Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Sports Central’s 2008 NFL All-Pro Team

By Brad Oremland

This is the seventh time I have selected an all-pro team for Sports Central, and 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 list at the bottom.

I choose 13 players on both offense and defense. Offenses use two tight ends or a third wide receiver more often than they use a fullback, so my team has two tight ends and three wide receivers, in addition to a fullback. Because of this trend on offense, all teams need a good nickel back, and my all-pro team has three cornerbacks. Finally, some teams use one DT and two ILBs; others use two DTs and one ILB. I have two players at both positions.

My choices are listed in order, so you'll know which receiver is my third, which tight end is my second, and so on.

Quarterback: Philip Rivers (SD)
Last Year: Tom Brady (NE)

In my mind, there are only two serious candidates. Kurt Warner (ARI) was awful at the end of the season, and Peyton Manning (IND) was shaky at the beginning. The serious candidates are Drew Brees (NO), who led the league in passing yards, and Rivers, who led in passer rating. Popular opinion seems to have coalesced around Manning, so let me explain why I don't think he deserves serious consideration. Compared to Rivers and Brees, he has: fewer yards, lower yards per attempt, fewer touchdowns, lower TD/INT differential, and lower passer rating. He's slightly ahead in completion percentage. Summing up, both Rivers and Brees have thrown for more yards and more TDs than Manning, more efficiently. And as spectacular as Manning was at the end of the season, his slow start hurt the team.

Here's my problem with Brees: he was a lion at home (20 TD, 5 INT, 114.0 rating) and a lamb on the road (11 TD, 12 INT, 80.3 rating). No matter how good he was at home, how can you pick a guy who only played well in half his games? New Orleans went 2-6 on the road, and even 4-4 would have gotten them into the playoffs. Rivers, on the other hand, took command of his team down the stretch, leading them to four straight wins and a division title. During the streak, he threw 11 TDs and just 1 interception, recording an astronomical 120.3 passer rating. Isn't that exactly what you're looking for in an all-pro QB?

Running Back: DeAngelo Williams (CAR)
Last Year: Brian Westbrook (PHI)

A three-horse race, between Adrian Peterson (MIN), Michael Turner (ATL), and Williams. Turner finished with 184 rushing yards more than Williams, but he also had 103 extra carries. I would argue that 103 attempts for 184 yards is actually a negative contribution. Williams' rushing average is better than Turner's by more than a yard. Williams also had more receiving yards, more touchdowns, and fewer fumbles. Easy call.

Peterson is clearly a phenomenal talent, and he's fun to watch. He also has substantially more rushing yardage than Williams (about 250 yards). But Williams has a much better average, twice as many touchdowns, and fewer fumbles. Are half-a-yard per carry, 10 TDs, and 9 fumbles worth 250 yards? Yes, emphatically. Williams is the right choice.

Fullback: Mike Sellers (WAS)
Last Year: Greg Jones (JAC)

Fullback is only an important position on about a third of the teams in the league right now, but Madison Hedgecock (NYG), Brad Hoover (CAR), and Sellers are the best. I prefer Sellers because of his versatility. In addition to reliable blocking, Sellers is a decent short-yardage back and a good receiver, with a nose for the end zone.

AFC Pro Bowler Le'Ron McClain (BAL) lines up at tailback about half the time, often with Lorenzo Neal playing fullback in front of him. I don't really consider McClain a fullback right now. He can play the position, but it's not really how he was used this year.

Wide Receiver: Andre Johnson (HOU), Steve Smith (CAR), Roddy White (ATL)
Last Year: Reggie Wayne (IND), Randy Moss (NE), Terrell Owens (DAL)

Johnson easily led the NFL in both receptions and receiving yards. There should be no discussion necessary on him. Smith and White are a little trickier. Lots of receivers have a decent argument this year. I went with Smith because he's a game-changer. No one, except maybe Johnson, had more big catches. There are different ways to measure that statistically. Calvin Johnson (DET) and Larry Fitzgerald (ARI) led the league in TD receptions. Andre Johnson, Tony Gonzalez, and Fitzgerald led in first downs. Smith led in catches of 20 yards or more. Sometimes the numbers lead you in circles. I watched a lot of football this year, and I just think Smith is the league's best big-play guy. Roddy White was a key contributor in Matt Ryan's development and Atlanta's playoff run.

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

Gonzalez led the league in every major receiving category. Witten went through a mid-season lull and had some injury issues, but at the top of his game, was better than anyone except maybe Gonzalez. We're in a golden age for tight ends right now, but the other player who really stood out at times was Dallas Clark (IND).

