All-Pro and Pro Bowl teams are meaningful because of what they indicate, not because of what they create. Nobody actually cares about going to the Pro Bowl. You know that. I know that. We all see just how little players care about the game itself during those five minutes of the Pro Bowl we tune into before realizing it’s the Pro Bowl and finding something else to do. Pay close enough attention and you’ll see the electorate vote for guys who were benched for poor play (like Jeff Saturday or Brandon Meriweather) or for players on scholarship (Andre Gurode). It’s brutal.
Where all this does matter is in terms of a player’s legacy. Pro Bowl appearances and All-Pro teams are probably our best way to determine what the vast majority of people thought about a player during the run of his career. Saturday might not have been a Pro Bowl–caliber player last year, but he didn’t make it to a tropical locale six times (and to the All-Pro team twice) by total fluke. Likewise, it says a lot about the possible Hall of Fame candidacy of somebody like Charles Tillman that he has only managed to make it to two Pro Bowls (and one All-Pro team) so far in his career.
I don’t have a vote in those matters, but as somebody who watches as much football as humanly possible, I naturally give a lot of thought to the best players at each position, and that naturally lends itself to putting together an All-Pro team. There is still one week of games left, but it would take a lot for me to move somebody off of or onto this team based on one week of performance. There are various roster constructions for the three different All-Pro teams that get produced each offseason, so I’m going to build the team in a way that makes sense to me: 11 guys on each side. No automatic spot on the team for a fullback. It has 3-4 defensive ends going up against 4-3 defensive tackles and 4-3 ends going against 3-4 outside linebackers.
As you might suspect, the team starts with the most obvious choice of all:
Peyton Manning, Broncos
Manning will surely make his seventh appearance as the first-team All-Pro quarterback in the real awards when they’re released; that would make him the first quarterback so honored since Otto Graham, who was pulling off that feat in a 12-team league. He will also become the first five-time NFL MVP when nobody else has won more than three trophies. He is the most decorated individual player in NFL history, and at 37, he just had his best season. All that’s left for him to figure out at this point is how to make his forehead not turn red after taking off his helmet. We are downright blessed to watch him play.
Second Team: Russell Wilson, Seahawks
Jamaal Charles, Chiefs
LeSean McCoy, Eagles
Doesn’t it seem weird that there’s no nickname for Charles at this point? Most running backs at least have some nickname slapped on them by the time they hit their peak. The closest Charles has come is some knockoff fast guy/big guy stuff back when he was teamed up with Thomas Jones in 2010. Not only has one never stuck, it feels like it has never been attempted. In any case, he’s the best running back in football, and in the list of reasons why the Chiefs have scored the sixth-most points in football, he’s no. 1, the field position provided by the defense is no. 2, and there’s a pit of despair before you get to no. 3.
That being said, if you wanted to make a case that Shady McCoy has been a better back this year, it wouldn’t be impossible. McCoy has averaged marginally more yards per carry than Charles has over 28 additional carries. Charles has more receptions and receiving yards than McCoy, but that has required more plays: Charles has caught 67 percent of the passes thrown to him and averaged 9.9 yards per catch, while McCoy has caught 82 percent of the passes thrown in his direction and picked up 10.5 yards per reception. Charles has nobody around him, but are Alex Smith and Dwayne Bowe really that much more fancied than Nick Foles and DeSean Jackson? Their production has been about equal. I guess you can make the case that McCoy’s playing in Chip Kelly’s system, but he’s been significantly more effective than backup Bryce Brown, and he was a success in Andy Reid’s system, too …
Second Team: Adrian Peterson, Vikings; DeMarco Murray, Cowboys
Calvin Johnson, Lions
Josh Gordon, Browns
The only skill-position player who I think would really get much argument as an obvious pick (homer fans aside) is Gordon, and that’s only because his national profile hasn’t yet caught up to his level of performance. He leads the league in receiving yards and is 152 ahead of anybody not named Calvin Johnson, and that’s despite missing the first two games because of suspension while spending virtually his entire season catching passes from Brandon Weeden and Jason Campbell. Gordon is averaging 120.3 receiving yards per game, and the only player to top that figure since the merger in a non-strike season is Johnson in 2012. Yes, the Browns are force-feeding him the ball, as only Andre Johnson and Pierre Garcon have more targets per game. You know what, though? He’s being force-fed the ball by Weeden and Campbell. If you can still approach rare receiving heights with those guys at the helm, you’re probably pretty good.
Megatron is Megatron.
