It’s Pro Bowl week, also known as the 24th or 25th best weekend of the National Football League season!
What better way than to kick off the festivities than a look at our PFF choices for the Pro Bowl spots. Since it’s only a theory, we don’t have to worry about injuries, surgeries, replacements or other commitments — just the men that should make up the official team.
We’ve already given you the NFC; next up, the AFC.
Quarterback: Philip Rivers (Chargers)
Backups: Tom Brady (Patriots) and Peyton Manning (Colts)
Rivers gets the start after another superb year. He overcame injuries to his top three receiving threats, but the collapse of the Chargers’ special teams left them too much to do to make the playoffs. Brady was nearly flawless, but his stock in our analysis suffered a bit because he wasn’t challenged as much as others. Manning was a consensus number three, because even with all those interceptions he still did enough to get a team into the play-offs very few other could have.
Running Back: Jamaal Charles (Chiefs)
Backups: Peyton Hillis (Browns) and Arian Foster (Texans)
The whole PFF team went with the exhilarating Charles and his 6.3 YPC average. It’s amazing to think what he could do if he didn’t have to share the load quite so much with Thomas Jones. Foster was unanimous as well, though it should be noted his offensive line earned him a lot of those yards. There was a bit of debate as to whether Hillis or Maurice-Jones Drew would earn the final spot, but Hillis won out (much to my chagrin) where I couldn’t debate that they he was superb in every aspect (except ball security).
Fullback: Greg Jones (Jaguars)
Did Vonta Leach deserve to go on the back of good games to start and end the season? Not in our view — for us Jones really got the job done more regularly with some of the best fullback performances of the year.
Tight End: Marcedes Lewis (Jaguars)
Backup: Rob Gronkowski (Patriots)
It’s good to see a guy like Lewis who we graded so well in 2009 break out as expected in 2010. The only thing missing from Lewis’ game is consistency — with this, he’d challenge Jason Witten as the most complete TE in the league. The second spot came down to Gronkowski and Antonio Gates, and as unbelievably as Gates was playing as a receiver, his injury-shortened season and poor run blocking gives the excellent rookie the nod. Ben Stockwell was happy enough to give us Gronkowski as long as Tony Moeaki got a mention for his excellent in line blocking. Happy Ben?
Wide Receivers: Brandon Lloyd (Broncos) and Andre Johnson (Texans)
Backups: Mike Wallace (Steelers) and Dwayne Bowe (Chiefs)
Lloyd didn’t just have a good year on the stat sheet. He had a great year in terms of making play after sensational play. The other starter is Johnson who, even playing hurt, was unstoppable at times. If there’s a guy you want going deep, his name is probably Mike Wallace. He would scare the life out of most defensive backs. Rounding it up, Bowe beat competition from chain-moving superstar Davone Bess with Bowe’s top games producing some of the best results we have seen from a WR.
Tackles: Jake Long (Dolphins) and Marshal Yanda (Ravens)
Back Up: Andrew Whitworth (Bengals)
They weren’t as good as last year, but credit the AFC’s tackles for wiping the floor with their NFC counterparts. Long wasn’t the same player after injury (he hadn’t given up a sack beforehand), but held off the challenge of Whitworth for the LT spot on the back of a solid end to the season despite his troubles. Not a great year for right tackles, with Yanda kicking out to the spot for the Ravens and performing admirably. Just how good would Yanda be if he could consistently play in one position?
Guards: Wade Smith (Texans) and Bobbie Williams (Bengals)
Back Up: Ben Grubbs (Ravens)
Best value offseason signing? Wade Smith. Make no mistake about it, Logan Mankins would have got the nod here, but he just didn’t play enough even though his end of the season performance was as good as it gets for a guard. Still Smith deserves his spot, and while Williams wasn’t dominant as a run blocker, he did only give up 13 QB disruptions on the year in a weak AFC class. Grubbs just edged out Kris Dielman, as much for his consistency as anything else (and Dielman had a substandard pass blocking grade).
Center: Matt Birk (Ravens)
Back Up: Nick Mangold (Jets)
It was a real tough decision between the two. Mangold’s rating was impacted by injury, but he didn’t distance himself from Birk who finished the season stronger. We couldn’t complain with either man starting, though it is a tribute to hype and team success that Maurkice Pouncey was handed a Pro Bowl spot in front of the Raven.
