Friday, January 2, 2015
Sports Central’s 2014 NFL All-Pro Team
With the 2014 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 cut. If all you care about is who made the team, skip to the end and you'll find a list.
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: Aaron Rodgers (GB)
Last Year: Peyton Manning (DEN)
Despite late campaigns for other players, I don't see this as particularly close. Rodgers made as many positive plays as anyone, with the fewest negative plays. Here's a stat I used in my Week 17 Power Rankings, the best single-season TD/INT differentials in NFL history:
1. Peyton Manning, +45 in 2013 (55 TD, 10 INT)
2. Tom Brady, +42 in 2007 (50 TD, 8 INT)
t3. Peyton Manning, +39 in 2004 (49 TD, 10 INT)
t3. Aaron Rodgers, +39 in 2011 (45 TD, 6 INT)
5. Aaron Rodgers, +33 in 2014 (38 TD, 5 INT)
t6. Tom Brady, +32 in 2010 (36 TD, 4 INT)
t6. Drew Brees, +32 in 2011 (46 TD, 14 INT)
t8. Dan Marino, +31 in 1984 (48 TD, 17 INT)
t8. Aaron Rodgers, +31 in 2012 (39 TD, 8 INT)
t10. Kurt Warner, 1999, and Daunte Culpepper, 2004, +28
Tony Romo was second this year, with +25. That's a great season, but not the same level as Rodgers. No one else creates so many positive plays.
Running Back: Le'Veon Bell (PIT)
Last Year: LeSean McCoy (PHI)
Only three candidates. Two of them are obvious: DeMarco Murray (DAL), who led the NFL in rushing, and Bell, who rushed for 1,361 yards — second only to Murray — and gained 854 yards as a receiver, most of any RB. The other player I considered was Marshawn Lynch (SEA), who led the NFL in touchdowns. Lynch is the hardest runner, the most spectacular playmaker, the most fun to watch. He's strong between the tackles, quick on the outside, an asset in the passing game. If I could go back in time and pick one RB to play for my favorite team in 2014, I would probably choose Lynch.
But I'm not going back in time, I'm evaluating what actually happened. As great as Lynch is, and as well as he played, I can't ignore the production of Murray and Bell. They were just more involved in their teams' offenses. Statistically, Murray and Bell are close. Murray rushed for many more yards, with a slightly higher average (4.71 to Bell's 4.69). But with receiving, their overall yardage is very similar (2,261 for Murray, 2,215 for Bell). Murray had more touchdowns (13 to 11), but he also lost five fumbles, and Bell didn't fumble all season. It seems to me that five turnovers roughly cancel out 46 yards and two TDs. Murray generated 101 first downs (86 rushing, 15 receiving) and Bell totaled 114 (73, 41). According to Pro Football Focus, Bell out-snapped Murray 944-800 this season. Maybe you think one or the other is a little ahead, but it's definitely close.
Murray is a complete runner: fast, powerful, excellent vision. Bell is bigger (6'1", 244), maybe a tick slower, but he's very dangerous in the passing game. He's a good blocker, very good route runner, good hands and good sense of space. I lean, ever so slightly, toward Bell's more diverse skill set.
Fullback: Kyle Juszczyk (BAL)
Last Year: John Kuhn (GB)
In 2014, this is a really low-impact position. If you prefer Kuhn or Bruce Miller (SF) or Marcel Reece (OAK) or Darrel Young (WAS), I won't argue with you. Juszczyk started 14 games, and he helped set up a 1,266-yard, 5.4-per-carry season for journeyman Justin Forsett.
Wide Receiver: Antonio Brown (PIT), Demaryius Thomas (DEN), Julio Jones (ATL)
Last Year: Calvin Johnson (DET), Josh Gordon (CLE), Demaryius Thomas (DEN)
Many wide receivers had fine seasons, but only four candidates drew serious consideration for the three spots on this team: Brown, Thomas, Jones, and Jordy Nelson (GB). Brown led the NFL in receptions (129, second-most in history), yards, and first downs. Thomas ranked second in catches and yards, and he went over 100 yards in 10 of the last 13 games. He's only the seventh player in history with 10 or more 100-yard receiving games in a season.
