SC’s 2006 NFL All-Pro Team

For the second consecutive season, I'm devoting an entire column to my annual all-pro team, rather than simply listing my choices at the end of the Week 17 power rankings.

I put a lot of thought into these selections, not to mention a lot of Sunday afternoons staring at linemen and more than a few "instant replay" clicks on the TiVo remote. I'm writing this column to explain the reasons I chose certain players, or didn't take others, and to give recognition to those who just missed my list. If all you care about is who made the team, you'll find a condensed list at the bottom.

For the second season in a row, I'm taking more than 11 players on both offense and defense. Most teams regularly employ a third wide receiver and a second tight end, so my team has three wideouts and two tight ends. I also have a nickel back and two inside linebackers, since about a quarter of the league uses one DT and two ILBs. I'll list each position in the order I picked the players, so you'll know which receiver is my third, which tight end is my second, and so on.

Quarterback: Peyton Manning (IND)
Last Year: Peyton Manning (IND)

Honestly, I'm tired of picking him. This is the fourth season in a row I've named Manning my all-pro QB. But he's the most consistent producer at his position, and some of the clutch wins he pulled out early in the season were incredible. Manning has the numbers — first in passer rating, second in yards, first in passing TDs, first in TD/INT differential — but all you have to do is watch the Colts play, and Manning makes plays no one else in the game is capable of.

I know he has Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne and that great offensive line, plus some pretty good offensive coaches in Tom Moore and Jim Caldwell. But Manning is the game's best quarterback, and he's my choice. For those interested, Drew Brees (NO) was his only serious competition.

Running Back: LaDainian Tomlinson (SD)
Last Year: Tiki Barber (NYG)

No discussion necessary here. Tomlinson had a legendary season. In the last 20 years, you talk about Barry Sanders in '97, Terrell Davis in '98, Marshall Faulk in 2000, and LT in '06. No one else is close to what he's done this year. Not Eric Dickerson in the late '80s, or Thurman Thomas in the early '90s. Not Emmitt in 1995. Not Priest Holmes or Tiki Barber or Shaun Alexander. When Tomlinson is enshrined in the Hall of Fame, this is the season people will talk about.

Fullback: Lorenzo Neal (SD)
Last Year: Tony Richardson (KC)

Besides being the lead blocker for Tomlinson, Neal also gained over 200 yards from scrimmage this season and picked up 24 first downs, mostly on third or fourth down with short yardage to go. Watch the replays of Tomlinson's touchdown runs, and on every one, you'll see Neal keep someone out of the way. I didn't seriously consider anyone else.

Wide Receiver: Roy Williams (DET), Reggie Wayne (IND), Marvin Harrison (IND)
Last Year: Steve Smith (CAR), Santana Moss (WAS), Hines Ward (PIT)

This is usually the hardest position to narrow down, and this year was no exception. Chad Johnson (CIN) led the NFL in receiving yards, but I didn't like his inconsistency and I'm not crazy about him as a team player. Andre Johnson (HOU) led the league in catches, but he averaged a tight end-like 11.1 yards per catch and didn't make a lot of big plays. Terrell Owens (DAL) led all receivers in scoring, but he's a drop machine and he's team poison.

I won't miss those guys on my all-pro squad, but there were others it really hurt to leave off. I've never picked Torry Holt (STL), but he and Harrison are the two best receivers of the decade so far. Steve Smith (CAR) is another proven talent. Finally, Anquan Boldin (ARI ), Donald Driver (GB), and Lee Evans (BUF) accomplished great things on mediocre offenses, without a lot of help. They didn't make the cut this season, but I'll be keeping a serious eye on them in the future.

With such stiff competition, it should come as no surprise that I'm enthusiastic about the players I did take. No receiver impressed me more this season than Williams. He opened things up for everyone else on that offense, finishing with 1,310 yards, tied for third in the NFL, and averaged 16 yards per reception, the second-highest mark of any 1,000-yard receiver this season. Wayne and Harrison run the most precise routes in the NFL (with the possible exception of Holt), and they're masters of the catch in tight coverage and the toe-tap on the sideline. It helps to catch passes from Manning, but these guys are at the top of their trade.