Defensive Ends: Terrell Suggs (Ravens) and Dwight Freeney (Colts)
Back Up: Jason Babin (Titans)
Suggs got his Pro Bowl spot, but at the wrong position. While the Ravens use a hybrid, Suggs plays with his hand in the ground far more often as part of a four-man line and drops in coverage far less than a linebacker. Why won’t people accept this? Regardless, he was superb, and while Freeney earned his start on the back of his pass rushing alone, Suggs made plays in every phase (not bad when you consider he played more snaps than any other defensive end). Titans left end Babin finally realized his potential, even if he did get caught on an awful lot of penalties in the process.
Defensive Tackles: Kyle Williams (Bills) and Haloti Ngata (Ravens)
Backpp: Antonio Garay (Chargers)
If you’re a reader of Pro Football Focus, you know how highly we rate Williams. He had a season for the ages this year. He’ll be partnered by the excellent Ngata. Too often in the past, Ngata has mixed dominant plays with long periods of inactivity and this was the first year he kept his level of play up all season. It’s amazing to think Garay can’t get on the field more considering his impact rushing the passer or disrupting the run. Expect to see him used a lot more in nickel next year.
Outside Linebackers: Tamba Hali (Chiefs) and James Harrison (Steelers)
Back Up: Cameron Wake (Dolphins)
You can’t have a Pro Bowl and not have any of these men. Their seasons were simply too good. In Hali, you have a guy who on a per-rush, per-play basis is the most productive pass rusher in the league. Not surprisingly, he led the league in QB disruptions. In Harrison, you have the most complete outside linebacker in the league; rush, defend the run, cover, he does it all superbly. Finally with Wake, you have someone who maintained a high level of play throughout the year, and wasn’t the liability in run defense the coaches seemed to think he was in limiting his snaps in 2009.
Inside Linebacker: Lawrence Timmons (Steelers)
Back Up: Bart Scott (Jets)
While Jerod Mayo made a lot of tackles and Ray Lewis was handed a lifetime achievement award, it was Timmons and Scott who most impressed us. Scott is a freak of nature, he blows up plays by attacking blockers head on and more often than not pushing them into places they don’t want to go. There isn’t a better guy in the league at it, and this is usually much harder work than the guy who simply comes along and tackles the slowed runner. Still, it’s Timmons who gets the start for his ability to do it all. A real breakout year for the Steeler.
Cornerbacks: Champ Bailey (Broncos) and Brandon Flowers (Chiefs)
Backup: Nnamdi Asomugha (Raiders)
Not a bad division for cornerbacks is the AFC West, is it? It’s a shame rookies Devin McCourty and Joe Haden play in the AFC, because they’d both have made our NFC team given their tremendous years. Bailey allowed 442 yards on the 66 balls thrown his way while breaking up 12 passes, and remains near the top of his game. While Flowers didn’t continue the season as he started it (he was created his own island for a time) he still did enough to hold out the youngsters. Asomugha was only targeted 29 times and it’s instructive that he broke up almost half as many passes (six) as were completed (13). As for Darrelle Revis, he might have been playing as well as anyone the last six weeks of the year, but that doesn’t counterbalance a slow start.
Safeties: Michael Huff (Raiders) and Troy Polamalu (Steelers)
Backup: Eric Weddle (Chargers)
Huff had never really lived up to expectations, but he was quite good in Oakland this year and did a little bit of everything. He wasn’t the player in coverage Ed Reed was, but again we choose to downgrade the Ravens’ star because of all the missed time. Polamalu was one of those easy selections where the play lived up to the reputation — although not to the Defensive Player of the Year level that seems to be taken for granted. Weddle had a good year, but had some issues down the stretch that just lost him our starting spot to Huff.
Kicker: Billy Cundiff (Ravens)
The man with the leg of a donkey. Did a solid job with his field goal kicking, but it was the impact of his kick-offs which was huge for the Ravens, especially in the first half.
Punter: Shane Lechler (Raiders)
Our top graded punter. No surprise there.
Returner: Marc Mariani (Titans)
Made some big plays and consistently gave the Titans good field position.
Special Teamer: T.J. Ward (Browns)
Edged out Kassim Osgood (how did the Jags’ Montell Owens make the team over him?) with some excellent work. Even though Ward didn’t work as a gunner, he still made plenty of tackles and blocked a field goal.