By John Turney
All we can say is we give it our best shot. We watch the games, the broadcast, and the All-22 and pick who we think is the best. Are we right? Well, as much as anyone. Are we wrong? Sure, as much as anyone. Teams don't have 11-man squads anymore, there are specialists upon specialists. So, we pick accordingly. If we cannot break a tie, we pick both.
Let's open with the wideouts. Cooper Kupp and Davante Adams are the First-team guys. Ja'Marr Chase and Justin Jefferson back them up.
Kupp may not be the most talented receiver in the NFL but he had the best season of anyone in 2021. He finished with 145 catches and 1,947 yards and 16 touchdowns—the receiving triple crown. Though he won't get the award he should receive strong support for the AP and PFWA MVP. Kupp is a precise route-runner, a tough blocker, super-smart, gets yards after the catch, and is clutch on third down. Countless times he's kept Rams drives alive with catches where he looked covered. Without him, the Rams are just another team.
Devante Adams, we think, is the best receiver in the NFL, but sometimes the best player in terms of skill sets does not always have the best season. Adams finished with 1,553 yards and 11 TDs on 123 catches and was vital to the Packers' success. He runs incredible routes and has great hands. He's an All-Pro's All-Pro.
Our flex-type guy is WR/RB Deebo Samuel and his 15 TDs (rushing/receiving/throwing) and his running hard, running tough style. As a runner, he averaged 5.6 yards a rush on 59 carries. He caught 77 passes for 1,405 yards and when you include the pass he threw he totaled 1,865 yards. Before Samuel, no 1,000-yard receiver rushed for more than two touchdowns in a single season and no 1,000-yard receiver ever rushed for more than 157 yards in a single season (Samuel rushed for 365). His 15 touchdowns break down this way: He rushed for eight touchdowns caught six touchdown passes and threw for one.
When you watch Deebo he just is ridiculous in all the things he can do and do well. He is just so tough to bring down and had great hands. John Madden would have loved this guy.
Cordarrelle Patterson is the Second-team flex player behind Samuel. Tyreek Hill's 111 catches for 1,239 yards and 9 scores put him on the All-AFC team with Chase and Mike Evans and his 14 scores get him a Second-team All-NFC nod.
At tight end, we are going with Mark Andrews followed by Travis Kelce. When healthy George Kittle is the best overall but this isn't who you'd take first if you could pick anyone, it is how had best season and he missed too much time to be taken over by Andrews or Kelce.
Kelce finished with 92 catches 1,125 yards and nine TD receptions. Andrews, in a more run-oriented offense, had 107 catches for just under 1,400 yards and also had nine scores.
Trent Williams and Tristan Wirfs are the First-team tackles with Kolton Miller and Lane Johnson taking the Second-team slots.
Williams was dominant and clearly the best run-blocking tackle and can pass protect as well. Wirfs gets the nod based on his pass blocking. Even when the Bucs run, it's often off of pass-action rather than what the 49ers or Colts do. But he's the top right tackle.
Miller was better this year than last and looks like a future First-team All-Pro. Johnson took some personal time and though not a superior year for right tackles, Johnson was solid all year.
Zack Martin is back after his 2020 injury and was great all year. Laken Tomlinson is the other guard. Joe Bitonio and Chris Lindstrom (who we picked last year) are the Second-team picks.
Guards were better this year than the tackles in our view. Several guards could be considered First- or Second-team All-Pros—The Colts Quenton Nelson, Ben Powers of the Ravens were very good as was Shaq Mason of the Patriots and Ali Marpet of the Bucs. Powers just barely played the minimum number of games (13) to qualify. They all are part of the All-Conference picks. We also like Jonah Jackson of the Lions but he needs to clean up his pass-blocking and not get so many penalties. We will keep an eye on him for next year. He's not All-Pro yet but has potential.
Jason Kelce is the center and Corey Linsley is the Second-teamer. Creed Humphrey had a great rookie season and is Second-team All-AFC. Ryan Jensen is the Second-team All-NFC center.
The First-team backfield is composed of quarterback Aaron Rodgers, fullback Kyle Juszczyk, and running back Jonathan Taylor.
Rodgers is the front-runner for the AP and PFWA MVP awards and he's certainly worthy. He led the Pack to the number one seed and the NFL's best record, his passer rating was a hair below 112. he threw 37 touchdowns and only four picks.
Jonathan Taylor was chalk. So was Juszczyk.
Taylor rushed for 1,811 yards and 18 touchdowns and had 2,171 yards from scrimmage and 20 total touchdowns. Juszczyk plays fullback, tight end, can split out wide, can throw a pass, catch, and in a pinch, can is your emergency holder.
