Wednesday, January 3, 2018
Sports Central 2017 NFL All-Pro Team
With the 2017 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 12 players on offense and 13 on defense. Instead of a fullback, we name a third wide receiver and second tight end, both of which are more common formations. On defense, we accommodate all three base defenses (3-4, 4-3, and nickel) by listing three cornerbacks and three each of linebackers and interior linemen. Our choices are listed in order, so you'll know which receiver is third, which tight end is second, and so on. If you prefer 11 players on each side of the ball, it's easy to trim accordingly.
Please note that when I mention a defender's tackles, I am referring to solo tackles. It is the official position of this column that "assists" are baloney.
Quarterback: Philip Rivers (LAC)
Last Year: Matt Ryan (ATL)
In a year with no truly exceptional QB play, there were four candidates: Tom Brady (NE), Drew Brees (NO), Alex Smith (KC), and Rivers. Brady gained the most yards, first downs, and touchdowns. Brees averaged the most net yards per attempt. Smith had the highest passer rating, the best rushing production, and the fewest fumbles. Rivers was second in all of the categories Brady and Brees led, and he probably didn't have the same caliber of supporting cast. Any of the four would be a reasonable choice.
Rivers had two really bad games, against the Chiefs: 232 yds/gm, 1 TD, 6 INT, 42.9 rating, 4 sacks for 29 yards, no rushing. At a certain point, it doesn't matter whether you throw three interceptions or only two; the only way to hurt your team is not to take any chances. Rivers never gave up on a game, and his overall stats are dragged down by extraneous interceptions in games that were already out of hand. Those were his only games all season with a passer rating under 75; his rating was over 100 nine times, and 99.6 another. I think he did the most with the tools he was dealt.
There's a little more about quarterbacks in the MVP section near the end of this article.
Running Back: Todd Gurley (LAR)
Last Year: David Johnson (ARI)
Gurley sat out Week 17, losing the rushing title to Kareem Hunt (KC), but Gurley maintained the NFL leads for yards from scrimmage (2,093), rushing TDs (13), and total TDs (19). It was a Marshall Faulk type of season, with 788 receiving yards and almost 20 TDs, powering the league's top-scoring offense. Gurley has game-breaking speed, and excellent burst, so he reaches top speed quickly. He's got good vision, he's a good receiver, and he consistently falls forward. Alvin Kamara (NO) is electric, but with only 120 rushes and 728 rushing yards — 56% of Gurley's total — I don't believe he's an All-Pro yet.
Wide Receiver: Antonio Brown (PIT), DeAndre Hopkins (HOU), Keenan Allen (LAC)
Last Year: Mike Evans (TB), T.Y. Hilton (IND), Odell Beckham (NYG)
There are four wide receivers who deserve All-Pro recognition, and it was awful leaving off Julio Jones (ATL). Brown led the NFL in receiving yards and 100-yard receiving games, despite missing 2½ games. Hopkins had a heroic season playing with replacement-level quarterbacks, and led the league in receiving TDs. Allen led in receiving first downs.
I originally chose Jones over Allen, using a cheap tie-breaker: Jones barely missed my 2016 All-Pro team, too. But Julio was so inconsistent this year. He only had four 100-yard receiving games, compared to 8 for Brown, 7 for Allen, and 5 for Hopkins. Jones dropped a lot of passes this season, and he disappeared at times. He only scored in two games all year. He's a transcendent talent and a great player, but I think Allen had a better year.
Tight End: Rob Gronkowski (NE), Travis Kelce (KC)
Last Year: Greg Olsen (CAR), Travis Kelce (KC)
Obvious choices. Both are explosive, game-breaking receivers. They out-gained all other TEs by over 200 yards, gained the most first downs, and tied for the most TDs of any tight end.
Center: Alex Mack (ATL)
Last Year: Travis Frederick (DAL)
A three-man race, among Jason Kelce (PHI), Frederick, and Mack. All three are athletic run-blockers who consistently get ahead of the play, and all facilitated success by multiple rushers this season. Mack was the standout lineman for Atlanta's potent offense, which slipped a bit from last season but still led the league in third down percentage. I wouldn't argue with Kelce or Frederick. If there's a fourth player who deserves consideration, I suppose it might be Maurkice Pouncey (PIT), but I don't think he was as effective as the top centers from the NFC.
