The Starters: Robert Quinn (SL), J.J. Watt (HOU), Cameron Jordan (NO) and Michael Johnson (CIN)
Scandal! I fully intended to endorse Michael Bennett here, but despite playing 276 snaps he’s not worth a spot on the ballot. Needless to say he’s been excellent for the Seahawks and is our second-ranked defensive end. The guy above him is Quinn who leads his peers with 38 quarterback disruptions, while Johnson is third in those rankings. Over in the 3-4 defensive end stakes, Watt has somehow managed to maintain his form from 2012 and leads things there, ahead of Jordan who has enjoyed a breakout year.
The Backups: Muhammad Wilkerson (NYJ) and DeMarcus Ware (DAL)
The Starters: Jason Hatcher (DAL), Gerald McCoy (TB), Damon Harrison (NYJ) and Ndamukong Suh (DET)
This may come as a surprise to some, but there aren’t many players in the league at any position playing as well as Hatcher right now — he’s on a roll. Two of the other starters are players that will be forever linked as guys picked at the top of the 2010 draft in Suh and McCoy, with both finally getting one over on Atkins who can only earn a rotational spot for now. Amidst them all, the name that really stands out is Harrison. The former undrafted free agent sees plenty of action (unlike a lot of nose tackles) and has been stellar against the run.
The Backups: Geno Atkins (CIN) and Dontari Poe (KC)
The Starters: Sean Lee (DAL) and Derrick Johnson (KC)
If Spikes was an every-down player he’d likely earn a starting spot such is his work in the run game. But he’s not so the best he can do is a spot on the bench. So I’ve gone with the playmaker Lee and the ultra sound Johnson. Both men are spearheads for their defense.
The Backups: Brandon Spikes (NE) and Kiko Alonso (BUF)
The Starters: Lavonte David (TB), Justin Houston (KC), Robert Mathis (IND) and Tamba Hali (KC)
Is still seems odd to me that we’re grouping 4-3 outside linebackers with 3-4 ones when the roles they play are often vastly different. Anyway, I’ve plumped with the 3-4 guys primarily because in the modern NFL you can never get enough pressure and all more are doing an exceptional job in that regard. The one 4-3 OLB is David and if you don’t know why you might want to watch the first half of his game versus the Falcons.
The Backups: DeAndre Levy (DET) and Elvis Dumervil (BAL)
The Starters: Darrelle Revis (TB), Alterraun Verner (TEN), Aqib Talib (NE) and Richard Sherman (SEA)
He’s not being used as we would like to see him but Revis is back and looking if not as good as ever, then close. Naturally there’s been less flashy plays from him but we’ve got Verner (four picks and eight more break ups) and Sherman (three picks and three break ups) to fill that role. Rounding out the group is Talib who has manned up to some pretty big challenges and won.
The Backups: Vontae Davis (IND), Jason McCourty (TEN), Brandon Carr (DAL) and Brent Grimes (MIA)
Eric Berry (KC) and Troy Polamalu (PIT)
This is the best Berry has ever looked, free of injury and inexperience and capable of doing so much in that Chiefs defense. As for Polamalu, he’s not done yet and can still impact a rushing attack like few other safeties.
Devin McCourty (NE) and Earl Thomas (SEA)
The more McCourty plays at safety the better he gets. He’s provided some real backend assurance for the Patriots’ defense. Just behind him in our safety grades is Thomas who has maintained his playmaking while cutting down on some of the negative plays that rightly earned our scorn last year.
Nick Folk (NYJ) and Matt Prater (DEN)
A couple of kickers who are perfect on the year. Folk deserves extra praise for turning himself into a game-winning kicking machine.
Golden Tate (SEA) and Cordarrelle Patterson (MIN)
A nice mix here. One guy (Tate) leads our punt return rankings and the other (Patterson) is tops on kick returns.
Shane Lechler (HOU) and Johnny Hekker (SL)
Perhaps tough on Thomas Morstead who has had significantly fewer opportunities to impress us than the two above him in our rankings. Still they’ve both done a fantastic job.
