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My all-pro team Dr.Z SI


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My all-pro team

Dr. Z, SI.com

This is the latest I've ever picked my all-pro team for the Web site. And three weeks ago, when I selected it for Sports Illustrated, it was the earliest I've ever done it for the magazine. Please don't holler, but in the three-week interim I've made two changes. Ty Law, who has had a sensational run in the postseason, replaces Antoine Winfield at cornerback and Anquan Boldin, upon careful reflection, is my Rookie of the Year over Charles Tillman.

QUARTERBACK: Injuries finally caught up with McNair in the postseason and Manning got so hot that I was seriously considering switching my choice, dreading the heat that such a move would generate. But in the New England game, Manning proved he was human. Honestly, I don't know what I would have done if he had put on another show. So McNair holds onto his spot, his great strength being the way he elevates the team's entire performance, and ... I hesitate to mention that he plays hurt because I'm about as tired of this as you are. Player of the Year honors also fall to him, although any number of worthies would qualify.

RUNNING BACK: I assume that the argument against Tomlinson is that he played on a loser, thus his efforts were somehow not as meaningful as those of, say, Priest Holmes or Jamal Lewis. My argument is that he did what he did, which was accumulate more all-purpose yards, running and receiving, than anybody, despite having a weaker cast around him. But my strongest argument is the advice to just watch him in action. He was absolutely stunning, even though most afternoons his work was in a lost cause.

FULLBACK: A lot of them can block, some are also valuable as pass catchers. One of my most serious criteria is how many snaps they take. It was always my argument against, say, a Lorenzo Neal, who saw very little action, but now it works in favor of Strong, who might not be as crunching a blocker as the 49ers' Fred Beasley, but contributes more in other areas. Besides, Strong's been doing the dirty work for years, he's never been noticed, and I just felt it was time to give him a call.


WIDE RECEIVERS: Only three finalists were considered, with Randy Moss being the third. Harrison was an automatic. The special thing he had going with Peyton Manning was other-worldly. Holt enjoyed the crowning season of a magnificent career. He does things so smoothly that they almost go unnoticed. Moss is always noticed, and no receiver is as feared downfield. And yet he had strange lapses, odd periods of non-productivity. Finally, I did a game-by-game breakdown of Holt vs. Moss and gave the edge to Holt on consistency. But it was very close. Someday I would like to figure out a way to sneak the Titans' Derrick Mason in there, because it seems that he's always coming through with the clutch performance when the stakes were highest.

TIGHT END: The Giants' Jeremy Shockey was hurt for too many games, and he dropped too many balls in the ones in which he played. I did game-by-game breakdowns on Shannon Sharpe and Todd Heap, but I kind of knew in the back of my mind that Gonzalez would be the man. He was, again with consistency being the deciding factor, in a year in which there were no real stickouts at the position.

TACKLES: Ogden was the drive-blocking spearhead of the NFL's most productive running attack. I've left him off the team in recent years because his balance seemed to have been off on his pass-blocking, but this year it was OK. I had five finalists for the other tackle position, Denver's Matt Lepsis, K.C.'s Willie Roaf, Seattle's Walter Jones, Dallas' Flozell Adams and Carolina's Jordan Gross. Then it became a matter of the charts, with heavy emphasis placed on how my tackles fared against similar opponents. I gave up on Roaf after four games because he simply wasn't having the year he did in 2002. Power rushers gave him problems, although he made a comeback of sorts late in the postseason and had a terrific game against the Colts' speed-rushing Dwight Freeney in the postseason.

Adams was the next to tumble, then Jones, then Lepsis, who was consistent through the season, capping it off with a terrific performance in the game in which the Broncos ran like crazy on the Colts. That left Gross, the Panthers' rookie right tackle. You could measure his performance with a diagonal line going upward from the start of the year through the playoffs -- in fact, I didn't seriously start thinking about him as a potential all-pro until about midseason. His agility and his value in the Panthers' run scheme really stood out. What actually swung it, though, was his potential. I have a feeling that he'll be a Pro Bowl fixture for the next decade or so, and in a close call such as this -- call it vanity if you like -- I want to go on record as being there first. Here's another potential Pro Bowler, Cincy's Levi Jones. Very mobile and athletic, as is his running mate, rookie LG Eric Steinbach.

CENTER: A lot of good ones but Nalen ran away with it. His agility always has been terrific, but he actually seemed stronger this year. No one was close.