Tight End: Antonio Gates (SD), Tony Gonzalez (KC)
Last Year: Antonio Gates (SD), Chris Cooley (WAS)

Only one other player, Kellen Winslow, Jr. (CLE), is even close. Gates, my starter, was the leading receiver on the league's highest-scoring offense. If you're wondering why Tomlinson didn't see eight- and nine-man defensive fronts on every play, it's because they had to figure out how to cover Gates. Gonzalez had his fourth consecutive 900-yard season, and continues to be the benchmark against whom other tight ends are measured.

Center: Nick Hardwick (SD)
Last Year: Jeff Hartings (PIT)

There's no one I'm crazy about this year, but Hardwick, the heart of a line that blocked for LaDainian Tomlinson and allowed just 150 sack yards all season, is my choice. Other contenders were Jeff Saturday (IND), who will probably be AP's choice, plus Casey Wiegmann (KC), Dan Koppen (NE), Olin Kreutz (CHI), and Kevin Mawae (TEN), who came on at the end of the season to help Vince Young and Travis Henry.

Guard: Shawn Andrews (PHI), Brian Waters (KC)
Last Year: Steve Hutchinson (SEA), Brian Waters (KC)

Andrews, the Big Kid, was the league's best offensive lineman this season. He's a phenomenal run-blocker and a good pass-blocker, and he was an easy choice for my all-pro team. The other guard position was harder to choose. This is the fourth straight season I've taken Waters, but with less enthusiasm than in the past. Until very recently, I planned to go with Andrews and Marco Rivera (DAL), but Rivera seemed to wear down at the end of the season and was not impressive during the Cowboys' late-season slump.

Offensive Tackle: Jammal Brown (NO), Marcus McNeill (SD)
Last Year: Walter Jones (SEA), Tarik Glenn (IND)

I'm going with a youth movement here. McNeill is a rookie, but he's done a terrific job on the left side of San Diego's line. Brown is a hip pick, and I thought he was great in the first half of the season, making him my top choice in the NFC when I voted for the Pro Bowl. He hasn't been as sharp when I've seen him in the second half of the season, but I've heard too many people praise him to leave him off my team.

Jones, an easy choice last season, really struggled without Steve Hutchinson next to him this year, and only three teams allowed more sacks than Seattle. Glenn was better than that, but not at an all-pro level. The closest calls were Jon Runyan (PHI) and surprisingly, Jonathan Ogden (BAL). After years of being the best at his position, Ogden wasn't impressive the last two seasons, but he's really played well this year.

Defensive Tackle: Tommie Harris (CHI), Kelly Gregg (BAL)
Last Year: Cornelius Griffin (WAS), Tommie Harris (CHI)

Harris missed the last four games of the season, but before that he was playing not only at all-pro level, but near Defensive Player of the Year level. Chicago's defense hasn't been the same without him, giving up over 20 points in all four games he missed, compared with only twice in the 12 games he played. Gregg is the best player on the league's best defense, and he sets up everyone around him. I agonized over a way to get Pat Williams (MIN) — the rock in the middle of a line that nearly set a record for rush defense — in here, but I can't leave off Harris or Gregg.

Defensive End: Jason Taylor (MIA), Aaron Kampman (GB)
Last Year: Osi Umenyiora (NYG), Simeon Rice (TB)

I'm not as impressed as some people are with Taylor, who's a serious DPOY candidate, but he's had a terrific season, adding two interception returns for touchdowns to his 13.5 sacks. Kampman, who's been impressive but inconsistent in the past, put everything together this year, edging a host of other talented DEs. There's not space to go into specifics on all of them, but some of the other guys I considered were Derrick Burgess (OAK), Leonard Little (STL), Trevor Pryce (BAL), and both of my 2004 choices, Julius Peppers (CAR) and Aaron Schobel (BUF). Pryce and Schobel were probably the closest.

Outside Linebacker: Shawne Merriman (SD), Lance Briggs (CHI)
Last Year: Shawne Merriman (SD), Keith Bulluck (TEN)

Merriman, despite his four-game suspension for a banned substance, wreaked havoc on NFL offenses this season. When he was on the field, no defensive player in the league was more dominant this year. Briggs was the total package, making plays all over the field. Adalius Thomas (BAL) and DeMarcus Ware (DAL) were the hardest players to leave off my team.

