Bleacher Report's Preseason NFL All-Pro Team
The long wait for football is almost over.
In two short days, the Green Bay Packers and Seattle Seahawks will kick off the 2014 campaign. This Sunday will mark the first of 17 straight weeks of exciting NFL action.
As the season unfolds, many things will proceed just as we thought. The Seahawks and Denver Broncos will all but certainly be good. The Cleveland Browns and Oakland Raiders all but certainly will not.
Later this year, as the dust begins to settle on the 2014 campaign, the task of assembling this year's Pro Bowl participants will begin.
However, where the Pro Bowl has become as much a popularity contest as a reward for a great season, the All-Pro squad assembled each year by The Associated Press is generally regarded as a much better indicator as to who the best players in a given year truly are.
Well, here at Bleacher Report we're getting in on the action too. We've polled B/R's National Lead Writers and Division Lead Writers, asking them to name their preseason All-Pros for 2014.
Here's what those esteemed scribes had to say.
Winner: Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers (six votes)
After setting single-season records in both passing yardage and passing touchdowns in 2013, Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning would seem the obvious choice as this year's preseason All-Pro under center.
Our panel disagrees.
In fact, Manning placed third at the position, behind Drew Brees of the New Orleans Saints and this year's winner.
Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers struggled his way through a disappointing 2013 season, missing nearly half the year with a fractured collarbone.
However, Rodgers is healthy now and seems very comfortable directing the Packers' new hurry-up offense.
As Will Brinson of CBS Sports reports, that doesn't bode well for defenses in the NFC North:
If the Packers are putting an emphasis on Rodgers becoming even quicker with his delivery from the pocket and ratcheting up the pace of their offense at the same time, good luck to defenses trying to keep up.
Our voters are on board with that assessment, tabbing Rodgers as this year's All-Pro under center.
Others receiving votes: Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints (four votes); Peyton Manning, Denver Broncos (three votes); Tom Brady, New England Patriots (two votes)
Winners: LeSean McCoy, Philadelphia Eagles (14 votes); Adrian Peterson, Minnesota Vikings (eight votes)
The running back position may have been devalued somewhat in recent years in the NFL, but there are still a number of incredibly talented ball-carriers toting the rock across the league.
Six such running backs received at least one vote as a preseason All-Pro from our experts, but one back was far and away the leading pick.
In fact, after leading the NFL with 1,607 yards on the ground last year, LeSean McCoy of the Philadelphia Eagles was only a single vote shy of being a unanimous choice.
The 26-year-old raised a few eyebrows back in August, tweeting, "This is THE YEAR!!!! My potential is 2,000 yards. Will I reach it? Stepping up my training and signs point to yes."
That boast may stretch the bounds of optimism, but in Chip Kelly's uptempo, run-heavy scheme, McCoy should be in for another phenomenal year.
McCoy is joined in our theoretical backfield by a player who has already accomplished the goal McCoy set for himself in 2014.
Adrian Peterson's 1,266 rushing yards last year were considered a relative disappointment after the 29-year-old came up eight yards shy of the single-season rushing record in 2012, but Peterson told Jim Souhan of the Star Tribune (h/t Will Brinson of CBS Sports) he sees big things in store in new coordinator Norv Turner's offense this year:
This is going to be the best offense I've played in. This is the offense I've been waiting for. We've got the pieces to facilitate moving the ball around. When Brett Favre was here, listen, when I saw those deep balls going up and guys making big plays, I was like, "Yeah!" That makes your team very scary.
It's a duo that would give NFL defenses nightmares and fantasy football owners the vapors.
Others receiving votes: Jamaal Charles, Kansas City Chiefs (three votes); Eddie Lacy, Green Bay Packers (three votes); Andre Ellington, Arizona Cardinals (one vote); Toby Gerhart, Jacksonville Jaguars (one vote)
Winner: Mike Tolbert, Carolina Panthers (five votes)
In many respects, the fullback position in the NFL is going the way of the dodo bird.
