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The Schein Nine

'Top 100 Players': Who is the best of the best? Ranking all nine No. 1s in series history

"The Top 100 Players of 2023" -- voted on by the players themselves -- is underway on NFL+! The series concludes with a two-hour live show -- "The Top 100 Players of 2023: The Top 10" -- on Monday, Aug. 7, on NFL+.

A dozen years ago, NFL Network launched a brand new series: The Top 100 Players of 2011.

A countdown of the league's top active players -- as voted on by the players themselves -- the concept immediately garnered great discussion. And yes, ample debate. Consequently, the exercise has been executed every offseason since. In that time, nine different players have received the honor of being ranked No. 1. Well, that works out pretty well for me, writer of the Schein Nine.

And given my inside information that one of the former No. 1s will be revealed in the 80-to-61 range of The Top 100 Players of 2023, this is the perfect time to present a pecking order of the best of the best.

Here is my ranking of the nine No. 1s in the history of The Top 100, assessing each player's entire NFL career to this point.

Cam Newton
No. 1 in: 2016

The No. 1 overall pick in 2011, Newton made an immediate impact in Charlotte, winning Offensive Rookie of the Year and making the Pro Bowl during a record-setting debut season. The rookie sensation became the first player in league history to eclipse 4,000 yards passing and 500 yards rushing, while also setting a QB record with 14 rushing touchdowns. Newton made another Pro Bowl -- and logged his first playoff appearance -- in 2013, but his best season came in 2015. Guiding Carolina to a 15-1 record with 35 passing touchdowns and an additional 10 rushing scores, Newton ran away with league MVP honors. Those 2015 Panthers made it all the way to the Super Bowl, but they couldn't get past a devastating Broncos defense led by Von Miller.

And it's not just about what Cam did on an NFL field, but how he did it. In addition to the substance, Cam had an intoxicating style. "Superman" was a fan favorite due to the rare set of skills that he packed into his massive frame, but also because of his on-field demeanor, touchdown celebrations and fashionable postgame outfits. A true star on and off the gridiron.

Lamar Jackson
No. 1 in: 2020

Five years into his pro career, Lamar's game can be described with one word: breathtaking. An absolutely electric runner, Jackson dismissed questions about his throwing ability during a prolific Year 2, leading the league with 36 touchdown passes while throwing just six interceptions. Add in 1,206 rushing yards and seven more scores, and you get the second unanimous MVP in NFL history.

This cat just knows how to win games, too, as evidenced by his sparkling career record of 45-16. That said, the 1-3 postseason mark is a blight. And injuries have prematurely ended each of his last two seasons. But I get the feeling Lamar's about to come back with a vengeance.

Having finally received his much-deserved megabucks contract in April, Jackson's poised to take the league by storm once again. With Todd Monken calling plays -- not to mention, Odell Beckham Jr. and Zay Flowers joining Rashod Bateman at receiver -- Jackson is primed for the best stretch of quarterback play of his career. That is a frightening thought for the rest of the league.

Adrian Peterson
No. 1 in: 2013

The NFL MVP has been a quarterback in 15 of the past 16 seasons. The lone outlier? Adrian "All Day" Peterson, who took home the award when he joined the 2,000-yard club in 2012. Amazingly, Peterson began that historic campaign less than nine months after tearing the ACL and MCL in his left knee. A legendary bounce-back for an iconic player.

Peterson is one of the greatest running backs in football history. The ultimate blend of speed and power, he initially built his legacy as a Texas prep star and unanimous All-American at the University of Oklahoma. Upon entering the NFL, he immediately earned second-team All-Pro honors as a rookie, leading the league in rushing yards per game (95.8) and setting a single-game rushing record (296 yards) that stands to this day. He'd go on to win three rushing titles and earn four first-team All-Pro designations (in addition to two more second-team nods).

I could go on, but what's the point? Anyone who watched No. 28 run the football knows how extraordinary he was.

J.J. Watt
No. 1 in: 2015

A true force of nature on the defensive line who dominated inside and outside, Watt authored one of the most dominant four-season stretches in league history, starting with his second year in the league. From 2012 through 2015, Watt was first-team All-Pro every season, winning three Defensive Player of the Year awards in the process. During this 64-game stretch, the one-man army posted some eye-popping figures, including 69 sacks, 190 QB hits, 119 tackles for loss, 41 passes defensed and 15 forced fumbles.

Unfortunately, injuries took a serious toll on the second half of Watt's career. Still, he earned first-team All-Pro honors again in 2018 and closed out his career with 12.5 sacks this past season before retiring. The Hall of Fame might as well start sculpting his bronze bust right now.

