By Michael David Smith
After a year of watching games closely and looking for hidden gems you won't hear about elsewhere, I've compiled my roster of the 25 players and one coach who most deserve the label of All-Pro. Just for fun, and to emphasize that around here we're interested in the players who don't get enough credit, we'll go in the opposite order of every other all-pro team you'll see.
Coach of the Year: Bill Belichick, Patriots
Troy Brown as a cornerback. Richard Seymour as a blocking fullback. Mike Vrabel as a tight end. The essence of coaching is identifying talent and putting it in a position to succeed. By that measure, Belichick isn't just the best coach in the NFL right now. He's farther ahead of his peers than any coach has been since Paul Brown's Cleveland squad dominated pro football half a century ago.
Kicker: David Akers, Eagles
Some guys can kick the ball a mile but have no accuracy. Others are perfect from inside the 40 but are garbage on kickoffs. Akers is one of the best combinations of accuracy and distance on kickoffs and field goals the NFL has ever seen.
Punter: Brad Maynard, Bears
Great distance. Great hang time. Kicked the ball inside the 20-yard line 34 times with only five touchbacks. Now if only the Bears could get an offense that didn't require so much work out of Maynard.
Returner: Eddie Drummond, Lions
Great with punts and kickoffs. The Lions had losses by three, one, and five points after Drummond went down with a shoulder injury on Thanksgiving. They could have used a little better field position.
Strong Safety: Ed Reed, Ravens
The best defensive player in football. Reed is a hitter, he's great in coverage, and he's a very good special teams player. I've never been a Ravens fan, but I was hoping they'd get into the playoffs just so I could watch Reed again. Is there anyone left who thinks Ray Lewis is the leader of the Ravens D?
Free Safety: Brian Dawkins, Eagles
Good against the run, good against the pass. After an injury-plagued 2003, he came back healthy and had by far the best season of any free safety in the league. He'll need to play well in January for the Eagles to have a game in February.
Cornerback: Fred Smoot, Redskins and Nate Clements, Bills
At no position were the Pro Bowl selections worse than NFC cornerback, where Dre' Bly and Ronde Barber (both of whom have deserved it in past years) made it more on reputation than performance. Smoot has been the league's best corner. I considered Ricky Manning of Carolina, who is building on the progress he showed during last year's playoffs, but I changed my mind when I saw the way Joe Horn burned him on Sunday. I think Clements would have done a number on the Colts' receivers if the Bills had made the postseason. Extra recognition goes to Clements and his teammate, Terrence McGee, for playing well at corner while also contributing to Buffalo's terrific special teams.
Outside linebacker: Takeo Spikes, Bills and Joey Porter, Steelers
Now we're getting into some difficult territory. As Aaron Schatz wrote in this New York Sun article (subscription required), five of the six defensive linemen chosen for the AFC Pro Bowl team play primarily in the 4-3 alignment, even though the AFC has six teams that play a 3-4 base defense. Move on to the linebacker section of the AFC roster, however, and the situation is reversed, thanks in part to the fact that the 3-4 is designed for linebackers to make big plays. Spikes is the only linebacker from a 4-3 team to make the roster.
So what should we do? Line up our All-Pro team in a 3-4 or a 4-3? I decided to do something of a hybrid. My team has four linebackers and three defensive linemen, but some of them are out of position. There's really no good way to judge front-seven players with very different responsibilities, so I'm simply going to say that I think Spikes and Porter made more big plays than any outside linebackers I saw this year.
Inside linebacker: Antonio Pierce, Redskins and Donnie Edwards, Chargers
Aligning my All-Pro defense in a 3-4 helps here because I couldn't bear to leave either Pierce or Edwards off the list. I can't understand how these guys didn't make the Pro Bowl. Particularly Edwards, who's been a very good player for a decade. When will the Pro Bowl voters realize that? The Jets' Jonathan Vilma isn't quite an All-Pro yet, but he will be.
Defensive end: Aaron Smith, Steelers and Julius Peppers, Panthers
Peppers had an impressive season, especially when you consider that his linemate, Kris Jenkins, played only four games. The absence of Jenkins meant Peppers saw more blockers this season than he ever had in his previous two years, but Peppers didn't miss a beat. He fought valiantly against the Saints on Sunday as they loaded big bodies on him. He still had five tackles and a sack. I like every member of the Steelers' front seven, and I considered their other end, Kimo von Oelhoffen. But Smith is probably the best 3-4 pass rushing end in football. I settled on Smith and Porter making my team, but the whole unit plays so well together that I could see taking any of the others.
