What the Pro Bowl Rosters Should Be at NFL's Midseason Mark
Excellence deserves recognition.
How the game is played remains inconsequential compared to its status. Only the best of the best receive invites. Or, that's how it's supposed to work.
With injuries and Super Bowl exclusions, the Pro Bowl often becomes a watered-down version somewhat resembling an All-Star contest. Furthermore, the voting system is flawed by relying far too heavily on the fans. As a result, name recognition has a tendency to overtake performance.
Of course, there are certain superstars deserving of Pro Bowl berths every year. But there are always those knocking on the door with performances worthy of distinction that remain overlooked.
So, the only logical recourse is to take a look at those currently playing at a Pro Bowl level at the midseason mark to provide a benchmark once voting begins later this month.
AFC: Patrick Mahomes, Kansas City Chiefs; Philip Rivers, Los Angeles Chargers; Andrew Luck, Indianapolis Colts
Unprecedented levels of quarterback play can be found throughout the league. Patrick Mahomes best exemplifies the league's new standard with a league-leading 2,901 passing yards and 29 touchdowns. In fact, Mahomes' touchdown total is the fourth-highest in league history through the first nine games of a season, and he's only 23 years old.
Philip Rivers has been nothing short of exceptional. His 67.1 completion percentage would be the second-best of his career. He's on pace to break his career high of 34 touchdown passes with 19 such tosses in eight contests. More importantly, the 15-year veteran has thrown only three interceptions.
Andrew Luck doesn't have a great supporting cast, yet he's still putting up Pro Bowl-worthy numbers. Luck is second behind Mahomes with 23 passing touchdowns even though he doesn't have a single target with at least 400 receiving yards. It's clear he's back to his old self after last year's injury scare.
What hasn't Drew Brees done this season? He already became the NFL's all-time leading passer and surpassed 500 career passing touchdowns. He's well on his way to shattering his own record with a 76.3 completion percentage. And he just helped lead the New Orleans Saints past the undefeated Los Angeles Rams.
Jared Goff and the Rams have been outstanding. Goff's confidence grows with each passing week, and that's led to elite stats—67.9 completion percentage with 20 touchdowns compared to six interceptions. His 9.6-yards-per-attempt average also ranks second overall.
The final roster spot is intriguing with Aaron Rodgers and Matt Ryan still in contention. Cam Newton, however, is playing to a similar level that once made him the league's MVP. His 67.3 completion percentage is by far a career high. Right now, he's on pace for 3,786 passing yards, 684 rushing yards and 38 total touchdowns.
AFC: James Conner, Pittsburgh Steelers; Kareem Hunt, Kansas City Chiefs; Melvin Gordon, Los Angeles Chargers; Anthony Sherman, Kansas City Chiefs (fullback)
What James Conner has done in Le'Veon Bell's absence has made the Pittsburgh Steelers organization forget all about its franchise player. Conner is second overall in rushing yards (706) and yards from scrimmage (1,085) and tied for second in rushing touchdowns (nine). At least this year, Conner is a better all-purpose back than Bell has been.
Kareem Hunt often becomes the forgotten man in the Kansas City Chiefs offense with Patrick Mahomes throwing to Tyreek Hill, Sammy Watkins and Travis Kelce. Hunt isn't an afterthought for defenses, though. The Chiefs back ranks third in rushing yards (683), tied for fourth in rushing touchdowns (seven) and fourth in yards from scrimmage (995).
Melvin Gordon is tied for first among backs with 100 or more carries in yards-per-carry average at 5.4. Despite sharing time with Austin Ekeler, the 2015 first-round pick still has 579 rushing yards and 10 total touchdowns.
Fullbacks aren't in vogue anymore, but Anthony Sherman is as consistent as they come as a lead blocker opening holes for Hunt and Kansas City's backs.
