Numbers don’t lie — but neither does the well-trained eye. Seasoned football watcher Chris Wesseling and Next Gen Stats maven Nick Shook provide their All-Pro Teams from the 2019 NFL season.
Chris Wesseling: Lamar Jackson, Baltimore Ravens. When Jackson and Russell Wilson appeared to be neck-and-neck for the season’s stretch run at Thanksgiving, I gave the edge to the former for one simple reason: Here was a quarterback who was going to lead the league in touchdown passes as an afterthought to shattering Michael Vick’s single-season rushing record. That feat would have been unthinkable as recently as Halloween. The Ravens are the story of the season, boldly revolutionizing an entire franchise history of stale offensive play behind the sport’s most electrifying player. In one swashbuckling package, Jackson seems to combine the open-space instincts and uncanny decision-making of Wilson, the speed and lateral agility of Chris Johnson, the ball handling and play fakes of a leather-helmeted T-formation throwback and the precision passing of a Heisman Trophy winner at the peak of his powers. How much has the game changed in the last 25 years? Steve Young was the last QB to lead the league in passing scores and rushing yards, tossing 35 touchdowns and running for 293 yards in 1994. Yes, Jackson ran for nearly 1,000 more yards in just 15 games.
The list of feats recorded by NFL Research is stunning to behold. Jackson found the end zone more times this season than 17 other teams. He has a higher passer rating (113.3) than Tom Brady did in 17 of his 18 full seasons as a starter. He has more passing touchdowns (36) than Brett Favre did in 17 of his 19 seasons as a starter. He has a higher completion rate (66.1) than Joe Montana did in 11 of his 13 seasons as a starter. He has more rushing yards (1,206) than each of the three running backs drafted ahead of him in 2018 (Saquon Barkley, Rashaad Penny, Sony Michel). He’s going to be the youngest league MVP since 1958 Jim Brown, which is fitting, considering they both qualify as physical marvels generations ahead of their contemporaries.
Nick Shook: Lamar Jackson, Baltimore Ravens. If the human highlight reel known as Lamar Jackson didn’t exist, this would be Russell Wilson‘s award to win, but there’s no overlooking Jackson’s stellar season. We’ll get to his passing stats, but first consider: Jackson ranked sixth in the NFL in rushing yards and led all rushers in runs of 10-plus yards, with 47. He was the only rusher to break 20 in that category and post a 10-plus-yard run percentage of 20 or greater (26.7). Among rushers with a minimum of 100 carries, Jackson ranked second in success rate (60.2 percent), trailing only his teammate Mark Ingram (60.4 percent) in that category. And here’s statistical validation for fans of Jackson’s blinding speed: He broke 15 miles per hour on 93 of his runs. That’s 20 runs better than the next closest speedster, Minnesota’s Dalvin Cook (73), who had 74 more attempts than Jackson through 16 weeks.
Those are all rushing stats for a quarterback. Here are the markers of Jackson’s passing explosion: first among players with 275-plus attempts in passing touchdowns (36), third in passer rating (113.3), tied for ninth in completion percentage (66.1 percent), tied for 14th in completion percentage above expectation (0.6 percent) and 22nd in passing yards (3,127), with a 6:1 TD-INT ratio. His completion percentage above expectation — essentially a metric that defines difficulty of attempt and frequency of completing such an attempt — doesn’t come close to that of Drew Brees (8.1%) or Russell Wilson (4.8%), but the body of work detailed above is overwhelming. The league’s soon-to-be MVP is also the most valuable to the Next Gen Stats All-Pro team.
Wesseling: Christian McCaffrey, Carolina Panthers. When Todd Gurley flashed his old All-Pro form early in December, providing a glimmer of hope that the Rams offense would ride a late-season renaissance into the postseason, he ultimately failed the McCaffrey test. If Gurley is back, then what is McCaffrey? The two runners are no longer in the same league in terms of sharp-cutting ability, super-quick stutter steps leaving defenders grasping for air and obvious mismatch potential versus linebackers and safeties in the passing game. McCaffrey joined Roger Craig and Marshall Faulk as the only backs ever to reach 1,000 yards rushing and receiving in the same season. He also came within of 117 yards of matching Chris Johnson‘s single-season record of 2,509 yards from scrimmage, posting the third-most of all time (2,392). The hyper-elusive, dual-purpose back deserved to go out on a high note after a historic 2019 campaign, but he had to suffer through an eight-game losing streak to close out the season.
