Projecting the 2017 All-Pro Team is, in a word, tough sledding. Actually, that's two words. See what I mean??
Given how limited preseason reps are for starters, picking the first team requires research, intuition, research, much editing and research. Oh, and you have to decipher how the heck a few head coaches will approach things this season. Will the Bucs run more (affecting Mike Evans)? Are there too many Giant mouths to feed (thus cutting into Odell Beckham Jr.'s targets)? Is a healthy Keenan Allen the certifiable WR1 for the Chargers? These kinds of questions -- and the NFL's bumper crop of talented wideouts -- make this quite a difficult undertaking.
After hours of fact-finding and cross-checking and second-guessing, I present my 2017 All-Pro predictions. Yes, there are 12 players on defense -- trying to account for different fronts. Hit me @HarrisonNFL with thoughts (complaints).
No position player in the modern era has ever been named first-team All-Pro at 40 years old. Brett Favre came close during his brilliant 2009 campaign. No other quarterback has played close to that level at Brady's age. So why will he be the league's premier quarterback, one season after Matt Ryan was tabbed as the league's top QB (and player)? With no LeGarrette Blount, I anticipate the Patriots running less. Brandin Cooks joins the fold, instantly upgrading the wide receiver corps. Most important: a healthy, productive Rob Gronkowski.
Second team:Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers
The league's most consistent offensive weapon last season should see as much action in 2017 after fully recovering from the knee injury he sustained in Week 17. With Ezekiel Elliott facing suspension, Johnson should be the most productive RB in the NFC. John Brown's continued health woes will only increase Johnson's contributions to the passing game.
Second team:LeSean McCoy, Buffalo Bills
This is the year. This is when Le'Veon Bell gets so pissed off about his contract status that he stays on the field -- for 16 games. While it might be difficult to avoid the injury bug, Bell can at least control the off-field tribulations that have caused him to miss time. He can also avoid contact when unnecessary. This is not to suggest that he isn't durable -- Bell averaged over 150 scrimmage yards per game last season. Ironically, perhaps his time away from training camp will help him stay available health-wise during the season.
Second team:Ty Montgomery, Green Bay Packers (flex)
It is nearly impossible to leave Antonio Brown off this list. Has any player, irrespective of position, performed better at his job over the last four years? The Steelers WR1 captured the AFC North title by plowing through two Ravens to score at the goal line. And in an "off" season, Brown only managed 1,284 yards in 15 games. With the return of Martavis Bryant, secondaries will no longer be able to keep their eyes trained on A.B. while scantly noticing Eli Rogers, Sammie Coates or whoever else.
Second team:Julio Jones, Atlanta Falcons
Could have gone with so many names here, but the surprise offense pick for this 2017 All-Pro projection is Saints wideout Michael Thomas. Consider that Thomas posted 92 catches for 1,137 yards and nine touchdowns in his rookie season -- you know, that year when receivers are supposed to spend way more time adjusting than producing. Also keep in mind that Odell Beckham Jr. is already nicked up (and there are more mouths to feed in New York), while Julio Jones is coming off foot surgery.
Second team:Mike Evans, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Not taking Gronkowski off the All-Pro Team because he is still the elite tight end in pro football. While Travis Kelce received the first-team nod from the Associated Press last season, it marked the first time since 2013 Gronk wasn't considered top shelf at his position. In less than eight games last fall, Tom Brady's most talented target caught 25 passes for 540 yards, averaging 21.6 yards per catch -- an absolutely crazy figure for any tight end in any era. Even if Gronkowski fails to log a full season again in 2017, I'll take 13 contests from Gronk over a complete campaign from anyone else. Especially because he can actually block.
Second team:Travis Kelce, Kansas City Chiefs
He's now a vegan. He's an awfully large promoter of yoga, too. Whatever works. Because when his body's right, Williams is an absolute force on the blind side. The Redskins' top offensive lineman edges Joe Thomas and Tyron Smith to earn first-team All-Pro, an honor he's never received despite finding his way to five straight Pro Bowls. With Washington's heavy dependence on Kirk Cousins dropping back, and two new starters at wideout finding their way, Williams' pass protection might be needed more than ever.
Second team:Joe Thomas, Cleveland Browns
Yes, I wanted the second tackle position to represent the NON-blind side. Deal with it. This is, after all, MY All-Pro Team. Very quietly, Conklin turned in a brilliant rookie campaign for the Titans. While I thought Taylor Lewan would make this prestigious team last year, both Tennessee tackles became forces for Mike Mularkey's run-heavy outfit. Lewan made the Pro Bowl, while Conklin tucked away the first of what could be a handful of All-Pro nods. Manning the right tackle spot, Conklin helped pave the way for DeMarco Murray and the league's third-best running game. Not to mention, the offensive line allowed just 28 sacks as a unit.
