Hot on the heels of our AFC selections, we’ve of course got a roster of the year’s best for the NFC too. Again, selecting not based on hype or exposure, but simply on on-field performance, this team of stars represents the best we’ve seen from this conference in 2011.
If you haven’t read about the AFC squad, be sure to catch up, otherwise … for your consideration, here are our NFC selections:
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 NFC Pro Bowl Squad:
Calvin Johnson (DET), Larry Fitzgerald (ARZ), Steve Smith (CAR), and Jordy Nelson (GB)
The question de jour at PFF is “why is Matthew Stafford’s grade so low?” as Lions fans everywhere forget his miscues and remember his ability to lob passes in the general direction of a certain freak receiver called Calvin Johnson. Triple coverage? Not a problem sir, I’ll come down with that touchdown. That said, I suspect Fitzgerald would be more than satisfied with the service Johnson receives in comparison to him. I have no idea how, but I still believe he’d find his way to 1,000 yards with Khaled throwing him the ball. Steve Smith is yet another receiver making up for variable quarterback play. Cam Newton has very good games and very bad ones, but even in the latter, Smith still makes plays. Nelson picked up the final position on the back of big plays and a frankly ridiculous 2.87 Yards Per Route Run. Some pointed to the fact that with Greg Jennings out he failed to step up, and this is a worry, but one game and extrapolation does not a PFF Pro Bowl spot lose.
Just missed: Hakeem Nicks (NYG), Percy Harvin (MIN), and Marques Colston (NO) – The tightest-fought race of all was that for fourth WR in the NFC. Harvin, the emotional choice, was handicapped in comparison to the others by his quarterback, but in the end, we’re not that sensitive a bunch.
LT – Jason Peters (PHI), RT – Tyron Smith (DAL), and Tyson Clabo (ATL)
The third-best pass blocking left tackle in football is also the best run blocker. Peters is an unbeatable combination of ability that makes him the best offensive lineman in the NFL this year. Only one player is even close and that he is Tryon Smith is remarkable. Not since Jake Long entered the NFL have we seen such an accomplished performance from a rookie tackle. Rounding out the selections is right tackle Clabo. Like Smith, Clabo is a better pass blocker than run blocker and while this may not be ideal for a right tackle, their respective prowess in that area is good enough for this team.
Just missed: Bryan Bulaga (GB) – He played very well and was much improved on 2010, but injury and hence lack of snaps went against him.
LG – Evan Mathis (PHI), RG – Josh Sitton (GB), and Carl Nicks (NO)
Is Evan Mathis the best player no one has ever heard of? If you don’t know much about what a guard should look like just get an Eagles tape and you’ll see Mathis doing everything well without ever getting a mention. Sitton was a very similar player for the Packers last year in that no one talked about him despite playing better than almost anyone and while he hasn’t scaled those heights, he’s still done enough to be selected here–six penalties are too many for a player of his caliber, though. Nicks was our first choice last year and was great again, though not quite as consistent as Mathis.
Just Missed: Jahri Evans (NO) – Evans is a better run blocker than Sitton but 26 pressures is a lot to give up.
John Sullivan (MIN) and Scott Wells (GB)
This time last year we were advocating Vikings upgrade their center position. Sullivan had never shown anything in his two years replacing Matt Birk to explain the Vikings’ faith and surely it was time for a change. Well, he’s certainly shown what he’s capable of now with a performance that came from so far out of left field, it was in the parking lot. Not only did he do a good job in pass protection, he run blocked superbly and was never flagged all year. Wells was better protecting his quarterback but not in the same league going forward. He’s done his best to hold a make-shift line together and deserves recognition for playing so well under the circumstances.
Jimmy Graham (NO) and Tony Gonzalez (ATL)
As Rob Gronkowski is defining new standards for a tight end in the AFC, Graham is doing likewise in the NFC–just without the blocking acumen, and his partner here is equally unbalanced. as Gonzalez has gotten older, his receiving skills have remained but his blocking has slipped precipitously. However, in a world where tight ends really aren’t playing their traditional roles anymore, the question is: does it matter? Clearly not because as they are now split out wide so often the ability to seal block (never mind any messy in-line stuff) has dwindled in them all. They are a completely new species and probably deserve a separate classification.
