Friday, January 7, 2011

Sports Central’s 2010 NFL All-Pro Team

By Brad Oremland

With the 2010 regular season over, it's time to honor this season's most outstanding players. 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 the list. If all you care about is who made the team, skip to the end and you'll find a list.

This year, we once again have 13 players on offense and 13 on defense. Fullbacks have been gradually phased out of the base offense, so last year we didn't name one. I decided that was silly, so FBs are back, but we still named three WRs and two TEs. On defense, we list three cornerbacks (everyone needs a good nickel back) and two each of defensive tackles and inside linebackers (accommodating both the 3-4 and 4-3).

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

Quarterback: Tom Brady (NE)
Last Year: Drew Brees (NO)

We're lucky. As fans, we're in the midst of a golden age for QB play. It's happened before: in the '60s, with seven Hall of Famers in their primes, and again in the '90s, with Steve Young, Brett Favre, John Elway, Dan Marino, Warren Moon, Jim Kelly, Troy Aikman, and Randall Cunningham.

This season, Brady is a superb choice for all-pro QB, and I'll elaborate on that in a moment. But if Brady had blown out his knee again, or retired before the season to raise babies or become mayor of Boston or something, we could go with Michael Vick (PHI) or Aaron Rodgers (GB) and still have a brilliant, deserving all-pro. We could go with Peyton Manning (IND) or Philip Rivers (SD). If we were desperate — which we're not — we could even select Drew Brees (NO) or Matt Ryan (ATL) or Matt Schaub (HOU) or Josh Freeman (TB), all of whom had great seasons. Worse QBs than that have won all-pro honors. It's a privilege to watch so many great quarterbacks.

That said, Brady stood out this year. His +32 TD/INT differential is the third-best in history, behind himself (+42) in 2007 and Peyton Manning (+39) in '04. Thirty-two more touchdowns than interceptions. It's amazing. Joe Montana never threw 32 touchdowns in a season, forget the INTs. To the extent any controversy exists in this selection, it's that some people feel Vick is the more deserving player.

Q: In what areas is Vick better than Brady?
A: Running.

Q: In what areas is Brady better than Vick?
A: Everything else.

Running Back: Arian Foster (HOU)
Last Year: Chris Johnson (TEN)

Which running back do you want?

A: 1,341 rush yards, 5.63 average, 268 rec yards, 13 TDs, 4 fmbl
B: 1,760 rush yards, 4.85 average, 125 rec yards, 10 TDs, 9 fmbl
C: 1,383 rush yards, 4.40 average, 436 rec yards, 18 TDs, 7 fmbl
D: 1,298 rush yards, 4.59 average, 341 rec yards, 13 TDs, 1 fmbl
E: 1,407 rush yards, 4.89 average, 631 rec yards, 12 TDs, 5 fmbl
F: 1,382 rush yards, 5.32 average, 765 rec yards, 21 TDs, 3 fmbl
G: 1,616 rush yards, 4.94 average, 604 rec yards, 18 TDs, 3 fmbl

I think you'd obviously take F or G. Seasons A-D are every year of Adrian Peterson's career. Season E is Thurman Thomas the year he was named league MVP. Season F is Marshall Faulk's 2001, when the Rams went 14-2. Season G is Arian Foster in 2010.

Adrian Peterson is a phenomenal running back, probably a Hall of Famer one day. Foster was better this year than Peterson has ever been. Foster was better than Thurman Thomas in his prime. And Foster was damn near a match for Marshall Faulk, depending on what you value. I have raved this year about Jamaal Charles (KC), who finished second only to Foster in rushing yards (1,467) and yards from scrimmage (1,935), and nearly broke Jim Brown's single-season record for average per carry (6.40 for Brown, 6.38 for Charles). He had a great season. But Foster was better. His running style reminds me a little of Terrell Davis, but Foster is a better receiver.

Fullback: Marcel Reece (OAK)
Last Year: N/A

The Pro Bowl FBs, Vonta Leach (HOU) and Ovie Mughelli (ATL), are both fine choices. Leach had a hell of a season, and I'm glad he's being recognized for it, but Reece is the total package as a fullback. A 6'3", 240-lb. wide receiver at the University of Washington, he came into the league as an undrafted free agent. Originally expected to play tight end, this year Reece won the Raiders' starting fullback job and was the lead blocker for Darren McFadden's breakout season.

He carried 28 times for 118 yards (4.2 average) and a touchdown, making him one of the top rushers at his position, top of the list depending on how you categorize John Kuhn (GB) and a couple of guys who are not really fullbacks. As a receiver, too, Reece led all fullbacks: 25 receptions, 333 yards, 3 TDs. He's one of the best ball-carriers at his position, almost certainly the best receiver, and a successful lead blocker. Gets my vote.

