We have rolled out “ultimate all-conference” teams all week. Now it’s time to crown a winner.
Our panel of NFL analysts and college and NFL Nation reporters selected 22-man starting lineups of current NFL players from every major conference and a non-Power 5 team (Notre Dame was paired with the ACC because of its affiliation in other sports). The goal: choose a roster that is best suited to win the Super Bowl in 2020.
Each of our nine panelists (Andrea Adelson, Matt Bowen, Courtney Cronin, Turron Davenport, Jeff Legwold, Adam Rittenberg, Mike Triplett, Jake Trotter and Field Yates) voted to rank them No. 1 through No. 6.
The result? A big win for the Big Ten.
If we were ranking full 53-man rosters, the SEC likely would have taken the crown. But when it comes to starting lineups, the Big Ten earned four first-place votes on the strength of its quarterback and edge rusher positions. The perceived drop-off from Russell Wilson to Dak Prescott made a difference at the most important position on the field.
The ACC, led by reigning MVP Lamar Jackson, also put up a strong fight with three first-place votes — thanks in large part to the addition of those Irish offensive linemen. The SEC earned just two first-place votes but finished second overall based on total points.
Without further ado, here are the rankings with the panelists’ reactions. Let the second guessing begin.
No. 1: BIG TEN
QB Russell Wilson, Wisconsin (Seattle Seahawks)
RB Ezekiel Elliott, Ohio State (Dallas Cowboys)
WR Michael Thomas, Ohio State (New Oreleans Saints)
WR Chris Godwin, Penn State (Tampa Bay Buccaneers)
TE George Kittle, Iowa (San Francisco 49ers)
Flex Saquon Barkley, Penn State (New York Giants)
OT Ryan Ramczyk, Wisconsin (Saints)
G Rodger Saffold, Indiana (Tennessee Titans)
C Pat Elflein, Ohio State (Minnesota Vikings)
G Brandon Scherff, Iowa (Washington Redskins)
OT Taylor Lewan, Michigan (Titans)
Edge Joey Bosa, Ohio State (Los Angeles Chargers)
DT Cameron Heyward, Ohio State (Pittsburgh Steelers)
DT Kawann Short, Purdue (Carolina Panthers)
Edge Nick Bosa, Ohio State (49ers)
LB Lavonte David, Nebraska (Bucs)
LB Devin Bush, Michigan (Steelers)
Flex J.J. Watt, Wisconsin (Houston Texans)
CB Marshon Lattimore, Ohio State (Saints)
CB Denzel Ward, Ohio State (Cleveland Browns)
S Devin McCourty, Rutgers (New England Patriots)
S Micah Hyde, Iowa (Buffalo Bills)
Trotter’s reaction: “Just how good is Team Big Ten? Neither Tom Brady nor Drew Brees even made the cut. In addition to starring Wilson at quarterback, the Big Ten got my vote for two primary reasons: the absolutely elite contingent at the offensive skill positions (Elliott, Barkley, Thomas, Godwin and Kittle!) and a Bosa-heavy pass rush that matches up with any other conference.”
Yates’ reaction: “Honestly, I looked at it like this. You can’t say, ‘Here are the strengths of the roster.’ Because they all have strengths, right? They’re all incredibly loaded. So it’s as simple as, ‘Alright, where is a weakness?’ Now, in some conferences it would be hard for me to point to a real major weakness. But if I were to nitpick, you had more players that are ascending and in the prime of their career in the Big Ten, like Michael Thomas and Chris Godwin, as opposed to someone like Larry Fitzgerald who’s probably year to year at this point.”
Field Yates, Adam Rittenberg and Courtney Cronin break down the near-impossible decision of choosing between Russell Wilson, Tom Brady and Drew Brees to start for their Big Ten team.
Toughest choice: Quarterback. How on earth are you supposed to choose between Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Russell Wilson? Our panel narrowly went with Wilson (four votes, compared to three for Brady and two for Brees) based on the criteria that we’re constructing the best roster for 2020.
Personally speaking, this was probably the choice I wrestled with longer than any other in this whole exercise. I would have gone with Wilson if we were building a team for the next two or three years. I would have gone with Brady if they were all playing at their peak right now. And I wanted to avoid making a “homer pick” with Brees because I cover the Saints. But at the same time, that helps me appreciate how well Brees is still playing. He was the MVP runner-up in 2018, then had the best passer rating of his career in 2019. He got my vote, because I still trust him most to get the best out of this stacked offense.