GUARDS: When he was on his game, and this didn't last for a full contest ... rather for a series or two ... the Cowboys' Larry Allen was still the best. But, sadly, injuries had him struggling for most of the year, no matter how the Pro Bowl pickers saw it. How they could have neglected Hutchinson I'll never know because he was simply the most agile and technically correct of all of them, but I gave up on the Pro Bowl a long time ago. I graded four finalists for my other spot.

The Green Bay run game, which was the heart of its offense, was hard to wade through because so many blockers were caught up in the flow, and it took many tape run-throughs to finally award an edge to Mike Wahle, the guard who usually pulled from the weak side, ahead of right guard, Marco Rivera, who was very strong at the point. He graded No. 3 on my list, and the fourth spot went to the Vikings' Chris Liwienski, who really had fine-tuned his game (I did a late work-up on the six Minnesota contests I had on tape). Finally there was K.C.'s Will Shields, a loyal warrior who has been outstanding for many years. I was kind of rooting for him as I recorded my grades, but a lack of overall consistency put him at No. 5.

ENDS: Last year I thought Strahan had gone sack-happy and was neglecting the run. This year he reversed all that. He graded highest of all my defensive linemen, and I'm old fashioned enough to count run defense very highly. I had six names penciled in for the other position and Jason Taylor and Simeon Rice, my all-pros last season, weren't on the list. With Taylor it was a matter of occasional bursts against the constant double-teaming, but nothing really sustained, and I had 10 looks at the Dolphins this season. I saw the Bucs a lot, too -- 11 times -- and not one of the guys who were former all-pros on my team even made it to the grading area. Sorry, but that's just the way it was. John Lynch looks through ... his body is just giving out. Ronde Barber, whom I thought was the best corner in football last year, missed more tackles than I could count. Derrick Brooks, a fixture at OLB for many years, was a very ordinary player, and Warren Sapp has become a frontrunner who p! ic! ks and chooses his spots and turns on the burners only when the situation seems favorable for him.

As far as Rice is concerned, last year I picked him because he seemed to be making a genuine effort to avoid being trapped or hooked, in other words he was aware of the fact that not every play was a pass rush. This year he reverted and was a liability in the run defense. Of the guys I graded, here's how they finished: Rucker, who is very consistent and seldom leaves the field, No. 2 behind Strahan. Almost dead even with Rucker -- he lost out because he didn't face the double-team as often -- was the Bills' Aaron Schobel, an extremely high-energy guy. My fourth spot went to the Dolphins' Adewale Ogunleye, and I might be unfair here because he certainly benefited from all the double-teams Taylor had to face, but I was impressed with his hustle and relentless nature. The Rams' Leonard Little, who forced more fumbles than any DEs in the league, but there were games in which I lost track of him for long periods. Plus he needed a lot of rest. Dallas' Greg Ellis was next. Stead! y,! functional, but not as productive as the players I've named. And finally there was the Rams' Grant Wistrom, a high-performance guy in years past but someone I stopped grading after two games because the numbers just weren't there.

If I were desperate, though, for a DE who could also drop down to tackle and supply a rush at either position, I'd snap up St. Louis' backup lineman, Tyoka Jackson. It seems that every time he's on the field, something happens.

TACKLE: Nope, I just couldn't find that many, which was why I went with only one of them and two ILB's in a 3-4. I thought Carolina's Kris Jenkins would be a shoo-in; in fact, I had his name penciled in from the go. But when I did the final tally, yes, he came out pretty well, but there were inconsistencies, such as the zero-zero tackle and assist game he had against the Rams in the playoff. Granted, he caught a serious double and sometimes triple team on just about every play in that game, but all the great ones have faced that. My roster of candidates, some of whom I stopped grading very early and none of whom who had marks that could match those of my all-pros of the past, included the Jaguars' Marcus Stroud and John Henderson, Dallas' La'Roi Glover, whom I didn't pick because I have so much trouble figuring out how to spell his first name ... no, just kidding ... Atlanta's Ed Jasper, Baltimore's Kelly Gregg, a very late entry whose last two games were so good that the! y ! drove me back to the charts to catch up with his first five. Oh yes, and the guy everyone said was simply the best, Richard Seymour.

I was probably less impressed with Seymour than many others were. I had him as a good solid force and a serious block-eater; I just never saw him make that many plays around the ball. But without exception, everyone I talked to -- players, coaches, scouts -- said he's the man, no question. If I had really strong feelings about someone else, Gregg, for instance, I would have switched my pick in the magazine and left Seymour off, but I didn't. Gregg looked like a Tim Krumrie clone playing the nose against Pittsburgh and then Tennessee in the postseason, but he just had too many lower-grade efforts early in the year.