Wide Receiver: Roddy White (ATL), Brandon Lloyd (DEN), Andre Johnson (HOU)
Last Year: Andre Johnson (HOU), Reggie Wayne (IND), Wes Welker (NE)

White, whom I also chose in 2008, led the league in catches (115) and first downs (73), with the second-most receiving yards (1,389), and tied for seventh in TD receptions (10). He and Johnson and maybe Reggie Wayne (IND) are the most reliably productive receivers in the league, with no obvious weaknesses in their games.

Lloyd led the NFL in receiving yards (1,448) and tied for second in first downs (72). He was also incredibly explosive, second only to Mike Wallace (PIT) in receptions of 20+ and 40+. Lloyd's productivity didn't waver even with the quarterback change from Kyle Orton to Tim Tebow. I think Comeback Player of the Year is a stupid award, but if I chose one, this year I would probably go with Lloyd. From 2006-09, his combined totals were 59 rec, 1,060 yards, and 2 TDs. He beat all of those four-year totals in 2010. Lloyd looked like an emerging star in 2005, then totally disappeared for four years. He's still young (29), and once again looks to have a bright future.

Statistically, the top three are obvious. Reggie Wayne (IND) had the second-most catches and first downs, with the third-most yards. I love Reggie Wayne. I've named him all-pro three times, even gave him an honorable mention on my NFL All-Decade Team of the '00s. But his production this year was largely the product of playing on a team that led the league in pass attempts and lost all of its other starting receivers to injury.

Dwayne Bowe (KC), Greg Jennings (GB), and Calvin Johnson (DET) led the league in receiving touchdowns. Jennings and Bowe came on strong in the second half of the season, and Johnson, with consistent quarterback play, might just break a bunch of records. He's a really special player. But Andre Johnson, more than anyone except Roddy White, always seemed to make plays. He gets open, he's got great hands, and he's a threat with the ball. This is the third straight season I've chosen him.

Most 100-yard receiving games in 2010: Wallace (7), Andre Johnson and Lloyd (6), Miles Austin, Bowe, Jennings, and White (5).

Tight End: Jason Witten (DAL), Antonio Gates (SD)
Last Year: Antonio Gates (SD), Vernon Davis (SF)

How many games can a player miss and still be an all-pro? It depends how many Antonio Gates misses. This year, that was six. Six games, that's more than a third of the season. But while he was in there, Gates was twice as good as any other tight end in the league. Despite missing almost half the season, he still placed fourth among TEs in yardage, second only to Witten in first downs, tied for first in TDs, and the only tight end in the league with three 100-yard receiving games. Other than maybe Kellen Winslow in the early '80s, Gates over the past few seasons is probably the highest-impact player in the history of the position.

Witten led all tight ends in receptions (94) and yards (1,002), and finished one back of the league lead in touchdowns (9). If Gates had missed another game, or not been quite so awesome, the second tight end would be Vernon Davis (SF) or Marcedes Lewis (JAC). Both are good blockers, Lewis actually a "blocking tight end" — he's 6'6", 275 — who has emerged as the Jaguars' go-to receiver, with 10 TDs this season. With San Francisco's totally impotent WR corps, Davis faces unique attention from defenses, but he finished second to Witten in receiving yards (914) and other than Gates, was the most explosive player at the position.

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

Who impressed me the most this year? Kyle Cook (CIN). But no one else seems to think he's special, and Carson Palmer calls LT Andrew Whitworth the best offensive lineman on the team, so maybe I've just caught him on good days. When I've seen Cook, though, he's been pushing Haloti Ngata around, solid in pass protection, getting to the second level.

And how trustworthy is reputation? More on this in the offensive tackle section, but I think most offensive line awards are based more on reputation than performance, and that reputation never really changes after a player's rookie season. The Pro Bowl voters this year chose Shaun O'Hara in the NFC. O'Hara played six games this season. He makes Antonio Gates look like an iron man. I prefer my own two eyes, or at least stats to help me sort things out, but I just don't know enough about Cook's season to choose him with confidence.

Where does that leave us? Saturday, who is still a good blocker, but gets the nod more for his coordination of the Colts' blocking schemes than his battles against opposing defenders. Besides, I've left him off before when he might have been deserving. It's not a make-up call so much as a tie-breaker.

