’11 All-Midseason Team: Rodgers, Allen lead way
Naming an all-NFL team at midseason is a precarious adventure. Expect just about half the players on this squad to fade as the season progresses and become fodder for the old, “He was playing so great before that happened” argument. It’s the nature of the game.
That said, here’s one thing that isn’t likely to change: Barring a catastrophe, Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers(notes) is going to be the NFL’s Most Valuable Player this season. In a season when there are plenty of quarterbacks playing very well, such as Drew Brees(notes) and Ben Roethlisberger(notes), Rodgers has set the bar at one of the highest levels ever for that position. Beyond that, he’s covering up an atrocious defense, even if the Packers did return two interceptions for scores at San Diego.
With no further adieu:
QB Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers – It’s going to be hard for Rodgers to maintain the pace he is setting. The toughest part is that his final five games are all potentially going to be in harsh weather (three at home and games at the Giants and Kansas City). Rodgers is currently blowing away the competition in leading the defending champion Packers to an 8-0 record. He has a 129.1 quarterback rating, eight points higher than Peyton Manning’s(notes) record of 121.1 in 2004. He is completing 72.5 percent of his passes (the record is 70.6 by Ken Anderson in 1982). He is on pace for a record 5,239 passing yards, not to mention 48 touchdown passes and just six interceptions.
RB Fred Jackson(notes), Buffalo Bills – There is only one running back on this team. Sadly, that prevents LeSean McCoy(notes) from making it as Jackson barely edged him on the strength of slightly better receiving skills. This has been quite a run for Jackson, who was freaking out before the season started about whether he was going to start. Now, he’s the best all-purpose weapon the Bills have had since Thurman Thomas. Jackson has 1,194 yards (803 rushing and 391 receiving) from scrimmage this season and has made the Bills a contender so far.
LT Joe Thomas(notes), Cleveland Browns – Left tackle isn’t what it used to be. Yeah, there are some good ones, but the days of Jonathan Ogden, Orlando Pace(notes) and Tony Boselli are long gone. Anthony Munoz is a distant memory. No offense to Thomas, but he’s not close to being in the league of those guys. Thomas currently is doing a good job, even if the Browns’ offense isn’t kicking tail. Likewise, Jake Long(notes) in Miami has been solid, but shoulder and knee injuries have sapped him of a lot of his talent for right now.
LG Logan Mankins(notes), New England Patriots – Give Mankins credit for not letting the years of contract problems between him and the Patriots affect the way he does his job. He may not be what Steve Hutchinson(notes) was when Hutchinson was at the top of his game, but Mankins isn’t far removed. He is the best combination of run and pass blocker in the league for an interior lineman, although Hutchinson and Carl Nicks(notes) of New Orleans deserve some credit, too.
C Ryan Kalil(notes), Carolina Panthers – It would have been nice if Jets center Nick Mangold(notes) hadn’t gotten hurt and missed time earlier this season. Mangold and Kalil are at the head of a nice group of young centers around the league, including the Pouncey brothers (Maurkice of Pittsburgh and Mike of Miami). Kalil gets the nod on a line that has done a nice job of providing consistent time for rookie quarterback Cam Newton(notes). The running game hasn’t been as consistent as the Panthers would like, but a lot of that has been because they have had to turn to Newton so much.
RG Jahri Evans(notes), New Orleans Saints – Some people believe that Nicks (mentioned above) has become a better player than Evans. Perhaps, but in this format, I’m trying to stay true to where guys actually play. Evans is a terrific right guard and the Saints base much of what they do in the run game on him and his great strength. At a position where many teams sacrifice athleticism, the Saints don’t do that at all with Evans.
RT Eric Winston(notes), Houston – The Texans’ favorite running plays featuring running back Arian Foster(notes) are largely based on Foster going right and then reading the blocks of Winston, who made the Pro Bowl last season and is following that up with another stellar year. Winston isn’t your typical road grader right tackle. Instead, he has a nice combination of quickness and power, allowing him to also be a proficient pass blocker.
TE Jimmy Graham(notes), New Orleans – Here’s the scary part to consider about Graham, who in his second season in the NFL is on pace for 99 catches, 1,400 yards and 10 touchdowns: This is only Graham’s third year of organized football. Graham didn’t play in high school and played at the University of Miami for one season after his eligibility in basketball ran out. That’s just part of what is an amazing story of overcoming obstacles.
WR Calvin Johnson(notes), Detroit Lions – The only thing better than watching Megatron blow up the league (he’s on pace for 1,608 yards and 22 touchdown catches) is watching former NFL wide receiver Cris Carter eat crow for his comments before the season about how Johnson wasn’t among the league’s best receivers.
WR Mike Wallace(notes), Pittsburgh Steelers – When it comes to being a pure deep threat, no one is better than Wallace right now. He can run through defenses whenever he wants, and has improved some of his intermediate and short routes to keep defenses honest. Wallace is the kind of guy you pay money just to watch him run deep. He’s fun just to watch in practice.
WR Steve Smith, Carolina Panthers – This was a tough call to make over New England’s Wes Welker(notes), who might be the best pure slot guy in the league (even though he doesn’t play there regularly). But Smith can play slot, too, and it’s impossible to ignore his monster season, particularly when you consider that he’s 32 and sounded like he wanted to get out of Carolina in the offseason. Smith is on pace for a career-high 1,836 and is averaging a ridiculous 20 yards a catch. He has been revitalized by Cam Newton.