Second team:Ryan Schraeder, Atlanta Falcons
The other day, a random thought snuck its way into my football consciousness: Marshal Yanda is a Hall of Fame player many fans aren't even aware of -- as dominant as J.J. Watt, Joe Thomas or any other player who toils in the trenches. Yanda has really emerged over the last three seasons, in particular, missing first-team All-Pro last year mostly because he missed three games. (Baltimore's overall struggles on offense didn't help, either.) Back to the whimsical Marshal Yanda musings: It seems I'm not the only one who appreciates his anonymous brilliance.
Second team:Kelechi Osemele, Oakland Raiders
Back in 2014, Martin became the first rookie O-lineman to make first-team All-Pro since 1947! Like Conklin this past season, Martin earned that 2014 honor by creating running room for a dynamic DeMarco Murray. Since then, all he's done is make two more Pro Bowls and nab another All-Pro nod. The scary thing: At age 26, Martin's just entering his prime, when experience catches up to raw physical ability.
Second team:Josh Sitton, Chicago Bears
Widely recognized as the top pivot in pro football, Fredrick serves as the quarterback of the Cowboys' celebrated offensive line. With Dak Prescott feeling his way through last season, Frederick handled protections with aplomb, allowing the rookie quarterback to play in an environment far more conducive to success than Carson Wentz or Jared Goff enjoyed. Frederick plays tough, no question, but he also cerebrally handles the responsibilities of the most underrated position on the offensive side of the ball.
Second team:Alex Mack, Atlanta Falcons
The reigning Defensive Player of the Year should have as strong a chance of repeating as being dethroned. You'd think the Raiders secondary will play better this season, with an infusion of young talent and safety Karl Joseph becoming more acclimated with the pro game. And additions on offense should help Mack, as well -- Marshawn Lynch joining the fold means fewer plays on the field for the defense. Fewer plays = less fatigue = better pass rush.
Second team:J.J. Watt, Houston Texans
Everyone finally saw what Clowney could do down the back stretch of last season. The dude was the queen on the chessboard for the Texans, a movable piece who could play with his hand in the dirt, standing at the line or even in a traditional OLB role. I have him listed as a DE here -- because, well, that's how he best fit among this group -- but he's a true hybrid on the field of play. So, what's next? In theory, a healthy J.J Watt will take focus off Clowney, allowing an athletic freak to consistently defeat one-on-one blocking. To that point, don't discount the distraction rush linebacker Whitney Mercilus presents.
Second team:Joey Bosa, Los Angeles Chargers
Now hailed as the NFL's top interior D-lineman, Donald must go out and prove it again. He more than managed last season, tallying an incredible 31 QB hits from the defensive tackle position. Your best edge rushers often don't touch that total. In fact, no one did last year. Donald turned in his incredible campaign for what was arguably the worst team in football by the end of the season.
Second team:Damon Harrison, New York Giants
Cox narrowly edges out Damon "Snacks" Harrison for the spot next to Aaron Donald. Cox has been the best player on the entire Eagles team for three years running. He might not be the dominant run stuffer Harrison is, but he has a much larger impact in the passing game. Cox certainly impacts what opponents try to accomplish on the ground, but his 16 sacks over the last two seasons are quite impressive for an interior defender.
Second team:Leonard Williams, New York Jets (yes, he's a hybrid DL)
Due to the Broncos' unsuccessful title defense -- Denver didn't even make the playoffs -- Miller's brilliant 2016 campaign got lost in a sea of seemingly more relevant storylines. Miller was a wrecking ball to protection schemes once again, performing more consistently than he did during the championship season. He posted more sacks and more than twice as many tackles. Entering Year 7, Miller is in the heart of his prime -- experienced enough to have the book on every tackle and quarterback, while still fast enough to cash in on their mistakes.
Second team:Lavonte David, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Perhaps a surprise first-team All-Pro on the AP's defense last season, Lee should repeat. The main challenge to Lee making the first team again is that many AP voters look at sacks first when it comes to this position group, due to the infiltration of pass rushers from the 3-4 OLB spot. The Cowboys' defense is a base 4-3 scheme, similar to the Tampa 2 from the Monte Kiffin days. Lee is not expected to rush the passer, rather make tackles sideline to sideline with his quickness and instinctive first step, while also getting out in space and covering. Not as sexy as the sack artists, but often more important to overall quality defense.
