Let’s run through my picks for the All-Pro team for the 2021 NFL season. We still have two weeks of football left, but in most cases, the players I’ve put on my first and second teams have done enough already to earn their spot. There are some positions where there might be several players within a tier of talent, and in those spots, it’s possible that someone could emerge with what they do over the last two weeks of the season. I’ll mention them at the relevant positions.
While I’ve certainly used numbers to break down these battles, I’m also using what I’ve seen on film and what I’ve learned from talking to people in and around the NFL as the season has gone along. When two players are tied or close to tied, I’m almost always going to lean toward the one who has been on the field more often; availability is an ability, and as talented as some superstar players are, missing a quarter of the season places a cap on how valuable they can be in a given year. I’ve been more flexible with players who have missed a game here or there in a season heavily impacted by COVID-19.
I’ll name a first- and second-team player at each position. Since this is my ballot, I’ve customized the positions to my liking, so I’ll pick one running back, two wide receivers and one hybrid player on offense, as well as two edge rushers, two off-ball linebackers and three cornerbacks on defense. Let’s start at quarterback, which is one of the few positions that might actually be undecided with two weeks left to go:
Jump to a position:
Offense: QB | RB | WR | TE | OL
Defense: DE | DT | LB | CB | S
Second team: Tom Brady, Buccaneers
I’ll devote an entire column over the next week or two to talking about the MVP race, and since that will focus closely on the quarterbacks, I won’t go too far into depth here. I’ll say that this is a very strange season for quarterbacks; Rodgers leads the league with a 67.8 Total QBR, and while that’s certainly a good season, it’s way below what we would usually expect from the top of the league. Over the prior decade, the average QBR for the No. 1 passer each season was 79.9. In 2019, a 67.8 QBR would have left Rodgers as the ninth-best by that metric.
I’m not saying this to denigrate Rodgers or suggest that quarterbacks have some major problem this season, but just to say that this has been a weird season. And while I don’t think the league’s voters are going to necessarily be using QBR to make their choices, there are four passers — Rodgers, Brady, Justin Herbert and Matthew Stafford — within four points of each other at the top of that chart. There is no clear standout, and the last two weeks of the season could mean quite a bit in determining the final All-Pro pick here.
Second team: Nick Chubb, Browns
One of the three easiest picks on the ballot, Taylor emerged from the wreckage atop fantasy drafts as the league’s best running back. He has virtually lapped the field in rushing yards over expectation (RYOE), with his 448 around 200 yards ahead of anybody else. Taylor has run for 16 more first downs than the No. 2 back, scored an NFL-high 17 rushing touchdowns and contributes in all facets of the offense, as we saw on his spectacular pass block against the Patriots in primetime a couple of weeks ago.
Jonathan Taylor is a complete back.
Watch him pick up the blitz 👏 @JayT23
— NFL (@NFL) December 19, 2021
The only back who has really been in his league as a runner is Chubb, who has 228 RYOE and will finish 2021 with the third-best rushing average in league history for a back over his first four seasons; he’s at 5.3 career yards per carry now.
Second team: Cordarrelle Patterson, Falcons
In lieu of a fullback or a second running back, I’m using one of the league’s fun positional trends in 2021 and carving out a role for Samuel as the league’s preeminent wide receiver/running back. He has been lights-out with the ball in his hands, averaging a league-best 17.8 yards per reception and 6.8 yards per rush attempt. What has been really impressive is seeing him basically play both roles over the course of the season; he began the season as a full-time wide receiver and then transitioned into a role as San Francisco’s primary running back for stretches in November and December as the team dealt with injuries.
Patterson has been used more as a runner than receiver — he has 140 carries and 49 catches — but he has been Atlanta’s top back and top wideout at times this season.
Second team: Justin Jefferson, Vikings; Tyreek Hill, Chiefs
Kupp was No. 2 on the list of gimmes, behind Taylor. Nobody is going to touch Jerry Rice’s 22-touchdowns-in-12-games season of 1987, but what Kupp has done in his first season with Matthew Stafford has been surreal. Unlocking defenses at all three levels, Kupp is way ahead of the field in receptions (132), receiving yards (1,734) and receiving touchdowns (14). He would be only the fourth player since the merger to win the receiving triple crown, and with two games to go, there’s a realistic chance of him becoming the first wide receiver in league history to top 2,000 yards. He’s having a season for the ages.
The tough decision here was picking between Adams and Jefferson for the second spot. I wouldn’t fault anyone for picking Jefferson, who is 89 yards ahead of Adams, in part because the Packers star missed a game. Jefferson averages more yards per target, but Adams generates more yards per route run and has done more with the ball in his hands. Adams’ targets go for a first down about 3 percentage points more frequently than Jefferson, who admittedly plays with Kirk Cousins as opposed to Rodgers. The margin is razor thin here, and I could change my mind over the final two weeks of the year. Hill is a clear No. 4 in this race, with Stefon Diggs trailing behind.