Center: Nick Mangold (NYJ)
Last Year: Jeff Saturday (IND)

For most of the season, I've liked Jason Brown (BAL) at this position. At the end of the year, though, Brown fell apart. He was not impressive in Week 16 against Dallas, or in the season finale against Jacksonville. Shaun O'Hara (NYG) was the other serious contender, but I have a little trouble sorting out how much of his good play came as a result of lining up next to Chris Snee. The Giants had a good line this year, but not good enough that I think they really had two all-pros.

Guard: Chris Snee (NYG), Kris Dielman (SD)
Last Year: Logan Mankins (NE), Ryan Lilja (IND)

Snee is the best player on the league's best offensive line. Dielman, at the end of the season, stole the other spot from Steve Hutchinson (MIN). Dielman isn't flashy, but he's efficient and reliable, a steadying force on a line that struggled with injuries this season. Hutchinson, who created so many holes for Shaun Alexander in Seattle, now makes them for Adrian Peterson in Minnesota. Alan Faneca (NYJ) had a nice year in his first campaign with the Jets, and keep an eye on Justin Blalock (ATL).

Offensive Tackle: Michael Roos (TEN), Ryan Clady (DEN)
Last Year: Matt Light (NE), Chad Clifton (GB)

Tough to choose two from my four favorites, the others being Jammal Brown (NO) and Jordan Gross (CAR). If anyone is upset that I took two left tackles, either use Gross, who started his career at RT, or go with Marc Colombo (DAL). All of these selections are based on my observation of actual games, but I also have a statistical method of rating offensive lines as a whole, and seven teams were way ahead of the pack this year: Atlanta, Carolina, Denver, New Orleans, both New York teams, and Tennessee. With only five all-pro spots, I didn't fit any Falcons, Panthers, or Saints onto my squad, but Blalock was close, and Brown and Gross were very close.

Defensive Tackle: Kevin Williams (MIN), Haloti Ngata (BAL)
Last Year: Albert Haynesworth (TEN), Pat Williams (MIN)

Kevin Williams has been dominant all year. The other front-runners, Albert Haynesworth (TEN), Kris Jenkins (NYJ), and Shaun Rogers (CLE), fell away at the end of the year, through a combination of injuries, fatigue, and opponents catching up to them. The season lasts 16 games, not 12. Ngata was still making plays at the end of the season. Fred Robbins (NYG) and Tony Brown (TEN) are very underrated.

Defensive End: John Abraham (ATL), Aaron Smith (PIT)
Last Year: Jared Allen (KC), Mario Williams (HOU)

Very close calls at both spots, with no obvious must-have selections. Let's start with the one nobody is talking about, Aaron Smith. He was the best 3-4 defensive end in the league this year, the best lineman on the league's best defense. All those other guys — Harrison, Farrior, Polamalu — can't do their jobs if the guys up front don't. I wouldn't pitch a fit if someone wants Jared Allen (MIN) or Julius Peppers (CAR) ahead of Smith, but understand that picking up sacks is not a DE's only job.

Allen is a monster, and his impact is obvious when you watch him. He had 14.5 sacks and 2 safeties this year. But he plays next to the Williams Wall, which means he doesn't see as many double-teams as most elite DEs. I also wonder sometimes if Minnesota's defense is less than the sum of its parts. If they really have three or four all-pro-level players on that one unit, shouldn't the defense have been among the two or three best in the league? It wasn't.

Peppers is a phenomenal athlete who creates enormous problems for opponents. Justin Tuck (NYG) started the year on fire, but he seemed to wear down, with only 0.5 sack in the last four games. Mario Williams (HOU) picked up 12 sacks with almost no help from his teammates. Richard Seymour (NE) is great in the Patriots' 3-4. I even considered Terrell Suggs (BAL), who is usually listed at linebacker, as a way of breaking the tie at defensive end. In the end I chose Abraham, who led all defensive linemen in sacks, with 16.5, and anchored a defense with few other playmakers.

Outside Linebacker: James Harrison (PIT), DeMarcus Ware (DAL)
Last Year: DeMarcus Ware (DAL), Julian Peterson (SEA)

Two pass rushers. I would love to pick a 4-3 OLB with more well-rounded responsibilities, like Lance Briggs (CHI) or Keith Bulluck (TEN), but Harrison and Ware were probably the two best defensive players in the whole league this year. No one else had the same kind of impact.