Many teams no longer even carry a fullback on the roster. In a way, that makes it fitting that Mike Tolbert of the Carolina Panthers got the nod from our voters.
After all, the 28-year-old is essentially just a really big tailback, a player who made a name for himself as a bruising ball-carrier for the San Diego Chargers.
However, since joining the Carolina Panthers in 2012, Tolbert's role has been that of a lead blocker and short-yardage back.
It's a role that Tolbert has taken to well. In Tolbert's two seasons in Carolina he's scored 12 rushing touchdowns, and in 2013 only Anthony Sherman of the Kansas City Chiefs graded out higher at the position, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Tolbert is also a capable receiver, reeling in 54 passes (and scoring two touchdowns) since joining the Panthers.
Others receiving votes: Bruce Miller, San Francisco 49ers (four votes); Marcel Reece, Oakland Raiders (three votes); Anthony Sherman, Kansas City Chiefs (two votes); James Develin, New England Patriots (one vote)
Winner: Jimmy Graham, New Orleans Saints (14 votes)
This is a vote that should surprise absolutely no one. In fact, if there's anything surprising about Jimmy Graham of the New Orleans Saints being named the preseason All-Pro, it's that the vote wasn't unanimous.
After all, Graham caught 86 passes for over 1,200 yards and an eye-popping 16 touchdowns last year, and that was with the fifth-year pro nicked up for much of the season.
Graham and the Saints went through a much-publicized contract kerfuffle in the offseason, but per Mark Maske of The Washington Post, Graham said that's all behind him:
I'm back to football. And, really, that's been all my focus, is catching back up and making sure that I'll be ready Week 1. It doesn't matter what's happened in the past. I'm gonna be judged on each game from now on. So that's not my concern at all.
The concern now falls to opposing defenses, who must try to figure out a way to stop a player who's been all but unstoppable the past three years.
Others receiving votes: Rob Gronkowski, New England Patriots (one vote)
Winners: Calvin Johnson, Detroit Lions (14 votes); Demaryius Thomas, Denver Broncos (five votes)
We established in the last slide that a unanimous vote isn't looking likely here. If Jimmy Graham isn't getting it, that doesn't speak well for anyone else's odds.
Still, it isn't going to drop any jaws that Calvin Johnson of the Detroit Lions came close.
The 28-year-old is the gold standard at his position, a player with four straight 1,000-yard seasons to his credit and the holder of the single-season record for receiving yards.
In fact, as Michael Rothstein of ESPN.com reports, a panel of voters at ESPN named Johnson the league's top offensive player overall:
In seven years in the NFL, Johnson has amassed 572 catches for 9,328 yards and 66 touchdowns. He holds the single-season receiving yards record with 1,964 yards, and the combination of all of his physical gifts make him torturous to cover for opposing defensive backs, who nearly all admit to needing help to do it.
The voting was a lot closer for Johnson's batterymate, but in the end it was Demaryius Thomas of the Denver Broncos who got the nod.
Over the past two years there haven't been many more productive wideouts in the NFL than Thomas, who has gone over 90 catches and 1,400 yards with double-digit touchdowns in both 2012 and 2013.
Of course, catching passes from Peyton Manning doesn't hurt.
Others receiving votes: Dez Bryant, Dallas Cowboys (four votes); A.J. Green, Cincinnati Bengals (three votes); Brandon Marshall, Chicago Bears (two votes); Alshon Jeffery, Chicago Bears (one vote); Percy Harvin, Seattle Seahawks (one vote)
Winners: Joe Thomas, Cleveland Browns (nine votes); Jason Peters, Philadelphia Eagles (seven votes)
Offensive linemen may not get the publicity of quarterbacks or wide receivers, but the fact is an offense in the NFL is only as good as the line blocking for it.
