Editor’s note: Here’s a re-post of our PFF Pro Bowl selections that were first announced in late December. Originally in separate articles (AFC, NFC), our choices for both teams are together here. In the end, as players were removed and replacements added, there were 66 that got PFF mentions and actually received tickets to Hawaii (though some will miss out due to injury or the Super Bowl).
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.
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 first 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 Northeast 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 Texan’s 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 were dropped last year 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-around 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-around 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 in Washington (he’d always been a DRE prior to that) 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 No. 2 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 second-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 10 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 track 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 times 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
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) and 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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