By Bucky Brooks
November 18, 2008

"Wow!" That's the word being uttered by coaches and scouts league-wide after watching Jerod Mayo's sensational performance against the Jets last week. The Patriots' top pick made 20 tackles and was all over the field in the team's 34-31 overtime loss.

"He is the real deal," said an AFC scout. "He is a sideline-to-sideline player with great instincts and a nasty demeanor. "

An NFC personnel director added, "He is a tough player. He has good instincts and is pretty explosive on contact. He is definitely one of the top rookies on the defensive side of the ball."

Mayo, drafted 10th overall out of Tennessee after leading the Southeastern Conference in tackles his junior season, was expected to quietly learn the nuances of the Patriots' defense while playing alongside Pro Bowl defenders Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel and Adalius Thomas. However, Mayo has exceeded everyone's expectations by delivering outstanding production in his first season. He leads the team in tackles (85) and ranks sixth in the league.

His production has been so outstanding that he has earned rare praise from his hard-nosed coach.

"Jerod has been pretty active all in all of the games," Bill Belichick told the Boston Herald. "He's instinctive. He has a nose for where the ball is, he gets to it and he's a good tackler... He has been productive for us all year and was productive for us [Thursday] night."

Adds Patriots defensive coordinator Dean Pees, "I think he's coming along. He's still got a ways to go and he knows that, but he's progressed pretty much every game. The guy works real hard in the classroom as well as the field, and that's really what you ask of those guys."

Will that be enough for the only first-round linebacker drafted during the Belichick era to win defensive rookie of the year honors? Let's put it this way: It's his to lose.

1. Jerod Mayo, LB, Patriots (Last week's ranking, 1)

2. Curtis Lofton, LB, Falcons (2): The steady playmaker is anchoring the middle of the defense in superb fashion. His 61 stops lead the team and are the second-most tackles for a rookie defender.

3. Chris Horton, S, Redskins (3): He's becoming an impact player as the 'Skins' designated eighth defender. His knack for sniffing out running backs is partly why the 'Skins' fifth-ranked rush defense allows fewer than 84 yards a game.

4. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, CB, Cardinals (NR): The small school standout has shown steady improvement since stepping into the lineup a few weeks back. His two interceptions against Seattle showcased the outstanding athleticism and instincts that has Arizona officials giddy about his potential.

5. Spencer Larsen, LB/FB, Broncos (NR): The Broncos' versatile weapon became the first player in team history to start on both sides of the ball. With the team hurting at running back and linebacker, Larsen filled in as the starting fullback and middle linebacker against the Falcons. Though he didn't touch the ball on offense, Larsen's seven tackles keyed the Broncos' improved defensive performance.

1. Kurt Warner, QB, Cardinals (Last week's ranking, 1): The former two-time league MVP is putting up video game like numbers. His 395 yards passing last week was his fourth consecutive 300-yard game, and his six-yard scoring toss to J.J. Arrington continued his impressive streak of 18 straight games with a passing touchdown.

2. Clinton Portis, RB, Redskins (2): The gutsy veteran churned out 68 rushing yards against the Cowboys despite being slowed by a sprained knee. Although Portis failed to top the century mark for the second consecutive game, he ranks as the league's second leading rusher with 1,063 yards.

3. Kerry Collins, QB, Titans (4): While some would argue his teammate Albert Haynesworth is more deserving of MVP consideration, Collins has demonstrated over the past two weeks he is capable of leading Tennessee to the title on the strength of his right arm.

4. Adrian Peterson, RB, Vikings (5): The league's leading rusher failed to top the 100-yard mark for the first time in five games with his 85-yard output against the Bucs. Regardless, Peterson's six 100-yard rushing games are the most of any runner this season.

5. Peyton Manning, QB, Colts (NR): The former two-time league MVP has resurrected his team's flickering playoff hopes with a series of outstanding performances. He has completed 62 percent of his passes for 814 yards, seven touchdowns and no interceptions during the past three games. Though Manning's season statistics are off his Hall of Fame-like career numbers, he has been clutch amid a host of injuries to some of the Colts other playmakers.

