Cream of the crop to underrated

ESPN.com set out to identify the best of the best in the NFL, players dominant enough to force opponents into changing their schemes and play calling. Five names kept rising to the top. Quite a few others enjoyed strong if not unanimous support from an expert panel of 11 league insiders.

The panel's unvarnished evaluations, secured in exchange for anonymity, produced a nuanced set of classifications and a few surprises. LaDainian Tomlinson, universally regarded as the NFL's best running back, didn't make the short list of scheme-changers. Antonio Gates did. Our diverse group of insiders -- two general managers, two pro scouts, two coordinators, two position coaches, two quarterbacks and one linebacker -- helped us understand why.


Players unanimously said to possess enough game-breaking ability to alter game plans and significantly change the way coordinators make their calls:

1. Peyton Manning, QB, Colts.
Coach: "You've gotta put Tom Brady up there, but the No. 1 most schemed quarterback is Peyton Manning. It eliminates a lot of stuff you can do defensively. You've got to take care of Manning first."

2. Randy Moss, WR, Patriots
Coach: "Talk about frustrating defensively. You can do everything right and he'll still score a touchdown."

3. Tom Brady, QB, Patriots
Scout: "If you don't walk around on defense and disguise [your scheme], you are going to get killed."

4. Steve Smith, WR, Panthers
GM: "He's very competitive and as with an Anquan Boldin-type guy, half the battle is stopping him after the catch. Unlike Boldin, Steve has the ability to be gone right now. He can change the game on any play."

5. Antonio Gates, TE, Chargers
Coach: "You always treat Antonio Gates like a receiver. Your game-planning is always geared to having a safety or a corner on him and not a linebacker."


Some players, coaches and scouts considered these guys good enough to alter opposing game plans and play calling, but others weren't quite convinced:

1. Andre Johnson, WR, Texans

Scout: "He is a special, special guy and you'll see that more now that he is playing with a good quarterback who can get him the ball downfield."

2. Ed Reed, S, Ravens
Coach: "Quarterbacks must be very aware, but he doesn't get schemed as much. You put a No. 20 jersey on your scout-team guy in practice and you need to know where he is at all times."

3. LaDainian Tomlinson, RB, Chargers
Player: "I would not say a running back, ever, and I think L.T. is the best. Every team wants to go in and stop the run. You don't all of a sudden put nine in the box. It's the same as trying to stop another back."

4. Terrell Owens, WR, Cowboys
Player: "As much as I hate to say it, I'd put him in that elite class."

5. Chad Johnson, WR, Bengals
Coach: "He is such a dynamic talent and such an integral part of their offense and you feel like he can get loose and he can really beat you. I have great respect for T.J. Houshmandzadeh, too. He is going to catch his balls, but I'm not sure he can take the game over by himself the way Chad can."

6. DeMarcus Ware, LB, Cowboys
Coach: "He's so big and strong. He's a young Charles Haley and that's good. He's really a defensive end that stands up and overpowers the blocker."

7. Brian Urlacher, LB, Bears

Player: "It's simply his size. He is so big in there that you change your pass game."

8. Troy Polamalu, S, Steelers
Player: "Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu have a far greater impact on the game than any corner, and it's not even close."

9. Dwight Freeney, DE, Colts
Coach: "He goes into the same category as [Minnesota defensive linemen] Pat Williams and Kevin Williams. The combination of Freeney and Robert Mathis is tough. It's easier to take care of one."

10. Champ Bailey, CB, Broncos
Scout: "Ware impacts 70 snaps. Bailey impacts 35 snaps. A player's ability to impact a game depends on how close he is to the ball. You can bunch [receivers] and it's harder for Bailey. You can still free people up."

11. Devin Hester, PR/KR, Bears
Coach: "Why do people kick to him? Kick that [football] out of bounds. I'd rather give up 10 yards in field position because the ball went out of bounds on a bad angle instead of him returning one for a touchdown."


Potential impact players who have yet to hit full stride:

1. Julius Peppers, DE, Panthers
Scout: "Great player, but not this year. At his best, he's going to beat you no matter what."

2. Shawne Merriman, LB, Chargers
Coach: "People talked about San Diego blitzing, but they were not. They were bringing four and getting matchups with Merriman against backs or guards who [had other responsibilities]. Pittsburgh did the same thing with Polamalu."

3. Jason Taylor, LB, Dolphins
GM: "He has narrow hips but can play the run, even at the point. A helluva player when I was studying him."

4. Jeremy Shockey, TE, Giants
Coach: "We used to have to have a plan for Shockey. He was big, he was physical, he was such a great receiver. You're trying to bang him at the line and then pick him up down the field and have a true double on him, a safety and a linebacker because he runs his intermediate option routes and things like that."


Potential future Hall of Famers who can still get it done, but not at their former levels:

1. Ray Lewis, LB, Ravens
Coach: "You still worry about him. He's the leader of that team and he keeps them being physical all the time. He won't let them slough off. He's a really good player."

2. Michael Strahan, DE, Giants
GM: "Strahan is crafty, but a good tackle can take him out of a game."

3. Tony Gonzalez, TE, Chiefs
Player: "They are not as creative as they were. Herm Edwards has sucked the life out of that offense."