Justin Bethel (ARZ) and Eric Weems (CHI)
Bethel was an easy pick. I’ve heard our special teams guru Neil Hornsby go on about his brilliance too often to risk an earful going elsewhere. I was less sure about the second pick with there a lack of option and a number of worthy contenders on the ballot. Weems is active, though, so he did make it easier.
The Starters: Peyton Manning (DEN) and Philip Rivers (SD)
There was never any doubt that Manning would make it. He’s comfortably our top-ranked quarterback and despite the setback against the Colts, having a season for the ages. It’s been his accuracy that has been the key to his dominance and that’s something he shares with Rivers as you can tell from our Accuracy Percentage signature stat. Rivers leads the way at 82.9% with Manning just behind him 80.6%.
The Backups: Matt Ryan (ATL), Andrew Luck (IND), Matthew Stafford (DET) and Drew Brees (NO)
The Starters: LeSean McCoy (PHI) and Frank Gore (SF)
It wasn’t hard picking McCoy who not only leads all running backs in yardage but also leads them all in our rankings. Gore was a harder selection with the truth being a host of guys are yet to stand out from the crowd, but the solid veteran keeps getting the job done as an every-down back.
The Backups: Darren Sproles (NO), Arian Foster (HOU), Marshawn Lynch (SEA) and Reggie Bush (DET)
The Starters: Antonio Brown (PIT), Dez Bryant (DAL), Andre Johnson (HOU) and Jordy Nelson (GB)
Not easy but I’ve lumped for the guys who represent the Top 4 in our receiving grades at the wide receiver position. Brown is the top dog there and it’s a shame the struggles of Pittsburgh have ensured he’s not getting the attention he should. Behind him, Nelson has the second most deep passes (eight) in the league, while Bryant is making plenty of moves after the catch (242 yards there and six broken tackles) to complement his ability to get open. Johnson may have failed to get into the end zone but his ability to move the chains remains something to behold.
The Backups: Wes Welker (DEN), Brandon Marshall (CHI), Demaryius Thomas (DEN) and Calvin Johnson (DET)
Anthony Sherman (KC) and Bruce Miller (SF)
There was some consideration given to Mike Tolbert, but given he’s used almost as much as a half back I opted for some true lead blockers. Mission accomplished in that respect with Sherman one of the success stories of the season and Miller getting back to his best after a slow start.
The Starters: Jimmy Graham (NO) and Tony Gonzalez (ATL)
My colleagues won’t like me for this as they’ll think I’ve ignored the blocking tight ends. The problem is there’s been a lack of tight ends getting the job done in all phases of the game so I’ve gone for impact players. Graham is an obvious slam dunk pick but I went back and forth over Davis and Gonzalez. In the end it was the success of the Falcon despite a quite frankly absurd amount of defensive attention that got him in.
The Backups: Vernon Davis (SF) and Jordan Cameron (CLE)
The Starters: Nate Solder (NE) and Doug Free (DAL)
The Patriots’ interior hasn’t been completely solid but their tackles are both getting the job done. Solder gets the start and Vollmer, who has been superb in pass protection, the sub. That’s because I like the work of Free in the run game a lot more. Kudos on the turnaround.
The Backups: Joe Thomas (CLE), Trent Williams (WAS), Andrew Whitworth (CIN) and Sebastian Vollmer (NE)
The Starters: Evan Mathis (PHI) and Louis Vasquez (DEN)
If you’re not getting it now you likely never will. The consistency of Mathis sets him apart as our top-ranked guard once again. The right side is a bit trickier but Vasquez, who even earned a positive when forced to play right tackle, was still a relatively easy choice. He’s proved worth the money.
The Backups: Kory Lichtensteiger (WAS), Ben Grubbs (BAL), David DeCastro (PHI) and Brandon Fusco (MIN)
The Starters: Chris Myers (HOU) and Alex Mack (CLE)
This would have been trickier but for Kelce having a nightmare of a game against the Giants. That left Myers and Mack clearly atop our ranking as they lead the way in their positional run block grading.
The Backups: Manny Ramirez (DEN) and Jason Kelce (PHI)