Just missed: Jason Witten (DAL) – it’s not that Witten did “just miss” (he was some way off) but when you’ve been at the pinnacle of your position for so long it’s at least worth a footnote. The truth is he actually has regressed a lot this year and his blocking was no longer good enough to overcome the superior receiving performance of Gonzalez.
Aaron Rodgers (GB), Drew Brees (NO), and Eli Manning (NYG)
Not really much discussion at PFF on these three as Rodgers and Brees were unanimous and 15 of 18 staffers selected Manning as the next man in line. Rodgers and Brees are doing their best to redefine the position with the former demonstrating a string of excellence unparalleled in NFL history while the Saint looks set to shatter 28-year-old records. Manning has been clutch in extremely difficult circumstances and played poorly in others; that’s always been his issue. Good enough to beat anybody on a hot day, bad enough to lose to scrubs on his worst.
Just missed: Matt Ryan (ATL) – Again, not really close but the debate is interesting. We took the boom-or-bust Manning by many votes over the far more consistent Ryan. Are even we slaves to the highlight reels on occasion?
LeSean McCoy (PHI), Adrian Peterson (MIN), and Matt Forte (CHI)
With both Peterson and Forte injured for chunks of the year, McCoy took his opportunity to vault ahead of the others and take the starting role by a fair margin. McCoy is a poor pass protector and average receiver but he more than makes up for that with his running and ball security. Peterson was looking like a linebacker’s worst nightmare before his injury but immediately seems to have hit form on his return and his fumbling issues haven’t re-emerged either. In Forte you have more of a dual-threat player who, barring injury, may have been the pick of the bunch. In Chicago though, contracts were the sidebar to all his achievements, the Bears preferring to spend money on Mike Martz’s has-beens than their star HB.
Just missed: Darren Sproles (NO) – Did pick up a few votes, but his specialized role was against him.
Jim Kleinsasser (MIN)
With the Vikings now playing him more in this position than tight end, it gives us the opportunity to reward the outstanding blocking skills he has displayed for many years. The best blocking tight end of the last decade, he was overlooked by many because of his position. Now, as a fullback, hopefully he’ll get the plaudits he deserves.
Just missed: Jed Collins (NO) – He started very well but since week 10 his play has declined and he lost out to Kleinsasser as a result.
Justin Smith (SF), Jared Allen (MIN), and John Abraham (ATL)
Wow. What a lot of worthy players to chose from here. Justin Smith was a lock but after that it was pick any one of seven. There was more internal disagreement on this position than any other as some analysts chose for pass rush ability only and some for balance.
Smith is probably the current favorite for Defensive MVP with San Francisco’s recent success giving him the national media spotlight he’s deserved for the last three years. Allen’s pass rushing skills are a little overrated and counter-intuitively it was his work in the running game that saw him win through. John Abraham has been the outstanding pass rusher since we began charting games in 2008 and doesn’t look to be slowing down. This year his ability to get pressure can only be equaled, not beaten, and certainly not by anyone as sturdy against the run.
Just missed: Jason Babin (PHI), Trent Cole (PHI), Calais Campbell (ARZ), Jason Pierre-Paul (NYG) and Julius Peppers (CHI) all received votes.
Kevin Williams (MIN), Alan Branch (SEA), and Cullen Jenkins (PHI)
After that list of great players at end, the tackle selection was much less inspiring. It’s not that they’re poor players, but they all come with a caveat. Williams is still a very good all-around player but only a shadow of a player we once saw as the lock for the league’s Defensive MVP. Branch is as good as it gets versus the run but gets little pressure and Jenkins is the opposite; a guy who terrorizes quarterbacks but is only average playing run defense.
Just missed: Jay Ratliff (DAL) – Was more balanced but in the opinion of the selectors not just good enough in either area to make the final three.
