The PFF Dream Team
Every four years, one of the highlights of the Olympics is getting to see the USA men’s basketball team try and replicate the magic of the 1992 “Dream Team” that was so unstoppable.
Imagine if the same thing was possible for football—an all-conquering team made up of NFL superstars taking the field to play against the best the rest of the world has to offer.
As with the basketball team, there would be little competition to such a dream team. Every result would be a destruction of one form or other, but perhaps the more interesting aspect is imagining what such a team would even look like. Instead of Pro Bowl teams that shoehorn players into positions they don’t really play, or All-Pro teams that don’t need to have any balance because they will never actually take the field, what would a football Dream Team actually look like?
Taking PFF grades and analysis into consideration, here’s a look at what the USA’s football Deam Team would like today.
QB: Aaron Rodgers, Packers
Quarterback has suddenly become an incredibly difficult decision following the 2015 season. Cam Newton improved all season long and emerged as a true MVP, while Tom Brady and Carson Palmer had arguably the best seasons of their respective careers and were both legitimate MVP candidates themselves. Aaron Rodgers, who would have been the unquestioned choice a year ago, on the other hand, struggled without his top target, WR Jordy Nelson. Any of those four players would have a good case to be the No. 1 QB on this roster, but I still believe that Rodgers at his best is the top quarterback in the game today. We are only a year removed from Rodgers’ highest level of play (2014), and Newton, Brady, and Palmer each have had at least one season in their careers that would compare to the Rodgers of 2015, so I’m inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt.
RB: Le’Veon Bell, Steelers
We might be in danger of falling foul of Olympic-level drug testing with this choice, and if that happened, Adrian Peterson would be waiting in the wings. Regardless, Le’Veon Bell is the game’s best back when he is on the field. He can run like Adrian Peterson, but has an entire extra side to his game because of his ability in the passing attack—a vital skill for a running back in today’s NFL. In 2014, Bell had a top-five PFF grade as both a runner and receiver, and was one of the highest-graded backs in the league in 2015 on just 306 snaps. The running back in 2016 needs to be a multi-faceted weapon, and Bell is the best example of that in the NFL right now.
TE: Rob Gronkowski, Patriots
The biggest slam dunk on the list, Rob Gronkowski is the best tight end in the NFL by some margin, and well on his way to going down as one of the greatest to ever play the game. He already has more career touchdown catches than Shannon Sharpe, who was one of the game’s best receiving TEs—and played for 13 seasons—and Gronkowski is a better blocker than the former Bronco and Raven ever was. In 2015, Gronk was the highest-graded blocking TE in the league to go along with his dominance as a receiver. Tom Brady’s favorite target is a matchup nightmare, and would be one of the unstoppable forces on a football Dream Team.
LT: Joe Thomas, Browns
The offensive line is going to be an interesting group, because we want them to be able to mesh together and be in positions they can play, rather than just selecting the best two guards regardless of which side they excel on. Joe Thomas remains the best left tackle in the game, just ahead of Cowboys LT Tyron Smith. Thomas has been the benchmark for pass protection at the position since he entered the league, and even as he gets up in years, shows no sign of declining—despite rarely having a quarterback that makes his life any easier. Thomas can play in any scheme, but most importantly, he can lock down the blind side.
LG: Andrew Whitworth, Bengals
Andrew Whitworth is one of the league’s most underrated players, and has been for years. He is one of the game’s best left tackles, but only after being drafted as a guard originally. He played guard early in his career and was excellent there, and during a 2013 game against San Diego, was forced inside after five snaps when Clint Boling went down hurt. He put together a dominant performance back inside, and looked like he could be an All-Pro guard without much work. Whitworth has size and excellent technique, and is one of the smarter offensive linemen in the league. Packers LG Josh Sitton and Bills LG Richie Incognito would have good reason to feel snubbed if they missed out in this way, but I think Whitworth has the highest potential of any of the three.
C: Travis Frederick, Cowboys
Travis Frederick may not be the unquestioned best center in the game the way Nick Mangold was for a run of years, but the Cowboy looks set to be reliably in the conversation every single year. In 2015, he didn’t allow a single sack, and surrendered just 10 total pressures all season; he has allowed just 24 hurries over the past two years, less than half the number Trevor Robinson allowed in 2015 alone for the Chargers. Frederick is an excellent pass-blocker, and though he doesn’t have the brute force in the run game that some other players possess, he is consistently making his block and doing enough to create a running lane.
RG: Marshal Yanda, Ravens
For the past couple of seasons, Marshal Yanda has been the league’s best guard, and like other players on this line, could easily switch positions and play at an incredibly high level, too. He has had time at right tackle in the past, and back in 2010, was the NFL’s fifth-highest graded offensive tackle, trailing only Kareem McKenzie among RTs. In 2015, he allowed just one sack and 17 total pressures, and his run blocking was among the best in the game. Yanda provides a mauling presence to this line without sacrificing anything in pass protection.