That leaves Jones and Nelson for the third wide receiver. Jones had more catches, for more yards and more first downs. But Nelson scored more than twice as many TDs, and he didn't fumble all season (Jones fumbled twice, losing one). I hate to omit Nelson, because he really was superb this year. I think Jones created a little more on his own.
Tight End: Rob Gronkowski (NE), Greg Olsen (CAR)
Last Year: Vernon Davis (SF), Jason Witten (DAL)
Gronk is obvious. He's the best tight end in the NFL, and it's not close.
This was a career year for Olsen, who trailed only Gronkowski (among tight ends) in yards and first downs. Perceived as a receiving-only tight end in Chicago, Olsen has worked to improve his blocking, and while no one will ever confuse him with Heath Miller (PIT), Olsen can and does block. Martellus Bennett (CHI), Antonio Gates (SD), and Miller were the other players I considered, but none made as much impact as Olsen, who led the Panthers in receptions, yards, and first downs.
Center: Nick Mangold (NYJ)
Last Year: Jonathan Goodwin (SF)
Only two players drew serious consideration at this position: Travis Frederick (DAL) and Mangold. Frederick is very solid, but Mangold is more exceptional, and gets less help from his teammates. Maurkice Pouncey (PIT) had his best season and would be my third choice.
Guard: Josh Sitton (GB), Marshal Yanda (BAL)
Last Year: Logan Mankins (NE), Andy Levitre (TEN)
Sitton was by far the best guard I saw this season, despite playing through a toe injury the second half of the season. He's solid in pass protection and dynamic in the run game. He remains one of the quickest guards in the league, his awareness is top-notch, and his positioning is exceptional. There's no one I'm crazy about for the second position. These things go through cycles, and right now the level of guard play around the league is not especially high. Yanda played well, but I don't see how anyone gets excited about him.
Offensive Tackle: Jason Peters (PHI), Joe Thomas (CLE)
Last Year: Jason Peters (PHI), Joe Staley (SF)
The level of tackle play has rebounded, just as the level of guard play has waned. Peters is athletic and particularly impressive in the run game, while Thomas is perhaps the best pass-blocker. Andrew Whitworth (CIN), Tyron Smith (DAL), and Staley also had nice years. There's no one I love at right tackle, but if you insist on one, I might choose Sebastian Vollmer (NE).
Defensive Tackle: Ndamukong Suh (DET), Aaron Donald (STL)
Last Year: Justin Smith (SF), Ndamukong Suh (DET)
A month ago, this looked like a tight race, three players battling for two spots: Marcell Dareus (BUF), Gerald McCoy (TB), and Suh. McCoy suffered a season-ending knee injury and missed the last 2½ games. Then Dareus injured a knee and missed the last 1½ games. That made Suh an obvious choice. He's a dirty player, who deserved a playoff suspension, but he's a disruptive force on the line.
In the other spot, Donald snuck past Dareus, McCoy, Corey Liuget (SD), Sheldon Richardson (NYJ), and Kyle Williams (BUF). Dareus led all interior linemen in sacks (10), but Donald, a rookie who didn't start until Week 5, came in second (9). Donald also ranked second in tackles for loss (18), behind only Suh, and his 2 forced fumbles tied for the most of any DT.
Defensive End: J.J. Watt (HOU), Calais Campbell (ARI)
Last Year: J.J. Watt (HOU), Robert Quinn (STL)
Watt is a terror. We'll discuss him in more depth as Defensive Player of the Year. Whom to pair with him was a difficult decision. Fletcher Cox (PHI) and Campbell, like Watt, move around on the line. It's debatable whether to list them as tackles or ends. Even though that role seldom lends itself to stats, they both made 48 tackles, tying for third-most among defensive linemen. Campbell had 16 tackles for loss, 7 sacks, a forced fumble, 3 pass deflections, and an interception. Cox had 4 sacks and 3 fumble recoveries, one of them returned for a touchdown.