Second team: Travis Kelce, Chiefs
I wasn’t enthused about picking a tight end when I first started thinking about this ballot a few weeks ago. Kelce is still a difference-maker, but the future Hall of Famer hasn’t been as productive as he was during his dominant 2020 campaign. Rob Gronkowski and George Kittle have been the league’s best tight ends on a snap-by-snap basis given their incredible blocking prowess, but both have missed significant time to the extent that it’s difficult to pick either.
Enter Andrews, who solved the tight end riddle. Over the past three games, he has a league-leading 376 receiving yards despite playing with three different starting quarterbacks. No receiver has generated more first downs over that span than Andrews, who ranks fourth in the NFL among all pass-catchers in that category. With his snap count up to 74% in the Baltimore offense, Andrews is playing more — and delivering more — than he ever has.
Second team: Rashawn Slater, Chargers
Williams is the third and final no-questions-asked pick on the offensive side of the ball. Ask someone who watches offensive line play closely how Williams is doing this season and you might need to help them clean the drool off their faces. In his second full season with the 49ers, the 33-year-old Williams has been a shutdown tackle for a team with a quarterback who needs all the help he can get. According to Stats LLC, Williams hasn’t allowed a single sack all season. ESPN’s tracking data agrees.
There’s plenty of competition behind Williams with Andrew Whitworth, Kolton Miller and Jedrick Willis Jr. in the discussion, but I opted for the rookie Slater, who has immediately locked down a position the Chargers have struggled to fill for years.
Second team: Quenton Nelson, Colts
Nelson is the league’s best guard, but it’s so tough to sneak him onto this list given how much time he has missed. He has only played 65.5% of Indianapolis’s snaps after spending time on injured reserve and hitting the reserve/COVID-19 list a week ago.
The ever-present Bitonio might not be as spectacular as Nelson or fellow Browns guard Wyatt Teller, but part of his value comes from availability, as the 30-year-old hasn’t missed a snap since 2016. Bitonio’s physical traits and reliability showed up earlier this season, when the Browns employed him as an emergency left tackle because of COVID absences in their game against the Raiders.
Second team: Ryan Jensen, Bucs
This position might be considered similar to tight end, where the most impactful player could be Cardinals center Rodney Hudson, who has missed five games with injuries. Kyler Murray’s QBR is 18 points better with Hudson on the field. Chiefs rookie Creed Humphrey was also in consideration here, but I opted for two stalwarts who continue to play spectacular football.
Kelce remains spectacularly gifted for a center in his mid-30s, playing a critical role pulling and getting outside the tackles for one of the most demanding rushing attacks in football. He has also been essential in helping to set protections for second-year quarterback Jalen Hurts. Kelce has missed a few snaps with injuries, and Jensen remains one of the league’s best antagonists protecting Tom Brady, but I gave Kelce the nod for degree of difficulty.
Second team: Chris Lindstrom, Falcons
No new superlatives are needed for Martin, who continues to be arguably the league’s best two-way interior lineman. After missing Week 1 because of a positive COVID-19 test, he has been on the field for virtually every meaningful Cowboys snap this season. Their offensive line hasn’t been quite as good creating running lanes as it has in years past, but Martin’s skills as a pass-blocker only play up more in Dallas’ new offensive style. Stats LLC credits him with just a half-sack allowed.
Lindstrom doesn’t get much attention, but having not allowed a single sack or taken a single holding call all season, he narrowly beat out the also-deserving Teller for the second-team spot.
Second team: Brian O’Neill, Vikings
This was the most difficult position because so many candidates don’t really qualify. Ryan Ramczyk has been out since Week 10. Jack Conklin only played four full games and suffered a season-ending injury. La’el Collins was suspended and didn’t get his job back immediately. Lane Johnson missed three games while he took care of his mental health. Braden Smith was out for six games. If there was a college-style preseason shortlist for the All-Pro team, all those guys would have been on it.
As it turns out, this ended up as a three-man race between the two guys above and the Rams’ Rob Havenstein. I went for Wirfs and O’Neill, who have both played every snap for their respective teams this season, ahead of Havenstein, who has missed two games. Statistically, there might be a slightly better case for O’Neill, who hasn’t allowed a sack, while Wirfs has allowed one and might be at least partially at fault for a second. By ESPN’s measures, though, O’Neill has allowed more pressures leading to incompletions than his Bucs counterpart. They’re both very good run blockers, so the difference between the two might amount to a coin flip.