For most teams (the ones with right-handed quarterbacks, anyway), left tackle is the most important position on that line. It's reflected in the hefty salaries that the NFL's top blindside protectors receive.
In Joe Thomas of the Cleveland Browns and Jason Peters of the Philadelphia Eagles, our panel settled on two of the league's very best at what they do. Not only did both players rank among the top five at their position last year according to Pro Football Focus, but the pair combined to allow only six sacks in 2013.
By weight of comparison, Will Beatty of the New York Giants, who started 16 games at left tackle for Big Blue last year, allowed 13.
Others receiving votes: Tyron Smith, Dallas Cowboys (five votes); Ryan Clady, Denver Broncos (five votes); Duane Brown, Houston Texans (one vote); Trent Williams, Washington Redskins (one vote); Joe Staley, San Francisco 49ers (one vote); Cordy Glenn, Buffalo Bills (one vote)
Winners: Evan Mathis, Philadelphia Eagles (13 votes); Larry Warford, Detroit Lions (four votes)
Offensive guards are the unsung heroes of the NFL. Most toil in relative anonymity, banging away in the trenches. But their impact on the playing field can't be overstated, especially in the run game.
There was a great deal of variance in our experts' All-Pro votes at guard, with 10 players receiving at least one vote. With that said, Evan Mathis of the Philadelphia Eagles was the runaway top choice, garnering over three times as many recommendations as the next-closest player.
It makes sense. Mathis was PFF's top guard in 2013 by a significant margin.
Mathis is joined by Detroit's Larry Warford, who shined as a rookie for the Lions last year. However, the former Kentucky standout told Tim Twentyman of the team's website that he still has plenty of room for improvement.
"The biggest difference this offseason is that I know what I need to prepare for and I have film of me from last year in the NFL," Warford said. "I saw what I did last year and I know what I need to improve on."
With an attitude like that and more than a little talent, odds are this isn't the last time Warford will be making an appearance on a list like this.
Others receiving votes: Marshal Yanda, Baltimore Ravens (three votes); Josh Sitton, Green Bay Packers (two votes); Kyle Long, Chicago Bears (two votes); Jahri Evans, New Orleans Saints (two votes); four players one vote each
Winner: Alex Mack, Cleveland Browns (seven votes)
There are two players in the NFL who touch the ball on every snap.
One gets all the postseason awards, the huge contracts, the endorsement deals and the dates with actresses.
Then there is the center.
Mind you, this isn't to say the center isn't important. Not only must he snap the ball cleanly (without looking), but it's also the center's responsibility to identify the defense and make the necessary adjustments and line calls.
Our panel's pick as the NFL's best in that regard is Cleveland's Alex Mack, who just signed a lucrative extension with the Browns after being courted by the Jacksonville Jaguars in free agency.
The quarterback battle in Cleveland over the past several weeks has put extra pressure on the sixth-year pro, who told Kevin Jones of the Browns' website he's glad to now be able to focus on improving his rapport with Brian Hoyer:
It’s good to see us choose one guy and run with that. That way you can have one guy get used to the one cadence and stuff. On the other hand, it is good to get a mix of everyone. This is what camp is for – different guys to rotate through and see [and] get used to everyone. Because some else comes in the game, whether it be it a lineman, a tight end, or a quarterback, whoever it’s going to be, it's good to have those reps who you've had experience with.
Of course, the odds are still good that we'll see Johnny Manziel under center at some point this season, and regardless of who the quarterback is, Mack will be counted on to help keep that signal-caller on an even keel.
Others receiving votes: Ryan Kalil, Carolina Panthers (four votes); Jason Kelce, Philadelphia Eagles (two votes); Nick Mangold, New York Jets (one vote); Nick Hardwick, San Diego Chargers (one vote)
Winners: J.J. Watt, Houston Texans (15 votes); Robert Quinn, St. Louis Rams (11 votes)
Winner, winner, chicken dinner, we have our first unanimous All-Pro!
