Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Sports Central’s 2013 NFL All-Pro Team

By Brad Oremland

After a phenomenal, dramatic Week 17, 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 cut. If all you care about is who made the team, skip to the end and you'll find a list, along with power rankings, playoff predictions, and the best team not to make the playoffs this year.

We name 13 players on offense and 13 on defense. With fullbacks playing ever smaller roles in the offense, a third wide receiver and second tight end are essential. 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: Peyton Manning (DEN)
Last Year: Tom Brady (NE)

Manning broke single-season records for passing yardage (5,477) and touchdowns (55). He posted the second-highest passer rating of his career (115.1), and rather quietly took by far the fewest sacks of any starting quarterback (18). He broke the record for largest TD/INT differential (+45), beating Tom Brady's mark from 2007 (+42), and light years ahead of second-place Drew Brees (+27). I don't know if this is the greatest regular season ever by a quarterback, or even the greatest regular season ever by Peyton Manning, but it was an amazing year.

Running Back: LeSean McCoy (PHI)
Last Year: Adrian Peterson (MIN)

Coming into Week 17, it was about 60/40 that I'd choose McCoy ahead of Jamaal Charles (KC). The Chiefs rested starters on Sunday, and McCoy had a great week, so the choice was easy, but Charles had a great year. He rushed for 1,287 yards, 3rd-best in the league, with a 4.97 average that is actually his career-low. He also caught 70 passes for 693 yards, and scored 19 TDs, by far the most in the NFL, actually the most by any player since ... LeSean McCoy in 2011.

This year, McCoy led the league in rushing by almost 300 yards, ranked second in rushing average (5.12), gained 500 receiving yards, and scored double-digit touchdowns. Charles and McCoy are similar players: they're both fast, with great acceleration, and they're both good receivers. Charles is probably the faster of the two, but McCoy's agility and knack for finding the hole are unparalleled.

Fullback: John Kuhn (GB)
Last Year: Darrel Young (WAS)

I want to discuss the history of the fullback position. Feel free to skip ahead to wide receivers if you're not interested.

1946 is usually considered the beginning of pro football's Modern Era. Fullbacks at this time, on up through the early '70s or so, were ball-carriers, blockers, and receivers. They were usually (but not always) bigger and stronger than featured tailbacks, and they played a role very similar to modern RBs, except that they were expected to run-block regularly. Hall of Famers like Joe Perry, Larry Csonka, John Riggins — and of course, Jim Brown — were listed as fullbacks. Jim Taylor works as a good prototype of this style. He was an extremely successful ball-carrier, but he also led the way for Paul Hornung on the famous Lombardi sweeps.

Over the next 25 years, fullback evolved to become primarily a blocking position, with very few handoffs to the FB. This is typified by Daryl Johnston, who led the way for Emmitt Smith and caught about 30 passes a year, but only carried once or twice a game. This same model applied to Howard Griffith in Denver at the end of the '90s, and later to players like Lorenzo Neal and Mack Strong.

Today's fullbacks see the field much less often than Johnston and Neal. Some teams don't even carry a fullback. They've been replaced by a third wide receiver, a second tight end, sometimes extra linemen or even (in goal-line situations) defensive tackles. Versatile tight ends like Charles Clay (MIA) often line up in the backfield as well as on the line, playing sort of an H-Back role.

When the Associated Press began naming All-Pro teams, they had two RB slots. That worked because there wasn't much functional difference between RB and FB; Jim Taylor and Paul Hornung did pretty much the same thing. In the '90s, though, with most teams using a featured RB and a fullback who seldom took handoffs, naming two RBs to the All-Pro team was ridiculous. No one used two RBs any more, or anyway nobody did it effectively. Even teams that used a committee generally subbed one RB out when they put the other one in.

Pressure built to officially honor a fullback, and although AP still moronically insists on naming two RBs every year, it eventually did (in 1996) add a fullback to its annual All-Pro team. If that procedure had begun earlier, Moose Johnston might be a Hall of Fame candidate now. Or maybe not — the voters clearly didn't understand what they were supposed to be looking for at FB. The first year, they chose a receiving specialist, Larry Centers. Then they picked Mike Alstott every year until he retired.

So now we vote for a fullback each year, but the position is basically extinct. There are only about half a dozen players whom we could reasonably label as fullbacks and who might be described as full-time players. Naming an All-Pro fullback, in 2013, is pointless. In 2009, I didn't name an All-Pro FB, and a year later called that decision "silly," so my vote this year goes to John Kuhn. Three different Packer RBs rushed for 100 yards this season (Eddie Lacy, James Starks, Johnathan Franklin), all behind Kuhn's lead blocks. He also touches the ball about twice a game, mostly in short yardage.