Four other players got serious consideration: Jason Pierre-Paul (NYG), Mario Williams (BUF), Robert Quinn (STL), and Everson Griffen (MIN). All had 35-40 tackles, except JPP, with 53. All had double-digit sacks, led by Williams, 14.5. All had at least 13 tackles for loss, with Williams again the leader (19). Quinn had the most forced fumbles (5), while he and Pierre-Paul tied for most pass deflections (6). Purely on the stats, I dropped Griffen out of the group. Williams and Quinn benefitted enormously from their teammates. Buffalo had the best defensive line in the NFL this season, and absent the attention paid to players like Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams, Mario Williams would have faced a lot more double teams. Quinn was having a very quiet season until Aaron Donald was promoted to the starting lineup. He had no sacks in the first five games, and I don't want an all-pro who was shut down for a month of the season.
That left me with Pierre-Paul and Campbell. The Cardinals' defense took a lot of hits this season. Karlos Dansby left in free agency and Daryl Washington got suspended for the year. Darnell Dockett missed the season on injured reserve, Tyrann Mathieu was in and out of the lineup, and Patrick Peterson wasn't consistent. Yet with a punchless offense, that patched-together defense carried the team to an 11-5 finish and its first playoff appearance in five years. Campbell was the heart of the unit.
Outside Linebacker: DeAndre Levy (DET), Justin Houston (KC)
Last Year: Robert Mathis (IND), Lavonte David (TB)
This position really encompasses two distinct positions: pass rushers and space players. Most 3-4 OLBs are pass-rush specialists, comparable to defensive ends. Most 4-3 OLBs have a wider set of responsibilities, comparable to those of inside linebackers. In selecting an all-pro team, I generally look for one of each.
The pass rusher was easy this year. Houston led the NFL in sacks (22), ½-sack shy of Michael Strahan's official record. Houston also tied J.J. Watt for the most tackles (59) of anyone with more than six sacks, plus he had 4 forced fumbles and 5 pass deflections.
It was a two-way battle for the other spot, between Lavonte David and Levy. Neither one made the Pro Bowl, which is criminal. NFL.com's Gregg Rosenthal named Levy the biggest Pro Bowl snub of the year, and I agree with him. Here you have the guy with the most tackles in the NFL (117, far ahead of David's second-place 101), and he's a big-play guy: 16 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, a safety, an interception. Levy is among the best coverage LBs in the NFL: last year, he intercepted six passes, placing him among the league leaders at any position.
Inside Linebacker: Luke Kuechly (CAR), Bobby Wagner (SEA)
Last Year: Karlos Dansby (ARI), NaVorro Bowman (SF)
Everyone good got hurt. Dansby missed the second half of the season, and Bowman missed the whole season. Daryl Washington and Sean Lee missed the whole season. Derrick Johnson played one game. Patrick Willis, Jerod Mayo, Paul Posluszny, and DeMeco Ryans all missed the second half of the season. Wagner missed five games in the middle of the year. Chris Borland (SF) and Keenan Robinson (WAS) got injured and missed games at the end of the season.
I didn't want to choose Luke Kuechly. Earlier this year, I twice called him the most overrated player in the NFL. But there's no one left, and Kuechly played better in the last two months of the season than the first two. He made some impact plays down the stretch, and he was an easy choice.
I very nearly chose Clay Matthews (GB) in the other spot, as a cheap way around my lack of enthusiasm for the real ILBs. Matthews played outside almost exclusively for the first half of the season, and inside part-time at the end of the year. But Matthews can play both positions, and he's an impact player at both. He's got an instinct for the ball, he's effective in pass coverage, and of course, he's superb penetrating into the backfield. I considered Jamie Collins (NE), another guy who plays both inside and outside, for the same reason.
But that degree of cheating ruins the point of choosing inside and outside LBs, something I complained about last year, so I've got Bobby Wagner, missed games and all. The Seahawks played a lot better when he was in there. D'Qwell Jackson (IND), C.J. Mosley (BAL), and Daryl Smith (BAL) had good seasons, but not a level I consider all-pro.
Cornerback: Richard Sherman (SEA), Darrelle Revis (NE), Vontae Davis (IND)
Last Year: Richard Sherman (SEA), Alterraun Verner (TEN), Joe Haden (CLE)
Teams are scared of Revis and Sherman. In Week 1, the Packers stayed away from Sherman all game; he effectively took away half the field, and while he didn't win that game single-handedly, he came close. That Revis still defensed 14 passes, and Sherman got 4 interceptions, is remarkable. Both are also excellent tacklers.