NFC: Todd Gurley, Los Angeles Rams; Alvin Kamara, New Orleans Saints; Saquon Barkley, New York Giants; Kyle Juszczyk, San Francisco 49ers (fullback)
Todd Gurley is the NFL's best running back. Don't agree? Let the numbers tell the story. The Los Angeles Rams back leads the league in touches (219), rushing yards (868), first-down conversions (49), yards from scrimmage (1,230) and touchdowns scored (16). There's Gurley and then everyone else.
Alvin Kamara burst onto the scene last year and caught the NFL off guard. The opposite seems to have happened this year. He's expected to be great, so he isn't receiving as much attention even though he already has one more rushing touchdown compared to last season and is well on his way to eclipsing his Offensive Rookie of the Year campaign's rushing and receiving totals.
Saquon Barkley could very well be Kamara's successor as Offensive Rookie of the Year. Despite playing in a terrible offense, the first-year back eclipsed 1,000 total yards from scrimmage in his first eight games. Only Gurley and Conner have more.
Kyle Juszczyk leads all fullbacks with 255 receiving yards.
AFC: DeAndre Hopkins, Houston Texans; Antonio Brown, Pittsburgh Steelers; Tyreek Hill, Kansas City Chiefs; A.J. Green, Cincinnati Bengals
The man known as "Nuk," DeAndre Hopkins has turned into the master of spectacular catches. Yes, of course, Odell Beckham Jr. still holds a special place in everyone's hearts, but Hopkins has had a more consistent penchant for the amazing that he deserves far more attention than he receives. Currently, the 26-year-old target leads the AFC with 894 receiving yards.
Antonio Brown worked his way into being the NFL's best wide receiver. He's on pace for his lowest production in six seasons, yet he should easily eclipse 1,000 yards and still leads the league with nine touchdown receptions.
Tyreek Hill is a burner and the game's best deep threat. His 15 receptions of 20 or more yards top the AFC. He's already matched a career high with seven receiving touchdowns. Basically, he's the game's most feared deep threat.
A.J. Green is dealing with a toe injury—which may force him to miss some time during the season's second half. Even so, the Cincinnati Bengals' WR1 is still counted among the league's best with 687 receiving yards, 12 receptions of 20 yards or more and six touchdowns.
NFC: Adam Thielen, Minnesota Vikings; Julio Jones, Atlanta Falcons; Michael Thomas, New Orleans Saints; Mike Evans, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Adam Thielen is arguably the best story in football. The Minnesota Vikings wide receiver went from not attending the NFL combine to undrafted free agent to improving slot receiver to the NFL's top target. But the Pro Bowl isn't about stories; it's about production. Thielen leads the league in receptions (78), receiving yards (947) and receiving first downs (51).
Michael Thomas isn't too far behind Thielen with 70 receptions for 880 yards. Thomas' reliability is what makes him truly special, though. The Saints' top target has caught 88.6 percent of the passes thrown in his direction so far, according to NFL Next Gen Stats.
Julio Jones is still Julio Jones even if it took him nine weeks to finally find the end zone. The Atlanta Falcons' inability to properly use their best weapon aside, Jones continues to produce with a league-leading 116.6 receiving yards per game.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers offense ranks second in yards per game, and Mike Evans is a big (figuratively and literally) reason why. The 6'5" target ranks fifth overall with 786 yards even though he has at least 13 fewer receptions than the four that precede him.
AFC: Travis Kelce, Kansas City Chiefs; Eric Ebron, Indianapolis Colts
It's official: Travis Kelce has replaced the New England Patriots' Rob Gronkowski as the game's best tight end. Gronkowski has been slowed this year, while the Kansas City Chiefs tight end ranks in the top 10 overall with 741 receiving yards and six touchdowns. Kelce could be a better blocker, but he's such a dynamic weapon in the passing game it almost doesn't matter.
Eric Ebron is easily the biggest surprise among legitimate Pro Bowl-worthy performers. The Detroit Lions released the 2014 first-round pick after four disappointing campaigns plagued by inconsistency. The former top-10 selection is now realizing his potential with the Indianapolis Colts. Ebron already has an impressive seven touchdown grabs and leads the team with 394 receiving yards.