Bruce Miller (SF) is probably a better pure blocker, and he's used more in the receiving game, but he missed most of the last month. The Pro Bowl fullbacks, Marcel Reece (OAK) and Mike Tolbert (CAR), touch the ball more than anyone, and they do lead-block, so those would be reasonable choices, Tolbert in particular. Really, though, we should just stop selecting fullbacks.

Wide Receiver: Calvin Johnson (DET), Josh Gordon (CLE), Demaryius Thomas (DEN)
Last Year: Calvin Johnson (DET), Brandon Marshall (CHI), Andre Johnson (HOU)

Calvin Johnson had a couple of really bad drops in Week 15, on Monday Night Football, in a game the Lions needed to win. Johnson has never had great hands, and that's always been the weakest part of his game. But he's the best in the league at getting open, and he makes catches even when he's not open, and he's good with the ball in his hands. He missed two games but still ranked among the top three in receiving yards and TDs. An astonishing 82% of his catches resulted in first downs, by far the best percentage in the league. In Week 8, he gained 329 yards, the most ever in a four-quarter game. Johnson consistently receives, and beats, double coverage.

Gordon, suspended the first two games of the season, easily led the league in receiving yards. He averaged 117.6 per game, compared to 106.6 for Megatron, and 93.7 for distant-third-place Antonio Brown (PIT). More than anything, Gordon was explosive. He led the league in receptions of 20+ yards (30) and 40+ yards (9, tied with A.J. Green), and his 18.9 average led the NFL. Gordon and Johnson tied for the most 100-yard receiving games this season (7).

Five players had six 100-yard receiving games: Jimmy Graham (NO), A.J. Green (CIN), Andre Johnson (HOU), Brandon Marshall (CHI), and Demaryius Thomas (DEN). Graham led the NFL in receiving TDs. Green and Thomas were the only players to rank top-10 in every major receiving category (receptions, yards, first downs, TDs). Marshall led the league in first down receptions.

Statistically, Brown should be the third WR. He ranked 2nd in receptions (110), yards (1,499), and first downs (69), and tied for 16th in TDs (8). Brown is a different style than most of the top receivers. He's undersized (5-10, 186), but speedy and elusive. He's also a good punt returner (409 yds, 12.8 avg, TD), and very probably the MVP of the 8-8 Steelers. I don't have anything bad to say about Antonio Brown. But I chose Thomas as the third wideout on this year's All-Pro team. He was great at every aspect of receiving, and after Peyton Manning, he was the most important player on Denver's record-breaking offense, leading the team with 14 TDs.

Tight End: Vernon Davis (SF), Jason Witten (DAL)
Last Year: Jason Witten (DAL), Tony Gonzalez (ATL)

Ever since he was drafted in 2006, we've been waiting for Vernon Davis to play up to his potential. He's been among the best tight ends for years, and I named him to my 2009 All-Pro Team, but this was probably his best season. He's had better stats in other years, but in a limited offense without explosive teammates, Davis really distinguished himself. He led the 49ers with 13 TDs, and he is a very good blocker when called upon, much better than any of the other serious candidates.

No second tight end really stood out. Davis, Witten, Gonzalez, and Antonio Gates (SD) all gained 850-875 receiving yards, while Jordan Cameron (CLE) posted 917 and Julius Thomas (DEN) 788, both in the same neighborhood. Witten gets the edge as a blocker and consistent play-maker.

Jimmy Graham is a sensational receiver. He sometimes seems impossible to defend. Linebackers can't keep up with him, and DBs can't defend his size. But weighing 265 pounds doesn't make you a TE; lining up next to the tackle and blocking LBs does. Not on every play, but at least with some degree of frequency. I didn't choose Graham for the same reason I never listed Mike Alstott as a fullback. I think Graham could play tight end, but that's not how the Saints use him. He's a top-10 wide receiver.

Center: Jonathan Goodwin (SF)
Last Year: Mike Pouncey (MIA)

There are no great centers right now. There are guys who could be great in the future, like Travis Frederick (DAL) and the Pouncey twins. And there are guys who used to be great and are still pretty good, like Nick Mangold (NYJ) and Nick Hardwick (SD). I'm not crazy about Goodwin, but every team needs a center, and this year he's it.

Guard: Logan Mankins (NE), Andy Levitre (TEN)
Last Year: Mike Iupati (SF), Andy Levitre (BUF)

This is the first time Logan Mankins has played 16 games since 2009, and it's the first time I've chosen him All-Pro since '09. With the Patriots missing their best receiving weapons, and constantly shuffling RBs, Tom Brady and the offensive line stepped up to lead New England to a 12-4 record and first-round bye. Mankins even shifted outside to left tackle in Week 16, and played very well in a 41-7 beatdown of the Ravens. Levitre, a standout last year in Buffalo, this year was a standout in Tennessee.

