The most prestigious award an NFL player can receive after the season, after MVP, is an All-Pro selection. And if you play anywhere other than quarterback or running back, that All-Pro selection is your version of the MVP, as no other position has won an MVP award since 1986.
Unlike the Pro Bowl or NFL Top 100, which are popularity contests, being an All-Pro actually means something, since the vote comes from the media members actually covering games.
Which players are most likely to stand out in the 2013 season, and who will be standing with heads held high as All-Pros at season's end?
First Team: Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons
However, Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan is poised to have his best NFL season yet, and that would be good enough to put him in the "truly elite" conversation. With targets like Tony Gonzalez, Roddy White and Julio Jones in the offense, Ryan has some of the best tools in the game at his disposal. That will result in big numbers, a lot of wins and Matty Ice making his first All-Pro team.
Second Team: Peyton Manning, Denver Broncos
Another year, another Peyton Manning All-Pro vote.
Manning will make a strong run at the first team, especially now that Wes Welker has been added to an already potent offense. Manning has a team built to win, but for me, questions about his offensive line outside of Ryan Clady could keep Manning's numbers and wins short of first-team merit.
Manning was great in 2012, but much of the hype generated was because he did so well coming off a 2011 season where he didn't see the field. The expectations are much higher now, and that's why Manning will be a second-teamer behind Matt Ryan.
First Team: Adrian Peterson, Minnesota Vikings; Jamaal Charles, Kansas City Chiefs
Adrian Peterson nearly set the single-season rushing record last year while rehabbing from knee surgery. That talent, and a good offensive line, will keep Peterson at the top.
You might be scratching your head at the Jamaal Charles entry, but the Kansas City Chiefs offense will be centered around the explosive ability of the former Texas Longhorn. Charles' running and catching ability, plus the beefed-up Chiefs O-line, will result in the numbers needed to impress the collective NFL media.
Second Team: Marshawn Lynch, Seattle Seahawks; Doug Martin, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Both choices for the second team are thick, strong backs who punish defenses. According to Pro Football Focus, Doug Martin and Marshawn Lynch were in the top five for yards after contact. Take two bruising runners and give them each 300 carries, and you have the recipe for All-Pro-worthy numbers.
Martin will see a boost thanks to a healthy offensive line, and with his Buccaneers being a sleeper to watch, more wins by the team could help his cause. As for Lynch, he's simply the NFL's best after-contact runner. Throw in that his Seahawks are serious Super Bowl contenders and you have the production and the press for an All-Pro run.
First Team: Jerome Felton, Minnesota Vikings
There's a good chance that NFL media members will continue to vote for Vonta Leach, even as other players are more deserving. Here's hoping my peers take a look at the man opening the holes for Adrian Peterson in Minnesota.
Felton was deserving of more credit than he received after the 2012 season, but much of the praise went straight to Peterson with little mention of the man clearing paths and taking punishment in front of him. Felton is a true road-clearing, throwback blocker. If NFL scribes take their eyes off the ball, they'll fall in love with Felton.
Second Team: Bruce Miller, San Francisco 49ers
There is no secret trick to getting on an All-Pro team, but it never hurts to play for one of the two Super Bowl teams. Bruce Miller saw his stock rise last season during the 49ers' run to the playoffs, and with the running game poised to be an even bigger part of the offense in Michael Crabtree's absence, Miller will have more opportunities to spring Colin Kaepernick, Frank Gore and Co. for the big runs they became known for in 2012.
First Team: Calvin Johnson, Detroit Lions; Brandon Marshall, Chicago Bears
I don't care how many wins the Detroit Lions have; Calvin Johnson is the best wide receiver in the NFL right now. If that doesn't get him on the All-Pro list each season, something is broken about the system. Johnson is among the five most dominant players in the game, regardless of position, and will continue to draw respect from writers, opponents and voters.