Guard: David DeCastro (PIT), Zack Martin (DAL)
Last Year: Zack Martin (DAL), David DeCastro (PIT)
DeCastro and Martin are both right guards, but they're the best in the NFL. Nobody was especially close to displacing either one from my All-Pro roster, but Shaquille Mason (NE), Kelechi Osemele (OAK), and Rodger Saffold (LAR) would probably come closest. Osemele might be my top left guard if you insist on dividing the position that way.
Offensive Tackle: Andrew Whitworth (LAR), Ryan Ramczyk (NO)
Last Year: David Bakhtiari (GB), Marcus Cannon (NE)
Last season, the Rams ranked dead last in both yards and scoring; this year they led the NFL in scoring. Todd Gurley's rushing average, going wide left, rose from 2.3 last season to 5.6 this year. Meanwhile, Whitworth's former team, the Bengals, dropped from 13th in yardage to 32nd. The Rams aren't light years better solely because of Whitworth, and the Bengals weren't so much worse just because he's gone, but he's a critical factor, a game-changing tackle. Ramczyk, the Saints' second-round pick, played every offensive snap this season, and came on really strong, especially in the second half of the season. He's got great technique and exceptional balance. The Saints allowed the second-fewest sacks in the NFL and sent two RBs to the Pro Bowl.
Several outstanding tackles missed too much time to make my All-Pro squad, including Lane Johnson (PHI), Tyron Smith (DAL), and Bakhtiari. I also considered Joe Staley (SF), whom I chose in 2012 and 2013. He's gotten lost in the mix a little bit because of the team's post-Harbaugh decline, but the 49ers' 5-0 finish with Jimmy Garoppolo helped Staley's talent to shine. He'd be my third tackle.
Note on defensive positions:
I have switched over from traditional position labels like Defensive Tackle and Outside Linebacker to descriptive categories: Interior Line, Edge Rusher, Linebacker, Cornerback, and Safety. I have mixed feelings about this. A rush linebacker like Jadeveon Clowney has more in common with 4-3 defensive ends than he does with 4-3 OLBs like Telvin Smith, but defensive ends stunt and go inside more often than LBs do, and drop into coverage less often. Some of the more versatile and dynamic 3-4 DEs, such as J.J. Watt, are hard to pin down as interior players or rushers. The new categories are perhaps more fair, but they're less clearly defined.
I've named three interior linemen, two edge rushers, three linebackers, and five defensive backs. That accommodates: 3-4 base defenses, which use three interior linemen; 4-3 base defenses, which use three linebackers; and nickel formations, which use five defensive backs. Ideally, 3-4 and 4-3 defenses would be equally represented, but I've just chosen the best players regardless of scheme; it may not balance out in a given season, but it does over time.
Interior Line: Aaron Donald (LAR), Cameron Heyward (PIT), Kawann Short (CAR)
Last Year: Aaron Donald (LAR), Calais Campbell (ARI)
Donald is all alone, the most disruptive lineman in football. He made 15 tackles for loss this season, tied a career high with 11 sacks, and forced 5 fumbles. After Donald, though, you have to draw fine distinctions. In addition to Heyward and Short, I considered Jurrell Casey (TEN), Fletcher Cox (PHI), Damon Harrison (NYG), Malik Jackson (JAX), and Linval Joseph (MIN). Apart from Donald, Heyward had the most sacks (12) and TFL (16) of any interior lineman, Harrison made the most tackles (51), Chris Jones (KC) deflected the most passes (7), and Jackson and Jones forced the most fumbles (4).
Heyward was the most dominant and impactful 3-4 DE, the leading pass rusher for the team that led the NFL in sacks. Short is disruptive, commanding double teams and knifing into the backfield. Some analysts will argue that I've undersold Harrison, perhaps because run defense is undervalued and pass rushing is overvalued. That's possible. But the Giants ranked 27th in rush defense and allowed more yards per carry than league average. They ranked 31st in yards allowed, 28th in points allowed, tied for 23rd in takeaways, and tied for 29th in sacks. Part of that is because the Giants don't have any linebackers, but Harrison isn't exactly surrounded by chumps. Landon Collins is an All-Pro candidate, Janoris Jenkins can play, and Jason Pierre-Paul and Olivier Vernon demand plenty of attention up front. Maybe I'm wrong, but I believe that if Snacks were really the best DT this side of Donald, the team's defensive performance should have reflected it more clearly.
