The season is not quite over, but it’s already time to start celebrating the best players of this 2014 NFL campaign. With one week to go and playoff coverage taking up time in the weeks to come, I’ve gone through my notes for the year, talked to folks around the NFL, and compiled an All-Pro team for the season. I can’t pretend to closely watch every single play of every NFL game on a weekly basis — nobody can — but in the course of writing my columns every week and talking with Robert Mays about teams on The Grantland NFL Podcast, I’m confident that I see about as much of the league as anybody. Here’s my guess as to who has been best.
As always, this is a subjective list parsing out marginal differences between fantastic players who have been performing at the top of their game. If your first thought is No [the sixth-best player on my favorite team]? chances are I gave that player plenty of consideration and just found him to be among the fourth- or fifth-best players at his position. That’s never an insult. This isn’t the Pro Bowl, where injuries and lack of interest mean that nine or 10 different quarterbacks get to call themselves Pro Bowlers in some years. I’ve tried to consider both a player’s performance and his availability, so guys who have missed a game or two are docked a bit.
There are various All-Pro team permutations out there from different sources, so to be clear, this one goes by my rules. I’m picking 11 players on either side of the football, with two halfbacks instead of a fullback. (Sorry, John Kuhn.) The team will play a 4-3, and given that defensive linemen move around more than ever these days, I’m lumping them all in together and comparing them to one another. Outside linebackers from 3-4 teams are compared to outside linebackers from 4-3 teams. It’s imperfect, but I’m pretty confident the exercise has resulted in a very talented football team.
Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers
I don’t know who has the Quarterback Championship Belt right now. Peyton Manning was holding it heading into the season, but he lost it during this weird December in which the Broncos suddenly decided to take what might have been the greatest offense in NFL history last year and cut it with the 1990 San Diego Chargers. They’re inexplicably C.J. Anderson’s team now, a concern with sinister undertones that we’ll be looking at in the weeks to come.
Throughout the season, it’s been tough to pin down who is the best quarterback in football. It was Philip Rivers in September, but by the end of October, it was Tom Brady — who had been so bad in September that some wanted to bench him for Jimmy Garoppolo. Aaron Rodgers took over with a freakish November in which he threw for 13 touchdowns without a pick, but even he has slipped in recent weeks.
The guy with the best numbers? That’s Tony Romo, who leads the league in completion percentage (70.3 percent), yards per attempt (8.5), passer rating (114.4), and QBR (82.3). I don’t get the feeling that people are taking his MVP candidacy seriously, which is in part based on the unfair fact of life that he is Tony Romo. You can make a case that those numbers oversell his position; he has narrow leads in each of those categories, missed a game and a half with his back injury, and gets to play with the best running game in football behind the best offensive line in football. I think Romo is phenomenal, but he’s not the best quarterback in the league.
So, given the numbers, given the records, what did I do? I went back to the Quarterback Championship Belt logic and chose the one quarterback I’d want to run out on my team if my life were on the line. That’s Rodgers.
Second Team: Tony Romo, Cowboys
DeMarco Murray, Dallas Cowboys
Le’Veon Bell, Pittsburgh Steelers
Even with his sprint toward a 2,000-yard season having slowed over the last month, Murray is a shoo-in for this team and the clear choice as the most productive running back. It would take a 255-yard day against Washington on Sunday to send him into the annals of history as the league’s eighth back with 2,000 yards in a single campaign, so he will instead likely settle for his first All-Pro berth and a trip to the playoffs.
The second pick isn’t quite as obvious, with a half-dozen running backs making solid cases to line up next to Murray. I chose Bell because I felt like he was a bigger part of his team’s offense than the other choices; the only backs with a larger share of their team’s offensive yards than Bell’s 33.9 percent were Murray and Matt Forte, and Bell has been producing in far more meaningful moments than Forte this season.
The Steelers just don’t even hand the ball to anybody else anymore; beginning with that Tennessee game that LeGarrette Blount refused to play in, Pittsburgh’s given Bell 120 carries. The only other running backs on the roster to get carries are Josh Harris and Dri Archer, who have … five combined. Bell has averaged 5 yards per carry over that stretch, taking over as one of the few true remaining workhorse backs in football. Narrowly, he passes several other options in his second season to make his first All-Pro team.
