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Talent abounds at loaded positions, leading to internal debate

2011 midseason All-Pro team

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Posted Nov. 08, 2011 @ 1:21 p.m. ET
By Eric Edholm

There is no right way to put together a mock team such as this.

You could reflect the times and play an offense with four wide receivers and have your defense aligned in a 3-4, the front that is seemingly growing in popularity around the league.

You could pay strict attention to everyone playing in a proper spot, choosing the finest left and right tackles on offense (and not just the two best tackles, period) and make sure to have a true distinction between a strong and a free safety.

Although we at Pro Football Weekly are purists in a way — we did, after all, select a fullback, something of a dying breed — we also took some liberties here. More teams still run 4-3 defenses leaguewide, and there are plenty of clubs who stick with a base two-WR offense a majority of the time.

So we split the difference. In PFW's midseason All-Pro team for the first half of the 2011 season, the editors and writers voted on the best at each position, per usual. But we chose a slightly expanded lineup to do so — 12 players on offense, 12 on defense.

Copout? Maybe. But no extra-man-on-the-field penalties for us. These are our rules.

And even with the additional player on each side of the ball, we still had a tough time making calls at certain spots. The debates ran a bit hot at running back, offensive tackle (yes, we chose a left and a right), defensive end, outside linebacker and, interestingly, placekicker.

How good is our team when players such as Tom Brady, Matt Forté, Greg Jennings, Michael Roos, Jason Pierre-Paul, Terrell Suggs, Derrick Johnson, Patrick Willis, Charles Woodson and George Wilson did not make the cut?

Critics surely will quibble with some of the choices, but others surely are not debatable.

Aaron Rodgers, the no-doubt first-half MVP, was a unanimous pick — no stunner there. But so were eight other players on the PFW midseason team. There are some players who simply are the best at what they do.

With others, it's a far tougher call — but we made it.

 

OFFENSE

QB Aaron Rodgers/Packers — There was no vote. It was unanimous. Rodgers is not only having the best individual season of any player in the NFL at any position, but his team is unbeaten. He's completing 72.5 percent of his passes at a clip of 9.9 yards per attempt (the highest mark in 11 years) and is on pace for 5,238 passing yards, which would top Dan Marino's 1984 mark. Hence no vote needed.

RB Fred Jackson/Bills — The upstart Bills are in contention with their multidimensional offense, and you could make the case no player is as valuable to their operation as Jackson is. He's a three-down back who is as adept at catching passes as he is at running through defenses, and his pass-protection skills have kept former first-rounder C.J. Spiller on the bench. For all of Jackson's long plays, his 38-yard screen against the Patriots to set up the winning score might have been his biggest.

RB Adrian Peterson/Vikings — This went to a tiebreaker, with strong support for Peterson's division rival, the Bears' Matt Forté, who has been excellent. But Peterson's work has been laudable considering that the Vikings' passing game has been uneven, defenses sell out to stop him and the O-line has been a mess. His nine rushing TDs, nearly 100 yards per game and zero lost fumbles show just how special and rare Peterson is.

FB Vonta Leach/Ravens — Leach has come as advertised: the perfect steward for Ray Rice and the Ravens' run game. Leach is hard-nosed and a tone setter for a Ravens rushing attack that simply has been better than last season's model.

WR Calvin Johnson/Lions — Have you watched much football this fall? If so, there is roughly a 100 percent chance you've seen Johnson catching a TD pass over a helpless — and, chances are, smaller — defensive back. He tied an NFL mark with two TD catches in four consecutive games, but the great irony is that Johnson has been a more well-rounded receiver since that streak ended. In the four games since, he has averaged 120.8 yards despite tricked-up defenses to stop him.

WR Steve Smith/Panthers — Smith requested a trade late last season, but boy, are the Panthers glad he reneged. Smith has been the catalyst in the Panthers' vastly overhauled vertical offense with rookie QB Cam Newton. Smith has gained a whopping 114.8 yards per game, has nearly doubled his season yardage output from 2010 and is on pace for perhaps his finest season ever at age 32. Reports of Smith's decline after two subpar years had been greatly exaggerated.

TE Jimmy Graham/Saints — The impossibly tall and athletic Graham has been the key to the Saints' passing game. He tied Tony Gonzalez's TE record for consecutive 100-yard games (four) and has progressed tremendously, coming from a background with far more basketball in it than football. One could argue that Drew Brees has over-relied on his talented pass catcher so far.

OLT Andrew Whitworth/Bengals — He's starting to get his due in NFL circles, and we've picked him for his run blocking and in protecting a rookie quarterback. The Bengals are a left-handed running team, running far more often behind Whitworth than to the right, and QB Andy Dalton has stayed mostly upright (12 sacks). The Bengals are 6-2, and an underrated reason has been the play of Whitworth and their O-line.

OLG Mike Iupati/49ers The soft-spoken but slobber-knocking guard has keyed the Niners' power-run game, which has been a heavy dose of Bo Schembechler football in Jim Harbaugh's approach. Of Iupati, who has sprung Frank Gore free for a resurgent season, one personnel director said: "Once he gets his hands on you, you're done."

C Eric Wood/Bills — The Bills might be one of the best screening teams in the NFL, and Wood excels at getting out to the second level to help get those extra yards that separate good from great. He has ideal technique, too, and always seems to be involved in the Bills' biggest run plays. On what has been an overachieving offensive line, Wood has been the unquestioned driver of the bus.

ORG Davin Joseph/Buccaneers — Joseph might be the best run blocker in the game, and the Bucs have not been shy going right behind him on most of their critical plays. He has earned the seven-year extension he signed in the offseason and has been one of the team's bright spots.

