PFF All-Star Team: First Quarter
Are we already four weeks through the NFL season? I had to double take but there’s no denying it, nearly a quarter of the season done. Just like that.
It’s been, as it always is, a fantastic start to the year filled with some eye-catching performances that make us wonder just how we coped before the big kickoff. And it’s those performances that I want to focus on right now as we look at the best of the first quarter of the season.
Quarterback: Philip Rivers, SD
The top-ranked pure passer in our grading system, Rivers has had to fight off fierce competition from Aaron Rodgers and Andrew Luck. Still, the way he’s handled a line that has allowed too much pressure speaks volumes for where he’s at right now.
Honorable Mention: Aaron Rodgers (GB) and Andrew Luck (IND)
Running Back: DeMarco Murray, DAL
No running back has a higher pure rushing grade, and it isn’t even close right now. His 28 forced missed tackles are 11 more than any other back and it’s only two fumbles that keep the chasing backs in sight.
Honorable Mention: Marshawn Lynch (SEA) and Le’Veon Bell (PIT)
Fullback: Kyle Juszczyk, BAL
No one player has really stood out, so the versatile Raven gets the nod with a big nod to being featured more prominently than his peers.
Tight End: Larry Donnell, NYG
The feel good story of the year. Donnell has come from nowhere with some slick route running, excellent ball skills and some underrated blocking to lead our tight end ranks. A real find.
Honorable Mention: Delanie Walker (TEN) and Martellus Bennett (CHI)
Wide Receivers: Jordy Nelson, GB and Antonio Brown, PIT with Andrew Hawkins, CLE in slot
Two guys who no matter how productive they are seem perpetually underrated. Why are people reluctant to view Nelson as a Top-5 receiver in this league? Brown hasn’t let his play slip a beat this year. Playing inside, Hawkins was something of an interesting free agent pickup for Cleveland and he’s immediately paying dividends.
Honorable Mention: Calvin Johnson (DET) and Steve Smith (BAL) with Emmanuel Sanders, DEN in slot
Tackles: William Beatty, NYG and Joe Barksdale, SL
A slow start combined with a hardly inspiring preseason. That was Beatty who hadn’t lived up to his contract extension at the end of the 2012 season. Since Week 2 he’s upped his game and then some, earning the highest grade of all tackles. It’s crazy to think that Barksdale was surplus to requirements in Oakland. The Rams have found themselves a tackle on the up.
Honorable Mention: Branden Albert (MIA) and Ricky Wagner (BAL)
Guards: Kelechi Osemele, BAL and Marshal Yanda, BAL
It never hurts when you have two guards that are playing as well as Osemele and Yanda. Both are generating the kind of movement that means their running backs are getting to the second level and that should never be overlooked.
Honorable Mention: Josh Sitton (GB) and Chris Chester (WAS)
Center: Nick Mangold, NYJ
Mangold has spent a couple of years looking like a player whose best may be behind him. Well, four games into 2013 that notion seems premature. He’s back to being the best center in the league.
Honorable Mention: Brian De La Puente (CHI)
Here we put forward a hybrid defense that features two edge rushers (4-3 defensive ends or 3-4 outside linebackers), three players on the “interior” of the defensive line (3-4 defensive ends or defensive tackles) and two linebackers (all inside linebackers and 4-3 outside linebackers).
Defensive Interior – Ends: J.J. Watt, HST and Kyle Williams, BUF
There was never any doubt about Watt once again making this team. If there was, his tour de force this week eliminated that, with the highest graded performance of any player at any position. Williams squeezes in with his standout Week 3 effort being the tipping point. It’s extremely tight at the top, however.
Honorable Mention: Jason Hatcher (WAS) and Calais Campbell (ARZ)
Defensive Interior – Nose: Ian Williams, SF
What’s not to like about Williams? Maybe he could do with more playing time but lining up as a more traditional nose tackle gets him extra marks. He’s been a quiet revelation in San Francisco.
Honorable Mention: Earl Mitchell (MIA)
Edge Rushers: Cameron Wake, MIA and Terrell Suggs, BAL
When we look back at the career of Cameron Wake, it will probably be with amazement he never got the credit he truly deserved. Has there been a more consistent pass rusher in the league these past five years? He’s on form in 2014 and our top-ranked defensive end. Suggs doesn’t have the publicity problem of Wake, but since his Achilles injury performance has been an issue. Not this year with him being a true force against both run and pass.
Honorable Mention: Justin Houston (KC) and Dwight Freeney (SD)
Linebackers: Dont’a Hightower, NE and Jelani Jenkins, MIA
Surprised by these names? They wouldn’t have been our top guesses at the start of the year, but they’ve earned it with Jenkins rising up as the real shocker, coming from nowhere to really bring that linebacker group together in Miami. The more versatile Hightower didn’t look great against KC, but three much better efforts get him a spot.
Honorable Mention: Bobby Wagner (SEA) and Rolando McClain (DAL)
Cornerbacks: Brandon Flowers, SD and Perrish Cox, SF with Brandon Boykin, PHI in the slot
How quickly things can change. The Chargers’ latest reclamation project has seen them provide the platform for Flowers to rekindle his past relationship with looking excellent on the field. He’s our top-ranked corner, just ahead of Cox who might have kind have defaulted his way into a starting job, but is making it count now.
Honorable Mention: Antonio Cromartie (ARZ) and Prince Amukamara (NYG)
Safeties: Harrison Smith, MIN and Malcolm Jenkins, PHI
It was tough not finding a spot for Antoine Bethea but the extra playmaking of Smith and Jenkins get them the selection. In truth, there are a lot of strong candidates to choose from in what has been a great start to the year for the safeties of the NFL.
Honorable Mention: Antoine Bethea (SF), Eric Weddle (SD), Earl Thomas (SEA) and Aaron Williams (BUF)
Kicker: Matt Bryant, ATL
Bryant’s effort against New Orleans keeps him atop the list here. Its not how many kicks you make, but the type of kicks that you execute on.
Honorable Mention: Dan Bailey (DAL)
Punter: Ryan Quigley, NYJ
It’s so tight at the top of our punter rankings that 0.5 of a grade separates the Top 6.
Honorable Mention: Tress Way (WAS), Pat McAfee (IND), Thomas Morstead (NO), Dustin Colquitt (KC) and Jon Ryan (SEA)
Special Teamers: Michael Thomas, MIA, Shamarko Thomas, PIT and Trent Robinson, WAS
Two picked themselves with Michael Thomas and Robinson being tackling machines. The work of Shamarko flies a little more under the radar, but is no less worthy of attention.
Kick Returner: C.J. Spiller, BUF
With kickers smashing balls out of the end zone it’s hurt these returners, but Spiller has made his seven returns count.
Punt Returner: Darren Sproles, PHI
Just do yourself a favor and don’t give him the ball in open space. How does that sound?
Follow Khaled on Twitter: @PFF_Khaled