Inside Linebacker: James Farrior (PIT), Jon Beason (CAR)
Last Year: London Fletcher (WAS), Brian Urlacher (CHI)

There were three really strong candidates this season, and I don't like leaving out Barrett Ruud (TB). London Fletcher (WAS) has also played well, but I think he was better in 2006 and '07. What Farrior and Beason — and, for that matter, Ruud — all possess is a combination of reliability and big-play talent. It's the same quality that made Ray Lewis (BAL) so impressive in his prime, and which you still see flashes of from time to time. These guys have a talent for being around the ball, they don't miss a lot of tackles, and they make the big, game-changing plays: sacks, deflected passes, and interceptions.

Cornerback: Charles Woodson (GB), Will Allen (MIA), Nnamdi Asomugha (OAK)
Last Year: Asante Samuel (NE), Marcus Trufant (SEA), Shawn Springs (WAS)

There's no one I'm enthusiastic about at this position, and it's times like this that I regret picking a nickel back. Through some combination of rules that help the passing game, increasingly sophisticated offenses, plain old down years, plus 6'5" receivers and fast tight ends, I can't recall a worse year for cornerbacks.

I suppose Woodson, who led all CBs in interceptions, interception return TDs (tied), and sacks, was the best. He's also my only all-pro corner with big numbers. Woodson plays with Al Harris (GB), who's not an all-pro, but is pretty good, so opponents have to throw at Woodson sometimes. Allen, on the other hand, didn't lead his own team in interceptions, but that's because he got thrown at less often. The extreme of the untested corner in Asomugha, who recorded all of one interception this season. At the end of the year, though, a few teams tested him with success. Still, in a down year, Asomugha earns the third slot.

Others I considered, in alphabetical order, were: Cortland Finnegan (TEN), Darrelle Revis (NYJ), Asante Samuel (PHI), and Antoine Winfield (MIN). Rashean Mathis (JAC), Terence Newman (DAL), and Shawn Springs (WAS), all of whom I've picked in the past, would have been contenders if they hadn't gotten injured.

Free Safety: Ed Reed (BAL)
Last Year: Ed Reed (BAL)

This was Reed's best season since 2004, when he was Defensive Player of the Year. No one else was close.

Strong Safety: Chris Hope (TEN)
Last Year: Bob Sanders (IND)

There were two very strong, very serious contenders for this position: Troy Polamalu (PIT) and Hope. Of the two, Polamalu makes more big plays. He and Ed Reed are around the ball more than any other defensive backs I have ever seen, with the possible exception of Rod Woodson. However, I've seen Polamalu gamble and miss on interceptions, or overpursue a running play and get lost on the cutback. He plays very aggressively, and that's why he's such a terrific playmaker, but he does have those occasional misses. Hope is comparatively conservative, if you can really say that about a player who made some huge interceptions this year. He's responsible in coverage, a solid run-stuffer, and a perfect fit for his team.

Kicker: Ryan Longwell (MIN)
Last Year: Rob Bironas (TEN)

Choosing this position has become very difficult, because kickers are so accurate now. It's gotten so that if a guy misses more than two or three field goals, he's pretty much out of the running. There's not a lot of space between the best kicker and the 10th best. I started with a list of 10 kickers and eventually narrowed it to three: Longwell, Rob Bironas (TEN), and Phil Dawson (CLE). Those guys play in very different conditions. Longwell's home stadium is a dome. Nashville isn't Buffalo, but it's not Miami, either. And Cleveland gets pretty nasty weather, this year as early as Week 2.

The argument against Longwell is basically the dome, though he also had two kicks blocked and he's nothing special on kickoffs. In his favor are six field goals of 50 yards or more, including a game-winning, playoff-clinching 50-yarder against the Giants in Week 17. Bironas is one of the two or three best kickoff guys in the NFL, but his longest field goal this season was just 51 yards. Dawson has the fewest points and the most missed kicks in my group of finalists, including two misses from under 40 yards. But he also has made more field goals than Bironas or Longwell, including a 56-yarder at Buffalo, and plays in the toughest kicking conditions.

Ultimately, I went with Longwell, the bright spot on Minnesota's terrible special teams. The difference between Longwell and an average kicker probably won two or three games for the Vikings this season, and I'd argue that they probably wouldn't have made the playoffs without him.

Punter: Jeff Feagles (NYG)
Last Year: Mike Scifres (SD)

Punting statistics can be misleading. Most people just look at the gross average, which measures how far the punts go. This actually punishes most really good punters. Which is better, a 40-yard punt with a ton of hang time and a fair catch, or a 45-yard line drive that gets returned 15 yards? At the opponent's 40-yard line, would you rather have a 30-yard kick or 40 and a touchback? In both cases, the shorter kick is better, but it hurts the punter's gross average.

