The fourth stop on our all division tour of the 2011 season (AFC East, AFC North, AFC South) sees us head out West as we tip our hat to the top individual performers from the AFC West. In a season when no team could sustain a high level of play throughout, there were both some tough choices due to excellent play and some tough choices due to a distinct lack of quality.
As with the other All-Division Teams that we’ve presented this week, some discretion was required for defensive personnel to ensure the best players make the team rather than the best players that fit a certain scheme.
Here, then, is PFF’s All-AFC West Team for the 2011 season:
Quarterback: Philip Rivers, SD
In a season where the quarterbacks of this division only ever showed good form in fits and starts, it was Rivers who was able to sustain a high level of form for the longest period of time. Tim Tebow’s ability to win was impressive, but his individual play on the whole was poor. After a slow start, Rivers really hit his stride in the second half of the season, once again showing some of his best form in December.
Running Back: Willis McGahee, DEN
If there is an unsung hero lost in the shadow of “Tebow-mania”, it is McGahee, who was the driving force of the Denver offense until Tebow showed up in the fourth quarter. McGahee finished in the Top 10 in the league both in terms of yards and missed tackles forced (31) while running the football. Ryan Mathews struggles holding onto the ball just held him out of making the team alongside McGahee.
Fullback: Marcel Reese, OAK
While Reese may not be anything to write home about in terms of being a lead blocker, he is a versatile weapon out of the backfield who was well used by Hue Jackson in the Oakland offense. He finished the season as the top-rated fullback in the league as a runner and second only to James Casey of the Texans as a receiver.
Tight End: Antonio Gates, SD
Not a vintage season from Gates as he once again struggled with injuries but he was still the class of the division at tight end. Kevin Boss struggled to make an impact in his debut season in Oakland, while Gates’ strongest competition for this spot, Tony Moeaki, was lost to the IR before the season kicked-off. Gates finished strong as he graded positively as a receiver for 11 straight games.
Wide Receivers: Dwayne Bowe, KC and Malcom Floyd, SD
Bowe certainly had his problems keeping hold of the football–finishing sixth in the league in drops with 10–but he still made an outstanding contribution to the Chiefs’ offense this year while having to put up with a veritable carousel at quarterback. The second receiver came down to a choice between the San Diego pairing of Vincent Jackson and Floyd and we eventually went with Floyd’s consistency. Jackson dropped eight passes while Floyd only dropped one and of greatest concern was the nine interceptions where Jackson was the intended receiver and in particular the distinct lack of effort he made in trying to fight for some of those passes.
Offensive Tackles: Jared Veldheer, OAK and Orlando Franklin, DEN
This was not a vintage year for tackle play in the NFL and the AFC West didn’t escape that drop in form, though they did have a trio of fine seasons–or part seasons–at left tackle. Jared Veldheer just edged out Branden Albert at left tackle as he started to show his great potential in a handful of games. Next year the Raiders will look for more consistency rather than his season of peaks and troughs in 2011. Jared Gaither would have made this team at left tackle had he started more games this year. At right tackle, Franklin is the least bad of a frankly abject group. Two of the worst three graded tackles in the league, Jeromey Clary and Barry Richardson, ply their trade in the AFC West.
Offensive Guards: Ryan Lilja, KC and Louis Vazquez, SD
Inconsistency was the name of the game in the AFC West this year at guard, and–while he was a comfortable choice–Vazquez’ inability to finish strong took him out of potential Pro Bowl discussion after a strong start to the season. At left guard, Lilja makes the team in spite of missing time due to his consistency when he did play. But for a dreadful finish to the season (a -7.1 grade in the final defeat to San Diego), Raider rookie Stefen Wisniewski would have been in close contention for an all division nod after a consistent mid-season stretch.
Center: Samson Satele, OAK
A “pick your pleasure” choice for the AFC West center of the season and in the end we went with the best run blocker in the division in the shape of Satele. Satele continues to be frustratingly inconsistent but his ability to control the man across from him just gave the edge to the Raider center over Nick Hardwick and Casey Wiegmann who were better pass protectors but struggled to make an impact in the running game.