Iupati is probably the best right now, but he missed four games with a knee injury, and didn't look 100% when he returned in Week 16.

Offensive Tackle: Jason Peters (PHI), Joe Staley (SF)
Last Year: Duane Brown (HOU), Joe Staley (SF)

Here's my dilemma: the 49ers had a pretty average offense. They ranked 11th in scoring, but 24th in yardage and 18th in third-down percentage. They scored because they didn't commit a lot of turnovers, and because they had good field position from their defense and special teams. If Sullivan, Iupati, and Staley are all among the best at their positions, why aren't the Niners an elite offense? I guess there are three potential explanations:

1. I'm overrating the San Francisco linemen.
2. Offensive linemen just aren't that important.
3. Colin Kaepernick and Frank Gore and everyone else were a little worse than they seemed, but they all look better because of the line.

I vote for Choice 3.

Peters isn't the player he was two years ago, but two years ago he was otherworldly. Now he's just great. Chip Kelly has done a nice job, but getting LeSean McCoy and Peters back healthy was the Eagles' most important difference from 2012 to 2013. Tyron Smith (DAL) would probably be my third choice.

Defensive Tackle: Justin Smith (SF), Ndamukong Suh (DET)
Last Year: Geno Atkins (CIN), Justin Smith (SF)

In Week 16, 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh, via the MNF announcers, hyped linebacker NaVorro Bowman as Defensive Player of the Year. Bowman is terrific, but I don't think he's the most important defensive player on his own team. To me, Justin Smith is the glue that holds this unit together. Without Bowman, Patrick Willis plays a bigger role, the safeties and the other linebackers have to step up. Without Smith, the whole operation suffers. He's not replaceable.

Choosing the other spot was a headache, because so many guys had good seasons. The sack artists mostly played on bad teams: Jason Hatcher (DAL), Jurrell Casey (TEN), Kyle Williams (BUF), Gerald McCoy (TB) ... those are all good players, but on most teams, rushing the passer is not an interior lineman's primary responsibility, so you don't want to judge these guys just by that one stat. A great DT, like Smith, makes the whole defense better. No DT on a winning team had more than 6.5 sacks this season. It's not that sacks are bad — that 6.5 is Justin Smith — but they're not all-important, and I feel there were better players.

Haloti Ngata (BAL) had his best season in a couple of years, and Darnell Dockett (ARI) played well. After terrific starts the first half of the season, neither Dontari Poe (KC) nor Suh finished the season strong. Ultimately, though, I went with Suh, simply for the havoc he creates and the fear he inspires. He's a little up-and-down, but teams have to double-team Suh. What he does, probably better than any other interior lineman, is penetrate into the backfield. He makes tackles behind the line of scrimmage, he knocks down passes, he's disruptive.

Defensive End: J.J. Watt (HOU), Robert Quinn (STL)
Last Year: J.J. Watt (HOU), Calais Campbell (ARI)

Quinn led all linemen, easily, in sacks (18) and forced fumbles (7). Watt led in everything else. He had 10.5 sacks, which is sensational for a 3-4 DE, but he also made 65 solo tackles — by far the most of any lineman — with 7 pass deflections and 4 forced fumbles. His team imploded, but Watt is still the best defensive lineman in football. He should (but won't) be a serious DPOY candidate.

There were no other contenders. Plenty of guys had good years, but none close to Quinn and Watt.

Outside Linebacker: Robert Mathis (IND), Lavonte David (TB)
Last Year: Von Miller (DEN), Jerod Mayo (NE)

No question, the biggest Pro Bowl snubs this year were OLBs who aren't pass-rush specialists. David finished the year with 106 solo tackles, 6 sacks, and 5 interceptions. He led all linebackers in tackles for loss (20), including a safety in Week 10. He forced 2 fumbles, recovered a fumble, and defensed 10 passes. DeAndre Levy (DET) made 85 solo tackles, with 6 INTs, 15 other PDs, and a touchdown.

I know players can make an impact that doesn't show up in the stats, but several OLBs made the Pro Bowl with about 40 solo tackles, 10 sacks, and virtually no other significant stats. Call me crazy, I'd rather have 50 extra tackles, 5 picks, and 10 passes defensed than 10 sacks. We need to look beyond one stat, especially at positions like OLB where some players have very different responsibilities. Mathis is a pass-rush specialist, but he was a good choice, the NFL's leader in sacks (19.5) and forced fumbles (8).