Fortunately, the NFL keeps a statistic called net average, which accounts for returns and touchbacks. Problem solved, right? Well, no. Return yardage is heavily affected by the return team, and if those guys aren't any good, it hurts the punter's net. Punters on good teams frequently have to shorten up their kicks to stay out of the end zone, while punters on bad teams can bomb away. And bad weather has a huge impact on punters, so it's not fair to expect a punter in Buffalo to have the same numbers as one in Florida.

So what stats do you look at? Net average, despite its flaws, is a good starting point. Punts inside the 20 and inside the 10 are good, especially compared to the number of touchbacks. Percentage of punts returned is really good. The best punters force a lot of fair catches or kick the ball out of bounds. If you look at all of those factors, and balance them with the context of weather and team quality, you can get a pretty solid idea.

I had four finalists this year: Feagles, Sam Koch (BAL), Brad Maynard (CHI), and Brian Moorman (BUF). Feagles had the best net average in the group, ranking 4th in the NFL despite home games in cold, windy Giants Stadium. Everyone ahead of him plays in a dome or California. Fewer than half his punts got returned, and those that were didn't go anywhere (140 yards, 5.8 average). I would have liked to see him be more effective at the goal-line (only five punts down inside the 10), but that complaint wasn't enough to vault Maynard or the others in front of him.

Kick Returner: Clifton Smith (TB)
Last Year: Devin Hester (CHI)

I prioritize success on both kickoff and punt returns, and Smith was the only player to score a touchdown on both types of kick return this season. He was also the only player among the top five in both KR average (27.6) and PR average (14.1). My other finalists were all deficient in one category or the other. Leodis McKelvin (BUF) didn't return punts. Allen Rossum (SF) protected his PR average with too many fair catches and only had 15 actual punt returns. Johnnie Lee Higgins (OAK) had a blah 23.4 average on kickoff returns.

DeMarcus Ware and Ed Reed are the only players to repeat from my 2007 all-pro team.

Offensive Player of the Year: Andre Johnson (HOU)
Last Year: Tom Brady (NE)

There are legitimate arguments about who the best quarterback and running back were this season. Almost no one is disputing that Johnson had the best year at wide receiver. No offensive player was more outstanding at his position.

Defensive Player of the Year: James Harrison (PIT)
Last Year: DeMarcus Ware (DAL)

Early in the season, it looked like one of the big defensive tackles would earn this, but by season's end, the three best candidates were Harrison, Ware, and Ed Reed (BAL). I went with Harrison on consistency and pure impact. His dominance as a pass rusher created opportunities for everyone around him.

Most Valuable Player: Philip Rivers (SD)
Last Year: Brian Westbrook (PHI)

Easily the most wide-open field in my years of covering the NFL, maybe the most wide-open ever. I really wanted this to be the year I took a defensive player, and two weeks ago, I had DeMarcus Ware (DAL) penciled in. Then he tanked, doing absolutely nothing for the last seven quarters of the regular season. Harrison and Reed were also candidates, but ultimately, I couldn't pull the trigger on them, either. Harrison was one of several possible choices who suffered from shared credit. If there are two MVP candidates on a team, can either one really be the most valuable player in the league? Besides Harrison and Troy Polamalu (PIT), the most glaring example is Matt Ryan and Michael Turner (ATL).

In alphabetical order, the players I think should be considered legitimate contenders for this year's MVP are: James Harrison (PIT), Andre Johnson (HOU), Peyton Manning (IND), Chad Pennington (MIA), Ed Reed (BAL), Rivers, Ryan, and Ware. Lesser arguments can be made for a number of other players, but not, in my view, convincingly. Rivers get my vote for outplaying the other quarterbacks and leading — really leading — his team into the postseason.

Offensive Rookie of the Year: Matt Ryan (ATL)
Last Year: Adrian Peterson (MIN)

Has there ever been a better year for offensive rookies? 2006 provides some competition, but this season has been really special. The quarterbacks, Joe Flacco (BAL) and Ryan, have gotten a ton of attention, as have 1,000-yard rushers Matt Forte (CHI), Chris Johnson (TEN), and Steve Slaton (HOU). Ryan, I think, has clearly outperformed Flacco, but you could make an argument for any of those running backs as OROY.