Guard: Josh Sitton (GB), Carl Nicks (NO)
Last Year: Logan Mankins (NE), Jahri Evans (NO)

Four players stood out: Sitton, Nicks, Chris Snee (NYG), and Logan Mankins (NE). Snee just missed my list, partly because his play was uneven at times. Mankins is as good as any of them, but he held out and only played nine games. In those games, the Patriots averaged 34.8 points per game, a 5.5-point improvement from the first seven games.

Nicks and Jahri Evans (NO) are the only guard tandem in the NFL that actually earns regular mention from the announcers. They deserve it. I liked Nicks a little better this year, particularly in pass protection. Snee had a couple off-games, but at his best, is as good as anyone. If you have any appreciation for line play whatever, Sitton is fun to watch. He's just exceptional. Very quick, takes great angles. He's not the strongest lineman in the league, but he uses his speed to put himself in positions where he'll win the battle anyway.

Offensive Tackle: Jason Peters (PHI), Charlie Johnson (IND)
Last Year: Michael Roos (TEN), Max Starks (PIT)

Bear with me for a second. Who are the AFC Pro Bowlers at this position? The starters are Jake Long (MIA) and Joe Thomas (CLE). Left tackle is generally acknowledged as the most important position on the offensive line, and we're supposed to believe the two best LTs in the AFC play for the two worst offenses? The Browns rank last in the AFC in scoring; the Dolphins are second-to-last. D'Brickashaw Ferguson (NYJ), selected as a backup, is probably the third-best lineman on his own team, which also has a pretty unimpressive offense. All of those guys were college standouts and top-10 draft picks, and now they're going to Hawaii based more on reputation than performance. Jordan Gross (CAR) is a starter in the NFC, and he played on the worst offense in the league, one of the worst in memory.

Hall of Fame voters, most of whom don't understand the nuances of line play, often use Pro Bowl selections to help guide their votes at these positions. That has to stop. The selections are almost totally unreliable.

That said, there are no dominant offensive tackles in the game right now, and there's no one I'm crazy about at this position. Long and Thomas and Ferguson and Gross, I believe, are all bad picks, but not crazy picks. Peters is not as dominant as he was in Buffalo, and Johnson is more solid than elite. Jeff Backus (DET) had a nice season, Michael Roos (TEN) played at a very high level sometimes, and the Patriots' bookends, Matt Light (NE) and Sebastian Vollmer (NE), are certainly part of that team's success.

Defensive Tackle: Ndamukong Suh (DET), B.J. Raji (GB)
Last Year: Darnell Dockett (ARI), Jay Ratliff (DAL)

I didn't want to choose Suh. I've already railed against high draft picks whose reputations earn them more than their play. Suh was one of the most celebrated defense players in NCAA history and the second pick in the 2010 draft. We expected great things from him, we've been looking for an excuse to anoint him, just like with Sam Bradford on offense. But Suh has backed up the hype. He closed out his rookie year with 66 tackles, 10 sacks, 3 pass deflections, an interception, a forced fumble, and a touchdown on a fumble return. That's a phenomenal season. The last DT with 10 sacks in a season was Warren Sapp.

The youth movement isn't intentional, but my interior linemen this year are a rookie, Suh, and a sophomore, the 24-year-old Raji. Like Suh, Raji has good numbers, including 6.5 sacks, a terrific number for a nose tackle. More than that, though, he's incredibly disruptive. It's a quality shared by Vince Wilfork (NE). His only two sacks this season came in the finale, but you can't judge a DT by lack of numbers. Wilfork is an impact player, probably the most important person on New England's defense.

Haloti Ngata (BAL) and Wilfork have been at or near the top for years, and you wouldn't go wrong with either of them. But two other guys caught my attention this season. One was Jonathan Babineaux (ATL), who commanded attention from opposing linemen, created opportunities for his teammates, a huge presence on the league's 5th-best scoring defense. Everyone talks about Richard Seymour (OAK), but when I watched the Raiders, Tommy Kelly (OAK) was the guy who struck me. Kelly made more solo tackles, more assists, and more sacks than Seymour. I'm sure Seymour, a three-time Super Bowl champion and probably a future HOFer, brings some qualities to the team that don't show up on a stat sheet and aren't obvious during the game, but Kelly had more impact on the field. Other than Suh, Kelly had the most sacks (7) of any interior lineman this season.

Top 10 of '10: Suh, Raji, Wilfork, Ngata, Babineaux, Kelly, Brett Keisel (PIT), Fred Robbins (STL), Kevin Williams (MIN), Sione Pouha (NYJ).

The league lists both Wilfork and Ngata as defensive ends — even though both regularly line up at nose tackle — so let's just be clear that Defensive Tackle really means Interior Defensive Line.