Inside Linebacker: Karlos Dansby (ARI), NaVorro Bowman (SF)
Last Year: Daryl Washington (ARI), NaVorro Bowman (SF)

I guess the official team will have Luke Kuechly (CAR) and Bowman, close to unanimously. Kuechly is a good player, of course, but I don't believe he's at the same level as Dansby or Bowman. He wouldn't even be my third choice. Paul Posluszny (JAC), trapped on an awful team, would be.

Kuechly gets a lot of attention because he was a top-10 draft pick, he flies around like a lunatic, he's white, he has a great line to keep blockers away from him, and his stats are inflated by the ridiculous way Carolina tabulates tackle assists. Kiko Alonso (BUF) and Kuechly led the NFL in assists. The chart below shows solo tackles and assists:

Chart

How likely is it that Dansby and Bowman had 30% more solo tackles, but Kuechly and Alonso had 430% more assists? It's not just improbable, it's out of the question. Assists are a shady stat that, with few exceptions, should be disregarded*.

* Every team in the NFL had 650-900 solo tackles this season, most of them between 725-825. But assists ranged from 127 (Arizona) to 426 (New England). You could conclude that Arizona's defense, ranked 6th in yards and 7th in scoring, is full of selfish players who won't help out their teammates, or lazy players who don't hustle to the ball. Or you could conclude that this stat is deeply flawed, to the point of being almost totally useless.

The only ILBs with 100 solo tackles this year were Posluszny (121), Bowman, Dansby, DeMeco Ryans (102), and depending on whether you consider him an ILB or OLB, maybe Vontaze Burfict (114). Dansby added 6.5 sacks, 4 INTs (2 returned for TD), 19 other PDs, an FF, and an FR. Bowman tallied 5 sacks, 4 FF, 2 FR, and interceptions each of the last two weeks, including the game-clinching TD return in Week 16. These guys made routine plays — all those tackles — and they had impact plays like sacks and interceptions. Kuechly, for what it's worth, had 2 sacks, 4 INTs, 7 PDs, and no fumbles forced or recovered. I don't mean to pick on him, because he's a good, young player, but I don't buy the idea that he's a legitimate DPOY candidate. Kuechly looks good, the same way a center fielder in MLB looks good because he makes diving catches. By the same analogy, Dansby and Bowman don't need to make diving catches, because they anticipate the ball and put themselves in position ahead of time.

Cornerback: Richard Sherman (SEA), Alterraun Verner (TEN), Joe Haden (CLE)
Last Year: Charles Tillman (CHI), Richard Sherman (SEA), Antonio Cromartie (NYJ)

Sherman intercepted 8 passes this year, two more than anyone else, and returned them for 125 yards and a TD. In the first six weeks of the season, Verner intercepted 4 passes, with 13 PDs, so teams stopped throwing at him, but he still finished with 5 picks and a league-leading 23 passes defensed.

Haden edged Brent Grimes (MIA) and Patrick Peterson (ARI) for the nickel corner position. His season included 4 INTs, 20 PDs, and a touchdown, but I was also struck by the way top WRs struggled against Cleveland. In two matchups with the Browns, A.J. Green combined for 58 yards and no TDs. Calvin Johnson, 3 catches for 25 yards. The most receiving yardage Cleveland allowed to a single player this year came in Week 14, when RB Shane Vereen gained 153 yards, and that's not Haden's responsibility.

Free Safety: Earl Thomas (SEA)
Last Year: Thomas DeCoud (ATL)

I'm deferring to popular opinion on this one. It seemed to me that Eric Weddle (SD) had a better season than Earl Thomas. He played better in the games I saw, and he had better stats. But the world is gaga over Thomas, and the gap between them isn't so large that I'm going to dismiss what appears to be a consensus among other analysts.

Thomas intercepted 5 passes this year, and he forced 2 fumbles. He's fast, powerful, has a knack for finding the ball. Two areas where he could improve are blitzing and quick diagnosis on run plays. Thomas made 78 solo tackles, but none behind the line of scrimmage. That's actually not a huge deal, because those plays are more often the role of a strong safety, and the Seahawks have so many play-makers on defense that teammates will beat him to the ball-carrier and Thomas doesn't have to make those plays.

Weddle only had 2 INTs, but he made 88 solo tackles, including 5 for a loss. He had a sack, a forced fumble, two recoveries, and 10 passes defensed. Other free safeties with standout seasons included Barry Church (DAL), Ryan Clark (PIT), Reshad Jones (MIA), and Mike Mitchell (CAR).

