As much love as we have for the best offensive players in the game, it’s the defenders that we take the most joy in breaking down and grading.
Where stats can give you a pretty good (but incomplete) idea of what an offensive player is doing, stats are largely useless in looking at the defensive side of the ball. A guy with six or seven interceptions might make the Pro Bowl despite doing a shoddy job in coverage and run defense (DeAngelo Hall, we’re looking at you).
Meanwhile, a pass rusher with only a moderate amount of sacks can in truth be causing much havoc and keying his defense in other ways (Julius Peppers being a prime example).
After group meetings, hours of reflection and a brief trip inside a Native American sweat lodge, here are our defensive All-Pros for 2010. Oh, and special teams too. Fewer hours in the sweat lodge there.
Defensive Ends: Justin Smith (San Francisco) and Trent Cole (Philadelphia)
Backups: Charles Johnson (Carolina) and Julius Peppers (Chicago)
A dilemma of sorts in terms of what to do with Justin Smith — do we put him at DT, as a 3-4 end, or at defensive end? In the end we decided to have him at end, and as a result there’s no place in either the first or second string for the excellent Terrell Suggs. Cole beats out Charles Johnson for the first-team spot, despite Johnson besting him in stops and QB disruptions — in our opinion Cole plays the run too well to ignore. So the final decision came down to Peppers or Suggs as our last DE. It was close in nearly all categories but one; Suggs batted down one pass, Peppers six (he was credited with more in the official NFL stats), and in the end that was probably the difference.
Defensive Tackles: Kyle Williams (Buffalo) and Haloti Ngata (Baltimore)
Backups: Kevin Williams (Minnesota) and Antonio Garay (San Diego)
If you’ve clicked on PFF before you know how much we appreciate the play of Kyle Williams in 2010 so there was no doubt he was starting here. The Bills’ defense might have been a bit of a horror show, but Williams showed that you can still reach great heights individually in a hopeless effort. Ngata joins him on the defensive line, as he finally added some consistency to his play. His modus operandi previously was one of a highlight play followed by very flat production and while that builds hype, it does little in our system. This year there was a lot more substance to his game. Special mention to Garay, who didn’t just do what you want from a nose tackle, he was also an extremely productive pass-rusher — he picked up 6 sacks, 5 hits and 18 hurries on 250 pass rushes. Compare that with Pro Bowl-bound Vince Wilfork (also a strong player), who got 2 sacks, 2 hits and 13 hurries from 424 attempts to get to the QB.
Outside Linebackers: James Harrison (Pittsburgh) and Tamba Hali (Kansas City)
Backups: Cameron Wake (Miami) and DeMarcus Ware (Dallas)
Really tough choosing two from these four (and more). You have to have Hali in there as the guy who terrorized quarterbacks more than any other player; no one even came close to his 95 overall pressures (combined sacks, hits and hurries). As for Harrison, it’s a shame the penalties (a league leading 10 among linebackers) and helmet hits detracted from a season that was every bit as good as that which earned him DPOY a couple of years back.
Last year we highlighted the fact that Wake was pass rush for pass rush as good as anyone around, but his playing time was limited due to concerns as a run defender. This gave Joey Porter the majority of the snaps but as it transpired the only thing Porter could actually do better was talk trash. Ware didn’t have his best year, particularly playing the run, but Ware at 80 percent is always likely to be better than 100 percent for all but a handful of players.
Inside Linebacker: Lawrence Timmons (Pittsburgh)
Backup: Patrick Willis (San Francisco)
He doesn’t blow guys up like Bart Scott, blitz like Patrick Willis, nor cover like Derrick Johnson. But of all inside linebackers Timmons does everything so well, he just edges out Willis (who started and finished in un-Willis like fashion) to this spot.
Cornerbacks: Champ Bailey (Denver) and Brandon Flowers (Kansas City)
Backups: Nnamdi Asomugha (Oakland ) and Antoine Winfield (Minnesota)
We said in preseason that the AFC West would be home to some excellent cornerback play this year, and as it turned out all but one of our choices came from that division. Bailey may not be the athlete he once was (by his own words) but he brought his “A” game this year and showed he has plenty left in the tank. Flowers was as good as it got earlier but had some troubles later, which almost saw Asomugha overtake him. Winfield just edges out the AFC rookies, Devin McCourty and Joe Haden, in large part due to his superior work in run defense. As our Sam Monson delights in pointing out, “one of the silliest things in football is running a screen to his side of the field.” End result: Failure.
Safeties: Michael Huff (Oakland) and Quintin Mikell (Philadelphia)
Backups: Eric Weddle (San Diego) and Troy Polamalu (Pittsburgh)
More AFC West power. We opted for Huff over Weddle as our starter on the back of his coverage skills, but you also can’t ignore his versatility — his timing of blitzes was an underrated part of his game. Mikell’s selection was never in doubt, because unlike a lot of other guys who live purely off highlights his game is built on much surer foundations. He only had one poor rating all year, and it wasn’t even that poor. Polamalu was up there with him, but had a rough stretch at midseason and missed time at the end. Weddle is one of those guys who just does a fantastic job — whatever is asked of him — but sometimes we ask ourselves how much more effective he might be if he got to play closer to the line of scrimmage more often; he was our 3rd-rated safety in run support.
Kicker: Billy Cundiff (Baltimore)
Backup: Rob Bironas (Tennessee)
Ever seen seven guys argue about kickers? In particular how valuable field goal kicking is compared to kickoffs? It’s not pretty. Ultimately we acknowledged what Cundiff did for his team’s field position, even though there probably isn’t anyone other than Bironas we’d want kicking a big field goal.
Punter: Shane Lechler (Oakland)
Backup: Mat McBriar (Dallas)
Even when he was playing hurt Lechler was still as good as anyone. The best punter of his generation? The best punter of any generation? He hasn’t had a single poor game in the three years we’ve been grading, and he kicks outdoors at sea level.
Returner: Devin Hester (Chicago)
Backup: Marc Mariani (Tennessee)
As the NFL promo voiceover reminds us repeatedly, “Devin Hester, you … are … ridiculous!” Despite half as many total attempts as the other top returners, he graded out No. 1. Punting the ball out-of-bounds every play against him should be the goal. Mariani has been one of the pleasant surprises in an ultimately disappointing Titans season.
Special Teamer: Corey Graham (Chicago)
Backup: T.J. Ward (Cleveland)
Graham was the league’s most active special teamer, but Ward deserves a special mention for racking up so many tackles despite not being one of the Browns’ gunners.