Bleacher Report's Midseason NFL All-Pro Team

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistNovember 2, 2016

Bleacher Report's Midseason NFL All-Pro Team

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    Put simply, it's been a strange NFL season.

    A lot of supposed good teams have been bad, and a lot of perceived bad teams have been good. Penalties are up, prime-time games have failed to impress and a lot of the star players we're used to seeing in MVP, All-Pro and Pro Bowl conversations haven't been delivering, if they've been present at all.

    How strange has the 2016 season been? Peyton Manning is gone, and Tom Brady missed the first four weeks of the year, but that hasn't allowed someone like Aaron Rodgers or Ben Roethlisberger to emerge as a first-team All-Pro favorite. Instead, we've seen Matt Ryan move into that position.

    A rookie appears to be the leading candidate for the No. 1 All-Pro running back spot, Rob Gronkowski isn't the top pick in the tight end spot and longtime backups turned veteran starters Brandon Graham and Lorenzo Alexander are prime All-Pro candidates on defense.

    Ryan, Graham, Alexander and Ezekiel Elliott certainly feel like strangers on this list, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Strange is interesting, and the consensus All-Pro team put together by Bleacher Report's NFL writers is both strange and interesting.

    Let's break it down, position by position.

Quarterback

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    Winner: Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons (five votes)

    Small behind-the-scenes tidbit: Bleacher Report's NFL correspondents cast their votes for these types of features in a shared online document. There, you can find our 12 names—Jason Cole, Gary Davenport, Tyler Dunne, Doug Farrar, Mike Freeman, Brad Gagnon, Matt Miller, Dan Pompei, Chris Simms, Brent Sobleski, Mike Tanier and Sean Tomlinson—next to our picks.

    In this particular case, with quarterback up first, Ryan's name is listed next to five of those guys, Tom Brady's is in four spots and Matthew Stafford's registers three times.

    In the blank space on the document below the results, an anonymous voter—my investigation reveals it may have been a former NFL quarterback whose name rhymes with "Bliss Limbs"—wrote this:

    "Tom Brady has played four [naughty word] games!"

    It's a close contest, as Ryan won by a single vote. But what makes this so contentious is that Brady is such a strange case at this juncture. Ryan and Stafford have started a combined 16 games, while Brady has started just four. But the New England Patriots have won all four of Brady's starts, while the Atlanta Falcons and Detroit Lions are a combined 9-7. And Brady's rate-based statistics blow everyone out of the water, albeit in a small sample.

    Brady leads the NFL with a completion percentage of 73.1, a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 12-to-0, a yards-per-attempt average of 9.8 and a passer rating of 133.9.

    Ryan's rate-based numbers aren't as strong, but he still ranks in the top three in terms of completion percentage, yards per attempt and passer rating, and he leads the league with 2,636 passing yards and 19 touchdowns. Plus, the 5-3 Falcons sit atop the NFC South, with impressive wins over the Raiders, Broncos, Panthers and Packers already under their belt.

    Stafford, who ranks in the top five in terms of completion percentage, touchdowns and passer rating, has led a league-high four fourth-quarter comebacks, but his Lions are just 4-4.

    Of course, you can't call someone a first-team All-Pro based on four games, but you can't do so based on an eight-game run either. That's why, with a project like this, we're sometimes forced to project. Clearly, a third of our voters feel Brady has done enough in four games to trump what Ryan and Stafford have done in eight apiece. Others may need to see Brady sustain this before declaring him a front-runner.

    Others receiving votes: Brady (four votes); Stafford (three votes)

Running Back

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    Winners: Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas Cowboys (seven votes); David Johnson, Arizona Cardinals (five votes)

    Only two running backs with at least five starts are averaging more than 120 yards from scrimmage per game: David Johnson (139.0) and Ezekiel Elliott (135.6).

    The 24-year-old Johnson also has more touchdowns (eight) than his rookie counterpart (five), but Elliott leads the league with 799 rushing yards despite the fact he's played one fewer game than the next four guys on that list (including Johnson, who ranks third with 705 rushing yards).

