Rank and file
Top five head coaches and players by position
By Don Banks, Sports Illustrated
Debate is great. Especially when it comes now, before the coming NFL season plays out before us, settling all the arguments and providing all the answers that are as of yet unknown and unforeseen.
Therefore, what better time to dive into the meaty issue of who deserves top five billing at each position in the NFL? There is no science, only opinion. And a subjective one at that. No one can see every play made by every player in the NFL. So you watch, listen and read. Then decide.
Who's the best of the best? Who do you like? Here are my up-to-the-minute choices. As the 2001 season dawns, see how many of them either echo or deviate from the fan in you:
1. Kurt Warner, St. Louis: We won't know if he's all the way back from the effects of last season's injuries until the games begin, but when he's locked in, Warner is breath-taking behind the wheel of the Rams' high-speed offense. Remember that record-breaking 6-0 run at the start of last season? It wasn't a fluke. Warner is the best in the business at reading the field, and delivering the ball quickly and with precision.
1. Marshall Faulk, St. Louis: Faulk's 2000 season may some day be held up as the standard for all running backs. He ran for 1,359 yards, caught passes for 830 more, scored 160 points, produced an NFC-best 120 first downs, and he did it all despite undergoing November knee surgery. Faulk is the game's pre-eminent offensive weapon and his skills are perfectly suited to St. Louis' matchup-oriented offense.
1. Randy Moss, Minnesota: You can rightfully rip Moss for the times he gives less than all-out effort, but the facts are these: He can impact a game more than anyone else in the NFL in a mere two or three plays, and he gets more production from his big plays than any other receiver. Moss is that rare talent who must be game-planned for at all times and can affect an outcome without touching the ball.
1. Tony Gonzalez, Kansas City: Only major injury -- or an NBA career? -- will keep Gonzalez from being the most prolific tight end of all time. How important is Gonzalez to the Chiefs offense? His 93 catches for 1,203 yards produced 66 first downs last season, more than any tight end in the NFL, and just less than receivers like Harrison, McCaffrey and Carter.
1. Larry Allen, Dallas: Think a guard can't be the best offensive lineman in the game? Try and think of someone who dominates their position as completely as Allen. Despite that Dallas' once fearsome offensive line has crumbled all around him, Allen maintains his All-Pro level game and never shows signs of slipping. He can still collapse a side all by himself and has cleared the way for Emmitt Smith's sustained excellence.
1. Warren Sapp, Tampa Bay: When he is engaged and on his A game, he is as destructive a force as there is anywhere in the NFL. Though he seemed to wear down late last year, about the time the air came out of Tampa Bay's balloon, it may be because Sapp is always on the field and plays with abandon at almost all times. The only thing that seems to keep up with Sapp's relentless style of play is his mouth.
1. Ray Lewis, Baltimore: No one had more to do with the Ravens' record-breaking regular season and Super Bowl run than the man in the middle of the mayhem. Lewis has the ability to take over a game as few linebackers ever had. His intensity and exquisite play-making ability lifted Baltimore to greatness. Yes, he gets freed up by the big boys in front, but that's the way a great defense is supposed to work.
1. Charles Woodson, Oakland: The former Michigan standout hasn't totally refined his game yet, but he already is the best cover corner in the league. The Raiders are beginning to have the ability to take away half the field in pass defense, a la Deion Sanders in his prime. Once Woodson has another year or two of experience to draw on, few will even be in his class as an shut-down defender.
1. Mike Vanderjagt, Indianapolis: The numbers should make picking a kicker rather easy. And while a strong argument can be made for how well Green Bay's Ryan Longwell dealt with the grass and weather of Lambeau Field, (he was 33 of 38 with great long-range performance) the nod goes to the thunder-legged Vanderjagt, who missed just two kicks all season. Those failures averaged 53.0 yards.
1. Shane Lechler, Oakland: One of the young, fresh legs in the league, Lechler broke through to earn first team All-Pro as a rookie in 2000. Lechler was tops overall in net average (38.0), second in gross average (45.9), dropped 24 kicks inside the 20, and allowed just 279 return yards on 30 returns. In Oakland, where Ray Guy used to hang 'em high, Lechler consistently helped win the battle of field position.
1. Derrick Mason, Tennessee: Some guys make the flashy returns, then fair catch everything in sight when the game gets tight. Mason rarely loses his nerve and comes up with the clutch return when his team needs it most. His 13.0 yard average on punts ranked fifth overall, and on kickoffs he was even better, finishing a strong second at 27.0.
1. Mike Shanahan, Denver: Only two men who have won multiple Super Bowl titles are still coaching in the NFL: Shanahan and Carolina's George Seifert. Shanahan displayed his acumen again last season, pulling the Broncos out of their year-and-a-half-long slump to win seven of their final eight and qualify for the playoffs. That he accomplished most of that without his starting quarterback only adds to Shanahan's luster.