One man's All-Pro team: A couple surprises, lots of Patriots
Over the past week, ESPN.com's Len Pasquarelli surveyed personnel directors, general managers and scouts for their input on the NFL's top players at every position this season and then added his input. The results may include some surprises, especially on special teams.
Tip Sheet notes
There is plenty of change in the air -- just not at head-coaching level. Notes
Over the past week, ESPN.com surveyed personnel directors, general managers and scouts for their input on the top players at every position this year. And then, because it is an exercise in subjectivity, we tossed into the brew a dose of personal opinion as well.
The formula created the following All-Pro team:
Randy Moss (New England): He resurrected his career by regaining his love for the game and dedicating himself again after two dismal seasons in Oakland. Patriots coach Bill Belichick surrounded him with leaders and counted on his pride and competitiveness in the environment New England creates in its locker room, and the gamble paid off. An incredible return for a fourth-round investment.
Reggie Wayne (Indianapolis): He played all but five games without future Hall of Fame member Marvin Harrison in the lineup because of a knee injury and, as a result, faced more double-teams. But Wayne continued a phenomenal streak of increasing his receptions in every season of his career, further established himself as a big-time talent, and led the NFL in receiving yards.
Wes Welker (New England): You see this guy in the locker room and might mistake him for one of the ball boys or an equipment man. But he defines the slot receiver position. He's a tough, fearless pass-catcher who isn't daunted by having to run through linebackers and safeties, and he always adds yards after the catch. He has great quickness over short-range areas, superb hands and led the NFL in receptions.
Jason Witten (Dallas): Even with Terrell Owens in the lineup, Witten emerged as the receiver who Tony Romo looked to most often on critical third-down situations. He has the natural ability to beat bracket coverages by finding the soft spot and settling down in the secondary. Tony Gonzalez of Kansas City had a few more catches and, athletically, San Diego's Antonio Gates remains a superior player. But in terms of total impact, Witten is emerging as the new gold standard.
Joe Thomas (Cleveland): He got some much-deserved support for offensive rookie of the years honors; the former Wisconsin star and third overall selection in the 2007 draft quickly asserted himself at a position that, after quarterback, is arguably the toughest spot on offense. Unofficially, he allowed only two sacks. He teamed with guard Eric Steinbach to exponentially upgrade the left side of Cleveland's offensive line. Barring injury, Thomas will go to 10 Pro Bowls in his career.
Logan Mankins (New England): He looks like a mountain man, as do many of the New England blockers, and is a true throwback-type player. A rugged in-line blocker in the running game and improving pass-protector, he occasionally gets out in front on the many quick screens the Patriots throw to their slot receivers. He will maul defenders inside and can get to the second level and take on linebackers.
Matt Birk (Minnesota): Someone had to be blocking upfront for the league's best running attack, didn't they? A perennial Pro Bowl player who battled injuries in recent seasons, Birk returned to form in 2007. There are a lot of good centers in the league -- and guys such as Jeff Saturday (Indianapolis), Dan Koppen (New England) and Kevin Mawae (Tennessee) also received consideration -- but Birk again stood out.
Jahri Evans (New Orleans): He is arguably the best and most consistent performer on what clearly is one of the NFL's top five blocking groups -- the Saints fewest sacks in league. The former fourth-round choice from tiny Bloomsburg (Pa.) College stood out as a rookie in 2006, and he was even better this season. This was a season in which the collective play of the league's guards was actually better than its tackles. And there were some outstanding right guards to consider. Evans might be the least known of them, but he is also the best.
Jordan Gross (Carolina): It was a tough season for the Panthers, but Gross, a pending unrestricted free agent, set himself up for a handsome pay day, either from the Panthers or someone else in the spring. The lack of productivity from an offense forced to start four different quarterbacks is hardly a reflection of his standout performance; the former first-round pick unofficially surrendered only three sacks.
Tom Brady (New England): Fifty touchdown passes and the league's top QB rating. Enough said, right? But beyond the numbers, Brady is the consummate leader, the calm point guard who distributes the ball evenly to his arsenal of weapons, and his assists far outnumber his turnovers. Belichick surrounded him with a lot more toys this season, and Brady turned every stadium into his play room.
LaDainian Tomlinson (San Diego): There were times early in the season when San Diego's offense clearly was struggling, when the league's best pure tailback couldn't find a crease behind an offense line that didn't seem nearly as good as a year ago. But once coach Norv Turner basically put the offense in Tomlinson's hands, LT became a force again and the Chargers recovered their playoff swagger. Tomlinson won his second straight rushing title.
Brian Westbook (Philadelphia): In his sixth season, the Eagles' most valuable player continued to disprove the critics who once suggested he wasn't big or tough enough to be an every-down workhorse. Westbrook rushed for 1,333 yards and led the NFL in total yards from scrimmage. He has demonstrated his durability and also shown that, when he's operating in space against a linebacker, it's always a mismatch.
Lawrence Vickers (Cleveland): In the modern game, the position has become about as extinct as a dodo, but Vickers, a second-year pro, plays fullback with the kind of lunch-pail mentality it takes to fill the thankless role. Vickers recorded only 28 touches all season, but the 260-pounder provided crushing lead blocks for tailback Jamal Lewis and showed improvement in pass protection as well.
Patrick Kerney (Seattle): Coming off a torn pectoral muscle that wrecked his 2006, Kerney was allowed by Atlanta to depart in free agency, and his exit left a void on the field and in the locker room. An exceptional team leader and relentless pass-rusher with an unbelievable motor, Kerney regained his form in the second half of the season. He had three three-sacks games for the Seahawks and finished with 14 quarterback takedowns for the season.