Shook: Derrick Henry, Tennessee Titans. Browns running back Nick Chubb, who was the league leader in rushing yards until late in Week 17, ripped off 39 runs of 10-plus yards, second-most among all qualified running backs. But one key metric reveals Chubb wasn’t climbing up the same steep hill as other backs: blocking advantage. Chubb ran against defensive fronts with eight-plus defenders on just 13.1 percent of his 298 carries, significantly less than Derrick Henry‘s mark of 35.6 percent. Teams simply didn’t load the box to stop Chubb like they did Henry, who is one of only three running backs to both top 1,000 rushing yards and average seven-plus defenders in the box on each attempt (Leonard Fournette of the Jaguars and Mark Ingram of the Ravens were the others).
That’s our first differentiator. What did these backs do when the ball was in their hands? Chubb gained a league-best 4.9 yards after a defender closed within 1 yard of him, but right behind him was Henry at 4.7. Chubb owned a slightly better rush efficiency of 3.6 (distance traveled by ball carrier divided by net yards gained) as opposed to Henry’s 3.5. Most of the other metrics are fairly similar for the two backs, but Henry’s 16 rushing touchdowns best Chubb’s eight. If we’re judging by the metrics, Henry wins this battle, with the Cowboys‘ Ezekiel Elliott also making a case for third place.
Wesseling: Julio Jones, Atlanta Falcons; Michael Thomas, New Orleans Saints. If not for Lamar Jackson‘s historic season, this might have been the year that finally featured a wide receiver as MVP of the league. Thomas not only broke Marvin Harrison’s single-season receptions record with a week to spare, but he also set a new standard for most games (eight) with at least 10 receptions and 100 receiving yards. Since targets were first recorded in 2009, his 80.5 reception percentage (149 catches on 185 targets) ranks second only to the 85.0 mark he established in 2018 (among WRs, min. 75 targets in a season). Perhaps most impressively, we have to go back to the pre-television era of the 1940s and Packers legend Don Hutson to find a bigger discrepancy between first place (Thomas, 149) and second place (Christian McCaffrey, 116) in receptions. The surest first down in football, Thomas kept the Saints‘ offense afloat while Drew Brees missed a month and Alvin Kamara lost his game-breaking ability due to a midseason high-ankle sprain.
Why do coaches encourage key players to risk their long-term health in meaningless December games of a lost season? There are only 16 of these battles every year, for starters. Better yet, marvel at an all-decade superstar like Jones, using the season’s final month to pull off a spectacular array of boundary catches and lead his team to victory in six of his final seven games. Jones not only proved that he remains an All-Pro talent in the late stages of his prime, but also changed lives, helping head coach Dan Quinn and his staff beat long odds to retain their jobs for 2020.
Shook: Michael Thomas, New Orleans Saints; A.J. Brown, Tennessee Titans. Some things don’t need to be deeply explained. You’ve seen Michael Thomas‘ incredible reception total and his long stretch of games without a drop (that streak ended on Thanksgiving). It’s no surprise he’s atop the receiving charts in most metrics, including an eye-popping catch percentage of 80.5, topped only by his 12.7 percent above expectation. Quarterbacks targeting him (including Drew Brees, Teddy Bridgewater and Taysom Hill) own a 121.7 passer rating. He’s done this while being open on just 34.1 percent of targets. You get the picture.
I was going to place the Vikings‘ Stefon Diggs in this spot because of his fantastic plus-10 catch percentage above expectation, but A.J. Brown‘s total production as a rookie (!) is too much to look past. There’s the 1,051 receiving yards and eight touchdowns, but the Next Gen look at him is even more impressive. Brown boasted a plus-7.2 catch percentage above expectation (tied for eighth in the NFL among players with 75-plus targets), the best passer rating when targeted in the entire league (minimum 75 targets) at 127.6, and 457 yards gained after the catch (seventh in the NFL among wide receivers). Here’s the clincher: Nearly 50 percent of Brown’s YAC was unlikely to even occur, as his league-leading YAC above expectation was an incredible 251 yards. The next closest receiver was Chris Godwin, who will surely be a traditional All-Pro, but who also received 39.7 percent of his targets while open (by 3-plus yards) and 13.2 percent when wide open (by 5-plus yards). Brown’s numbers in those two categories? Twenty-five percent while open and 9.5 percent while wide open, meaning his YAC total wasn’t just compiled via deep completions on wide-open targets capped by gleeful strides into the end zone. No, Brown worked for it, summarized best by this number: Exactly one third of Brown’s targets were on tight windows. He’s winning the close battles and making the most of his receptions at a rate better than anyone else in the NFL.
