by Michael David Smith
After a year of watching game tapes, it's time to pick the elite players I saw this season for the annual Every Play Counts All-Pro Team. Some of the names you see below will surprise you, others are expected, and all deserve recognition as the season winds to a close.
Quarterback: Peyton Manning, Indianapolis
Drew Brees of New Orleans will probably be the more popular choice. Brees has had a great year in difficult circumstances, but Manning is just on another level compared to all the other quarterbacks in the NFL right now.
Fullback: Lorenzo Neal, San Diego
Fullbacks are an endangered species in the NFL; many teams use three-receiver formations without a fullback more often than they use the standard pro set with a fullback. But it would seem like cheating to skip fullbacks when choosing an all-pro team, so I have a spot for one. It was a tough choice between Neal and Jim Finn of the Giants, but Neal gets the nod by a hair because he seems a little more integral to the Chargers' offense than Finn does to the Giants'. More on Neal here.
Running back: LaDainian Tomlinson, San Diego
I don't consider this as easy a choice as most people do -- I think a good case can be made for Kansas City's Larry Johnson, who doesn't get the kind of blocking Tomlinson gets -- but I'm taking Tomlinson because he fits so perfectly in San Diego, where his coaches and teammates say he carries the team on his shoulders.
Tight end: Tony Gonzalez, Kansas City
This came down to a decision among Gonzalez, San Diego's Antonio Gates, Chicago's Desmond Clark, Houston's Owen Daniels and Cleveland's Kellen Winslow. I eliminated Gates because when I watch the Chargers, I don't see him have to fight through as much traffic as most tight ends, as the linebackers are more focused on stopping the running game. Daniels has talent, but a lot of his production comes from Gary Kubiak's dink-and-dunk offense, which has stressed repeated check downs in an attempt to keep David Carr out of trouble. Clark and Winslow have been the best players in a couple of unstable passing games in Chicago and Cleveland, which is important. But ultimately Gonzalez just did so much for both of his quarterbacks, Trent Green and Damon Huard, that he was the best pick.
Wide receivers: Javon Walker, Denver; Chad Johnson, Cincinnati
The choice of Walker might seem surprising, but consider that he was on a new team with two different quarterbacks, neither one of whom played well. Walker is a big play threat in his prime, and acquiring him was a great move by Mike Shanahan. What really sets Johnson apart is his route running. Carson Palmer always knows exactly where Johnson will be. Johnson had a bad game Sunday against Denver, but not bad enough to knock him off the all-pro squad.
Left tackle: Marcus McNeill, San Diego
McNeill should get rookie of the year recognition for the season he's had in San Diego. In a year when many of the old standbys at left tackle, like Jonathan Ogden and Walter Jones, began to decline, McNeill established himself as the best player in the league at the most important line position.
Right tackle: Willie Anderson, Cincinnati
Anderson has long been the best run-blocking tackle in the league, but I was particularly impressed at his pass blocking when I saw him take on Carolina's Julius Peppers. He's a complete player.
Guards: Shawn Andrews, Philadelphia; Alan Faneca, Pittsburgh
Andrews has always had talent, and in his third season he put it all together, thanks in large part to losing some weight. Faneca is one of the few guards in the league who can be counted on both for great straight-ahead blocking on simple runs up the middle and for pulling on traps and sweeps.
Center: Brad Meester, Jacksonville
Meester makes enormous contributions to a good team but gets hardly any recognition. Watch any highlight of Fred Taylor or Maurice Jones-Drew and you're likely to see a very good block by Meester springing the play.
Defensive ends: Julius Peppers, Carolina; Jason Taylor, Miami
Peppers has the speed of a linebacker and great instincts as a pass rusher. Like the rest of his team, he went into a bit of a decline late in the season, but for the totality of his year he still deserves an all-pro spot. Taylor turned 32 before the season and still was the best defensive player in the league.
Defensive tackles: Pat Williams, Minnesota; John Henderson, Jacksonville
As the most important player to maybe the best run defense since the AFL-NFL merger, Williams was an easy pick. I'm shocked that he didn't make the Pro Bowl. Maybe he was left off the roster as punishment for listing his weight as 317 -- if Williams weighs 317, I weigh 117. Henderson was left off the Pro Bowl roster, too, even though he can rush the passer and absorb double teams, which helps the Jaguars' inexperienced linebacking corps. Even my third choice at defensive tackle, Dallas's Jason Ferguson, was a snub. Suffice to say, the Pro Bowl voters and I are looking at different games when we choose defensive tackles.
Inside linebacker: Brian Urlacher, Chicago
This season the Bears have stopped using Urlacher as a blitzing linebacker, and it's improving his overall game: He's gotten more disciplined against the run and has had his best season overall.
Outside linebackers: DeMarcus Ware, Dallas; Adalius Thomas, Baltimore
Ware has been amazing and he's still getting better. I have a feeling he's going to be an all-pro for most of the next decade. Thomas and his teammate Bart Scott are the best pair of outside linebackers in football; Thomas gets the spot on this all-pro team because he can do a little of everything and is a very good special teams player.
Cornerbacks: Champ Bailey, Denver; Pac-Man Jones, Tennessee
The league leaders in interceptions aren't always the best defensive backs -- they're often players who get thrown at a lot. But Bailey leads the league in picks even though quarterbacks usually try to avoid him. If Jones would stop acting like such a jerk, everyone would realize what a unique talent he is. He could have a Deion Sanders-like career as a cover corner and return man if he can stay out of trouble.
Safeties: Ed Reed, Baltimore; Adrian Wilson, Arizona
Reed and Wilson are similar players: They can blitz, they can cover, they can stop the run. I strongly considered giving a spot to the Jets' Kerry Rhodes, but I don't see him making quite as many impact plays as Reed and Wilson.
Kicker: Robbie Gould, Chicago
Gould has one of the strongest legs in football, and although he has come back to earth a bit after a hot start to the season on field goals, he's been the best kicker in the league by a comfortable margin.
Punter: Brian Moorman, Buffalo
Buffalo's winds make it a tough place to punt, but Moorman is great at navigating those winds. I don't know if any punter has ever had a better game than Moorman's against Green Bay in November, when he punted eight times, averaging 47.4 yards a punt, landing four of his punts inside the 20-yard line with no touchbacks, and getting such good hang time that Green Bay totaled just nine punt return yards. Moorman was the biggest reason Buffalo beat Green Bay 24-10 even though Green Bay had 427 total yards to Buffalo's 184 and 26 first downs to Buffalo's 11.
Returner: Devin Hester, Chicago
He really, really needs to learn to hold onto the ball, but Hester has been such a dynamic threat with the ball in his hands that his fumbles aren't (quite) enough to knock him off this all-pro team.
Coach: Brian Billick, Baltimore
From bringing in Steve McNair to firing Jim Fassel, Billick wasn't afraid to take risks. His decisions have paid off, and the Ravens are Super Bowl contenders. Not many people expected that before the season.