By John Turney
So, following Coach T.J. Troup's axiom of going "linear and logical" let's start with the receivers.
Antonio Brown and DeAndre Hopkins are the clear First-team wideouts. They are the two best playmakers in the game right now. The Second-team was a tougher decision. Julio Jones and Keenan Allen got the nods over Adam Thielen who is our honorable mention at receiver.
Brown has a good case for not only Offensive Player of the Year but also MVP. Had he not been injured the last two weeks the numbers he would have put up may have justified those awards in a year where there is no clear-cut choice for those awards, in fact, he gets our vote as the Offensive Player of the Year.
Brown was on his way to a near 1800-yard season. As it his he finished the season with 101 catches for 1533 yards (15.2 avg.) and 9 TDs. Hopkins led the NFL in TD receptions with 13 and also acrobatic catches (the second claim is editorial, the first is factual); he finished the year with 96 receptions and 1,378 yards.
Thielen ran great routes and was very close to being on the Second-team. Jones had a small issue with drops and Thielen has a small issue with fumbles. It was that close that we had to get into the minutia to try and separate them. But finally, our eye-test picked Jones so Thielen falls to honorable mention, even though he ran steller routes we felt Julio was a hair better. Jones ended the year with 88 receptions for 1444 yards 16.4 avg and 3 TDs. The three touchdowns are low but Thielen had just 4 to go with his 91 catches and 1276 yards (14.0 avg.). Allen, our #3, had 102 receptions for 1393 yards for a 13.7 average and six touchdowns.
Injuries affected our offensive line picks as some of very top linemen missed time. Often, we would break ties with who was able to avoid or play through injuries. But most of this years' best had to set out a few games.
Rodger Saffold of the Rams and Larry Warford of the Saints are our top two guards. Saffold was particularly good in the screen game and in pass protection, but when Rams ran power plays, it would go his way and he'd lead very well. Saffold gave up one sack (on a very long end-tackle game where he picked up Calais Campbell and lost his block) and wasn't called for holding at all.
Warford, who was dinged a couple of times this year, was dominant every time we saw him. Good drive blocker, powers, pass protection. We felt he was a key cog in the Saints dominant run game and like Saffold, he gave up just one sack (to Dontari Poe) and was not flagged for holding.
Lewan was dominant most of the year, though he had his struggles last week versus Robert Quinn. He got called for a hold and should have been called another couple of times. Johnson did get flagged against the Raiders but we agree with Johnson,—a couple were bogus.
Tom Brady and our Second-team pick is Carson Wentz. The honorable mentions are Alex Smith and Russell Wilson. Wentz going down with a knee injury was tragic. He was performing at a high level and though Eagles fans might like us saying this but we think their Super Bowl chances likely went down with him.
Brady had thrown 8 picks in the last five weeks after throwing just two in the first eleven games but his team is 13-3 and his passer rating is 102.8. If the standards he set were not so high it wouldn't be a question about who is the MVP. But since it's not a "Brady MVP-type" season there is hope for others. His final stat line was 385/581 got 66.3% and 4,577 yards for 32 TDs and 8 interceptions.
Wentz was 11-2 and his passing stats were 265/440 (60.2%) for 3296 yards and 33 TDs and 7 picks for a 101.9 passer rating.
Honorable mention is Alex Smith who was 341/505 for a 67.5 completion percentage for 4042 yards 26 TDs, 5 INTs and a 104.7 passer rating good for the passing title. This season he silenced some critics for being efficient in his deep passing. We also pick Russell Wilson as an honorable mention for doing lots with little.
Todd Gurley and Le'Veon Bell are the First-team running backs. Call Bell a 'flex' if you must. But these two are the top backs and are three-down backs who do it all. They could both finish in the top three of the AP MVP race and also in the AP Offensive Player of the Year race. Bell ended the year with 1,291 rushing yards and 9 rushing touchdowns paired with 82 catches for 655 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Gurley led the NFC in rushing with 1305 yards and added 788 yards receiving and had 13 rushing touchdowns and six receptions for touchdowns.