The backup trio is the Bengals Joe Burrow, the Ravens Patrick Ricard at fullback and after going down to the last game went with Austin Ekeler for the Second-team pick. There was a lot of competition for that second slot but Ekler was sixth in the NFL in yards from scrimmage and scored 20 touchdowns and two two-point conversions.
Burrow was an old AFL bombardier but with 70% accuracy. He threw 34 TDs, but still had a 108.3 passer rating because he punched them to Chase all year. His yards per attempt was 8.87 and his average completion was 12.6 (both led the NFL). Sure, Tom Brady had a great year and we like Justin Herbert, too. But next to Rodgers, we'd take Joe Namath . . . uh, we mean Joe Burrow.
Justin Herbert is and Tom Brady are the Second-team All-Conference quarterbacks behind Rodgers and Burrow.
Neither of our Second-team running backs for the Second-team All-NFC team didn't gain 1,000 yards. Elijah Mitchell and A.J. Dillon of the 49ers and Packers respectively got picked on the eye test. They were special and both should be stars soon and both will be huge keys to their teams winning in the playoffs. It was too close to call so we gave it to both of them.
Justin Tucker is the kicker and Bryan Anger is the punter. Both were chalk.
Our favorite metric for punters is Net Yards over Average (NYOA)
Net Yards over Average = Sum( (Yards - ReturnYards - 20 * Touchbacks - (Rolling Two Year League Average Net Yards from that Field Position) ) ) / Sum(Punts)
Bryan Anger was first in NYOA and also led the NFL in net punting with a 44.6-yard average, had 24-4 Inside the 20-touchback ratio, and didn't have any blocked or returned on him.
Next in NYOA and net punting was Logan Cooke of Jacksonville. However he did have one blocked but we always allow one "super negative" play because punting, like any football play is a unit effort.
This year Johnny Hekker (third in NYOA) tamped down his depth but he only had nine punts returned for 60 yards. His net punting average was 42.6—good for fourth in the NFL. He had an 18-1 In/20-TB ratio and the one that was a touchback was knocked into the end zone by his own coverage team. The difference between his gross average and net average was 1.6. When you look at, say, A.J. Cole, the difference is eight yards, meaning he's kicking deep but not getting anything extra in terms of yards—his net was lower than Hekker's.
Hekker was thought to perhaps be too expensive and was thought to be cut prior to the season because Corey Bojorquez had such a good camp and preseason. Wisely the Rams kept Hekker and Bojorquez was signed by the Packers where he finished tied for 17th in net punting and had a punt returned for a score, one that sure looked like went over his coverage. So, Hekker gets the Second-team All-NFC slot.
We went ahead and gave the Second-team All-AFC slot to A.J. Cole. His net yardage was good for fifth in the NFL and he was fifth in NYOA. This may be a mistake though because Sam Martin was third in net punting but there is always an advantage kicking in the Colorado air. At worst, call it a toss-up with the edge going to Cole.
There is no need to discuss Tucker, but he;'s first in FGPlusMinus.
FGPlusMinus = Summation of (If Field Goal made, 1 - rolling two-year League average success rate from that distance, if missed, negative rolling two year League average success rate from that distance)
On top of that, he didn't miss any PATs, and oh, by the way, let the NFL record with a 66-yard field goal and had a successful onside kick—a rare feat these days.
Matt Gay of the Rams was third in FGPlusMinus behind Nick Folk but Folk missed too many PATs and Gay's long was 55 and Folk's was 53. Gay missed two kicks, Folk three. Gay also just missed on PAT while kickers like Carlson (three misses) and Boswell (two) missed more.
Carlson, Tucker, and Gay were all about the same in net kickoff average. Boswell trailed but not by much. Gay was 0/3 on onside kicks and Carlson and Boswell didn't attempt any.
We are aware that it takes 1.25 returns to qualify for the league leadership in kick- and punt returns, but with the kickoffs rules, we go by touchdowns and average, and if they got at least 500 yards in kick returns. Kene Nwangwu of the Vikings took two to the house and had a 32.2 yard average on kick returns. In our view, his 579 yards on 18 returns was close enough. Braxton Berrios of the Jets is the Second-team selection. The Chargers Andre Roberts makes it as the Second-team All-AFC kick returner with his 32.8 average. Though he did fumble a punt return in the season finale versus the Raiders.
Miles Killebrew of the Steelers is our special teamer and he's followed by the Panthers Frankie Luvu. Killebrew made seven tackles but also blocked a pair of punts. Luvu had nine tackles, a forced fumble, and a block that was returned for a touchdown.
