It’s time to take a look at the All-NFC North team for 2011. As ever, we’e being a little creative with the formations to try and get the best possible players on the field and, in this instance, that leaves us with a truly destructive looking offense.
The “Black and Blue” division doesn’t let us down when it comes to defense either, with only safety being a notable weak point on a side stacked with stud players. No team in the division has fewer than five players selected to this team which shows that despite some teams struggling (well, the Vikings), there is talent all over, and no one team is in power all the way through.
So let’s take a look at the rundown.
Quarterback: Aaron Rodgers, GB
Was there really any other possibility? Only Minnesota is without an impressive starter, but neither Matthew Stafford nor Jay Cutler can threaten Aaron Rodgers at his best, and for much of 2011 he was on another world when it came to throwing the football.
Running Back: Adrian Peterson, MIN
Adrian Peterson is probably the best pure running back in football. The things he can do without help often defies belief, and all we can hope for at PFF is that his freakish conditioning and work ethic sees him return from his knee injury as good as ever before. Peterson has the speed, power, and moves to get the nod here over Matt Forte, who is a much better receiver than Peterson and made a strong case, but just fell short.
Fullback: Jim Kleinsasser, MIN
One of the best blockers in the NFL over the past decade is retiring after this season, but Jim Kleinsasser’s excellent effort didn’t go unnoticed here at PFF. Kleinsasser has been an excellent blocking tight end down the years, and his ability speaks for itself when he can move to fullback and still be among the league’s best at his age. Kleinsasser could easily play for several more seasons, and he will be a big miss for the Vikings, but he earns the call as the All-NFC North team’s fullback for 2011.
Wide Receivers: Calvin Johnson, DET, Percy Harvin, MIN, and Jordy Nelson, GB
Calvin Johnson is the no-brainer in this trio. Johnson has physical tools we have not seen in the league, and is the most physically dominant receiver since Randy Moss in his prime. Throw it in his general direction and good things happen. Jordy Nelson beats out his more illustrious teammate Greg Jennings with his combination of size, speed, and playmaking ability, and the Vikings’ Percy Harvin makes it as the slot receiver despite being criminally underused in Minnesota. Harvin is a playmaker regardless of whether he lines up as a receiver, a running back, or even back to return kicks, and you would always want him on your team.
Offensive Tackles: Jeff Backus, DET and Bryan Bulaga, GB
Jeff Backus might be the only viable left tackle left in the NFC North, and he could stand to be upgraded on. He carried an injury that really hampered his first half of the season, but after the bye week he was a different player for the Lions and a major reason they had such a good run later on. Bryan Bulaga remains inconsistent, but when he was on he was capable of dominant games at right tackle.
Offensive Guards: Steve Hutchinson, MIN and Josh Sitton, GB
Make no mistake, Steve Hutchinson’s career is definitely on the downslope, but for the first time in a while he was fully healthy in 2011 and responded with a much better season than he has had in recent years. He finished as our eighth-ranked OG, ahead of All-Pro Jahri Evans and the 49ers’ road-grading monster, Mike Iupati. Sitton missed some time with injury but was still an excellent player for GB and easily the class of the right guards in the NFC North. Sitton was the fifth-ranked OG by the end of the year.
Center: John Sullivan, MIN
John Sullivan came out of nowhere with a season nobody at PFF was expecting. He has never so much as flashed the type of play that would suggest he could be among the best centers in the NFL, but he was exactly that in 2011. Only Chris Myers and Nick Mangold graded better than Sullivan, and the Vikings wisely locked him down after the season.
Defensive Ends: Jared Allen, MIN, and Julius Peppers, CHI
Any time you can field a pair of Pro-Bowlers you’re probably doing pretty well. Jared Allen came within a lockdown effort in the final quarter by the Bears in their Week 17 encounter from breaking Michael Strahan’s single-season sack record and Julius Peppers had another fine campaign for the Bears–even if he didn’t get the headlines. Both players play the run extremely well and are not just pass-rushing specialists. Cliff Avril had a fine season for the Lions and was in the conversation, but was edged out.
Defensive Tackle: Kevin Williams, MIN
The NFC North is loaded with pass rushers, so to make room for them, Peppers is going to have to work a bit more inside in our over-shifted 3-4 defensive front–think Rex-Ryan style hybrid formation for this team. Alongside Peppers will be Kevin Williams, who despite falling some way short of his dominant best, was still a good player this season and the division’s best defensive tackle. Williams finished the year as our eighth-ranked DT, playing the run and the pass well. Only Chicago’s Henry Melton notched more sacks than Williams among NFC North DTs and Melton didn’t play the run nearly as well.
Linebackers: Clay Matthews, GB, Stephen Tulloch, DET, Brian Urlacher, CHI, and Erin Henderson, MIN
Each NFC North team sends a linebacker to this All-Division team. Matthews will line up at the line of scrimmage in our over-shifted front, making this defensive formation look a lot closer to a 4-3. Matthews may not have recorded the sacks he did last season, but don’t let that fool you into believing he had a poor year; he still applied consistent pressure and was the biggest rush threat for the Packers. Tulloch was an inspired pick-up for the Lions and really excelled working behind a defensive line that puts the linebackers under a lot of pressure. Urlacher was again an impressive force in the middle for Chicago and Erin Henderson was quietly one of the best 4-3 OLBs in the NFL, excelling against the run and showing surprisingly strong instincts in coverage when he saw time in nickel packages.
Cornerbacks: Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings, CHI, Charles Woodson, GB
Woodson makes this team as the nickel back, but as a boundary corner, there is little doubt that his teammate Tramon Williams was the better cover player. Woodson is always around the football and still makes plays consistently. The Bears’ starters make up the starting duo for the division, even though Green Bay’s Williams was a close call with Tim Jennings. The pair conceded just a single touchdown all season, with neither player allowing over 60% of targets into their coverage to be complete. Neither player allowed a catch longer than 47 yards all season and both played the run well in addition to their coverage skills (something that hurt Williams’ case).
Safeties: Louis Delmas, DET and Chris Conte, CHI
The weakness of this team, the safety spot. Louis Delmas is a talented player, but a dozen missed tackles and some awful angles against the run hurt his grade overall. Still, he only surrendered 146 yards in coverage and just a single touchdown. Chicago’s Chris Conte wins the final spot largely by default and being the best viable option remaining. Conte didn’t do anything spectacularly over the season, but wasn’t bad at anything either, and was beaten less than the other options.
Kicker: Robbie Gould, CHI – Nailed 6-of-6 from 50+ yards.
Punter: Adam Podlesh, CHI – Podlesh was once something of a gimmick as an athletic punter, but in new surroundings in Chicago he performed well, with just 223 return yards allowed on the season.
Returner: Devin Hester, CHI – One of only a couple of players that make teams do silly things to avoid kicking him the football, still a constant threat.
Special Teamer: John Wendling, DET – 13 special teams tackles tied for tops in the division, also fine work as a gunner.