Aaron Donald
No. 1 in: 2019

I've already made the case for Donald being the greatest defensive player in football history. Some would say Lawrence Taylor or Reggie White. That's fine. At worst, Donald's on the defensive Mount Rushmore. But he's definitely the top defender -- nay top non-quarterback -- on this list.

Like J.J. Watt, Donald has been named Defensive Player of the Year three times. Unlike Watt, AD's dominance has basically spanned the entire length of his (still-ongoing) career. In addition to making the Pro Bowl in each of his nine NFL seasons, Donald has also earned first-team All-Pro honors seven times. Also unlike Watt, AD's a Super Bowl champion, having terrorized Joe Burrow on football's biggest stage with two sacks and a whopping seven pressures, including one that effectively ended the title bout.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that Donald's game-wrecking ability has completely redefined how we think about his position. The guy has averaged 11.4 sacks per season as a defensive tackle!

Aaron Rodgers
No. 1 in: 2012

I've said it for years: Aaron Rodgers is the most talented quarterback in NFL history. So, why is he No. 4 on this list?

Well, for one thing, each of the quarterbacks ranked above him has rings -- plural -- as opposed to Rodgers' singular ornament. Is that entirely Rodgers' fault? Nope. I wish the Packers had done more to support him during his Titletown tenure. Fortunately, now the 39-year-old has a legit chance to make a run at another Lombardi Trophy with a new franchise that's starving for postseason glory.

Having missed the playoffs in each of the last 12 seasons, the Jets have the longest postseason drought of any team in America's four major professional sports. But don't let that fool you: With Rodgers taking over under center, this upstart team is ready for takeoff. The veteran quarterback is already smitten with his top receiver -- reigning Offensive Rookie of the Year Garrett Wilson -- and New York has other potent playmakers for Rodgers to utilize, especially if RB Breece Hall makes a smooth recovery from ACL surgery. Meanwhile, Robert Saleh's defense was a top-five unit in 2022, and assuming everything gets worked out on the contract front with All-Pro DT Quinnen Williams, the group could be even better in 2023. Take all that into account, and I won't be surprised if Rodgers does indeed win a second ring. Or ties Peyton Manning's NFL record of five MVPs. You betting against this guy, with a chip on his shoulder to prove he can thrive in the media capital of the world?

Patrick Mahomes
No. 1 in: 2021

How's this for efficiency? In five seasons as a starting quarterback, Mahomes has reached five AFC Championship Games and three Super Bowls, winning two. In the Super Bowl era, he ranks first among qualified quarterbacks in winning percentage (.800), passing yards per game (303.0), passing touchdowns per game (2.4) and passer rating (105.7). He's a two time regular-season MVP and a two-time Super Bowl MVP. And on a week-to-week basis, no one delivers more WOW plays than No. 15. Mahomes is pure magic, must-see TV every time he takes the field.

Did I mention he's still just 27 years old?

Mahomes could wind up at the top of this list. That's not hyperbole. Mahomes could wind up at the top of ALL lists.

Peyton Manning
No. 1 in: 2014

Peyton Manning will always be on my Mount Rushmore of NFL quarterbacks. He was a legit megastar. The unparalleled five MVPs really drive this home -- as do the seven first-team All-Pro nods. He trumps Tom Brady in both of those categories. (Though, of course, TB12 has a 7-2 advantage in the all-important ring count, but we'll get to him in a second.)

Peyton's lasting impact on the game cannot be overstated. He defined the term "field general" with a hands-on approach that helped make quarterback the most important position in football by a country mile. Manning's Colts teams with Edgerrin James, Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne played a huge part in ushering in this modern era of high-flying, wide-open offense. Then, after relocating to Denver, Manning set the single-season records for passing yards (5,477) and passing touchdowns (55) -- two marks that remain unequaled.

Peyton entered the NFL as a No. 1 overall pick and exited as a Super Bowl champion. What a career.

Tom Brady
No. 1 in: 2011, 2017, 2018 and 2022

Did you expect anyone different? Do you think I'm crazy?!

Tom Brady is the G.O.A.T. Really, I could end it there. But I get paid to write, so allow me to mention that he's a seven-time Super Bowl champion, five-time Super Bowl MVP and three-time regular-season MVP. Oh, and he ranks first on the all-time list in QB wins (251), Pro Bowls (15), passing yards (89,214), passing touchdowns (649), postseason wins (35), Super Bowl appearances (10) and on and on and on.

The former sixth-round pick lorded over the sport for the bulk of 23 years, winning 19 division titles and starting 14 conference championship games. That level of consistent domination -- in a league that is built around parity -- is absolutely mind-blowing.

Only one man on this list of Top 100 No. 1s has received the honor more than once -- and Brady's done so four times. I think we're done here.

Follow Adam Schein on Twitter.

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