Strong Safety: Eric Berry (KC)
Last Year: Glover Quin (HOU)

Berry, like most of Kansas City's stars, was held out of Week 17. He still finished the season with 66 solo tackles, including 11 for a loss, most of any DB. He had 3.5 sacks, a forced fumble, and 2 FR. Berry defensed 10 passes and intercepted three, returning them for a combined 158 yards, and he scored 2 TDs on defense. He was an impact player for one of the league's best defenses.

T.J. Ward (CLE) doesn't get much attention in Cleveland, but he had a similar year, including 9 TFL, over 100 return yards, and 2 TDs.

Kicker: Stephen Gostkowski (NE)
Last Year: Blair Walsh (MIN)

Two placekickers drew widespread attention this season. Matt Prater (DEN) led the NFL in field goal percentage, and kicked a record-long 64-yard field goal in Denver. Justin Tucker (BAL) made a lot of field goals in a couple of nationally televised games — on Thanksgiving in Week 13 and on MNF in Week 15. Both had good seasons, and both were among my finalists at this position, along with Dan Carpenter (BUF), Graham Gano (CAR), and Steven Hauschka (SEA).

Gostkowski and Tucker tied for the most field goals this season, both 38-of-41. Both made 22 kicks from inside 40 yards, and 16 from 40 or beyond. But Tucker's misses came from 37, 44, and 50 yards. Gostkowski missed from 43, 48, and 55. That 55-yarder came in the second quarter of Week 13, against the Texans. With New England behind by 3 in the fourth quarter, Gostkowski connected twice from 53 yards to tie, then win the game for the Patriots. Gostkowski plays in tougher weather than Tucker, made more extra points, and was better on kickoffs, inducing more touchbacks and converting a successful onside kick. Also, for whatever it's worth, Gostkowski led the NFL in scoring (158).

Punter: Mike Scifres (SD)
Last Year: Andy Lee (SF)

Scifres was my All-Pro punter in 2004, 2005, and 2007. He's been pretty good since (apart from a disastrous 2010 that would have gotten a less accomplished player cut), but not at that same level. He's back. Scifres had 30 of his 56 punts downed inside the 20-yard line, the only player with more than half his punts in that deep. That might not be impressive if Scifres also bombed a bunch of touchbacks, but he finished the season with 1. That's o-n-e. Scifres put 12 of those 30 inside the 10-yard line, and he did a great job of limiting returns. His average wasn't anything special, but he had a lot of punts from the opponent's territory, where you have to shorten them up to avoid the end zone. He was terrific at managing those most important yards, and more than 1/3 of his punts were fair caught. My only real hesitation was that Scifres benefits from an exceptional special teams unit to help down those kicks.

My other finalists were Donnie Jones (PHI), Brett Kern (TEN), Thomas Morstead (NO), and Kevin Huber (CIN), who broke his jaw in Week 15 and missed the last two games of the season. Johnny Hekker (STL) easily led the league in net average, but he usually had the whole field to work with, and that makes a huge difference in a punter's average.

Kick Returner: Cordarrelle Patterson (MIN)
Last Year: Leodis McKelvin (BUF)

Patterson unquestionably was the league's best kickoff returner in 2013. He led the NFL in KR average (32.4) and touchdowns (2), ranking second in yardage by under 50 (1,393). But he didn't return punts. Dexter McCluster (KC) was the league's best punt returner. He led in PR yards and TDs, with a good average and very few fair catches (which boost average, but gain zero yards for the team). But McCluster didn't return kickoffs. Trindon Holliday (DEN) and Jeremy Ross (DET) were the only players to return both a kickoff and a punt for touchdowns this year, but Holliday makes way too many mistakes, and Ross only had 30 returns all year, under 2 per game. Devin Hester (CHI) had a big year, with good averages on both kickoffs and punts, and a PR TD, but he fumbled four times.

My second choice was Dwayne Harris (DAL), who averaged 30.6 on kickoff returns and 12.8 on punt returns, with a PR TD. But Patterson was so explosive, with 10 returns of 40 yards or more, he doesn't need any punt returns to earn All-Pro honors.

Special Teamer: Matthew Slater (NE)
Last Year: N/A

I normally don't name a special teams ace, but Slater is phenomenal. Any team I'm putting together, I want him on it. Other favorites include Kassim Osgood (SF) and Seyi Ajirotutu (SD). Osgood is building a special teams résumé that compares favorably with Steve Tasker's.

Eight players repeat from my 2012 All-Pro team: Calvin Johnson, Jason Witten, Andy Levitre, Joe Staley, Justin Smith, J.J. Watt, NaVorro Bowman, and Richard Sherman. I think that's the most back-to-back selections I've ever made. Last year only had three.