Wesseling: Austin Ekeler, Los Angeles Chargers. Already one of the most unstoppable pass-catching backs in NFL history, Ekeler finished second among backfield stars in receiving yards (993) and first in receiving touchdowns (eight), while ranking in the top 10 in yards from scrimmage (1,550). As effective as he was as the feature back in September, it came as no surprise that the Bolts offense slumped as soon as a rusty Melvin Gordon returned from his holdout to siphon Ekeler’s workload in October. If not for a late-season shoulder injury, this spot would have gone to Minnesota’s Dalvin Cook. Cook finished the season 405 rushing yards behind Tennessee’s Derrick Henry and 359 behind Cleveland’s Nick Chubb. I would have no issue with other voters going for Cook. I just prefer to reward Ekeler for a unique skill set that produced an incredible season.
Shook: Christian McCaffrey, Carolina Panthers. McCaffrey was a close call for one of the running back spots, but we all know he’s just as dangerous in the passing game. McCaffrey ranked third in rushing yards (1,387) and rushing touchdowns (15) and tied for sixth in runs of 10-plus yards (31); he was also right in line with Ezekiel Elliott and Mark Ingram for difficulty per carry in terms of blocking advantage percentage. He’s doing a bang-up job on the ground. But he earns the flex spot in part because of how open he was getting, even while running out of the backfield. Sure, some routes into the flat are inherently more open, but McCaffrey was wide open on 52.1 percent of targets. Comparatively, the Chargers‘ Austin Ekeler was wide open on 40.7 percent of targets, while James White was wide open on just 30.5 percent of targets. Ekeler made an incredibly strong case for this honor in the passing game, racking up 227 more yards after catch than expectation, but his rushing production — handcuffed by the return of Melvin Gordon from his in-season holdout, no doubt — paled in comparison to McCaffrey, who ranked first in yards after catch, but doesn’t own as large of a positive difference above expectation. We’re looking at total resume, though, and McCaffrey runs away with this one.
Wesseling: George Kittle, San Francisco 49ers. Greatness isn’t limited to only one player at each position in a given year, which means All-Pro selections aren’t always fair. It’s Travis Kelce‘s rotten luck to reach the prime of his career just as Rob Gronkowski’s gradual decline gave way to Kittle’s meteoric rise. Future All-22 analytics buffs will speak about Kittle’s 2019 season in hushed tones, as if it’s a cult classic only appreciated by connoisseurs. He’s taking the fight to the opponent every single play, like 2013 J.J. Watt. You’d need to cut out his heart or shoot him with an elephant gun to stop him. If everyone played with this level of raw, fevered intensity, the sport would ascend to another level closer to 22nd century football. When Sean McVay’s great grandchild is coaching the Northern California 49ers, every team in the league will have a Kittle at tight end. His rare combination of size, speed and power won’t be so rare at that point, which means a 2119 Kittle might bear closer resemblance to a 2019 Seth DeValve or Jesse James. No tight end can match the amazing red-zone prowess of Gronk in his prime, but Kittle boasts faster game speed and just as much physicality. How important is Kittle’s blocking? The two games he missed due to a knee injury this season are the only two weeks in which the 49ers failed to rush for at least 90 yards. In fact, they averaged just 60.5 yards in those Week 10 and 11 matchups versus Seattle and Arizona compared to 156 yards when Kittle was on the field. He plays football as if he was raised by a former college star whose favorite quote just happens to be, “There is no greater joy in life than moving a man from point A to point B against his will.”