NFC: Zach Ertz, Philadelphia Eagles; George Kittle, San Francisco 49ers
More often than not, Philadelphia Eagles quarterbacks will lean on their tight end, Zach Ertz, in the passing game. Ertz leads the team with 61 receptions, 84 targets and 644 yards. His 61 catches rank fourth overall. At this point, he's essentially a wide receiver trapped in a tight end's body. That's OK, because Ertz is a consistent threat and constant mismatch.
George Kittle's emergence became necessary because of all of the injuries the San Francisco 49ers suffered at crucial positions. At worst, whoever is behind center—Nick Mullens at the moment—has one reliable option. Kittle leads the 49ers with 41 catches for 692 yards. His average of 16.9 yards per reception is tied for first among all tight ends.
AFC: Mitchell Schwartz, Kansas City Chiefs; Ronnie Stanley; Baltimore Ravens; Alejandro Villanueva, Pittsburgh Steelers
The AFC is funny, because the conference's best offensive tackle doesn't play the blind side. Left tackle is almost always associated with the league's elite because it tends to hold a higher value overall. However, Mitchell Schwartz is the game's best right tackle and the league's most consistent tackle overall. Schwartz has shut down elite pass-rushers like Von Miller and Khalil Mack throughout his career. His most impressive trait is his reliability, though. Schwartz is a technician who hasn't missed a snap in his six-plus seasons.
Ronnie Stanley, on the other hand, is coming into his own during his third campaign. The Baltimore Ravens used the sixth overall pick in the 2016 draft to select the talented, albeit unrefined, tackle prospect. A special athlete, Stanley has since improved his hand play and angles to make him difficult to beat.
Alejandro Villanueva tends to be overlooked even on his own offensive line. Center Maurkice Pouncey has already been to six Pro Bowls. Right guard David DeCastro is now making annual visits as well. And yet, Villanueva gets little to no recognition despite protecting Ben Roethlisberger's blind side. The 6'9", 320-pound blocker has allowed barely any pressure this season.
NFC: David Bakhtiari, Green Bay Packers; Andrew Whitworth, Los Angeles Rams; Terron Armstead, New Orleans Saints
Joe Thomas' retirement opened the door for a new lineman to be named the NFL's best left tackle. The top three options reside in the NFC, starting with the Green Bay Packers' David Bakhtiari. Bakhtiari is the game's best pure pass-blocker. He consistently shuts down the league's best pass-rushers because he's patient and rarely out of position.
However, Andrew Whitworth has a higher overall grade this season, according to Pro Football Focus. The 36-year-old is the better all-around blocker because he's strong at the point of attack in the run game. Whitworth has never been the most athletic offensive tackle, but he thrives due to a combination of raw strength and technique.
Of the three, Terron Armstead is the most naturally gifted. Armstead is truly rare: The 6'5", 304-pound blocker has the feet of a basketball player. He can simply overwhelm defensive linemen once engaged.
AFC: Marshal Yanda, Baltimore Ravens; David DeCastro, Pittsburgh Steelers; Shaq Mason, New England Patriots
A broken ankle snapped Marshal Yanda's streak at six straight Pro Bowls last season. He returned just before the start of the 2018 campaign and hasn't missed a beat. Yanda continues to perform as one of the league's best interior blockers even at 34 years old. His combination of technique and relentless tenacity allows him to overcome any limitations.
Someone is paving the way for James Conner's success. The running back, of course, deserves credit. So does one of the league's best offensive fronts. David DeCastro is the best of the bunch on a very talent starting five. DeCastro came into the league after being a first-round pick in the 2012 draft as a destroyer of souls in the running game. He's now counted among the best pass-blocking guards.
Shaq Mason is similar to DeCastro in his development. Mason played in a triple-option offense at the collegiate level. His pad level and ability to uproot defenders in the run game were exceptional. He had to learn to be a pass-blocker, though. Mason worked himself into a well-rounded blocker, but he's still a load in the running game.