Second team: Trey Hendrickson, Bengals; Nick Bosa, 49ers
Oh boy. The top two here are clear, but the second team was a nightmare to choose. Let’s begin with the starters. Garrett has slowed down a bit while being hampered by a groin injury, but he leads the league in ESPN’s sacks created metric (16.0) and pass rush win rate as an edge defender (25.8%). What he did to the Bears should not have been shown on national television. If the Browns win out and make it to the postseason, Garrett’s touchdown against the Ravens just before halftime in what ended up as a 24-22 victory might end up as one of their most important plays of the year.
— NFL (@NFL) December 12, 2021
Watt has missed two games and been a part-time player in four others this season, and while that should matter when you’re being compared with guys who haven’t missed time, he has been productive enough on limited snaps to win those battles anyway. Watt’s 17.5 sacks and 31 quarterback knockdowns lead all players. He has also thrown in four forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries, four pass deflections and five tackles for loss against the run for good measure.
After those two? It’s a mess. There are close to a dozen candidates. Both Bosa brothers. Hendrickson. Matthew Judon in New England. Harold Landry III has broken out for the Titans, just as Maxx Crosby’s gotten going for the Raiders. Brian Burns and Haason Reddick form the most underrated edge duo in the league. Chandler Jones is still a game-changer. Robert Quinn is having a phenomenal year. Shaq Barrett is the picture of consistency, although he may miss the rest of the season with a sprained ACL and MCL.
Hendrickson was the first guy out of the bunch for me, because he has helped transform the Bengals on defense. I was skeptical he would make an impact after leaving the Saints and I was absolutely wrong. Nobody — not even Garrett or Watt — has been more consistently impactful than Hendrickson, who has at least one sack in 12 different games. Just three players in league history have topped that mark, and he will get a chance to tie the NFL record of 14 as the Bengals try to close out a division title.
After that, honestly, pick your favorite. Nick Bosa ranks fourth in sacks and second in knockdowns, and he leads the league with 19 tackles for loss. He’s dominating on a team where nobody else has more than five sacks or 10 knockdowns and the secondary is hanging on for dear life every week. He also might not even be the best member of his own family at the position. It’s close to impossible to choose here.
Second team: Jonathan Allen, Washington; Jeffery Simmons, Titans
This one wasn’t much easier. There’s one obvious choice in Donald, as while he might not be getting the same sort of headlines or exhibiting the same sort of highlight reel we’ve seen in years past, trust me when I say that the future Hall of Famer is still the NFL’s most disruptive player. Donald’s 27.7% pass rush win rate on the interior is the best by more than 9 percentage points. To put the gap in context, the difference between Donald and second-placed Javon Hargrave is bigger than the gap between Hargrave and Jarran Reed in 21st. And yes, in case you were wondering, Donald is above average by run stop win rate as well.
Donald is in a tier by himself, and there’s a handful of guys below him in the second tier. Hargrave is in there, and while he’s a different sort of player, so is Vita Vea. Chris Jones has been a massive difference-maker for the Chiefs since being moved back inside on a permanent basis earlier this season. I could keep naming players. The margins here are so thin.
I’ll start with Buckner because of the impact he has beyond sacks. He has been double-teamed on 67.7% of his interior rushes this season, which ranks third behind Donald and Patriots rookie Christian Barmore. (I would say a higher percentage of the Barmore double-teams are created on purpose by Bill Belichick’s pass rush concepts than the doubles on Donald or Buckner.) Buckner has still been able to generate 6.5 sacks and 16 knockdowns, but more significantly, ESPN has credited him as creating 29 incompletions as a pass-rusher, which is one behind Donald for the league lead among tackles.
After fighting with teammate Daron Payne during Sunday’s blowout loss to the Cowboys, I can’t say that Allen is flying underneath the radar. What I can say is that he’s getting attention for the wrong reasons; he has 8.5 sacks and ranks fifth in the league with 27 knockdowns. Simmons made one of the most important plays of the season in blowing up Josh Allen’s fourth-and-1 sneak to seal a win over the Bills, and he has contributed 7.5 sacks, 14 knockdowns and six pass breakups while living in opposing backfields. Simmons also ranks 12th among tackles in run stop win rate.
Second team: Matt Milano, Bills; Demario Davis, Saints
Parsons might also qualify at edge rusher, but given the backlog there, I’m getting the rookie sensation on the roster at his natural position as an off-ball linebacker. Myles Garrett has the best pass rush win rate as an edge rusher, but if we include rushes on the interior, nobody has been more successful as a pass-rusher on a per-play basis than Parsons. Not Garrett, nor Donald. No, he’s not Lawrence Taylor, but the only player since Taylor who was a credible Defensive Player of the Year nominee as a rookie was Jevon Kearse in 1999.
Ryan Clark makes his case for Cowboys linebacker Micah Parsons to win Defensive Player of the Year.