Second Team: Arian Foster, Texans; Marshawn Lynch, Seahawks
Antonio Brown, Pittsburgh Steelers
Jordy Nelson, Green Bay Packers
A pretty easy one-two at wideout. Brown has a 22-reception lead on the second-place Julio Jones with one game to go, which is tied for the third-largest margin between the no. 1 and no. 2 wideouts in post-merger history. Marvin Harrison had 31 more receptions than anybody else in football in 2002, which seems downright impossible in hindsight. It seems like years ago, but Brown actually began his season stomping poor Spencer Lanning and never let up.
There was a time I thought Nelson was another cog in the Aaron Rodgers machine, a useful-if-limited receiver who might top out as something close to Antonio Freeman in terms of his absolute value. I was very, very wrong. I don’t know that I’ve seen anybody besides Odell Beckham Jr. get consistently more wide open when teams should be double-covering him than Nelson has this season. He’s very clearly the best receiver Rodgers has ever had.
Second Team: Demaryius Thomas, Broncos; Dez Bryant, Cowboys
Rob Gronkowski, New England Patriots
You were expecting somebody else? After two years in the injury wilderness, Gronkowski is about to complete a 16-game season for the first time since 2011. He spent the beginning of the year as a part-time player while returning from his torn ACL, and then Gronk took flight in that Week 5 blowout over the Bengals and has been his former self ever since.
Through his first five seasons, Gronkowski has had 55 touchdowns in 65 games. To steal a stat that doesn’t normally pop up in football, Gronk is averaging 5.08 points per game. The last receiver to average more than five points per game over 50 career games or more? Oh, just Don Hutson:1
Hutson also actually kicked extra points and chipped in with the occasional field goal for the Packers, but I’m just counting his work from scrimmage here. I’m pretty confident Gronk could kick extra points, too.
Second Team: Greg Olsen, Panthers
Joe Thomas, Cleveland Browns
Duane Brown, Houston Texans
The offensive line spots on Pro Bowl teams inevitably have a whiff of scholarship to them; in 2012, Jeff Saturday made the Pro Bowl at center despite having been benched just before the end of the season.
Joe Thomas toils in such anonymity for the Browns that I always wonder whether he’s receiving consideration for these sorts of season-ending squads just because he was on last year’s team. But then I go back and watch him play, and he’s simply a step ahead of the players across from him on a weekly basis. STATS says he has allowed all of two sacks in 15 games this year, a career low. Fun game: Ask your friend to name all the active players in the NFL who are locks to make the Hall of Fame. They won’t name Thomas, but he’s a sure thing.
I went back and forth between Brown, Tyron Smith, and Jason Peters for the second offensive tackle spot. Peters is the guy I notice destroying other human beings most frequently on tape, but he also has 11 penalties this season, which hurts his case in this rarefied air. I think Smith is a better run-blocker than Brown, but he also has a far better line to work alongside, especially with Chris Myers starting to slip at center in Houston this year. Brown was also credited with just two sacks allowed for a mere four total yards by STATS this year. I’m narrowly picking him, but you could pick any of those three and I wouldn’t argue against you.
Second Team: Jason Peters, Eagles; Tyron Smith, Cowboys
Josh Sitton, Green Bay Packers
Marshal Yanda, Baltimore Ravens
Sitton is a reasonable candidate to be considered the most underrated player in all of football. The 2008 fourth-rounder has made only one Pro Bowl and doesn’t ever get discussed as one of Ted Thompson’s best draft picks, but Sitton consistently stands out as the best player on the league’s sixth-best run-blocking offensive line. STATS has him down for just three penalties and zero sacks this season.
Yanda teams with Kelechi Osemele to form what might be the best tandem of guards in football right now. Baltimore has totally turned its running game around this season, as a team that averaged just 3.1 yards per carry during a dismal campaign last year is now up to 4.5 yards per rush, the seventh-best rate in football. Baltimore basically punted at right tackle this offseason and gave the job to 2013 fifth-rounder Ricky Wagner, but Yanda has been good enough at guard to solidify that side and make Wagner’s job all that much easier.