NFC: Zack Martin, Dallas Cowboys; Austin Blythe, Los Angeles Rams; Rodger Saffold, Los Angeles Rams
If a straw poll were conducted, Zack Martin would receive a majority of votes as the game's best guard. In fact, Pro Football Focus has him graded as such. The rest of the Cowboys offensive line seems to be falling apart, but Martin continues to provide his usual excellent standard of play.
Overall, the NFC isn't filled with great interior blockers. But the Rams have two playing at an exceptional level. Austin Blythe is the real surprise after filling in for a suspended Jamon Brown to start the season. His performance has been so good it allowed the Rams to release Brown. Rodger Saffold on the other side has been a road-grader for running back Todd Gurley. No duo is performing better within the context of its offense.
AFC: David Andrews, New England Patriots; Rodney Hudson, Oakland Raiders
The New England Patriots offensive line doesn't garner much attention. In fact, a Patriots offensive lineman hasn't made the Pro Bowl since Logan Mankins did in 2013. This season, two should be on their way—guard Shaq Mason and center David Andrews. Andrews is the linchpin to the entire offensive front. He makes the calls and is an exceptional pass-blocker. Since Tom Brady averages 36.6 pass attempts per game, both traits are vital.
Rodney Hudson falls on the other side of the spectrum. He's excelled in a sea of dysfunction and disappointment. According to Pro Football Focus, Hudson has allowed only two pressures this season—which is the lowest among any offensive linemen with 200 or more pass-blocking snaps.
NFC: Jason Kelce, Philadelphia Eagles; Corey Linsley, Green Bay Packers
No NFL center moves quite like Jason Kelce. His ability to reach defensive linemen, make blocks at the second level and work in space is second to none. Even though the Philadelphia Eagles offensive line has struggled at points, Kelce remains stellar in the middle.
The Green Bay Packers offensive tackles receive most of the attention and rightfully so, but their performance is only improved by the play of center Corey Linsley. Not only does Linsley make protection calls, but he also sets the depth of the pocket. Like those already mentioned, the Packers center isn't the toughest at the point of attack, but his angles and understanding of leverage and technique make him hard to beat.
AFC: J.J. Watt, Houston Texans; Myles Garrett, Cleveland Browns; Jerry Hughes, Buffalo Bills
If any questions lingered about whether J.J. Watt could still be the player who won three NFL Defensive Player of the Year awards, they've been answered. Watt dealt with numerous injuries the past two seasons only to recover this year and return to his terrorizing ways. The Houston Texans defensive end is tied for third with nine sacks. His constant disruptive play creates even more opportunities for himself and the Texans defense.
Myles Garrett is tied with Watt with nine sacks. The Browns used the No. 1 overall pick in the 2017 draft on Garrett, and he hasn't disappointed. The defensive end now has 16 sacks in his first 20 contests despite battling a high ankle sprain last year. Garrett looks more explosive this season and continually puts blockers on their heels. The second-year defender also has three forced fumbles.
Jerry Hughes qualifies as an underappreciated performer since he plays for the woeful Buffalo Bills. Hughes is arguably the most consistent edge-rusher in the league. The 30-year-old defensive end led all pass-rushers in pressure rate entering November, according to NFL Next Gen Stats.
NFC: Danielle Hunter, Minnesota Vikings; Cameron Jordan, New Orleans Saints; Brandon Graham, Philadelphia Eagles
Danielle Hunter leads the lead with 11.5 sacks after his 3.5-sack performance Sunday against the Detroit Lions. He earned NFC Defensive Player of the Week honors as a result. Like some top pass-rushers, Hunter's pressure isn't an all-or-nothing proposition. He's registered at least one sack in eight on nine contests.
Cameron Jordan hasn't been quite as productive this year with only five sacks. However, Jordan is a complete player. While an edge defender's value is often based on applying pressure, defending the run and setting the edge are vital as well. Jordan's pressure-based production may be down, yet he's still counted among the league's best run defenders.
On the surface, Brandon Graham appears to not be playing well. He only has 1.5 sacks and 17 total tackles in the Philadelphia Eagles' deep defensive line rotation. Success for a defender isn't just a byproduct of filling the stat sheet. Like Jordan, Graham is a good run defender. In this case, the Eagles defensive end consistently creates pressure and grades as the league's second-best edge defender, per Pro Football Focus.