Inside Linebacker: Zach Thomas (MIA), Brian Urlacher (CHI)
Last Year: Brian Urlacher (CHI), Mike Peterson (JAC)

Peterson would have been a lock if he'd stayed healthy — no interior linebacker played at a higher level in the first month of the season. Thomas, along with Jason Taylor, formed the heart of Miami's fourth-ranked defense. Urlacher is a perfect fit for his team, and probably excels in the company of great teammates more than any other linebacker. London Fletcher-Baker (BUF) had a fantastic season, and just missed the cut here. Fletcher is likely to hit free agency, and teams looking for defensive help could make a huge stride by signing him.

Cornerback: Champ Bailey (DEN), Rashean Mathis (JAC), Chris McAlister (BAL)
Last Year: Ronde Barber (TB), Ken Lucas (CAR) , Rashean Mathis (JAC)

There's no discussion necessary on Bailey, who seemed to make quarterbacks pay every time they threw in his direction this year. He, Mathis, and Charles Tillman (CHI) are the only players with at least five interceptions in each of the last two seasons, and Mathis actually has five or more picks three years running. Mathis is that rare player, like Everson Walls 20 years ago, who gets a ton of interceptions not because teams are picking on him, but simply because he's an incredible ballhawk. McAlister had a career year, but he barely edged out Asante Samuel (NE) and Lito Sheppard (PHI).

Free Safety: Brian Dawkins (PHI)
Last Year: Sean Taylor (WAS)

Nobody else was close. Dawkins set a career-high in tackles, intercepted four passes, forced five fumbles, and blitzed opposing quarterbacks every game, netting a sack against Washington's stingy offensive line. Dawkins seemed to be a part of every big play Philadelphia made on defense.

Strong Safety: Adrian Wilson (ARI)
Last Year: Troy Polamalu (PIT)

At the top of his game, Polamalu is the best, but he was playing hurt or out of the lineup entirely at times, and Wilson was a monster. He tallied five sacks, four interceptions, four forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries, and two touchdowns, including a 99-yard INT return. Besides Polamalu, the closest competition was from Chris Hope (TEN), a good player on the league's last-ranked defense, and Roy Williams (DAL), who had his best season since his rookie campaign in 2002. Keep an eye on young up-and-comers Dawan Landry (BAL) and Sean Considine (PHI), both of whom were also in the running.

Kicker: Matt Stover (BAL)
Last Year: Neil Rackers (ARI)

Selecting a kicker was tough this year. Stover missed only two kicks all season, one of which came on a botched snap. He edged John Kasay (CAR), who didn't miss from under 50 yards all season, and Nate Kaeding, who led all AFC kickers in scoring, plus Josh Brown (SEA), Rob Bironas (TEN), and Matt Bryant (TB). Brown was clutch, repeatedly hitting game-winners in the closing minutes, but he struggled with consistency, making barely 80% of his kicks, compared with 93% for Stover. Bironas and Bryant both hit 60-yarders this year, but they just missed too many others.

Punter: Brian Moorman (BUF)
Last Year: Mike Scifres (SD)

I figured that Moorman and Scifres would be the only contenders, but I also looked at Dustin Colquitt (KC), who led the league in net average, and Matt Turk (STL), who forced fair catches more often than anyone else. In the end, though, it came down to Moorman, who got a little more distance and had to fight the Buffalo winds, over Scifres, the league's best at avoiding touchbacks and pinning opponents inside their 10-yard-lines.

Kick Returner: Devin Hester (CHI)
Last Year: Terrence McGee (BUF)

A lot of returners had great seasons, but Hester, who finished among the top five in both kick return and punt return average, with a combined five TDs, was in a league of his own.

Offensive Player of the Year: LaDainian Tomlinson (SD)
Last Year: Tiki Barber (NYG)

I gave the briefest of considerations to Manning, Brees, and even Andrews, but there's no way this goes to someone other than LT. He really had a historic year.

Defensive Player of the Year: Champ Bailey (DEN)
Last Year: Troy Polamalu (PIT)

Tight competition here. Tommie Harris would have been a contender if he hadn't missed the end of the season, and I considered Jason Taylor and Brian Urlacher simply because the hype was so big. Ultimately, this came down to Bailey or Shawne Merriman. I probably would have gone with Merriman if he'd played the whole season, but the choice is Bailey, who had the best season I've seen from a cornerback this decade.

Most Valuable Player: LaDainian Tomlinson (SD)
Last Year: Tiki Barber (NYG)

Tomlinson was the best player on the best team. With the possible exception of Peyton Manning in 2004, this is the easiest MVP choice I've ever made.