Second team:Telvin Smith, Jacksonville Jaguars
Wagner played his butt off again in 2016, and at this point, he deserves more acclaim than he gets. Yes, he's widely considered an elite MLB, but he should be thought of as a top player in the entire NFL. Middle linebacker is not the glamour post it was in the days of Dick Butkus, Jack Lambert or Mike Singletary, largely because of the league's aerial evolution. Thus, Wagner just won't get as much attention as other players manning more high-profile spots. That said, Wagner put on a clinic last season, a tackling manifesto that more than a few players -- linebacker units ... uhh, teams ... -- should aspire to replicate.
Second team:Deion Jones, Atlanta Falcons
Doesn't seem like Kuechly is changing anything about his approach, even after a concussion ended his 2016 campaign six games early. Panthers head coach Ron Rivera says he hasn't noticed any difference in Kuechly this summer, which means the football world can expect the same whirling dervish of a linebacker, who reads and reacts and wreaks havoc all over the field. The cool factor in Kuechly's game is his ability to make plays over the middle of the field against tight ends and running backs. Also notable: eclipsing 100 tackles in just 10 games.
Second team:Kwon Alexander, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
For years, Jenkins appeared thisclose to emerging from the pack of uber-talented -- but not yet refined -- young corners around the league. Last season, he was the huge beneficiary of an improved Giants pass rush. He also returned the favor to Olivier Vernon and Jason Pierre-Paul by holding down the fort against the top wideouts in the league. His masterpiece versus Dez Bryant in December was a huge factor in New York sweeping Dallas, and making it back to the postseason.
Second team:Malcolm Butler, New England Patriots
Opposing quarterbacks completed far below 50 percent of their passes against Xavier Rhodes last season, helping to further establish the Vikings' top corner as one of the premier players at the position. While Rhodes still occasionally gives up the big play, the continued emergence of Danielle Hunter should bolster the secondary by reducing the amount of time the unit must do its job. (Check out Hunter's sack of Russell Wilson last Friday.) Both first-team All-Pros from last season -- Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters -- might find their help up front a bit weaker, with Shane Ray and Justin Houston on the mend.
Second team:Marcus Peters, Kansas City Chiefs
Pete Carroll gushed about Thomas in training camp, saying he was as fast as he's seen him since early in his career. Thomas' season ended prematurely last year with a broken leg, yet the key here is that the safety didn't suffer an ACL injury or some kind of ligament tear. Otherwise, we might've had to wait until 2018 for Thomas to roam center field the way he has throughout much of his All-Pro career. (Or he might've just retired.) His leadership will be needed more than ever in 2017. No, not because of the bickering Seahawks, but rather, the four rookies Seattle is now employing in the defensive backfield.
Second team:Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Green Bay Packers
Collins darn near was the Defensive Player of the Year in 2016. OK, he wasn't that close to Khalil Mack's vote total, but Collins impacted so many games last season for the Giants, dominating against both the run and the pass. His penchant for making the big play is what jumped off the page (SEE: vs. Rams in London). Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Collins' ascendancy is the short time frame -- this will only be Year 3 of his NFL career. Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor, Eric Berry and Tyrann Mathieu now face serious competition for the title of premier safety in the league.
Second team:Eric Berry, Kansas City Chiefs
Tucker is a machine on a squad that needs him to be automatic. Devoid a running game, and with a passing game that could be vertically challenged until Joe Flacco is completely healthy, the Ravens will lean on Tucker like never before -- likely from long range. Tucker was the top kicker in pro football last year, with a big part of that equation being his proficiency from downtown. The guy went 10 for 10 from 50-plus yards. Goodnight. Now he is trying to invent ways to score on his own.
Second team:Matt Bryant, Atlanta Falcons
Sam Martin originally resided here, but seeing how he hasn't punted in the preseason while nursing an ankle injury, the Lions punter will have to wait another year to potentially earn this projection. Johnny Hekker was really effective for the Rams, but the arrival of Sean McVay and optimization of Todd Gurley should have Los Angeles needing the punter less. Meanwhile, Thomas Morstead has quietly performed as well as any punter in the league since entering the NFL in 2009. With the Saints playing in so many track meets, their special teams ace rarely gets noticed. Yet, look for New Orleans to run the football more and not try to win games 35-30 this season, thus requiring the uber-talented punter to affect the outcome more often than in years past.
Second team:Johnny Hekker, Los Angeles Rams
Hill pulled double duty last season, returning 39 punts and 14 kicks. While the Chiefs have said he won't return kicks this year -- coaches don't wanna spread the guy too thin -- he's still set to terrify opponents as a punt returner. Hill was an absolute nightmare when opponents faced fourth down last season, taking two punts to the house en route to leading the league in punt-return average (15.2 yards per return). His speed is mind-bending, and his ability to find creases has implored Andy Reid to find more ways to use him on offense. Now, back to those kickoffs ... If Kansas City needs a big return late in the regular season or in the playoffs, you think they won't trot Hill out there?
Second team:Alex Erickson, Cincinnati Bengals