Greatest Player: Julius Peppers
Throughout the 2001 college football season, everyone acknowledged that University of North Carolina defensive lineman Julius Peppers was a man among boys. And since the Houston Texans took quarterback David Carr with the #1 overall pick, the Carolina Panthers benefitted from Peppers being available at #2 overall.
During his 17-year NFL career, Peppers has made six All-Pro teams and been named to the Pro Bowl nine times. He’s currently fourth on the NFL’s all time sack leaders list.
Runner Up: Steve Smith Jr
On the surface, Steve Smith was never one of the biggest or fastest or flashiest wide receivers of his era. But the numbers speak for themselves, and the incredible consistency that Smith displayed over his 16 seasons in the NFL can’t be ignored. Despite just one season with over 100 catches, Smith surpassed 1,000 yards receiving in eight seasons. He was also one of the few receivers to ever win the Triple Crown at that position, doing so in 2005. Smith’s efficiency and ability to thrive in different types of offenses are perhaps his most impressive traits.
In 2008, he became the only player in NFL history to lead the league in receiving yards even though his team had the fewest pass attempts. In addition to his countless years as a consistent receiver, Smith was a special teams star early in his career, returning two kickoffs for a touchdown his rookie season and four punts for a touchdown during his first three seasons.
Challenger: Cam Newton
Amidst the questions of potential off-the-field transgressions that surrounded his one year at Auburn University, many NFL teams started to see Cam Newton as an evolutionary Steve McNair: a rocket-armed quarterback who was built like a defensive end but moved like a big wide receiver.
The #1 overall pick of the 2011 NFL Draft became the first rookie quarterback in NFL history to throw for over 4,000 yards in a season, and remains the only rookie to throw for 4,000 yards and run for 700 yards in the same season. In 2015, Newton was named the league’s MVP after accounting for a whopping 45 total touchdowns that year, and leading the Panthers to the Super Bowl.