A wise man once said that “100 percent of sports-writing is 50% speculation“, and he was absolutely right. Like the rest of the world, the NFL exists in many shades of grey. A fantastic player could be on the wrong team or in the wrong system and never shine while a mediocre player ends up in the right place at the right time. Determining the “All-NFL” team is ridiculous because nobody really knows for sure who the best players are.
Having said that, the off-season is long, and full of terrors, and we need our NFL fix. Here’s the defensive side of my All-NFL team as we head into the final month without football in 2016.
The All-NFL Team: Defense and Special Teams
Defensive End: J.J. Watt
Starting off with the most obvious player on this list, nobody in the NFL can touch J.J. Watt. Despite being only 27 years old, Watt has already registered 74.5 sacks and has been named Defensive Player of the Year a record three times. Watt isn’t just the best defensive end in the league; he is the best defensive player in the league.
Defensive Tackle: Aaron Donald
Pro Football Focus named Los Angeles Ram Aaron Donald the best player in the NFL in 2015, and it’s easy to see why. Despite playing inside, Donald managed to pressure the quarterback 79 times while registering 11 sacks. Donald did everything the Rams asked him to do, and he did it well. Despite being in only his second year, Donald is among the best defensive players in the league.
Defensive Tackle: Linval Joseph
Unlike Donald, Joseph’s contributions don’t jump off of the stat sheet. Joseph isn’t a phenomenal pass rusher, but he might just be the league’s best run-stopping defensive tackle. At 6’4″, 329 pounds, Joseph is a monster of a man, and he makes the entire Minnesota Vikings defense better. Taking away the run game can be devastating for an offense, and Joseph deserves far more credit than he gets.
Defensive End: Ezekiel Ansah
“Ziggy” Ansah finally broke out in 2015. Being able to run a 4.6 40-yard dash at 6’5″, 278 pounds is incredible, and the Detroit Lions had been waiting a long time for the production he brought last year. His 14.5 sacks were third in the league, and it looks like he’s finally the player Detroit drafted fifth overall in 2013.
Outside Linebacker: Khalil Mack
What is left to say about Khalil Mack of the Oakland Raiders? He was the first player in NFL history to be named First-Team All-Pro at two different positions, he was second in sacks, and he took Brock Osweiler down five times in one game. Khalil Mack has been the subject of plenty of off-season hype, even warranting MVP consideration from some writers. That might be a bit excessive, but the reality is that Mack is among the best players in the league, and should have a huge 2016.
Inside Linebacker: Luke Kuechly
Luke Kuechly is the best linebacker in the league, and it’s not even close. He’s the only player to win the Defensive Player of the Year award not named J.J. Watt over the last four years, and he was the face of the best defense in football. Without Kuechly, the Carolina Panthers wouldn’t be a defensive juggernaut, and if you don’t believe me, go back and watch the beginning of that Seahawks-Panthers playoff game.
Outside Linebacker: Von Miller
Without Von Miller, the Denver Broncos are not the defending Super Bowl champions right now. In the AFC Championship Game and Super Bowl 50, Miller had a combined five sacks, two forced fumbles, and an interception. In two closely contested games against talented teams, it was Miller that put Denver over the edge. His eleven sacks in the regular season didn’t hurt his case either.
Cornerback: Richard Sherman
Richard Sherman’s hype took a big hit in 2015. Whether it was some kind of Super Bowl hangover, the hold-out of Kam Chancellor, or just bad luck, the Seahawks had a slow start. They stumbled for the first half of the regular season, and by the time they got hot, the NFL had written them off. Despite that, the outspoken cornerback had yet another great season. Pro Football Focus still ranked him as the third-best corner in the league. And while his numbers were down as far as interceptions were concerned, it’s worth noting that he wasn’t targeted anywhere near as often.
Cornerback: Tyrann Mathieu
Tyrann Mathieu is something different. He’s a strange half-corner, half-safety hybrid, and he’s been taking the league by storm. Peculiarly enough, I don’t think Mathieu is one of the best corners in football. To me, it seems as if the reason he has received as much hype as he has is that he does play both positions. His statistics aren’t spectacular, but he’s good at a lot of things. He has unique responsibilities, and while he’s not the best pure safety or corner, he is very good at doing a bit of both.
Safety: Harrison Smith
Harrison Smith is the best safety in football. For once, Pro Football Focus and I agree, as Smith is the only safety with a rating of at least 90. Much like his Vikings teammate, Linval Joseph, Smith isn’t a household name. Much like Mathieu, Smith isn’t the best in run or pass coverage. Unlike Mathieu, however, Smith excels at both. So far in his young but bright career, quarterbacks have had a quarterback rating of under 68 when targeting him, and he has had the highest pressure rate of any blitzing safety over the last two seasons.
Safety: Earl Thomas III
Richard Sherman cannot be on this list without his Legion of Boom teammate. Thomas and Sherman have helped turn the Seattle Seahawks from doormat to dominance. Thomas is the best pure coverage safety in football, and has been playing beyond his 5’10” height during his whole career. As long as Thomas is helping to lay the boom in Seattle, they’ll be contenders in the NFC West.
Kicker: Steven Hauschka
Honestly, this was a toss-up. Do you give it to Stephen Gostkowski, the most accurate kicker in the league? Do you give it to Sebastian Janikowski, the guy with the biggest boot in the game? Do you find a kicker with an easy name to spell? It’s hard to say.
Frankly, Hauschka was the most consistent kicker in the league last year. He converted 29 of his 31 field goals, and only missed one of his five kicks from 50+.
Punter: Marquette King
Marquette King silently had a pretty great year for the Oakland Raiders. King didn’t land the most punts inside the 20, he didn’t have longest punt of the season, and he didn’t have the most gross punting yards, but he was the only punter in the league to be consistently in the top five in all of those categories. His 70-yard punt was the fourth-longest in the league last year, and only Johnny Hekker landed more punts in the opposing redzone.
Check out the All-NFL Offense.