OUTSIDE LINEBACKER: Bulluck was the clear winner. Even the Pro Bowl pickers could figure that out. Stopping the run, covering passes, he was the prototypical weak-side backer. Early in the season Peterson came through with a sensational performance at St. Louis, I mean, one of the best games I've ever seen from an outside backer, and then his play tailed slightly, but he still hit the trifecta -- able to cover, hold up fairly well against the run and drop down to an edge-rush position in the nickel. Third place went to Buffalo's Takeo Spikes, fourth place to Philly's Carlos Emmons. If I could come up with a special position called "Utility" -- for the guy who does a little of everything -- it would go to the Patriots' Mike Vrabel.

INSIDE LINEBACKERS: Thomas was clearly in front of Lewis in my rather complicated system, which rewards coverage plus run-plugging. Neither one of them really takes on blockers, but I thought Thomas was quicker on his reads, quicker to arrive at the point. Lewis made more big plays, but he bounced off blocks and sometimes got caught in traffic. Is there a real throwback MLB who can stone a blocker and then a runner? No. The best run-stopper I saw for the first half of the season was the Cowboys' Dat Nguyen, but he's not the biggest guy in the world, and by November he was worn down. I did a 12-game workup on the Broncos' Al Wilson, whom I thought would mount a serious challenge to Lewis, but the productivity couldn't compare.

CORNERBACKS: The toughest position to grade. Try to find consistency. You can't. Great one week, toasted the next. Finally I just said the hell with it and went with my heart, and my heart told me Winfield and the Bears' intriguing rookie, Tillman. He didn't start at the beginning of the season, but when Tillman finally cracked the lineup he didn't back down in front of anybody. The play in which he saved the Vikings' game by grabbing the ball out of Moss' arms was a classic. When Chicago upset the Broncos, they threw at him eight times, completed two for 25 yards. When the Bears played Washington the Skins stayed away from him the whole day ... OK, they threw one pass into his coverage, a nine-yard hook ... and don't forget, this is a rookie we're talking about. So maybe I'm going overboard, but I just like the way this kid carries himself, and I think his name is going to be on all-star teams for a long time.

Winfield is a tough-tackling teeth-gritter, and he manned my other spot, but how can you overlook what Law has done in the postseason? On the first play of the Tennessee game, McNair threw a square-out to Mason that was dropped, and that was the only -- repeat, the only -- pass thrown into Law's coverage for the entire afternoon. And then a week later he positively owned Manning. He's playing lighter now, and he's peaking at exactly the right time. A guy who nobody knows, Tennessee's Andre Dyson, would be my No. 3 right now.

STRONG SAFETY: An easy choice. The Ravens' Ed Reed does it all, with great verve and enthusiasm. Good tackler, fine ball hawk and interceptor. I like the Rams' Adam Archuleta, but this year he wasn't in Reed's class.

SAFETY: I can't call Harrison a free safety because in the Patriots' system they line up left and right, not strong and free. He plays the left side and has been a solidifying force in Bill Belichick's secondary, surprisingly active in his coverage to go with his traditionally vicious tackling. I graded the Packers' Darren Sharper, Minnesota's Brian Russell and Carolina's Deon Grant, just to stay in practice, but no one came close to Harrison.

NICKEL BACK: Samuel was shockingly good at the beginning of the season, then the year got a little long for him and he came up with a few rookie mistakes. He was still better than his competition at the position.

KICKER: Vanderjagt, 37 of 37, slam dunk!

PUNTER: The Raiders' Shane Lechler is the most impressive when he's on his game, but I've also seen him hit a few 3.5 blue darters when his team was backed up. Moorman gets it on consistency, plus his ability to keep his ball out of the end zone. Only three of his 85 punts went for touchbacks.

RETURNER: Who else but Hall? Changed the entire special-teams strategy for opponents.

COVER: Hard to come up with serious numbers for this skill, but the Eagles' Morey did the best in their rather complicated system that rewards first hits, blocks, total tackles, etc.

PLAYER OF THE YEAR: McNair, as mentioned

COACH OF THE YEAR: Belichick, and I gave him the award three weeks ago. If Carolina wins the Super Bowl, then our column does an official volte face and ... no, I won't do it. John Fox never had to labor under the weight of all those crippling injuries.

ROOKIE OF THE YEAR: Boldin, as mentioned.

Note to enraged e-mailers. Please, no letters that start with, "How could you leave out...?" Or, "How could you forget...?" I didn't leave them out or forget them. I just liked my guys better. Many hours of work went into this effort. Your faithful narrator, PZ.

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