Second Team: A.J. Green, Bengals; Antonio Brown, Steelers
Jimmy Graham, Saints
With the seemingly perpetually injured Rob Gronkowski sidelined by a torn ACL, Aaron Hernandez in jail, and Tony Gonzalez retiring, the ranks below Graham at tight end are rapidly dissipating. Graham also played a couple of games below 100 percent this season, but his injuries over the past few years have been more of the nagging type. And after Graham, there’s … Jason Witten? Vernon Davis? Graham was the fourth-most valuable player in fantasy football this year in terms of value-based drafting. You can probably make a reasonable case he should be a top-five pick in drafts next year, assuming that he’s still on the Saints roster. Sure, he might be a wideout in tight ends’ clothes. At this point, though, the position could use the help.
Second Team: Vernon Davis, 49ers
Tyron Smith, Cowboys
Joe Staley, 49ers
Having spent his first two professional seasons dealing with distressing family issues, it seems impossible that Smith could have played as well as he did during that time. Now, having turned 23 just two weeks ago, Smith is in the running to be called the best offensive lineman in football. He gets some help from Tony Romo, but it would be generous to describe anybody else on his offensive line as average. STATS credits Smith with just four penalties and 1.5 sacks allowed this year.
Staley has spent the year battling injuries, but he hasn’t missed a game or seen his play slip from its previous elite level. I can’t think of a tackle in the league who does a better job of getting to the second level after chipping on a combo block than Staley, which is what helps create so many of those big runs for Frank Gore and the 49ers. He has also committed just two penalties all season, which is close to impossible for a left tackle, let alone one who plays in the (pass) pressure cooker of the NFC West.
Second Team: Trent Williams, Redskins; Joe Thomas, Browns
Logan Mankins, Patriots
Josh Sitton, Packers
Mankins is currently getting some extra attention by virtue of the Patriots moving him from left guard to left tackle after starter Nate Solder went down with a concussion two weeks ago. You can count on one hand the number of left guards in the league who could make that move without drowning. Mankins was a tackle at Fresno State before moving inside as a pro, during which he’s been the consummate Bill Belichick player: versatile, physical, and angry. The Patriots have had to lean on their running game to manufacture yards this year because of receiver issues, and Mankins has been the guy who has made that possible. The Patriots are second in Adjusted Line Yards behind left tackle and tops in the league in runs to the middle of the line, which are the two areas where Mankins would have the most noticeable impact.
Sitton is seemingly the one constant on a Packers offensive line that is annually riddled with injuries, as he has missed just two games since becoming a starter in 2009. His play hasn’t dropped despite moving from right guard to left guard, and he has helped keep rookie left tackle David Bakhtiari solvent during an uneven campaign for the fourth-round pick. Sitton also attributes his ability to stay on the field to beer and pizza, which is enough to vote him onto the All-Pro team of my heart.
Second Team: David DeCastro, Steelers; Evan Mathis, Eagles
Ryan Kalil, Panthers
One of the quiet reasons why the Panthers have been better this year has been the return of their star center. Kalil missed 11 games last season with a Lisfranc fracture, and his presence is unquestionably one of the reasons why Ron Rivera is so comfortable going for it on fourth downs. It’s also hard to argue that he gets a lot of help; Kalil is playing alongside left guard Travelle Wharton, who didn’t attract any offers this offseason and signed with Carolina in September, and second-year undrafted free agent Nate Chandler at right guard. Carolina’s ability to run in the interior is built upon Kalil’s shoulders.
Second Team: Alex Mack, Browns
Defensive Ends/Edge Rushers
Robert Mathis, Colts
Robert Quinn, Rams
I think Quinn would be a shoo-in for Defensive Player of the Year if he wore a Colts jersey. As is, he still might win anyway. He’s not all that dissimilar a player from Mathis; they both have ample athleticism, a preternatural ability to get underneath a retreating tackle from impossible angles, and uncanny timing for getting to the quarterback right as he’s about to hand the ball to them on a silver platter. On the podcast, Robert Mays and I both compared Quinn to a rich man’s Osi Umenyiora (or, better put, a younger, better Osi Umenyiora). Mathis is a little smarter than Quinn. It would be easy to say that he has lost a half-step but gained the knowledge to make more out of the steps he still has, but I watch him go around the corner at 32 and it doesn’t look much different from how it looked at 23. Mathis is also playing in a front seven with average-or-worse players around him (besides Jerrell Freeman), while Quinn plays with several star-caliber talents in his front seven. It’s an awfully close call picking between these two. I’m happy I don’t have to for this team.
Second Team: Greg Hardy, Panthers; Mario Williams, Bills
Interior Defensive Linemen
J.J. Watt, Texans
Muhammad Wilkerson, Jets
The numbers are down for Watt — he’ll need a half-sack in Week 17 to make double digits for the year, and he has knocked down just six passes after batting 16 a year ago — but the impact is far from gone. He’s still a wrecking ball who makes professional offensive linemen look like college walk-ons. Watt still spends enough time in the backfield that he can actually claim it as a residence on his tax returns. He just doesn’t have the output that screams unholy freak terror like he did a year ago. That regression was always going to happen. That he’s still this good is one of the few bright spots Texans fans can take away from 2013.
