PFF’s AFC Pro Bowl Squad

| December 23, 2011

So here it is, the one the players really want to see. No hype, no bias, just a simple acknowledgement that–on the field of play, for the first 14 games of 2011–they were among the best at their position. It’s not based on highlight reels and you get as much credit for playing well early as you do late (during the regular season, winning the first game counts the same in the standings as winning the last).

We absolutely don’t lean towards players from teams that have the best records. It’s the ultimate capitulation to the power of hype when a coach says “yes he played well, but for him to get any recognition we have to play better as a team”. Why? This is about selecting the best players, not about the laziness of people who can’t be bothered to watch or research teams that are playing poorly.

 

 

Our Process

We balloted our team–guys that spend a vast proportion of their life watching football–and asked them, at each position in the AFC and the NFC, to rank the players in order of preference. We then weighted and tallied the 18 sets of votes and let our four main analysts arbitrate on any ties. Below are our selections with starters listed in bold and some of the notable guys who just missed out with the reasons why. As always, we’d love to hear your views in the comments section below.

Ladies and gentlemen, ProFootballFocus.com proudly presents: the 2011 PFF AFC Pro Bowl Squad:

 

AFC OFFENSE

 

Wide Receivers

Wes Welker (NE), Mike Wallace (PIT), Antonio Brown (PIT), and Vincent Jackson (SD)

A fairly straight forward set of choices with both Welker and Wallace being unanimous selections (Welker ranked 1st on every ballot). I think a number of people who saw Brown begin to increase his snap count from week 14 last year knew he had talent but not many predicted the brilliance he has displayed consistently from mid-season this year. Jackson was solid all year without ever touching the dizzying heights he reached in 2009.

Just missed: A.J. Green (CIN) – garnered 6 votes but his NFL leading nine penalties put many off.

 

Tackles

LT – Joe Thomas (CLE), RT – Eric Winston (HOU), and Eugene Monroe (JAX)

There are some analysts on the team who are disappointed by Thomas’s below average run-blocking but when you are as good at your primary function (pass protection) as he is, you have to vote for him anyway; he’s by a huge margin the best pass blocker around. Winston is a much more balanced player and a key part of the best overall line around – the Texans. Finally Monroe, who, for some time flirted, with the title of “bust”, became a model of consistency and gave Blaine Gabbert one less excuse for his awful performances.

Just missed: David Stewart (TEN), Andrew Whitworth (CIN) – both were even more unbalanced than Thomas with a bias for pass protection. After a brilliant start Whitworth faded with performances as inconsistent as his team.

 

Guards

LG – Andy Levitre (BUF), RG – Marshal Yanda (BAL), and Brian Waters (NE)

Don’t you just love a guy that gets a new contract and then ups his play? That’s exactly what Marshal Yanda did and none of us could be happier because we’ve been championing his cause now for four years. Levitre was playing brilliantly before he was called on to start at left tackle and then center. He held his own at those positions and that in itself deserves consideration. Waters was let go by KC when they determined his run-blocking no longer matched his superior pass pro skills but there’s nothing like a trip north east to sort that out. He’s still not the best run blocker around, but he’s good enough and he makes Tom Brady’s life in the pocket a much easier proposition.

 

Centers

Chris Myers (HOU) and Nick Mangold (NYJ)

Possibly the easiest selection around as no one else came close to these two. The only question was, after a less than stellar start and a couple of weeks out injured, could Mangold catch up to the Texans’ prolific start. Myers took up the gauntlet and answered emphatically that this was no victory by default. My view is he’d have won anyway and given how much we think of Mangold that’s high praise.

 

Tight Ends

Rob Gronkowski (NE) and Anthony Fasano (MIA)

Everyone wants to talk about his receiving which is understandable, but what we admire about him is that he still comes prepared to block. Other than Jason Witten (more on him later) which recent receiving TE has also been prepared to show up in the running game? Well Gronkowski is one.

The second selection was much harder because it comes down to what you value more – receiving brilliance with zero aptitude for blocking or a more balanced approach. We chose the latter and went with Fasano.

Just missed: Aaron Hernandez (NE) and Owen Daniels (HOU) – how long before we just start calling these guys big wide receivers? That’s what they are; hands to die for and silky smooth moves, but not so much as an in-line block in sight.