Biggest strength: Edge rushers. Wow, this is right up there with the SEC secondary as a contender for the most loaded position group in this entire project. It was so overcrowded that we had to split up the Watt brothers, leaving T.J. off the list. We also didn’t have room for the No. 2 pick in this year’s draft, Chase Young, among others.
“No league has produced a deeper and more varied group of elite-level pass-rushers than the Big Ten,” Rittenberg said. “Ohio State supplies the Bosa brothers and now Chase Young. Wisconsin’s J.J. Watt is approaching a decade of dominance in the league. And don’t forget Maryland’s Yannick Ngakoue, who is an excellent value.”
Missing piece: Retired O-linemen. Obviously, the offensive line has always been a calling card for the Big Ten. But just imagine how much stronger this unit would be if guard Marshal Yanda and center Travis Frederick hadn’t just hung up their cleats.
Player pitch from Marshon Lattimore: “The recent talent from Ohio State alone speaks for itself when you think of some of the skill players like [Thomas] and Ezekiel Elliott and some of the talent on defense like the Bosas and [Ward]. I have another teammate, Ryan Ramczyk from Wisconsin, who’s a dominating lineman as well as some others from these schools around the league. Then you look at how two of the top quarterbacks of all time in Drew Brees and Tom Brady have come out of the conference as well as Russell Wilson, and it shows how the Big Ten has phenomenal players in the league right now.”
No. 2: SEC
Mike Triplett, Matt Bowen and Andrea Adelson list their biggest SEC snubs on the all-conference team, including Alvin Kamara.
QB Dak Prescott, Mississippi State (Cowboys)
RB Derrick Henry, Alabama (Titans)
WR Julio Jones, Alabama (Atlanta Falcons)
WR Mike Evans, Texas A&M (Bucs)
TE Jared Cook, South Carolina (Saints)
Flex Odell Beckham Jr., LSU (Browns)
OT Laremy Tunsil, Ole Miss (Texans)
G Trai Turner, LSU (Chargers)
C Maurkice Pouncey, Florida (Steelers)
G Elgton Jenkins, Mississippi State (Green Bay Packers)
OT Andrew Whitworth, LSU (Los Angeles Rams)
Edge Von Miller, Texas A&M (Denver Broncos)
DT Fletcher Cox, Mississippi State (Philadelphia Eagles)
DT Chris Jones, Mississippi State (Kansas City Chiefs)
Edge Myles Garrett, Texas A&M (Browns)
LB C.J. Mosley, Alabama (New York Jets)
LB Roquan Smith, Georgia (Chicago Bears)
Flex Danielle Hunter, LSU (Vikings)
CB Stephon Gilmore, South Carolina (Patriots)
CB Tre’Davious White, LSU (Bills)
S Tyrann Mathieu, LSU (Chiefs)
S Jamal Adams, LSU (Jets)
Bowen’s reaction: “When I look at the impact talent on this SEC defense — at all three levels — there is no question on why they belong at the No. 1 spot. Myles Garrett, Von Miller and Fletcher Cox up front; three-down traits at the linebacker position; and a playmaking secondary with Stephon Gilmore, Tre’Davious White, Jamal Adams and Tyrann Mathieu. You aren’t moving the ball consistently on this group.”
Davenport’s reaction: “I voted the SEC as the No. 1 team because it was so deep from top to bottom. Any offense that features Dak Prescott throwing to Julio Jones and Mike Evans while also being able to hand the ball off to Derrick Henry is unstoppable. Then on the defensive side, the Chris Jones and Fletcher Cox combo can’t be blocked, while Stephon Gilmore and Tre’Davious White match up well against pretty much any wide receiver combo.”
Toughest choice: Running back and wide receiver. There was an embarrassment of riches at the skill positions, where we couldn’t find room for Alvin Kamara, Nick Chubb, Todd Gurley, Amari Cooper or A.J. Green, among others. Jones was the only unanimous choice at receiver or running back.
“Henry received the most votes at running back, and I get it. He’s a volume back with the physical traits to take over games in the fourth quarter. But what about the dual-threat ability of Kamara?” said Bowen, who was one of five panelists to vote for Kamara at either running back or the flex spot. “He’s a three-down impact player at the position. And let’s not forget about Chubb, who can hammer the ball between the tackles and rip off explosive plays. I could have voted for all three.”
Biggest strength: Defensive back. If the SEC winds up winning this competition, the defense will be the reason — especially this loaded secondary. Because of tiebreakers, The Associated Press named seven defensive backs as first-team All-Pros last season. And a whopping six of them came from the SEC. This group is so stacked that we had to leave out Minkah Fitzpatrick, Eddie Jackson, Marlon Humphrey and Patrick Peterson.