Wilkerson is not quite at the same level as Watt, but he’s pretty clearly the best player on the league’s best run defense. (Go ahead and fire Rex Ryan.) Wilkerson’s ability to fire through gaps allows him to make weekly plays in the backfield and irreparably alter running plays that quickly become losses. His ability to disrupt blocking schemes and hold his own at the line of scrimmage creates opportunities for the likes of David Harris to clean up behind him. Wilkerson is that rarest of creatures: an underrated player from a New York team.
Second Team: Calais Campbell, Cardinals; Jurrell Casey, Titans
Lavonte David, Buccaneers
Vontaze Burfict, Bengals
The 4-3 outside linebacker is quite possibly the league’s most underappreciated position. David and Burfict do a lot to change that. David has been tattooed with the memory of that “late hit” on Geno Smith that cost the Buccaneers their opening game of the season, but he could have carried Smith into the end zone on his shoulders for a game-winning touchdown in Week 1 and still made this team. David’s downright unblockable at times; not because of his brute strength or because he’s an irresistible force, but because he’s just so freaking gifted. He seems to create space for himself on every single play and find ways to spring himself into a clear path to the ball carrier without being bothered. If Xavi were a linebacker, he would be Lavonte David.
Burfict is, I dunno, Ravel Morrison? Burfict has fewer plays where he seems to vanish off the field and then suddenly reappear in front of the ball carrier than David, but he also has the freakish range and speed to do just about anything he wants. Burfict is channeled talent and aggression mixed with a much-deserved chip on his shoulder. You hear guys who get passed up in the draft talk about how they want to take it out on the other 31 teams. Burfict plays like that on every snap.
Second Team: Thomas Davis, Panthers; DeAndre Levy, Lions
Luke Kuechly, Panthers
Luke Kuechly IS Ray Lewis. Like, he’s Ray Lewis to the extent that I’m genuinely concerned about the identity of the guy who does Monday Night Football coverage for ESPN. How did they regenerate him at 22? One other way Lewis compares to Kuechly: Lewis had a habit of producing his best performances in big games, and Kuechly has been enormous in Carolina’s key wins this year, notably its victory over the Saints last week. I wouldn’t go crazy over tackle numbers — they’re inflated by official scorers, and Kuechly’s 26 tackles included plenty of “assists,” which suggests it would have been more like 18 tackles if the Panthers had been playing a road game — but his tape from that game compares favorably to the work of any one player in any one game this year. If you redid the 2012 draft today, Kuechly would be the third pick behind Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson. He’s that good.
Second Team: NaVorro Bowman, 49ers
Patrick Peterson, Cardinals
Richard Sherman, Seahawks
I don’t really understand how Peterson is underrated, but he is. He doesn’t have quite as high of a profile after having the best return season in league history as a rookie, but put it this way: In 2012, the Cardinals had the league’s second-best pass defense. They had Peterson guarding the opposing team’s top wideout on most snaps. After the season, they let their three other starters in the secondary leave in free agency. In 2013, the Cardinals have had … the league’s third-best pass defense. Doesn’t that tell you something about how freakishly good Peterson is?
Sherman has the reputation as the best cornerback in football, and it’s not undeserved. He’s a dominant physical presence and is known as a playmaker, thanks to his league-leading 16 interceptions over the past two seasons. (The only other corners in double digits are Tim Jennings, who gives up as many big plays as he allows, and Peterson, who doesn’t.) The only knock on Sherman is that he might not even be the best player in his own secondary.
Second Team: Aqib Talib, Patriots; Alterraun Verner, Titans
Earl Thomas, Seahawks
Eric Weddle, Chargers
I don’t know what else Thomas could do to get better, to be honest. He hasn’t acquired a second starter for the Mariners or restarted the Sub Pop Singles Club yet. It’s still too early to start figuring out which freeway the city should name after him, but not by much. He’s basically a perfect football player.
Weddle is a great player mired amid a pretty awful secondary. San Diego’s lack of a pass rush has kept the team’s defensive backs trapped in coverage for far too long this year, but Weddle has done an admirable job of holding up while chipping in with his fantastic instincts as a run defender. Now, if the Chargers can just work on the other 10 spots …
Second Team: Devin McCourty, Patriots; Jairus Byrd, Bills
Justin Tucker, Ravens
What, you were expecting anybody else?
Second Team: Stephen Gostkowski, Patriots
Johnny Hekker, Rams
St. Louis has had the most productive punting unit of any team in football; Football Outsiders estimates that the Rams have produced 18.1 points of field position from punts over their first 15 games, which is 6.5 points better than any other team. Hekker’s punts have produced an average of 43.8 net yards, more than any other punter. Some of that is his coverage team, but much of it is what Hekker has managed to pull off for the Rams.
Second Team: Andy Lee, 49ers