AFC: Geno Atkins, Cincinnati Bengals; Chris Jones, Kansas City Chiefs; Jurrell Casey, Tennessee Titans
If not for Aaron Donald, Geno Atkins' name would be whispered with reference. It should anyway. Atkins is a dominant 3-technique with exceptional athleticism, suddenness, heavy hands and leverage. His six sacks rank third among defensive tackles. Atkins' production has dipped over the last three weeks, but his constant presence in the middle makes him the focal point of weekly offensive game plans.
Technically, Chris Jones is a defensive end in a three-man front. But the Kansas City Chiefs list him as a defensive lineman, which they should since nickel is the league's base defense and Jones does his most damage along the interior. The 6'6", 310-pound defender already has five sacks through nine games and should easily eclipse last year's career high of 6.5.
Jurrell Casey is the epitome of a one-gap penetrator. The Tennessee Titans defender makes his home in opposing backfields and completely disrupts schemes. Casey has managed 3.5 sacks this season, but his ability to blow up plays shows up more against ground games. Sometimes, he's simply too slippery for offensive linemen to even touch on his way to the ball-carrier.
NFC: Aaron Donald, Los Angeles Rams; Fletcher Cox, Philadelphia Eagles; Akiem Hicks, Chicago Bears
So many positives can be recited regarding Aaron Donald's play. Maybe the best way to encapsulate his dominance would be calling him what he really is: the best player in football regardless of position. Donald is unrelenting and nearly impossible to block. Of course, he's graded as the game's best interior defender, according to Pro Football Focus. The site has him with a 20.1 percent pressure rate.
Fletcher Cox isn't too far behind Donald. Cox loved the idea of playing in Jim Schwartz's defensive scheme as a 3-technique, and he hasn't disappointed. His ability to consistently collapse the pocket with a combination of first-step quickness and raw power elevates the play of everyone on the Philadelphia Eagles' talented defensive front.
Speaking of power, Akiem Hicks flourishes at the point of attack. The 332-pound defender can throw offensive linemen around like rag dolls. But he's not just a great run defender. Hicks has enough athleticism to rush the passer and destroy the middle of the pocket. He's tied for second on the Chicago Bears with three sacks.
AFC: Von Miller, Denver Broncos; Dee Ford, Kansas City Chiefs; Bradley Chubb, Denver Broncos
More often than not, edge defenders who rush the passer are going to garner far more attention than their off-the-ball counterparts. As such, five of the six outside linebackers specialize as edge-rushers.
Two Denver Broncos lead the way. Von Miller established himself among the game's elite long ago, and he continues to perform at that level. His nine sacks are tied for third overall. His speed, athleticism and bend off the edge are unequaled. His counterpart, rookie Bradley Chubb, attacks blockers in a very different manner. Chubb's game is predicated on power moves and a relentless motor. While learning from one of the best, he leads all rookies with eight sacks.
Dee Ford is in the midst of a career year with eight sacks (only two behind his career high) while being tied for the league lead, alongside Miller and J.J. Watt, with four forced fumbles. The Kansas City Chiefs defender even entered November as the leading edge-rusher with 45 total pressures, according to Pro Football Focus.
NFC: Khalil Mack, Chicago Bears; Ryan Kerrigan, Washington Redskins; Lavonte David, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Chicago Bears made the deal of the year when they sent a pair of first-round picks to the Oakland Raiders for Khalil Mack. Mack is a serious Defensive Player of the Year candidate, though he's missed the last two weeks with an ankle injury. The 2016 NFL Defensive Player of the Year annihilated competition through the initial four games with five sacks.
Ryan Kerrigan turned on the afterburners in recent weeks after a slow start. The three-time Pro Bowl honoree has 4.5 sacks over the last three weeks to reassert himself among the game's best edge defenders.