Brandon Marshall had the production in 2012 to gain All-Pro votes, but he needs another big season to firmly grasp an All-Pro slot. On my list, Marshall ranks as one of the best possession receivers in the game. With Alshon Jeffery and Martellus Bennett drawing attention of their own, defenses won't be able to put the manpower on Marshall, and that's sure to result in big numbers for the Bears' go-to receiver.
Second Team: A.J. Green, Cincinnati Bengals; Julio Jones, Atlanta Falcons
Our two second-team wide receivers both come from the SEC. Both also come from the 2011 NFL draft. It's incredible how productive—and dangerous—A.J. Green and Julio Jones have become in such a short time.
Green and Jones are different players, but they both excel at what they're asked to do. Green is a truly elite No. 1 receiver, and with Andy Dalton becoming more comfortable and having more targets at his disposal, Green should get more one-on-one looks. The same goes for Jones, who is quickly becoming a top deep threat and an athletic freak with whom few cornerbacks can keep up.
First Team: Jason Witten, Dallas Cowboys
With Rob Gronkowski's season in doubt after multiple offseason surgeries, All-Pro voters may be forced to look deeper to find the best tight end in the game. They won't have to look far or hard.
Jason Witten is, quite simply, the best all-around tight end in the game if Gronkowski isn't on the field. He's a high-level blocker, as sure-handed as they come and athletic enough to pick up catches, yards and touchdowns.
Second Team: Vernon Davis, San Francisco 49ers
If Witten is the best all-around tight end behind Gronkowski, Vernon Davis isn't far behind.
Davis suffered from a drop in production once Colin Kaepernick took over at quarterback midway through the 2012 season, but the two were in sync during the playoffs. Thanks to Michael Crabtree's torn Achilles tendon, Davis and Kaepernick must be in rhythm early on. That will lead to a heavy dose of targets thrown Davis' way, and history has shown that he has a way of finding the end zone with the ball in his hands.
If Davis can emerge as Kaepernick's go-to guy, an All-Pro vote is a sure thing.
First Team: Ryan Clady, Denver Broncos; Duane Brown, Houston Texans
If I could start an NFL franchise with any left tackle currently in the league, Duane Brown and Ryan Clady would be my first two picks.
When looking at elite pass-protectors and run-blockers that produce big plays, Brown and Clady are some of the best in the game. Each is among the best at what they're asked to do—Clady as a blindside protector and Brown as an elite mover in the zone-blocking scheme. With each player on a team that's expected to produce a ton of yards and points in the 2013 season, they will be even more visible and more praised following the season.
Second Team: Joe Thomas, Cleveland Browns; Joe Staley, San Francisco 49ers
You could make an argument that Joe Thomas is the best all-around offensive tackle in the NFL—I wouldn't fight you on that. So why isn't Thomas a first-team tackle? The offense he plays in is an enormous question mark heading into the season, and if the team struggles, Thomas is unlikely to get a first-team mention.
Joe Staley found his groove after Week 1 last season and simply dominated from there on. He's emerged as one of the game's best power tackles, showing the quickness and strength needed to play well in both the run and passing games. And with the 49ers picked by many to make a Super Bowl appearance, his play will get a boost from the success of his team.
First Team: Marshal Yanda, Baltimore Ravens; Mike Iupati, San Francisco 49ers
Marshal Yanda is, without question, the best offensive guard in the NFL right now. He's an elite pass-protector, a tough-as-nails run-blocker and a smart leader on a talented offensive line. When you focus on what Yanda does play after play, it's impossible to not be impressed.
Mike Iupati wasn't far behind Yanda during the 2012 season. In an offensive system that asks the guards to move in the running game, Iupati emerged as a tough, quick blocker both inside and on the edge. If the 49ers offense produces like it did in 2012 (or better), he'll find himself on the first-team roster of my ballot.
Second Team: Evan Mathis, Philadelphia Eagles; Alex Boone, San Francisco 49ers
Iupati isn't the only standout guard for the 49ers; Alex Boone was just as good in 2012 after making the move from tackle to right guard. In the starting lineup, he proved to be the all-around, balanced blocker the team needed to round out an offensive line that is now considered the best in the NFL. Boone's ability to open up holes for the running game makes him a sure-fire candidate entering the season.