Second Team: David DeCastro, Steelers; Zack Martin, Cowboys
Maurkice Pouncey, Pittsburgh Steelers
Offensive linemen don’t win leaguewide awards,2 but Pouncey deserves some consideration for AP Comeback Player of the Year after tearing his ACL and MCL just eight snaps into his 2013 season. The early injury gave Pouncey basically a full season to heal, and he’s come back every bit as good as the player he was before the injury, when he made three straight Pro Bowls. This will also be his first full season since his rookie campaign in 2010, a small bonus for a player who signed a five-year, $44 million extension even before returning this summer on the final year of his rookie contract.
The last six AP Comeback Players of the Year have all been quarterbacks. The last 13 PFWA Comeback Players of the Year have all been skill-position players. What are the odds that the players who have made the biggest comebacks over adversity are all players who touch the football?
Second Team: Rodney Hudson, Chiefs
J.J. Watt, Houston Texans
Calais Campbell, Arizona Cardinals
Ndamukong Suh, Detroit Lions
Michael Bennett, Seattle Seahawks
You wouldn’t really line up these four guys as a 4-3 unit, but I have a feeling they would get the job done. Obviously, that starts with Watt, who spends more time than ever these days playing over the right tackle’s shoulder before endlessly swimming into the backfield as if that tackle weren’t even there. He leads the league in just about everything but sacks:
Watt gets a second crack at the Jaguars this week in a game the Texans need to win to have any hope of making the playoffs. Jacksonville has allowed 66 sacks this year, 11 more than any other team in football. Watt sacked Blake Bortles three times the last time these teams faced off. Does anybody doubt he’s going to get to 20 and lead the league in just about every possible category a defensive lineman can? The only thing he hasn’t done this year is throw a touchdown pass, and I wouldn’t put it past him on Sunday.
Campbell has been the rock of the Arizona defense on a front seven that has lost three of its other six starters for most or all of the 2014 season. Campbell himself missed two games with a sprained MCL he suffered on a dangerous chop block from Julius Thomas, but he came back without showing any ill effects and continues to make plays in the backfield on a weekly basis. It’s not fair to say he’s single-handedly carrying Arizona’s defense into the playoffs, but this is a team that routinely plays a safety at linebacker and has gotten career years out of rotation linemen like Tommy Kelly and Frostee Rucker. Much of that is the influence Campbell wields at his spot up front.
Suh’s done everything anybody could have asked of him in a contract year. Despite the routine double-teams he faces on the interior of the Detroit defensive line, he leads all mortal defensive linemen with 20 tackles for loss and has more quarterback hits (18) than any other 4-3 defensive tackle. The Lions will comfortably finish with the league’s best run defense DVOA even after losing run-plugging middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch to a torn ACL in September and going without Suh’s partner, Nick Fairley, for the entirety of the second half.
I would have chosen frequent Suh comp Gerald McCoy as the fourth lineman, but McCoy is on injured reserve with a sprained knee and will end up missing three games this year. That’s just enough to swing me to Seattle, where Bennett has done yeoman’s work while moving around the defensive line to put out fires. Seattle lost its best run-stopping defensive tackle (Brandon Mebane) in November and didn’t miss a step thanks to Bennett, who simply doesn’t come off the field these days. During this ridiculous five-game, 33-point stretch for the Seahawks defense, Bennett has played 89.6 percent of the defensive snaps, and that figure would be higher if Pete Carroll hadn’t rested his first-team defense late in the fourth quarter against Arizona on Sunday. 4-3 linemen just don’t do that. Assuming Bennett plays 55 snaps on Sunday against the Rams, he’ll finish the year having played 826 defensive snaps to McCoy’s 664. That 162-snap difference just puts him over the edge for me.
Second Team: Gerald McCoy, Buccaneers; Marcell Dareus, Bills; Fletcher Cox, Eagles; DeMarcus Ware, Broncos
Justin Houston, Kansas City Chiefs
Lavonte David, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Two very different types of players fit into this broad category for the purposes of this team. Houston might arguably be the best pure edge rusher in all of football at this point. It’s not just sacks, either; Houston is second in the league in tackles for loss, with 20, and ESPN Stats & Information notes that he has disrupted 3.8 percent of opposing dropbacks this season. The only player who tops him in either category is Watt. He’ll surely be franchised this offseason.