Cameron Jordan had 13 sacks and 11 passes deflected. When you figure an average pass attempt is 7 yards then Jordan saved, in theory, 77 yards. A sack is, on rough average 7 yards. Add in the average pass of seven then a sack is worth 14 yards (in theory). So, his pass deflections are really worth, in yards, 5.5 sacks. And if you assume that the average defensive lineman deflects two in a season he still is "gaining" 4.5 sacks at it were. He is a power rusher, often makes an inside move and plays a lot of snaps, in fact going into the final weekend he led all NFL defensive linemen—playing 93% of the Saints defensive snaps. He's hard to ignore, he played both sides and was sometimes a stand-up defensive end when the Saints gave an Okie look on defense.
Calais Campbell was a big-time spark for the Jaguars defense, a terrific signing. He has 14.5 sacks but ten of those came in the first half of the season. Campbell plays the closed (away from tight end) in base defense and reduces to tackle in sub defenses (nickel/dime). He's always been stout against the run but this year didn't make as many plays on running backs in the backfield as he usually does,
Demarcus Lawrence and Everson Griffen are essentially bookends, with Lawrence on left and Griffen on the right. They are both speed/outside, arc-rushers that both will counter inside with a spin move and various other counter moves. Both play the run okay, and both get up the field. Griffen's production slipped some due to him playing with plantar fasciitis for a few weeks. Lawrence ended the season with 58 tackles, 4 forced fumbles, 14.5 sacks, and over 40 hurries according to Stats, LLC. Griffen was right behind him, statistically, with 46 tackles and 13 sacks and three forced fumbles.
In the end, we went with Jordan on the First-team and tied Campbell and Lawrence on the Second-team. It was hard leaving Griffen off but top honorable mention is where he'll have to be. Graham and Bosa are also worthy honorable mentions.
Heyward ended the year with 45 tackles, 12 sacks, 6 run/pass stuffs and a pair for forced fumbles. In the base defense he was the right end, in their sub-packages he was an inside rusher—defensive tackle and provided lots of push up the middle
Fletcher Cox, Phi, and Ndamukong Suh, Mia, are next in line followed by Kawann Short, Car, Jurrell Casey, Ten, and Grady Jarrett, Atl, Mike Daniels, GB, and Malik Jackson, Jax all as honorable mentions.
Clowney, when you watch him, just exudes athleticism. He blows up blockers, makes blockers miss, delivers a big hit. He moved around more this year, even rushing from a stand-up position behind the defensive tackles or even in the A-Gaps, but his best work was done rushing from the edge. His season totals were 59 tackles (13.5 were run/pass stuffs) and 9.5 sacks.
Kuechly had 125 tackles (10 were run/pass stuffs), 3 fumbles recovered, one FF, a sack and three picks. Deion Jones had 11 run/pass stuffs (6 of which were on pass plays which led the NFL) among his 138 tackles and three picks and is our lone honorable mention at middle linebacker.
Shazier would have been the top ILBer but his injury sidelined him and Moseley kept on doing his thing, and we gave the nod to him. In his 12 games, Shazier totaled 5.5 run/pass stuffs, 99 tackles, three picks, two forced fumbles, one recovery and 10 passes defended.
Martinez had 9.5 run stuffs and 142 tackles a sack, an interception, eight passes defensed, a forced fumble and a pair of recoveries while Woodyard's stats included 121 tackles and 10 run/pass stuffs, four sacks, two fumbles recovered (one for a score).
Safeties are getting harder to distinguish these days. Both safeties have to do so much that strong and free safety positions are melding together more than ever. You can watch Harrison Smith and he's in the box, near the line of scrimmage quite often. Lots of "strong" safeties play the Will backer in nickel defenses (Kenny Vaccaro and Malcolm Jenkins to name two) and several have been converted to linebackers, such as Mark Barron, Deone Bucannon, and Eric Reid.
But we felt Smith was the best overall and Michal Hyde was the best of the strong safeties.