 

Quarterbacks

Tom Brady (NE), Ben Roethlisberger (PIT), and Philip Rivers (SD)

We don’t care what anyone else thinks – we just say what we see and what we see this year is Tom Brady playing better than last. He’s attacking more and so what if a few of the interceptions that last year were dropped, are being caught; he’s just scary good at times. Roethlisberger is a warrior and is there anymore motivation you can give to your team than he’s doing right now? Clearly he’s not at his best but he’s still better than the rest. Rivers is the ultimate default pick. The fact that before the season I talked about him breaking every record out there (I could have picked any of three others and been right) makes it all the more galling. It’s an indication of the paucity of talent at QB in the AFC that 13 of 18 of us picked him next up.

Just missed: Matt Schaub (HOU) – let us be absolutely clear, barring injury Schaub was in before Rivers.

 

Halfbacks

Maurice Jones-Drew (JAX), Arian Foster (HOU), and Ray Rice (BAL)

Jones-Drew and Foster were both locks after excellent all-round years. It’s particularly nice that both of these guys stand up in pass protection too. There was a lot of debate about the last spot. Ray Rice is more of a receiver than a runner and that detracted in some analysts’ eyes. Sure the numbers are there but it can be boom or bust dependent on his line’s performance. In the end though he is the best receiving back playing and that stood in his favor.

Just missed: Cedric Benson (CIN), Fred Jackson (BUF) – some preferred Benson over Rice because of his aggressive, hardnosed running style but in the end 64 yards with three drops out of the backfield was too far off the pace for most. Jackson would have been the starter but for injury; plain and simple.

 

Fullback

Vonta Leach (BAL)

Not quite back to the pomp of his 2008 season. Then he really brought the hammer in some games, but perhaps this year has been more consistent. The best blocker in the AFC by some way.

Just missed: Marcel Reece (OAK) Look, we know he will get consideration but it’s a novelty thing. Good runner, good receiver but a poor blocker and as blocking is what we want from a fullback we’ll stick with Leach.

 

AFC DEFENSE

 

Defensive Ends

Terrell Suggs (BAL), Andre Carter (NE), and Brett Keisel (PIT)

Let’s be honest here, if we mixed the AFC and NFC only Suggs would be in with a shout of the top six spots. That’s not to say Carter and Keisel are default selections the way Philip Rivers is, just that there’s a log-jam of talent in the NFC at end. Regardless Suggs is the ultimate all-round end (end not linebacker although he is being used more and more in that role as the season progresses) with a propensity to get after the QB but also play the run better than anyone else at his position.

After a year of trying (and failing) to play stand up linebacker on the left side of the line (he’d always been a DRE prior to that) in Washington the Patriots picked up Carter to generate some pressure, but even they didn’t expect the metamorphosis they got. Carter has always been a brilliant rusher and a marginal run defender but this year, if anything, he’s played the run better than the pass and he’s done a fine job of that. Lastly, with Aaron Smith out again (and looking shot before he was injured anyway) Keisel has taken on the mantle and become as much the consummate 3-4 end as Smith was.

Just missed: Carlos Dunlap (CIN), J.J. Watt (HOU) & Jabaal Sheard (CLE) – before his injury, from which he’s just returning, no one generated as much pressure per snap as Dunlap. Unfortunately it’s always from sub –packages, so in our books he’s ineligible. Watt was close but just missed out to Keisel, while Sheard has flashed but also disappeared for huge chunks of the season.

 

Defensive Tackles

Geno Atkins (CIN), Broderick Bunkley (DEN), and Haloti Ngata (BAL)

No one comes close to generating as much pressure as Atkins from defensive tackle. With numbers very similar to these last year all we heard about was Ndamukong Suh but for some reason, I guess a fourth round pick doesn’t have quite the cache of a two overall. So to many Atkins is still a mystery. What makes this more surprising is he’s solid against the run too. That said he’s nowhere close to being as robust in that department as Bunkley; no one is. Talk about Tebow as much as you want, rightfully rave about Von Miller, but Bunkley is the glue that makes running between the tackles against the Broncos, an exercise in futility. To round out the group Ngata does most things well, the hype seems to have dissipated and what’s left is a fine player who can do it all.

Just missed: Sione Pouha (NYJ) & Richard Seymour (OAK) – while Pouha has only Bunkley to thank for his omission (being the 2nd best run defender in the AFC didn’t quite cut it) Seymour has only himself to blame. He’s been a more dangerous player than Ngata in all areas but ten penalties is ridiculous and couldn’t be ignored.

