Drew Brees, QB, Saints. No surprise here, given what Brees has done for the Saints. Despite surgery last January to repair a torn labrum and partially torn rotator cuff in his right shoulder (which prompted the Chargers to let him go through free agency), the six-year veteran is having his best NFL season, with 4,240 yards, 25 touchdowns and only 11 interceptions. "Nobody gave him a chance," says Chargers linebacker Donnie Edwards. "They said he wouldn't be able to throw the ball over 30 yards. They said he wouldn't play again. For him to come back like that is awesome."
Kellen Winslow, TE, Browns. After playing just two games in his first two seasons because of injury, the former first-round pick showed what he can do when healthy, with 76 receptions for 755 yards and three touchdowns.
Chad Pennington, QB, Jets. Pennington is doubly deserving, since this is the second straight year he's come off rotator cuff surgery. At the end of the '05 season he faced serious questions about his future but responded by winning a heated quarterback competition in training camp and then leading the surprising Jets into playoff contention. With 2,958 passing yards, 15 touchdowns, 16 interceptions, the seventh-year vet doesn't have Brees's stats, but he also doesn't have the offensive weapons New Orleans has, and he inspired the Jets with his resilience.
Jason Taylor, DE, Dolphins. No defender had more of an impact week to week than the Dolphins' 10-year veteran. He's always been a dominant pass rusher (92 � sacks entering 2006), but this season he ramped up his all-around play (nine forced fumbles, two interceptions—both returned for touchdowns—and 12� sacks). "Few players have the presence of mind to turn good plays into great plays, but Jason does that on a routine basis," says Dolphins defensive end Kevin Carter. "Week in and week out, not only is he getting the sack, but he's causing the fumble, getting the interception or scoring a touchdown. He's turning good plays into great plays all the time."
Shawne Merriman, OLB, Chargers. A four-game suspension for violating the league's policy on banned substances hurt his chances here, but his on-field production didn't drop after his return on Dec. 3. He's tied with Taylor and Green Bay's Aaron Kampman for second in the league with 12� sacks, spearheading a defense that leads the league in that category, with 54. "Merriman can change the game for his team," says one NFC executive. "You can argue that some of his sacks are scheme sacks—or that he gets a lot of them by going against backs—but he still has to get them."