Monday, December 31, 2007

Sports Central’s 2007 NFL All-Pro Team

By Brad Oremland

This is the sixth time I have selected an all-pro team for Sports Central, and for the third consecutive season, I'm devoting an entire column to the subject. I put a lot of thought into these selections, not to mention a lot of Sunday afternoons staring at linemen and weekday evenings looking at standings and stats. This column exists 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, along with my playoff predictions.

For those of you who are new to the column, I choose 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: Tom Brady (NE)
Last Year: Peyton Manning (IND)

In most years, this would be a nasty four-way battle between Brett Favre (GB), David Garrard (JAC), Manning (IND), and Tony Romo (DAL). This year, it's an easy call. Brady.

Running Back: Brian Westbrook (PHI)
Last Year: LaDainian Tomlinson (SD)

There were two serious candidates: Tomlinson (SD) and Westbrook. Adrian Peterson (MIN) blew us all away with his big games, but he disappeared at the end of the season, and he doesn't yet have the same veteran savvy and intangibles as L.T. and Westbrook. Tomlinson got off to a slow start, then made a late run at defending his claim as the best RB in the league, but he went through prolonged slumps and there were times when he really got shut down.

I didn't see those inconsistencies from Westbrook. When he had a bad rushing game, he made up for it as a receiver (Week 8). If he didn't do much in the passing game, he ran wild (Week 11). And often, he did both (Weeks 2, 3, 10, and 13). Westbrook carried Philadelphia's offense — at times almost single-handedly — in a down-year for Donovan McNabb and in the absence of any credible threats among Philadelphia's other receivers. He is a great runner, a good pass blocker, and by far the best receiving RB in the game today. No one else presents the same kind of threat to NFL defenses.

Fullback: Greg Jones (JAC)
Last Year: Lorenzo Neal (SD)

My Pro Bowl choices were Mike Sellers (WAS) and Jones (JAC). The guys who are going to Hawaii are Tony Richardson (MIN) and Neal (SD). None of those players are bad choices, but what separated Jones in my mind was his effective lead-blocking for two extremely productive backs, Maurice Jones-Drew and Fred Taylor. Those two collectively averaged better than five yards per carry, and Greg Jones deserves a lot of the credit for that.

Wide Receiver: Reggie Wayne (IND), Randy Moss (NE), Terrell Owens (DAL)
Last Year: Roy Williams (DET), Reggie Wayne (IND), Marvin Harrison (IND)

This is usually the hardest position to narrow down. This season, the only difficult choice was Owens over Wes Welker (NE). Owens has better numbers (81 catches, 1355 yards, 15 TD) than Welker (112 catches, 1175 yards, 8 TD), but Welker led all wide receivers in yards after catch, and he always seemed to show up when the Patriots needed a big play to keep a drive going. Ultimately, though, I couldn't argue with Owens' production and the way he opened things up for the Dallas offense.

Moss did the same thing for New England, and his historic haul of touchdown catches this season re-established him as a singular talent and as the most dangerous receiver in the game. Moss, however, had bad games, times when he seemed to become invisible. No receiver had a better season in 2007 than Reggie Wayne. Marvin Harrison got hurt. Dallas Clark got hurt. Half the offensive line got hurt. Manning to Wayne remained a constant, and every week you could see him on the highlights bringing in a big catch.

Tight End: Kellen Winslow, Jr. (CLE), Antonio Gates (SD)
Last Year: Antonio Gates (SD), Tony Gonzalez (KC)

This was a painful decision, because I think there are six different players for whom you could make a decent argument. Dallas Clark (IND) started the season better than anyone and led all tight ends in touchdowns. Chris Cooley (WAS) may mean more to his team than any other tight end in the league. Gonzalez (KC) had arguably the best season of his career. Jason Witten (DAL) finished second only to Gonzalez in receptions and yards.

Clark and Winslow are the weakest blockers in the group, more like wide receivers than tight ends. But Winslow was so productive and such an important part of Cleveland's offense that I simply couldn't leave him off. Every time I saw the Browns play, Winslow impressed me. Gates is just a unique talent, and his numbers aren't as high as they could be if San Diego had anyone else to catch the ball, because defenses can pretty much concentrate on Gates and Tomlinson. That he was still so productive is a testament to his skill.