Sometimes good players are stuck on bad squads. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers own the league's 29th-ranked defense, yet Lavonte David continues to play at a Pro Bowl level. His team-leading 64 total tackles and nine tackles for loss make him a bright spot despite the unit's overall play. David is the lone off-the-ball linebacker included among this year's group.
AFC: Darius Leonard, Indianapolis Colts; Avery Williamson, New York Jets
The AFC lacks a dominant inside linebacker who built a reputation over time. That has opened up spots for potential first-time Pro Bowlers.
Darius Leonard has been a tackling machine during his rookie campaign with a league-leading 88 stops. He has registered 13 or more tackles in four different games. The Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate is more than just a volume tackler. Leonard is a shockingly effective downhill defender with four sacks and three forced fumbles. He is a difference-maker for a defense in desperate need of one.
Avery Williamson signed with the New York Jets this offseason and has quickly developed into a defensive leader. Like Leonard, the 26-year-old defender does a little bit of everything. Williams ranks 10th overall and leads the Jets with 68 total tackles. He's tied for second on the team with three sacks while also adding four defended passes, an interception and a forced fumble.
NFC: Luke Kuechly, Carolina Panthers; Bobby Wagner, Seattle Seahawks
The NFC has two stalwarts at linebacker.
Luke Kuechly's instincts are still unmatched. His ability to sniff out opposing plays as they develop is a sight to behold. Of course, he leads the Carolina Panthers with 64 total tackles. What makes Kuechly special is he lacks any deficiencies. He's a true sideline-to-sideline linebacker against the run and pass.
Bobby Wagner is tied to Kuechly's hip since they're generally considered the two best at their position. Wagner is a three-time All-Pro and four-time Pro Bowl selection. Like Kuechly, he's a three-down defender with a ferociousness against the run yet more than enough athleticism to be excel in space. In fact, Wagner leads all linebackers with nine defended passes.
AFC: Stephon Gilmore, New England Patriots; Kareem Jackson, Houston Texans; Chris Harris Jr., Denver Broncos; Denzel Ward, Cleveland Browns
How good has Stephon Gilmore been for the New England Patriots? Head coach Bill Belichick compared his top cover corner to Ty Law and Aqib Talib, according to NESN's Doug Kyed. In the last four weeks, Gilmore has faced the Kansas City Chiefs' Sammy Watkins, Chicago Bears' Allen Robinson II, Buffalo Bills' Kelvin Benjamin and Green Bay Packers' Davante Adams; the cornerback allowed six receptions in that span, per CLNS Media's Evan Lazar.
A little position ambiguity exists with Kareem Jackson listed as a cornerback. He started the year at safety only to find his way back to his more familiar spot. Jackson has been outstanding in coverage with 10 defended passes and two interceptions. He may not be a true corner, but his continued excellence deserves recognition at one position.
Chris Harris Jr. is no longer flanked by Aqib Talib, but he remains among the league's best. This may be considered a step down from his previous performance since an argument could have been made two or three years ago that he rivaled any corner in the game. He continues to cover outside and the slot equally well.
Cleveland's acquisition of Denzel Ward with this year's fourth overall pick has gone from being panned to praised due to the rookie's play. The first-year defensive back, who is dealing with a hip injury, ranks first among rookies with nine defended passes to go with three interceptions. More importantly, Ward is already shadowing opposing offenses' top receivers.
NFC: Patrick Peterson, Arizona Cardinals; Byron Jones, Dallas Cowboys; Kyle Fuller, Chicago Bears; Jaire Alexander, Green Bay Packers
Patrick Peterson is the standard which every other cornerback hopes to achieve. Even during a down year in the desert, Peterson continues to do his job, i.e. shutting down one side of the field. As a result, his numbers are rather pedestrian even though nothing has changed regarding Peterson's level of play.
Byron Jones finally found where he fits in the Dallas Cowboys defense, and it's completely changed his approach. Jones isn't bouncing between safety and corner anymore. He's the perfect fit at corner in Kris Richard's scheme. This allowed him to finally realize his potential. Jones graded as the game's top cornerback through eight weeks of play, according to Pro Football Focus.
