NFL Dream Team: Who Makes the Cut at Each Position?
The NFL is full of dynamic players at every position who wow us fans every Sunday. In the same way that everyone has their favorite food, fans of the sport have their favorite teams and players. Because the NFL is a larger league in terms of player volume, the disparity from the casual fan to the hardcore pigskin fanatic makes for very interesting debates.
For the purpose of this slideshow, I have compiled a list of players who could form an NFL "Dream Team." It takes more than talent to make such a team, so I will take into account that many of the readers will in fact disagree with some of my choices, which is fine. Objectivity is the name of the game, so without further ado, I present the NFL Dream Team.
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When the offense is struggling to score points and the defense is having a hard time making stops, a team usually looks to its special teams for a spark.
Often times, these changes come in moments when a game is gridlocked in an ugly Steelers/Ravens-like slug fest, when a team is looking for some momentum and points to either blow the game open or ice it in the waning moments. Special teams tends to be an underrated aspect of the game but, the reality is, that is far from the truth. Look no further than the 2010 San Diego Chargers. The Bolts finished first in scoring offense and scoring defense last season, yet missed the playoffs.
How could that happen?
Blunders on special teams were the main culprits behind the Chargers' 8-8 season a year ago. From missed or botched field goals to highlight-reel returns by the opposing teams, it's no wonder such a statistical anomaly occurred to one of the league's best teams.
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Adam Vinatieri makes the cut for the Dream Team kicker. He may not have the strongest leg, but he's deadly accurate from inside 50 yards, especially indoors. How many kickers can say that they have more championship rings than Tom Brady?
During the Patriots' three Super Bowl wins, the outcome of the game was decided by three points each game. When a pressure-packed kick is needed to win a game, Vinatieri makes the team every time.
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Most casual fans of the game probably wouldn't even know that Shane Lechler is a football player. Playing for the Raiders, coupled with being a punter, doesn't garner much national press. However, Lechler has been one positive constant for an otherwise dysfunctional organization. He puts a lot of boom on his kicks and has a natural knack for pinning teams inside the 5-yard line. Lechler, hands down, has the strongest punting leg in the game. There are surely more accurate punters, but he is the most well rounded.
23. Kick Returner/Punt Returner
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There's nothing more exciting in football than to see a kick returned for a touchdown—scores like that can deflate the opposing team in an instant. The NFL has many dynamic returners, but none more so than Josh Cribbs. The thing that is most impressive about Cribbs is that he doesn't not have the type of speed and moves one would find in Devin Hester or Darren Sproles, but he obviously doesn't need it.
When watching him run back a kick, the sheer amount of balance and vision he displays makes him a threat to score with the ball anytime he touches it. He gets the nod over Hester because, as a member of the Dream Team, the return man has to be versatile.
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With the evolution of the game of football comes the evolution in how defenses prepare and play the game today. The rule changes that have occurred from the onset of the 2004 NFL season have put a premium on scoring more points. When the premium for point totals increase, defenses must adjust throughout the league.
For this article, I will select players best suited for playing in a 3-4 base defense. As I mentioned before, I may not always go with the popular choice, but the one that fits the scheme best.
22. Strong Safety
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At strong safety, Polamalu should have been a no-brainer. In Dick LeBeau's attacking style of defense, Polamalu's strengths (range, play recognition/reaction, and closing speed) are maximized most in a 3-4 defense. Safeties generally have to cover more ground since the linebackers are attacking the line of scrimmage, but Polamalu has shown no signs of being unable to handle the task. His presence in the defensive backfield makes Ryan Clark and Ike Taylor look like studs.
21. Free Safety
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Ed Reed would most certainly be the popular choice for free safety and, in most cases, there wouldn't be much of an argument. But Eric Berry is a phenomenal talent at free safety who seemed to play well beyond his years in the NFL last season. Not only does he possess great range and ball skills, he can tackle better than most other players at his position. Safeties tend to be "head hunters," going in for the big hit instead of wrapping up. Despite being a young player, he plays with much discipline and wisely picks his spots to light up an unsuspecting ball carrier.