Center: Jeff Saturday (IND)
Last Year: Nick Hardwick (SD)

Center is normally a tough position to choose. This year there were only two real contenders, Dan Koppen (NE) and Saturday, who gets the edge for his masterful coordination of the Indianapolis line, even in the face of this year's continuous injuries and rotating lineup.

Guard: Logan Mankins (NE), Ryan Lilja (IND)
Last Year: Shawn Andrews (PHI), Brian Waters (KC)

Mankins seemed to slow down towards the end of the season, but he was still the best. The other spot was tougher. Andrews was in the mix again, but injuries and inconsistency ultimately eliminated him from consideration. Kris Dielman (SD) and Mike Goff (SD) played very well toward the end of the season, but seemed to have some problems earlier in the year. That left me with Eric Steinbach (CLE) and Lilja. In the end, Steinbach and the Chargers barely lost out to Lilja, who consistently played well on a line that kept shifting because of injuries.

Offensive Tackle: Matt Light (NE), Chad Clifton (GB)
Last Year: Jammal Brown (NO), Marcus McNeill (SD)

Light, like his teammate Mankins, seemed to let up toward the end of the season, and in Light's case, it was nearly enough to lose the top spot. He was not impressive against Osi Umenyiora in the Week 17 win over the Giants — or for that matter, any other time after Thanksgiving — but no one else blew me away. Clifton was very solid when I saw him this year, earning the second position, but it should be noted that Chris Samuels (WAS) had by far the best season of his career, giving Light and Clifton a run for their money.

If you're a purist who is upset that I chose two left guards and two left tackles, go with Goff over Chris Snee (NYG) at right guard, and take Marc Colombo (DAL) over Mark Tauscher (GB) as a right tackle. Having said that, Lilja played better this year than any right guard, and Clifton was better than any right tackle. They're my all-pros.

Defensive End: Jared Allen (KC), Mario Williams (HOU)
Last Year: Jason Taylor (MIA), Aaron Kampman (GB)

Allen was the best. He had seven multi-sack games, tons of solo tackles, and an impressive collection of pass deflections. The other DE position was a toss-up between Williams, Kampman (GB), Kyle Vanden Bosch (TEN), Osi Umenyiora (NYG), and Elvis Dumervil (DEN), an up-and-comer who's still a year or two away. Sleeper for '08: Justin Tuck (NYG) looked great at the end of this season.

The much-maligned Williams probably had a better second half of the season than any other player in the league, on offense or defense. After the bye, he just exploded. I prefer more consistency, but I'm not going to overlook Williams after the way he played down the stretch. We've all learned to withhold judgement on the relative merits of Williams, Reggie Bush, and Vince Young, so I'm not going to definitively say that Williams was the right choice with the first pick in last year's draft, but he has become a monster.

Defensive Tackle: Albert Haynesworth (TEN), Pat Williams (MIN)
Last Year: Tommie Harris (CHI), Kelly Gregg (BAL)

Haynesworth had some injury issues, but was dominant when he was on the field. The other spot was a toss-up. Vince Wilfork (NE) was the best 3-4 nose tackle this year, and Haloti Ngata (BAL) had the best game I saw from any defensive tackle in 2007, against New England in Week 13. Williams was the best pure run-stopper and Darnell Dockett (ARI) was the best interior pass rusher, but in the end it was between Wilfork and Williams. My tie-breaker? Pat Williams didn't poke anybody in the eye.

Outside Linebacker: DeMarcus Ware (DAL), Julian Peterson (SEA)
Last Year: Shawne Merriman (SD), Lance Briggs (CHI)

Ware is an easy choice. He has been tremendous this season, and not in the same sense as Pat Williams, who is listed at 317 pounds and probably weighs twice that. I agonized over whom to pair with him. Normally I select one pass-rush specialist — usually a 3-4 guy like Merriman or Ware — and one space player, a guy who will have a bunch of tackles and drops into coverage on most pass plays. The best of that group were Briggs (CHI), Keith Bulluck (TEN), Karlos Dansby (ARI), A.J. Hawk (GB), and Thomas Howard (OAK). But this season also featured exceptional seasons from outside 'backers whose primary job is rushing the quarterback. I'm thinking of Ware, of course, plus James Harrison (PIT), Peterson, and Mike Vrabel (NE).

