In this season marked by kneeling during the national anthem by some players as they protest social injustice, three of those demonstrators are on the list of 32 nominees announced Thursday.
Seattle defensive end Michael Bennett, Philadelphia safety Malcolm Jenkins, and Miami wide receiver Kenny Stills often have been in the spotlight for their actions and words.
Their teammates who selected them as candidates for one of the league's most prestigious honors appear to be showing support for that trio's advocacy as well as for those players' contributions on and off the field.
"I think the nomination comes from everything that has been going on, from having the courage we had last year to sit out for something we felt strongly about," Stills says.
"And then all the work we've done here in the community, trying to bridge the gap between the community and the police. And the everyday work we're doing trying to better the city of Miami and our country."
Stills felt no surprise that Bennett and Jenkins also were nominated.
"I think our teammates see the commitment and passion from us," he adds. "It is hard not to recognize guys who are so committed to trying to help others. That's all it's about. I've been given an opportunity and platform to shine light and positivity on other people. I think guys around the league are being recognized for that."
Stills, Jenkins and Bennett have been targets of heavy criticism from outside the league for their protests, which they believe have been misconstrued as unpatriotic, as being against the anthem, flag and military.
That's not the message at all, Jenkins says.
"It has been my goal for the past two years to raise awareness about some important social injustices that plague our country," he says.
"The people who have been unjustly disenfranchised by our criminal justice system and the people who daily fight for them always have, and always will be, the inspiration and focus of my efforts.
"I'm proud of what my peers and I have been able to accomplish by using the platform we have these last two years. I'm proud to be part of a group of men who are standing up because we can help others. I'm proud of the men who may now disagree with me and our direction, but still played a significant role in getting results through our actions."
Being nominated for the Walter Payton Award hardly was on their minds when they took such action.
Whether they make the list of finalists to be announced in January, Stills, Jenkins and Bennett plan to continue on the same path.
There's been progress, they explain, including the NFL's recent establishment of an advocacy program within communities across the land. And when they get into those communities, the players recognize the value of their work.
Indeed, as Bennett says, they are being enriched, too.
"I think there's always that thing where you come in and you go, 'How much more can you do? How much more can you give?'" he says.
"For me, it's about if I want people to do stuff, then you have to be that type of example when it comes to giving back. If you want to lead people you have to be in the grass with them. For me, it's about doing that organic leadership.
"There was no particular event that made me do this. I just kind of always had a passion for people and a belief in people. To be able to use this platform for that is great."
A selection panel will be asked to vote for players based on involvement in the community and performance on the playing field. Finalists are announced in January during halftime of the AFC championship game.
The winner will be revealed at NFL Honors, when The Associated Press announces its individual award winners, on the night before the Super Bowl.
The panel consists of Commissioner Roger Goodell; NFL Senior Vice President of Social Responsibility Anna Isaacson; Pro Football Hall of Famer LaDainian Tomlinson, who won the award in 2006; last year's winners, Larry Fitzgerald and Eli Manning; representatives from NBC, Fox, CBS and ESPN; two national sports writers; Connie Payton, Walter's widow; Brian Gallagher, the CEO of United Way Worldwide; and Terrance Williams, the CMO of Nationwide, which is the presenting sponsor of the award.
Arizona Cardinals - Patrick Peterson
Atlanta Falcons - Ben Garland
Baltimore Ravens - Benjamin Watson
Buffalo Bills - Lorenzo Alexander
Carolina Panthers - Greg Olsen
Chicago Bears - Sam Acho
Cincinnati Bengals - Michael Johnson
Cleveland Browns - Randall Telfer
Dallas Cowboys - Travis Frederick
Denver Broncos - Chris Harris Jr.
Detroit Lions - Haloti Ngata
Green Bay Packers - Clay Matthews
Houston Texans - J.J. Watt
Indianapolis Colts - Darius Butler
Jacksonville Jaguars - Malik Jackson
Kansas City Chiefs - Alex Smith
Los Angeles Chargers - Casey Hayward
Los Angeles Rams - Rodger Saffold
Miami Dolphins - Kenny Stills
Minnesota Vikings - Kyle Rudolph
New England Patriots - Nate Solder
New Orleans Saints - Cameron Jordan
New York Giants - Mark Herzlich
New York Jets - Quincy Enunwa
Oakland Raiders - Bruce Irvin
Philadelphia Eagles - Malcolm Jenkins
Pittsburgh Steelers - Cameron Heyward
San Francisco 49ers - Bradley Pinion
Seattle Seahawks - Michael Bennett
Tennessee Titans - Wesley Woodyard
Tampa Bay Buccaneers - Clinton McDonald
Washington Redskins - Nick Sundberg
AP Pro Football Writer Rob Maaddi and Sports Writers Steven Wine and Tim Booth contributed.
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