Being named a first-team All-Pro is the highest honor in the NFL outside of winning the MVP Award. It means you’re the absolute best at your respective position, and it's far more rewarding than making the Pro Bowl. So, as 2016 the season approaches, who will be the best of the best when it's all over?
Quarterback: Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers
Rodgers will have a full bevy of weapons at his disposal this season, something he didn’t have a year ago. The result will be a 4,500-yard season with 40 touchdown passes and fewer than 10 interceptions. Tom Brady’s suspension essentially puts him out of the running as a first-team All-Pro, otherwise he’d be the next-best candidate. Rodgers will have a career year in 2016, and that's saying something for a two-time league MVP.
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Running back: Todd Gurley, Los Angeles Rams
Gurley is going to use 2016 to announce himself as the league’s best running back, moving ahead of Adrian Peterson in that regard. He has all the tools – speed, power, hands, pass-blocking – to become the NFL’s premier back, and he’ll use them in Los Angeles’ run-heavy offense. In his first full season, look for Gurley to push for 1,600 yards and 15 total touchdowns.
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Running back: Adrian Peterson, Minnesota Vikings
Speaking of Peterson, he gets the second running back spot on the first-team roster. He’s showed very little signs of slowing down in recent years despite his age and injury history, which is what makes him so special for the Vikings. Now that Teddy Bridgewater is out for 2016, Minnesota is going to rely heavily on Peterson – more so than in previous years. He’ll hold off Doug Martin, Ezekiel Elliott and Devonta Freeman for this spot.
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Fullback: Patrick DiMarco, Atlanta Falcons
DiMarco plays a position that’s widely phased out across the NFL, but that doesn’t mean he can't be an All-Pro. Though he’s mostly used as a lead blocker for Davonta Freeman and company, he’s also shown that he can catch passes out of the backfield. DiMarco may not put up the numbers Mike Tolbert produces for Carolina, but he’s arguably the NFL's best fullback.
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Wide receiver: Antonio Brown, Pittsburgh Steelers
Is there any question as to whether Brown will be an All-Pro this season? He’s as big of a lock as Rob Gronkowski is at tight end. Brown is just that much better than every other receiver. Mark him down for 1,700 yards and 125 catches right now.
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Wide receiver: Odell Beckham Jr., New York Giants
Odell Beckham Jr., not Julio Jones, gets the nod here. With Eli Manning being the superior quarterback to Matt Ryan and the Giants adding rookie Sterling Shepard, everything is lined up for Beckham to have a better year statistically than Jones. It will be close, sure, but Beckham’s touchdown totals are going to be sky high this season.
Tight end: Rob Gronkowski, New England Patriots
There isn’t a tight end in the NFL right now who can challenge Gronkowski as the best at his position. In fact, there may not be a tight end in the history of the game who would supplant Gronk as a first-team All-Pro. Even without Tom Brady for all 16 games, Gronkowski is going to put up astronomical numbers, as he typically does. A healthy Jimmy Graham in Seattle may be the only one to rival Gronkowski, but even that’s a long shot.
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Offensive tackle: Joe Thomas, Cleveland Browns
Thomas hasn’t shown a single reason to doubt him as the league’s premier left tackle. He has yet to miss a single game in his nine-year career, and although the Browns’ quarterback situation is a bit shaky with Robert Griffin III, it’s never been great. He’s the Browns’ best player by a wide margin.
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Offensive tackle: Tyron Smith, Dallas Cowboys
Smith is right there with Thomas as the two best left tackle in the game. Of course, Smith is much younger and more athletic, and he still has room to grow – and that’s scary to think about. He’s the anchor to the NFL’s top offensive line.
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Offensive guard: Zack Martin, Dallas Cowboys
Smith’s teammate, Martin, is pretty great in his own right. Although he’s entering just his third year in the NFL, he’s already the best guard – both in the run game and passing game.
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Offensive guard: Marshal Yanda, Baltimore Ravens
Yanda continues to epitomize what an elite guard is. He anchors the Ravens’ offensive line, which often struggles. Yanda hasn’t missed a game since 2012 and is the model of consistency.
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Center: Mitch Morse, Kansas City Chiefs
Morse is going into his second NFL season after starting 15 games as a rookie in 2015. He’s bulked up this offseason and is poised for a breakout year in Kansas City. Dallas' Travis Frederick will be difficult to unseat at this spot, but Morse has the ability to do it.
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Defensive end: Ezekiel Ansah, Detroit Lions
With J.J. Watt still recovering from surgery, he’s far from a lock to be an All-Pro in 2016. Instead, Ezekiel Ansah will turn in a sack-filled season after breaking out in 2015. The sky is the limit for Ansah, who proved to be a dominant pass rusher last season. He and Khalil Mack are set to become the league’s premier rushmen.