Given who it is, it's no shock. Sure, J.J. Watt's sack numbers were down last year, but it says something about just how dominant Watt was in 2012 that 10.5 sacks and 80 tackles are looked at as a "letdown" year.
Never mind that for the second straight season Watt graded out as the top 3-4 end at Pro Football Focus by a margin that looks like the score in a basketball game between the USA and Botswana.
The margin was similarly glaring among 4-3 ends, where Robert Quinn smoked the competition after a career year that saw the 24-year-old pace the NFC with 19 sacks.
The performance earned Quinn the nod as the NFL's sixth-best defensive player, according to ESPN, but Nick Wagoner thinks Quinn was underrated:
Although Quinn made quite a leap in this year's rankings and being called the sixth best defensive player in the league is no slight, I can't help but feel like Quinn is too low on this list. I suppose you could make the argument that he needs a little more of a body of work before he can crack the top five, but these rankings are based on the here and now. I have the privilege of seeing Quinn every day so maybe that clouds my view, but I doubt there's a defensive player in the league that has the combination of production and upside that Quinn showed coming out of last season.
Wagoner concedes that his job covering the Rams may have influenced that thinking, but there's no denying that Quinn has become one of the league's most feared pass-rushers.
Others receiving votes: Chandler Jones, New England Patriots (one vote); Cameron Jordan, New Orleans Saints (one vote); Cameron Wake, Miami Dolphins (one vote); DeMarcus Ware, Denver Broncos (one vote)
Winners: Gerald McCoy, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (12 votes); Muhammad Wilkerson, New York Jets (seven votes)
Some may find the inclusion of Muhammad Wilkerson of the New York Jets as one of Bleacher Report's All-Pro defensive tackles a bit odd. After all, Wilkerson plays end for Gang Green.
Still, were the Jets a 4-3 team, Wilkerson would be a 3-technique tackle, and regardless of position it's hard to argue that the 24-year-old deserves some dap after tallying 10.5 sacks in 2013.
Wilkerson told ESPN.com's Rich Cimini that bigger and better things are in store in 2014, although he wouldn't say what those things are.
"I've got a personal goal, but I'm not telling you. I don't tell it out to people," Wilkerson said. "I've got a number in my head and I'm going to do my best to get it and get past it."
There's no such positional confusion with Gerald McCoy of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who received the most votes among defensive tackles from our panel.
McCoy is heading into a contract year in 2014 and coming off a fourth NFL season that saw him post a career-high 9.5 sacks and finish as the top defensive tackle at Pro Football Focus.
A front four of Watt, Quinn, Wilkerson and McCoy?
You can almost hear the quarterbacks sobbing.
Others receiving votes: Ndamukong Suh, Detroit Lions (four votes); Sheldon Richardson, New York Jets (four votes); Geno Atkins, Cincinnati Bengals (one vote); Kyle Williams, Buffalo Bills (one vote); Star Lotulelei, Carolina Panthers (one vote)
Winners: Lavonte David, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (nine votes); Von Miller, Denver Broncos (five votes)
Outside linebacker was likely the toughest call for our All-Pro voters.
That's because in many ways, it can be an apples to oranges comparison, as the roles of outside linebackers can vary greatly depending on a team's defensive scheme.
Both our winners hail from teams that run the 4-3, but Von Miller of the Denver Broncos would probably be just as comfortable making quarterbacks miserable in a 3-4 front as he is in the Mile High City.
Miller's 2013 season was marred by a six-game suspension and torn ACL, but Denver defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio told Jeff Legwold of ESPN.com he expects Miller to bounce back in a big way in 2014:
I have no doubt, and I've said this before, no doubt Von is going to come back and be the player he was (in 2012). He's a player of unique characteristics and we like what we've seen out on the practice field, like how he's gone about his work, and that's why I say no doubt.
Miller is flanked in our imaginary defense by a player who had arguably the best all-around season of any linebacker in the NFL last year.