What sold me on Peterson ahead of all the others? More than anything else, it was his Week 16 game against Baltimore. Peterson didn't put up huge numbers — 5 solo tackles, ½ sack, a fumble recovery — but he was all over the field, and he made several big stops. Peterson was the total package this season: he had 63 solo tackles, 9.5 sacks, and 2 interceptions. That's more than just a pass-rush specialist.

Inside Linebacker: London Fletcher (WAS), Brian Urlacher (CHI)
Last Year: Zach Thomas (MIA), Brian Urlacher (CHI)

This was all about the NFC Seven: Nick Barnett (GB), London Fletcher (WAS), Antonio Pierce (NYG), Barrett Ruud (TB), Lofa Tatupu (SEA), Brian Urlacher (CHI), and Patrick Willis (SF). The first two I dropped were the alphabetical bookends, Barnett and Willis. San Francisco's star rookie showed a lot of potential this season, but his main job was cleaning up tackles. He just doesn't have the nuanced grasp of NFL offenses that his veteran competition does, and it showed in areas like pass defense. Barnett doesn't have a specific weakness like that, but he just doesn't seem quite as dominant as the rest of the group. Ruud was supposed to be my sleeper, and I was really excited about this one, but he faded a bit down the stretch, and like Willis, I think he's still a year or two away. Pierce is another guy who limped through the homestretch. That left Fletcher, Tatupu, and Urlacher.

Brian Urlacher had the best game I saw from any ILB this season, against the Giants in Week 13. The next week, against Washington, he was invisible. That two-week span seemed to epitomize his season: flashes of greatness, but ultimately inconsistent. Then, in the last month of the season, he exploded, finally edging past Tatupu in Week 17. Fletcher provided the consistently high level of play I was looking for at the other spot.

Cornerback: Asante Samuel (NE), Marcus Trufant (SEA), Shawn Springs (WAS)
Last Year: Champ Bailey (DEN), Rashean Mathis (JAC), Chris McAlister (BAL)

Samuel was a lock. The other spot was a battle between the shut-downs and the ball-hawks. Shut-downs are the so-called "cover corners" — guys who just control their side of the field, and never get thrown at. The best this year were Lito Sheppard (PHI) and Springs. Ball-hawks get tested plenty, but they almost always win. The cream of the crop this season were Ronde Barber (TB), Antonio Cromartie (SD), and Trufant. The two groups are hard to compare. Shut-down corners don't usually have much in the way of stats, unless they make a ton of tackles against the run or have a couple big games against slow-on-the-uptake QBs. Ball-hawks have big numbers: tackles, deflections, interceptions, all of it.

Barber was the first one off my list. He had some really nice games, and he was the key player for Tampa's phenomenal pass defense, but is starting to show his age. Cromartie had a terrific season, and made big plays every time I saw him, but I had some misgivings about selecting a player who only started half of his team's games. If it took Cromartie until November to convince his own coaches that he was the best cornerback on the team, I'm not comfortable saying that he was one of the top three CBs in the entire league.

That left three players for the last two spots. Sheppard, when I saw him this season, was probably the second-best cornerback in the league, but he missed about a third of the season (5½ games), and that's too much. Springs wasn't even on my radar a month ago. A good player, sure, but not having an all-pro season. He saved his four best performances of the season for the last four weeks, when Washington was going 4-0 en route to securing a playoff appearance. All things being equal, I love to see consistency, but I'm not going to complain about incredible clutch performance, either. Springs is my nickel back.

Free Safety: Ed Reed (BAL)
Last Year: Brian Dawkins (PHI)

I wish that Dawkins had been healthy all season, because he's still the best. Philadelphia's defense was totally different when Dawkins was in the lineup. He's just a colossal playmaker, and probably would have been in the running for my Defensive Player of the Year. Since Dawkins missed half the season, though, Reed is the choice.

Strong Safety: Bob Sanders (IND)
Last Year: Adrian Wilson (ARI)

If only they were all this easy.

Kicker: Rob Bironas (TEN)
Last Year: Matt Stover (BAL)

This is a tricky position to pick, because statistics tell a lot of the story — almost all of it, in fact. Unfortunately, there are lots of factors that color those statistics, including bad snaps, poor holds, and mostly importantly, inclement weather. I looked at more kickers than usual this year:

* Rob Bironas (TEN), the front-runner, led the NFL in field goals and set a new record with eight in one game.