Another RB, Kevin Smith (DET), made the most out of a bad situation, but the glamor positions weren't the only ones to produce great rookies this season. Offensive tackles Ryan Clady (DEN) and Jake Long (MIA) had terrific rookie seasons, and John Carlson (SEA) was among the top 10 tight ends in every major receiving category. Wide receivers Eddie Royal (DEN) and DeSean Jackson (PHI) also showed great promise.

Ryan's success as a rookie quarterback, though, has few parallels. I won't try to compare Ryan to early passers like Benny Friedman (1927), Sammy Baugh (1937), Bob Waterfield (1945), Charlie Conerly (1948), or even Greg Cook (1969), but I think it's reasonable to compare him to other rookies whose careers began since 1978, when significant rule changes impacted the passing game. Since that time, probably only Dan Marino (1983) and Ben Roethlisberger (2004) are in Ryan's class. I'm not going to try to put those three in order, because I think the comparison is all that's needed here to demonstrate that Ryan deserves this honor. Forte, Johnson, and Slaton have had very nice seasons, but it's not all that unusual for rookie RBs to put up 1,200 yards. It's rare for a rookie QB even to start 16 games.

Defensive Rookie of the Year: Jerod Mayo (NE)
Last Year: Patrick Willis (SF)

For all the standouts on offense, this was a pretty weak year for DPOY. I suspect Mayo will win AP's award pretty easily, but no one is going to confuse Mayo in 2008 with Shawne Merriman in 2005. I like Mayo's consistency, which is often a problem for rookies, and he clearly has the physical gifts to excel as an NFL linebacker. The other contenders were all defensive backs: Brandon Flowers (KC), Chris Horton (WAS), Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (ARI), and Aqib Talib (TB). I bet one of those guys will make the Pro Bowl next year.

Coach of the Year: Tony Sparano (MIA)
Last Year: Bill Belichick (NE)

Sparano turned a 1-15 team into an 11-5 division champ. In a year with several strong contenders — Tom Coughlin (NYG), John Harbaugh (BAL), Mike Smith (ATL) — I think the only way to deny Sparano is by deflecting credit to the invisible hand of Bill Parcells. What Smith has done in Atlanta would earn my enthusiastic vote almost any other year, and I won't argue with someone who thinks Smith deserves to win, but my vote goes to Sparano, for what may be the most stunning single-season turnaround in history.

Assistant Coach of the Year: Mike Mularkey (ATL)
Last Year: Josh McDaniels (NE)

This was a competitive year not only for Coach of the Year candidates, but for top assistants, as well. Cam Cameron (BAL), Josh McDaniels (NE), and Mularkey were wizards with their young quarterbacks this season. Kevin Gilbride (NYG), Mike Heimerdinger (TEN), and Dan Henning (MIA) quietly did a very nice job. On defense, it was the usual suspects: Jim Johnson (PHI), Dick LeBeau (PIT), Rex Ryan (BAL), Steve Spagnuolo (NYG), and Jim Schwartz and Dave McGinnis (TEN).

Out of this large, impressive group, my pick is Mularkey, who quickly and seamlessly integrated new players (notably Matt Ryan and Michael Turner) while getting career years from guys who were already there. Atlanta's turnaround on offense was monumental.

2008 All-Pro Team

QB Philip Rivers, SD
RB DeAngelo Williams, CAR
FB Mike Sellers, WAS
WR Andre Johnson, HOU
WR Steve Smith, CAR
WR Roddy White, ATL
TE Tony Gonzalez, KC
TE Jason Witten, DAL
C Nick Mangold, NYJ
G Chris Snee, NYG
G Kris Dielman, SD
OT Michael Roos, TEN
OT Ryan Clady, DEN

DT Kevin Williams, MIN
DT Haloti Ngata, BAL
DE John Abraham, ATL
DE Aaron Smith, PIT
OLB James Harrison, PIT
OLB DeMarcus Ware, DAL
ILB James Farrior, PIT
ILB Jon Beason, CAR
CB Charles Woodson, GB
CB Will Allen, MIA
CB Nnamdi Asomugha, OAK
FS Ed Reed, BAL
SS Chris Hope, TEN

K Ryan Longwell, MIN
P Jeff Feagles, NYG
KR Clifton Smith, TB

Off POY — Andre Johnson, HOU
Def POY — James Harrison, PIT
MVP — Philip Rivers, SD
Off Rookie — Matt Ryan, ATL
Def Rookie — Jerod Mayo, NE
Coach — Tony Sparano, MIA
Assistant — Mike Mularkey, ATL

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