Can New Orleans safety Darren Sharper win the MVP award this season, an award so quarterback-driven that we forget to even discuss the defensive side of the football when we talk about the likes of Manning, Brees, Brady and Favre?

Maybe I’m thinking too far outside the box this morning, but I think a case can be built to have Sharper in the discussion with the rest of those big names and possibly become the first defensive player since 1986 to win the NFL’s MVP — when Lawrence Taylor took it home.

But L.T. was dominant, wasn’t he?

Yes, and Sharper has been dominant too this season, running full stride in Gregg Williams’ defensive scheme in New Orleans -- jumping routes, making tackles in the open field and making more big plays than any defensive player in the league. Seven interceptions, three of them returned for touchdowns. Think back to the Jets game and the 99-yard return Sharper had for a score, or the Dolphins game, when he took another one back 42 yards for a TD. Game-changing plays? Winning plays? Without a doubt.

The interesting thing about Sharper is that no one wanted him last offseason after he left the Vikings. No one. The Bears kicked his name around, but there was never really any interest there, and he wound up signing with New Orleans after Williams arrived — because he needed a safety, a ball-hawking safety to make plays in his scheme. It doesn’t work without one — and he has to be aggressive. It was news, but not big news like Albert Haynesworth.

As our own Michael Lombardi will tell you, Sharper isn’t the type of player who’s going to “wow” you in a personal workout, but all the guy does is make plays when he’s in uniform on the field.

I know that defensive scheme in New Orleans, and I know Sharper’s game from playing with him in Green Bay. He’s aggressive to a fault, cheating so close to the line of scrimmage at times that you don’t know how he’s going to get back to his coverage. But he does, and he makes plays while he’s at it. A perfect fit for Williams, and a perfect fit for the 7-0 Saints — without question the league’s best team.

Does that make him the winner of my midseason MVP award? Let’s see how he stacks up against my other four candidates to take home the fictional hardware.

Peyton Manning, Colts

I think Manning is playing the best football of his career, but what impresses me most are the players he’s doing it with -- Pierre Garcon, Austin Collie. Names the everyday fan didn’t know before the season, but names we all know now because of Manning, Yes, he still has Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark, but it all leads back to him. He’s thrown for 300-plus yards in six of the Colts’ first seven games, with 15 TDs and only four INTs, and has this team sitting at 7-0. He’s everyone’s frontrunner right now.

Drew Brees, Saints

It’s hard not to vote for Brees, who’s leading the league’s No. 1 offense — an offense that’s scoring almost 40 points a game. Brees is completing almost 70 percent of his passes, has thrown 16 TDs and isn’t afraid to challenge any secondary in the league — which can lead to days when he fills up the box score. But what’s most impressive about Brees is his leadership. The entire Saints team rallies around this guy, and that offense would be lost without him.

Cedric Benson, Bengals

Benson is a sleeper in this discussion, but so are the Bengals, who are 5-2 and in first place in the AFC North. I like Benson because he’s made this Cincy ball club more balanced and has allowed it to operate under the belief that the running game, not Carson Palmer, is going to win games. He’s currently fourth in the league with 720 yards and five TDs but is averaging over 103 yards in the seven games the Bengals have played in ’09. Yes, the Bengals have been a surprise, and Palmer and Ochocinco will garner most of the credit, but this isn’t a first-place team without Benson.

Brett Favre, Vikings

Sure, Favre will get some sentimental votes because of who he is and the story that’s following him at his age, but let’s be honest -- the guy is playing some great football. He has the Vikings on top of the NFC North, and despite the talent around him — including Adrian Peterson — Favre is without question the reason the Vikings will win the North and go deep into January. He has 16 TDs and only three INTs on the season so far. Where are those games we all expected where Favre drops back and throws it up for anyone to catch? The reality is that they aren’t happening for the 7-1 Vikings.

The midseason MVP is…Sharper

My reasoning is simple: Sharper has made the Saints more than a contender, which is what they were before he signed in the offseason. Instead, they are now Super Bowl favorites at the midpoint of the 2009 season. I love Brees’ game, and I love that the Saints have found a way to run the ball and control the clock, but they’ll win games down the stretch because of the big plays Sharper will make. And when January comes around — defense wins.

This is Sharper’s defense down in New Orleans. Who Dat?

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Check back later this afternoon for the rest of my NFL midseason report.