Two days. That’s all we have from right now until the NFL season begins. Yes, that’s hard to believe, but don’t worry, it’s true. Actual, real, live football is almost back, and to celebrate the return of the often horrible yet often great world of the NFL, we’re presenting you with the best the league has to offer. For some of these players, it’s all about football. For others, it’s all about peppermints. But the one thing that all of these guys have in common is that they each make Sunday the best day there is. Here are your 2015 NFL Triangle All-Stars.
Quarterback: Philip Rivers, San Diego Chargers
We’ve reached a point where not a single thing that Rivers does should surprise anyone. That includes the occasional post-play or sideline tantrum, but it also involves what he can do with a football. Rivers is the only quarterback in the league to whom the laws of physics don’t seem to matter. Aaron Rodgers isn’t human, but he still makes all the ridiculous throws with his body. Rivers seems like he can actually bend the ball with his mind.
He’s also among the most fearless quarterbacks we have. That tends to get him in trouble, but it also allows him to sneak throws — over shoulders and between defenders — that few others would even try. Thanks to San Diego’s decimated offensive line, Rivers was under siege late last season, but through the early part of the year, he was probably the best quarterback in football. Head coach Mike McCoy and Rivers is a match made in quick-decision, high-efficiency heaven, and when Antonio Gates returns from his suspension, San Diego will once again have its full arsenal of backyard football savants finding creases and just making shit happen.
Running Back: Jamaal Charles, Kansas City Chiefs
Charles’s place in the running back hierarchy is tough to pin down these days. He’s not a physical marvel like Adrian Peterson, and he doesn’t shatter spirits like Marshawn Lynch. He isn’t the next big thing anymore, either; that’s Le’Veon Bell. Yet Charles remains one of the four or five best backs in football, and somehow, it feels like he’s never gotten his proper due.
No halfback in NFL history1 has averaged more yards per carry than Charles’s 5.5, and even though that number is helped by a few low-volume, high-efficiency seasons, Charles has yet to have a season you could legitimately describe as “bad.” On a per-carry basis, his worst year was last year, when he averaged exactly five yards per carry. And that was good for fourth among running backs with at least 100 attempts. When Charles is at his worst, he’s still better than just about everyone in football.
Minimum 750 career carries.
The three players ahead of him were Justin Forsett, Jeremy Hill, and Lamar Miller, and those names bring up another fascinating part of how Charles has managed to do all of this. Forsett and Hill play behind two of the most frightening offensive lines in football. For almost his entire time in Kansas City, the line paving the way for Charles has been in constant flux, turning over players and struggling to find a group that can stick together for long stretches. Charles is the rare running back who makes his line look better, rather than the other way around. He transcends the talent up front. Peterson and Lynch can say that, too, but I’m not sure anyone else can.
Wide Receiver: Dez Bryant, Dallas Cowboys
It feels right when a potentially crazy, brash, physically dominant specimen wears no. 88 for the Cowboys, and for the past couple of years, Dez Bryant has earned the right to say whatever the hell he wants. Right now, there’s no better choice at the goal line than throwing the ball in Dez’s general vicinity and letting him do what he does. There are taller wide receivers in the league, but no one else can make cornerbacks look so small.
Poor, poor Bradley Fletcher. This was just the start of Fletcher’s no good, very long night, but it’s easily the most embarrassing moment of the game. The best part of this play is Dez pulling his left hand off the ball just a half second before it seems safe. It’s almost like he wants to show everyone just how easy this is for him — because it is. It’s such a complete manhandling that it’s almost hard to watch. Near the end zone, Dez has become unstoppable. We all know what’s coming once Dallas gets close enough, but that inevitably makes it even better.
Wide Receiver: Steve Smith, Baltimore Ravens
Are you ready? Are you ready for the carnage that will be the Steve Smith retirement tour? Over the past decade, few players have made the NFL more fun than Smith, who has defied every expectation since coming into the league as a third-round pick out of Utah and has never really stopped. Smith belongs in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but really, we should put him in every Hall of Fame we can find. Let’s start with the Polka Hall of Fame in Cleveland and just work our way out from there.
Offensive Line: Kelechi Osemele, Baltimore Ravens
The man they call KO isn’t the best guard in the league; he isn’t even the best guard on his team. That would be Marshal Yanda, who’s essentially a human version of the boulder from Raiders of the Lost Ark. While Osemele might not be as consistent as his teammate, when he’s at his best he’s one of the most physically dominant players you’ll ever see. Few offensive linemen in the NFL — even the great ones — can manhandle their opponents to the point that the game tape looks like high school highlight film.
That’s what you get from Osemele, who regularly sends people into orbit. In 2013, he underwent back surgery he’d needed since his days at Iowa State. In his first two years in the NFL, he was constantly in pain and had trouble achieving anything close to full range of motion. Finally healthy, Osemele was the best he’s ever been last season, and when he’s on — like he was in Week 1 against the Bengals last year — no one drops the hammer like he does.
Defensive Line: Aaron Donald, St. Louis Rams
This may seem like a stretch, but by season’s end, Aaron Donald has a chance to be the best non–J.J. Watt defender in football. Comparing the two actually follows: Both were hyper-productive college players — Donald had 28.5 tackles for loss during his final year at Pitt — who absolutely ruined the combine and still somehow fell 10 spots too many when draft time came.