Offensive Player of the Year: Peyton Manning (DEN)
Last Year: Adrian Peterson (MIN)

Manning set records for passing yards and TDs, and the Broncos set the single-season scoring mark. Easy choice.

Defensive Player of the Year: Richard Sherman (SEA)
Last Year: J.J. Watt (HOU)

Hard choice. Watt had another great season. Robert Quinn and Robert Mathis were devastating pass-rushers. Lavonte David, Karlos Dansby, NaVorro Bowman ... a number of players had excellent seasons, but there wasn't the one obvious standout like Watt last year.

Broadly speaking, cornerbacks are effective one of two ways. Sometimes they just shut everything down, take away half the field, or at least the opponent's top receiver. Other times they play a little bit off, try to bait the QB so they can make big plays. Richard Sherman does both. He's a true shutdown corner, but he's also a highly effective ballhawk, and dangerous with the ball in his hands. It's rare for a CB to combine those skills the way Sherman does. I believe he was the most important, most impactful defensive player in the NFL this year.

Special Teams Player of the Year: Matthew Slater (NE)
Last Year: Blair Walsh (MIN)

I never envisioned naming one of the downfield wackos as Special Teams POY, but in a year with no real standouts at placekicker, punter, or returner, I can't pass up a gem like Matthew Slater. If you don't usually pay attention to special teams, watch New England in the playoffs and look for number 18. He's around the ball on every play.

Most Valuable Player: Peyton Manning (DEN)
Last Year: Peyton Manning (DEN)

My top 10 ballot:

1) Peyton Manning, QB, DEN
2) Drew Brees, QB, NO
3) Jamaal Charles, RB, KC
4) LeSean McCoy, RB, PHI
5) Philip Rivers, QB, SD
6) Robert Mathis, LB, IND
7) Russell Wilson, QB, SEA
8) Richard Sherman, DB, SEA
9) Justin Smith, DL, SF
10) Calvin Johnson, WR, DET

Last year, Adrian Peterson won this award. He had a historic season, and I've always resisted the idea that wins and losses come down to the quarterback. But if you had put Manning on the Vikings and Peterson on the Broncos, rest of the roster stays the same ... the Vikings win more games and the Broncos win fewer. Because of how I interpret the term valuable, quarterbacks dominate this list. I didn't even include Tom Brady (NE), Nick Foles (PHI), Cam Newton (CAR), or Aaron Rodgers (GB), any of whom would be fine second-tier MVP candidates.

Offensive Rookie of the Year: Eddie Lacy (GB)
Last Year: Robert Griffin III (WAS)

This was a tough year to choose outstanding rookies, because a lot of first-year players had good seasons, but none really had a great season. There was no RG3 or Ndamukong Suh in this year's rookie class, but it also wasn't the kind of season where the winner is obvious because he's the only one who really played well.

I actually considered a trio of linemen for this award: center Travis Frederick (DAL), guard Kyle Long (CHI), and tackle D.J. Fluker (SD). Frederick in particular impresses me. Keenan Allen (SD) went over 1,000 yards receiving, while Cordarrelle Patterson (MIN) contributed on multiple levels: 158 rushing yards, 469 receiving yards, and 1,393 kickoff return yards, with 9 total TDs. He's the first player since Jacoby Ford in 2010 to score multiple TDs rushing, receiving, and returning, and one of only three in the last 40 years.

Patterson and Giovani Bernard (CIN) were the most dynamic offensive rookies in 2013. Bernard rushed for 695 yards and gained 514 receiving, the first rookie since Reggie Bush in '06 to go over 500 yards as both a rusher and receiver. The list of rookies to accomplish that feat is very short (10), and extremely impressive, including three Hall of Famers and only one dud. Seven of the previous nine had great careers, maybe eight depending on where Bush goes from here.

Bernard's 1,209 yards from scrimmage actually ranked third among rookie RBs, ahead of Zac Stacy (STL), but behind Le'Veon Bell (PIT) and Lacy. Bell missed the first three weeks with an injury, and he only averaged 3.5 yards per carry, but he re-invigorated Pittsburgh's offense. Lacy, though, brought a dimension to Green Bay's offense that the Packers hadn't seen at least since Ryan Grant, maybe not since Ahman Green's heyday. Lacy rushed for 1,178 yards (8th in NFL) despite missing almost two games because of an illegal hit. He contributed as a receiver, scored double-digit TDs, and took care of the ball (only 1 fumble in 319 touches).

