The NFL

December 25, 2006

The Class of '06

SI's picks for the year-end awards range from a record-setting back to a rookie wideout who caught fire in New Orleans

IT'S HARD to remember a year with so many deserving candidates for the NFL's major year-end awards. Only two categories—Coach of the Year and Most Valuable Player—have clear favorites; the rest of the picks are sure to provoke heated debate. SI polled a select group of players, coaches, executives and scouts to determine the consensus picks in the major categories, which are presented here, along with a less-obvious candidate worthy of consideration and SI's choice.

OFFENSIVE ROOKIE

Consensus
Marques Colston, WR, Saints. Over the last few weeks Colston hasn't created as much buzz as Vince Young, Reggie Bush or Maurice Jones-Drew, but he's the only offensive rookie who's had a continuous impact since Week 1. The seventh-rounder out of Hofstra had four catches for 49 yards and a touchdown in his debut, a 19--14 win at Cleveland that suggested that these Saints might defy the experts' low preseason expectations for them. Colston has become a clutch target for quarterback Drew Brees in the NFL's top-ranked offense while topping all rookie wideouts with 66 receptions, 1,001 yards and seven touchdowns despite missing two games with a high ankle sprain. "He was one of the top receivers in the league, if not the best, before he got hurt," says one AFC scout. "He has made that offense better, and that's not something you see too often from a rookie, especially an unheard-of one." The seventh-rounder had a slight edge over first-round teammate Bush in SI's poll.

Consider
Marcus McNeill, LT, Chargers. This second-rounder moved into the lineup after preseason foot surgery sidelined Roman Oben and has played like a veteran, plowing a path for LaDainian Tomlinson and guarding quarterback Philip Rivers's blind side. "I vote for guys who I've played against and who have done well," says Bengals defensive end Bryan Robinson. "He's done a great job playing left tackle as a rookie. That's tough."

SI's pick
Colston

DEFENSIVE ROOKIE

Consensus
DeMeco Ryans, MLB, Texans. Houston thought so highly of this second-rounder that the team cut starting middle linebacker Sam Cowart in training camp and moved Ryans from the weak side to the middle. The result: The 6'2", 236-pound Ryans leads the NFL in solo tackles (112). "This kid makes plays all over the field, and that's not bad for someone viewed as too short to play in the NFL," says one AFC personnel man. "He doesn't have any apparent weaknesses, and he plays hard on every down. He's just as good against the run as he is against the pass."

Consider
Devin Hester, CB/KR/PR, Bears. He plays some corner on the league's No. 1 defense, but because his major contributions have come on special teams (six returns for TDs), he misses out on this award.

SI's pick
Ryans

COMEBACK PLAYER

Consensus
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."

Consider
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.

SI's pick
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.

DEFENSIVE PLAYER

Consensus
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 ½ sacks entering 2006), but this season he ramped up his all-around play (nine forced fumbles, two interceptions—both returned for touchdowns—and 12½ 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."

Consider
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 12½ 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."

SI's pick
Taylor

OFFENSIVE PLAYER/MVP

Consensus
LaDainian Tomlinson, RB, Chargers. It's impossible to argue against a player who set the NFL record for touchdowns (31) and points (186) with two games remaining. If those achievements aren't enough to sell Tomlinson, consider that he's the heart of the Chargers, and his presence has made the life of quarterback Rivers, a first-year starter, much easier. "He's such a threat, and he's so consistent," says Steelers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt. "He shows up for every game. He's a threat to take it to the house in the run game, and he's also a good blocker and a great receiver. There are so many things he can do."

Consider
Brees was the pick of a handful of insiders in the SI poll.

SI's pick
Tomlinson

COACH

Consensus
Sean Payton, Saints. New Orleans' first-year coach changed the mind-set on a team that mostly floundered for six seasons under Jim Haslett. The former Cowboys assistant consistently inspired and prepared his players while breaking in a new quarterback and overhauling the defense. At 9--5 the Saints aren't just a feel-good story—under Payton, they're a threat to reach the Super Bowl. Says Giants All-Pro running back Tiki Barber, "Payton has been masterful at utilizing the strengths of his players and bringing a contender to a city that desperately needed a hero." The only other coaches named in SI's poll were Marty Schottenheimer of the Chargers and Eric Mangini of the Jets; each got one vote.

Consider
Jeff Fisher, Titans. Despite a dearth of veteran playmakers, the Titans have won seven of nine games since an 0--5 start and are, remarkably, in playoff contention. Fisher's deft touch has helped quarterback Young blossom.

SI's pick
Payton

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PHOTOKEVIN C. COX/WIREIMAGE.COM (COLSTON)HIGH MARQUES Colston wasn't a first-rounder, but he outplayed bigger names. PHOTOTOM DAHLIN/WIREIMAGE.COMRE-ARMED, READY The Jets were energized by Pennington's return from his second surgery. PHOTOJOHN E. SOKOLOWSKI/US PRESSWIRE (TAYLOR)MR. VERSATILE Taylor, still a sack machine, expanded his game with picks and TDs. PHOTOBOB ROSATO (PAYTON)REBUILT Payton overhauled the roster and changed the mind-set in New Orleans.

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