* Kris Brown (HOU) went 5-for-5 from over 50 yards and had the longest field goal of the season (57).

* Phil Dawson (CLE) missed only two FGs this season (though he had another two blocked). The kicks he missed were from 52 yards, on a cold day in Pittsburgh, and against Baltimore, in a game when he made four field goals, including a game-tying 51-yarder at the end of regulation and the game-winner in overtime.

* Nick Folk (DAL), the NFC's Pro Bowler, missed only one kick under 50 yards all season (he had another blocked).

* Robbie Gould (CHI) missed only one kick under 50 yards (plus two blocked) and plays in cold, windy Chicago.

* Shayne Graham (CIN) had the best field goal percentage of anyone with at least 30 attempts.

Do you see why it was hard to cut any of those guys? I chose Bironas because he made the most kicks and was effective at all distances.

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

As I mentioned in my Pro Bowl column, I put a ridiculous amount of energy into selecting a punter. It may be the least important position on the list, but it's important to me that I make good selections across the board. Anyway, I had six finalists: Michael Koenen (ATL), Andy Lee (SF), Moorman (BUF), Scifres, Daniel Sepulveda (PIT), and Matt Turk (HOU). The league leader in net average, Shane Lechler (OAK), didn't make the cut. Why not? Because he just bombed his kicks without direction, and way too many of them got returned. Lechler only got three punts out of bounds all season. He forced very few fair catches. He had two punts taken back for TDs (tied for worst in the NFL), and the only player who allowed more return yards had 17 more punts than Lechler.

Of my six finalists, I eventually narrowed the list to three: Koenen, Lee, and Scifres. What I don't like about these finalists is that they all play in places where punting comes pretty easy. The Falcons play in a dome, San Diego has pretty nice weather all year, and even San Francisco is hardly Buffalo or Green Bay. What I did like: Koenen and Scifres hardly ever allowed returns, and Lee posted an incredible 41.0 net average, without as much baggage as Lechler. Koenen was the master of hang time; his 31 fair catches were almost twice as many as anyone else. But Scifres, along with Moorman, is the most strategic punter in the NFL. He forced 19 fair catches, which is great, but he also put nine balls out of bounds and had 15 punts downed by his return team.

This season, more than half of Scifres' punts ended with his gross yardage: that is, if he punted the ball 50 yards, the other team took over 50 yards away. That means no return, and no touchback. Scifres managed that more than 50% of the time; the only player with a better rate (Turk), had a much lower gross average (by about 4.5 yards) and many fewer punts. In a close call over Koenen, I'm going with Scifres.

Kick Returner: Devin Hester (CHI)
Last Year: Devin Hester (CHI)

Josh Cribbs (CLE) is one of many returners who had fine seasons in 2007, but Hester was in a league of his own. The one thing he needs to do better is hold on to the ball, but right now, saying that Hester fumbles too much is like complaining that Tom Brady isn't much of a scrambler.

Hester joins Reggie Wayne, Antonio Gates, and Brian Urlacher as the only players to repeat from my 2006 all-pro team.

Offensive Player of the Year: Tom Brady (NE)
Last Year: LaDainian Tomlinson (SD)

At midseason, I thought Randy Moss (NE) deserved this, but as I've already explained, I think Reggie Wayne (IND) was ultimately better. Brady had a historic season, and unlike Moss, established himself as the only serious contender at his position.

Defensive Player of the Year: DeMarcus Ware (DAL)
Last Year: Champ Bailey (DEN)

Ware was exceptional almost every time I saw Dallas play this season. Not just good — great. Jared Allen (KC), Albert Haynesworth (TEN), and Bob Sanders (IND) were the other contenders, and they all had terrific seasons, but no one else blew me away the same way Ware did.

Most Valuable Player: Brian Westbrook (PHI)
Last Year: LaDainian Tomlinson (SD)

I know I'm probably the only person not picking Tom Brady (NE). I'm not denying his obvious talent or the incredible year he's had. Brady is my all-pro QB and my OPOY, and I've named him league MVP in the past. But I think you could probably pull Brady out of New England's lineup and put a pretty good game-manager in there with Moss and Welker and that terrific offensive line, and the Pats would still go 14-2 or so. Replace him with Peyton Manning (IND) and I think they still go undefeated.