Davis edged Brent Grimes (MIA), Joe Haden (CLE), Chris Harris (DEN), and Aqib Talib (DEN) for the nickel corner position. Davis ended the season with 2 forced fumbles, a fumble recovery, 4 INTs, and 19 passes defensed. The Indianapolis defense had the second-best third down percentage in the NFL (33%), and Davis was a big reason why.
Free Safety: Harrison Smith (MIN)
Last Year: Earl Thomas (SEA)
Glover Quin (DET) leads the NFL in interceptions; he'll probably get the most votes of any safety in the Associated Press balloting. I'm happy for him. I chose Quin two years ago, and it's always nice when you were among the first to catch on to a player. He's had a good year, and he's certainly part of Detroit's success this season.
But Smith was better. Quin intercepted 7 passes, and Smith intercepted 5. And hey, two INTs is not a trivial difference. But Smith had more tackles (72-57), more TFL (7-2), more sacks (3-0), more forced fumbles (1-0), more INT return yards (150-117), and more touchdowns (1-0). Other free safeties with standout seasons included Rashad Johnson (ARI) and Eric Weddle (SD).
Strong Safety: Antoine Bethea (SF)
Last Year: Eric Berry (KC)
San Francisco lost much of its celebrated linebacking corps to injury, but remained a top-10 defense by scoring, and top-five by yardage. Bethea, signed to replace Donte Whitner, stepped up to help the 49ers remain elite. He's an effective all-around safety, who plays the run and makes tackles, but who's also a factor in pass coverage, where he intercepted 4 throws, including one returned for a touchdown, and defensed a career-high 10 passes.
Mike Adams (IND) and James Ihedigbo (DET) were my runners-up.
Kicker: Matt Bryant (ATL)
Last Year: Stephen Gostkowski (NE)
I had four finalists: Bryant, Gostkowski, Dan Carpenter (BUF), and Adam Vinatieri (IND). That's two indoor kickers (Bryant and Vinatieri) and two cold-weather kickers (Gostkowski and Carpenter). Gostkowski led the NFL in field goals (35), but he only attempted one from 50 yards. Carpenter made 34 field goals, right behind Gostkowski, and he was 6/8 from 50 yards and beyond, including a 58-yard game winner in Week 5, giving the Bills a 17-14 lead with :04 left. But he missed four field goals (including the two 50-yarders) and an extra point. Between the two, I prefer Carpenter. He made more long field goals, and he missed fewer short ones (or equal, if you count the PAT).
Vinatieri went 15 games without missing a kick, and although he went wide left in Week 17, he still led the league in field goal percentage (30/31, 97%). Vinatieri was 3/3 from 50+. Bryant was perfect from inside 50, 22/22, and he led the NFL in 50-yard field goals, 7/10. One of the misses was blocked. That's a hell of a year.
Punter: Pat McAfee (IND)
Last Year: Mike Scifres (SD)
McAfee just won out among a group of three finalists, closely matched. Sam Koch (BAL) was the best outdoor punter this season. He led the NFL in net average (43.5), he only kicked four touchbacks, and he did a nice job limiting returns, especially by kicking toward the sidelines. Johnny Hekker (STL) was good in every area, but he particularly excelled at using hang time to prevent returns — over 1/3 of his punts were fair caught, the fourth-best FC% in the NFL. Hekker also completed two passes on fake punts, both for successful first downs.
McAfee had a great all-around year — good average, low return yardage — but he was especially distinguished by his work around the goal line. No punter this year was better at pinning opponents deep. Only three of McAfee's punts went for touchbacks, compared to 30 downed inside the 20-yard line, 10 of them inside the 10-yard line — including two at the opponents' 1-yard line. Creating negative field position for the opponent is a punter's most important job, and no one this season did that better than Pat McAfee.
Return Specialist: De'Anthony Thomas (KC)
Last Year: Cordarrelle Patterson (MIN)
Only two players this season returned multiple kicks for touchdowns: Darren Sproles (PHI) and Micah Hyde (GB). Neither one regularly returns kickoffs: they combined for just 5 KR, and Hyde averaged under one punt return per game, as well. Sproles led the NFL in punt return yardage, and he had the best average of anyone with at least 20 returns.
