The NFL’s All-Pro Team, selected by the Associated Press, is and always has been a much better indicator of individual dominance than Pro Bowl selections. But even the AP’s selections can often be misleading, elementary, and political. Having a big name, and past success, still counts. You can’t really blame the AP as many of the voters cover one team extensively and simply don’t have the time to pay close attention to the entire NFL. I’m not some All-22 analyst who’s watched every single snap of every single team, but I’ve watched a ton of football as always and with all the innovative statistical and analytical services available nowadays, selecting the right players for this team becomes a bit easier. The regular season wrapped up last night so now seems like a good time to start discussing this years best.
Here are my picks, based on their play throughout the year. I ended up going with three WR’s over a fullback (because that’s what it should be) and pretended this team would be a 3-4 defense with two edge-rushing LB’s and a nose tackle (because that’s what makes sense this year).
Numbers from Pro Football Reference, Football Outsiders, and Pro Football Focus.
Quarterback: Aaron Rodgers (Packers)
Rodgers locked up this spot, and probably the MVP award, with his impressive NFC-North winning performance yesterday. But I’m not going to buy into the “gutsy win” narrative. Yes, Rodgers’ calf was clearly in serious pain and he’s a tougher dude than me to play through it, but c’mon, any QB in a meaningful game is expected to weather that pain in the modern NFL, where in in-game pain-killing has become as easy as running the ball against the Colts. It’s not like he was playing on a torn ACL like Philip Rivers did that one time.
The narrative I am going to buy into is the “Rodgers may be the best QB of all time” narrative. This was the sixth straight season where Rodgers finished with a QB Rating over 100. This was the fourth season of Rodgers’ career where he threw more than 30 TD with single-digit INTs (would’ve done this last year as well if not for the injury). Rodgers averaged a ridiculous 9.5 Adjusted Yards per Attempt, even more ridiculous, that’s not even his career high (10.5 in 2011). He puts up yards in volume, he takes care of the football, he’s efficient, and he’s a killer in the red zone. There isn’t a flaw in Rodgers’ statistical resume.
But watching Rodgers do this has been even more impressive. He’s reached a level of control in pre-snap only surpassed by Peyton Manning; he essentially serves as his teams offensive coordinator. He’s got as much usable arm strength as anybody, and more importantly, understands his arm strength enough to be able to zip passes or float them in there when necessary. He leads his receivers perfectly on seemingly every throw. He has the best pocket presence in the NFL despite playing almost his entire career behind a suspect line. He can escape and pick up first downs with his legs. He just doesn’t make mistakes.
Rodgers has carried Green Bay for the last half-decade plus and they remain one of the most dependable franchises because of him. Whoever you think is the second-best QB in the NFL at the moment, well, that guy is a level below Aaron Rodgers. Whatever word you use to describe individual dominance, Rodgers is your guy. He’s the most valuable player in the league. He’s the most reliable. He’s the most indispensable. Aaron Rodgers is the best player in the NFL, and an easy choice for this spot.
Honorable Mentions: Tony Romo (Cowboys), Peyton Manning (Broncos), Ben Roethlisberger (Steelers)
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Running Back: DeMarco Murray (Cowboys)
I wanted to get cute here and pick somebody else, but much like with QB, this is an easy choice. Murray re-defined the identity of this team, and it lead to Dallas’ best season in over a decade. Detractors will point to Murray running behind the top run-blocking line in the league and the threat of Romo/Dez preventing defenses from stacking the box. While that’s all true, still, you don’t get over 2,200 yards from scrimmage (1,845 of them on the ground) if you’re not dominant.
Murray lead the NFL in Effective Yards (basically, defense-adjusted value over average on a per attempt basis). While he’s big and fast, what stands out most is his patience, a lost art with todays RB’s. He waits for his holes to develop and if he doesn’t see that happening he’ll hold close to the edge of the tackle or get right behind a guard in order to take what the defense is giving him. Murray also began to make an impact as a receiver late in the season. He’s great at pretending to take a handoff, drawing two LB’s towards him, then shaking them and getting open in the flat.
The biggest thing for Murray was probably staying healthy, as he played a full 16 for the first time in his career. Murray had an NFL-high 392 carries this season. His previous career high was 217.
Honorable Mentions: Marshawn Lynch (Seahawks), Jamaal Charles (Chiefs), Le’Veon Bell (Steelers)
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Wide Receivers: Antonio Brown (Steelers), Demaryius Thomas (Broncos), Odell Beckham Jr. (Giants)
I probably have a different top three here than most, so let’s go through them one by one.
Antonio Brown (129 rec, 1,698 yards, 13 TD) lead the NFL in both catches and yards, and did that all as a home-run threat as opposed to a Welker-esque possession guy. He’s the NFL’s best weapon at the moment and an easy choice. He’s the only guy that has to be in your top three. Just has to be. You could pick any of the guys I put in honorable mentions to fill out the other two spots, but Antonio Brown is the top dawg this year.
