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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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