    It also helps Elliott that among 17 backs with at least 100 carries, he ranks second behind only LeSean McCoy of the Buffalo Bills with a yards-per-attempt average of 5.0. Johnson is only averaging 4.5 yards per carry, but he leads all running backs with 407 receiving yards.

    Elliott's trajectory also likely helps his cause. The first-round pick out of Ohio State averaged just 3.3 yards per carry and was held to fewer than 90 yards from scrimmage during his first two NFL games, but he's accumulated more than 140 yards from scrimmage in each of his five games since. The Cowboys are 5-0 in that span.

    In fact, Elliott and Johnson have both gone over the 130-yard mark from scrimmage on five occasions, which is something nobody else in football has done more than three times thus far. So it's hard to argue that either doesn't deserve All-Pro love entering November.

    Others receiving votes: McCoy (one vote)

Fullback

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    Winner: Kyle Juszczyk, Baltimore Ravens (six votes)

    This is the third consecutive year in which Kyle Juszczyk has played a major role in the Baltimore Ravens backfield, but it looks as though the Harvard product has improved his game in 2016.

    For the second year in a row, the 25-year-old is on pace to catch 40-plus passes for 300 or more yards, which would blow every other fullback in the league out of the water. Arguably more important, his blocking is on point.

    Among 15 fullbacks who have played at least 75 snaps, Juszczyk ranks first at Pro Football Focus with a blocking grade of 3.0. With 2015 All-Pro Mike Tolbert's production dropping off this year and Denver Broncos rookie Andy Janovich probably still a year or two away from reaching his potential, the versatile Juszczyk has a chance to earn Pro Bowl and All-Pro accolades this season.

    Still, as our voting results suggest, Falcons veteran Pro Bowler Patrick DiMarco might put up a fight.

    Others receiving votes: DiMarco (four votes); Janovich (two votes)

Tight End

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    Winner: Greg Olsen, Carolina Panthers (seven votes)

    Momentum indicates that it might only be a matter of time before three-time All-Pro Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski emerges as the clear-cut favorite for this honor, but our voters aren't ready to hand it to a guy who was hardly a factor for the first month of the season.

    Gronkowski missed the first two games of the year and was limited for the next two. Throw in that he didn't have Brady until Week 5, and it's easy to understand why he had just one 11-yard catch all year entering the second week of October.

    He's been dominant ever since, catching 21 of the 27 passes thrown his way for 473 yards and three touchdowns in four New England victories. No other player in football has as many receiving yards in that time frame.

    Still, Greg Olsen gets the nod for now. The two-time Pro Bowler's 621 yards still lead all tight ends by a 137-yard margin. In fact, through seven games, he remains on pace to set a new single-season tight end record in that area.

    He's been held to 105 receiving yards the last two weeks, so that might not hold up. And he hasn't scored since notching his second touchdown of the year back in Week 4.

    Meanwhile, Gronk already has three touchdowns and is averaging nearly twice as many yards per target.

    But for now, Olsen edges out Gronkowski.

    Others receiving votes: Gronkowski (five votes)

Wide Receiver

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    Winners: Julio Jones, Atlanta Falcons (12 votes); A.J. Green, Cincinnati Bengals (six votes)

    Only seven players in NFL history have recorded 1,700-plus receiving yards in a single season. Two are on pace to do so this year, and they're our midseason All-Pro wide receivers. (Green gets the nod over Antonio Brown due to more first-place votes.)

    Jones, who was one vote shy of being the unanimous No. 1 receiver on this imaginary team, has been a true Jekyll and Hyde. He's already gone over 170 yards twice and has four 100-yard performances, but he's also been limited to fewer than 30 yards on three occasions.

    A 29-yard performance from Jones on Sunday allowed Green to move ahead of him by a 37-yard margin, and Green also leads the NFL with 59 catches. The 28-year-old former No. 4 overall pick went over 120 yards for the fourth time this season Sunday against the Redskins in London. He's had at least 50 yards in seven of his eight games.

