With four weeks of the NFL regular season in the books, we're beginning to earn clarity on the current state of the league. Players and teams continue to reveal to us just who they'll be in the 2017 rendition of football. The good teams are cementing themselves, underperformers can no longer hide and the sleeper teams are either recognizing their potential or offered enough evidence to write them off.
At the quarter pole of the 2017 NFL season, we also have some idea of who the star players of this year's campaign are. Using some of the NFL's Next Gen Stats, we'll assemble an early All-Pro team to represent the best players at each position through the first four weeks of action. Of course, some of my own subjective judgment is in play here to help break ties, but there is no case made here that can't be backed up by the powerful objective data gleaned from the tracking chips in the players' shoulder pads. Here's a look back at the 2016 All-Pro team for a reminder on what positions need filling.
On the surface, it looks like just another excellent season for the future Hall of Famer, checking in as the NFL's passing yardage leader sporting a 10-0 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Indeed, Tom Brady is right on track for another great season, but there are layers to what makes this one special. For starters, Brady and the Patriots offense are currently playing with one hand tied behind their back thanks to a defense that's on a historically poor pace. New England's 35.1 pressure rate ranks 28th this year. Their complete inability to rush the passer prevents them from even playing competent defense and they allow 6.9 yards per play in their nickel package (five defensive backs), fifth-most in the league. Despite that, Brady continues offering up his best effort to keep the team competitive. He's done so in a different fashion this season, as well, playing with a far more aggressive approach. Brady averages 11.2 intended air yards on his pass attempts this year, which trails only Jameis Winston's 11.7 figure. For comparison's sake, Brady averaged 8.6 air yards last season, falling outside the top-25. Without superstar slot receiver Julian Edelman in the fold, Brady's also forced to drill the ball into tight windows more this season. Over 24 percent of Brady's throws registered as a tight window pass (less than one yard of separation) this season, compared to just 17.6 percent in 2016. New England's transition to a vertically aggressive pass offense better fits their current personnel and is just another testament to Brady and Bill Belichick's malleability.
The act of compiling an All-Pro team will naturally create some tough calls. This wasn't one of them. The Chiefs upstart third-round rookie was the runaway choice for the running back spot. Kareem Hunt dazzled the second he hit the NFL field with a dominant three-touchdown game in the 2017 season opener. He hasn't slowed down since. He continues to stack big plays and is unmatched when it comes to making defenders miss.
Wide receiver one
Despite playing with journeyman quarterback Case Keenum in Weeks 2 through 4 following Sam Bradford's knee injury, Stefon Diggs leads the NFL with 391 receiving yards. He's done it all as the Vikings No. 1 receiver. Diggs moved into the slot last year out of necessity, lining up there on 58 percent of his plays. The Vikings changed his utilization this season and 78 percent of his targets have come on plays where he's lined up outside. The return to his true position brought back the possibility for big plays and Diggs continues to deliver. He averages 15 air yards per target.
While Diggs is widely and justly praised for his impeccable route-running and separation ability, it's been his performance in contested situations this year that cements him as a superstar wideout. Vikings quarterbacks register a perfect 158.3 passer rating when throwing to Stefon Diggs in tight windows (less than a yard of separation) and the 191-pound receiver has racked up 206 yards and scored three touchdowns.
Wide receiver 2:
Arguably the best wide receiver in the NFL over the last three years, Antonio Brown is in his usual dominant form this season. With his fellow offensive weapons in Le'Veon Bell and Martavis Bryant starting somewhat slowly, Brown is the constant engine for Pittsburgh. He owns a whopping 40.4 percent share of Ben Roethlisberger's intended air yards, the fourth-highest figure in the NFL this year behind A.J. Green, DeVante Parker and Robby Anderson. Brown still sets the standard when it comes to separating from the poor defenders attempting to cover him, even when they attempt to press him off the line. Opposing cornerbacks afford Brown just 4.0 yards of cushion at the line. Among wideouts who get an average cushion fewer than 4.5 yards, Brown's 2.6 average yards of separation on his targets leads the group.
After a rather quiet 33-yard opener, Rob Gronkowski got right back into his typical stellar form. He's totaled 285 yards in the three games since. What's most notable regarding Gronkowski, and this really dates back to last year, is that he's a true vertical threat now. Gronk has catches of 53 (TD), 22 and 44 in the Patriots last three games and that's brought on by an 11.8 average air yards on his targets. He leads all tight ends with 15-plus targets in that category. Of course, he's still just as special as ever in close quarters. Gronkowski averages just 1.9 yards of separation on his targets, fourth-lowest among tight ends with 10-plus targets, but that hasn't stopped him from obliterating all who attempt to cover him.
Following a dreadful season for the Jeff Fisher-led Rams amid their first season back in Los Angeles, Todd Gurley is making an ironclad case for comeback player of the year in 2017. The Rams feature back is the NFL's second-leading rusher and has a whopping seven total touchdowns to his name. Gurley's work as a pass-catcher is perhaps the most pleasantly surprising development from his rebound campaign, as he only trails Chris Thompson in receiving yards among running backs. Gurley averages 2.0 air yards per target, which ranks 13th at the position. That may not sound like much, but it's a notably high figure for a feature back. The only backs who average more air yards per target than Gurley and also have 30 or more carries are Christian McCaffrey (4.3) and Carlos Hyde (2.4).