Defensive End: Julius Peppers (CHI), Jared Allen (MIN)
Last Year: Jared Allen (MIN), Julius Peppers (CAR)

In 2009, the Bears had a below-average defense, ranked 21st in points allowed. This season, the defense was top-10, actually fourth in points allowed. Part of that is the return of Brian Urlacher, some of it may be general improvement, and a lot of it is Peppers. He got 8 sacks, which is good but not exceptional. However, Peppers also deflected 9 passes, with 2 interceptions and 3 forced fumbles, and he created opportunities for Israel Idonije (CHI), who had a breakout season (8 sacks, 3 FF). Allen got off to a slow start this season, but he finished with 11 sacks, 6 pass deflections, 2 interceptions, and a touchdown. He's also one of the best DEs in the league at playing the run, maybe the best.

John Abraham (ATL) led all defensive linemen in sacks — the leaders are all OLBs these days — but Jason Babin (TEN), just a half sack behind (12.5), impressed me even more, and nearly made the cut ahead of Allen. Beyond Peppers, Allen, Babin, and Abraham, the defensive ends who stood out this season were Justin Tuck (NYG), Osi Umenyiora (NYG), Will Smith (NO), and the constant duo of Robert Mathis (IND) and Dwight Freeney (IND).

Tuck and Umenyiora recorded 11.5 sacks each, combining for 16 forced fumbles and 6 recoveries. Umenyiora occasionally seems to explode, spends a game just absolutely destroying the guy lined up across from him. Other weeks, though, he just disappears. I like Tuck, who's a little more consistent, a bit better. You could sub Tuck or Babin for Allen and I'd have no problem with that.

The best 3-4 defensive ends are Justin Smith (SF, 8.5 sacks), Cullen Jenkins (GB, 7 sacks), Shaun Ellis (NYJ, 4.5 sacks), and Cory Redding (BAL, 5 passes deflected) — plus Ngata, Wilfork, and Keisel if you count them as DEs.

Outside Linebacker: James Harrison (PIT), Clay Matthews III (GB)
Last Year: Brian Cushing (HOU), Elvis Dumervil (DEN)

There are two types of outside linebacker: 3-4 OLBs, whose primary responsibility is rushing the passer, and 4-3 OLBs with a wider set of responsibilities. The best of the latter are Lance Briggs (CHI) and Chad Greenway (MIN). Briggs, of course, does everything. He was second on the Bears in tackles (behind Brian Urlacher), with 2 interceptions, 2 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, a fumble recovery, and 7 passes defensed. Greenway, criminally underrated, led all OLBs in solo tackles and assists on tackles. He is always around the ball.

As great as Briggs and Greenway are, the pass rushers are impact players, and this year, I thought they came out ahead. Harrison had 100 tackles (70 solo), with 10.5 sacks, 6 forced fumbles, 5 pass deflections, and 2 interceptions. Statistically, that's comparable to his 2008 Defensive Player of the Year campaign. Matthews spent most of the season as front-runner for DPOY. What happened? Let's break the season into thirds. Since Matthews missed a game, we don't even have to round off. In his first five games, Matthews tallied 8.5 sacks, a sensational total. In the next five, 3 sacks, which is still quite good. It was also during this period that he returned an interception 62 yards for a touchdown. In the final third of the season, 2 sacks. Some of that is opponents adjusting their gameplans to shut him down, but Matthews slowed down a lot as the season went on.

I have trouble distinguishing between the play of Harrison and his teammate LaMarr Woodley (PIT). People talk about Harrison as a DPOY candidate, and certainly his numbers are better than Woodley's — he has twice as many tackles and one more sack — but Woodley looked as good or better when I watched the Steelers this season. Clearly, they're both great players. Terrell Suggs (BAL) rebounded this season after a little bit of a down year in 2009.

Shaun Phillips (SD) has filled Shawne Merriman's role with surprisingly little fanfare, racking up 11 sacks and 8 passes defensed in the lonely AFC West. The league leaders in sacks, DeMarcus Ware (DAL), Tamba Hali (KC), and Cameron Wake (MIA), obviously had impressive seasons, but I don't see them at the very top. Ware and Wake disappeared for long stretches, while Hali faced extremely weak opposition, the easiest schedule in the AFC. He keeps getting better, though, every season.