“You could have told me to pick the starters for the SEC secondary and then said, ‘Actually, those players are not available to you,’ and I’d still feel great about my group!” Yates said. “Outstanding players were bound to miss the cut.”
Missing piece: Quarterback. No offense to Prescott (or runners-up Matthew Stafford and Cam Newton). But he is going to be measured against the likes of Patrick Mahomes from the Big 12; Tom Brady, Drew Brees or Russell Wilson from the Big Ten; Lamar Jackson from the ACC; and Aaron Rodgers from the Pac-12 when we vote for the ultimate champion. And that’s the one area that could hold back the mighty SEC.
No. 3: ACC
QB Lamar Jackson, Louisville (Baltimore Ravens)
RB Dalvin Cook, Florida State (Vikings)
WR DeAndre Hopkins, Clemson (Arizona Cardinals)
WR Larry Fitzgerald, Pitt (Cardinals)
TE Kyle Rudolph, Notre Dame (Vikings)
Flex DeVante Parker, Louisville (Miami Dolphins)
OT Ronnie Stanley, Notre Dame (Ravens)
G Quenton Nelson, Notre Dame (Indianapolis Colts)
C Rodney Hudson, Florida State (Las Vegas Raiders)
G Zack Martin, Notre Dame (Cowboys)
OT Mike McGlinchey, Notre Dame (49ers)
Edge Chandler Jones, Syracuse (Cardinals)
DT Aaron Donald, Pitt (Rams)
DT Grady Jarrett, Clemson (Falcons)
Edge Bradley Chubb, NC State (Broncos)
LB Tremaine Edmunds, Virginia Tech (Bills)
LB Jaylon Smith, Notre Dame (Cowboys)
Flex Calais Campbell, Miami (Ravens)
CB Jalen Ramsey, Florida State (Rams)
CB Jaire Alexander, Louisville (Packers)
S Derwin James, Florida State (Chargers)
S Harrison Smith, Notre Dame (Vikings)
Adelson’s reaction: “I have a simple reason for voting the ACC No. 1. They have the best player in the league on offense and the best player in the league on defense. How could anyone pick against a team that has both Lamar Jackson and Aaron Donald, plus that star-studded offensive line?”
Rittenberg’s reaction: “Lamar Jackson’s best days are still ahead with improved talent around him for the 2020 season. I really like both the offensive and defensive lines for the ACC, which boasts arguably the best interior linemen on both sides (Quenton Nelson, Aaron Donald). And the ACC’s strength in the secondary nudges it ahead of the Big Ten, which has more pass-rushing punch (the Bosas, J.J. Watt) and an edge at wide receiver/tight end.”
DeAndre Hopkins joins Jalen & Jacoby to rank himself against the elite wide receivers in the NFL like Michael Thomas and Julio Jones.
Toughest choice: Quarterback. Jackson, the NFL’s reigning MVP, won comfortably with seven out of nine votes. But the ACC had plenty of notable candidates, including Deshaun Watson, Matt Ryan, Philip Rivers and Jameis Winston. “It was a very difficult choice to make, but the jump Watson made from Year 2 to Year 3 and what I think he’s capable of in his fourth season led me to vote for him,” said Cronin, who was one of two panelists to go that route. “Watson is an MVP-caliber quarterback, too. I respect all that Jackson did in 2019 and think he’s a more dynamic all-around player. But I go back to last season and see moments where Watson single-handedly won or kept the Texans in games in spite of everything else that was going wrong for Houston.”
Biggest strength: Offensive line. There are plenty of good answers for this category in a star-studded lineup led by Jackson, Donald and Hopkins. But this offensive line deserves special mention because it might be the best of any conference once you add in that ridiculous amount of talent from the Irish.
“Hey, the scheduling partnership the ACC has with Notre Dame in football has its benefits!” Adelson said. “But in all seriousness, nobody thinks much about the ACC producing talent at offensive line because the default generally goes to the Big Ten. But the conference has consistently turned out good players, including three that received votes here in Anthony Castonzo, Joe Thuney and Brian O’Neill.”
Missing piece: Luke Kuechly. The linebacker’s retirement left the ACC without one of its biggest stars. Another area where the conference will have trouble measuring up is tight end, where Rudolph beat out young riser Darren Waller and aging stars Greg Olsen and Jimmy Graham.