20. Left Cornerback
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Another no-brainer, Darrelle Revis is the top choice at left cornerback. Being able to effectively take away one side of the field with his superior coverage skills, Revis is a valuable asset to any team using exotic coverage schemes. When teams are afraid to throw to his side, it puts a lot of pressure on the other cornerback. With Polamalu and Berry patrolling the deep middle, it's not going to be easy fitting a ball anywhere in the Dream Team's secondary.
19. Right Cornerback
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Nnamdi Asomugha may have been the sexier pick, but why have two corners with similar skill sets?
Despite his age, Charles Woodson has been an elite defender his entire career. With teams avoiding throwing in Revis' direction, Woodson's superior off-coverage skills are a better fit for the defense when he's able to make plays on the ball, something that Asomugha struggles with even when he is thrown at.
18. Left Outside Linebacker
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Don't let the long, golden locks fool you. There is nothing soft about Clay Matthews. Busting out on the scene as a rookie in 2009, Matthews has habitually terrorized offenses with his relentless pass-rushing abilities. What's scarier is that he's also improving in coverage—dropping back into his zones or covering a back out on the flat. He is a menace that any defensive coordinator would want. Playing on the offense's strong side, he often times is doubled teamed by the right tackle and tight end, yet still blows by them as if they were completely irrelevant.
17. Right Outside Linebacker
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No, this slide isn't about poor Shaun Hill running for his life. Having the league's best pass-rusher breathing down his neck had to make him think twice about his career at some point during this game.
That's the kind of impact that a player like DeMarcus Ware brings on game day. With his uncanny combination of power and finesse moves, it takes a perfectly executed game plan just to account for him. In Dallas, he doesn't have the bookend pass-rusher to compliment him, but with Matthews on the other side, the Dream Team's pass-rush would seem to be unstoppable.
16. Left Inside Linebacker
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When thinking of the best inside linebacker to play the game, no one played that position with more will, ferocity and skill than Ray Lewis. But now at age 36, it would be criminal to select him for the Dream Team. He's older, slower and offensive players don't fear him the way they used to.
Enter Patrick Willis.
Willis is as sure a tackler as the sky is blue. His game is reminiscent of Lewis during his prime years, minus the pregame dancing. Entering his fifth season, Willis is primed to be the force that Lewis was when he entered his fifth season. Back in 2000, Lewis led a Ravens defense that allowed the fewest points over the course of a 16-game season on his way to a Super Bowl thrashing of the New York Giants.
It stands to reason that Willis can have the same impact with the 49ers. Willis runs like a cat, hits like a bull and sniffs out plays like hound. He's the total package at linebacker. With Vic Fangio taking over for the departed Greg Manusky, Willis will be used in an even more aggressive nature than any point in his career. Ball carriers and quarterbacks beware.
15. Right Inside Linebacker
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Simply put, DeMeco Ryans is a stud at inside linebacker. His wide frame makes it difficult to run around him while his closing quickness helps him to make stops near or behind the line of scrimmage at a consistent level. He's not the type of player who will flash anyone with otherworldly athleticism, but being paired with Patrick Willis would make them the most formidable linebacking pair for the Dream Team. Ryans can occupy blockers and fullbacks while Willis lays the hammer down on whoever has the ball. Playing for the perennially abysmal Houston Texans defense masks how great of a player he really is.
Ryans is consistent, has a superb football IQ, high motor and is extremely tough—qualities any defensive coordinator loves in his linebackers.
14. Left Defensive End
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Here's a guy who can dominate a game and never show up in the box score.
Justin Smith is a force to be reckoned with as a 3-4 defensive end. Although he is a bit undersized for the position, one cannot tell by his play on the field. When he was in Cincinnati, he was a high motor 4-3 defensive end who occasionally got to the quarterback.
As a 3-4 defensive end in San Francisco, he's the same high-motor player who has routinely found a home for himself in the opposing team's offensive backfield, being the disruptive force the 49ers envisioned when they signed him. As a defensive anchor for the Dream Team, Smith would thrive tenfold with the talent on the line with him as well as the studs behind him.
13. Right Defensive End
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For a man who stands 6'4" and weighs 330 pounds, Haloti Ngata moves with the type of gracefulness that would seem anatomically impossible considering his size. Like his bookend, Justin Smith, Ngata can dominate a game without showing up on the box score. Easily able to overpower most offensive linemen, Ngata wins his matchups, allowing players like Terrell Suggs a shot to make a play on the quarterback. With Ware and Matthews behind him, he could effectively free up the two best pass-rushers for a quarterback free-for-all.