Defensive Rookie of the Year: Sheldon Richardson (NYJ)
Last Year: Casey Hayward (GB)

The Week 17 rushing TD didn't sway me. Richardson stabilized the Jets' line, creating opportunities for teammates like Muhammad Wilkerson, and helping a team that went 4-12 and lost Darrelle Revis double its win total and save Rex Ryan's job. Fellow rookie DTs Star Lotulelei (CAR), Kawann Short (CAR), and Chris Jones (NE) also had fine rookie years. Lotulelei and Short haven't gotten proper credit for their impact on Carolina's improved defense.

Kiko Alonso (BUF) and Alec Ogletree (STL) contributed in every aspect of defense. Alonso tallied 87 solo tackles, 2 sacks, a forced fumble, 2 FRs, 4 INTs, and 5 PDs. Ogletree, overlooked on a losing team in a small market, quietly finished his rookie year with 94 solos, 1.5 sacks, 6 forced fumbles, an interception returned 98 yards for a TD, and 10 PDs. There's a comparison to be drawn to Lavonte David's rookie season, and I suspect I might regret not choosing Ogletree as DROY.

Eric Reid (SF) contributed 6 takeaways, Desmond Trufant (ATL) defensed 19 passes, and Logan Ryan (NE) led all rookies with 5 INTs.

Coach of the Year: Andy Reid (KC)
Last Year: John Fox (DEN)

In recent weeks, Ron Rivera (CAR) has emerged as the likely front-runner for COY. Rivera helped his team by becoming more aggressive, but that was an overdue correction of a mistake. Carolina's biggest problem last year was Rivera himself, and just because he's not screwing up any more, that doesn't make him a great coach, it just makes him better than he was — on the verge of getting fired. Rivera deserves credit for addressing the problem, but he wasn't the Coach of the Year.

Three coaches who never had much of a chance to win the award, because the voters look for improvement, were Bill Belichick (NE), Jim Harbaugh (SF), and John Harbaugh (BAL). Belichick lost his two best defensive players early in the season, but guided Tom Brady and a motley crew to a 12-4 record and division title. The Niners, coming off a season that extended into February and dealing with significant injuries from Week 1, righted the ship after a 1-2 start, winning 11 of their last 13 games and qualifying for the playoffs for the third time in three years. After a tumultuous offseason in which the Ravens lost 8 of their 22 starters, I wrote in preseason that I'd be impressed if Baltimore won half its games. At 8-8, the Ravens missed the postseason, but they put up an awfully good fight.

The Cardinals went 10-6, but missed the playoffs, which probably kills Bruce Arians' (ARI) chance of winning the AP vote. But playing in the toughest division in the league, Arizona put together a far better season than anyone expected. The offseason additions of players like Karlos Dansby, Carson Palmer, and John Abraham helped, but Arians did a great job turning around a team that went 5-11 last year.

It's hard to do something different in the NFL, where there's so much pressure to conform. Chip Kelly (PHI) did something different, and led the Eagles to a division title. I admire that, but I'm not sold on Kelly's time-of-possession-doesn't-matter philosophy. I think getting LeSean McCoy and Jason Peters back would go a long way toward turning any team around.

All this leads me back to Andy Reid. The Chiefs lost five of their last seven games, after a 9-0 start, getting swept by division rivals Denver and San Diego. Reid was practically coronated as COY around Week 4, but the slow finish has significantly dulled his buzz. The Chiefs had talent, a lot more talent than last year's 2-14 record implied, but Reid gave the team confidence and led them to a playoff berth in his first year at the helm. Slow finish or not, it's an impressive accomplishment.

Assistant Coach of the Year: Mike Zimmer (CIN)
Last Year: Kyle Shanahan (WAS)

Zimmer is a perpetual candidate for this honor, one of the most respected defensive coordinators in the league. But he barely, barely edged a virtual unknown: Kevin Spencer (SD), the special teams coordinator for the San Diego Chargers. Punter Mike Scifres had his best season in years, while Seyi Ajirotutu, Andrew Gachkar, Darrell Stuckey, and Ladarius Green all ranked among my top special teamers this season. Only one other team, the 49ers (with C.J. Spillman and Kassim Osgood), had even two players graded that high. The Chargers had four. San Diego offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt is rumored to be a head coaching candidate, and he'd probably bring Spencer with him. The two worked together under Bill Cowher in Pittsburgh, then Spencer followed Whis to Arizona and San Diego. If I were an owner or GM interested in Whis, I'd want Spencer on staff as well.