Shook: Darren Waller, Oakland Raiders. Pick your jaw up off the floor. We good? OK. So, yes, this is a bit surprising, but so was opening the deep trove of Next Gen Stats to reveal all tight ends with at least 75 targets and find Waller as the No. 2 tight end, behind Travis Kelce in some metrics and George Kittle in others. Why does Waller earn the nod? His receiving yards per target mark of 9.8 is tied for first. His catch percentage above expectation (7.0) is second among tight ends with at least 1,000 receiving yards, close to Kittle (7.6) and nearly 3 percentage points better than Kelce (4.3). And Waller’s yards after catch gained above expectation (plus-116) stood first, while Kittle (67) was sixth and Kelce (17) was 26th. Yes, Kittle did what he did in fewer games, but no one saw Waller coming — well, except Jerry O’Connell on Good Morning Football three years ago. Kittle and Kelce will earn their much-deserved praise everywhere else. We’re giving it to this little-known advanced-metrics stud.
Wesseling: Ryan Ramczyk, New Orleans Saints; Ronnie Stanley, Baltimore Ravens. The runaway MVP’s blindside protector, Stanley is not only Pro Football Focus’ top-rated left tackle but is also one of three “no-brainer” All-Pro picks this year, according to former longtime Bengals offensive line coach Paul Alexander. Right tackle comes down to Ramczyk, Kansas City’s Mitchell Schwartz and Philadelphia’s Lane Johnson — a trio that has topped the charts for three straight years. Arguably the best run-blocker of the group, Ramczyk also spent the season stonewalling some of the league’s most dangerous edge rushers.
Shook: Ronnie Stanley, Baltimore Ravens; David Bakhtiari, Green Bay Packers. Stanley is playing excellent football and clearing holes for the league’s No. 1 rushing offense — excuse me, the best rushing offense in a 16-game season in the history of the NFL — and he’s serving as the reliable left tackle Lamar Jackson needs to progress in the passing game. The sack metric is a bit skewed for judgment thanks to Jackson’s mobility, but time to throw versus time to hurry helps us get a better idea of the challenge presented to linemen protecting passers, and especially tackles, because they’re often out on the island against edge rushers. Passers with escapability require tackles to block longer and with greater consistency, both in form and technique, as their task is more challenging than blocking for a quick-trigger passer. Stanley is doing a fantastic job in this department, creating a gap between Ravens quarterbacks’ average time to throw of 2.88 and time to hurry of 3.12 while also balancing the responsibility of keeping his head on a swivel in preparation for a sudden change in rush direction brought on by Jackson’s ability to bail out of the pocket.
That leads us to our next selection, David Bakhtiari, who is a frequent pick for these kinds of lists but earns it because he’s blocking for one of the greatest pocket freelancers of the last three decades, Aaron Rodgers. The future Hall of Famer has cut down on his time to throw in 2019 in his first season in coach Matt LaFleur’s offense; Packers passers matched the Ravens‘ mark of 2.88, but the key difference that explains the effectiveness of Bakhtiari (and his teammates, including rookie Elgton Jenkins) was Green Bay’s time to hurry. It was more than a half-second longer than the time-to-throw mark, allowing Rodgers the cushion to get crafty in the pocket and maximize his ability as a pinpoint passer.
New Orleans’ Ryan Ramczyk also belongs in this group, and if the Texans‘ Laremy Tunsil didn’t have such an issue with false starts, he’d be considered too. But with only two slots available, Ramczyk will have to be OK with just a mention.
Wesseling: Quenton Nelson, Indianapolis Colts; Marshal Yanda, Baltimore Ravens. Nelson has quickly become the marquee player on a talented young Colts roster and the gold standard for run blocking. He’s a tone-setter, a people-mover and a weekly eraser at left guard. With 13th-year veteran Yanda paving the way, the Ravens broke the NFL’s single-season rushing record held by the 1978 Patriots — in an era where stud running backs such as O.J. Simpson and Walter Payton earned higher salaries than the league’s top quarterbacks. Baltimore joined that New England squad and Simpson’s 1973 Bills as the only teams to reach 3,000 yards rushing in a season. If you would rather recognize Zack Martin‘s ongoing greatness at this spot, that’s a fine choice as well.
Shook: Richie Incognito, Oakland Raiders; Marshal Yanda, Baltimore Ravens. Quenton Nelson is a damn good guard, but Next Gen Stats only allows us to evaluate on the team scale, so with the help of the tape (we’re breaking rules!) and the rate of pressure, hurries, sacks and overall passer rating, we’re identifying the best at their positions. Richie Incognito‘s influence and contribution to the Raiders‘ offensive line, especially after losing Kelechi Osemele, is undeniable. Incognito brought a toughness that the group might have lacked in recent years; he mauls opponents, exerting his will on opposing defensive linemen on nearly every down. He’s a big reason why Josh Jacobs broke 1,000 rushing yards as a rookie and why Derek Carr posted his first 100-plus passer rating of his career (and had a time-to-release of 2.82 seconds, higher than any in his previous three seasons). Oakland only allowed 76 hurries and a quarterback pressure percentage of 18.8, third best in the league, in large part due to Incognito.