Kyle Fuller has gotten lost in the shuffle a little bit with all of the Khalil Mack hoopla. Mack, of course, has been fantastic, but so has Fuller. The fifth-year defensive back is tied for the league lead with four interceptions and tied for fourth with nine defended passes.
Jaire Alexander is in a competition with Ward to prove who is the best rookie cornerback. Alexander has been better in coverage, whereas Ward has made more plays of significance. But the Green Bay Packers aren't going to complain if Alexander has relatively low interception and defended pass totals as long as he shuts down wide receivers on a consistent basis.
AFC: Tyrann Mathieu, Houston Texans; Derwin James, Los Angeles Chargers; Jamal Adams, New York Jets
Two potential first-time Pro Bowlers and one player new to the AFC represent the conference's safeties.
Tyrann Mathieu, who made his first Pro Bowl in 2015 as a member of the Arizona Cardinals, creates scheme flexibility within the Houston Texans defense. Mathieu is another hybrid who is listed and often plays free safety but slides over the slot as well. The Honey Badger ranks eighth among safeties with 52 total tackles, but he does so much more with five defended passes, two interceptions and two sacks.
Derwin James may be well on his way to becoming this year's Defensive Rookie of the Year because he does everything well. The first-year defensive back leads the Los Angeles Chargers with 55 total tackles. He's tied for the team lead with six defended passes. The safety only trails Melvin Ingram for the team lead in sacks with 3.5. James is all over the field.
Jamal Adams was the last year's top rookie safety. He's now a leader on the Jets defense with 63 total tackles—which ranks third among safeties. The 23-year-old defender is also tied for first at his position with eight defended passes.
NFC: Harrison Smith, Minnesota Vikings; D.J. Swearinger, Washington Redskins; Eddie Jackson, Chicago Bears
The vaunted Minnesota Vikings defense struggled at the start of the season, as did All-Pro safety Harrison Smith. Smith figured it out, though. He leads the team with 37 solo tackles but does so much more. The defensive back has three sacks, five defended passes, three interceptions, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.
"When you just get back to just saying, 'OK this is what I gotta do, I'm gonna go do it, and I know the guy next to me is gonna do it, the guy in front of me, he's gonna do it," Smith told The MMQB's Albert Breer. "Then everything takes care of itself. You don't have to be Superman out there."
The other two NFC safeties stepped up in sound defenses. D.J. Swearinger has always been a strong downhill strong safety-type. He's improved in coverage and is tied for the league-lead with four interceptions. Eddie Jackson has always had tremendous ball skills dating back to his college days. It's translated to the professional level with four defended passes, two interceptions, two forced fumbles, a fumble recovery and a touchdown.
AFC: Stephen Gostkowski, New England Patriots (kicker); Dustin Colquitt, Kansas City Chiefs (punter); Jakeem Grant, Miami Dolphins (returner)
Stephen Gostkowski remains perfect inside of 50 yards. He's already converted 48 kicks inside said range with two misses from long distance.
Dustin Colquitt's workload has been light, but he's been sensational when called upon to punt. Colquitt ranks second in the AFC with a 41.4-yard net punting average, and 47.8 percent of his punts have been downed inside the 20-yard line.
Jakeem Grant is by far the game's best returner. He has a league-leading 452 kickoff return yards and ranks third overall with 228 punt return yards.
NFC: Graham Gano, Carolina Panthers (kicker); Michael Dickson, Seattle Seahawks (punter); Tyler Lockett, Seattle Seahawks (returner)
Graham Gano is one of two NFC kickers (along with the Atlanta Falcons' Matt Bryant) who has converted all of his field-goal attempts. Yes, the Panthers kicker has missed a pair of extra points, but all is forgiven after his game-winning 63-yard bomb against the New York Giants.
Michael Dickson is a magician and may already be the game's best punter. The rookie ranks in the top five overall in gross and net punting average with an impressive 18 punts inside the 20-line compared to only two touchbacks.
Teammate Tyler Lockett is the NFC's only returner on an active roster with 100 kickoff and punt return yards.