    This season hasn't gone swimmingly for the Bengals, but it does appear that after making the Pro Bowl in each of his first five NFL seasons, their star receiver is on track to earn his first career All-Pro nod.

    Second-year Oakland Raiders receiver Amari Cooper has emerged, Odell Beckham Jr. is always a threat and 2015 first-team All-Pro Antonio Brown will have a chance to make a run at a second straight All-Pro nod if he and Roethlisberger can get hot down the stretch, so Jones and Green aren't locks.

    But it would be hard to deny either of them right now.

    Others receiving votes: Brown (six votes)

Offensive Tackle

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    Winners: Trent Williams, Washington Redskins (12 votes); Taylor Lewan, Tennessee Titans (eight votes)

    Cleveland Browns stalwart left tackle Joe Thomas has been named to each of the last three All-Pro teams, but our voters believe Thomas has work to do in order to extend that streak in 2016.

    Thomas received only two votes from our panel, while four-time Pro Bowler but zero-time All-Pro Trent Williams dominated the vote, along with third-year Titans left tackle Taylor Lewan.

    Thomas' absence is surprising, but few are shocked to see Williams emerge as the front-runner. The seventh-year Redskins left tackle has been stupendous while missing just three games in the last four-and-a-half years. He consistently receives glowing grades from Pro Football Focus, and that's especially been the case thus far in 2016.

    Through eight games, the 28-year-old is PFF's highest-graded offensive lineman, ranking in the top five at his position as both a pass- and run-blocker. He's surrendered just 10 total quarterback pressures and two sacks on 335 pass-blocking snaps.

    Cruelly, though, Williams could fall from this spot soon, and it would have nothing to do with his play. That's because he's scheduled to serve a four-game suspension for violating the league's substance-abuse policy, per the team's Twitter account.

    Meanwhile, Lewan is experiencing a hell of a breakout season in Tennessee. The 2014 No. 11 overall pick had trouble getting and staying on the field as a rookie and lacked consistency as a sophomore, but he graded out as PFF's No. 1 offensive lineman before performing poorly in a Week 8 matchup with Jacksonville.

    Still, Lewan is a versatile blocker who has yet to give up a sack on 271 pass-blocking snaps. At 25, he's likely only going to get better.

    If that's the case, Thomas might have his work cut out for him in Cleveland.

    Others receiving votes: Thomas (two votes); David Bakhtiari, Green Bay Packers (two votes)

Guard

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    Winners: Zack Martin, Dallas Cowboys (12 votes); T.J. Lang, Green Bay Packers (five votes)

    Zack Martin was a first-team All-Pro and a Pro Bowler as a rookie in 2014, nabbed a Pro Bowl nod again while receiving second-team All-Pro honors in 2015, and now is well on his way to accomplishing both feats again in his third NFL season.

    The 2014 No. 16 overall pick has been dominant all season in Dallas, which explains why he was one of only six players (along with Johnson, Jones, Williams, Von Miller and Luke Kuechly) listed on all 12 Bleacher Report expert All-Pro ballots.

    Martin ranks first among guards with a Pro Football Focus run-blocking grade of 11.7, and he's yet to give up a sack on 244 pass-blocking snaps. But here's the key stat: According to PFF, when running behind Martin this season, Elliott is averaging a silly 7.3 yards per carry.

    The advanced statistics aren't quite as flashy for T.J. Lang, who edged out Justin Pugh of the New York Giants for the second spot on our imaginary team. But Lang still grades out as the NFL's best pass-blocking guard. The 29-year-old has yet to earn an All-Pro nod seven seasons into his pro career, but with just five hurries allowed on 292 pass-blocking snaps, he has a real chance this year.

    "It doesn't even need to be said," Packers left guard Lane Taylor said recently, per Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "This is clearly his best year."

    Clearly, we agree.

    In the same article, Green Bay defensive tackle Mike Daniels called Lang "criminally underrated."

    That might soon change.