After Parsons, we’re again dealing with a wide range of talents. I have to go with Leonard, who seems to be in on every big play the Colts make, with three picks and six forced fumbles this season. Milano is a stalwart on what might be the league’s best defense in Buffalo, and Davis is the heart and soul of the league’s top run defense.
Honorary mention goes to Green Bay’s De’Vondre Campbell, who is right alongside Patterson as one of the best free-agent signings of the offseason in terms of surplus value.
Second team: Jalen Ramsey, Rams; Marshon Lattimore, Saints; Kenny Moore, Colts
Last season, after Xavien Howard picked off 10 passes in an era in which interceptions are at an all-time low, I noted that no defensive back in the history of football had a greater share of the interceptions around the league in a single season than the Dolphins star. Well, his record lasted one season. Howard was at 2.5%, but Diggs has intercepted 2.8% of opposing passes this season. He has allowed four touchdowns as the nearest defender in coverage, but 11 picks means Diggs has generated 28 expected points added (EPA) for the Cowboys when passers have thrown in his direction.
On the other side of the coin, there’s Terrell, who is the best player in football virtually nobody talks about on a week-to-week basis. He has intercepted only two passes, but just 28.6% of the throws in Terrell’s direction have resulted in a positive play for the offense, which is the league’s best mark. Quarterbacks have posted a minus-16.9% completion percentage over expectation (CPOE) on throws toward Terrell, which also ranks No. 1. Terrell typically plays one side of the field, so corners who move around the formation might offer more than him, but he has locked down half the field for a defense with no pass rush.
Jackson is somewhere between those two extremes. The Patriots played more zone than in years past during their seven-game winning streak, but when they’ve been in man coverage, they’ve been more comfortable letting Jackson take the other team’s top receiver now that Stephon Gilmore is in Carolina. Jackson, a 2018 undrafted free agent, is tied for the league lead alongside Diggs with 21 pass breakups.
There were four players here for three spots, with Ramsey as the one I had to narrowly leave out. There’s nothing wrong with him, but teams have targeted him slightly more frequently this season without paying for their sin. Quarterbacks throwing toward Ramsey have posted a minus-3.5% CPOE in 2021, which is more impressive for them in context with Ramsey’s minus-9.4% CPOE in 2020.
Lattimore has broken up 19 passes despite teams targeting rookie Paulson Adebo, while Moore is the league’s best slot corner.
Second team: Adrian Phillips, Patriots; Kevin Byard, Titans
Poyer has been an eraser in the secondary. When teams have been brave enough to throw in his direction, the result has been a downright depressing passer rating of 3.6. He has five picks and nine passes defensed while allowing 3.1 yards per target and continuing to contribute as a run defender. The Bills rank second in the league in defensive DVOA, and with cornerback Tre’Davious White out for the season, Poyer’s partnership with Micah Hyde has kept the team afloat on that side of the ball.
I wasn’t a huge fan of the four-year, $59 million extension the Cardinals handed Baker before the 2020 season, but he has lived up to the deal. With Arizona sporting one of the league’s worst cornerback depth charts on paper, Baker’s ability to fly around the field and cover up holes in coverage has been a huge reason why it has been able to post the league’s fifth-best scoring defense.
Byard is a much more complete player now than when he made the All-Pro team in 2017, while Phillips has gone from being a special-teamer to a complete safety and Patrick Chung clone for the Patriots.
Second team: Chris Boswell, Steelers
There are times in which a dominant player at a position wins Pro Bowl and All-Pro berths just by default. Tucker is not one of those players. He has generated 15.9 points of value for his team on scoring plays; the only other kicker above 10 points is the Rams’ Matt Gay. Tucker’s 66-yard winner against the Lions is keeping a free-falling Ravens team in the playoff race with two games to go.
I give Boswell, third in value on scoring plays, the nod over Gay by virtue of playing in a more difficult kicking environment.
Second team: Bryan Anger, Cowboys
Cole has been atop the per-punt leaderboard at Puntalytics, which adjusts for field position and expected return length, virtually all season.
Anger, who was cut by the Texans this offseason and signed a one-year deal for $1 million with Dallas, has been the focal point of a punting unit that has generated more points of field position than any other.
Second team: Braxton Berrios, Jets
Nwangwu has fielded 13 kickoffs and returned two of them for touchdowns; the only other player to do that since 2013 is Patterson, who is the best kick returner of his generation. Percy Harvin, Devin Hester and Steve Smith also pulled it off in their rookie seasons before the league changed its kickoff rules. It’s a good sign that Nwangwu is going to be a valuable returner for a long time.
Berrios was already having an excellent season before he took a kickoff 102 yards to the house for what ended up as a game-deciding score against the Jaguars last week.