A similar argument, I think, applies to DeMarcus Ware, the league's best defensive player this season. The Cowboys were so good, they would have been successful even without him. In my mind, the best candidates for a true MVP award were Brady, Albert Haynesworth (TEN), Manning (the good one, not Eli), Bob Sanders (IND), and Westbrook. The Titans went 0-3 without Haynesworth. Manning held the Colts' offense together while injuries decimated the team. Sanders keyed the team's defensive revival.

But no one, I think, meant more to his team this season than Brian Westbrook. He was the one constant for an inconsistent offense. He was the one weapon on a squad with no one else who really threatened defenses. He was a playmaker in every phase of the offense. He led his team in rushing yards, receptions, punt return average, and touchdowns. He was a singular contributor.

Offensive Rookie of the Year: Adrian Peterson (MIN)
Last Year: Maurice Jones-Drew (JAC)

Two years ago, I talked myself into going with the popular choice, Cadillac Williams, over a player I preferred, offensive lineman Logan Mankins. Today, Williams is perpetually injured and Mankins is the probably the best offensive lineman in the NFL. Apparently, I don't learn from my mistakes. This time, I'm taking another sensational rookie running back, Peterson, over an offensive lineman I suspect might be better, Joe Thomas (CLE). I'm a total sell-out, and I'm sorry.

Defensive Rookie of the Year: Patrick Willis (SF)
Last Year: DeMeco Ryans (HOU)

Other rookie defenders played had good seasons. Jon Beason (CAR), like Willis, was effective as a middle linebacker. Gaines Adams (TB) and Amobi Okoye (HOU) showed promise as pass rushers. Lots of rookie DBs played well. Willis, though, is credited with 135 solo tackles, far more than anyone else, rookie or otherwise. In addition to Willis, I will be closely watching Okoye and Beason next year as potential all-pro material.

Coach of the Year: Bill Belichick (NE)
Last Year: Sean Payton (NO)

I don't like him either, but I'm not going to be the idiot who doesn't pick the only head coach to lead a team to a 16-0 regular season.

Assistant Coach of the Year: Josh McDaniels (NE)
Last Year: Rex Ryan (BAL)

I don't like pairing a Coach of the Year and Assistant from the same team, but McDaniels is the guy who handles New England's offense on gameday. In addition to McDaniels, I considered Jason Garrett (DAL) and Dante Scarnecchia (NE), the other top offensive coach for New England. If you want a defensive assistant, how about Monte Kiffin (TB), Dick LeBeau (PIT), or even Ron Meeks (IND)?

2007 All-Pro Team

QB Tom Brady, NE
RB Brian Westbrook, PHI
FB Greg Jones, JAC
WR Reggie Wayne, IND
WR Randy Moss, NE
WR Terrell Owens, DAL
TE Kellen Winslow Jr., CLE
TE Antonio Gates, SD
C Jeff Saturday, IND
G Logan Mankins, NE
G Ryan Lilja, IND
OT Matt Light, NE
OT Chad Clifton, GB

DT Albert Haynesworth, TEN
DT Pat Williams, MIN
DE Jared Allen, KC
DE Mario Williams, HOU
OLB DeMarcus Ware, DAL
OLB Julian Peterson, SEA
ILB London Fletcher, WAS
ILB Brian Urlacher, CHI
CB Asante Samuel, NE
CB Marcus Trufant, SEA
CB Shawn Springs, WAS
FS Ed Reed, BAL
SS Bob Sanders, IND

K Rob Bironas, TEN
P Mike Scifres, SD
KR Devin Hester, CHI

Off POY — Tom Brady, NE
Def POY — DeMarcus Ware, DAL
MVP — Brian Westbrook, PHI
Off Rookie — Adrian Peterson, MIN
Def Rookie — Patrick Willis, SF
Coach — Bill Belichick, NE
Assistant — Josh McDaniels, NE

Wild Card Playoff Predictions

SEATTLE def. Washington
Jacksonville def. PITTSBURGH
TAMPA BAY def. New York Giants
SAN DIEGO def. Tennessee

I wouldn't be surprised if the winner of the Seattle/Washington wild card game reaches the Super Bowl.

Super Bowl XLII: Indianapolis Colts over Green Bay Packers

I'm aware that this is probably not the wisest Super Bowl prediction, but I've never gotten both teams right in five years as an NFL columnist, and I'm not about to start now.

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