It's hard to find players who regularly return both kickoffs and punts. A regular returner should average at least 1½ returns per game, but only four players in the NFL met that average in both kickoff return and punt returns: Dwayne Harris, Jacoby Jones, Jarvis Landry, and Andre Roberts. None of them deserve serious consideration as all-pro returner, except maybe Jones. Harris had mediocre averages, no touchdowns, and four fumbled punt returns. Jones had four fumbles, too, and no one is worse about trying to return kicks from eight and nine yards deep in the end zone. Landry actually fumbled six returns this year; he's a poor punt returner. Roberts was below-average on both KRs and PRs, and he fair caught so often that Washington fans nicknamed him Andre Roberts El, after former returner Antwaan Randle El, who fair caught much more enthusiastically than he returned.
Among players who returned both kickoffs and punts, the best were Adam Jones (CIN) and Thomas. Both averaged over 30 yards per kickoff return, and 11.9 per punt return. Thomas maintained that average with no fair catches and no fumbles, while Jones had one of each, which is still excellent. Both returned kickoffs they should have touched back, which drives me crazy — Thomas got killed the last two games, four KRs stopped short of the 20 — but they made up for it with positive plays.
Thomas actually had a better year as a punt returner than Sproles. See if you can spot it in the numbers:
Sproles protected his average by fair catching punts he didn't think he could bust for a return, while Thomas looked for yardage every time. It doesn't count against his average, but Sproles had 16 return opportunities that produced zero yards. Thomas didn't care that his average went down on short returns; he was helping the team. Thomas edges Adam Jones, who had no return TDs this year, as my all-pro return specialist.
Special Teamer: Matthew Slater (NE)
Last Year: Matthew Slater (NE)
Slater has surpassed Kassim Osgood (SF) as the premier special teams ace in the NFL. Colt Anderson (IND), Justin Bethel (ARI), Darrell Stuckey (SD), and Eric Weems (ATL) also impressed me.
Six players repeat from my 2013 All-Pro team: Demaryius Thomas, Jason Peters, Ndamukong Suh, J.J. Watt, Richard Sherman, and Matt Slater.
Offensive Player of the Year: Aaron Rodgers (GB)
Last Year: Peyton Manning (DEN)
Close three-way race, with players who really stood out at their respective positions: Rodgers, Antonio Brown (PIT), and tight end Rob Gronkowski (NE). Associated Press voters like to give this to a running back, and I have little doubt that DeMarco Murray will win their award. Murray had a great year, but it was a normal great year. Some running back has a season like this every year. Murray wasn't distinctly better than LeSean McCoy in 2013, or Adrian Peterson in 2012, or Ray Rice in 2011, or Arian Foster in 2010, or Chris Johnson in 2009 — actually, he was clearly not as exceptional as Peterson or Johnson. Without taking anything away from the great RBs this season, they didn't stand out in a historical context.
Brown caught the 2nd-most passes in history (Marvin Harrison, 2002), with the 2nd-most receiving first downs of the 2000s (Calvin Johnson, 2012). He gained almost 1,700 yards, scored 13 receiving TDs, and he was a good punt returner, if you count that as offense. There have been six seasons by tight ends that produced 1,100 receiving yards and double-digit TDs. Two of the six are by Rob Gronkowski, and he's a good blocker.
So why Aaron Rodgers? He didn't lead the league in any of the major stats. Drew Brees and Ben Roethlisberger passed for the most yards, Andrew Luck and Peyton Manning threw more touchdowns, and Tony Romo had a higher passer rating. But when you put all that together — being near the top in every category — and then you factor in INTs and rushing and average yardage, Rodgers really stands out. It's easy to underrate him because of what Peyton Manning did last year; Rodgers didn't have that kind of season. But there have only been a very few seasons in which quarterbacks dominated like Rodgers. I believe he had the most exceptional season, both against his peers this year, and in historical context.