Edge Rusher: Calais Campbell (JAX), Cameron Jordan (NO)
Last Year: Von Miller (DEN), Khalil Mack (OAK), Cameron Wake (MIA)
This position — or role, or whatever — is so loaded right now. There are a dozen rush specialists who have had All-Pro caliber seasons, and it's a shame to choose only two among them. In the interest of brevity, the others I considered were (in alphabetical order): Joey Bosa (LAC), Jadeveon Clowney (HOU), Brandon Graham (PHI), Everson Griffen (MIN), Melvin Ingram (LAC), Chandler Jones (ARI), Demarcus Lawrence (DAL), Mack, Miller, and Yannick Ngakoue (JAX). I would hate for anyone to think I disrespect those players or don't appreciate their fantastic seasons.
Jordan is the first player with double-digit sacks and double-digit pass deflections since J.J. Watt in 2014, when he was unanimously selected as Defensive Player of the Year. Campbell had 14.5 sacks, 3 forced fumbles, and a fumble recovery for a touchdown. But his contribution to the Jaguars was more than the sum of the plays he made; Campbell, along with A.J. Bouye, transformed the Jaguars into an elite defense. Last year, they ranked 6th in yardage but 25th in scoring and second-to-last in takeaways. This year, they were 2nd in all three categories, a remarkable improvement. Campbell set the tone. This is the 5th time I've chosen Campbell as an All-Pro; it's long overdue that his reputation is catching up to his consistently excellent performance.
Linebacker: Bobby Wagner (SEA), Telvin Smith (JAX), Luke Kuechly (CAR)
Last Year: Bobby Wagner (SEA), Kwon Alexander (TB), Thomas Davis (CAR)
Wagner, a DPOY candidate, did everything. He tied for the NFL lead in tackles (97), with 1.5 sacks, a safety, 6 passes defensed, 2 interceptions, a fumble recovery, and a touchdown. Smith, criminally underrated and a Pro Bowl snub, had 76 tackles, a sack, 5 PD, 3 INT, a forced fumble, 2 fumble recoveries, 108 return yards, and 2 TDs, plus a blocked extra point. A cornerback with 5 takeaways, 108 return yards, and 2 TDs would probably make the Pro Bowl, but Smith was also the leading tackler on the league's second-best defense.
There were three close calls here: Lavonte David (TB), Deion Jones (ATL), and C.J. Mosley (BAL). David forced and recovered 5 fumbles. Jones is probably the fastest LB in the league, and maybe the best in pass defense. Mosley had perhaps the best stats of any LB, but I don't think he was quite as dominant as the three I chose. He'd be my fourth choice. Ryan Shazier (PIT) probably would have found a spot if he'd been healthy all season.
Cornerback: A.J. Bouye (JAX), Casey Hayward (LAC), Patrick Peterson (ARI)
Last Year: Malcolm Butler (NE), Aqib Talib (DEN), Chris Harris (DEN)
I had six finalists: Bouye, Hayward, Peterson, Marshon Lattimore (NO), Jalen Ramsey (JAX), and Darius Slay (DET). Last year, Bouye was a shutdown corner for Houston. The Jaguars snagged him in free agency, and the Texans — who allowed the fewest yards of any team in 2016 — gave up the most points of any team in 2017. Hayward remains a dangerous ballhawk even as teams increasingly try to stay away from him; he had six takeaways this season. I don't think any CB is more feared and respected right now than Peterson.
Safety: Harrison Smith (MIN), Kevin Byard (TEN)
Last Year: Landon Collins (NYG), Eric Berry (KC)
Byard led the NFL in takeaways (8 INT, 2 FR), and he plays the run well. Smith does everything. He had 7 TFL and 5 INT; he makes plays at the line and he's a monster in coverage. Smith is part of the Incredible Defensive Draft of 2012, which also includes Luke Kuechly, Bobby Wagner, Fletcher Cox, Casey Hayward, Lavonte David, and Josh Norman. It's much too early for confident projections about 6-year veterans, but I'd be surprised if that draft doesn't produce at least three Hall of Famers on defense. That doesn't even get into Chandler Jones and Dontari Poe, who have made multiple Pro Bowls, or a dozen other promising talents. I don't think the '12 draft will produce 6 defensive HOFers like the 1981 draft did (Kenny Easley, Rickey Jackson, Howie Long, Ronnie Lott, Mike Singletary, and Lawrence Taylor), but it looks like an even better defensive draft than 2003, which yielded Troy Polamalu, Lance Briggs, Terrell Suggs, Terence Newman, and Kevin Williams.