The Saints Andrew Dowell and Ashton Dulin of Indy were special teams terrors. Matthew Slater made the Pro Bowl on rep. J.T. Gray was worthy and we have him as an honorable mention but Dowell had 13 tackles to Gray's 18, Dowell's blocked punt in New England made the difference to us so he's the Second-team All-NFC special teamer. Dulin was a Pro Bowl alternate and we could have gone with hm over Killebrew
Nick Bosa, of the Niners is our 40 edge, T.J. Watt of Pittsburgh the 30 LB edge. Our 5/4/3 tech is Jeffery Simmons of the Titans and the three-technique is the Rams Aaron Donald and our nose is Vita Vea of Tampa Bay.
Bosa topped Garrett but it was super close. Garrett was hampered by a nagging groin injury late and maybe you can call that the difference. Bosa had 15.5 sacks and 8.0 stuffs and 49 pressures and forced four fumbles and didn't have a penalty called on him all season. No roughing the passer calls, no encroachment or offsides. Nothing. That is very rare for a dominant edge rusher.
Donald was the Defensive Player of the Year last year but while he was, of course, great, he didn't think he made as many plays as usual in his first year in Brandon Staley's defense. Overall the defense was the best in the NFL but often Donald has to play a gap-and-a-half rather than Wade Phillip's one gap 3-4 scheme.
This year we observed more penetration by Donald on run plays, perhaps freelancing, and it was successful. He was in the backfield more on run plays and even on wide pass plays. His pass rush was the same but we think he just was back to his 2014-2019 run stuff big play totals. He has a great shot at winning his fourth Defensive Player of the Year Award.
Donald had a career-high in tackles (84), had 12.5 sacks 10.5 run/pass stuffs, four passes deflected and four forced fumbles, and scores of pressures and double-teams drawn.
Vea is special. Yesterday it was announced that he signed a four-year extension worth over $73 million through 2026 so the Bucs know his value. The Bucs allow just over 90 yards rushing per game in a hybrid 3-4/4-3 and Veo is the middle man. His role was the plug the run (at 6-4, 345 he's built for it) be he even notched 4 sacks and batted away three passes.
Simmons edged out Cam Heyward for a defensive interior position. Maybe it was what Paul Zimmerman called "young legs" but Simmons was looking like a young Heyward this year. Good getting penetration and making tackles, getting a good rush. Playing some 5-tech, but usually more of a 3-tech and even a shade tech in the Titan defense. He finished with 54 tackles, 8.5 sacks, and deflected six passes. There were some (Heyward for one) with better numbers and in watching him he looked the most active 30 end/40 tackle of the bunch.
As we just mentioned Heyward had great numbers, but he toiled on a poor run defense, probably the worst in the NFL. He still battled and had a career-high 89 tackles, 10 sacks, 9 passed batted, and eight stuffs. It is a season that will add to his already Hall of Fame career but we think Simmons was better and caused more issues. However, in our All-AFC team, we aligned it more like the AP All-Pro team and Simmons and Heyward are the two All-AFC defensive interior guys. We gave Shelby Harris of the Broncos and DeForest Buckner the Second-team slots on that squad.
Myles Garrett of the Browns, the Bears Robert Quinn (whose 18.5 sacks set the Bears record in a season beating Richard Dent's record set in 1984), Cameron Heyward of the Steelers, Washington's Jonathan Allen, and Javon Hargrave of Philadelphia are the Second-teamers.
Garrett had 16 sacks 5.0 stuffs and 52 pressures and forced a fumble and started out the season like he was going to be the Defensive Player of the Year then his play flatten out towards the end.
Allen backs up Aaron Donald as a "rush tackle". He tailed off some at the end of the year but for the first three-fourths of the season, he was excellent. If there weren't an Aaron Donald in the league Allen would be an All-Pro. He finished with 62 tackles 9 sacks and 30 QB hits.
|Jonathan Allen—Second-team All-Pro|
Hargrave led his team in 18 hits led his team's defensive linemen in tackles (63), sacks (7.5) but his forte is stopping the run and the Eagles were in the top five in the fewest yards allowed again the run. Hargrave was a big part of that,
The Second-team All-NFC 40 end is Cameron Jordan who totaled 59 tackles, 12.5 sacks, 6 PDs, and 2 forced fumbles on a Saints defense that was top five in stopping the run and in points allowed and top ten in sacks and nearly willed an injury and COVID riddled team to the playoffs, losing their spot when the 49ers beat the Rams on the season's last Sunday.
|Maxx Crosby—Second-team All-AFC|
Maxx Crosby is Jordan's counterpart as the Second-team 40 end only he's on the All-AFC team. He had about as many pressures (42) as Bosa and Garrett and had eight sacks and deflected six passes and seven stuffs—he has an excellent season but not quite to the level of Bosa and Garrett.
