NFLN survey/respected player: Panthers

No surprise, Peyton Manning is the most respected player in the NFL according to our confidential survey.

But what may surprise you is four members of the Carolina Panthers received at least one vote. Wide receiver Steve Smith led the way, followed by middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, left tackle Jordan Gross and quarterback Cam Newton.

Here's my take:

Smith: At 5-foot-9, 185-pounds, there's probably not a more physical, tough-nosed, hard-working player in the league for his size -- or any size. He demands respect on the field with 836 career catches for 12,197 yards -- numbers that make him a future Hall of Fame candidate. He demands respect off the field for the way he's matured in 13 years to become a locker room and community leader.

Kuechly: He was the NFC Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2012 with a league-best 164 tackles. He made the Pro Bowl this season with a team-best 156 tackles, including an amazing 24 in a 17-13 victory over the New Orleans Saints. That game alone deserves respect. He truly is a tackling machine. Plus, he's your clean-cut All-American type.

Gross: No player in the Carolina locker room is more respected than the 11-year veteran. Many of his teammates credit his "Highlanders'' speech before an October game at Minnesota as the turning point in an 1-3 season. The Panthers won eight straight and 11 of their final 12 regular season games after that. It's good to see somebody outside the Carolina locker room was paying attention.

Newton: This one may surprise you the most since he was criticized for his lack of leadership in his first two seasons. That he has changed enough to garner at least one vote in this poll shows he's headed in the right direction.