Not only did Lavonte David top both the 140-tackle and 100-solo-tackle marks in 2013, but the third-year pro also chipped in seven sacks.
This year, playing in a scheme that's tailor-made for his talents, it wouldn't be surprising to see David actually improve on those numbers.
Others receiving votes: Clay Matthews, Green Bay Packers (four votes); Vontaze Burfict, Cincinnati Bengals (two votes); Barkevious Mingo, Cleveland Browns (two votes); Justin Houston, Kansas City Chiefs (two votes); Chandler Jones, New England Patriots (two votes); four players one vote each
Winners: Luke Kuechly, Carolina Panthers (11 votes); Patrick Willis, San Francisco 49ers (eight votes)
The candidates for All-Pro at inside linebacker are a who's who of running backs' nightmares.
The leading vote-getter, third-year pro Luke Kuechly of the Carolina Panthers, is the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year. However, Kuechly told David Newton of ESPN that he has his sights set on hardware of a different sort in 2014.
"The best accolade you can get is the Super Bowl," Kuechly said. "That's what my goal is. I think what everybody in the room wants is for us to win the Super Bowl."
That goal is undoubtedly shared by Kuechly's running mate on this "team," a player who (in this writer's opinion) remains the gold standard among NFL linebackers.
With NaVorro Bowman on the PUP list as he recovers from an ACL tear, Patrick Willis has flipped spots for the 49ers this season. Per Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area, the 29-year-old says he's willing to do whatever it takes to help the 49ers get back to football's biggest game:
Honestly, I've always been a team player. Whatever is going to be best for the defense is whatever coach Vic (Fangio) decides. I'm going to play my very best at either/or. Right now, I'm preparing to play the "mike," but if it happens I have to go back to "jack," that's where I've played these last three years, so I can hold it down there.
Willis' statistical production has dropped the past few years, but he remains a uniquely talented linebacker as capable of covering tight ends as punishing ball-carriers.
Others receiving votes: Brian Cushing, Houston Texans (four votes); Bobby Wagner, Seattle Seahawks (three votes); Ryan Shazier, Pittsburgh Steelers (one vote); Derrick Johnson, Kansas City Chiefs (one vote); Paul Posluszny, Jacksonville Jaguars (one vote); Vontaze Burfict, Cincinnati Bengals (one vote)
Winners: Richard Sherman, Seattle Seahawks (14 votes); Darrelle Revis, New England Patriots (10 votes)
2014 has been a good year to be a cornerback.
Richard Sherman of the Seattle Seahawks, Joe Haden of the Cleveland Browns and Patrick Peterson of the Cleveland Browns all inked enormous contract extensions in the offseason. Not that they weren't deserved, mind you, as in today's NFL having a "shutdown" cornerback can provide teams with a big edge on defense.
It's Sherman who garnered the most votes from our panel, coming up one shy of a unanimous selection.
When reached for comment, Sherman quipped, "Who was the doofus that didn't vote for me? It was Michael Crabtree's mom, wasn't it?"
(He didn't actually say that, although it isn't hard to imagine him doing so.)
Sherman is flanked in our All-Pro secondary by Darrelle Revis, who Pro Football Focus graded as the NFL's best player at his position a year ago.
Field Yates of ESPN (subscription required) recently opined that of all the players who switched teams in the offseason, Revis will have the biggest impact for his new club:
With Revis, a legitimate lockdown cornerback, the Patriots can ramp up their defensive pressures from front-seven players. Revis' presence mitigates the risk involved in blitzing, as the secondary will be more capable of sustaining man coverage. Throw in the addition of cornerback Brandon Browner -- who will start the season by serving a four-game suspension -- and the Patriots will be able to challenge receivers at the line of scrimmage. That counts when playing a team like Denver that relies on precision and timing in some of its passing concepts.
It's hard to argue with him.