1. Drew Brees, QB, Saints (1): He continues to put up eye-popping numbers week after week. Brees' love affair with the long ball has led to numerous big plays (14 completions over 40 yards), and pushed him to the top of the charts in passing yards.

2. Kurt Warner, QB, Cardinals (2).

3. Philip Rivers, QB, Chargers (3).

4. Clinton Portis, RB, Redskins (4).

5. Adrian Peterson, RB, Vikings (5).

1. Albert Haynesworth, DT, Titans (1): The one-man wrecking crew put on an outstanding show against the Jags (seven tackles, one sack and a forced fumble). Haynesworth's seven sacks push him into a tie for the league lead among defensive tackles with the Vikings' Kevin Williams.

2. James Harrison, LB, Steelers (2): The team's top rusher terrorizes foes as a dual threat off the edge. His penchant for getting to the quarterback has raised his profile, but Harrison's knack for producing game-changing turnovers (four forced fumbles and one interception) has some regarding him as the game's top player.

3. Joey Porter, LB, Dolphins (3): The league leader in sacks (13.5) is taking dead aim at Michael Strahan's single-season sack record (22). Porter's one-and-a-half-sack effort against the Raiders was his eighth consecutive game with at least a partial sack, and his fourth multi-sack game of the season.

4. Charles Woodson, CB, Packers (5): The four-time Pro Bowl corner is having a career year in his 11th season. He is tied for the league lead with five interceptions, and has a career-high 13 passes defensed.

5. DeMarcus Ware, OLB, Cowboys (NR): Lost in the chaos of the Cowboys' roller-coaster season has been the stellar play of the two-time Pro Bowl linebacker. Ware has recorded a sack in nine of the Cowboys' 10 games.

1. Jeff Fisher, Titans (1): When your team rolls out to a 10-0 start, you have to be considered the front runner for this award.

2. Tom Coughlin, Giants (2): The hard-nosed coach has built a team that is capable of winning with or without style points. The 30-10 pummeling of the Ravens showcased the Giants' rough and rugged demeanor.

3. Tony Sparano, Dolphins (5): Who seriously thought the Dolphins would make a run at the postseason in Sparano's first year?

4. John Fox, Panthers (NR): The 8-2 Panthers may be the best team in the league that no one is talking about. With a smashmouth running game and a suffocating defense, the Panthers have a team capable of running the table.

5. Ken Whisenhunt, Cardinals (NR): The Cards' head man has brought a blue collar mentality to the Desert. Though the Cards' high-octane passing attack draws raves, it is the emergence of their ball hawking defense that has the team poised to make the playoffs.

1. Matt Ryan, QB, Falcons (1): The unflappable signal caller has become one of the league's top passers in his first year. With his top target (Roddy White) displaying Pro Bowl form, Ryan may crack the top 10 in several passing categories before season's end.

2. Chris Johnson, RB, Titans (2): The electrifying runner has been held to fewer than 100 yards in his past four starts, but continues to make contributions as an all-purpose threat. After tallying 88 total yards against the Jags, Johnson ranks second among rookies with 990 yards from scrimmage.

3. Matt Forte, RB, Bears (3): The Bears' versatile workhorse has amassed over 100 total yards in the three consecutive games. Although his team has dropped two straight games, Forte has remained the offense's most consistent threat.

4. Eddie Royal, WR, Broncos (4): The Broncos' dynamic weapon has made a tremendous impact as a receiver and returner. Royal's 56 receptions lead all rookies, and his robust return averages (31.2 on kick returns and 12.7 on punt returns) would rank near the top of the charts if he had enough attempts.

5. Ryan Clady, OT, Broncos (NR): The Broncos' star has solidified an offensive line that has only allowed eight sacks on the season. With the team morphing into a pass-heavy attack, Clady's superb play on the edge has been pivotal to the Broncos' offensive success.

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