RT: Tyron Smith, Cowboys
Like the left guard pick, this is a selection that is hard on a couple of legitimate right tackles. Both Mitchell Schwartz and Ryan Schraeder would feel aggrieved to be passed over for Tyron Smith, but Smith has played right tackle for the Cowboys in the past before making the switch to the left side, and performed very well in the role. What’s more, since that time in his career, he has improved immeasurably overall. Smith is practically neck-and-neck with Joe Thomas in terms of being the best offensive tackle in the game, but while projecting Thomas to the right side would be pure speculation, Smith was a top-10 tackle right off the bat as a rookie on that side. If he only matched that level, he would probably still be the best right tackle in the game, but chances are that he would now be markedly better, given the overall improvement to his performance.
WR: Antonio Brown, Steelers
Antonio Brown is the best receiver in the game, despite being only 5-foot-10 and 181 pounds. He doesn’t have imposing size, blazing speed, or mind-blowing athletic measurables, but he does have incredible hands, route-running prowess, and the ability to make guys miss. Last season, he was on pace to obliterate several receiving records before QB Ben Roethlisberger missed time due to injury, and when Brown has somebody that can get him the ball, he is practically uncoverable. Seeing him in person at Steelers training camp this summer, he simply stands out among the rest of the players on the field, and is visibly on another level.
WR: Julio Jones, Falcons
If there’s a receiver that can compete with Brown for title of the best in the game, it’s Julio Jones. And unlike Brown, Jones has all of those prototypical measurables that everybody looks for. Jones gained 2.59 yards per route run last season, more than any other receiver outside of Brown (2.69), and forced 20 missed tackles after the catch. Jones fits the design spec of an elite No. 1 receiver in today’s NFL, and paired with Brown, would give this team a pair of untouchable wideouts.
SWR: Doug Baldwin, Seahawks
If this was a decade ago, we might be looking at a second tight end or a fullback, but the game today is all about the slot, and that receiving threat from the inside alignment. The league isn’t short of high-quality slot receivers, but Doug Baldwin may have emerged as the best of them all. In the Seahawks’ offense, he had 14 touchdowns in 2015, tied for most in the league, but also caught 78.8 percent of the passes thrown his way, the fourth-best mark in the NFL among wide receivers. Baldwin is a savvy route runner, but is also capable of making people miss after the catch, forcing 18 missed tackles last season—just two fewer than Jones and five fewer than Brown, but on almost 50 fewer catches.
The offensive personnel are capable of running a myriad of different styles and schemes and dominating, but the defense is where things get more interesting. Arguably the two best players in football right now are J.J. Watt and Aaron Donald, warranting the need to have both in the same defense in positions they actually play. To make that happen, this Dream Team is going to run the Seattle-style defensive scheme (see image below) that other teams like the Jaguars and Falcons have attempted to replicate, but failed to do so because they haven’t had the personnel. I don’t think this team will have the same problem.
LEO/DRE: Khalil Mack, Raiders
Khalil Mack laid down a marker last preseason when he finished as the league’s top-graded edge defender before backing that up with a regular-season performance that eclipsed anybody else, too. Mack notched 84 total pressures last season, and trailed only J.J. Watt among defensive linemen in defensive stops, with 54 (Watt had 59). Mack was a dominant run defender from day one in the league, but last season he became one of the league’s best pass-rushers, as well. With only two seasons in the league, Mack’s ceiling may still not be established, and he is already a force capable of changing games on his own.
DT: Aaron Donald, Rams
Two years into his career, Donald is tracking almost perfectly in line with Watt in terms of PFF grades. He was the league’s best-graded defensive tackle during his rookie year, and in his sophomore campaign, was good enough to win PFF’s Dwight Stephenson Award, given to the league’s best player in a single season. Donald didn’t have as many pressures as Watt last year, but actually generated pressure at a greater rate (on a per-snap basis). For a player knocked for being undersized, Donald is a wrecking ball in the run game, and uses his hands as well as any defender to shed blocks and make plays in the backfield. If Watt is the best defensive player in football, Donald is breathing down his neck, and would be the dominant 3-technique in this defense.
NT: Linval Joseph, Vikings
Nose tackle in this defense would likely be a two-down player, simply due to the other pass-rushing options on the field. That makes players like Giants NT Damon Harrison and Ravens NT Brandon Williams viable options, even if they are very one-dimensional talents. It’s impossible to look past the play of Linval Joseph from last season in Minnesota, though. His year was curtailed by injury, but when Joseph was healthy, he was one of the most destructive forces in the league, and there may have been no single better game from an interior defender than his Week 9 performance against the Rams. The 2015 season was a departure from his career baseline, but if Joseph can replicate that form, he can be one of the most powerful defensive tackles in the league, and would be a dominant NT on this team.
