The NFL has become a league based on highlights. As the line between fantasy and real football continues to blur in many peoples eyes a couple of highlight plays in a big game, or a single sentence from a respected commentator can mean the difference between being in Hawaii or not. Last year, DeAngelo Hall picked off Jay Cutler four times in a game and it was “pack your bags” right there and then. Who cares during the season he allowed more touchdowns than picks he made, and who cares only Mike Jenkins gave up more yards?
I have a view that if you give me ANY regular NFL starter, I can choose ten plays from this season’s body of work that will make him look like a Pro Bowler. Conversely, for the same player, I could choose ten plays that will make him look like benching material. The point is that it’s not those plays that matter. It’s the thousand in between that count for substantially more than the 20 on the perimeter.
Let’s look at who deserves recognition when we take every play into consideration.
Offense (starters bolded)
Quarterbacks: Tom Brady (NE), Ben Roethlisberger (PIT) & Ryan Fitzpatrick (BUF)
There’s a big gap between Brady and the others, but with Schaub now out whose next? Unbelievable as it may sound the level of play at this position in the AFC is so low it’s down to either Fitzpatrick or Matt Moore (MIA). Obviously if Schaub was still playing he’d be well ahead of these two but we have an 11 of 15 game base-line and clearly he won’t be hitting that.
Halfbacks: Maurice Jones-Drew (JAX), Arian Foster (HOU) & Cedric Benson (CIN)
Another player to fall at the last hurdle of our minimum number of games criteria was Fred Jackson (BUF). His work as a receiver and a pass blocker would have put him out in front but as with all these choices, it’s really a case of which skill-set you value most. Lack of fumbling is one of those and Jones-Drew only just overcomes his problems in that area. Arian Foster, as with Jackson, is solid in all areas (except hanging onto the ball) and therefore we’ll take the more sure-handed Cedric Benson (CIN) to round out the set despite him not doing much as a receiver.
Fullback: Vonta Leach (BAL)
More snaps than any other fullback and blocking better than anyone in the conference. I understand Raider fans will probably see a place for Marcel Reece (OAK) who does a fantastic job both rushing and receiving. He’s a weapon all right but a blocker? Sorry, in that regard he’s bottom third which isn’t a surprise as he’s a converted wide receiver.
Tight Ends: Rob Gronkowski (NE) & Owen Daniels (HOU)
Take away the penalties and you have the perfect tight end in Gronkowski; the best pass catcher in the AFC and the best blocker in the whole of the NFL. After that it’s pick your poison with good receivers who can’t block – Daniels and Antonio Gates (SD), or decent blockers who don’t get enough receptions – Anthony Fasano (MIA) and Joel Dreessen (HOU). Daniels’ zero dropped passes swayed me in his direction.
Wide Receivers: Wes Welker (NE), Mike Wallace (PIT), Dwayne Bowe (KC) & Antonio Brown (PIT)
Brandon Marshall (MIA) continues to drop passes at an alarming rate which brought me down to a choice between Anquan Boldin (BAL) and Brown for the last spot. Antonio who? Pittsburgh fans will already know him but I’m not sure any wide receiver has done as much good work over the last five weeks as Brown. 102, 67, 109, 86 and 81 yards respectively is making Roethlisberger’s life a lot easier. As for Boldin, he’s had some great days but been a little boom or bust for my tastes.
Tackles: Joe Thomas, LT (CLE), Eric Winston, RT (HOU) & Michael Roos LT (TEN)
Nobody has pass protected better over the last seven weeks than Thomas. In those games he’s given up only one sack, four hurries and no hits. David Stewart (TEN) has actually done a slightly better job in pass protection than Winston but he’s not close to the run blocker the Texan right tackle is. Roos (TEN) is the next man up with a very balanced performance, just pushing him ahead of Andrew Whitworth (CIN) who’s run-blocking is too far behind his excellent work in pass protection.
Guards: Andy Levitre, LG (BUF), Marshall Yanda RG, (BAL) & Brian Waters, RG (NE)
Levitre may not be at the top of our guard rankings yet but I’m calling foul. Up until last week, when he returned to his normal position, he’d started three games at tackle and another at center. I’m not saying he was great at either but he was better than a lot of the usual starting players across the league in those positions. Please join me in ensuring he at least gets his reward of a Pro Bowl berth.
Centers: Chris Myers (HOU) & Nick Mangold (NYJ)
I’m fairly sure, given how far he is ahead in our rankings, no one will beat Myers to the starting job but Mangold is still in a race for the back up position with Jeff Saturday (IND) and Matt Birk (BAL) hot on his heels.