Inside Linebacker: Jerod Mayo (NE), Jonathan Vilma (NO)
Last Year: Patrick Willis (SF), Jon Beason (CAR)

Lightning-quick Mayo led the NFL in tackles, with 2 sacks and 3 fumble recoveries. Vilma's stats don't reflect the impact he has on the playing field. He's a playmaker, and one of those guys who always seems to make a play when you need one. Brian Urlacher's (CHI) return from injury, along with the acquisition of Peppers, returned the Bears' defense to elite status.

Derrick Johnson (KC) dropped off the radar after a promising rookie season, but this year he was back in a big way, with 95 solo tackles, 4 forced fumbles, 15 passes defensed, and an interception return for a touchdown. Lawrence Timmons (PIT) has surpassed James Farrior as the outstanding tackler on the league's best defense, and Stephen Tulloch (TEN), who trailed only Mayo in tackles, is a comer. Each of the last three seasons, he's been among the better interior linebackers in the league.

Cornerback: Darrelle Revis (NYJ), Charles Woodson (GB), Brent Grimes (ATL)
Last Year: Darrelle Revis (NYJ), Charles Woodson (GB), Sheldon Brown (PHI)

People have stopped throwing at Revis. He didn't even have an interception this year. He's a true shutdown corner. Woodson, as I wrote earlier this year, has started playing a little more like a free safety, freelancing and going to the ball. Whatever he's doing, he's making plays. He led the Packers in solo tackles, with 2 sacks, 2 interceptions (1 returned for a TD), and 5 forced fumbles.

The nickel spot is what gave me trouble this year. Asante Samuel (PHI) is as good as anyone this side of Revis, but he missed too much time. Rookies Devin McCourty (NE) and Joe Haden (CLE) combined for 13 INTs, but they're still learning the pro game. There's a case to be made for Nnamdi Asomugha (OAK). Certainly no one throws at him much. But he just doesn't make very many plays. Asomugha finished the season with 19 tackles, including assists. You should get that many just playing the run. Revis missed three games, and he had 32 tackles. It's great he can shut down his man, but there are guys who can do that and contribute in other ways.

Grimes is one of them. Coming off a promising 2009, he took the next step this year, leading the NFL in passes defensed (28) and ranking among the league leaders in INTs (5), with 76 solo tackles. Sometimes CBs have impressive stats because they get picked on, so they're always around the ball. Others make plays on the ball anyway. Grimes is one of the latter.

Other corners worth mentioning: Antoine Cason (SD), Ike Taylor (PIT), Terrell Thomas (NYG), Charles Tillman (CHI).

Free Safety: Ed Reed (BAL)
Last Year: Darren Sharper (NO)

I have to issue a mea culpa. In my Pro Bowl column a month ago, I wrote, "Please don't vote for Ed Reed (BAL). He's missed half the season." Well, that was before he added 4 interceptions, returned for 100 yards, in the final two weeks of the season. Even in only 10 games, he stood head and shoulders above the rest of the league, actually led the NFL in interceptions. Reed is 32 now. It is my belief that he will retire as the greatest defensive back in the history of football.

If you really feel strongly that an all-pro should play at least, say, 2/3 of the season, Nick Collins (GB) has emerged as perpetually the second-best FS in the league. He had 4 interceptions, which is half as many as Reed, but really not bad compared to anyone else. Michael Griffin (TEN) also intercepted 4 passes, adding 2 forced fumbles, 2 recoveries, and over 100 tackles. Malcolm Jenkins (NO), switched from cornerback, was instrumental in the Saints' success this season. New Orleans has quietly emerged as a defensive powerhouse.

Pat Chung (NE) is a young player who's still a bit uneven, but he made big plays on defense and special teams, even apart from his huge Monday night performance against Miami. Michael Huff (OAK) was the only player in the league, at any position, with at least 3 sacks and 3 interceptions. Chris Harris (CHI) was a turnover machine, with 5 picks and 2 fumble recoveries. Antoine Bethea (IND) and Eric Weddle (SD) are reliably above average, every season.

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

An unparalleled playmaker at his position, Polamalu intercepted 7 passes for 101 yards and a touchdown. As great as Brett Keisel and James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley and Lawrence Timmons and Ike Taylor are, Troy is the one indispensable piece of the Pittsburgh defense. When he's healthy there's really nowhere else to go at this position.

Other good players ... Quintin Mikell (PHI) is a playmaker, actually a little like Polamalu. Donte Whitner (BUF) was credited with 140 tackles. Rookie Eric Berry (KC) had 77 solo tackles, 2 sacks, and 4 interceptions, including one returned for a touchdown. Roman Harper (NO) made a bunch of tackles, with 3 sacks and 6 forced fumbles.