Evan Mathis excels on an Eagles line that wasn't good in 2012, but it has the look of a much better unit heading into the season. No matter the status of the players around him, Mathis showed up week after week and played at high level through a disappointing season. Chip Kelly's sped-up offense will be a perfect fit for the athletic Mathis, who should once again be considered an elite guard.
First Team: Mike Pouncey, Miami Dolphins
Too often, Mike Pouncey is overlooked when discussions about the best center in the NFL come up. Fans want Nick Mangold here, but Pouncey has proven over the last two seasons that he's the best of the best.
With quickness and strength to take on any style of pass-rusher, Pouncey has the balanced game needed to lead and dominate. He's been doing that since the 2011 season, and if the Dolphins offense produces as expected this season, his star will rise to a first-team All-Pro level.
Second Team: Jeremy Zuttah, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Jeremy Zuttah may be the first player on this list that the casual fan doesn't know. Yet.
Zuttah didn't have an All-Pro-caliber season in 2012, thanks largely to injuries around him and a position change. The 2013 season will show his true ability. Zuttah has the pass- and run-blocking skills to be an All-Pro candidate on a yearly basis; now he needs the help of the passing game. If Josh Freeman and Co. produce, Zuttah's play will get the attention it deserves.
First Team: J.J. Watt, Houston Texans; DeMarcus Ware, Dallas Cowboys
Picking J.J. Watt to be a first-team All-Pro may be the most obvious decision ever, but it's the right one.
Watt has done nothing but dominate since entering the NFL, and I'm not going to bet against him doing the same in 2013. What more can be said about a player who has single-handedly dominated in the face of double-teams? Watt is one of the best players in the game right now.
DeMarcus Ware, on the other hand, lost some of his star power in 2012 thanks to injuries and a decline in production. Now healthy, and back in a 4-3 defense, Ware should once again dominate as a pass-rusher. With a better team around him, offenses won't be able to focus solely on Ware, and that's a recipe for big production from him.
Second Team: Justin Smith, San Francisco 49ers; Anthony Spencer, Dallas Cowboys
Defensive end Justin Smith will receive votes at both end and defensive tackle, but on our list he's making the team as an end. Smith is one of the most valuable players in the NFL, and he does it without exceptional stats. His play against the run and as a pass-rusher in the 49ers defense sets the tone for one of the most dominant defenses in the league.
Without Smith, the 49ers are merely above average.
Anthony Spencer outperformed teammate DeMarcus Ware in 2012, and with the team moving to a 4-3 defense under Monte Kiffin, there will be many opportunities for him to do the same in 2013. Spencer, playing left end, will be matched up against right tackles in passing situations. Ask any defender which side they'd want to be on, and they'll tell you the left. Spencer has the skills to outshine even the great Ware in that matchup.
First Team: Geno Atkins, Cincinnati Bengals; Nick Fairley, Detroit Lions
There are many quality defensive tackles in the NFL right now, but none better than Geno Atkins. The most productive of any defensive tackle during the 2012 season, he's set up for an even bigger year with developing talent beside him at tackle and both defensive end spots. Atkins could be even better in 2013, and that's terrifying.
Why Nick Fairley? Few people realize just how good he was in 2012. Overshadowed by the higher-profile Ndamukong Suh, it was easy to get lost in the rhetoric that the Lions defensive tackles weren't producing.
That's simply not true, though. Fairley posted five sacks, eight quarterback hits and 21 quarterback hurries. Those aren't world-beating numbers, but they show a young defensive tackle with talent on the rise. I'm betting on an even better 2013.
Second Team: Haloti Ngata, Baltimore Ravens; Gerald McCoy, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Our second-team picks are a mix of old and new, but both are dominant at what they do.
Haloti Ngata continues to play dominant football, but you won't be impressed by his stat sheet. Take a look at the inside of the Baltimore Ravens defensive line, though, and you'll be blown away by his strength, first step and the way he sets up the rest of the defense to excel. With Ray Lewis and Ed Reed gone, Ngata is the leader of this defense.