T.J. Watt tied the official NFL record for sacks with 22.5 (set by Michael Strahan in 2001). We won't get into Bubba Baker that is a conversation for another day. he had 52 pressures, five forced fumbles, and 7 pass deflections. It was tough leaving Judon to Second-team All-AFC, he was excellent, but Watt is a legit Defensive Player of the Year contender.
As mentioned Robert Quinn is the Second-team All-Pro and First-team All-NFC and Shaquil Barrett is the Second-team All-NFC rush backer. Haason Reddick is an honorable mention.
|T.J. Watt tied official NFL record with 22.5 sacks|
De'Vondre Campbell of Green Bay is the MIKE. Micah Parsons of Dallas and the Colts Darius Leonard tied as the WILL-type, though Parsons will line up as a rover (in the interior gaps) to rush and also on the edge to rush. He's a hybrid-type and has been special.
Fred Warner had a very good, but not spectacular season. He even mentioned it to one television crew himself. Talent-wise he's the best, but Campbell made more "top plays" and once again Roquan Smith, was terrific. He was one of our honorable mentions last year because Warner and Devin White were just spectacular and there were only so many slots to go around.
An honorable mention this year is Demario Davis who we had neck and neck with Smith, who was neck and neck with Campbell. Likewise, this year Warner and White were off a bit so Campbell and Smith are the top two guys.
Campbell helped transform the Packer defense and made 146 tackles, 2 picks, 2 FF, 2 sacks and had an excellent defensive passer rating (for a LBer) of 74.9 and missed only four tackles all season while Smith had 157 tackles, 9.5 were run/pass stuffs with three sacks and a pick 6 and his individual DPR was also excellent (75.8 through 16 games) and missed just six tackles.
Leonard is getting overlooked for the Defensive Player of the Year but he has a legit claim on the award, along with a couple of the edge rushers, Parsons, and of course, Aaron Donald. Will he win it? No, be he deserves to be in the conversation. In his first few years, the Colts would use him to blitz and he'd get there. This year much less of that but he was johnny-on-the-spot for turnovers. He picked off 4 passes forced eight fumbles and recovered three and also defended right passes and made 122 tackles.
Parsons was raw, but excellent at doing a variety of things. He had 84 tackles, 13 sacks, 11.5 run/pass stuffs, forced three fumbles, and had 47 pressures despite not being a rusher as often as the other dominant pure edge rushers. His individual defensive passer rating was 71.5 which is excellent for a 'backer. He missed some tackles, but he more than made up for that with big, game-changing plays.
So, yes, it was a cop-out tying Leonard and Parsons on the First-team but sometimes circumstances warrant it when guys are so close or both are great but have different roles.
Our Second-team off-the-ball or "Will-type" 'backer is Kyzir White of the Chargers. Sometimes he was the Mike or the "1" in the 5-1 but usually was the "money" 'backer often aligned on the opposite side of the "Star" or nickel. He had 144 tackles, 9.5 were stuffs, and he only missed 5% of his tackles, very low for that position, and he puts some pressure on the quarterback and had an 87.7 defensive passer rating which is not stellar but among linebackers ranks reasonably high but regardless he was a skilled pass defender in the Chargers scheme.
He is a former safety and only weighs around 220 pounds but in today's NFL he's the kind of guy head coach Brandon Staley's defense needs (though Staley's defense underperformed overall) to run their match zones and White has a bright future. He's one of our '"sleeper" picks this year.
Just behind White (and it was a tough choice) was Matt Milano. We also gave Milano an honorable mention in 2018—the Will-type 'backer position has a lot of competition in the AFC it seems.
Rounding out the rest of the picks Tremaine Edmunds (108 tackles, 8 stuffs) is the All-AFC MIKE linebacker and Ja'Whaun Bentley of New England backs him up. Edmunds is an athletic rangy guy who led the NFL-best defense and Bentley is a thumper who was the storm in the middle of the NFL's second-best defense. Shaq Thompson of the Panthers gets the final off-the-ball linebacker spot on the Second-team NFC unit.
The secondary is the Rams Jalen Ramsey, as the DB, plays outside, inside, everywhere. J.C. Jackson of New England and Trevon Diggs of Dallas are the corners and Jordan Poyer of the Bills and Justin Simmons of the Broncos are the safeties.
