Peyton Manning arrives in the Denver locker room, stands quietly by his stall and carefully adorns himself with his gameday blues. His pants are white, like freshly poured milk, and pressed against his Herculean thighs. He looks around at his teammates. He is ready. He recites the Rifleman's Creed:
"These are my weapons. There are many like them, but these ones are mine.
My weapons, without me, are useless. Without my weapons, I am useless. I once rowed a boat without Wes Welker, and I was like, 'Ugh, what's even the point?'
My weapons and I know that in football what counts is not my 700 pass attempts, how far down the field I can throw or the seventh touchdown pass when we're already up 24 points. What count is completing A SIMPLE SHOTGUN SNAP ON THE VERY FIRST PLAY.
Before Roger Goodell, I swear this creed. My weapons and I are the defenders of Denver. The masters of the AFC West. The saviors of the NFL."
Last season, with Manning as its Gunnery Sergeant, the Denver Broncos' offense set an NFL record for most points scored. The (then) 37-year-old QB also set single-season records for passing yards and touchdowns, en route to his fifth MVP Award. Manning was the architect, the gamer that masterminded Denver into being a near-unstoppable offensive force.
But, like the Creed says, he'd be nothing without his weapons. Good thing he's got plenty of them…as my look at the top skill players in the NFL for 2014 proves.
Top 5 WRs
- Calvin Johnson, Detroit Lions
A wide receiver is usually considered good if he gains 1,127 yards in a single season, but what if I told you that since 2011, that's how many more yards that Johnson has than other player?
The man nicknamed "Megatron" is proof that perhaps a robot can become the greatest receiver of all-time. One can only wonder how many David Boston's they had to make before they created him.
- A.J. Green, Cincinnati Bengals
Green is one of only three players in NFL history to put up at least 1,000 yards in each of his first three seasons, and his 260 career catches are the most ever for a player through his first three years.
But even more impressive than all of that: He's made fans pay attention to the Bengals. Hell, they might even win a playoff game one of these years, too.
- Demaryius Thomas, Denver Broncos
I'm probably not the only person who believes Eric Decker's numbers are going to be seriously deflated by playing with the New York Jets. The perfect mix of size and ability, Thomas is everything you'd hope for from a former first round pick, and unlike Decker, he'll probably continue to be good after Manning retires. But Manning isn't retired yet, so why worry about it?
- Andre Johnson, Houston Texans
The Texans were a total mess last season…well, not totally total. Despite playing with some of the worst quarterbacks in the league, Johnson still managed 109 catches and 1,407 yards. He has three seasons with at least 1,500 yards receiving in his career, something that only Jerry Rice and Marvin Harrison have ever done. His five 100-catch seasons are tied for the most in NFL history.
Johnson wanted to be traded to a playoff team earlier this year. Hint: I think he's already on one.
- Julio Jones, Altanta Falcons
Jones has only played in 34 professional games, and he's already gone over the 100-yard mark 12 times. He may have been on his way to having the best season of any receiver last year, but a foot injury shut him down after just five games. Despite his limited resume, there's little doubt Jones belongs on this list, because he, like the other four, could still be the best in the league at any given time.
Top 5 RBs
- Adrian Peterson, Minnesota Vikings
I believe the NFL running back position is slowly dying. At least as far as having a single "workhorse back" that carries the rock 300-400 times a year. Single-back teams are sort of like the sitcom laugh tracks of the NFL: They were the backbone for so many years, but you're taking a major risk by relying on one today.
How many active quarterbacks do you see going into the Hall of Fame? How many active wide receivers? OK, now, is there a single active running back besides Peterson that looks like a lock for the Hall of Fame?
Steven Jackson? Willis McGahee? Frank Gore?
Appreciate Peterson while you can, he may be among the last of a dying breed, the football equivalent of 2 Broke Girls.
- Jamaal Charles, Kansas City Chiefs
Charles is legitimately fascinating, worth watching every week. He's one of only 12 players in history to record at least 1,200 rushing yards and 70 catches in the same season. And he did it on an offense where no other skill player would likely crack the top 25 on these lists.