Todd Gurley can write "thank you" notes to his head coach, whose fingerprints are all over this offensive turnaround, and an improved offensive line led by veteran left tackle Andrew Whitworth. Last season Gurley averaged -0.1 yards before a defender came within one yard of him. Here in 2017, Gurley averages a full 1.2 yards before defenders close within a yard, which ranks fifth-highest among backs with more than 25 carries.
Note: I decided to hand out the All-Pro honor to just one offensive line unit as a whole. We are still working to develop Next Gen Stats metrics to evaluate offensive line on an individual player basis. Look for those to eventually make their way out to the public.
The Raiders pass protection unit has reached proficiency levels of epic proportions. After posting a NFL-best 11.8 pressure rate allowed 2016, Oakland is right back to their defending their crown in 2017. Their 13.3 pressure rate allowed once again leads all offensive lines in the NFL. The Raiders had a minor contract dispute with left tackle Donald Penn in the offseason but were fortunate enough to get him back in the fold with a two-year extension. Oakland's 10.4 pressure rate allowed from the left side of the offensive line is the third-lowest this season.
Edge rusher 1
It's hard to name a more improved player this season than DeMarcus Lawrence. The 2014 second-round draft pick had just nine career sacks heading into 2017 after an injury and suspension-plagued start to his NFL life. He currently leads the league with 7.5 sacks. Lawrence's 20.3 pressure rate ranks second-best in the NFL among edge rushers this year.
If Lawrence keeps up this pace he'll etch in stone a convincing case for defensive player of the year honors. Helping his chances is the dominant showing he offered up on Monday Night Football back in Week 3. Primetime excellence always leaves its mark among league observers. The Cowboys gave up 4.4 yards per play when he was on the field in the second half, and 6.3 when he was on the sideline as the Cardinals furiously tried to mount a comeback.
Edge rusher 2
The Vikings rewarded Everson Griffen with a five-year, $58 million contract in July for his outstanding work since earning a start job back in 2014. So far this season, it's been easy to see why they made the move. Griffen has rushed the passer on 130 plays in 2017. Only the Cardinals' Chandler Jones has more attempts in hunting the quarterback. Yet, Griffen puts heat on signal callers at an outstanding clip with a 17.7 pressure rate, ranking him fifth-best in the NFL. Minnesota has a top-10 defense this season in terms of yards allowed, and Everson Griffen as a lynchpin on the stop unit is a big reason why.
Interior defensive lineman 1
There may not have been a better free agent signing than the Jaguars coup to lure Calais Campbell down to the south-east. Campbell drew interest from the longtime stellar defense of the Denver Broncos, but chose Jacksonville's upstart unit instead. His presence is a big reason why the Jaguars are the best pass-rushing team in the NFL this season. Campbell's pressure rate of 15.0 leads all interior defensive linemen. While his own dominant play is obviously a huge boom to the Jaguars ferocious stop unit, his ability to elevate the other players on their defensive line is invaluable. With teams having to account for the game-wrecking presence of Campbell, the young players surrounding him are thriving. Up-and-comer Yannick Ngakoue is truly breaking out with an 18.4 pressure rate, third-best in the NFL. After looking like a top-five bust last season, Dante Fowler is cooking this year with a 15.6 pressure rate on 75 pass rushes.
Interior defensive lineman 2
Perennially one of the best and most underrated defensive players, Geno Atkins shows no signs of slowing down in his age 29-season. Atkins has three sacks to his name in 2017, notably collecting two in a Thursday night showing where he made life difficult for impressive rookie passer Deshaun Watson. Atkins' 13.1 pressure rate ranks third among interior defensive lineman this year. While the Bengals are off to a disappointing 1-3 start, they can still count on Atkins to be a true difference maker at the heart of their defense.
The Dallas Cowboys have issues on defense, there's no question about that. However, one of the true points of strength is the defensive centerpiece, Sean Lee. He's been right at home in legendary coach Rod Marinelli's defense. Lee has recorded a tackle on 25.4 percent of his plays this season, a top-seven rate among linebackers this year. The veteran's ability in coverage is a massive edge for the Cowboys, as the team allows a mere 54.5 catch rate to tight ends on the year. The Rams showed his value when they attacked the heart of the Cowboys defense with Todd Gurley in Week 4. Gurley led Los Angeles in targets and receiving yards when they faced the Cowboys last week, a game that Lee missed with a hamstring injury.
It's hard to find analytics that truly encapsulates the value of a player like Luke Kuechly. So much of what he does is unquantifiable. Kuechly is back in dominant form after missing the end of the Panthers' 2016 season with a frightening concussion. His 10.8 stuff rate, or percentage of his tackles where a runner gains two yards or fewer, ranks 11th among linebackers this season. Of course, his tackling is what makes him great, but his playmaking is what makes him special. Kuechly traveled 33.1 yards of raw distance to reach Charles Clay and rip the ball out for a fumble in Week 2.