 

Outside Linebackers

Von Miller (DEN), Cameron Wake (MIA), and Daryl Smith (JAX)

Someone told me that this fine site has been renamed vonmillerrulz.com by (I’m assuming) a non broncos fan. We simply say what we see and we see a once in a generation player if Miller can repeat this season. Wake has already shown he’s not a one season wonder and has now firmly established himself among the elite pass rushers around. Remember those people who said he wasn’t getting a starting berth because of dubious run defending? They were as speculative then as they are wrong now. Daryl Smith will never, ever make the “other” Pro Bowl squad because he doesn’t create stats. It’s their loss because he’s a guy that does it all well; run, pass rush and coverage – the consummate linebacker.

Just missed: Kamerion Wimbley (OAK) – Good pass rusher, good run defender so why does he miss out? Because he’s really an end standing up in base for some and for others, well, they applied “The Brandon Dombrowski factor”. This is a mythical negative coefficient used when over 60% of your total pass rushing grade comes against the San Diego tackle.

 

Inside Linebackers

Derrick Johnson (KC) and Brian Cushing (HOU)

In the wreck which is the Chiefs season, one thing stands out; the performance of Derrick Johnson. A long time ago in a season far, far away (2009 actually) a very silly coach benched the Mr. Johnson for what appeared to be the heinous crime of being the second best player on the team. Well now he’s the best; a guy who can meet fullbacks head on or tracks speedy halfbacks to the sideline and the aforementioned coach is out of a job. What goes around comes around I guess, which is a tenuous segue into the defensive rookie of the year in 2009, who tanked in 2010 and has come back better than ever this year. Like Johnson, Cushing excels in all parts of the game including coverage and pass rushing.

Just missed: Ray Lewis (BAL) – There was no specific reason to criticize him because the difference between the Raven and Cushing was paper thin. Either would be a worthy choice.

 

Cornerbacks

Darrelle Revis (NYJ), Jonathan Joseph (HOU), and Cortland Finnegan (TEN)

Still top ranked by all but Revis has been mortal the last few weeks, perhaps he’s just luring quarterbacks into a false sense of security for a playoff run. Has any single player had a more marked effect on a defense than Joseph? A secondary which was a laughing stock is now dangerous and much of that is down to him. What’s remarkable about Finnegan this year is that he’s taken slot duty in the Titans’ nickel. Normally that’s a recipe for completions and yardage and about as tricky a thing to do as there is. He’s been great from the get go, bringing the heat in run defense, as well as his coverage, and has also cut out all the stupidity. Maybe Richard Seymour could get some pointers.

Just missed: Lardarius Webb (BAL) – a very close run thing between Finnegan and one of the only starting corners in the NFL not to give up a touchdown. In the end though, the fact the Titan played slot won us over.

 

Safeties

FS – Eric Weddle (SD), SS – Troy Polamalu (PIT), and Jarius Byrd (BUF)

Weddle was unanimous as he made those who questioned his contract eat their words. Polamalu is a frustrating player, because you have no idea what he’ll do; randomly take off to undercut something leaving his guy open for a big gain one play, then make a one handed diving interception the next. We’ve all seen the best, and worst, of him this year – many of us in the same game. In the end though he was a better choice than anyone else.

Byrd’s a little bit like Ngata in that, now all the hype is dying down, he’s turning into a better player than he was when he was making tons of interceptions on badly overthrown passes and little else.

Just missed: Ed Reed (BAL) – he’s in the debate because he still does most things well, just not as well as he used to do.

 

Special Teams

K – Sebastian Janikowski (OAK), P – Shane Lechler (OAK), KR – Antonio Brown (PIT), ST – Cedric Peerman (CIN)

Just missed: Matt Prater (DEN), Britton Colquitt (DEN) – In the end the best home-field advantage for kickers in the league weighed against the two men from Denver

 

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  • elkman8102

    Too bad Lewis missed 4 games. He might have been the top rated ILB if he didn’t have to miss time.

  • sraman09

    Where’s Tamba Hali? Surely he merits at least a mention after the job that KC defense has done when the lights were on.

    • Neil Hornsby

      You’re right. In hindsight he did deserve a mention; apologies. He was next up after Wimbley it’s that’s any consolation.

  • Hurricane8765

    Why didn’t Paul Posluzny Jax #51 make it?

    • http://www.profootballfocus.com Khaled Elsayed

      Tough competition with Cushing, Johnson and Lewis ahead of him. Ranks just behind them in the AFC. Very good first year in Jax.

  • tleslie

    How in the world is Conner Barwin omitted at outside linebacker? Cameron Wake and Daryl Smith ahead of him…really?? Barwin has had a better year than either and its not even close. JJ Watt has been better than Brett Keisel this year too, but the real snub is Conner Barwin.