Defensive Player of the Year: J.J. Watt (HOU)
Last Year: Richard Sherman (SEA)
This should be unanimous. Watt led all defensive linemen in tackles, tackles for loss, sacks, fumble recoveries, and pass deflections. He also forced 4 fumbles, intercepted a pass, gained 139 return yards, scored 5 touchdowns and a safety, and blocked an extra point. It's one of the greatest seasons by any defensive player in history, and no one else this season was close.
Special Teams Player of the Year: Matt Bryant (ATL)
Last Year: Matthew Slater (NE)
No misses inside 50 yards, and led the league in 50-yard field goals. I don't want to dole out 7,000 awards, but if I named a Special Teams Rookie of the Year, I'd pick Cody Parkey (PHI), the kicker out of Auburn.
Most Valuable Player: J.J. Watt (HOU)
Last Year: Peyton Manning (DEN)
There were two serious candidates, Aaron Rodgers (GB) and Watt, and deciding between them was agonizing. If this was a pure "Player of the Year" award, I'd choose Watt without hesitation. And while I've always resisted the idea that these honors have to go an offensive player who handles the ball, I do believe that quarterbacks are the most important players on the field, the ones who have the most power to help or hurt their teams. A great QB does more for his team than a great defensive lineman.
But Watt is not just a great defensive lineman, he's outstanding, historic, from another planet.
I read somewhere, years ago, that regardless of voting, either Tom Brady or Peyton Manning was probably the most valuable player in the NFL every year from 2003-07. I think that's right. I voted for a couple of running backs in there, and I'm not sure that was the right call. That realization has framed my MVP voting ever since: I've chosen a quarterback every year. I had Rodgers typed in until the final draft of this piece, and I'm still not confident; he might be the best choice. I just can't overlook what Watt has done this season. I probably should have taken him two years ago, and I didn't. This year, J.J. Watt is my MVP.
A campaign built, in the final weeks of the season, for Tony Romo. He's a good player, and he had an outstanding season, but it's not at all clear that Romo is the most valuable player on his own team. What about DeMarco Murray? What about Dez Bryant? What about the best offensive line in the NFL? Romo only threw 435 passes this season, 23rd in the league. He passed for 700 yards fewer than Rodgers, 1,000 fewer than Manning, 1,200 behind Ben Roethlisberger. Romo was very efficient, but part of value is production, too, and Romo's production was low compared to the other top QBs. I don't find him a credible MVP candidate.
A similar problem limits my support for Roethlisberger. Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown were at least as outstanding at their respective positions as Ben was among QBs. If you ranked MVP candidates, there would probably be three Steelers in the top 10. Pittsburgh went 11-5, and you'd expect a team with three MVP candidates to win more games than that.
Offensive Rookie of the Year: Odell Beckham (NYG)
Last Year: Eddie Lacy (GB)
This was a great year for rookie guards and wide receivers. Zack Martin (DAL) and Joel Bitonio (CLE) both made immediate impressions on the offensive line, while Mike Evans (TB) and Kelvin Benjamin (CAR) had 1,000-yard receiving seasons, with Sammy Watkins (BUF) and Jordan Matthews (PHI) not too far behind. Either Evans or Jeremy Hill (CIN) would be my second choice; Hill rushed for 1,124 yards with a 5.06 average and 9 TDs.
But Beckham stands alone. Despite missing the first four games of the season with an injury, he caught 91 passes for 1,305 yards and 12 TDs, all top-10 marks. Beckham had seven 100-yard receiving games, tied with Julio Jones, Jordy Nelson, and Emmanuel Sanders for third-most in the league. He repeatedly made spectacular catches, including perhaps the greatest in history. This was the greatest season by a rookie receiver since Randy Moss.
Defensive Rookie of the Year: Aaron Donald (STL)
Last Year: Sheldon Richardson (NYJ)
Khalil Mack (OAK) would be my fourth choice, behind Donald, C.J. Mosley (BAL), and Chris Borland (SF). When I saw the Raiders this season, Mack didn't make an impression on me. Maybe I just saw him on the wrong nights, but the numbers back up my impression. Mack led the Raiders in ... nothing. On a 3-13 team that ranked dead last in points allowed, Mack ranked fourth in tackles (59), second in sacks (4), and nowhere in pass coverage (3 PD, 0 INT) or fumbles (1 FF, 0 FR). He did make 16 tackles for loss, which is excellent.