12. Nose Tackle
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Jump back into the time machine to just 2009 and you won't find too many arguments with the selection of Kris Jenkins. Yes, he's recently retired after two bad knee injuries, but there's no question that when healthy, Jenkins is a stud at nose tackle. Very few players at his size can move with as much agility as Jenkins. At 6'5" and 360 pounds, Jenkins was practically immovable when playing as a two-gap tackle. Offensive linemen aren't the size of children, but the way Jenkins effortlessly moved them out of the way, one would think they were.
Despite his physical prowess on the field, he helps to elevate the play of others around him. Before coming over to the Jets, David Harris was a solid linebacker who wasn't getting much press. For every three of four tackles he made, he was getting pancaked by pulling guards and fullbacks on the other plays. Jenkins keeps his teammates clean, allowing them to make plays. A consummate professional and ideal teammate, Jenkins is the best fit for the Dream Team.
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When thinking about offenses in professional football, there have been so many that have come and gone, leaving their mark on the league. The 49ers teams of the '80s, the Cowboys of the early '90s, the Vikings of 1998, plus the famed "Greatest Show on Turf" of the St. Louis Rams. With progression of offense comes changes in game planning in how to effectively utilize the personnel to their strengths. It's what effectively separates the struggling teams from the good ones.
The following slides gather the offensive players who fit the ideal of the Dream Team.
11. Right Tackle
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Although he currently is slotted at left tackle for the Baltimore Ravens, Oher's versatility as a premium tackle slots him over to the right side. A thick frame, long arms and incredible footwork are just the tip of the iceberg when assessing Oher's skills. But he also plays with a mean streak and uses his hands well when drive-blocking a pass-rusher or pancaking a defender on a running play. Anyone carrying the football would love to have this guy in front of them.
10. Right Guard
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When looking at game film of Chris Snee, it's amazing to see how agile he is. Not flashy in any way, he consistently displays sound fundamentals. He's a hard-nosed player who plays like a left guard and the Giants have utilized his skills with no discrimination when Big Blue led the league in rushing yards from 2007-2008. Injuries have hindered his production a bit, but he is otherwise the best right guard in the NFL and a great teammate who understands not only his assignments, but those of his linemates as well.
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Centers get absolutely no love when it comes time to recognize what they do on the field. Making line calls, taking on massive nose tackles and simply making a clean exchange with the quarterback is a tough job in itself. When combining those qualities with intangible aspects like toughness, field awareness and overall knowledge of the game, no center comes even close to what Nick Mangold has done since he was drafted in the first round, back in 2006.
A steady anchor on the perennially improving Jets offensive line, Mangold is always refining his game, never resonating in complacency. A hungry player who wants nothing more than to win, he's made the cut for the NFL Dream Team.
8. Left Guard
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Left guards are like second-tier left tackles. They've got to possess good foot movement, balance, power and agility. Kris Dielman fits the bill on all of these measures. His agility is almost on the level of Chris Snee, but it's more than enough to do his job. Steve Hutchinson may have been the ideal choice here, or maybe even Carl Nicks, but what separates Dielman from those two is what he offers in pass protection.
Like the great Larry Allen, Hutchinson's game is predicated on raw power, and with age, power declines. Nicks tends to struggle against bull-rushers who can get underneath his pad level. Dielman is as well rounded as they come, but his ability to keep his quarterback standing gives him the nod over the other left guards.
7. Left Tackle
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The premium position on the offensive line was the most difficult to come away with a clear-cut selection. There are so many phenomenal talents at the position, but ultimately it comes down to Joe Thomas of the Cleveland Browns, with Ryan Clady of the Broncos breathing down his neck. Thomas can block any pass-rusher with his combination of size, power and agility. But his athleticism allows him to recover from mistakes (a rarity) and he makes excellent plays in the running game with his renowned drive-blocking technique. Any quarterback would be glad to have him protecting their blind side.