Gerald McCoy flirted with a "bust" label for a few seasons before really finding his footing in 2012 and showing the flashes that made him a high draft pick and anchor of the team's defensive line. His five sacks, 12 quarterback hits and 37 hurries were worthy of All-Pro consideration after last season. A better season, with healthy defensive ends drawing attention from him, is possible.
First Team: Aldon Smith, San Francisco 49ers; Von Miller, Denver Broncos
When deciding on which two outside linebackers to feature as first-teamers, the decision took all of one second. This is the definition of a no-brainer.
Von Miller (18.5 sacks) and Aldon Smith (19.5 sacks) were both strong candidates for Defensive Player of the Year following the 2012 season, with each earning first-team All-Pro recognition after just their second pro season. Who am I to bet against that?
Miller and Smith rank as two of the best young players in the NFL right now, with each possessing the individual talent to excel in their defensive systems. And thanks to the talent around them, both will continue to get plenty of one-on-one looks from offensive lines.
Second Team: Clay Matthews, Green Bay Packers; Justin Houston, Kansas City Chiefs
It's tough to follow Aldon Smith and Von Miller, but our second-teamers are both stud players in their own right.
Clay Matthews and Justin Houston both made the Pro Bowl after the 2012 season, thanks to their offense-busting pass-rush skills. Houston (10 sacks) and Matthews (13 sacks) were highly productive, but they fell short when compared to Smith and Miller. Each plays in a defense, though, that's very balanced up front and in the secondary.
Houston and Matthews could see more unopposed pass-rushing opportunities this season, which could lead to even bigger production and a bump from Pro Bowl to All-Pro.
First Team: Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman, San Francisco 49ers
It is incredibly rare for both first-team players to be from the same team, but that's what happened after the 2012 season, and it's likely to happen again.
Were it not for a four-game suspension, Arizona Cardinals linebacker Daryl Washington would arguably be in the running for this spot, but he's taken himself out of the competition. And why must there even be an argument, since Bowman and Willis are the two best inside linebackers in football?
There will be those who call this "homerism" from a 49ers fan, but what do they say to the Associated Press and Pro Football Focus—both of whom voted the duo as their All-Pro 'backers in 2012?
Second Team: Derrick Johnson, Kansas City Chiefs; Luke Kuechly, Carolina Panthers
Once we get past the incredibly obvious selections on the first team, who is left?
Washington, from the Cardinals, would have been my pick here were it not for his suspension. I really like Bobby Wagner in Seattle, but I don't see him as an All-Pro candidate just yet. Same for D'Qwell Jackson, Mason Foster and Sean Lee. All have great qualities and could play better than I'm predicting, but the two players who stand out most are Derrick Johnson and Luke Kuechly.
I've not been a big fan of Kuechly, not at Boston College nor in his rookie season, but you can't argue with his production and impact at the middle linebacker position. The Panthers will also have healthy outside linebackers and a revamped defensive tackle position in front of him. That should help Kuechly make more plays close to the line of scrimmage and more quality tackles.
Johnson was an All-Pro after the 2011 season and Pro Bowler last year on a very bad Kansas City defense. With that unit remade in the offseason, Johnson won't be asked to stop every play on his own. While he'll still have high production—he has since the light went on for him in 2011—he may have fewer tackles and still post a better all-around season.
First Team: Darrelle Revis, Tampa Bay Buccaneers; Richard Sherman, Seattle Seahawks
A healthy Darrelle Revis in 2013 will help us finally answer the question, "Who is the best cornerback in the NFL?" The good news is that the All-Pro team has two first-teamers at the position, so I don't have to choose between Revis and Richard Sherman.
The NFL's best cornerback in 2011 (Revis) and 2012 (Sherman) have had fun in the media with a war of words, but on the field each has true shutdown ability that can't be overstated. Sherman is a big, physical cover man who shuts down the deep game and collects interceptions. Revis, while not quite as big or loud, takes away the best receivers by eliminating them from the offensive game plan.