Defensive Ends: Tamba Hali, KC and Lamarr Houston, OAK
We decided to lever-in Hali at defensive end after he put forth yet another stunning season at outside linebacker for the Chiefs finishing the season as our No. 4 3-4 outside linebacker as a pass rusher. His output was down on his stunning 2010 season, but still 12 sacks, 10 hits, and 41 pressures is an excellent campaign. Opposite him, we went with Houston ahead of Elvis Dumervil on the strength of the run defense from the Raider defender. Houston finished the season as our fifth-highest-graded run defender among 4-3 defensive ends while still grading positively as a pass rusher after picking up 27 pressures, putting him in the Top 25 in the league.
Defensive Tackles: Brodrick Bunkley, DEN and Richard Seymour, OAK
On their day, this could be the strongest defensive tackle pairing of any of our All-Division teams at defensive tackle. Bunkley was the highest-graded run defender in the league at defensive tackle as on some days he simply couldn’t be handled by the opposition. His dominance against Nick Mangold during the Broncos’ Thursday Night victory over the Jets was his marquee performance of the year. Next to him, Seymour would have been a first team PFF All-Pro but for his discipline issues. Seymour led the charge for the Raiders with a stunning display in their emotional Week 5 victory over the Texans.
Linebackers: Derrick Johnson, KC, Von Miller, DEN, and Joe Mays, DEN
Vintage seasons from Johnson and Miller see them as locks for this team. We’ve gushed about Miller all season in our Race for Rookie of the Year column and he was a strong contender for Defensive Player of the Year, until a thumb injury sparked a downturn in form at the end of the season. Johnson in any other season would have been a first team All Pro and Defensive Player of the Year candidate with his consistency, big play ability, and clutch plays like his single-handed goal-line stand in Oakland. Unfortunately he was lost in the shuffle slightly of a stunning season of ILB play league wide. Mays rounds out the All-AFC West linebackers as he continues to build a reputation as one of the best two-down linebackers in the league, bringing great intensity and physicality as a downhill linebacker.
Cornerbacks: Brandon Flowers, KC and Champ Bailey, DEN
An easy choice at corner in the AFC West, with Flowers and Bailey showing all season why they are amongst the top corners in the NFL, excelling both in coverage and run defense. Flowers has a growing identity in the league and perhaps no game showed that more than the Chiefs Monday Night loss in New England where, on 32 coverage snaps, Flowers was not targeted once by Tom Brady. Bailey is entering the realms of defying age with the quality and consistency of his performances, Bailey only yielded more than 50 yards in a game on five occasions this season. In nickel situations, Chris Harris Jr. of the Broncos would jump in for his teammate Mays. Harris’ rookie season ended on a sour note, but he disproved the scouts and the teams who left him as an undrafted free agent prior to this offseason.
Safeties: Eric Weddle, SD and Tyvon Branch, OAK
Free safeties are perhaps at their best when they are barely noticed, as they generally are only seen when they do something wrong, and Eric Weddle is the best example in the league of a safety who keeps his head down and just does what needs to be done. He bided his time in San Diego and has now shown in three straight seasons that he is one of the league’s elite free safeties. Tyvon Branch gets the nod at strong safety with an excellent season of run defense, his overall grade is only diminished by the amount of time he spends fruitlessly rushing the passer.
Kicker: Sebastian Janikowski, OAK – Highest field goal percentage in the division in spite of attempting a league-leading 10 kicks from 50 yards or more.
Punter: Shane Lechler, OAK – Edges Britton Colquitt while Mike Scifres had a down season by his recent standards.
Returner: Javier Arenas, KC – Jacoby Ford’s injury robbed the division of an impact returner, so Arenas’ consistency takes the All-Division nod.
Special Teamer: Matt Willis, DEN – One of the better special teamers in the league on punts. Willis tied Antone Smith of the Falcons as our highest-graded player in punt coverage.
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