K Sebastian Janikowski(notes), Oakland Raiders – Sea Bass is ridiculous. He has a carnival left leg that could probably do stupid tricks and ridiculous feats of strength. This season, he is 13-of-14 on field goals, including 5-of-6 from 50 yards or longer. That includes an NFL record-tying 63-yarder. In the past three seasons, he has made 15 of 21 from 50 or longer, which is obscene. In the first nine years of his career, he made 19 of 41 from that distance.
DE Jared Allen(notes), Minnesota Vikings – Over the first seven years of Allen’s career, he had an impressive 83 sacks, meaning that he averaged almost 12 a season for that stretch. That’s Hall-of-Fame pace (NFL all-time sack leader Bruce Smith had 78 in his first seven seasons). This season, Allen has 13 sacks in eight games. He is on pace to destroy Michael Strahan’s record of 22½ sacks in 2001. Most impressive, Allen is doing that on a 2-6 team. Pass rushing is usually tied to having the lead and/or winning games. Allen is succeeding anyway.
DT Ndamukong Suh(notes), Detroit Lions – He may have only three sacks and a growing “dirty” reputation, but he is the guy who stirs the drink for the Detroit defense and he’s awesome. It is unusual for a defensive tackle to have this much impact on a defensive line. You get defensive tackles like this about once every 15 to 20 years. Suh is along the lines of Warren Sapp with his disruptive style.
DT Haloti Ngata(notes), Baltimore Ravens – Ray Lewis(notes), Ed Reed(notes) and Terrell Suggs(notes) get most of the camera time when it comes to the Ravens’ defense, but they all owe much to the brutal, dominant play of Ngata. Ngata is like a 4,000-pound block of granite stuck in the middle of the field. Offenses have no choice but to go around him. It’s impossible to go through him.
DE Justin Smith(notes), San Francisco 49ers – It’s rare when guys who sign big free-agent contracts are considered good deals by the fourth or fifth year of the pact. In 2008, the 49ers signed him away from Cincinnati for six years, $45 million. At 32, he may not get another deal, but he’s certainly been worth the investment and might finish it out. Smith is a terrific multi-purpose defensive end, capable of playing both in a 3-4 or a 4-3. He’s both excellent against the run and proficient in the pass rush (five sacks this season and only one season with fewer than that total in his 11-year career).
LB Derrick Johnson, Kansas City Chiefs – The switch from a 4-3 to a 3-4 since the start of 2010 has helped Johnson become a more effective player after five mediocre seasons to start his career. Johnson is on the way to back-to-back 120-tackle seasons for the Chiefs and is helping the team cover for its massive number of injuries. He doesn’t get the sacks of some other linebackers, but this team has plenty of pass rush with Jared Allen and DeMarcus Ware(notes).
LB Ray Lewis, Baltimore Ravens – Physically, there are some better inside linebackers around the league, including the 49ers’ Patrick Willis(notes), Lewis’ heir apparent to the throne. However, the old man (Lewis is 36 and in his 16th season) continues to be as productive as ever and is still playing decent pass defense when necessary.
LB DeMarcus Ware, Dallas Cowboys – If Ware had a nasty bone in his body, the rest of the NFL would probably quit out of fear. Like Allen, Ware (12 sacks) is on pace to break Strahan’s record. Unlike Allen, Ware has gotten close before (20 sacks in 2008). Ware is almost unblockable. He can outrun and outmuscle just about any player you put in front of him.
CB Charles Woodson(notes), Green Bay Packers – Woodson just turned 35 and he’s playing like he’s still 27. He has five interceptions this season, putting him on pace to break the career high of nine he had in the 2009 season. There are a lot of questions about the Packers’ defense, but Woodson isn’t one of them. He’s one of the answers. Either Brandon Flowers(notes) or Chris Houston(notes) would have been in this spot if not for Woodson’s continued stellar play.
CB Darrelle Revis(notes), New York Jets – The great thing about watching Revis is that not only does he never take a play off (he has some of the greatest focus you will ever see), but he can play any type of style. He can play bump-and-run (which he does most of the time) or he can play soft. He can drop into disguised zone coverages or erase the offense’s best receiver. He’s a game-changer in every way.
SS Troy Polamalu(notes), Pittsburgh Steelers – He doesn’t have any interceptions this season after getting a total of 14 in two of the previous three seasons. However, he is on pace for a career high in tackles and remains the best combination safety in the league in terms of playing against the run or the pass. (That said, Seattle’s Kam Chancellor(notes) deserves some attention for what he’s quietly doing.)
FS Eric Weddle(notes), San Diego Chargers – In the evolution of the NFL, the free safety has become a weird ‘tweener position where you increasingly see guys who are more like cornerbacks sit in coverage. Weddle has good instincts for the ball and they are starting to translate into interceptions this season as he has five already (he had six in his first four years). Thomas DeCoud(notes) of Atlanta also deserves some mention.
P Andy Lee(notes), San Francisco 49ers – Lots of people talk about Lee’s cross-bay rival Shane Lechler(notes) of Oakland as the best punter in the game. No question that Lechler has the biggest leg in the league (he’s leading the NFL with a 52-yard gross average). However, Lee is second in the league at 50.2 yards a punt and leads the league in net average at 43.3 yards. Despite working in windy Candlestick Park, Lee has become great at manipulating kicks to minimize returns or eliminate them altogether.
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