OK folks, it's time once again to compile our All-NFC North team. Amazingly, it will be the fourth time we've conducted this exercise. Tempus fugit and all that.
For newcomers, please know this is an interactive, two-part process. The chart accompanying this post lists whom I consider the indisputable members of this team. For debatable positions, I've asked for your "HELP." So give me your choices, and briefly your reasoning, in the comments section below.
Feel free to offer alternatives to my indisputables as well. It's a free country.
Some thoughts and notes:
One of the fun parts about making up your own all-star team is that you get to set your own rules. In this case, I decided our team should have a base three-receiver set with one tight end and no fullbacks. (Sorry, John Kuhn.) I also assigned us a 4-3 defense, which 75 percent of our teams use. The Green Bay Packers have a base 3-4, but I don't think anyone will get squeezed out as a result.
The three-receiver set gives us a chance to look beyond the obvious top two, Calvin Johnson of the Detroit Lions and Greg Jennings of the Packers. I see two primary candidates for the third spot: The Packers' Jordy Nelson and the Minnesota Vikings' Percy Harvin. Nelson ranked third in the NFL with 15 touchdown receptions, and Harvin caught the sixth-most passes in the league (86) on a team with few alternatives.
I think we could have a reasonable debate at tight end between the Lions' Brandon Pettigrew and the Packers' Jermichael Finley. Pettigrew caught more passes (83) than Finley (55), but he also was targeted more (155 to 92) as the Lions used him as a quasi-replacement for their running game. Despite the discrepancy, they finished with about the same yard production (Pettigrew's 777 yards was 10 more than Finley's total). Finley caught three additional touchdowns, and both players dropped a relatively high number of passes. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Finley tied for the third-most drops in the NFL during the regular season (eight), and Pettigrew dropped seven.
A flaw in this process, as with any all-star team, is that it doesn't necessarily include every top player in the pool of possibilities. In this case, I think we can all agree that Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford was one of the best players in the NFC North in 2011. But through no fault of his own, the best player in the entire league (Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers) plays the same position. I considered having a "bonus" spot to include Stafford in some way, but this isn't the CFL. As Vikings fans learned in 2009, you can't have 12 men in the huddle. Maybe we'll do a separate offseason project to rank the top 25 or so players in the division, regardless of position. No promises.
I want to hear what you think about the defensive end position opposite the Vikings' Jared Allen. Lions defensive end Cliff Avril had 11 sacks in 2011 and ranked first in the NFL with six forced fumbles. But as we've discussed many times, the true value of Bears defensive end Julius Peppers (11 sacks, three forced fumbles) isn't always reflected in his statistics. Your thoughts?
I'm uncertain at a number of other defensive positions. We didn't quite have the interior dominance in 2011 that we've had in previous seasons. Defensive tackles Kevin Williams (Vikings), B.J. Raji (Packers) and Ndamukong Suh (Lions) weren't as effective. The Bears got seven sacks from defensive tackle Henry Melton, but he was pretty inconsistent. Is this the year we recognize Lions nose tackle Corey Williams for toiling in relative anonymity over the last two years? Or do we include Packers defensive lineman Ryan Pickett for what was apparently one of the best years in his career?
Just checking here: Do we stay with our default position of including Bears linebackers Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs? Anyone think that the Packers' Desmond Bishop (five sacks) deserves some discussion over Urlacher, or that Vikings linebacker Chad Greenway had a better year than Briggs? I'm leaning no on both counts but am open to having my mind changed.
I think we can agree that safety play left something to be desired this season division-wide. I listed the Lions' Louis Delmas as one of the two who typically make up the team, mostly because of a lack of options. I would be willing to use the second safety spot for a nickel back instead if you want to recognize a third cornerback behind the Packers' Charles Woodson and the Bears' Charles Tillman. The Lions' Chris Houston, perhaps? Tramon Williams of the Packers?
We have a good set of kicking specialists in the NFC North, but none stood out from the rest. I would listen to suggestions at both place-kicker and at punter, where Bears newcomer Adam Podlesh had the highest net average (40.4 yards). The Packers' Tim Masthay had the most punts downed inside the 20, even though he had by far the fewest punts in the division.
I lied about the process. This year, it will be in three parts. I'll follow up the full team with my choices for the NFC North head coach of the year, the top offensive, defensive and special teams coordinators, our best general manager and also top rookies on both sides of the ball. The presence of Rodgers and Allen eliminated any debate about the NFC North MVP or its top defensive player.
OK, go to it. I'll have the full team posted by the end of the week.