Kicker: Billy Cundiff (BAL)
Last Year: Sebastian Janikowski (OAK)

One of the things I value most in a kicker is ability on long field goals. If a team can drive to the edge of field goal range and feel confident that it can win on a 55-yard kick, that's the sort of asset that turns games. Cundiff's long this season was 49, only the second time I've ever chosen a kicker who didn't make anything from beyond 50 yards. He did make field goals of 49, 49, 48, and 47 yards, and he only missed three kicks all season. It's also worth mentioning that Baltimore is not the easiest place in the NFL to kick.

Of course, the real reason I chose Cundiff was his kickoffs. More than half of them went for touchbacks. His 40 TBs were 11 more than second-place Sebastian Janikowski (OAK), and his 71.1 kickoff average was the best in the league by more than 3 yards, better than league average by 7 yards. Cundiff kicked off 79 times. That's 545 yards he saved the Ravens on kickoffs, compared to an average team. 545 yards. That's worth a couple of 50-yard field goals.

My other finalists were Rob Bironas (TEN), who seems to be a finalist every year, probably the best kicker of the last five seasons, and Neil Rackers (HOU).

Punter: Steve Weatherford (NYJ)
Last Year: Ben Graham (ARI)

Normally, evaluating punters is the most time-consuming part of assembling this team. Weatherford made it easy this year. As soon as I finished my evaluation of him, I closed up shop. No one was going to catch him. Weatherford's 38.1 net average is 15th in the NFL, basically just average. But Weatherford plays for a good team, the 11-5 Jets, so he had a lot of those punts from the opponent's 40-yard line, where a 30-yard punt is good and 35 is downright sensational. Punters on good teams are at a statistical disadvantage. Of the 14 punters ahead of Weatherford, only five play for teams at or above .500. And the swirling winds in his home stadium are not conducive to good punting averages.

Still, it's not net average where Weatherford distinguished himself. This season, he only kicked four touchbacks. But he pinned opponents at the 1-yard line twice. Also the 2, 3, 3, 4, 5, 5, 5, 6, 6, 6, 7, 7, 8, 8, 8, 9, 9, 9, and 9. Altogether that's 21 times he pinned the other team inside its own 10, versus only 4 TBs, a phenomenal 5.25-to-1 ratio. No one else was better at stifling opponents' field position and pinning them deep. If you include inside the 20, he's at 42, most in the league.

Weatherford was also the best in the league at avoiding returns, with 11 punts out of bounds, 15 downed by his coverage team, and a league-leading 27 fair catches. Weatherford actually had as many fair catches as returns. In fact, 62.8% of his kicks had no return (or TB) at all. That's also the best mark in the league, easily.

Distance is overrated, but Weatherford's distance was decent. His hang time and directional kicking to avoid returns and touchbacks were unparalleled.

Just as a point of reference, Mat McBriar (DAL) led the league in net average this season. McBriar played for a bad (6-10) team, in a stadium with a roof. Weatherford played for a good (11-5) team, in a cold, windy stadium. McBriar forced 7 fair catches, Weatherford 27. McBriar had one punt blocked, Weatherford none. McBriar had 22 punts down inside the 20, Weatherford 42. McBriar had 8 touchbacks, Weatherford 4.

McBriar kicked farther because he played for Dallas, and Weatherford played for the Jets. My guy was twice as good at avoiding returns and four times better at pinning opponents deep. McBriar is a line drive kicker, Weatherford gets hang time or kicks out of bounds. Easy choice, isn't it? My other finalists, none of whom I finished a work-up on, were Kevin Huber (CIN), Sam Koch (BAL), Sav Rocca (PHI), and Jon Ryan (SEA).

Kick Returner: Devin Hester (CHI)
Last Year: Joshua Cribbs (CLE)

Four finalists. Brad Smith (NYJ) was the best on kickoffs (28.6 avg, 2 TDs, no fumbles), but he didn't return punts. Marc Mariani (TEN) was one of two players to return both a kickoff and a punt for touchdowns, with great averages (25.5 KR and 12.2 PR).

Ultimately, the choice came down to Leon Washington (SEA) and Hester. Washington had 57 kickoff returns for 1,461 yards (25.6 avg) and 3 TDs. He also returned 22 punts for 249 yards (11.3 avg). Hester posted a ridiculous 35.6 KR average, but on only 12 returns. He did put in a full season on punt returns: 33 for 564 (17.1) and 3 TDs. He fair caught very few punts — which lowers your average — and he didn't fumble all season.

Washington's extra returns don't make up for Hester's huge advantage in average. Well, they do on KRs. But Hester's so far ahead as a punt returner, he's clearly the top pick. Devin Hester was not an elite returner in 2008 or 2009. He was the best in the league this season.