Ramsey covers great, plays outside, plays the slot (what the Rams call "Star") plays the edge once in a while in tight formations. He had 9.5 run/pass stuffs and four picks. He's the complete corner and yes we are aware he got beat a couple of times in the season finale against the 49ers, but he's still our number one cornerback.
|Jalen Ramsey picked off three passes and had 9.5 tackles for losses|
New England's Jackson has a defensive passer rating of 46.8 and picked off 8 passes on a terrific defense against the pass second to the Bills.
Diggs gets criticized for giving up yards. He gave up 907 yards and 4 touchdowns but picked off 11 passes and had an individual passer rating of 55.8 against him one of the best in the NFL while playing plenty of man coverage.
First, look at the yards Jackson and others have given up. next compare the yards given up as a team by the 1980 Raiders, where they rank compared to the 2021 Cowboys. People are certainly free to trust PFF's grade for Diggs of 67 or whatever it ended up being, but we have him higher and watched him a lot. We'll take him.
In the NBA wingspan is coveted because you can defend on the perimeter. The same is true at CB. Diggs has just over a 78" wingspan—that’s like a 6’6 person. Combine that with ridiculous ball skills and with a guy who can track the ball like a wide receiver—that's what makes him so unique, Diggs is really long, great catching the ball and tracks it better than anyone. Those things mean more than ever in today's NFL.
Justin Simmons edges Devin McCourty and Jordan Poyer and of Quandre Diggs at the safety slots.
Simmons had 80 sacks, 1.5 sacks, and five picks playing left safety in Vic Fangio's scheme. He was a leader to some young players in a defense that was among the league leaders in the fewest points allowed.
Jordan Poyer was phenomenal in 2021. He picked off five and allowed just one touchdown but in addition, was often in the backfield making tackles for loss—he finished with 91 tackles, 3.0 sacks, 4.5 stuffs and he has an individual defensive passer rating of 42.2.
Jordan Whitehead of Tampa Bay and the Giants Xavier McKinney get the Second-team All-NFC safety slots. McKinney battled away, picked off five passes and had an individual DPR of 68.1 going into the final weekend and Whitehead didn't give up a touchdown and even though he was hurt and missed some games he sure stood out when we saw him.
Byron Murphy of the Cardinals backs up Ramsey at the "star/nickel" and the Eagles' Darius Slay and Patrick Surtain II of Denver, are the Second-team corners.
Murphy narrowly, and we mean narrowly, edges Kenny Moore II. They both played the slot in nickel and outside in base. They gave up the same number of touchdowns and had the same number of picks. About the same in yards and missed tackles, and a lot of other things. Moore had the edge in tackles for loss and pressures on the quarterback.
Murphy started off hotter and then tailed off. He did have a poor game against Dallas last week but Moore had his off days as well. But this is a passing game and these defensive backs, especially the ones in the slot have the toughest jobs in the most dangerous spot, in the seams where the chunk plays kill teams. And they have to cover more two-way 'gos', whereas outside guys can use the boundary as help sometimes.
In the end, we thought Murphy was a hair better overall in having to face the likes of Deebo Samuel, Cooper Kupp, Justin Jefferson, Davante Adams, and others. In other words, the NFC had better wideouts than the AFC this year. That, and a couple folks we checked with thought Murphy had a better year and we thought the same using our "eye-test".
However, Moore is the All-AFC "DB", and Tyrann Mathieu backs him up. Mathieu plays safety and slot and sometimes even is a de facto linebacker.
Slay was excellent all year and made big play after big play and was excellent in coverage and rookie Surtain also impressed. A lot of corners deserve mention, among them A.J. Terrell of the Falcons and Jamel Dean of the Bucs, Charvarius Ward of the Chiefs, and Xavien Howard of Miami.
We've always picked nickel rushers since they can be such a big part of good defenses. This year it is a rookie and a veteran. The rook is Jaelan Phillips of Miami. He was a first-round pick out of UCLA and finished with 8.5 sacks and close to 30 pressures.
The vet is Carlos Dunlap of Seattle. the 'hawk defense is not close to what it once was but Dunlap came up big in games we saw. he had 8.5 sacks and patted away 7 passes and 14 QB hits. it was odd seeing his uniform number 9 at defensive end (he was listed as a "LEO"—Seattle's name the weak end but he was allowed to wear a linebacker number somehow) but he would make his move, get pressure and if he didn't he stick his hand up and bat the ball away. He now has 96 career sacks and 69 passes deflected.
We will have our awards later this week and the All-Rookie team tomorrow.