Zimmer overcame the loss of his best player (DT Geno Atkins) and his top two CBs, leading a defense that ranked 3rd in yardage and 5th in scoring. Dean Pees (BAL) and Sean McDermott (CAR) also earned consideration. Some of the top offensive assistants are hard to honor, because we divert credit to the head coach, or in Denver, to the quarterback. Adam Gase (DEN) has coached Kyle Orton, Tim Tebow, and Peyton Manning effectively, but he gets minimal credit for this year's record-breaking offense, because so much of the offense runs through Peyton.

2013 All-Pro Team

QB Peyton Manning, DEN
RB LeSean McCoy, PHI
FB John Kuhn, GB
WR Calvin Johnson, DET
WR Josh Gordon, CLE
WR Demaryius Thomas, DEN
TE Vernon Davis, SF
TE Jason Witten, DAL
C Jonathan Goodwin, SF
G Logan Mankins, NE
G Andy Levitre, BUF
OT Jason Peters, PHI
OT Joe Staley, SF

DT Justin Smith, SF
DT Ndamukong Suh, DET
DE J.J. Watt, HOU
DE Robert Quinn, STL
OLB Robert Mathis, IND
OLB Lavonte David, TB
ILB Karlos Dansby, ARI
ILB NaVorro Bowman, SF
CB Richard Sherman, SEA
CB Alterraun Verner, TEN
CB Joe Haden, CLE
FS Earl Thomas, SEA
SS Eric Berry, KC

K Stephen Gostkowski, NE
P Mike Scifres, SD
KR Cordarrelle Patterson, MIN
ST Matthew Slater, NE

Off POY — Peyton Manning, DEN
Def POY — Richard Sherman, SEA
ST POY — Matthew Slater, NE
MVP — Peyton Manning, DEN
Off Rookie — Eddie Lacy, GB
Def Rookie — Sheldon Richardson, NYJ
Coach — Andy Reid, KC
Assistant — Mike Zimmer, CIN

2013 NFL Playoff Predictions

INDIANAPOLIS def. Kansas City
PHILADELPHIA def. New Orleans
CINCINNATI def. San Diego
San Francisco def. GREEN BAY

The Colts/Chiefs matchup features the two weakest teams in the AFC playoffs. I'd pick the Chargers to beat either of them.

Super Bowl XLVIII: Seattle Seahawks over Denver Broncos

Boring prediction, I know. I almost went with the Patriots in the AFC — which isn't really any better — because I can't shake this feeling that Peyton Manning is the NFL's Cassandra, the greatest quarterback ever, but cursed not to receive that recognition because of repeated playoff failures. Von Miller's absence could easily keep Denver out of the Super Bowl.

Week 17 Power Rankings

Top 10

1. San Francisco 49ers
2. Seattle Seahawks
3. Denver Broncos
4. San Diego Chargers
5. Arizona Cardinals
6. Carolina Panthers
7. New England Patriots
8. Cincinnati Bengals
9. Philadelphia Eagles
10. New Orleans Saints

These rankings are for right now, not a season summary. I know the Cowboys and Steelers are heartbroken, but the 10-6 Cardinals, who won 7 of their last 9 and beat the Seahawks in Seattle, were easily the best team not to make the playoffs this season.

Bottom Three

30. Oakland Raiders
31. Cleveland Browns
32. Houston Texans

The Browns have surpassed Oakland and Washington in the "Most Dysfunctional Franchise" designation. Their last three head coaches have lasted a combined five seasons. The idea that you can fairly judge a coach after just one season, especially when the team is explicitly rebuilding, is absurd. Unless Browns ownership knows that Rob Chudzinski went all Jerry Sandusky off the field, this is a reckless move that embarrasses the Cleveland Browns organization.

If I were a serious head coaching candidate, I probably would not accept a position in Cleveland or Washington. You're better off waiting a year and taking a job where you'll get a chance to succeed.

Tony Romo Memorial Week 17 Meltdown Award

1. Ryan Tannehill, for his 3-INT, 42.1 passer rating performance in a must-win home game against the Jets.

2. Joe Flacco, for his 3-INT, 49.7 passer rating performance in a critical game against the Bengals.

3 (tie). Andy Dalton, for throwing 4 INTs in that same game, and Ben Roethlisberger, for tossing 2 picks in a must-win game against the Browns.

I suppose it would be poetic to put Kyle Orton on the list, but I thought he looked good on Sunday night. The game-clinching interception was Romo-esque, and in a way Orton is the best candidate for a Romo Award, because he actually played really well before a critical error at the end. Tannehill and Flacco, in contrast, basically gave their games away.

Eli Manning, who left the Washington/Giants game at halftime with an injury, actually posted the highest passer rating (59.7) of the three QBs in that game. Kirk Cousins was awful (19-of-49, 2 INTs), and Curtis Painter managed a passer rating of zero.

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