Special Teamer: N/A
Last Year: N/A

I don't name a special teams ace, but let's throw out an honor roll — not necessarily all-inclusive — of the best guys I've seen this season: Pat Chung (NE), Corey Graham (CHI), Keyaron Fox (PIT), Kassim Osgood (JAC).

Six players repeat from my 2009 all-pro team: Andre Johnson, Antonio Gates, Julius Peppers, Jared Allen, Darrelle Revis, and Charles Woodson.

Offensive Player of the Year: Tom Brady (NE)
Last Year: Chris Johnson (TEN)

Sorry, Arian Foster.

Defensive Player of the Year: Ndamukong Suh (DET)
Last Year: Darrelle Revis (NYJ)

Detroit's ranks for yards allowed and points allowed — 2007: 32nd and 32nd, 2008: 32nd and 32nd, 2009: 32nd and 32nd, 2010: 21st and 19th. Fine, they're still not elite. Suh almost single-handedly turned this from one of the worst defenses in history into a unit that's pretty close to average. Believe the hype.

Most Valuable Player: Tom Brady (NE)
Last Year: Drew Brees (NO)

My top 12 ballot:

1) Tom Brady, QB, NE
2) Philip Rivers, QB, SD
3) Aaron Rodgers, QB, GB
4) Peyton Manning, QB, IND
5) Michael Vick, QB, PHI
6) Arian Foster, RB, HOU
7) Ndamukong Suh, DT, DET
8) Josh Freeman, QB, TB
9) Julius Peppers, DE, CHI
10) Clay Matthews, LB, GB
11) Jamaal Charles, RB, KC
12) Darrelle Revis, CB, NYJ

Why isn't Vick second? Wait, we'll come back to that. Why is Philip Rivers second? I know the Chargers missed the playoffs, but they finished 9-7. What would that record have been with an average QB, or a backup? Rivers led the NFL in passing yards and yards per attempt, threw 30 touchdown passes. Rivers did this with a receiving corps that split its time mostly between the practice squad and the hospital, with 13 players getting double-digit receptions. Antonio Gates got hurt. Malcom Floyd got hurt. So did Legedu Naanee and starting RB Ryan Mathews. Vincent Jackson missed most of the season. The Chargers led the NFL in yards per game, and Rivers was all they had. His 101.8 passer rating is second only to Brady's.

Aaron Rodgers, if he'd been healthy all year, might have challenged Brady for the top of the ballot. He's a really impressive player. Most analysts seem to believe this was a down year for Peyton Manning. He finished second in passing yards, tied for second in touchdown passes, top-10 in passer rating, by far the best sack percentage in the league. This was a better year than his 2008 MVP season.

Manning: 450/679, 4,700 yards, 33 TD, 17 INT, 91.9 passer rating
Vick: 233/372, 3,018 yards, 21 TD, 6 INT, 100.2 passer rating

Manning has 1,700 more yards and 12 more TDs. Yeah, he has more interceptions. Those picks aren't worth 1,700 yards. They aren't worth a third of that. But wait! Vick is a good rusher, you have to count that. But wait! Manning is the best in the league at avoiding sacks, and Vick is one of the worst. You have to count that, too. Net yardage (including passing, sacks, and rushing), with total TDs (passing + rushing) and total turnovers (interceptions and lost fumbles):

Manning: 4,627 yards, 33 TD, 18 turnovers
Vick: 3,484 yards, 30 TD, 9 turnovers

Who do you want? Vick missed a quarter of the season. He was more efficient, but it's preposterous to suggest that he was more valuable in 11 games than Manning was in 16. If Vick had played the whole season, he'd probably be ahead of everyone but Brady.

The Eagles went 10-6 this season with Vick at QB. They went 11-5 last season with Donovan McNabb at QB. If Vick was really so valuable, shouldn't the team have gotten better instead of worse?

Offensive Rookie of the Year: Maurkice Pouncey (PIT)
Last Year: Percy Harvin (MIN)

Sam Bradford (STL) is obviously going to win. He will be the least deserving winner in the history of the award — no exaggeration. Bradford wilted in the most important game of the season, and he wasn't exactly lighting it up before that, either. His 76.5 passer rating ranked 25th in the NFL, while the Rams had the 26th-ranked offense in the league. How is that impressive? Bradford's statistics look more like the rookie season of Tim Couch than Matt Ryan.