Reshad Jones (MIA) is a tackling machine; he also had five takeaways and two TDs this season. He'd be my third choice, and the best pure strong safety of 2017.
Kicker: Steven Hauschka (BUF)
Last Year: Justin Tucker (BAL)
Three finalists: Matt Bryant (ATL) representing players who kick in favorable conditions, plus Hauschka and Tucker representing more challenging conditions. Robbie Gould (SF) led the NFL in field goals, but he only made two kicks from beyond 50 yards, and none past 52, and he missed two extra points (one blocked).
I'll start with a cross-condition comparison: Bryant and Tucker. On the surface, it's an easy call for Tucker. He went 34-of-37 on field goals, compared to 34-of-39 for Bryant, and they were both perfect on extra points, but Tucker made more, 39-35. Hang on. Bryant made more field goals of at least 50 yards (8-5), more from at least 45 yards (14-13), and more from at least 40 yards (17-16). Two of his misses were blocked, compared to one for Tucker. I still think Tucker had the better season, given the weather he played in, but it's less straightforward than a glance at the stats might imply.
My final choice came down to Hauschka and Tucker. Tucker made more kicks: 34 field goals and 39 extra points, versus 29 of each for Hauschka. Neither of them missed from inside 40 yards, and that's where Tucker has a volume edge; is 18/18 a big advantage compared to 15/15? At that range, no. So what about the really long stuff? Hauschka made four field goals of at least 55 yards, compared to two for Tucker. Hauschka made seven field goals of at least 50 yards, compared to five for Tucker. I prioritize difficult kicks over opportunity; Tucker didn't have a better season than Hauschka just because the Ravens stalled in the red zone a bunch of times. Hauschka was the more productive kicker at range, and more of his field goals led to close wins; he's my All-Pro.
Punter: Rigoberto Sanchez (IND)
Last Year: Johnny Hekker (LAR)
I had three serious candidates: Hekker, Sanchez, and Chris Jones (DAL). They're all good choices. Hekker had the best average in the trio, but he was also the least effective pinning opponents deep, and he got the most help from his coverage team.
Sanchez had a punt blocked in Week 8, which wasn't his fault, and if you omit that his net average (43.1) was nearly as good as Hekker's (44.3). Hekker had to work with a short field more often, which depressed his average, but Sanchez had 15 punts down inside the 10-yard line, with only 3 touchbacks (5:1). Hekker had 9 punts inside the 10, with 4 touchbacks (2.25:1). Sanchez forced 27 fair catches, compared to 12 for Hekker, and had one of his best games in the worst NFL weather of 2017, Week 14 at Buffalo.
Return Specialist: Pharoh Cooper (LAR)
Last Year: Tyreek Hill (KC)
If you prefer separate kickoff and punt returners, go with Cooper over Tyler Lockett (SEA) on KRs, and Jamal Agnew (DET) in a runaway on PRs. I chose Cooper over Agnew because he was the league's best kickoff returner, plus a good punt returner: 2nd in yards and average, with a really low fair catch percentage (20%). Agnew was an ineffective kickoff man (11 KR, 17.8 avg), and his advantage over Cooper on punts was not significant enough to compensate.
Special Teamer: Rontez Miles (NYJ)
Last Year: Josh Robinson (TB)
Miles stole this with a monster Week 17 featuring four solo tackles on special teams. Other high graders included Budda Baker (ARI), Derrick Coleman (ATL), Austin Ekeler (LAC), Justin Hardee (NO), and Matthew Slater (NE).
Six players repeat from my 2016 All-Pro team: Travis Kelce, David DeCastro, Zack Martin, Aaron Donald, Calais Campbell, and Bobby Wagner.
