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  • The NFL's best on offense, defense and special teams at the season's halfway point
By Andy Benoit
November 08, 2017

OFFENSE

QB: Tom Brady, Patriots
I said in August that Carson Wentz is the first player I’d choose to build around for the next 10 years, and since then, Wentz has soared well beyond those expectations. That said, this one isn’t even close. In the here and now, Tom Brady remains the best quarterback in football. He’s having the most impressive season of his career. The Patriots have evolved into a downfield offense, which means Brady has to hang in the pocket behind an up-and-down O-line. Every week, he’s made several incredible pinpoint throws under duress. His calm, efficient pocket movement is the best there has ever been, and he’s lost nothing on his arm.

RB: Ezekiel Elliott, Cowboys
This season has been more of a grind for Elliott, but the bottom line: He’s the bell cow on the NFL’s second most productive rushing team (Dallas’s 148.1 rushing yards per game is second to the run-only Jaguars’ 166.5). Elliott benefits from a great offensive line, yes, and he plays with a mobile QB who can hold backside pursuit defenders simply by faking a bootleg. But put on the film and you still see a guy with a different gear. Elliott can subtly shift directions without compromising his downhill momentum, which is why he’s so good setting up blocks. And this year, he has consistently gained tough yards in fistfight type games.

WR: Antonio Brown, Steelers
There’s no one better at getting in and out of his breaks than the NFL’s most prolific receiver. Brown can kill defenses early in the down, and he becomes even more dangerous late in the down.

WR: Adam Thielen, Vikings
No one is talking about how the Vikings are 6-2 despite playing 6 ½ games with backup quarterback Case Keenum. A big reason Keenum has looked so prepared each week is the Vikings run a crisp, clever passing game that uses a lot of switch releases (receivers crossing paths off the line of scrimmage). And a big reason that passing game has been so crisp is Thielen. He’s as precise a route runner as there is in the game.

WR: Tyreek Hill, Chiefs
The Chiefs are the most intricately designed offense in football. Hill’s speed is often the fulcrum of those designs.

TE: Travis Kelce, Chiefs
And when it’s not Hill at the center of the design, it’s this guy, the game’s most athletic tight end. Kelce could garner All-Pro considerations as a wide receiver, too. He has consistently beaten quality corners when aligned as an X-iso receiver on the opposite side of trips (a staple formation for the Chiefs). Also not to be overlooked is Kelce’s run-blocking. He improved dramatically last season, both as an in-line blocker and out in space. That has continued this season.

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LT: Andrew Whitworth, Rams
His technique in pass protection borders on perfect, which makes for some imposing snaps when you consider he’s 6' 7", 333 pounds. One reason Sean McVay’s system has clicked so well is it never has to dedicate extra pass protection help on Jared Goff’s blind side.

LG: Andrus Peat, Saints
Peat has toggled between left guard and left tackle all year due to injuries. At tackle, he’s done well enough for New Orleans’ offense to at least still function (and it’s always a high-functioning offense). At guard, he’s blossoming into one of the league’s best on-the-move blockers. His awareness and body control have improved significantly.

C: Travis Frederick, Cowboys
It feels like we say it every time Frederick’s name comes up: Reach-and-seal blocks are the key to Dallas’s ground game. The center must be able to snap the ball and then immediately cross over the face of the defensive tackle and pin him back inside. Frederick continues to do this at a high level. And in recent weeks, he’s also shown some road-grading power (against San Francisco and Washington).

RG: David DeCastro, Steelers
Mobility along the interior O-line is critical in a Steelers offense that features “counter” in the running game and a litany of screen passes. DeCastro continues to be an elite on-the-move blocker.

RT: Mitchell Schwartz, Chiefs
He had an isolated glitch or two in pass protection early in the year but has since settled in. More notably, he’s been tremendous in the run game. Schwartz has the strong hands and drive technique to sustain blocks and move opponents.

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DEFENSE

Edge: Melvin Ingram, Chargers
His lateral explosiveness is second to none, which is why he’s so dominant on stunts and twists. He’s also shown improvements in run defense, both from the front side and back side.