Mosley and Borland were better. Mosley led all rookies in tackles (89), with 3 sacks, 2 INTs, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery, and 8 PD. Borland began the year as a backup and ended on injured reserve, so he only started eight games. In a little more than half a season, he tallied 84 tackles, including 12 TFL and a sack, plus three takeaways (2 INT, 1 FR).
Aaron Donald saved the Rams' defense. A great unit last year, it struggled at the beginning of this season, allowing over 30 points in three of the first four games. Then Donald cracked the starting lineup, and St. Louis allowed an average of 19.6 ppg down the stretch. Donald led all rookies in sacks (9), even though he doesn't play an edge-rushing position, and he led in TFL (18). Donald made the most big plays of any rookie defender, and he created a ton of opportunities for teammates, notably Robert Quinn.
Coach of the Year: Bruce Arians (ARI)
Last Year: Andy Reid (KC)
Arians had this sewn up at least two weeks ago. He's the only candidate I seriously considered, and he will win the Associated Press vote easily. The Cardinals went 11-5 in a stacked division. They lost Carson Palmer, Andre Ellington, Darnell Dockett, and Daryl Washington, and they still ranked among the best teams in the league. Arians has consistently gotten his teams to overachieve.
Bill Belichick (NE) and Pete Carroll (SEA) did nice jobs keeping the boat steady, on teams that were expected to contend, and overcame early hurdles to do just that. The Patriots traded away their best offensive lineman and took the field without a lead RB or standout WRs, and they still secured the top seed in the AFC playoffs. The Seahawks lost half a dozen starters in free agency and parted ways with Percy Harvin midway through the season. Now they're Super Bowl favorites. Marvin Lewis (CIN) found new offensive and defensive coordinators this season, after both of his old ones got hired away as head coaches. He's headed for a fourth straight postseason. All those coaches did great, but Arians was the most outstanding.
Assistant Coach of the Year: Todd Haley (PIT)
Last Year: Mike Zimmer (CIN)
Tough call this year. Teryl Austin (DET) did a fine job in his first year coordinating the Lions' defense, and Darrell Bevell (SEA) has surely earned a head coaching gig, but this ultimately came down to Jim Schwartz (BUF) and a pair of Todds. Schwartz turned a good defensive line into a great defense, and Todd Bowles (ARI) worked wonders with the Cardinals' patched-together D. He'll be a hot head coaching candidate this offseason, for good reason.
But how can you overlook what Todd Haley has done in Pittsburgh? This was the team's highest-ranked offense (2nd in yards) since the '70s. The offensive line came together. Ben Roethlisberger had maybe his best season. Le'Veon Bell played at all-pro level. Antonio Brown pushed the record books. Haley took a lot of criticism when he initially replaced Arians, but his system is working.
2014 All-Pro Team
QB Aaron Rodgers, GB
RB Le'Veon Bell, PIT
FB Kyle Juszczyk, BAL
WR Antonio Brown, PIT
WR Demaryius Thomas, DEN
WR Julio Jones, ATL
TE Rob Gronkowski, NE
TE Greg Olsen, CAR
C Nick Mangold, NYJ
G Josh Sitton, GB
G Marshal Yanda, BAL
OT Jason Peters, PHI
OT Joe Thomas, CLE
DT Ndamukong Suh, DET
DT Aaron Donald, STL
DE J.J. Watt, HOU
DE Calais Campbell, ARI
OLB DeAndre Levy, DET
OLB Justin Houston, KC
ILB Luke Kuechly, CAR
ILB Bobby Wagner, SEA
CB Richard Sherman, SEA
CB Darrelle Revis, NE
CB Vontae Davis, IND
FS Harrison Smith, MIN
SS Antoine Bethea, SF
K Matt Bryant, ATL
P Pat McAfee, IND
KR De'Anthony Thomas, KC
ST Matthew Slater, NE
Off POY — Aaron Rodgers, GB
Def POY — J.J. Watt, HOU
ST POY — Matt Bryant, ATL
MVP — J.J. Watt, HOU
Off Rookie — Odell Beckham, NYG
Def Rookie — Aaron Donald, STL
Coach — Bruce Arians, ARI
Assistant — Todd Haley, PIT