Defensive Ends: Terrell Suggs (BAL), Andre Carter (NE) & Brett Keisel (PIT)
Suggs is nailed on as the best DE in the AFC – to those who say he’s an OLB, lining up with his hand on the ground 56% of the time and (more importantly) dropping in coverage only 11.5% of the time says he’s not. From a perspective of rushing the passer Antonio Smith (HOU) deserves a mention but too many penalties (seven),and a weakness against the run, keep him just off the plane.
Defensive/Nose Tackles: Geno Atkins (CIN), Richard Seymour (OAK) & Haloti Ngata (BAL)
All these guys do a great job vs. run and pass but for those of you who like your zero techniques there are two guys playing lights out stopping the run for their respective teams. Sione Pouha (NYJ) does a brilliant job in that regard as does Broderick Bunkley (DEN). I’d love to find space for either but the trio at the top are all too balanced to omit.
Outside Linebackers: Von Miller (DEN), Kamerion Wimbley (OAK) & Cameron Wake (MIA)
OK, I’ve seen enough. It has to be said. All this talk of Miller for the Defensive Rookie of the Year is sadly missing the point by as much as Blaine Gabbert misses his receivers. Von Miller is the best defensive player in the NFL. Period. Sam Monson is working on an article going into more detail as you read this but if you can’t wait then beg, borrow or steal some tape of the Denver defense and you’ll see exactly where we’re coming from. In other news, as saddened as I am to leave out PFF favorite Daryl Smith (JAX), there was no way I could ignore Wake’s sheer quantity of pressure.
Middle linebackers: Ray Lewis (BAL) & Brian Cushing (HOU)
I’m happy with the top two but lots of guys have played well in this position. To mention a couple of guys just missing out, Derrick Johnson (KC) and Paul Posluszny (JAX) have had excellent seasons despite all the turmoil around them.
Cornerbacks: Johnathan Joseph (HOU), Darrelle Revis (NYJ) & Lardarius Webb (BAL)
A couple of sub-par games haven’t got me off the Revis bandwagon yet but Joseph is the man with the momentum. Not only does Webb have a rating of only 58.6 throwing into his coverage but he’s yet to give up a touchdown as well.
Safeties: Ed Reed (BAL), Jarius Byrd (BUF) & Eric Weddle (SD)
As much as I love Troy Polamalu, his maddening inconsistency particularly in coverage, has driven me into the arms of others. Coverage ratings for safeties do need to be used with caution but 57.2 (Reed), 79.9 (Byrd) and 38.5 (Weddle) are all so much better than Polamalu’s 105.8 that its worth mentioning in this context.
Kicker: Sebastian Janikowski (OAK), Punter: Shane Lechler (OAK), Returner: Antonio Brown (PIT), ST: Jeromy Miles (CIN)
Quarterbacks: Aaron Rodgers (GB), Drew Brees (NO) & Eli Manning (NYG)
After Monday night there were a few people mentioning Brees over Rodgers but that’s another example of the highlight mentality, mentioned above, coming out. How soon they forget how poorly he played against the Rams in week eight. To make it interesting Matt Ryan (ATL) has been excellent the last three weeks and almost pushed himself ahead of Manning. However, the Giant is still doing it with far less help and it will be a close fought battle for third.
Halfbacks: Matt Forte (CHI), LeSean McCoy (PHI) & Adrian Peterson (MIN)
It was a real tough choice between Forte and McCoy to start but when you consider the relative run-blocking skills of their teams the choice becomes much easier. Don’t count Peterson out yet either. He was just rounding into a great vein of form when he was sidelined by an ankle injury and it remains to be seen if he’ll be back this week.
Fullback: Jed Collins (NO)
Still easily at the top of the tree but did have a relatively poor game against the Falcons linebackers in week 10.
Tight Ends: Jimmy Graham (NO) & Tony Gonzalez (ATL)
What’s wrong with me? Of the four tight ends I’ve chosen (AFC and NFC) only one is blocking well; Rob Gronkowski. To be fair to Graham he’s not terrible in that regard and earning nearly 1000 yards and 8 touchdowns overcomes a lot. Gonzalez is nowhere near the blocker he once was but the way he’s helped out Matt Ryan get better the last few weeks speaks volumes about him. No Jason Witten (DAL)? I never thought the day would come but three dropped passes, a fumble and some substandard work in the running game shows we have no time for favorites at PFF.