Others receiving votes: Patrick Peterson, Arizona Cardinals (three votes); Joe Haden, Cleveland Browns (one vote); Aqib Talib, Denver Broncos (one vote); Desmond Trufant, Atlanta Falcons (one vote)
Winners: Earl Thomas, Seattle Seahawks (14 votes); Kenny Vaccaro, New Orleans Saints (10 votes)
It's not surprising even a little bit that free safety Earl Thomas was the top vote-getter among safeties. The fifth-year veteran is the best safety in the league. As Todd Dybas of Sports on Earth recently wrote, in a way it's a job he was born to do:
Thomas has stratospheric confidence. He's also vocal about it. From trash-talking [Russell] Wilson prior to practice, to claiming he's the driver of the entire Seahawks' defense (then, quickly, adding he says that "as humbly as possible"), to publicly saying he was upset President Obama mentioned the San Francisco 49ers during Seattle's White House visit. He's intense at all times. His parents claim with conviction that he could backpedal as a baby before he could walk forward, which supports his belief he was born to be a defensive back.
However, it's a bit of an upset that Thomas is joined at the back of the defense by Kenny Vaccaro of the New Orleans Saints, especially given how many votes the second-year pro received.
That is, unless you ignore Vaccaro's so-so rookie year and instead focus on his immense talents.
In many ways Vaccaro is cut from the same cloth as Thomas: fast enough to hold his own in coverage but powerful enough to also excel at stuffing the run.
With Roman Harper gone, Vaccaro will slide into a full-time role as the strong safety for the Saints this year, and Jeff Duncan of The Times-Picayune wrote that Vaccaro is sliding into that role with ease:
Vaccaro's punishing hits and freewheeling sideline-to-sideline play inspires teammates and creates momentum. He might have the most swagger of any Saints defender since Darren Sharper. He's good -- and he knows it. And that's not a bad thing. The Saints' defense is loaded with alpha males, but Vaccaro is elbowing his way to the head of the pack.
Sounds an awful lot like Thomas, doesn't it?
Others receiving votes: Eric Berry, Kansas City Chiefs (two votes); Devin McCourty, New England Patriots (two votes); Kam Chancellor, Seattle Seahawks (one vote); Eric Weddle, San Diego Chargers (one vote)
Winner: Justin Tucker, Baltimore Ravens (10 votes)
Coming off a season in which Tucker hit on nearly 93 percent of his field-goal attempts (including 6-of-7 from 50-plus yards), the third-year pro is our panel's pick as 2014's All-Pro kicker.
Others receiving votes: Robbie Gould, Chicago Bears (two votes); Stephen Gostkowski, New England Patriots (two votes); Steven Hauschka, Seattle Seahawks (one vote)
Winner: Shane Lechler, Houston Texans (nine votes)
At 38 years old, Shane Lechler is entering his 15th NFL season. However, as Lechler showed last year by ranking in the top five in both net yardage and punts downed inside the 20 (en route to being ranked as PFF's top punter), the old leg still has some pop left in it.
Others receiving votes: Andy Lee, San Francisco 49ers (four votes); Marquette King, Oakland Raiders (one vote); Brandon Fields, Miami Dolphins (one vote)
Winner: (tie) Cordarrelle Patterson, Minnesota Vikings (five votes); De'Anthony Thomas, Kansas City Chiefs (five votes)
The last category in Bleacher Report's All-Pro team also contains its first rookie. De'Anthony Thomas of the Kansas City Chiefs hasn't even played a game in the NFL yet, but the former Oregon star showed what he can do in the open field with an 80-yard punt return for a touchdown in the preseason.
Of course, we're already well aware of how dangerous Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson is in the return game. Of Patterson's nine total touchdowns in 2013, two came on kick returns, including a 109-yarder against the Green Bay Packers last October.
Others receiving votes: Jacoby Jones, Baltimore Ravens (three votes); Brandon Tate, Cincinnati Bengals (one vote); Devin Hester, Atlanta Falcons (one vote)