Marshal Yanda‘s season is best summarized by one play, which wrapped up the Ravens‘ 13th win of the season and secured revenge over the Browns, the last team to beat them. The Ravens came out in the pistol, ran a stretch to the right, and Justice Hill burst right off Yanda’s inside hip upfield for an 18-yard touchdown. It never would’ve happened if Yanda hadn’t executed a textbook reach block on Browns defensive tackle Eli Ankou. That type of play is what helps the Ravens lead the league in rushing, which then helps Lamar Jackson shred defenses with his arm and his legs. Yanda and Stanley are key parts of this process, protecting the quarterback (tied for fourth in QB pressure percentage at 21.2) and opening holes for Mark Ingram, Hill and Gus Edwards.
Wesseling: Rodney Hudson, Oakland Raiders. Two hurries, one QB hit, zero sacks. That’s Pro Football Focus’ full tally of the pass-rushing “damage” done against Hudson on over 900 snaps this season. Until right tackle Trent Brown‘s late-season injury issues, the Raiders‘ offensive line was among the position groups that most exceeded expectations in 2018, paving the way for Josh Jacobs‘ Offensive Rookie of the Year-caliber campaign.
Shook: Rodney Hudson, Oakland Raiders. It’s very difficult to look past Oakland’s top-two marks in QB pressure rate (as mentioned above, 18.5 percent), sacks surrendered (27) and hurries (68), even with Carr’s low time to throw. Hudson was the orchestrator of the group responsible for those numbers. At 30 years old, Hudson remains as steady as they come at the position, helping the group play reliably and the Raiders surprise some folks before tailing off at the end of the season.
Wesseling: Justin Tucker, Baltimore Ravens. Tucker is a living legend, performing at a higher level over the past half-decade than any kicker in history. All other kickers are fighting for second place, which gives the Chiefs and Saints an edge over the non-Baltimore postseason field. Kansas City’s Harrison Butker and New Orleans’ Wil Lutz have emerged as the second tier behind Tucker, combining accuracy with booming legs.
Shook: Josh Lambo, Jacksonville Jaguars. Kicking is an area that Next Gen Stats doesn’t provide a ton of deep information on, but when stacking up traditional kicking results and adding in the kickoff chart, Lambo emerges, alongside Baltimore’s Justin Tucker, as one of the best in the league. Lambo made 33 of 34 field-goal attempts this season, including a perfect 4-for-4 mark from 50-plus yards to go along with 19-of-20 on extra points. As for his kickoff chart, Lambo excelled at hanging kicks inside the 5, forcing returners into longer return attempts. He wasn’t as good as Tucker at keeping the kicks near the hashes, but only six of his non-penalized kickoff attempts landed in the arms of a returner outside the 10, while more than 20 were inside the 10. That’s kicking effectively in all areas.
Wesseling: Deonte Harris, New Orleans Saints. Cordarrelle Patterson may be the greatest era-adjusted kickoff returner in history. He’s also a dynamo on punt coverage. The problem he faces is that his greatest skill has been remaindered by recent rule changes, creating more touchbacks and fewer return opportunities on kickoffs. An elusive return ace such as Harris, who led the league in punt-return yards while doubling down on kickoff duties, simply offers more value. Harris tilted the field in New Orleans’ favor in Week 16, helping the Saints overcome an early 14-0 deficit vs. the Titans with three different returns that allowed Drew Brees to set up shop at midfield.
Shook: Deonte Harris, New Orleans Saints. If we’re talking about pure kick returners, Cordarrelle Patterson earns this nod, but we’re also considering punt returning. Harris is a do-everything returner, returning all but one of his kicks from his own 5 or deeper and taking them for 20-plus yards 17 times and for 40-plus yards four times. He excelled most on punt returns, where he owns a 9.4 yards per punt return average and took four 20-plus yards and one 40-plus yards (his 53-yard touchdown). His only weakness is in the fumbling department, as he’s done that three times on punt returns.