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Defensive end: Khalil Mack, Oakland Raiders
Earlier in the offseason, Raiders QB Derek Carr predicted that Mack would have 30 sacks in 2016. That number is completely ludicrous and will never be reached by anyone, but Mack could very well lead the NFL in sacks this season. Last year he had 15 in his first stint as a full-time pass rusher, so there’s no telling what he’ll do in his second season as such.
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Defensive tackle: Aaron Donald, Los Angeles Rams
Donald is one of the real front-runners to win Defensive Player of the Year in 2016. He’s undoubtedly the top defensive tackle in the league, and there isn’t a better pass rusher at the position than Donald, who’s had 20 sacks in the past two seasons.
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Defensive tackle: Fletcher Cox, Philadelphia Eagles
The Eagles signed Fletcher Cox to a massive $102.6 million contract this offseason, and he’ll show why this year. In Jim Schwartz’s Wide 9 scheme, Cox will become a true 4-3 defensive tackle and thrive at that spot. He’s not Aaron Donald, but he’ll have a huge impact for the Eagles. Carolina's Kawann Short is also a contender to be a first-team All-Pro.
Getty ImagesRich Schultz
Linebacker: Luke Kuechly, Carolina Panthers
Health is the only thing that could stop Kuechly from being named an All-Pro. He missed three games last season but was still a first-teamer, which shows just how valuable he is to the Panthers. He’ll have at least 150 tackles if he plays all 16 games and should add a few interceptions and forced fumbles, too.
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Linebacker: Sean Lee, Dallas Cowboys
This is the season Lee breaks through and has an outstanding year. No one doubts his talent, but injuries have always plagued him. Hopefully he can put his ability on full display for 16 games and cement his place among the league's best linebackers. His move to the weak side paid dividends last season and will do the same in 2016.
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Linebacker: Von Miller, Denver Broncos
Guys like Miller are part of the reason there are four linebacker spots on the All-Pro team. He’s a pass rusher, but he does so from the outside linebacker spot and isn’t a traditional cover linebacker. He’ll turn in another great season this year to the tune of 18 sacks and a handful of forced fumbles, which is typical for him at this point in his career.
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Linebacker: Ryan Shazier, Pittsburgh Steelers
Injuries have limited Shazier’s production thus far, but he’s showed endless flashes of his potential in his first two seasons. Arguably the fastest linebacker in the game today, Shazier is a stud against the run and has the speed to run sideline to sideline making stops against the pass. If he can find a way to stay on the field, he should be in for a huge 2016 season on a Steelers defense that lacks playmakers.
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Cornerback: Patrick Peterson, Arizona Cardinals
Peterson, not Richard Sherman or Josh Norman, is the best cornerback in the league. He thrives in man coverage but can drop back in zone, too. When it comes to shutdown cornerbacks – which Darrelle Revis was once the epitome of – Peterson is top of the line. Without him, the Cardinals defense would look radically different and would have trouble limiting opposing offenses.
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Cornerback: Chris Harris Jr., Denver Broncos
Harris doesn’t always get the credit he deserves. Whether that’s because he plays alongside Aqib Talib or because he manned the slot for most of his career, he needs more recognition. He’ll get that this season as a first-team All-Pro. Outside of Von Miller, Harris is Denver’s best defensive player.
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY SportsMark J. Rebilas
Safety: Earl Thomas, Seattle Seahawks
Still the top pure free safety in the game,Thomas will be a first-team All-Pro for the fourth time in his career in 2016. He’s a game-changer on the back end and allows Seattle’s cornerbacks to play as aggressively as they do. Not to mention, he’s never missed a game in his career despite playing through several injuries.
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Safety: Tyrann Mathieu, Arizona Cardinals
Arians has given Tyrann Mathieu the go-ahead to play in Week 1, saying he’s “ready to roll.” That’s a great sign for the newly rich safety, who seems set to return from a torn ACL and put in an outstanding season. He can do it all, from covering receivers in the slot to playing over the top as a free safety. Mathieu is truly one of the most versatile defenders in the league.
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Kicker: Dan Bailey, Dallas Cowboys
Bailey is the league’s most accurate kicker, and the numbers are there to back it up. Even without Romo, the Cowboys’ offense will be explosive and put up points in bunches. Bailey will get ample opportunities to drill field goals and extra points, which have become increasingly important.
Getty ImagesWesley Hitt
Punter: Johnny Hekker, Los Angeles Rams
Hekker led the NFL in average punt distance last season at 47.9 yards. He also had the best net distance in the league, and with the Rams’ offense expected to be terrible this season, he’s going to be kicking a lot of footballs. He’ll edge out Pat McAfee in Indianapolis.
Lockett is one of the few truly dynamic return men in the NFL, much like Devin Hester was. Lockett obviously contributes more on offense than Hester did, but he impacts the game on punt and kick returns. Look for Lockett to take at least one of each to the end zone this season.