    • Neil Hornsby

      Wake has 68 QB pressures on 436 rushes and plays the run well. Barwin has 52 QB pressures on 499 rushes and is below average playing the run. You are right – It’s not close at all.

      Re: J.J. Watt – if we had been able to take into account his game on Thursday against the Colts he would have probably been in over Keisel but obviously we couldn’t. I’d like to think if he continues at that rate though he’ll make many in the future.

      • tleslie

        “QB pressure” is as vague a stat as an assist on a tackle. Further, since Barwin has more tackles and sacks than Wake evidently Barwin is better at finishing the play. To call him “below average playing the run” is just ridiculous and uninformed. At any rate, I’m willing to bet Barwin is in the Pro Bowl while Wake watches from home. One last word on the Texans, anyone who really studies the team knows that Eric Winston is nowhere near a Pro Bowl caliber player. Thanks for recognizinf Chris Myers at center, but the Texans’ Pro Bowl tackle is Duane Brown. Unlike Winston, he actually excels at pass protection as well as run blocking.

        • Neil Hornsby

          So on one hand QB Pressure is a vague stat but a “sack” and a tackle are precise measures of ability? The problem is not all sacks are created equal; some come unblocked, some as a consequence of pressure by another player, some come after two seconds, some after five. That is why we individually rate every player on every play – in order to compare them more accurately by putting each play in context. We do this for every position including the offensive line and have an audit trail of exactly what each player did throughout the season normalized to take into account how many times they spent performing each facet of play. We spend 24 hours worth of man effort on each of the 267 games played each year to ensure we treat each player the same – without any bias at all; we are fans of the game not any particular team.
          If that methodology leads to a view that is “ridiculous and uniformed” I guess it must be in the context of not following conventional wisdom. A conventional wisdom that puts sacks above all else because it’s the only thing media have had to hang their hat on for some time.
          Sure I could probably have a stab at who’ll be in the Pro Bowl now and get 95% of it right but that’s as short sighted as draft “experts” telling you who’ll be picked in the first round. I don’t want to know who the teams will pick – I want to know who’ll be good and those things are not necessarily the same.
          One final point. Wake actually has more tackles than Barwin. The NFL in it’s infinite wisdom double count sacks as tackles.

          • skins30

            tieslie is a clown. Keep doing what you do, the NFL should be paying y’all

  • sraman09

    Apologies for starting the where is *****, whining. I just know you guys have been riding the Tamba Hali train pretty hard for at least 2 years now.

    • Neil Hornsby

      He’s been great and has actually got better as the season wore on. Just lost on on the simple “the guys we chose just pipped him” deal and the desire to pick at least one 4-3 ‘backer.

  • slipperypete

    The stuff about Derrick Johnson and Todd Haley is just painfully misinformed. Johnson was drafted in 2005, was handed a starting job, and had a solid rookie season. For the next three years, he coasted. He was by no means a bust, but never became the impact player the team invisioned he would be. There were frequent questions about his effort and desire.

    Look at this not-exactly-glowing analysis of Johnson from right about the time KC hired Haley: http://www.arrowheadpride.com/2009/1/29/739787/derrick-johnson-s-future-w

    What’s happened since then? Johnson has become a beast. And his rise directly corresponds to Haley coming in, benching him, and making him earn his job for probably the first time in his life. He’s not the only Chief to have a breakthrough while Haley was there, incidentally.

    BTW, Haley’s been gone for two weeks and Johnson just got one of his lowest grades in recent memory. Coincidence? Probably, but something to keep an eye on.

    • Neil Hornsby

      I disagree. If it was a message that needed sending why sit him all season? If there were better players (or even players close to being as productive as him at his worst) then fine but week in and week out it Domorrio Williams and Corey Mays starting. Then in sub packages Johnson would come in and make the whole thing look even more stupid.
      The year before I accept Johnson wasn’t at his best (we graded him as -0.7 or average) but he was still superior to Williams -10.7 and Mays played 30 snaps for the Bengals.
      If your management style is such you can’t make your point in less than a couple of games that says more about a coaches ability than the player to me……and don’t even get me started about the Jared Gaither situation.

      • sgtrobo

        “Then in sub packages Johnson would come in and make the whole thing look even more stupid.”

        I remember this specifically. Talk about a headscratcher. It was quite obvious who was, far and away, the best LB on that team. Benching someone for an entire season to “send a message” is just mind-numbing.

      • slipperypete

        To say it was stupid to bench Derrick Johnson because he was better than the likes of Corey Mays in 2009 is the very definition of not being able to see the forest for the trees. Look at 2010-11 Derrick Johnson compared to 2005-08 Derrick Johnson and then say benching him was a mistake. You can’t.