Demaryius Thomas (111 rec, 1,619 yards, 11 TD) was 2nd in yards and while his catch rate of 62% is a little lower than you’d like from an elite WR, that has more to do with the fact that many of his routes are vertical routes than Manning simply struggles to complete at this point. Demaryius, a matchup nightmare, is the reason guys like Julius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders are almost always running free in single coverage. In a year where smaller receivers stood out more than usual, Demaryius proved that a gigantic physical beast is still hard to top.
Let’s get one thing out of the way. The acronym for Beckham Jr. is OBJ….not ODB. ODB is the late Wu-Tang standout. Besides, “ODB” doesn’t even make sense for him considering the O and the D are both in his first name.
Back to his play. It’s a statistical fact that OBJ (91 rec, 1,305 yards, 12 TD) has been the NFLs most dominant WR on a per-game basis. If didn’t miss the first four games, he’d likely be leading all WRs in every major category. He’s that good. He’s single-handedly kept the Giants nationally relevant this year. His pristine footwork makes him one of the games most polished route-runners already, he has superb leaping ability and body control, and how about those hands. Beckham had a very impressive catch rate of 72%.
Honorable Mentions: Dez Bryant (Cowboys), Jordy Nelson (Packers), Julio Jones (Falcons), Emmanuel Sanders (Broncos), Jeremy Maclin (Eagles), T.Y. Hilton (Colts)
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Tight End: Rob Gronkowski (Patriots)
Gronk, coming back from another gruesome injury, turned in another all-time great season. You can pretend that Jimmy Graham is in the same league as him. You can pretend that Tony Gonzalez or anyone else was more dominant in their day. But you’d be pretending.
Gronk had 82 catches for 1,124 yards and 12 TDs in 15 games this year. He also didn’t fumble the ball and was once again the best run-blocking tight end in the league. If you look at Defense-Adjusted Yards above Replacement, which doesn’t even account for TDs or blocking, Gronk was 23% better than the second best TE (Antonio Gates). Gronk is the best TE in football, and it’s not even close.
Honorable Mentions: Antonio Gates (Chargers), Greg Olsen (Panthers), Heath Miller (Steelers)
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Offensive Tackles: Andrew Whitworth (LT, Bengals) and Ricky Wagner (RT, Ravens)
Ricky Wagner was lost for the season in week 16 but you cannot over-state his importance to Baltimore this year. Wagner wasn’t a great combine guy, which caused him to fall to the fifth round a couple years ago, but he’s developed into the best RT in the NFL. Justin Forsett owes a lot of gratitude to Wagner, and the Ravens will struggle to run in the playoffs without him.
The criminally underrated Whitworth was battling with Joe Thomas for this spot most of the year, but Big Whit pulled away in the end thanks to his dominance in the ground game as the Bengals began to lean on the run. Whitworth is also an elite pass protector, by the way.
Honorable Mentions: Joe Thomas (Browns), Jason Peters (Eagles), Sebastian Vollmer (Patriots), Jared Veldheer (Cardinals), Marcus Gilbert (Steelers)
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Interior Lineman: Josh Sitton (G, Packers), Zack Martin (G, Cowboys), Nick Mangold (C, Jets)
An ugly ankle injury at the end of the year isn’t enough to keep Mangold out of this spot. While mainstream media will continue to have you believe that only the Pouncey’s and Alex Mack are elite centers, the reality is, there’s a whole slew better than those guys and Mangold still is at the top. He had a bad 2013 but bounced back and dominated this year. The Jets suck. Nick Mangold does not.
Josh Sitton has finally gotten some national recognition for his work in Green Bay. He’s the best pass protecting guard in the game. The rookie Zack Martin deserves as much credit for Dallas’ dominance as anybody. I think it’s safe to say he was the right pick instead of Johnny Manziel.
Honorable Mentions: Marshal Yanda (Ravens), Rodney Hudson (Chiefs), Travis Frederick (Cowboys), Mike Iupati (49ers), Louis Vasquez (Broncos), Joel Bitonio (Browns)
Interior Rushers (3-4 DE’s and 4-3 DT’s): J.J. Watt (Texans) and Aaron Donald (Rams)
JJ Watt certainly made a strong MVP case, accounting for 20.5 sacks and 32 points (5 TD’s and a safety), while almost carrying Houston to the playoffs. He’s a terror who makes a major impact despite always being double-teamed and often even having a third guy shadow him. Watt has put together the most dominant defensive stretch since Reggie White or Lawrence Taylor. There’s nothing I can say that others haven’t. He’s the best defensive player in football.
Despite being just a rookie, Aaron Donald has already blossomed into one of the best interior rushers in the NFL and injuries to a couple other guys get him on this list. He’s just so explosive and is often in the backfield before the QB or RB can even process the development of the play. You expect your athletic LB’s and rushers to make plays like that. When one of your DT’s does it, it’s a major bonus.