    Others receiving votes: Pugh (three votes); Brandon Scherff, Washington Redskins (two votes); Trai Turner, Carolina Panthers (one vote); Marshal Yanda, Baltimore Ravens (one vote)

Center

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    Winner: Travis Frederick, Dallas Cowboys (seven votes)

    Last year, three Cowboys offensive linemen were second-team All-Pros. The year prior, two were first-team All-Pros and another was a second-teamer. In both cases, Travis Frederick fell short of the top team.

    But at the midway point this season, Bleacher Report's NFL staff pegs the fourth-year center as the leading candidate to earn a first-team All-Pro nod.

    Based on numbers from Pro Football Focus, that should surprise nobody. Frederick is on pace to have by far the highest-graded season of his career. PFF grades him as the league's top run-blocking center while also noting he's yet to surrender a sack on 244 pass-blocking snaps.

    That's enough for the 25-year-old to enter the second half of the 2016 season with a slight edge over veteran Alex Mack, who has worked wonders for the Falcons' revitalized running game in his first season with Atlanta.

    Others receiving votes: Mack (five votes)

Defensive End

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    Winners: Brandon Graham, Philadelphia Eagles (seven votes); Michael Bennett, Seattle Seahawks (five votes)

    J.J. Watt is on the fritz, and Khalil Mack had a slow start to the season, opening things up at defensive end for some surprise candidates. Candidates like Graham and Michael Bennett, who in a combined 13 NFL seasons have made a total of one Pro Bowl.

    According to Pro Football Focus, Graham—a first-round pick back in 2010 who had started just 23 career games prior to this season—has been the second-most productive pass-rusher in the entire league, behind only Miller.

    The 28-year-old is also a sure tackler with a great track record defending the run, and he's yet to take a penalty on 344 snaps. That explains why he has the second-highest defensive PFF grade in football, behind only Aaron Donald, despite the fact he has a mere four sacks in seven games.

    Bennett hasn't had a sack-filled season either, but he grades out at PFF as by far the best run-stopping 4-3 end in football, and he plays a key leadership role within a Seattle defense that ranks second in terms of points allowed.

    Still, it'll be hard for the 30-year-old to gain a first-team All-Pro spot. He has just three sacks and is now slated to miss several weeks due to a knee injury, which could give sack-happy teammate Cliff Avril or 2015 All-Pro Mack a chance to jump ahead.

    Others receiving votes: Carlos Dunlap, Cincinnati Bengals (four votes); Everson Griffen, Minnesota Vikings (four votes); Avril (one vote); Cameron Jordan, New Orleans Saints (one vote); Mack (one vote)

Defensive Tackle

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    Winners: Aaron Donald, Los Angeles Rams (11 votes); Ndamukong Suh, Miami Dolphins (six votes)

    Eleven of Bleacher Report's 12 experts listed Donald as their No. 1 interior defensive lineman, which is no surprise considering how well the 2015 first-team All-Pro has played throughout the 2016 season. The 25-year-old's Pro Football Focus grades are almost literally off the charts, but his impact can't simply be measured by raw or advanced statistics.

    That's because Donald's very presence makes the rest of a so-so Rams defense substantially better.

    "He's getting double-teamed and he's getting all those scheme things that you get offensively," Rams head coach Jeff Fisher said earlier this season, per ESPN.com's Alden Gonzalez. "It creates other opportunities for someone else. We have to keep moving him around a little bit and create the one-on-ones. Even though his numbers aren't reflecting it, he's very productive."

    The fantasy-oriented football world may not acknowledge Donald the way it does Watt or Miller because Donald doesn't get as many sacks, but that hasn't had a negative impact on his All-Pro chances.

    Then there's 29-year-old Ndamukong Suh, whose presence here is by no means surprising (he's a three-time first-team All-Pro), but who has kind of become an older, more expensive version of Donald. They both take a lot of penalties (a position-leading seven for Donald, five for Suh), they both play with an edge, they both free up every defender around them and neither has been getting sacks (Donald has three, Suh 3.5).