        Johnson was a disappointment. He was benched. He responded by becoming one of the league’s top defensive players. I don’t see how there is any confusion on this.

        You’re taking something that clearly worked and you’re questioning it. There’s really no way to continue a discussion like that.

  • sgtrobo

    Interestingly enough, for as much crap as I give you guys, your Pro Bowl selections nearly mirrored my own.

    I had Stewart instead of Winston, Daniels as 2nd instead of Fasano, Seymour in place of Ngata (injury) and Bunkley, and then I had Hali as #2 OLB.

    I gotta ask how you can put Rivers up there though. dude has been uncharacteristically horrible this season and is about as bad against pressure as they come. He gets happy feet and throws the ball away if he hears footsteps. Checking the premium stats, you still haven’t fixed that ‘glitch’, and you’re giving QBs credit for throwaways under pressure.

    • Neil Hornsby

      I wouldn’t have a problem with any of those. When you are at the top of the rankings it becomes more a matter of taste and whether you prefer balance or a stud in one just one facet of play.

      As I said Rivers is the ultimate default pick. I could just find more bad about other players than him which isn’t to say he was good at all.

      Not sure what you mean about a “glitch”…. all we do is take throw-aways out of aimed passes – which they clearly aren’t

      • sgtrobo

        by “glitch”, I mean, it skews the results and takes a negative play and credits the QB with what amounts to a positive result. If it’s 3rd and 10, and the QB gets pressured and throws the ball away, essentially it is being ignored. it’s like saying “well, if the batter doesn’t swing at a called 3rd strike, we just won’t count that as a strikeout since he didn’t swing at the ball”

      • sgtrobo

        simple example for illustration. My QB has happy feet and throws the ball away constantly. If he’s pressured 25 times, completes 5 passes, and throws the ball away the other 20 times, his completion % under pressure is 100% yet he has a failure rate of 80%.

        Obviously an extreme example, but it kinda points to how Philip Rivers can be top 10 in “completion % under pressure” at an impressive 60.2%. Hey, 60.2% completions when he’s under pressure? That’s pretty darn good! Oh wait…that DOESN’T include the league-leading 25 incomplete passes he threw away. Only Eli, with 62 more dropbacks under pressure, had anywhere near as many. Drew Brees had about as many pressured dropbacks as Rivers (143 vs. 148) but completed almost 20 more passes (84 vs. 66). So one would assume that Brees’ pressured comp% was vastly superior (18 more completions with 5 less attempts)? Not so, only a 5.5% difference. The “real” completion percentage under pressure (completions + drops)/(pressured dropbacks) does actually show a more representative difference

        Rivers – (66 comp + 8 drops) / 148 pressured dropbacks = 50%
        Brees – (84 comp + 6 drops) / 143 pressured dropbacks = 62.9%

        Perhaps this disparity goes a good way in demonstrating why Rivers struggled so much this season while Brees was just ridiculously dominant? Rivers threw the ball away 1 out of every 6 times he took pressure. Brees threw it away 1 of every 24 times he was pressured. The difference in their play this season was evident, and this points HEAVILY to the case.

        Another shining example is Joe Flacco and his massive regression (when he doesn’t play the Steelers).

        His “accuracy %age” under pressure is 53.3%. Not great, but really not that bad. Hoewver, when he’s not checking down, he has happy feet and throws the ball away (18 times in 140 pressured dropbacks).
        (62 comp + 3 drops) / (140 pressured dropbacks) = 46.4%.

        Then there’s the curious case of Matt Moore. His accuracy %age under pressure is a shockingly good 64.5%, ahead of QBs like Rodgers, Romo, and Roethlisberger who are rather well known for their ability to deal with pressure. So Moore is 3rd in the NFL with his accuracy %age, yet he only completes about 46% of his passes when under pressure if you include drops. Why the disparity? Because he throws it away 1 out of every 10 times he’s pressured. Ben and Romo? 1 out of every 20 and every 33 pressured dropbacks.

        I love the pressured dropback stats. They really are extremely good and eye opening, but I would respectfully recommend you reconsider (alliteration is alive and well) the way you determine accuracy %age. There is something inherently wrong with “awarding” someone for making a negative play. Unless all of these throwaways are like Roethlisberger’s throwaway in 2010 when he somehow got the ball away despite wrestling with Terrell Suggs.

        • sgtrobo

          *pressured pass attempts, not pressured dropbacks