DE: J.J. Watt, Texans
Watt is listed as a 3-4 defensive end, which is typically an interior alignment, but he actually plays more than two-thirds of his snaps aligned outside the tackle. Watt has become more of an edge rusher than an interior defender, but he still splits his time between both roles. In terms of D-line technique alignment, the closest player to Watt is actually Seattle’s Michael Bennett, and that’s exactly the role that Watt will be playing in this defense for the Dream Team. In a season hampered by injuries last year, Watt still led the league with 89 total pressures, and the season before that he posted a ludicrous 119. He is the most devastating defensive player in the league.
WLB: Jamie Collins, Patriots
The new breed of NFL linebacker needs to be an athletic freak, because they are being expected to go head-to-head with matchup problems on the offensive side of the ball. Jamie Collins is a player that can excel against the run, on the blitz, and in coverage, and become a defensive weapon when it comes to matchup problems. In this defense, he would be a three-down player, and the other primary coverage linebacker alongside Luke Kuechly on passing downs, allowing Von Miller to become a situational pass-rusher on those plays. Collins can cover running backs, tight ends, and even receivers in a way few linebackers can.
MLB: Luke Kuechly, Panthers
What really separates Luke Kuechly from the rest of the linebackers in the league is how quickly he reads the game and reacts to what he sees. What often gets labeled simply as “instincts” is really the product of endless tape study and the understanding of down and distance, route combinations, and tendencies that gives Kuechly a step or two advantage over other linebackers. Kuechly broke the PFF scale last season and was comfortably our highest-graded linebacker, ending the year with a mark of 99.1. He would be the perfect linebacker for this defense, and one of the few able to play at that same elite level on passing downs, too, given his coverage skills and ability to flow to the football.
SLB: Von Miller, Broncos
This is a throwback for Von Miller, who played strong-side linebacker earlier in his Denver career. The Broncos used Miller as an off-the-ball linebacker on base downs before he became an edge-rushing force in sub-packages and passing downs. Miller has averaged 85 pressures every season he has played a full slate of games, and 7.5 pressures per game during the final four games of the 2015 season that led to a Super Bowl victory. Miller is one of the league’s best pass-rushers, but he also has the skills to play coverage and against the run on base downs in a way most other edge defenders cannot.
SS: Tyrann Mathieu, Cardinals
The question of exactly what position Tyrann Mathieu plays seems to constantly repeat. He is listed at safety, but plays the majority of his snaps as a slot corner. The bottom line is that he is a game-changer wherever he lines up, and in this defense, would be playing the Kam Chancellor role. He may not have the same kind of size as Chancellor, but he does have a skill-set that would thrive in that position, with exceptional instincts and ability to read the game, as well as the skills to cover and play the run. Mathieu is only 5-foot-9 and under 190 pounds, but he had the league’s second-best run-defense grade among players PFF listed at cornerback last season.
FS: Earl Thomas, Seahawks
If you want to run a scheme that plays a lot of cover-1 and cover-3 on the back end, you need Earl Thomas to make it work. Thomas has unique range and the ability to break on the ball from the deep middle of the field that allows everybody else to do their job and still feel some impact from the last line of defense. Other players in the league can ward off the deep middle of the field, but no others can do that and still impact as many plays as Thomas can because of his raw speed and burst. He may be the single-hardest player to replicate from that Seattle defensive scheme, and the most important part of the Dream Team’s secondary.
CB: Richard Sherman, Seahawks
Richard Sherman may be the best cornerback in football—and the closest thing to truly “shutdown” in today’s NFL landscape. Over his entire NFL career, including the playoffs, Sherman has allowed only 10 passing touchdowns, and has yet to allow more than 50 percent of passes sent his way to result in catches over a season. He had three straight seasons of allowing a QB passer rating below 50.0 when targeted, and had eight games in 2015 in which he allowed one or fewer receptions. Sherman has strength and size and is incredibly hard to beat one-on-one, plus he brings the kind of nasty attitude that all teams want in a corner.
CB: Patrick Peterson, Cardinals
Patrick Peterson has always been given the toughest assignment a corner can draw—tracking a single receiver across the field and sticking to him all game. That’s difficult not only because he’s on the best receiver all game, but because he needs to be comfortable with every corner position and doesn’t get a chance to settle into any one spot. After Peterson was diagnosed with diabetes, his 2015 season was the best of his career, and we witnessed the realization of what he can be at his best. He went up against some of the best receivers in the game all season, and didn’t allow more than 56 yards through the air in any one game. Peterson combined with Sherman gives opposing quarterbacks nowhere to go, and both are capable of playing in man or zone coverage.
SCB: Chris Harris, Jr., Broncos
Chris Harris, Jr. has become one of the league’s best cornerbacks, period, but if you limit him to the slot, then he’s arguably the best in the league. Last season, he led all corners in yards surrendered per snap in coverage, at 0.37—almost twice as good as the next-best mark. Harris also went almost 21 snaps in coverage between giving up receptions in the slot last season, six more than the next-best mark. As a coverage player in the slot, he is elite, but he also brings a physicality and ability to shut down the run game to his side of the field that makes him the perfect nickel corner in this defense.