The Denver Broncos give up just 2.4 yards per carry to running backs on the season, a huge turnaround after their defense showed cracks in 2016. The play of linebacker Brandon Marshall is a big key to their success. Marshall's stuff rate of 10.6 ranks 14th among linebackers this year. His lone sack of the year came on a scramble where he chased down mobile quarterback Tyrod Taylor in Week 3. Marshall registered a time to sack of 4.79 seconds on the play.
Jalen Ramsey showed superstar ability in his first pro season and he's done nothing to squelch the burgeoning hype train surrounding his career. The 2016 fifth-overall pick embodies the term shutdown corner. After giving up a 68.0 passer rating in his rookie campaign, Ramsey is outdoing himself with a 50.8 passer rating allowed in 2017, with his only dark mark coming on a touchdown ceded to DeAndre Hopkins in Week 1. Otherwise, throwing at Ramsey has been a fruitless endeavor. Ramsey has allowed just 2.5 yards per target when thrown at this year, which is nothing short of outrageous. Still just 22 years old, no player has ever embodied "the sky is the limit" like the tone-setting Ramsey.
The NFL audience has become obsessed with the concept of shadow cornerback in recent season. Everyone wants to know who will cover who, which corners track top receivers and will a certain wideout get erased by an opposing defensive back. Here in 2017, the best example we have of the lock-down corner is Xavier Rhodes of the Minnesota Vikings. While the coaching staff varies his shadow duties based on matchups, that just makes him all the more dangerous for opponents to game plan for.
When Rhodes does shadow top receivers, he's one of the best in the business. He covered Brown on 71.4 percent of the receiver's pass plays in Week 3. Ben Roethlisberger threw to Brown eight times with Rhodes in coverage and only completed three passes for 28 yards. He followed that up by giving up just five catches for 53 yards on nine targets to Mike Evans during the Vikings next game. Those are some of the best wide receivers in the NFL and Rhodes eliminated them from their offenses' attacks. It doesn't get more impressive than that.
The Alabama product established himself as an NFL star last season by recording 125 total tackles and five interceptions. Landon Collins hasn't slowed down so far this season. The 215-pound safety is an enforcer on the back end of the Giants defense. His versatility is a big boom to New York, as it affords them the ability to bring him down into the box as an extra linebacker of sorts. He's taken just 50.5 percent of his plays as a traditional deep safety on the season. Collins flies all over the field to make tackles, and his 3.7 percent stuff rate ranks 12th-highest among safeties on the year.
Sean McDermott was an excellent defensive coordinator for the Carolina Panthers and has the Bills off to a hot 3-1 start in his first year as their head coach. Perhaps his best ability as a defensive play caller, McDermott would routinely assemble ragtag casts of young players and overlooked veterans to form strong secondary units on his well-regarded Carolina defenses. He and Ron Rivera seemed to have a magic touch in this field. McDermott is up to much of the same through his first month with the Bills, as a secondary that turned over in the offseason has been a shocking strength. One of the lynchpins of the group is veteran safety Micah Hyde, who was a mere role player for the Packers the last few years. Hyde has three interceptions to his name this year and is a big reason why the Bills rank so well at defending the deep ball. Buffalo gives a mere 42.2 passer rating in the deep offensive right portion of the field, third-lowest in the NFL this year, and have allowed just three of the 15 total deep balls (20-plus air yards) against them to register as completions. The emergence of Hyde in McDermott's system cannot go overlooked as a major development this season.
The Detroit Lions defense is one of the big surprises from the early portion of the 2017 season. Their improvement of a lackluster unit from last season is a big reason the Lions are off to a 3-1 start. Just over 23 percent of the drives against Detroit's defense end with a turnover, the best rate in the NFL thus far. One of the best players on the Lions' stop unit is underrated top corner Darius Slay. Through four games, opposing quarterbacks have a paltry 42.7 passer rating when throwing at Slay. He's allowed a mere 57.1 percent of the target against him to end up as a reception and he's picked off two of them. Slay's best work through the quarter mark came against Julio Jones in Week 3. The Lions corner tracked and covered Jones on 73.3 percent of his pass plays and gave up just 50 yards on eight targets.
The former first-round pick never truly developed into a fully-formed wide receiver but he's found a home as one of the best kick returners in the game. Cordarrelle Patterson ranks third in the NFL in kick return yards with a 29.7 average per return. He owns two of the top-20 fastest recorded top speeds on kick returns this year, including a 19.08 MPH blazer on a 49-yard return against the Broncos in Week 4. To Patterson's credit, he's chipped in with 16 touches on offense in the Raiders first four games, including a 43-yard rushing touchdown against the Jets in Week 2.
It's been a learning experience for the rookie cornerback on the defensive side of the ball, but the game-breaking Adoree Jackson looks as advertised in the return game. He currently ranks fourth in punt return yardage and has two of 20-plus yards to his name. Jackson's top speed of 18.68 MPH on his 46-yarder against Jacksonville in Week 2 is the eighth-fastest punt return of the season. However, Jackson hit a max speed of 20.39 MPH on a Week 3 punt return touchdown that was called back due to an illegal block. It's frightening to think the best of his highlights are yet to come.