Offensive Player of the Year: Todd Gurley (LAR)
Last Year: Julio Jones (ATL)
A three-way competition among the best running back (Todd Gurley), best wide receiver (Antonio Brown), and best tight end (Rob Gronkowski). Playing time isn't a major issue: Gurley rested in Week 17, Brown missed the last 2½ games with an injury, and Gronk missed one game with an injury and another on suspension. They're all game-breaking talents, but I think Gurley may have been the most outstanding this season. He led the league in yards from scrimmage by over 300 and in touchdowns by 36%.
Defensive Player of the Year: Aaron Donald (LAR)
Last Year: Landon Collins (NYG)
This was a really tough decision, with Bobby Wagner (SEA) and Harrison Smith (MIN) also in the mix. I think Donald is the least-replaceable defensive player in the league right now, the tone-setter up front and a uniquely disruptive force in opposing backfields. I don't like having Rams as my Players of the Year on both sides of the ball, but they did go 11-5 and outscore opponents by 149 points, tied for 3rd-best in the NFL this year.
Special Teams Player of the Year: Rigoberto Sanchez (IND)
Last Year: Justin Tucker (BAL)
As a punting connoisseur, what Sanchez accomplished this season was actually fun for me. Sanchez is a rookie, and if the Colts have any sense — which is not apparent — they'll hold onto this kid for a long time.
Most Valuable Player: Todd Gurley (LAR)
Last Year: Matt Ryan (ATL)
I understand the sentiment that a quarterback should always win MVP. Quarterback is the most important position in football, and I believe it's rare that a non-QB could really be the most valuable player in the league. Rare, but not impossible. No quarterback had a great season in 2017. Some readers will be familiar with my stat-based QB rating system, QB-TSP. No quarterback this season had 2,000 TSP. Alex Smith led the league with an era-adjusted score of 1,983, almost 100 points ahead of second-place Tom Brady. 2,000 is the basic standard for a great season, a second-team All-Pro kind of season. Except in very unusual circumstances, it's not an MVP-type season.
Brady is the safe, conservative pick. He's a historic player who had a very good season for the winningest team in the league; I'm confident I would never regret that pick, look back and feel embarrassed about the year I picked a chump who got lucky as MVP. But I don't think Brady was quite the best QB this season, and he relies so heavily on Rob Gronkowski's game-breaking impact.
I came back to Gurley because his best games came in critical situations. Heading into Week 4, the Rams were 2-1, beating the Colts and 49ers and losing to Washington. They went into Dallas and beat the Cowboys 35-30, with Gurley gaining 215 yards from scrimmage. It was a statement game that made people — probably including quite a few inside the locker room — believe in the Rams. At the end of the season, Gurley had his way against the Seahawks in the final battle for the NFC West, rushing for 144 yards and 3 touchdowns before halftime. The following week, in a come-from-behind fourth quarter victory, Gurley provided 276 yards. This might be a choice I'll disagree with myself on somewhere down the line — if I could go back to 2005 and name Peyton Manning MVP instead of Tiki Barber, I would — but I think Gurley did the most for his team in the most critical moments.
Offensive Rookie of the Year: Alvin Kamara (NO)
Last Year: Ezekiel Elliott (DAL)
Kareem Hunt (KC) led the NFL in rushing, but Kamara gained over 700 yards as both a rusher and receiver, and scored 14 TDs, including a KR TD. He was dynamite, averaging six yards per carry and looking untouchable for most of November and December. JuJu Smith-Schuster (PIT) had a great season as well, with 917 receiving yards and a 96-yard KR TD. Smith-Schuster led the NFL in yards per target (11.5) and first downs per target (0.49). Offensive linemen never get considered for this award, but Ryan Ramczyk (NO) had an awfully nice debut.
Defensive Rookie of the Year: Marshon Lattimore (NO)
Last Year: Deion Jones (ATL)
Lattimore rejuvenated the Saints' defense. New Orleans' ranks for yards allowed and points allowed — 2014: 28th and 31st, 2015: 32nd and 31st, 2016: 31st and 27th, 2017: 10th and 17th. Almost single-handedly, Lattimore transformed the Saints from one of the league's worst defenses into an above-average unit. He ranked in the top 10 in passes defensed, intercepted 5 passes, and scored a touchdown. Fellow cornerback Tre'Davious White (BUF) also had a terrific rookie season, featuring 6 takeaways, 138 return yards, and a TD. Eddie Jackson (CHI), who gained 151 return yards and scored 2 TDs in Week 7, flashed dynamic play-making ability, and Budda Baker (ARI), who made the Pro Bowl as a special teamer, looks like a future Pro Bowler at safety as well. Adoree' Jackson (TEN) showed promise.
