passer rating (at least 100 attempts) demand he be in the MVP discussion. And last I checked, the Colts are 4-2 and tied for first in the ultracompetitive AFC South.

3. LaDainian Tomlinson, RB, Jets -- New York has the best record in the league at 5-1, and at 31, the rejuvenated L.T. has been everything he said he would be. I'm most impressed with his 5.3-yard average carry (he had a 3.3 and 3.8 in his last two years in San Diego), his five runs of at least 20 yards, and his five touchdowns in six games (all five coming in his past four games). He told us his legs were back, and so far, he's proved the doubters were wrong.

Offensive Player of the Year

1. Arian Foster, RB, Texans -- In a quarter less than six full games, Foster has been a force for first-place Houston (4-2). His 635 yards rushing leads the league, he's had three 100-yard games (including one for 231 yards to help beat the Colts), and his 5.5 average gain is second among backs with at least 50 attempts. Foster also has scored seven touchdowns, has eight runs or catches of at least 20 yards, and has totaled 19 receptions for 180 yards. Little wonder Houston has scored between 30-35 points in all four of its wins.

2. Philip Rivers, QB, Chargers -- San Diego's season has been a huge disappointment thus far, but what's not to like about Rivers' statistics? He's thrown for a league-best 2,008 yards, putting him on pace to break Dan Marino's 1984 single-season passing record by 271 yards, and he's averaging a sick 9.1 yards per attempt. Twelve touchdown passes, five interceptions, a 100.7 passer rating and 35 completions of at least 20 yards round out Rivers' case for OPOY.

3. Reggie Wayne, WR, Colts -- With an NFL-high 45 catches for 602 yards (13.4 average) in six games, Wayne is on pace for a career-best 120-catch, 1,605-yard season. His touchdowns have been few (just two, in the first two games of the year), but he has seven receptions of at least 20 yards and has been very consistent from week to week.

Defensive Player of the Year

1. James Harrison, LB, Steelers -- Picking which Steelers defender to put at the top of this category is almost comically hard. Safety Troy Polamalu's impact and presence doesn't even begin to show up entirely on the stat sheet, and there's also a case to be made for outside linebacker Lawrence Timmons. Despite this week's developments regarding his finable hit on Browns receiver Mohamed Massaquoi, Harrison is the player who personifies a Pittsburgh defense that is dominant once again. His 4 sacks, four fumbles forced, and bone-jarring tackles have helped the Steelers to a 4-1, first-place getaway in the AFC North.

2. Osi Umenyiora, DE, Giants -- After his lost season in 2009, Umenyiora is back, and so is the Giants pass rush. I can hardly believe this as I write it, but Umenyiora in the past three games has seven sacks and six forced fumbles. He has eight sacks and seven forced fumbles on the year. In a related development, the Giants are on a three-game winning streak and tied for first place with the Eagles in the NFC East.

3. Clay Matthews, LB, Packers -- In just five games, Matthews has a league-best 8 sacks, with a pair of three-sack performances in leading Green Bay to a then-2-0 start. Not bad for the former USC walk-on, even if he is currently struggling with another hamstring injury.
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