DE: Robert Quinn, Rams; Robert Mathis, Colts. These are the positions the AP has used for years, but I’m going to fill it a little bit differently. Quinn is second in The MMQB pressure rate for edge rushers, and he’s one of the only true ends on the list. He doesn’t get the benefit of scheme like some of the others who play outside linebacker in the 3-4 do. Mathis is technically an outside linebacker in the 3-4, but he plays mostly like an end. Mathis, despite now leading the league with 11.5 sacks, is not in our top 10 edge rushers. The point of our statistics is to capture a total look at quarterback pressure, and Mathis hasn’t added up in hurries and hits. However, Mathis is basically a one-man pass rush for the Colts, so he earns the other spot.
DT: J.J. Watt, Texans; Jason Hatcher, Cowboys. Watt was voted an All-Pro at end last year, but I don’t know how people vote him there. Could he play as a 4-3 end instead of a 3-4 end and dominate at the same level? I think we’d say yes. But he does most of his work from between the tackle and guard and further inside. To me, that’s a tackle—an awesome one at that. He’s just unstoppable.
Hatcher was a 3-4 end before this season, and now he’s a 4-3 DT. He hasn’t received much publicity, but he’s having an incredible season with seven sacks, three drawn holds, 24 hurries and seven quarterback hits. A week ago Hatcher was closing in on Watt in our interior rusher pressure rate. Watt’s widened the lead back up, so we’ll have to see how it unfolds. Muhammad Wilkerson is definitely in the conversation too.
OLB: Justin Houston, Chiefs; Lavonte David, Buccaneers. Doing a little mixing and matching here with OLBs of the 3-4 (Houston) and 4-3 (David), but both deserve a spot. Houston is the best stand-up outside linebacker in the game and leads our pressure points among all rushers in total points (33.13) and rate (12.5). Sure, Houston has benefited from a strong supporting cast, but production is production. David doesn’t get much attention with what’s going on with the winless Buccaneers, but the lack of success isn’t his fault. He’s been flying all over the field as a playmaker against the run and pass (five sacks and five passes defensed lead 4-3 outside linebackers).
ILB: Sean Lee, Cowboys; Derrick Johnson, Chiefs. Another position that is having a bit of an off year because there are several good candidates, but not many who shine above the rest. It’s kind of a beauty-is-in-the-eye-of-the-beholder situation. Can’t go wrong with NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis of the 49ers. Rookie Kiko Alonso has surprised in Buffalo. The Cardinals’ Darryl Washington has been the best player since returning from his suspension, and could win the award by the end of the season—he’s been that good. Luke Kuechly, Jerrell Freeman, Brad Jones and Karlos Dansby have played well for the most part. Lee and Johnson win out for now because the NFL is a passing league, and they are the two best cover linebackers to this point in addition to their very strong play against the run.
CB: Richard Sherman, Seahawks; Alterraun Verner, Titans. When it comes to cornerbacks, what I prefer to see is a true No. 1 cornerback who plays mostly man coverage and then go from there. The problem is, there aren’t a whole lot of viable candidates because Darrelle Revis hasn’t played much man, and Aqib Talib has missed too much time with his hip injury (for now). Both could be heard from down the stretch. The Bengals’ Leon Hall was headed for a spot before his injury, and Vontae Davis (Colts) and Joe Haden (Browns) are both right there. Sherman seems to be the one man corner who has played above the rest with consistency. He’s tied for the league lead with four interceptions. So is Verner, who holds the league lead with 17 passes defensed.
S: Earl Thomas, Seahawks (FS); Eric Berry, Chiefs (SS). These spots don’t necessarily call for a free and strong safety, but if you have two spots, why wouldn’t you do that? Thomas is, without question, the best free safety in the game. Devin McCourty may challenge him in time, but no one possesses Thomas’ closing speed, and that makes up any sloppy play that may leak out of the Seahawks. The Chargers’ Eric Weddle doesn’t get a whole lot of acclaim, but he’s a terrific player who is probably the biggest reason why San Diego has survived so many injuries on defense. He covers up a lot of mistakes. At strong safety, I haven’t historically been the biggest fan of Berry’s play, as he can be a liability in space, but new defensive coordinator Bob Sutton is putting him in great positions to be successful.
K: Matt Prater, Broncos. This looks like it will be a head-to-head battle until the end between Prater and Stephen Gostkowski. Both are among the league’s best at kickoffs, which gives them the edge on Nick Folk.. Prater has yet to miss on 12 attempts, with nine over 40. Gostkowski has missed once and is 9 of 10 in the same situation. Like I said, it’s virtually a deadheat. Time for a kick off.
P: Johnny Hekker, Rams. Tough three-way battle between Hekker, Shane Lechler and Thomas Morstead. Hekker is the choice because he leads the league in net average thanks to his 2.4 yards per return average, which is second only to Jon Ryan of the Seahawks (1.4).
KR: Trindon Holliday, Broncos. He’s the best dual returner in the game, and for now that gives him an edge on Vikings kickoff returner Cordarrelle Patterson and his two touchdowns.