Honorable Mentions: Calais Campbell (Cardinals), Gerald McCoy (Bucs), Ndamokung Suh (Lions), Sheldon Richardson (Jets), Fletcher Cox (Eagles)
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Nose Tackle: Marcell Dareus (Bills)
The entire Bills defensive front deserves props so I’ll give all of those to Dareus, their best player. He wasn’t a pure nose tackle at Alabama, but has become one in the NFL. He also rushes the passer (10 sacks). Dareus, just 25, is a franchise player for the Bills.
Looking at honorable mentions, Vince Wilfork deserves a ton of credit for bouncing back from a nasty injury last year and solidifying the Patriots defense.
Honorable Mentions: Vince Wilfork (Patriots), Dontari Poe (Chiefs), Johnathan Hawkins (Giants)
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Edge Rushers (3-4 OLBs and 4-3 DEs): Justin Houston (Chiefs) and Von Miller (Broncos)
Justin Houston had a league-leading and near record 22 sacks. I know that sacks aren’t always the best stat when looking at edge rushers, but that’s too many to ignore. He’s a free-agent now and will get paid big time if the Chiefs don’t franchise him. He carried their injury-plagued defense.
Von Miller wasn’t even at 100% this year and was still an absolute menace, especially in the run game, oddly enough. Miller’s transition from 3rd down rushing specialist to dominant all-around defender has been one of the more fascinating things to watch over the last few years. He’s a stud, and the best player on a very good Denver defense.
Honorable Mentions: Khalil Mack (Raiders), Robert Quinn (Rams), Cameron Wake (Dolphins), Elvis Dumervil (Ravens), Ryan Kerrigan (Redskins), Michael Bennett (Seahawks)
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Linebackers: DeAndre Levy (Lions) and Bobby Wagner (Seahawks)
It’s a complete joke that DeAndre Levy didn’t make the Pro Bowl. He’s the best linebacker in football at the moment. This year, on top of being elite in coverage, he became a tackling machine (led the league with 118). The Lions defense has been dominant despite a weak secondary mostly due to Levy’s versatility.
Wagner is the underrated star (finally made the Pro Bowl) in the Seahawks legendary defense. He fills gaps and finishes plays better than anyone in the league. He has the athleticism to cover and not be exposed as a tackler in the open field. I think Frank Gore described Wagner best when he said, “He’s fucking fast as fuck.”
Honorable Mentions: C.J. Mosley (Ravens), Luke Kuechly (Panthers), Lavonte David (Bucs), Brandon Marshall (Bears), Dont’a Hightower (Patriots), Daryl Smith (Ravens)
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Cornerbacks: Richard Sherman (Seahawks) and Vontae Davis (Colts)
Richard Sherman was again absolutely dominant against a tough schedule. He’s the prototypical zone coverage guy with his length and athleticism. He also continues to improve in man coverage and against the run. Sherman may not have been quite as loud this year, but he was just as good. With all due respect to the elite player that is Darrelle Revis, Sherman has emerged from the pack and established himself as the best corner in the game.
After Andrew Luck, Vontae Davis is probably the Colts most important player. Their inability to stop the run limits their the pass rush, which leaves Davis on an island with the opponents best receiver nearly every snap. He answered the call this year and was, statistically speaking, the best lockdown corner in the league.
Save for a couple games, Darrelle Revis was dominant. The Broncos duo was great as well. Brent Grimes and Corey Graham continue to fly under the radar. Orlando Scandrick had by far the best season of his strange career.
Honorable Mentions: Brent Grimes (Dolphins), Darrelle Revis (Patriots), Chris Harris (Broncos), Aqib Talib (Broncos), Corey Graham (Bills), Orlando Scandrick (Cowboys)
Pro Bowl guys who were actually bad this year: Joe Haden (Browns) and Patrick Peterson (Cardinals)
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Safeties: Earl Thomas (Seahawks) and Tashaun Gipson (Browns)
Earl Thomas wasn’t quite as good as we’re used to seeing for much of the season but made so many key plays over the Seahawks 6-game winning streak down the stretch. He’s such a savvy player who also happens to be the fastest safety in the NFL. He can hit too.
Unless you’re a Browns fans you’ve probably never heard of Tashaun Gipson, and that’s not your fault, since the media ignores him. He’s the backbone, and best player, on this Browns defense. The Browns corners had a rough go of it this year and the only reason that the team wasn’t completely destroyed by the pass was Gipson.
Honorable Mentions: Devin McCourty (Patriots), Harrison Smith (Vikings), Eric Weddle (Chargers), Antoine Bethea (49ers)
Punter: Johnny Hekker (Rams)
Kicker: Matt Bryant (Falcons)
Kick Returner: Adam Jones (Bengals)
Punt Returner: Darren Sproles (Eagles)
Gunners: Josh Martin (Chiefs) and Dre Kirkpatrick (Bengals)
That’s all I got. I’m looking forward to the playoffs. Peace.