6. Tight End
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It's only fitting that the sixth overall selection from the 2006 NFL Draft be slotted on slide six. Jokes aside, Vernon Davis has become the most complete tight end in the NFL. He made the Pro Bowl in 2008 (as an alternate) for his ability to block. Now that he's started to live up to his billing, as well as his draft status, Davis has become what the 49ers had hoped for when they drafted him. His raw speed, incredible strength, hands and underrated route running are surpassed by his leadership and toughness. His teammates rally around him, drawing on his seemingly limitless energy.
Davis' ability to stretch the middle of the field makes him not only a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses, but a reliable and explosive target for his quarterback.
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With the way NFL offenses are substituting the fullbacks out of formations for another tight end, the value at the position decreases. However, when speaking about fullbacks strictly in a traditional sense, who better than former Texans fullback, Vonta Leach?
He plowed the way for last season's leading rusher, Arian Foster, knocking around linebackers and feasting on any defensive back foolish enough to get in his way. Leach doesn't care about numbers—he didn't carry the ball once last season. All he cares about is winning and punishing defenders. That's the type of fullback any good team needs.
4. Wide Receiver (Flanker)
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High-octane passing games feature high-octane receivers. Who's more high octane than the venerable Larry Fitzgerald?
Seriously, this guy has no weaknesses in his game. He's got the best hands in the game, runs crisp routes, is an adequate blocker in the run game and knows how to set up even the best cornerbacks. And he does it all without the luxury of having game-breaking speed. Speed has always been an overrated attribute in wide receivers (remember a guy named Rice?).
Fitzgerald always finds ways to elevate his game and is not shy about going across the middle. Making the most uncatchable passes look routine has been a staple of his since his days back at Pittsburgh, but his consistency and progression put him above the rest.
3. Wide Receiver (Split End)
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Larry Fitzgerald is the prototypical, big play, possession receiver of today's NFL. To complement his skill set is to line him up with a speedster who is also a game breaker. Santonio Holmes is as clutch as they come. Today's split ends are typically guys who can flat out fly, but are largely one-dimensional. Holmes can fly, yet plays big.
A gifted route runner, he has a knack for making big plays and clutch receptions when his teams need them most. In fact, he bested Dream Team teammate Fitzgerald in Super Bowl XLIII when he made one of the most memorable plays in recent memory, catching a pass in the corner of the end zone to win the title for the Steelers. The pairing of Holmes and Fitzgerald, with Vernon Davis commanding the middle, makes for an otherworldly passing attack.
2. Running Back
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All of the best running backs in the NFL have their shortcomings. Arian Foster is regarded as a possible one-year wonder. Chris Johnson is always looking for the big play, losing yards in the process. Jamaal Charles is too one-dimensional. When assessing these players, none of these things ultimately matter because they're all proven winners.
When deciding who makes the cut for the Dream Team, Adrian Peterson gets the nod. Yes, he tends to put the ball on the ground an awful lot. Yes, he isn't the most reliable receiver out of the backfield. But unlike the other backs mentioned, these "woes" can be corrected. Peterson's size and strength make him an ideal pass-blocker when he stays back to do so. His speed and cutting ability are phenomenal when considering that he is one of the bigger backs in the league. His talent is undeniable.
He's is consistent and never takes a play off. And his game is only improving.
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These are the NFL's most undebatable elite quarterbacks. No one will dispute their success on the field. They are strong armed, accurate signal-callers who always are at the top of the stat sheets each season in terms of production. They are also the unquestioned leaders of their teams. So choosing one of them is quite a task.
Which is why Aaron Rodgers makes the most sense.
Fresh off of a Super Bowl victory, Rodgers has officially joined the ranks of the elite. His poise on the field, his athleticism and his pinpoint accuracy make him a great option for the Dream Team. When Rodgers is on the field, he makes the game appear easy. He's always looking like he's having a good time when shredding defenses. That's the type of quarterback the Dream Team needs.
In the event that the team is behind on the scoreboard, there's no other quarterback than Rodgers who could fit the bill. Rodgers, Roethlisberger and newly coined Michael Vick are the only elite quarterbacks who can extend plays with their feet, but Rodgers beat them both to get to, and win, the Super Bowl.
For a supremely talented team, Rodgers' personality allows him to mesh well with all of the players, allowing him to be their unquestioned leader.