ORT Todd Herremans/Eagles — It has been a bit of an adventure for the Eagles' offensive line this season, but the jack-of-all-trades Herremans has been a rock. He moved prior to the opener from left guard, his home for several seasons, to right tackle. And when Jason Peters went down prior to Week Six, Herremans moved to left tackle and did a great job on Redskins OLB Brian Orakpo.

 

DEFENSE

DE Jason Babin/Eagles — The Eagles brought back Babin to fit their new wide-rushing-lane attack that demanded the defensive line generate pressure without the blitz. That part has been accomplished, as the hell-on-wheels Babin had tallied nine sacks heading into the Week Nine Monday-nighter and gamely switched from the left side to the right when Trent Cole went down.

DE Jared Allen/Vikings — Considering Allen's big statistical season, this was a far closer vote than you might have expected. Insiders have told PFW that Allen's numbers are a bit inflated compared to how he grades out strictly on tape, but we can't ignore 12½ sacks, three forced fumbles and one interception. The number of impact plays he has made this season has been quite apparent.

DT Haloti Ngata/Ravens — The Ravens were smart to sign Ngata to a lucrative deal that will keep him in Baltimore for five more years, as he again is having an excellent season. He anchors the Ravens' statistically dominant defense and has made the rest of his line-mates better, lining up in almost every technique on the line.

DT Sione Pouha/Jets — The Jets' defense has not set the world on fire, at least not to Rex Ryan's standards, but Pouha shuts down the middle run lanes to the point where most teams don't try it. He has brute strength, and though he's really only a two-down player, Pouha is one of the best run-clogging 3-4 nose tackles in the NFL.

OLB DeMarcus Ware/Cowboys — Like Jared Allen, Ware is on pace to break Michael Strahan's 22½-sack season record despite being the focus of every opposing offense. The Cowboys are not using Ware in any exceptionally fancy ways: He plays most of the time on the right side, occasionally on the left. But his motor runs hot for 60 minutes, and he might be the best pure 3-4 rusher in the game.

OLB LaMarr Woodley/Steelers — When James Harrison left the lineup with a broken orbital bone, Woodley heated up right when the Steelers needed him most. The NFL's Defensive Player of the Month for October totaled 7½ sacks, 25 tackles and one interception, guiding the team to a 4-1 record in those five games. He became the first Steeler with at least 1½ sacks in four consecutive regular-season games and has helped revitalize a defense that has been beset by injury.

ILB NaVorro Bowman/49ers — There's no question that playing alongside Patrick Willis has led to Bowman having a career season, but he has been an excellent run defender with sideline-to-sideline range. Perhaps his finest game was in the 49ers' key win at Detroit, with the coaches crediting Bowman with 17 tackles, including a huge hit for minus-1 yard on Jahvid Best that has knocked Best out of two games and counting.

ILB David Harris/Jets — The Jets signed Harris to the richest contract ever for a middle linebacker this offseason, and he has rewarded them with stellar play, even better than teammate Bart Scott. Harris is always around the football, he plays the passing lanes well and is one of the Jets' smartest defenders.

CB Darrelle Revis/Jets — Opponents generally had avoided throwing at Revis, other than a few throws a game, until the Dolphins came to town in Week Six. Innovators that they are, the Dolphins chose to attack the NFL's best cover man and — not surprisingly — it backfired. On 14 targeted passes against Revis, he allowed only 63 yards and had two interceptions, one run back for a TD. That shows you that Revis is still on an island of his own.

CB Corey Webster/Giants — Big, strong, athletic and underrated. That sums up Webster, who typically is asked to cover the opponent's best big wideout, and he helped control Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald, Seattle's Sidney Rice, Buffalo's Stevie Johnson and Miami's Brandon Marshall.

S Ed Reed/Ravens — The Ravens' secondary has been banged up, but right in the middle, there is Reed, still patrolling center field and still maintaining their defense as one of the best in the NFL. Reed might not be having his biggest statistical season, but he remains a premier playmaker and the glue of the unit.

S Troy Polamalu/Steelers — Like Ed Reed, Polamalu's big-play numbers — he has zero interceptions — do not impress. But he's on pace to match his best tackle total ever, doing his best to hold together an aging and injury-prone Steelers defense.

 

SPECIALISTS

P Andy Lee/49ers — Lee's excellent season has helped make the Niners' game plan work: run the ball, play good "D" and win with field position. His 43.3-yard net is among the best in the NFL, and Lee has buried 13 punts inside the 20.

PK Mason Crosby/Packers — A new contract has given the strong-legged kicker the confidence he needs, and Crosby in turn has rewarded the coaches' faith with his accuracy (15-for-15 on FG attempts) and length (a career-high 58-yarder at Minnesota in Week Seven).

PR Patrick Peterson/Cardinals — In order to surpass the great Devin Hester in this spot, you have to do something almost magical. That's what Peterson has done, ringing up a ridiculous 21.8-yard average and three TDs, including last Sunday's 99-yard game winner in OT. Wow.

KR Joe McKnight/Jets — Brad Smith was considered an underrated loss, but McKnight — who was almost cut as a rookie — has responded in a major way with an unbelievable 40.2-yard kickoff-return average, especially considering the new kickoff rules.

 

HEAD COACH

Jim Harbaugh/49ers — Harbaugh deserves this mention, if for no other reason than instilling confidence in the thought-to-be-broken Alex Smith and building an effective offense and defense with talent that many thought would produce a 4-12 type of record and be in the hunt for Andrew Luck. Instead, the Niners are 7-1 and running away with the NFC West.

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