This is an article from the Nov. 7, 2011 issue
Plays WRs the way Michael Irvin used to play corners—getting away with borderline contact and making hay, as he did with his 100-yard INT return for a TD against Miami.
His lowest-rated game to date (111.4): 297 yards, three TDs, one interception and a 73.7% completion rate in a 27--17 win at Chicago. Threatening nearly every single-season passing mark.
Not much has changed since I asked Matthew Stafford about continually throwing to Johnson into double coverage in scrimmage. "Wouldn't you?'' Stafford said. Could surpass 20 TDs.
Very narrowly over Pittsburgh's Mike Wallace, but Smith is on pace for 1,836 receiving yards for a team that had one of the worst offensives in football a year ago.
It's a badge of honor, Tom Brady's ever-growing reliance on Welker. Last year he was targeted 123 times. This year? On pace for 190. He'll challenge Jerry Rice's yardage record.
New Orleans coach Sean Payton knew what he was doing in letting Jeremy Shockey (10.0 yards per catch in '10) leave in favor of the 2010 third-rounder, who's averaging 14.6 per.
Cam Newton, expected to be a scrambler, is staying in the pocket more than anyone imagined. Why? For one thing he's not feeling much heat from his blind side, thanks to Gross.
The best guard in football over the last few years. Nicks's seal-blocking is one reason Darren Sproles has been able to burst through the line instead of going outside.
Good centers go unnoticed, but Wells doesn't in Green Bay. You'll never see leaks over the center, never see pressure up the gut. That's significant in the beefy NFC North.
He shifted from left guard in Kansas City to right with the Pats, had no off-season program in a complicated attack and has been a better player than the Pro Bowler he already was.
Arian Foster means it when he credits his line. A one-cut-and-get-upfield back needs to have confidence in his blockers' ability to produce gaps. The powerful Winston is a pile driver.
Rededicated himself after a sub-par 2010 and zoomed past last year's sack total of 11 by mid-October. A relentless attacker who chases down plays when most linemen would be jogging.
A new contract hasn't dimmed his desire or disruptive presence. Ngata clears the way for so many plays to be made behind him. No better 320-plus-pound run-pass defender in the game.
Underrated for too long, Smith had more combined pressures and sacks (31) than Allen (28) through Week 7 and keyed huge road wins at Cincinnati, Philadelphia and Detroit.
Poster child for why sacks are overrated. Led all players through seven weeks with 31 combined QB hits and pressures, according to ProFootballFocus.com. And sack total (three) should multiply.
Toughest spot to pick: I could easily have chosen teammate Patrick Willis or K.C.'s Derrick Johnson. Bowman, a tackling machine, chased down Michael Vick on a third down in Week 4.
It's a cliché to say he's not getting older, he's getting better. But it's almost true. At 36 and in his 16th season, the original Raven is playing the run and in coverage as well as he has in years.
He's got Bill Belichick comparing him with Lawrence Taylor and Dallas defensive boss Rob Ryan blowing the kind of smoke reserved for his dad's great old Bears. Defines impact player.
G.M. Rick Smith preferred Joseph over Nnamdi Asomugha in free agency. Good call. Joseph's been the key to opponents' completing only 51% of their passes, down from 65% last year.
A fifth-round pick who saw limited action last season, the 6'3", 232-pound Chancellor conjures memories of giant Cincy safety David Fulcher. Chancellor hits like his hero Sean Taylor.
I picked two strong safeties because safety has become an interchangeable position, and because Polamalu, after wearing down late last year, is back to his enforcing, blitzing self.
Kickers are hitting with unprecedented accuracy from 50 and beyond. Seabass is 5 of 6 from 50-plus, including a record- tying 63-yarder.
The cry has gone from "McKnight's a bust" in 2010 to "We've got to get the ball in his hands more." That's what a 40-yard kickoff return average (including a 107-yard touchdown) will do.
On pace to surpass 950 receiving yards, a figure reached by RBs only three times, and to gain more yards from scrimmage (2,494) than Marshall Faulk or LaDainian Tomlinson ever did.
Could he break the All-Pro stranglehold of cross-bay rival Shane Lechler this year? Lee has had a better first half, and his 43.7-yard net average has given a good defense a huge edge.
With a punt and a kick return for touchdown in the first seven games, Hester is polishing his résumé for Immortalville. Remains a mystery why anyone would kick to the man.
MOST VALUABLE PLAYER
Aaron RodgersQB Packers
In another year, this award could be Drew Brees's or Tom Brady's or Matt Forte's. But Rodgers has made a science of mistake-free quarterbacking in the first half.
Matt ForteRB Bears
Fudging a bit here since Rodgers is so clearly ahead of the rest, but Forte deserves a nod for gaining 6.73 yards per touch when everyone knows he's getting it all day.
Darrelle RevisCB Jets
Just edges the 49ers' Justin Smith. Stat of the first half, from ProFootballFocus.com: QBs throwing against Revis have a 2.9 passer rating. Uh, that's pretty good.
Cam NewtonQB Panthers
The Carolina rookie is on pace for more than 4,000 passing yards, and he's doing it while staying in the pocket much more than he did at Auburn.
Von MillerLB Broncos
Needs to cover and play the run better, but his instinctive moves around end have made him a premier pass-rush threat from Day One and justified the No. 2 overall pick.
Who expected a total franchise makeover from a college coach with no off-season program? Harbaugh has turned the Niners into a team no one wants to play.