David, meanwhile, continues to roam the earth looking for ballcarriers to swallow up for losses. Despite missing two games, the league’s preeminent 4-3 weakside linebacker has still managed to lead the NFL in defeats this season, topping even the mighty J.J. Watt. He’s second in the league by the NFL’s official count of tackles, with 141, only narrowly behind our All-Pro middle linebacker …
Second Team: DeAndre Levy, Lions; Elvis Dumervil, Ravens
Luke Kuechly, Carolina Panthers
… who leads the league with 145. It hasn’t been quite as impactful of a season for the 2013 Defensive Player of the Year, but Kuechly has remained all over the field for a Panthers defense whose secondary has basically disintegrated. The only linebacker to knock away more passes than Kuechly (nine) is Alec Ogletree of the Rams, who would have been a third-team choice at outside linebacker. I might have preferred Levy (who hasn’t missed a single snap all season) if he had moved full time to middle linebacker in Stephen Tulloch’s absence, and I could have opted for Bobby Wagner, who was incredible but missed five games with a toe injury — but Kuechly’s been good enough to justify his return engagement here.
Second Team: Bobby Wagner, Seahawks
Darrelle Revis, New England Patriots
Richard Sherman, Seattle Seahawks
The easiest one-two on the team. There are plenty of deserving cornerbacks worthy of consideration, but Revis and Sherman have been a step above this season. Patriots beat writer Doug Kyed’s game charting notes that Revis has basically turned opposing no. 1 receivers into the 2013 version of Kenbrell Thompkins this season, as they’ve caught 36 passes on 76 targets for just 499 yards and two scores.
Sherman, well, I’m just scared he’s going to get me fired. If I’m being honest, he hasn’t been quite as otherworldly as he was a year ago — teams have had some success attacking him over the top in Seattle’s Cover 3, especially earlier in the season — but he’s still so phenomenally effective that it’s impossible to keep him off of this list. Teams have posted a passer rating of just 64.8 on throws to the right side of the field, where Sherman operates as the left corner. That’s the third-best figure in football.
Second Team: Vontae Davis, Colts, and Brent Grimes, Dolphins
Earl Thomas, Seattle Seahawks
Antoine Bethea, San Francisco 49ers
Nobody is even in Thomas’s stratosphere. And that was before he got off the quote of the year this week about Marshawn Lynch: “He is who he is. He’s going to hold his [redacted]. That’s what he do.”
Bethea has been the linchpin of the San Francisco defense all season, a unit that led the league in pass defense DVOA for a good chunk of the year, despite starting afterthoughts like Perrish Cox and Chris Culliver at cornerback. Ask Colts fans whether they miss Bethea and you might have to wait a few minutes for them to stop crying. He’s one of the few 49ers who can come away from this season with his head held high.
Second Team: Devin McCourty, Patriots; T.J. McDonald, Rams
Pat McAfee, Indianapolis Colts
Stephen Gostkowski, New England Patriots
Darren Sproles, Philadelphia Eagles
McAfee is the best specialist in all of football, as he’s a candidate to be both the best punter in football and the best kickoff specialist in the league. He’s second in the league in touchback percentage (74.2 percent), and his punts have produced a net of 44.2 yards, which also leaves him second-best in football.
Only McAfee’s teammate Adam Vinatieri has produced more points above expectations on field goals than Gostkowski this year, and I’m putting Gostkowski ahead of Vinatieri because the Patriots kicker also remains above-average on kickoffs.
Sproles finishes the team off as the only returner in football with two touchdowns this season. His work as a return man and situational running back helped keep the Eagles afloat early in the season, and while he faded as the year went along, the trade that sent him to Philadelphia for a fifth-round pick remains one of the most lopsided deals of 2014.
Second Team: Matt Bryant, Falcons; Kevin Huber, Bengals; De’Anthony Thomas, Chiefs