Wide Receivers: Calvin Johnson (DET), Larry Fitzgerald (ARZ) Greg Jennings (GB) & Steve Smith (CAR)
Johnson is an awesome specimen but surely the best receiver in football is Fitzgerald. With who he’s had throwing to him the last couple of years most players would have crumbled. Fitzgerald has done more to impress me in this period than when he had the great Kurt Warner as his teammate – and he was brilliant then. Jordy Nelson (GB) has also pushed himself into contention recently but a player we have to see more of is Percy Harvin (MIN). Just get him the ball and few will do more with it.
Tackles: Jason Peters, LT (PHI), Bryan Bulaga, RT (GB) & Tryon Smith, RT (DAL)
A massive thank you to Peters from all at PFF for ensuring, after his return from injury, we didn’t have to shoehorn a substandard player onto the team. In his last five games he’s allowed an otherworldly low of 4 hurries. It’s also good to see Bulaga back and playing as well as he did before his knee problem.
Guards: Evan Mathis, LG (PHI), Josh Sitton, RG (GB) & Carl Nicks, LG (NO)
Mathis is the epitome of consistency; he hasn’t graded negatively once this year and is yet to give up a sack either. He won’t make the Pro Bowl but that won’t be because of any failing on his part – the system has that to answer for. I’ve had questions about this being a down year for Sitton, mostly based on his six penalties and while it’s true he’s not playing at the same level as 2010 he’s still just ahead of Jahri Evans (NO) at this point.
Centers: John Sullivan (MIN) & Scott Wells (GB)
The last time I wrote this article I said this: “If I were a betting man I say nothing moves at this position in the NFC”. Good job I’m not because after a poor showing against the Bears (and Stephen Paea in particular) Sullivan has been superb and overtaken Ryan Kalil (CAR). In that period he’s given up no pressure, no penalties and run blocked well. It’s now down to Kalil and Max Unger (SEA) to see if they can make up ground on these two.
Defensive Ends: Justin Smith (SF), Jared Allen (MIN) & Ray McDonald (SF)
Still the same as last time so let me make note of a couple of guys pushing for inclusion. Trent Cole (PHI) is back but looked at half speed until he picked it up against the Patriots. However, what he did before injury will always leave him with a shot here. In addition Calais Campbell (ARZ) is coming up fast. He has five more defensive stops (37) than any other defensive end.
Defensive/Nose Tackles: Jay Ratliff (DAL), Kevin Williams (MIN) & Cullen Jenkins (PHI)
With great balance to their games the first two guys pick themselves but after that it was down to a pass rusher (Jenkins) against a run stuffer in Alan Branch (Sea). Branch lost out on this occasion (by the slightest of margins) but it will probably come down to the final game on this choice.
Outside Linebackers: Clay Matthews (GB), DeMarcus Ware (DAL) & Sean Weatherspoon (ATL)
No change at all here. Brian Orakpo (WAS) gets consistent pressure and Erin Henderson (MIN) was doing a superb job bringing down running backs before his injury, but they are both still some ways off the top three.
Middle linebackers: Patrick Willis (SF) & NaVorro Bowman (SF)
Bowman plays the run as well as any linebacker in the league while Willis is the best coverage player around at the position. It’s not that either player is lacking in the other facet of the game (in our rankings Willis is 5th against the run and Bowman 9th in coverage) but I say this more to highlight what a fantastic combination they make. Stephen Tulloch (DET) has dropped off a little after a superb start but is still playing well, and Daryl Washington (ARZ) is one to watch both now and going forward.
Cornerbacks: Brent Grimes (ATL), Carlos Rogers (SF) & Tramon Williams (GB)
The starters were easy to select but after that it gets tricky. Antoine Winfield (MIN) has missed too much time and is on now on injured reserve. Williams has been inconsistent and new pretender to the throne, Richard Sherman (SEA) has only started since week eight managed a whole eight snaps prior to week 5.
Safeties: Adrian Wilson (ARZ), Kenny Phillips (NYG) & Kam Chancellor (SEA)
I picked Chancellor for this team as a starter after week 7 and how does he reward me? Three of five negatively graded games, six of his eight missed tackles and five of his seven penalties since then. How do I respond? I put him on the bench. Don’t think that’s a mark of loyalty on my part, just an example of the shortage of decent safety play in the NFC.
Kicker: David Akers (SF), Punter: Andy Lee (SF), Returner: Patrick Peterson (AZ), ST: Colt Anderson (PHI)