    But PFF still ranks Donald as the most productive pass-rushing interior defensive lineman in the game, while Suh's pressure percentage ranks ninth at that position. That might explain why Donald is a virtual lock for an All-Pro spot, while Suh may have to work to fight off an emerging star like Leonard Williams of the New York Jets.

    Others receiving votes: Williams (three votes); Fletcher Cox, Philadelphia Eagles (two votes); Geno Atkins, Cincinnati Bengals (one vote); Calais Campbell, Arizona Cardinals (one vote); Damon Harrison, New York Giants (one vote)

Outside Linebacker

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    Winners: Von Miller, Denver Broncos (12 votes); Lorenzo Alexander, Buffalo Bills (seven votes)

    Our first All-Pro outside linebacker is a four-time Pro Bowler who entered 2016 with 60 sacks in five NFL seasons, and he's the most obvious unanimous choice in this exercise. Our second is a 10-year veteran who had started just 16 games in nine NFL seasons prior to joining the Bills in 2016.

    The first guy makes $19 million a year. The second signed a one-year contract in April worth the veteran minimum of $885,000.

    Miller is the least surprising name on this list. Alexander is by far the most surprising.

    But all that matters is no two players have taken down quarterbacks this season as often as Miller and Alexander.

    Alexander has a league-leading nine sacks, while Miller ranks second with 8.5.

    Per Pro Football Focus, Miller leads all edge-rushers with 31 quarterback hurries and is better at defending the run, which is why all 12 of us voted for him as our top outside linebacker. But Alexander is one of just three players with at least seven sacks and at least three forced fumbles, and he's the only player in football with more than five sacks and at least 25 tackles.

    Can the 33-year-old former journeyman sustain this? If he does, he may become one of the most improbable All-Pros in NFL history.

    Others receiving votes: Jamie Collins, Cleveland Browns (four votes); Brian Orakpo, Tennessee Titans (two votes); Nick Perry, Green Bay Packers (one vote)

Inside Linebacker

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    Winners: Luke Kuechly, Carolina Panthers (12 votes); Bobby Wagner, Seattle Seahawks (five votes)

    Kuechly looks as though he's well on track to become a first-team All-Pro for the fourth consecutive year, which would make him only the eighth player in modern NFL history to earn four first-team All-Pro nods in his first five seasons.

    That said, the competition is quite stiff entering the second half of the 2016 campaign. Bobby Wagner of the Seahawks and Zach Brown of the Bills both have higher Pro Football Focus grades than Kuechly, who is coming off his worst game of the season, according to PFF.

    Wagner—who edged out Brown by a single voteis better than Kuechly in coverage and just as proficient at rushing the passer, while Brown leads the entire league with 59 tackles. He also has three sacks (Kuechly has two, Wagner one) and two forced fumbles (Kuechly and Wagner have zero).

    By almost any metric, all three have been fantastic. But there's only room for two on this team. Kuechly's reputation might be helping him right now, but big second halves from Wagner (a first-team All-Pro alongside Kuechly in 2014) and Brown (another first-year Bills revelation who hasn't made the Pro Bowl in four NFL seasons) could make this interesting.

    Others receiving votes: Brown (four votes); Dont'a Hightower, New England Patriots (one vote)

Cornerback

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    Winners: Patrick Peterson, Arizona Cardinals (eight votes); Marcus Peters, Kansas City Chiefs (seven votes)

    Patrick Peterson was a first-team All-Pro in 2011 (as a return man), 2013 and 2015. That pattern suggests he's supposed to wait until next year to earn the honor again, but at midseason, he's the top cornerback on our imaginary All-Pro squad.

    On paper, that's kind of hard to defend. The 26-year-old former No. 5 overall pick has just two interceptions (four cornerbacks have three or more), and Pro Football Focus ranks 17 corners ahead of him.

    But cornerback play can't always be measured with statistics, and prior to Week 8, NFL Media analyst and former Pittsburgh Steelers corner Ike Taylor ranked Peterson as the best player in the league at that position.

