LANDOVER, MD - JANUARY 06: Robert Griffin III #10 of the Washington Redskins runs the ball against the Seattle Seahawks during the NFC Wild Card Playoff Game at FedExField on January 6, 2013 in Landover, Maryland. Robert Griffin III (Photo Credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images)
(* = starters)
Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay*
Robert Griffin III, Washington
Matt Ryan, Atlanta
Adrian Peterson, Minnesota*
Marshawn Lynch, Seattle
Frank Gore, San Francisco
Jerome Felton, Minnesota*
Calvin Johnson, Detroit*
Victor Cruz, New York Giants*
Michael Crabtree, San Francisco
Julio Jones, Atlanta
Jason Witten, Dallas*
Tony Gonzalez, Atlanta
Joe Staley, San Francisco*
Russell Okung, Seattle*
Trent Williams, Washington
Mike Iupati, San Francisco*
Jahri Evans, New Orleans*
Chris Snee, New York Giants
Max Unger, Seattle*
Jeff Saturday, Green Bay
Aaron Rodgers (Photo Credit: Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Quarterback: Aaron Rodgers
Like most teams in the NFL nowadays, we will start with the quarterback. Currently, the best in the NFC at the position are Aaron Rodgers, RGIII and Matt Ryan. Ryan is the weakest of the group: he isn’t as good a passer as Rodgers and not even close to the athlete RGIII is. The amazing rookie might get the nod in a few years, but he doesn’t quite measure up to Packer veteran just yet. He’s got the strongest arm in football and fits the now-clichéd “makes things happen with his feet” mold.
Adrian Peterson (Photo Credit: Andy Clayton King/Getty Images)
Running Back: Adrian Peterson
This is a no-brainer. Adrian Peterson finished the season only nine yards short of Eric Dickerson’s all-time single-season rushing record and accounted for what seemed like 250% of his team’s offense on the way to a playoff berth. He’s the likely league MVP and definitely the league’s best running back this season.
Calvin Johnson (Photo Credit: Leon Halip/Getty Images)
Wide Receiver: Calvin Johnson, Victor Cruz
Calvin Johnson is the easiest selection. He set the record for receiving yards in a season (breaking the one previously held by Jerry Rice) and almost reached the ridiculous 2,000 yard plateau. So much for the Madden Curse.
After him, there’s a logjam of near-elite, similarly performing wideouts including Julio Jones, Roddy White, Dez Bryant, Victor Cruz, Brandon Marshall, James Jones, Randall Cobb and Michael Crabtree. Given that many of these guys are almost completely dependent on quarterback play (whereas Johnson could put up stats anywhere), it’s pretty difficult to distinguish who is more deserving.
Of the eight guys here, Victor Cruz gets the edge. Coming into the season people insisted that his meteoric rise last year was due mostly to circumstance (being unknown and thus not game-planned for). Being surrounded by talented receivers like Hakeem Nicks helped to draw focus away from him. His performance this year, however (76 catches for 1,004 yards and 9 touchdowns in only 13 games), has put most of those criticisms to rest.
Michael Crabtree is also a notch above the others. Everyone else here had the benefit of spending the entire season in an offense dedicated to both passing and to getting him the ball. Crabtree has only had a few games (since they put in Kaepernick). His production and talent ceiling work in his favor.
Jason Witten (Photo Credit: Rob Carr/Getty Images)
Tight End: Jason Witten
Tight ends as a group had a bit of a down season this year. Despite an otherworldly target and catch season from Jason Witten, many guys who were projected to do well, like Jimmy Graham, sorely disappointed. People might argue for Tony Gonzalez as the starter, but Witten gets the nod because of the two records he set: most catches by a tight end in a season (110) and most catches by a tight end in a game with (18). He also gets a ton of credit for playing the entire season after lacerating his spleen in the first game of the preseason.
Joe Staley (Photo Credit: Justin Edmonds/Getty Images)
Offensive Line: Joe Staley and Russell Okung (Tackles); Mike Iupati and Jahri Evans (Guards); Max Unger (Center)
Next we look at lineman. As we’ve seen with the Packers, Bears and sometimes the Redskins, no matter how many high-caliber skill position players you have, there will be no opportunity to utilize them if your quarterback is always running for his life or laying on his back.
The two 49ers — tackle Joe Staley and guard Mike Iupati — are no-brainers. They’ve blocked successfully for not one but TWO excellent quarterbacks (Alex Smith and Colin Kapernick), and a slew of fine running backs (Frank Gore, Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James). And all of them have had productive seasons.
Having another pair of teammates, this time from the Seahawks, was also appealing. Center Max Unger was a pretty easy selection given a shortage of talent at his position (not to mention Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch’s statistical rise over the last four weeks of the season.) Going with Russell Okung was a little tougher, given the season Trent Williams of the Redskins had moving bodies for Alfred Morris and protecting RGIII’s blindside. But the allure of having two pairs of teammates (and therefore pre-existing chemistry) trumped similarly excellent seasons from other players.
The last guard spot goes to Jahri Evans, who has had a sustained period of excellence and been a mainstay in one of the NFL’s top offenses ever. Drew Brees became the first quarterback to throw for over 5,000 yards two seasons in a row, partly due to stellar play of the Saints’ line, anchored by Evans.