Rookie defensive backs dominated in 2017, but Myles Garrett (CLE), Carl Lawson (CIN), and T.J. Watt (PIT) also impressed.
Coach of the Year: Sean McVay (LAR)
Last Year: Jack Del Rio (OAK)
Let's start by acknowledging that my last Coach of the Year got fired on Monday. Bill Belichick (NE) could win every year and it would never be a poor selection. Doug Pederson (PHI), Mike Tomlin (PIT), and Mike Zimmer (MIN) all helmed 13-3 teams that overcame significant challenges. Doug Marrone (JAX) turned around a team that had six straight seasons of 5-11 or worse, leading them to a 10-6 record and a division title.
With so many fine possibilities, I thought about getting cute here, but McVay is the front-runner with good cause. The Rams went 4-12 last year and lost seven in a row to end the season, including three by at least 28 points. They scored the fewest points in the NFL. This year, they scored the most points in the NFL, nearly tripled their win total, and clinched their division with a week left to go. McVay and his staff not only coached effectively with regard to preparation and play calling, they completely changed the team culture in a remarkably brief time.
Assistant Coach of the Year: George Edwards (MIN)
Last Year: Kyle Shanahan (ATL)
Josh McDaniels (NE) has sort of the same problem Peyton Manning's coaches often did, that credit gets deflected to his quarterback and/or head coach. It's hard to know how much of the brilliance is McDaniels' and how much of it is reflected by the stars around him. Another offensive coordinator, Matt LaFleur (LAR), who was Matt Ryan's quarterbacks coach last year, helped Jared Goff and Todd Gurley achieve remarkable turnarounds in 2017. The Vikings' Pat Shurmur (MIN) overcame the loss of his top two QBs and starting running back; his offensive line coach, former Dolphins HC Tony Sparano (MIN), made lemonade out of a unit that looked like lemons coming into the season. Matt Nagy (KC) is a hot head-coaching candidate after the Chiefs' offensive awakening in 2017.
Defensively, I like Keith Butler (PIT) and Wade Phillips (LAR), but I have trouble getting past Edwards. Minnesota led the NFL in fewest points allowed and fewest yards allowed, the first team to do so since the 2013-2014 Seattle Seahawks. The Vikings held opponents to 51 third down conversions all season, about three per game. Their 25% conversion rate allowed was the lowest by miles (Denver, 32%), actually the lowest third down conversion percentage by any defense since the league has recorded the stat (1991-present). It's a historic achievement.
2017 All-Pro Team
QB Philip Rivers, LAC
RB Todd Gurley, LAR
WR Antonio Brown, PIT
WR DeAndre Hopkins, HOU
WR Keenan Allen, LAC
TE Rob Gronkowski, NE
TE Travis Kelce, KC
C Alex Mack, ATL
G David DeCastro, PIT
G Zack Martin, DAL
OT Andrew Whitworth, LAR
OT Ryan Ramczyk, NO
DL Aaron Donald, LAR
DL Cameron Heyward, PIT
DL Kawann Short, CAR
ER Calais Campbell, JAX
ER Cameron Jordan, NO
LB Bobby Wagner, SEA
LB Telvin Smith, JAX
LB Luke Kuechly, CAR
CB A.J. Bouye, JAX
CB Casey Hayward, LAC
CB Patrick Peterson, ARI
S Harrison Smith, MIN
S Kevin Byard, TEN
K Steven Hauschka, BUF
P Rigoberto Sanchez, IND
RS Pharoh Cooper, LAR
ST Rontez Miles, NYJ
Off POY — Todd Gurley, LAR
Def POY — Aaron Donald, LAR
ST POY — Rigoberto Sanchez, IND
MVP — Todd Gurley, LAR
Off Rookie — Alvin Kamara, NO
Def Rookie — Marshon Lattimore, NO
Coach — Sean McVay, LAR
Assistant — George Edwards, MIN