Calvin Johnson is quite clearly the best wide receiver in the NFL, and this year hasn’t been any different for the future Hall of Famer. He earned our Player of the Week award in both Week 7 and 8, and he is just uncoverable. Johnson has bailed out Matthew Stafford several times this season, and Johnson is definitely somebody you would feel the utmost comfort in trusting to “make the play”. He has seven receiving touchdowns this season and has done an excellent job of generating yards after the catch. I worry sometimes that Stafford forces the ball to Johnson when he shouldn’t, though, because Johnson really opens things up for the other pass-catchers. Once Nate Burleson comes back, the Lions offense will be even more dynamic.
In my view, no receiver has played as well as Antonio Brown this season, and there’s no doubt that Brown is one of the game’s elite wide receivers. He has caught a whopping 76.7% of everything thrown at him, and he is almost uncoverable. Brown does an excellent job of moving the chains for the Pittsburgh Steelers offense, and he and Ben Roethlisberger share the kind of rapport that can’t be stopped. It’s easy for some to overlook Brown since his counting stats aren’t as gaudy as A.J. Green‘s or Demaryius Thomas’s, but I don’t think any elite wideout has been as efficient with their targets as Antonio Brown.
Speaking of efficiency, Jordy Nelson has been pretty darn efficient himself. Nelson is one of those receivers who can destroy defenses from anywhere on the field, and that kind of versatility is becoming even more important in this league. We saw Nelson eat up rookie Xavier Rhodes for supper on Sunday night, and Nelson is somebody who knifes through single coverage. There is little doubt that Nelson is an elite receiver, because he has elite hands, speed, and route-running ability. Nelson brings the total package to the table, and that’s why he is averaging a sensational 12 yards per target this year. He stretches the field as well as anybody in the league, with his back-shoulder connections with Aaron Rodgers being especially noteworthy. Rodgers and Nelson share one of the NFL’s premier hook-ups, and Nelson has been gold this season. In terms of raw statistics, Nelson’s been the best this season with a 72.7% catch rate and a whopping 16.6 yards per reception; those kinds of numbers are just unheard of for a No. 1 wideout who is generally the prime focus of the opposing defense. Oh, Nelson also has seven receiving touchdowns to boot.
Tight ends have become so important in this league that I have to add two, and I feel extremely comfortable in adding these two weapons. Jordan Cameron has been one of two huge bright spots at the skill positions for the Browns (the other is Josh Gordon), and you can only imagine how good these two would be with a franchise QB at the helm. Still, Cameron has been good enough this season with 49 receptions for 596 yards and six touchdowns. He’s been able to average 8.9 yards per target, and Cameron is an absolute beast. This guy is hyper-athletic, and that makes it nearly impossible for defenses to stop him.
Jimmy Graham is a household name these days like “Kleenex”, “Tom Brady“, or “Monopoly”. It’s for good reason, too, because there’s a reason why Drew Brees has singled him out as- by far- his top target in a Saints offense that is simply crowded when it comes to weapons. Graham has a jaw-dropping 40 receptions for 630 yards and eight touchdowns. His blocking sure could improve, but that’s all dandy when he’s averaging 10.2 yards per target and being a freak in the red zone. Graham leads all TEs in receiving yards and does a fantastic job of stretching the seam.
I flip-flopped between Joe Thomas and Nate Solder for a while before finally deciding to select Solder over the perennially elite Thomas. Solder is the best run-blocking offensive tackle in the game, and he’s also fantastic in pass protection. It’s easy for some fans to criticize Solder for a couple of breakdowns that have led to sacks, but he’s been pitching shutouts outside of those notable breakdowns. Thomas is significantly better in pass protection, but Solder is a better run blocker, is more athletic, and he has significantly less penalties than Thomas does. However, choosing Solder over Thomas was by no means an easy pick, so it’s definitely fine if you believe that Thomas has been the better player this year. If I were ranking the best offensive tackles overall (not just for this season), then I would have obviously ranked Thomas at the top.
Mathis has been the best guard in the league for a few years running, so it would have been absolutely criminal for me to keep him off of this list despite some lapses in pass protection. His run blocking continues to be elite, and I don’t think there’s a better run blocker in the game than Mathis. It’s crazy to think that the Carolina Panthers and Cincinnati Bengals absolutely whiffed on this guy, as he was a star right under their noses.
When Dan Koppen went down with a season-ending injury before the season even started, the center position looked like a possible question mark for the Denver Broncos. At this point, it’s been nothing close to a question mark at all. Manuel Ramirez has been playing at an elite level this season, and there is little doubt in my mind that he’s been the league’s best center so far when you consider the circumstances. He’s solidified the middle of the Broncos offensive line on short notice and has been adept as both a run blocker and pass blocker.
RG David DeCastro, Pittsburgh Steelers
While the Pittsburgh Steelers line has been embarrassingly bad overall, second-year David DeCastro is living up to his first-round billing out of Stanford. DeCastro could miss this week’s key game against the New England Patriots (that would definitely be a huge loss for the Steelers), but he’s been excellent to this point despite all the issues around him. I guess that’s what makes DeCastro so important to this team, and his run blocking has been a joy to watch. There isn’t a right guard who is better at aggressively paving his way into the second level, and Le’Veon Bell definitely has DeCastro to thank for his big game against the Baltimore Ravens.
RT Zach Strief, New Orleans Saints
It’s a shame to see Sebastian Vollmer down for the count, because he was extremely close to earning a spot on this team over Strief. Injuries had nothing to do with me picking Strief (Vollmer has played in all eight first-half games, whereas Strief has played in six due to a bye week and an injury that cost him the game against the Patriots) over Vollmer, though. Strief is one of my favorite offensive linemen to watch, because he is such a physical and smart player. You can tel that Strief is a huge leader on the Saints offensive line, and he is as good as anybody in this game at shutting down the pass rush. The whole left vs. right tackle bit gets overplayed a lot, and I firmly believe that guys like Strief and Vollmer would kill it on the left side if asked to play there.