Bradford was more or less competent, and that's a major accomplishment for a rookie QB, but I'm not grading on a curve. Pouncey made the Pro Bowl, as did KRs Marc Mariani (TEN) and Eric Weems (ATL), the only players to return both a kickoff and a punt for TDs in 2010. LeGarrette Blount (TB) rushed for 1,000 yards with a 5.0 average. Mike Williams (TB) and Rob Gronkowski (NE) scored double-digit receiving touchdowns. Jacoby Ford (OAK) scored multiple rushing, receiving, and returning TDs, 7 altogether. I'd rank all of them ahead of Bradford, who was totally undistinguished except that he started every game and threw a lot. He didn't have a great season. He didn't even have a good season. He played well enough not to get benched.

Pouncey is a good center, but he's a rookie, and he struggled at times. I would take the fifth-best offensive rookie of 2008 over anyone from the last two seasons. That year included Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco, Chris Johnson, Matt Forte, Steve Slaton, DeSean Jackson, Eddie Royal, Ryan Clady, and Jake Long. Related: The Best NFL Rookie Class Ever.

Defensive Rookie of the Year: Ndamukong Suh (DET)
Last Year: Brian Cushing (HOU)

Devin McCourty (NE), Joe Haden (CLE), and Eric Berry (KC) all had nice seasons. Suh may be the best rookie defender since Lawrence Taylor.

Coach of the Year: Bill Belichick (NE)
Last Year: Norv Turner (SD)

Plenty of head coaches did a nice job this year, but four stood out in my mind: Belichick, Mike Smith (ATL), Todd Haley (KC), and Tom Cable (OAK). Haley has done a fantastic job of bringing his young team along, and what Cable has accomplished working for Al Davis is nothing short of remarkable. He's not getting enough credit. Smith just seems to naturally be a low-profile kind of guy, and his team takes after him. They go out and get the job done, no fuss. There's no drama, and they never seem to feel the pressure, because they're always prepared. Huge credit to the coaching staff. That's something else Smith deserves credit for: he has assembled a terrific staff.

I am not prepared, at this point in time, to declare Bill Belichick the greatest coach in history. But he just keeps climbing the list, no matter how many of his assistants leave, no matter how many irreplaceable players he loses, he just plugs in a Wes Welker or Devin McCourty or Danny Woodhead and the train rolls on. The 2010 Patriots are young at most positions, especially on defense. They've been improving all season, don't let anything throw them off track. This season reminds me of the 2003 Pats. Belichick was my COY that year, too.

Assistant Coach of the Year: Dom Capers (GB)
Last Year: Dom Capers (GB)

Definitely not Steve Crosby, the Chargers' special teams coach. And definitely not Mike Martz, Chicago's new offensive coordinator. The Bears made the playoffs because the defense returned to form, not because of their offense — below average in every major category.

One of the usual suspects, defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau (PIT), did another magnificent job. The year-to-year consistency of Pittsburgh's defensive excellence is remarkable, almost unique. Both of Kansas City's coordinators, Charlie Weis (offense) and Romeo Crennel (defense), deserve recognition this year. But my choice, for the second year in a row, is Capers. The Packers' defense was rocked by injuries this year. Johnny Jolly, suspended for the season. Atari Bigby on PUP, Nick Barnett to IR, on and on. Green Bay's defense remained the best in the NFC, getting the most out of young players and veterans, starters and subs. Fantastic job.

2010 All-Pro Team

QB Tom Brady, NE
RB Arian Foster, HOU
FB Marcel Reece, OAK
WR Roddy White, ATL
WR Brandon Lloyd, DEN
WR Andre Johnson, HOU
TE Jason Witten, DAL
TE Antonio Gates, SD
C Jeff Saturday, IND
G Josh Sitton, GB
G Carl Nicks, NO
OT Jason Peters, PHI
OT Charlie Johnson, IND

DT Ndamukong Suh, DET
DT B.J. Raji, GB
DE Julius Peppers, CHI
DE Jared Allen, MIN
OLB James Harrison, PIT
OLB Clay Matthews III, GB
ILB Jerod Mayo, NE
ILB Jonathan Vilma, NO
CB Darrelle Revis, NYJ
CB Charles Woodson, GB
CB Brent Grimes, ATL
FS Ed Reed, BAL
SS Troy Polamalu, PIT

K Billy Cundiff, BAL
P Steve Weatherford, NYJ
KR Devin Hester, CHI

Off POY — Tom Brady, NE
Def POY — Ndamukong Suh, DET
MVP — Tom Brady, NE
Off Rookie — Maurkice Pouncey, PIT
Def Rookie — Ndamukong Suh, DET
Coach — Bill Belichick, NE
Assistant — Dom Capers, GB

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