    "These rankings are all about what the corners have done lately—and since Week 3, Peterson has been consistently shutting it down while covering the opponent's best receiver," Taylor wrote.

    So we're not alone.

    Meanwhile, Peters does possess one key statistic to support his candidacy for a midseason All-Pro nod. The second-year Washington product leads the NFL with five interceptions in seven games.

    Both players are trying to hold off Aqib Talib of the Denver Broncos, who received a lot of love from voters after intercepting three passes and posting the highest PFF grade at the cornerback position during the first half of the season.

    Others receiving votes: Talib (five votes); Richard Sherman, Seattle Seahawks (two votes); Xavier Rhodes, Minnesota Vikings (one vote); Darius Slay, Detroit Lions (one vote)

Safety

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    Winners: Harrison Smith, Minnesota Vikings (11 votes); Landon Collins, New York Giants (seven votes)

    Harrison Smith was one of the NFL's best safeties in 2014 and 2015. Pro Football Focus saw it that way, which is why it ranked him second at the safety position in both seasons. And so did the Vikings, which is why they made him the league's highest-paid safety this past offseason.

    But Smith has been to just one Pro Bowl in four years and has yet to receive a first-team All-Pro nod.

    In the opinion of almost all of our voters, that should change if he can continue to perform the way he has thus far in 2016.

    Smith has yet to record an interception this year, but he ranks third in coverage and against the run at PFF. He has a sack and two fumble recoveries and is on pace to set a new career high with 85 tackles. In coverage, he's surrendering fewer than 0.2 yards per cover snap.

    Ultimately, he's been the best player on the best defense in the NFL, which—combined with the tape and the numbers—is enough to dominate this vote.

    He's joined by another potential first-time All-Pro safety in Collins, who has two interceptions, a pick-six, two sacks, 49 tackles (more than any other defensive back in football) and PFF's third-highest pass-rushing productivity rating at the safety position through seven games.

    The 22-year-old NFL sophomore doesn't have a resume like fellow candidates Smith, Eric Weddle and Earl Thomas, but he's been making more splash plays than those guys. Thus far, that's been the difference.

    Others receiving votes: Weddle (four votes); Ron Parker, Kansas City Chiefs (one vote); Thomas (one vote)

Special Teams

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    Kicker: Adam Vinatieri, Indianapolis Colts (seven votes)

    Among the 29 place-kickers with more than 10 field-goal attempts this season, only two have been perfect: Adam Vinatieri of the Colts and Justin Tucker of the Ravens, who are both 18-of-18. But an incredible four of Vinatieri's 18 makes have come from 52 yards or longer, whereas only two of Tucker's have been from that distance.

    That, along with the fact the 43-year-old Vinatieri is doing all of that despite being the league's oldest player, might be what gives him a slight edge over Tucker in this spot.

    Others receiving votes: Tucker (five votes)

    Punter: Johnny Hekker, Los Angeles Rams (seven votes)

    There are a variety of valid ways to measure a punter's impact, but the one that best explains Hekker's receiving the majority of the votes is that a league-high 55 percent of his punts have pinned teams inside the 20-yard line.

    Yeah, 22 of his 38 punts have landed inside the 20, and zero have gone into the end zone. Among 32 regular punters, he's the only one without a touchback. Yet he also ranks fourth in the NFL with a net yardage average of 43.4.

    Others receiving votes: Marquette King, Oakland Raiders (four votes); Sam Martin, Detroit Lions (one vote)

    Kick/punt returner: Tyreek Hill, Kansas City Chiefs (five votes)

    Marcus Sherels of the Minnesota Vikings has two punt return touchdowns this season, but he rarely handles kickoffs. Hill, on the other hand, returns kicks and punts and is the only returner in football averaging more than 20 yards per kick return and more than 15 yards per punt return.

    Considering neither average is inflated by touchdowns, that's impressive.

    Others receiving votes: Jamison Crowder, Washington Redskins (three votes); Brandon Tate, Buffalo Bills (three votes); Sherels (one vote)