We might not know who the best cornerback in the NFL is, but if healthy, Revis and Sherman are the top two.
Second Team: Lardarius Webb, Baltimore Ravens; Joe Haden, Cleveland Browns
The 2012 season was set to be a huge year for both Lardarius Webb and Joe Haden, but an injury to Webb and a suspension for Haden kept both players from challenging for a top spot on the "best cornerback" lists. That should change in 2013.
Now healthy, Webb will officially enter the NFL universe as a top-tier cover man. Based on his 2011 play and early 2012, pre-injury results, he would be among the top five players in the game for me. The same goes for Haden, who has first-class potential but saw his 2012 season marred by a suspension from which he never fully bounced back.
As long as both players can stay on the field in 2013, they'll push for All-Pro spots.
First Team: Earl Thomas, Seattle Seahawks; Reshad Jones, Miami Dolphins
One player everyone has heard of (Earl Thomas); one you should know soon (Reshad Jones). The safety position on my All-Pro team might surprise some people, but those who study the game and not the stat sheets will know why each player is here.
Thomas, off of his third year with the Seahawks, has become like a young Ed Reed. His range and speed getting to the ball are, bar none, the best in the league. With top-tier cornerbacks outside of him, Thomas is free to roam and attack the passing game, and he does so with exceptional results.
Jones may not be someone you're familiar with yet, but when scouting the 2012 season for our NFL 1,000 project it was impossible to miss his impact on defense. He stood out with tackles, sacks, interceptions and cover skills to take away targets in man coverage. Jones is quickly becoming elite.
Second Team: Eric Weddle, San Diego Chargers; Michael Huff, Baltimore Ravens
The decline of Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu has opened up two spots at the safety position, and we're filling one with a well-known, well-paid safety. Eric Weddle has the total package, showing cover skills, tackling ability and the instincts to create turnovers. If you could build your secondary with any one safety as the foundation, he would get a ton of votes.
The second opening goes to Michael Huff—yes, really. Time spent in Oakland didn't allow the versatile safety to shine, but in the Ravens defense he'll be allowed to attack the ball and use his coverage skills to impact the game as a free safety. Huff may be a surprise entry here, but I'm going out on a limb to proclaim that he'll be the biggest impact signing the defending Super Bowl champions made this summer.
First Team: Justin Tucker, Baltimore Ravens
It's hard to argue with the production Justin Tucker showed in his rookie season. Now that he's more comfortable and the coaches are more comfortable with him, we could see even more points from the second-year star.
Second Team: Greg Zuerlein, St. Louis Rams
The Rams coaches actually hurt Greg Zuerlein in 2012 by asking him to attempt too many long-range kicks. Those that he missed drove down his accuracy percentage and kept the otherwise sure thing from getting the postseason attention he deserved. A more conservative approach to field goals will put Zuerlein on an All-Pro team in 2013.
First Team: Andy Lee, San Francisco 49ers
Andy Lee is automatic—both as a punter and as an All-Pro candidate. A first-teamer the last two years, Lee is looking for his own version of a three-peat.
Second Team: Brandon Fields, Miami Dolphins
If anyone can unseat Lee at the top, it's Brandon Fields. His 50.2 yards per punt led the league in 2012. If the Miami offense stalls the way it did last season, he'll also have many opportunities to show off his leg.
First Team: Randall Cobb, Green Bay Packers
Randall Cobb is so much more than just a return man, and that will help in his campaign for an All-Pro roster spot. As happens most years, a very good positional player who also excels as a returner will get a boost when it comes time to vote. Cobb, with his ability on offense and special teams, is set up to have a big, big year.
Second Team: Jacoby Jones, Baltimore Ravens
A hero for the Baltimore Ravens during the 2012 season, Jacoby Jones will be asked to take on even more as the team tries to replace Anquan Boldin. That could lead to fewer chances in the return game, but the coaches would be crazy to keep Jones off the field on kick returns. His two touchdowns and 108-yard long both led the league.