DeMarcus Ware (DAL), Clay Matthews (GB), and Sean Weatherspoon (ATL)
So this wasn’t Ware’s best year? Certainly not but he’s still the gold standard against which all other outside linebackers are judged and, even with injury, he still played extremely well–although nine penalties is too much for anyone’s taste. Matthews got derided because his sack numbers were down but that’s just by people who should know better. They should know for example his 20 QB hits are first among 3-4 OLBs and his 39 hurries third. Weatherspoon struggled last year but now his talent is showing through; he was a force in the running game and did well when blitzing. He’s a little inconsistent in coverage but that’s experience and he’s every bit the player the Falcon’s hoped for when they picked him.
Just missed: Aldon Smith (SF), Brian Orakpo (Was) – Smith may be the next great pass rusher and be a rival for Von Miller for many years to come, but we can’t pick a player just playing in sub-packages can we? In Orakpo’s case it was close but not just not good enough; he gets pressure almost as frequently as Ware and almost identically to Matthews but plays the run far worse than either.
Patrick Willis (SF) & NaVorro Bowman (SF)
The pair of 49ers have contrasting and complementary styles. Bowman is the banger in the running game, a guided missile straight at the ball carrier but less instinctive moving backwards while Willis is now the old hand, always in the right place, hardly ever missing tackles (only two all year) but still with acceleration to burn.
Just missed: Daryl Washington (ARZ), London Fletcher (Was) – While the guys from San Francisco were head and shoulders above everyone else, it stands as testament to our love for the Cardinal he was on five ballots. One for the future maybe while Fletcher is still going strong 14 years on. He played well in all areas but in truth was still a long way off the top two.
Brent Grimes (ATL), Carlos Rogers (SF), and Chris Gamble (CAR)
Grimes is a playmaker who simply hates to have balls completed into his vicinity. For that reason he sometimes gambles but this season the risk/reward ratio has been well in his favor with a league low 42% of passes thrown his way completed. Rogers began the year brilliantly and has dropped off a little of late but is still better than most; he’s made more big plays but has also given up more yards.
If I’m really honest I think our third selection may be the best of the lot as quarterbacks have stayed away from Gamble. In 348 passing plays he’s only been targeted 52 times and given up only 22 receptions. Quarterbacks throwing into his coverage have a passer rating of only 48.4 (second only to Darrelle Revis’ 45.4)
Just missed: Richard Sherman (SEA) and Asante Samuel (PHI) – Sherman has been great, but he didn’t start until Week 8 and has given up seven penalties. Samuel’s lackluster play against the run is once again his undoing, although he did improve a bit in that regard this year.
SS – Adrian Wilson (ARZ), FS – Kenny Phillips (NYG), and Kam Chancellor (SEA)
A lot of people think PFF are just a contrary bunch. When everyone else is waxing lyrical about Wilson’s sack stats, we are telling you how many were unblocked and how many tackles he misses. Now that he’s not flavor of the month anymore, we are saying that no safety in football played better. So no sacks, but his short area coverage is second to none and he is far more disciplined as a run defender. Which would you prefer? Phillips is a slight default selection but name a better single high “free” safety in the NFC. It’s a poor bunch and he’s the best of them. He really doesn’t make that many errors and can find the ball in the air which is a step beyond many.
Chancellor has had his ups and downs including a mid-season slump directly following us saying many very nice things about him. He’s recovered in the last two weeks and just done enough to keep his space on the back of some fine coverage for a big man.
Just missed: Donte Whitner (SF) was the unluckiest player not to make our roster. He actually outscored Phillips, but our need for a free safety (as opposed to another strong) meant he lost out. Apologies to Donte, his family and friends for the omission.
K – David Akers (SF), P – Andy Lee (SF), KR – Patrick Peterson (ARZ), ST – Heath Farwell (SEA)
Just missed: Red Bryant (SEA) – Much debate ensued as to if Bryant and his kick-blocking feats were eligible, but it was eventually agreed he wasn’t, but we’d give him a plug here to “make up”.
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