Albert Haynesworth (Tennessee): He missed significant time in the second half of the season because of a hamstring injury and, because of that, will probably lose some All-Pro votes. But when Haynesworth was on the field, he was virtually unstoppable. He is a disruptive force with deceptive athleticism. Haynesworth ratcheted up his game in 2007 and stopped taking so many downs off. He can be an unrestricted free agent in the spring, and it's likely the Titans will designate him a franchise player if that's what it takes to retain him.
Pat Williams (Minnesota): His numbers are never terribly impressive but, at age 35 and in his 11th season in the league, Williams just keeps getting better. He has become more than just a "phone-booth player" -- an interior defender who only makes plays in a very closed space -- but is still at his best in close-quarters in-fighting. Williams commands double-team attention and eats up blockers. He is a key to a defense that has ranked No. 1 versus the run two years in a row.
Vince Wilfork (New England): His ability to take on multiple blockers and anchor against the run is a key to the Patriots' 3-4 front. More athletic than people think, Wilfork, who is gaining ground as a technician, can occasionally penetrate into the backfield instead of just holding his ground. And from time to time, he'll even provide a little bit of an inside pass rush, although he's not often on the field for third downs.
Darnell Dockett (Arizona): The Cardinals' transformation to a 3-4 front was ideal for Dockett, who played the first three seasons of his career as an under tackle in a 4-3 scheme. As a 3-4 end, Dockett was better able to use his combination of quickness and strength, and he became more of a disruptive force. He should be even more effective as he continues to grow into the 3-4 scheme.
Jared Allen (Kansas City): Despite missing the first two games of the season to a league-imposed suspension, he still led the NFL with 15 ½ sacks and became adept at the sack-and-strip technique. A natural pass-rusher, Allen explodes out of his stance and his first step usually carries him into the backfield. In his fourth season, he's also improved against the run. He is eligible for unrestricted free agency and could earn the franchise tag.
DeMarcus Ware (Dallas): A viable candidate for defensive player of the year honors, the third-year veteran was turned loose more often in Wade Phillips' version of the 3-4, which attacks more than the three-man front that Dallas played under former coach Bill Parcells. The result: 14 sacks and plenty of huge plays. At his best when moving forward, Ware displayed some cover skills as well in 2007, both in the flat and up the field, and he became far better at forcing the run inside.
Gary Brackett (Indianapolis): He is a bit of a sleeper choice but a key performer in the Indianapolis Cover 2 scheme; the unit improved to No. 3 in the league in defense 2007 after finishing 21st a year ago. To play the Cover 2 well, a team needs a middle linebacker who can sprint down the center of the field on passing downs, and Brackett is one of the league's best. He also had more than 100 tackles in the running game. There were a lot of deserving "Mike" linebackers in 2007, such as E.J. Henderson of Minnesota and Tampa Bay's Barrett Ruud, but Brackett's cover abilities gave him a slight edge.
James Farrior (Pittsburgh): The chic pick was probably San Francisco rookie Patrick Willis, who drew rave reviews and will be a slam-dunk winner as defensive rookie of the year. But there are few 3-4 inside linebackers as versatile as Farrior. This Farrior was used more as a blitzer by Pittsburgh coordinator Dick LeBeau, and he collected a career-best six sacks.
Asante Samuel (New England): He proved to a lot of skeptics, including this columnist, that he is more than just a system cornerback who benefited from the New England scheme and the players around him. Samuel is fast approaching shut-down corner status. Quarterbacks now avoid him because he jumps routes with great explosion moving forward and can turn poor throws into touchdowns.
Al Harris (Green Bay): Often overlooked, he was named to his first Pro Bowl in 2007. Harris was overshadowed much of the season by the play of Green Bay partner Charles Woodson. But in the final month of the season, when Woodson was slowed by a toe injury, Harris really shined. A tough, aggressive cover defender, he is strong enough to redirect receivers off their routes and is a great run-support defender.
Ronde Barber (Tampa Bay): Maybe the best slot defender of this era, he almost always moves inside on third down and is forever looking for the game-altering steal. He is one of just a handful of players in league history with 10 defensive touchdowns for his career. He plays with great instincts and his ability to clamp down on inside wideouts in clutch situations remains a key to Tampa Bay's defense.
Ed Reed (Baltimore): Reed is another defender who is always seeking the big, game-altering play, and he makes more than his share of them. He is versatile enough to play both safety positions, and the Ravens design much of what they do around his unique skills. He is a solid, wrap-up tackler when close to the line of scrimmage. Reed will still guess at times in coverage and will whiff when he overreacts and plays for the pickoff. Still, he is a superb defender who plays the game the way it's supposed to be played.
Bob Sanders (Indianapolis): He might be the most impactful defensive player in the league and certainly the NFL's toughest performer pound for pound. He is only 5-feet-8, but he hits like a human torpedo and can blow up running plays before they ever get started. He was used more as a blitzer this year and was effective in that role. Sanders is getting better every year in coverage. The Colts' defense isn't quite the same when he's out of the lineup.
Phil Dawson (Cleveland): There were kickers with more points, a few with better field goal conversion rates and many with more touchbacks. But the Browns' nine-year veteran missed only four of 30 field goal tries all season and made some huge kicks under adverse weather conditions.
Andy Lee (San Francisco): He had an amazing 42 kicks inside the 20-yard line and only 13 touchbacks. That 4-1 ratio was among the best in the league and, like Dawson, the results were achieved under some bad conditions. He had an impressive 47.3-yard average and was often called upon to get the pitiful 49ers offense out of trouble.
Josh Cribbs (Cleveland): It's always hard to choose against Chicago's Devin Hester, who already ranks as one of the great return specialists of all time. But the electrifying Cribbs led the league in kickoff return average and was in the top five in punt return average as well.
Senior writer Len Pasquarelli covers the NFL for ESPN.com.
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