Offensive Rookie of the Year: Maurice Jones-Drew (JAC)
Last Year: Cadillac Williams (TB)

I can't remember a year with so many great rookies. Vince Young (TEN) had a 66.7 passer rating, but he got better every week and was nails under pressure. Reggie Bush (NO) showed flashes of the potential he demonstrated in college, especially as a receiver out of the backfield. Hester was the league's best returner. McNeill was a dominant left tackle. Joseph Addai (IND) filled in nicely for Edgerrin James, rushing for over 1,000 yards and averaging 4.8 yards per carry. And Marques Colston (NO), the prohibitive favorite halfway through the season, gained over 1,000 yards despite an injury and a subsequent slow finish.

I chose Jones-Drew because he was so dangerous in so many ways. Jones-Drew rushed for nearly 1000 yards despite splitting time with Fred Taylor, and he led all NFL running backs with a 5.7 rushing average. MJD was also an effective receiver, finishing second on the team in receptions and gaining over 400 receiving yards. Finally, he was an exceptional kick returner, averaging 27.7 yards, more than a yard better than Hester's average. Jones-Drew scored 16 TDs this season, easily the best mark by a rookie, and no first-year player had a better season.

Defensive Rookie of the Year: DeMeco Ryans (HOU)
Last Year: Shawne Merriman (SD)

I think Ryans has been a little over-hyped, and I hate taking the popular choice, but Ryans was just a huge contributor this year. I take tackle statistics with a grain of salt, but it's indisputable that Ryans was the playmaker on Houston's defense, and he also contributed 3.5 sacks and an interception. That kind of all-around production is what you want to see from a middle linebacker.

Also in the running here were Mark Anderson (CHI), who had 12 sacks; A.J. Hawk (GB), whose contributions were similar to Ryan's; Landry, whom I nearly picked as my all-pro strong safety; and Kamerion Wimbley (CLE), who tallied 11 sacks.

Coach of the Year: Sean Payton (NO)
Last Year: Tony Dungy (IND)

Eric Mangini (NYJ) and Payton did such a good job rebuilding their teams this year that everyone is ignoring Marty Schottenheimer (SD), Brian Billick (BAL), Lovie Smith (CHI), and Bill Belichick (NE). Payton, though, is an easy choice. In his first year on the job, taking over a team that was still dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and a 2005 season without home games — a team that hadn't made the playoffs since 2000, and not since 1992 before that — a team relying on rookies and a free agent quarterback coming back from shoulder surgery — Payton turned them into contenders.

Assistant Coach of the Year: Rex Ryan (BAL)
Last Year: Tom Moore (IND)

A few weeks ago, Cam Cameron (SD) still had this sewn up, but with Philip Rivers' shaky finish, I'll give it to the defensive coordinator of the league's best unit. Ryan probably won't get a head coaching gig just yet, especially if Baltimore makes a deep postseason run, but both he and his brother, Rob Ryan (OAK), are starting to attract a lot of attention around the league.

Besides Cameron and the Ryans, I considered Doug Marrone (NO) and Ron Rivera (CHI).

2006 All-Pro Team

QB Peyton Manning, IND
RB LaDainian Tomlinson, SD
FB Lorenzo Neal, SD
WR Roy Williams, DET
WR Reggie Wayne, IND
WR Marvin Harrison, IND
TE Antonio Gates, SD
TE Tony Gonzalez, KC
C Nick Hardwick, SD
G Shawn Andrews, PHI
G Brian Waters, KC
OT Jammal Brown, NO
OT Marcus McNeill, SD

DT Tommie Harris, CHI
DT Kelly Gregg, BAL
DE Jason Taylor, MIA
DE Aaron Kampman, GB
OLB Shawne Merriman, SD
OLB Lance Briggs, CHI
ILB Zach Thomas, MIA
ILB Brian Urlacher, CHI
CB Champ Bailey, DEN
CB Rashean Mathis, JAC
CB Chris McAlister, BAL
FS Brian Dawkins, PHI
SS Adrian Wilson, ARI

K Matt Stover, BAL
P Brian Moorman, BUF
KR Devin Hester, CHI

Off POY — LaDainian Tomlinson, SD
Def POY — Champ Bailey, DEN
MVP — LaDainian Tomlinson, SD
Off Rookie — Maurice Jones-Drew, JAC
Def Rookie — DeMeco Ryans, HOU
Coach — Sean Payton, NO
Assistant — Rex Ryan, BAL

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