Defensive tackle: Kelly Gregg, Ravens
Gregg does the dirty work that makes Baltimore's defensive strength possible. If I had chosen two defensive tackles the other would have been Cornelius Griffin of the Redskins. Again, neither of these guys made the Pro Bowl. A shame.
Center: Kevin Mawae, Jets
How good has Mawae's blocking been this year? So good that a lot of All-Pro teams will have Curtis Martin on them, and yet DVOA shows that the Jets have been even more effective with Lamont Jordan carrying the ball than they have been with Martin. What I like best about Mawae is how mobile he is. Every time I watch the Jets I see Mawae making key blocks on runs to the outside. Casey Wiegmann of the Chiefs is the only other center who blocks as well on outside runs, but Wiegmann isn't as good as Mawae in pass protection.
Guard: Alan Faneca, Steelers and Mike Wahle, Packers
These are without a doubt the league's two best pulling guards. For strength at the point of attack I like Minnesota's David Dixon, but he's not as versatile as Faneca or Wahle.
Left tackle: Willie Roaf, Chiefs
You couldn't go wrong taking anyone on the Chiefs line, but I think Roaf offers the best combination of run blocking and pass blocking. I thought Roaf was just about finished when he had an injury-plagued 2001 campaign in New Orleans. But now he's put together his third consecutive great season in Kansas City. Roaf belongs on the short list of the best tackles ever to play the game. As a Lions fan, it breaks my heart to remember that the Saints drafted him with the first-round pick Detroit shipped to them in exchange for Pat Swilling. Can you imagine how much different Barry Sanders' career might have looked if he had had a guy like Roaf blocking for him?
Right tackle: Willie Anderson, Bengals
If you think I've opened a serious can of worms here by separating right tackles from left tackles, you'll have to trust that I considered picking someone who would have been much more controversial than Anderson. First of all, what do I think I'm doing picking a right tackle and a left tackle when most all-pro teams just have two tackles? I've always believed that a right tackle and a left tackle have different jobs and should be treated as such. (I don't see the same distinction among guards.) Anderson has been the best in the business for years, and more people are finally learning that now that Marvin Lewis has turned the team from terrible to mediocre. But the near-controversy here is that I confess I seriously considered giving this spot not to Anderson but to Ray Brown of the Redskins. What do I think I'm doing by saying a Detroit Lions castoff who didn't even have a job at the start of training camp is the best right tackle in football? Why Brown? No, it's not because I'm a Lions fan who takes a masochistic pleasure in pointing out how many good linemen the Lions have let get away. It's just that he's been incredibly good this year, even at age 42. Also, check out the Football Outsiders line yards. The Redskins are lousy running to the left and to the middle, but quite good to the right.
Fullback: Tony Richardson, Chiefs
When the Chiefs need to punch the ball in the end zone, they put Richardson in front of their running back. All 14 of Priest Holmes's rushing touchdowns this season came in the I-formation. Richardson is the best fullback of his generation.
Tight end: Antonio Gates, Chargers
An easy choice. It's unreal that this guy is in his second year after going through four years of college without ever playing football.
Running back: Tiki Barber, Giants
I agonized over this decision. I think the addition of Corey Dillon to the Patriots has been huge. For a player to join the best team in football and fit in seamlessly as the second-most important player to its offense is amazing. But I just can't leave Barber off my All-Pro team. He's been a tremendous player both as a runner and as a receiver despite having a terrible offense to play in.
Wide receiver: Michael Clayton, Bucs and Muhsin Muhammad, Panthers
Aside from quarterback, making Clayton the first receiver was the easiest pick on the board. Watch him throw a block downfield some time and you'll see that his circus catches are only one part of his all-around game. He's an even better receiver than last year's sensational rookie wideout, Anquan Boldin. I'm amazed that so many football commentators still talk about this year's rookie crop of wide receivers as if picking the best is a difficult decision between Clayton, Roy Williams, Larry Fitzgerald, and Lee Evans. It's not close. Clayton is clearly the best and Evans is just as clearly number two. Williams hasn't been the same since an early-season ankle injury, and Fitzgerald has been inconsistent -- although in fairness any receiver would be inconsistent with Denny Green playing musical chairs to determine the next starting quarterback.
Muhammad was a clear second choice, although as I watched the Panthers-Saints game I vacillated between him and Joe Horn. Everyone in the stadium knows Muhammad is Jake Delhomme's only real target (rookie Keary Colbert has been just OK, and Ricky Proehl is just about done), and yet he runs such great routes that he consistently gets open and makes big catches. He's a free agent to be and he's made himself a lot of money this year.
Quarterback: Peyton Manning, Colts
Best season ever.