Here's to his predecessors Priest Holmes and Larry Johnso- NO WAIT, NOT THEM, NOT THEM! HE'S STILL SO YOUNG.
- LeSean McCoy, Philadelphia Eagles
The NFL rushing title was so damn lopsided last year – McCoy had 268 more yards on the ground than any other player – that he could have sat out the last two games binging on Breaking Bad and still won it.
- Marshawn Lynch, Seattle Seahawks
Is he the lynchpin of the Seattle offense or do I just feel like he is because of the remarkable word coincidence? Let me look up the dictionary definition of lynchpin just in case …
Yeah, I do feel like he's a pin used to hold a wheel onto an axis. Not even just in a metaphorical sense. I took my Volvo into the shop last February just to have the Marshawn Lynchs replaced on my wheels.
Lynch has rushed for 35 touchdowns in the last three years, most in the NFL. If he can play three more seasons at this level, the four-time Pro Bowl, one-time Super Bowl champion may be the next closest thing to an active Hall of Fame running back. I think Russell Wilson is probably the lynchpin of the Seahawks at this point, but Lynch is a close "ignition switch."
- DeMarco Murray, Dallas Cowboys
It's hard to make any list without some controversy, but Murray's inclusion may cause more scratched heads than the time you wrestled "Dirty Scalp Stevie" in the third grade. But the fact is, Murray had 5.2 yards per carry last season and was the first Cowboy since Emmitt Smith in 1995 to rush for at least 1,100 yards and record at least 50 catches in the same season.
He's very good and a myriad of injuries mean he's still very fresh, with only 542 career carries (I'm an optimist!) He could become the league's premier running back in 2014…or just another kid that nobody wants to play with.
Top 5 TEs
- Rob Gronkowski, New England Patriots
There are probably a lot of lists that Gronk would top around the league, but this is one of the few that are actually flattering. Thanks to a myriad of injuries, he's only played in 18 games over the last two seasons, but they've been 18 really, really good games.
The Patriots have managed to remain good without Gronkowski, but they could be more-than-good and win the Super Bowl this year with him. He's the Steve Carell to their American version of The Office. But can he stay healthy?
2. Jimmy Graham, New Orleans Saints
Some may argue that he deserves to be the number one tight end, but Graham himself spent months arguing that he wasn't even a tight end at all. So what's it going to be? He's a Steve Urkel trying to be a Stefan Urquelle.
Graham is an elite receiving option, but several teams, including the Patriots, Rams and Seahawks, were able to completely take him out of the game. Gronkowski is a better blocker and a better pass-catcher when healthy, and Graham has a ways to go before he can be considered the top TE in the game
3. Vernon Davis, San Francisco 49ers
He gets lost amidst a sea of tight ends that are putting up stupid numbers right now, but Davis played in the league's toughest division last year, with something like one other receiving option for most of the year, and still came away with 850 yards and 13 touchdowns. He's also possibly still one of the five "freakiest" athletes in the NFL.
- Jason Witten, Dallas Cowboys
Even though he's only 32, and could play six more seasons before he reaches the age that Tony Gonzalez is now, Witten is like Chevy Chase on Community. Young viewers are like "Who is this guy and why do we need him?" and the older viewers are like "Why is Chevy Chase on NCIS? Wait this isn't NCIS. Who took the clicker?"
An excellent blocker, a reliable pass catcher and he hasn't missed a game since the third time Chevy's career hit the fan.
- Julius Thomas, Denver Broncos
It came down to Thomas or the Browns' Jordan Cameron, but like the old adage says: Between the "surprising tight end that catches passes from Manning" and the "surprising tight end that might be catching passes from Brian Hoyer or Johnny Manziel," always take Peyton.
Though he had fewer yards last season than tight ends like Cameron, Antonio Gates, Gonzalez, and Greg Olsen, Thomas has plenty of room for growth this upcoming season. Like the last line of the Creed says:
"This is my tight end. There are many other like him, but this one is mine. Unless we decide to use Virgil Green. He is also mine."