Player pitch from Broncos DE Bradley Chubb: “It’s crazy, I was just talking about this with somebody the other day. People look at the ACC now and maybe they say ‘they don’t have many great teams’ or whatever. But you look at it when I was in there, there was a whole bunch of players with NFL talent making impact plays. Derwin James and Jalen Ramsey and Jameis Winston and Lamar. When you look at the talent some of those teams had and look at what some of those guys are doing in the NFL right now, you have to give some respect to that. It’s right there for people to see. That team could play with anybody. You have the MVP at quarterback, two of the best pass-rushers in the league just to start in Chandler Jones and Aaron Donald. For me to even be in there somewhere is a blessing for sure.”
No. 4: Pac-12
QB Aaron Rodgers, Cal (Packers)
RB Christian McCaffrey, Stanford (Panthers)
WR Keenan Allen, Cal (Chargers)
WR JuJu Smith-Schuster, USC (Steelers)
TE Zach Ertz, Stanford (Eagles)
Flex Rob Gronkowski, Arizona (Bucs)
OT David Bakhtiari, Colorado (Packers)
G David DeCastro, Stanford (Steelers)
C Alex Mack, Cal (Falcons)
G Andrus Peat, Stanford (Saints)
OT Tyron Smith, USC (Cowboys)
Edge Cameron Jordan, Cal (Saints)
DT DeForest Buckner, Oregon (Colts)
DT Jurrell Casey, USC (Broncos)
Edge Everson Griffen, USC (free agent)
LB Eric Kendricks, UCLA (Vikings)
LB Anthony Barr, UCLA (Vikings)
Flex Arik Armstead, Oregon (49ers)
CB Richard Sherman, Stanford (49ers)
CB Marcus Peters, Washington (Ravens)
S Budda Baker, Washington (Cardinals)
S Marcus Williams, Utah (Saints)
Legwold’s reaction: “Defensively I thought the Pac-12 was stronger, front to back, than both the Big 12 and the non-Power 5. That mattered to me because I’ve watched too many 500-point teams not win the Super Bowl over the years, as well as the only 600-point team in league history, to believe offense can overcome all ills in the biggest games. That said, the Pac-12 offense with Aaron Rodgers, Christian McCaffrey, Keenan Allen, Zach Ertz and Rob Gronkowski had to get some love.”
Turron Davenport, Jeff Legwold and Jake Trotter dive into the success of Rob Gronkowski, Travis Kelce and Zach Ertz, and how they got to where they are.
Toughest choice: Offensive tackle. Bakhtiari and Smith might seem like no-brainers. But that meant we had to leave out Mitchell Schwartz, who has been either a first-team or second-team All-Pro for each of the past four years and received votes from four of our panelists.
“As I do on my All-Pro ballot each season, I voted a left and right tackle when possible when we went through the voting,” Legwold said. “So Schwartz was the easy, slam-dunk choice for me given he was my selection at right tackle on my All-Pro ballot this past season. But Schwartz was one of the top two Pac-12 tackles in my mind, either way. Von Miller has routinely said Schwartz is one of the best, if not the best, tackle he has faced in recent seasons.”
Biggest strength: Defensive line. Don’t sleep on the enormous amount of talent that has emerged from the Pac-12, which can hold its own against any other conference at quarterback, running back, tight end, offensive tackle, defensive line, linebacker and cornerback.
“There was a ton of talent to choose from when building my defensive line,” Cronin said. “I toiled over a list that included Jordan, Griffen, Armstead, Buckner, Casey (and didn’t include Terrell Suggs, Lorenzo Alexander, Vita Vea and Kenny Clark, just to name a few). The group of interior linemen alone is arguably the best of any conference.”
Louis Riddick offers Jordan Love’s career trajectory as a factor that will determine how much longer Aaron Rodgers stays with the Green Bay Packers.
Missing piece: Safety. Baker and Williams are fine choices, but Eric Weddle would have given this group even more cachet if he hadn’t just retired.
Player pitch from Cameron Jordan: “The Pac-12 starters might be the most complete team in the league. Other conferences may have some overall depth that would be great by committee. But their best O and D may not be able to hang with the starters we’re presenting. We’ve got pass-rushers who can play the run and give heat off the edge, plus playmakers who can shut down offenses, plus two of the top five corners in the league. And on offense it’s a no-brainer. Clean routes and high catch percentage.”