Egde: Justin Houston, Chiefs
Houston has only attacked the quarterback on half of the snaps this season because of Kansas City’s emphasis on coverage (coordinator Bob Sutton likes to rush three and drop eight). Despite that, Houston has taken over games as a pass rusher. And there’s no better playside run defender in football.

Interior DL: Fletcher Cox, Eagles
He’s the unequivocal headliner of the NFL’s most destructive defensive front. Cox has prospered at nose tackle and defensive end, in addition to his usual 3-technique spot. No player is better at generating strength on his second effort—and often, Cox wins on his first effort.

Interior DL: Akiem Hicks, Bears
The Bears were wise to sign him to a new four-year, $48 million contract just before the season; he would have been much more expensive after this year. Every week, Hicks’s herculean strength jumps out on film.

Stack LB: Ryan Shazier, Steelers
He’s not always the most disciplined player, but his speed and agility, as well as his closing ferocity, define Pittsburgh’s young, much-improved defense. In that scheme, Shazier has significant coverage and blitzing responsibilities.

Stack LB: Luke Kuechly, Panthers
Already a living legend given the immensity of respect for him across the league, and this season the Panthers have changed their scheme (more blitzing, less nickel). Kuechly, if anything, has elevated his game.

CB: Xavier Rhodes, Vikings
He travels with No. 1 wideouts for the NFL’s fourth-ranked pass defense (in terms of yards per game). At times, this includes into the slot, which is unusual for a long-armed jammer who is so good at using the boundary. Among the receivers Rhodes has thoroughly defeated this year: Antonio Brown, Mike Evans, Marvin Jones and Davante Adams. He’ll have to keep thriving. The second-half schedule includes Sammy Watkins, Julio Jones and A.J. Green.

CB: Jalen Ramsey, Jaguars
Many of Jacksonville’s league-leading 29 sacks have stemmed from coverage. Meet the lanky second-year stud who has provided the best of that coverage.

CB: Marshon Lattimore, Saints
The rookie is already a true No. 1 corner, and not just a pure matchup guy, either. His awareness and feel for zone coverage is sagacious.

S: Kevin Byard, Titans
It’s not just his league-leading six interceptions, it’s that Byard has been a key blitzer and is consistently the matchup defender against tight ends in Tennessee’s scheme. Factor in his run-filling abilities (which have always been top-notch) and the second-year pro narrowly edges out Buffalo’s Micah Hyde.

S: Earl Thomas, Seahawks
He’s still the rangiest, headiest safety in football. And this year, Thomas’s responsibilities have expanded as the Seahawks have blitzed more and now play a lot of man coverage. In man, if Thomas is not matching up, he’s used as a robber.

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SPECIAL TEAMS

Note: Andy Benoit does not study special teams, therefore Gary Gramling made the All-Pro selections among specialists.

K: Justin Tucker, Ravens
L.A.’s Greg Zuerlein has been magnificent this season, hitting all 12 of his attempts from beyond 40 yards including three from 50-plus, but his only miss was a costly one, pushing a 36-yarder wide right in the Rams’ loss to Seattle (the Rams were ultimately forced to drive for a touchdown instead of three on their final drive). Tucker continues to be the gold standard for kickers and a savior for the punchless Ravens offense (his three misses this year are from 58, 62 and a blocked attempt). Baltimore is almost guaranteed points as soon as they get inside an opponent’s 40.

P: Johnny Hekker, L.A. Rams
We’re seeing him much less often than usual due to the Rams’ new-found explosiveness on offense (on pace for 54 punts after averaging 86.8 per year over his first five seasons), but Hekker continues to be nearly flawless when called upon. He’s third in the NFL in net average, has just one touchback and has allowed only 11 return attempts this season. As an added bonus, he has a 118.8 passer rating thanks to a successful fourth-quarter fake punt that led to a game-tying field goal against Washington in Week 2.

Return Specialist: Jamal Agnew, Lions
The fifth-round rookie is the only player in football with two return TDs, and has become feared to the point that the Lions have incorporated him as a gadget player on offense. (He also has not contributed to the fumbling epidemic among return men in 2017—Agnew has fumbled only once this season and was able to fall on it himself.)

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