By HAYES RULE (@Rule0021)
Football is exhilarating.
But it’s the personalities -- the players and storylines – that we as fans ultimately find a vested interest in, more so in the National Football League than at the collegiate level. We root for our favorite teams, but a player – the human element – is the catalyst that drives our love for football from healthy to addictive.
These 4.4-running, dime-throwing-people are just that -- people. Their actions both on and off the field determine their likability. And that’s why we’re here: We’re voting for the most likable player in the NFL.
Several greats have retired in the past few years, such as: Peyton Manning, Charles Woodson, Calvin Johnson, Marshawn Lynch, Jared Allen and Troy Polamalu. A new generation of players and personalities is developing, so who is and will be the easiest players to root for in the NFL?
My key characteristics for likability: both successful and interesting to watch on the field, someone fans enjoy rooting for and a (mostly) clean reputation off the field.
(1) Larry Fitzgerald vs. (16) Odell Beckham Jr.
A battle of the opposites. Fitzgerald is nearing the end of his career, one which has been defined by his professionalism on and off the field. As one of the best receivers in the game, he stayed with the Cardinals through difficult times and is now experiencing the payoff.
On the other hand, Beckham Jr. is only starting the third year of his career, one which has epitomized the "flashy" receiver. After his rookie campaign, he graced the world with his presence on the cover of Madden 16. But despite his diva tendencies, fans -- especially younger ones -- cannot help but adore his play on the field as one of the more intriguing offensive players in the league.
(2) J.J. Watt vs. (15) Andrew Luck
The most dominant defensive player in the league, Watt may be more popular among females outside of the NFL circle than fans who love his game. A seeming shoe-in for the NFL's future golden boy, Watt has all of the tools to be as likable as a player comes.
Take this quote, for example: "Right now my job is to watch film, work hard and treat my body right. When I get done with football, then I can relax and drink as many beers as I want and hang out and be a regular guy. Right now, I am a football player, and I will sacrifice whatever is necessary to be the best."
Andrew Luck knows just how good Watt is, as he plays in the AFC South against the Texans twice a year. Often regarded as the next great quarterback, Luck doesn't have the same off-field appeal as a J.J. Watt or Tom Brady, but he's a professional student of the game.
(3) Russell Wilson vs. (14) Eli Manning
Russell Wilson has abundant fanboys, but he also has a surprising amount of haters. Whether it be for his outspoken faith or a belief that he is "fake," I don't agree with it. Wilson has all of the tools to be the most marketable player in the NFL: underdog story, success on the field, leader of a great team, good looks and clean off the field.
All of those marketable traits equate to his likability. I can't help but root for him, but maybe that's just me. Let your voice be heard: Are you a Wilson lover or a Wilson hater?
Eli Manning is fun to watch for a myriad of reasons: He loves to throw it downfield, pulls miracle wins out of his backside and does all of it while donning his infamous "sad-yet-not-sad(?) face." Or is it simply a blank face? Regardless, his allure as one of the Manning brothers pushes him into the top 16.
(4) Aaron Rodgers vs. (13) Luke Kuechly
Rodgers Discount Double Checked and prayed his way to the No. 4 seed in this contest, as his wild miracles on the field and appeal off the field makes him one of the most likable players in the league -- at least to most. Some cannot stand his late-game magic and don't believe he's one of the top two quarterbacks in the league.
Kuechly ranks right behind Watt as the best defensive player in the league as a force in the middle of Carolina's vaunted defense. He's a gritty, down-to-earth linebacker who handles his business like a true professional. His lack of off-field appeal may hurt him in this matchup.
(5) Drew Brees vs. (12) Von Miller
Brees is often regarded as a "nice guy" in the NFL -- a family man who helped rebuild New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. But he's not this highly rated because he's simply nice. The former Charger has set NFL offensive records as a Saint as he has boasted one of the most explosive attacks in the NFL the past several seasons.
The MVP of Super Bowl 50, Miller has soared up the likability ranks after a dominating season. Also: His strip-sack of Cam Newton and ensuing jokes pointed at Newton gained him some fans.
(6) Rob Gronkowski vs. (11) Steve Smith
It's hard to dislike Rob Gronkowski. He's like a big 14-year-old kid living out his dream as a player (both, you know, on and off the field...). He's constantly filmed and photographed while dancing or partying with females -- many, many females.
Gronkowski was also chosen to be on the cover of Madden 17, which was questionable but still indicative of his fan appeal. He's the most dominant tight end in the league and plays with Tom Brady. Whether you agree with his lifestyle or not, he's just a big ball of fun.
Steve Smith isn't nearly as large, literally and figuratively, but his fire and passion for the game is rivaled by few in the NFL. An undersized receiver, Smith decided to forego retirement to come back for another season this year. His energy is contagious, and it makes him fun to watch.
(7) Cam Newton vs. (10) Eric Berry
In the next two matchups, two of the most controversial players will be in play. Cam Newton, 2015's MVP, was one of the most intriguing -- if not the most intriguing -- players in the NFL. His story is well-documented: He left the University of Florida after stealing a laptop and then accepted money to play at Auburn.
He has had no off-field issues in the NFL, but it's his antics -- most notably, his touchdown celebrations -- that stir controversy. Cam Newton loves to have fun and is a big personality (ala Rob Gronkowksi), and he's not afraid to let you know when he tormented your defense. It's up to you to decide: Do you like Newton's personality and swagger?
Berry makes the list for a very different reason. One of the best safeties in the NFL, Berry was diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease last season after an MRI found a mass on the right side of his chest. He eventually missed the final 10 games of the 2014-15 season.
But he came back. Berry started 15 games in the 2015-16 season and returned to his Pro Bowl form. His widespread appeal may not be enough for him to win this contest, but it's hard to not root for Eric Berry.
(8) Marcus Mariota vs. (9) Tom Brady
Before even entering the NFL last season, a website told SportsCenter that Marcus Mariota was the most likable player in the league. That may be a bit extreme, but it's probably not far off. Fans loved Mariota coming out of Oregon, so much so they claimed he should be the No. 1 overall pick over Jameis Winston. (I always disagreed with that sentiment.)
His injury-riddled rookie season extinguished the flame that was his popularity early last season, but Mariota still holds the hearts of many NFL fans -- maybe more so than Tom Brady.
Brady is a difficult one to rank. The future Hall of Famer boasts unbelievably loyal fans, but at the same time he also has his fair share of critical haters (all for jealous and unfair reasons). I could be completely wrong seeding him No. 9, but if the critics come guns blazing, maybe I won't. People love to hate successful individuals.
Note: I'm sorry to disappoint by not including Johnny Manziel on the bracket. If you're so up in arms, leave a comment.
Make sure you check back for Round 2, which will start June 6.