As a rookie, Donald was more impressive than Watt was over his first full season. That, um, is not easy to do! He finished with nine sacks while barely playing half the Rams’ snaps for the first quarter of the season. Every pre-draft concern about Donald’s height was gone by November, and as happened so often in college, he was almost taking the handoff at least once a game come season’s end.
It just shouldn’t be possible to get into the backfield as fast as he does. Part of it is an amazing burst — Donald’s 1.59-second 10-yard dash puts him in the 100th percentile all-time among defensive tackles — but it’s also a product of craftiness you’d expect to see only from a 12-year veteran. Where Donald lines up pre-snap doesn’t always speak to where he’s going. Offensive linemen have to be on their heels, and against someone who moves like Donald does, that means it’s already over. If you don’t have DVR, rectify that before you watch the Rams this year. Donald will suddenly be on top of a quarterback and a running back, and you’ll need something slower than “real time” to figure out how he did it.
J.J. Watt: J.J. Watt, Houston Texans
It’s probably time to acknowledge that we’re seeing something very special here: a player make his case for the best stretch a defender has ever had in the history of the league. On today’s ‘Grantland NFL Podcast,’ Bill Barnwell asked me — if it were to all break right for Watt, if he had that extra step on every play — how many sacks Watt could get in a single season. We settled at around 30, which might sound crazy, but just consider that last year, Watt had 20.5 sacks and 51 quarterback hits. He is not of this world.
My favorite game of last season involved watching Watt terrorize EJ Manuel for an entire afternoon. He never sacked him — although he did hit him nine times and take a game-sealing interception back for a touchdown — but in a way, that’s what makes J.J. Watt the best football player on earth. He affects the game on every play, in ways both obvious and subtle. Check out how fast Manuel bails out of there when he sees Watt coming. He’s terrified. And can you blame him?
At this point, Watt is borderline unblockable for most offensive linemen. There’s just no way to approach it without being one step behind — and sometimes, it’s two. He lined up at every spot along the defensive line during that manhandling of the Bills. It’s hard to know where he’s coming from or where he’s headed on any given play, but that’s what every quarterback is trying to figure out every single snap. There’s a reason Hard Knocks was full of so many clips of Watt doing everything from the impossible to the mundane. We can’t look away. And we shouldn’t.
Linebacker: DeAndre Levy, Detroit Lions
After being named second-team All-NFL and generally causing havoc for one of the league’s best defenses all season, DeAndre Levy spent his winter living the best life anyone has ever lived. It included — but was not limited to — skinny dipping in the Amazon, standing on top of an airborne plane, and sledding down a volcano in Nicaragua. People apparently sled down volcanoes. I don’t know.
Of course, he had reason to celebrate. Levy has been an absolute terror his past couple of seasons in Detroit, and what’s scariest is that he does it in so many ways. He had six interceptions in 2013, and last year, he was one of the best run defenders in football.
The guy just moves, and at times, his combination of speed and ferocity seems like it’s a better fit for National Geographic than the NFL.
Linebacker: Elvis Dumervil, Baltimore Ravens
Without looking it up, guess how many sacks Elvis Dumervil had last year. Ten? Twelve? The answer is 17. No, really, it is. At age 30, Dumervil racked up 17 freaking sacks for Baltimore last year. Only Justin Houston and Watt had more.
It’s hard to believe this will already be Dumervil’s ninth season, and his third since a bad trip to Kinko’s landed him in Baltimore. After his career at Louisville, there’s no way a pass-rushing master like him should have fallen to the fourth round, but in retrospect, it’s not that surprising. The NFL hates small, and at 5-foot-11, there just aren’t many successful edge rushers that look like Elvis Dumervil.
Dumervil has 90 career sacks, 18.5 more than any player in NFL history 6 feet tall or shorter. And most of the players on that list aren’t even pass-rushers. Dumervil has made a career out of turning his height into an advantage instead of a weakness, and it’s why he remains my favorite pass-rusher ever. Blocking Dumervil is a chore for 6-6 tackles, mostly because getting down that low is a real pain in the ass. But Dumervil combines that leverage with a full array of moves that would make everyone but Dwight Freeney jealous. He’s one of the more unusual players to ever come through the league, and if last year is any indication, don’t expect him to go away anytime soon.
Defensive Back: Tashaun Gipson, Cleveland Browns
For the past two years, Gipson has been a constant cutaway-highlight presence in my life. It feels like he picks off a pass every week. He has 11 interceptions in the past two seasons, more than anyone in the league other than Richard Sherman. Where he blows his competitors away, though, is what he does with the ball after it gets in his hands. Gipson’s 301 turnover return yards are far and away the most since 2013.
As Gipson is a free safety, plenty of his interceptions are of the overthrow or tipped-pass variety, but there’s something to be said for always being in the right place at the right time. Lining up to block a field goal against the Raiders, as Oakland showed it was faking, Gipson moved from the right side of the line of scrimmage all the way to a free safety spot on the opposite side of the field before finally tracking back across to snatch the throw from Matt Schaub, who now throws picks as a holder, too.
An undrafted free agent just three seasons ago, Gipson patrolled the second-best pass defense in football last year, and in a secondary that includes two former first-round picks, it’s the guy no one wanted who makes the biggest difference.