The Jaguars Dante Fowler took Second-team nod over Adrian Clayborn of the Falcons. Clayborn just had too much of his production in one game (6 of his 9.5 sacks) and not consistent throughout the season. Fowler would play end in the Jaguars sub-packages when Calais Campbell would reduce to defensive tackle and was more consistent week-in and week-out than Clayborn and ended with 8.5 sacks, 3 fumbles recovered (one for a TD) and two forced fumbles.
Chris Long, Phi, Carl Lawson, Cin and Elvis Dumervil, SF, all deserve special mention as the nickel rusher spot. Long lost at least two sacks to penalties and really come on late in the season with his sack/forced fumbles sealing two wins for the Eagles.
Tucker ended up hitting on 34/37 field goals and didn't miss a PAT and was 5 of 7 from 50 yards and beyond. Zuerlein was 38/40 on field goals (and one miss was from 63 yards) but did shank a couple of PATs and kicked a couple of kickoffs out of bounds (Tucker had none). But Zuerlein gets a pass from us on 1 missed PAT and one muffed kickoff in that he did it in a game where he had a severe lower back injury.
On kickoffs Tucker had 12 (13.3%) end up inside the 20 (a key stat) while Zuerlein had just eight inside the 20 (8.4%) and the two we mentioned that trickled out of bounds. It was clear that the Rams preferred to get a touchback most of the time rather than risk a touchdown return against them (Zuerlein had a 77% touchback rate) and Tucker's percentage was 61.1%. So, it was so close we looked at everything and we have Tucker a hair ahead.
If the AP, PFWA or SN poll differently, we are fine with it, Zuerlein would be a worthy All-Pro. But in our view, Tucker is, too. And, the exact same thing goes for the punter position as well (read on).
Hekker can do the 'extras' like run a fake punt and a key tackle on a return, things like that. However, he didn't have the year in 2017 that he had in 2016. He missed too many "greens" this year and flew a few too many if you will. He had several punts just outside the 20-yard line and more touchbacks this year. However, that is going by the unbelievable standards set in 2016 which was likely the best season any punter ever had so we may be being too critical.
Hekker ended the season with 30 inside-the-20 and 4 touchbacks for a 7.5-1 IN/20-TB ratio and allowed just 152 return yards and none were blocked and none were returned for touchdowns and his net punting was 44.3 yards. In the end, it was these "control stats" that edged Hekker's name over Kern's.
Kern's gross average ended up 49.7. He'd held a plus 50-yard average until the final game of the season. He dropped 28 kicks inside the 20-yard time and had just 5 touchbacks for a 5.6 ratio and his final net average was just ahead of Hekker at 44.6. He did allow 286 return yards, far more than Hekker (and Vogel for that matter). How much of that was outkicking coverage? How much was that a product of covering errors? That would take some study.
In addition, with the race so close, we considered Hekker's 2 for 3 in passing and his 3 tackles on returns on his own punts and those were two more small "pluses" for Hekker.
Jones ended the season with a 41.4 net average and a 34 to 5 In-20/TB ratio and was, like Hekker, a threat to run a successful fake punt. Vogel allowed only 164 return yards and had a final net average of 41.6
Pharoh Cooper of the Rams is the #1 kick returner and the Lions Jamal Agnew, is the top punt returner. Cordarrelle Patterson of Oakland is the Second-team KR and Michael Campanaro of the Ravens is the Second-team PR.
Agnew returned two punts for touchdowns and we put a premium on that over return average, but his average was stellar 15.4. Cooper averaged 27.4 per return and also took one to the house. He was second in the NFL with 932 return yards which is saying something in an era where so many kicks are not returned.
Technically, Patterson didn't qualify for the league leadership due to too few returns, but with today's rules, that bar needs to be lowered. He averaged 28.3-yard per return average on 19 attempts.
MVP—Tom Brady, NE
OPOY—Antonio Brown, Pit
DPOY—Chandler Jones, Ari
OROY—Kareem Hunt, KC
DROY—Marshon Lattimore, NO
Comeback—Jared Goff, LAR
Coach—Sean McVay, LAR
Here are our All-Conference teams: