I know, I know. This is too early right? Unfortunately, this is the first day of Pro Bowl voting on NFL.com. It’s like Christmas; it feels like it begins earlier every year. It won’t be long before we are voting before the season’s even started. Frankly, when you see some of the final selections you realize that’s exactly what happened — some people didn’t actually bother to watch any football at all, they just voted for their favorite players regardless of their performances.
Obviously, at ProFootballFocus.com that doesn’t happen. We’ve watched every snap of every game and graded each and every player to bring you the most authoritative selections anywhere. If you really want to vote now, these are the guys you should be putting on your ballots.
Just a few notes: For the first time ever we are sticking to the NFL “rules” and will only use positions as designated on their sheets. While we are fairly convinced Justin Smith and Calais Campbell play the same position, as the NFL has Smith down as a defensive tackle and Campbell as a defensive end that’s the way we’ve chosen to go. There’s not a lot of point giving you a cheat sheet you can’t use. The only concession we’ve made to our way of doing things is to try and always select at least one of each type of tackle and guard; left and right. It always seems a bit strange when you see a list containing three left tackles and three right guards.
AFC Offense (starter’s name first)
Quarterbacks: Tom Brady (NE), Ben Roethlisberger (PIT) and Peyton Manning (DEN)
None of the elite quarterbacks are challenging defenses as much as Brady. After building something of a dink-and-dunk reputation over the past few years, his 14.4% of passes thrown over 20 yards is more than even Drew Brees (11.7%) and Eli Manning (11.3%), and massively up on his own 9.8% last year. While there can be no argument over the choice of Roethlisberger, there’s possibly one for Matt Schaub (HST) over Manning. But while Schaub’s form has dipped, Manning seems to have come to terms with his limited arm strength and flourished.
Halfbacks: C.J. Spiller (BUF), Ray Rice (BLT) and Willis McGahee (DEN)
He came into the year as the second choice halfback on his own team, and is currently our starting AFC tailback. After a couple of sub-par games recovering from his injury in Cleveland, Spiller’s now looking back to his early-season best. It was a close call in the end between Arian Foster (HST) and McGahee. It came down to Foster’s appalling, league-worst, pass protection (one sack, three hits and seven hurries allowed) and his failure to generate anything as a receiver.
Wide Receivers: Reggie Wayne (IND), A.J. Green (CIN), Wes Welker (NE) and Malcolm Floyd (SD)
So Wayne can’t play without Manning? Well maybe not with Curtis Painter, but an inconsistent first-rounder is fine it seems. Green has kicked on brilliantly after a good, if penalty strewn, first year. The only question is if his production will slip with Dalton’s? The selection of Floyd may raise a few eyebrows but he’s been the one bright spot in a disappointing Chargers passing attack. With a very good 1.88 yards per route run and just a single drop he may not be here at the end, but for now he’s on the team.
Fullback: Vonta Leach (BLT)
Leach hasn’t been as dominant as in previous years but if things go to plan he normally picks things up as the weeks go by. In the last seven weeks of last year (including the playoffs) he was superb.
Tight Ends: Rob Gronkowski (NE) and Heath Miller (PIT)
Even a sub-par Gronkowski makes this team, which is more a testament to his ceiling as opposed to the failings of tight ends in the AFC. As for Miller, reliability (zero dropped passes) , his nose for the end zone (a league-leading five TDs) and superior blocking see him force his way in front of Owen Daniels (HST).
Tackles: Duane Brown (HST), Sebastian Volmer (NE) and Ryan Clady (DEN)
Joe Thomas and Jake Long are still decent pass protectors but they’re struggling with the other parts of their games, including discipline. We wanted more of an all-around game from our trio, with Brown and Vollmer in particular adding a lot as run blockers. Clady has certainly benefited from Manning’s quick release, but only five QB disruptions on 255 pass drops is superb by any measure.
Guards: Ryan Lilja (KC), Marshal Yanda (BLT) and Kevin Zeitler (CIN)
The left guard position is a bit of a cheat because Lilja has played exclusively at center for the past three weeks. Needless to say the NFL still have him down as a guard. The point is his overall grade of +12.6 across both positions would see him fourth among guards and also centers, so it was probably now or never to give him the kudos he deserves. Zeitler gets a nod as the only offensive rookie to make either squad — his all-around ability and consistency has more in common with an eight-year veteran.
Centers: Mike Pouncey (MIA) and Chris Myers (HST)
Last year, Pouncey started his rookie season well and faded. So far he’s been admirably consistent. After getting beaten up badly by the 49ers (-6.1 grade) I didn’t give Nick Mangold (NYJ) a chance of making this team, but, just like last year when he came back from injury, his last two games have been excellent. The fight is on.
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