4. Bryant Young, DE, 49ers
Player: "If he was in a 4-3, you wouldn't hear about anyone else. In the 3-4, he's taking on the tackle and a tight end, which sounds better, but you're outside and away from stuff. He could push the pocket."

5. Zach Thomas, LB, Dolphins
Scout: "You just wonder how long before he suffers another concussion."

6. Junior Seau, LB, Patriots
Scout: "Adalius Thomas is rotating out with Seau and that is their deal. It gives them the ability to rush with a hand on ground, but Thomas is a fish out of water as a middle linebacker in their defense. The front there is so good that it covers up some of their other sins."

7. Warren Sapp, DT, Raiders
Player: "He's still good. Definitely not done yet."

8. John Lynch, S, Broncos.
Player: "Great guy, but I think he's just about done."


Impact players who present matchup problems and force opponents to account for them on every snap:

1. Tommie Harris, DT, Bears

GM: "When you get into interior guys, you can take them away. You can double them with a guard-center combination."

2. Marvin Harrison, WR, Colts
Coach: "Manning is the first priority. It's tough to focus too much on the other guys."

3. Reggie Wayne, WR, Colts

Coach: "Take away Harrison and they'll wear you out on the other side with Wayne."

4. Brian Westbrook, RB, Eagles
Player: "He's one you'd better game plan for or you're going to get your [rear] kicked. There is nothing he can't do. He can take a draw 80 yards."

5. Vince Wilfork, NT, Patriots.
Scout: "You can't get past the impact on a game that Wilfork has. He is the heart of that defense. Take it from somebody whose team has to play this big lug ... He is scary good."

6. Pat Williams, DT, Vikings.

Coach: "You can't say Pat Williams without saying Kevin Williams. They do change the way the offenses try to run the ball."

7. Jamal Williams, NT, Chargers

Scout: "He does what you would expect a good nose tackle to do in the 3-4. He's a problem. But Pat Williams does it in a 4-3, which is amazing."

8. Richard Seymour, DE, Patriots

Player: "He is the best five-technique in the game when he's playing, a 3-4 D-end who can play over the nose."

9. Torry Holt, WR, Rams

Coach: "I don't care if he's beat up or not. He can make plays on the ball."

10. Nate Clements, CB, 49ers

Coach: "Good player, but when teams play a lot of Cover 2, it de-emphasizes corner play. That's why Buffalo let him go. They weren't going to pay him for what he wasn't needed to do."

11. Kevin Williams, DT, Vikings

Scout: "Kevin Williams has had some stuff off the field and leveled off, but he was better last year."

12. Adrian Wilson, S, Cardinals
Scout: "I would not change the plan for any safety because of the nature of the position. Wilson is a solid, but not spectacular pro. I give very few safeties top grades, but would he start for 28 of 32 teams? Yeah. Good pro."

13. Reggie Bush, RB, Saints

Player: "He is going to be great. He is going to find his niche. But he does not run hard between the tackles, which means defenses can focus on the perimeter when he is in the game. If he becomes a good inside runner, he'll be dangerous."

14. Larry Fitzgerald, WR, Cardinals

Player: "A tough matchup, and he makes Boldin that much better."

15. Santana Moss, WR, Redskins

Coach: "He can beat you after the catch."

16. Todd Heap, TE, Ravens
Coach: "You don't want to put a linebacker on him very often."


Big-money players who might not be as good as advertised:

1. Shaun Alexander, RB, Seahawks

Player: "The thing that saved him was that Super Bowl year when he was running for a contract and they had that great line."

2. Adalius Thomas, LB, Patriots

Scout: "He gives them versatility, but he's not a great rusher. He's a straight-line guy, a strider, not a young Junior Seau with bend. He gets cut and he's on the ground quite a bit. There's a lot of hype with this guy and I don't see it."

3. Roy Williams, S, Cowboys

Scout: "He is overrated among fans but not among football people because they know what he can do and where he struggles."

4. Most $7 million-a-year guards

Scout: "When Jonathan Ogden or Orlando Pace or Walter Jones gets paid, that's great. But when Derrick Dockery is in the top 10 in pay among linemen, it's harder for the rest of us to keep our players."

5. Julius Jones, RB, Cowboys
Scout: "Marion Barber is the guy you worry about there. He runs to hurt people. He's like a linebacker playing running back, a tough runner who gives that team more of an identity than Jones ever will. A great fit for their line."


Impact players who might be even better than advertised:

1. Rashean Mathis, CB, Jaguars

Player: "He is an excellent player, a lock-down corner who is smart, tough, tackles, plays routes, doesn't get beat deep. Almost as good as Champ [Bailey]."

2. Anquan Boldin, WR, Cardinals
Scout: "Larry Fitzgerald will catch the ball at 15 yards and get 18. Boldin will catch it at 15 and get 25 or 30."

3. T.J. Houshmandzadeh, WR, Bengals

Scout: "I wonder how good Chad Johnson would be without Houshmandzadeh. I think the guy makes Chad that much better."

4. Thomas Jones, RB, Jets

Coach: "He was the only guy we worried about on Chicago when we played them last year. Right now he isn't getting the ball enough."

5. Lee Evans, WR, Bills
Scout: "Lee Evans is a hard cover, a guy nobody talks about but a pretty damn good player. He's not [Torry] Holt or [Larry] Fitzgerald, but he's pretty special."

Mike Sando covers the NFL for ESPN.com.