No. 5: Big 12
QB Patrick Mahomes, Texas Tech (Chiefs)
RB Joe Mixon, Oklahoma (Cincinnati Bengals)
WR Tyler Lockett, Kansas State (Seahawks)
WR Marquise Brown, Oklahoma (Ravens)
TE Mark Andrews, Oklahoma (Ravens)
Flex CeeDee Lamb, Oklahoma (Cowboys)
OT Lane Johnson, Oklahoma (Eagles)
G Quinton Spain, West Virginia (Bills)
C Cody Whitehair, Kansas State (Bears)
G Kelechi Osemele, Iowa State (free agent)
OT Trent Williams, Oklahoma (49ers)
Edge Jerry Hughes, TCU (Bills)
DT Gerald McCoy, Oklahoma (Cowboys)
DT Jordan Phillips,Oklahoma (Cardinals)
Edge Bruce Irvin, West Virginia (Seahawks)
LB Jordan Hicks, Texas (Cardinals)
LB Kenneth Murray, Oklahoma (Chargers)
Flex Jeff Gladney, TCU (Vikings)
CB Chris Harris Jr., Kansas (Chargers)
CB Xavien Howard, Baylor (Dolphins)
S Earl Thomas III, Texas (Ravens)
S Kenny Vaccaro, Texas (Titans)
Cronin’s reaction: “If I’m building a team to contend for a Super Bowl, the position I’m considering first and foremost is quarterback. If Mahomes is my QB, regardless of whoever I have at the skill positions, I know I’ve got more than a fair shot to compete for a championship. With that said, I think the receivers, tight ends and running backs from the Big 12 are on par with the top three conferences (I had SEC, ACC and Big Ten ahead of the Big-12). I’d put Tyler Lockett, Marquise Brown and CeeDee Lamb up against any group of wideouts.”
“Several quality backs hail from the Big 12. But Mixon’s ability to catch passes out of the backfield gives him the slight edge over Carson, Williams and Peterson,” Trotter said. “Though Peterson is still effective despite all the tread on his tires, he is now 35.”
Biggest strength: Quarterback. Mahomes is so dominant that he single-handedly lifts up a roster that would likely finish last in the voting without him.
“Mahomes is the rare quarterback who can destroy defenses with both his running and throwing ability,” Davenport said. “When all of the receivers are covered, Mahomes can break the pocket and rip off long runs or make defenses pay by escaping pressure and using his tremendous arm strength to generate chunk gains. He’s borderline unstoppable!”
Missing piece: Defensive front seven. Having the game’s best quarterback is huge, obviously. But pressuring the quarterback probably ranks as the second-most important factor when it comes to building a roster. And the Big 12 isn’t nearly as loaded up front as the other all-star teams we’ve assembled.
Player pitch from Kenny Vaccaro: “It really was the guys before me that kind of set the precedent when it was Michael Huff, and obviously Mike G [Michael Griffin] got drafted to the Titans,” Vaccaro said of Texas’ long tradition of producing NFL DBs. “Number of good players, Cedric Griffin, Aaron Williams, guys I played with. Earl Thomas, who is all-decade in the NFL. Quandre Diggs has done a really good job. There’s been a lot of talent come through. We’ve just got to keep pumping them out. I’m not pleased with these last couple of years.”
No. 6: non-Power 5
QB Carson Wentz, North Dakota State (Eagles)
RB Aaron Jones, UTEP (Packers)
WR Davante Adams, Fresno State (Packers)
WR Tyreek Hill, West Alabama (Chiefs)
TE Travis Kelce, Cincinnati (Chiefs)
Flex Kenny Golladay, Northern Illinois (Detriot Lions)
OT Terron Armstead, Arkansas-Pine Bluff (Saints)
G Brandon Brooks, Miami (OH) (Eagles)
C Jason Kelce, Cincinnati (Eagles)
G Joel Bitonio, Nevada (Browns)
OT Eric Fisher, Central Michigan (Chiefs)
Edge Khalil Mack, Buffalo (Bears)
DT Akiem Hicks, Regina (Bears)
DT Ed Oliver, Houston (Bills)
Edge DeMarcus Lawrence, Boise State (Cowboys)
LB Bobby Wagner, Utah State (Seahawks)
LB Darius Leonard, South Carolina State (Colts)
Flex Shaquil Barrett, Colorado State (Bucs)
CB Byron Jones, UConn (Dolphins)
CB A.J. Bouye, Central Florida (Broncos)
S Kevin Byard, Middle Tennessee (Titans)
S Jimmie Ward, Northern Illinois (49ers)
Reaction: I thought this group might finish a lot higher when we first started putting these rosters together. And I voted them fifth ahead of the Big 12 because they’re so much deeper and can match up with any other conference at edge rusher, linebacker, receiver, tight end and offensive line. Alas, they couldn’t overcome the Mahomes factor.
Toughest choice: Wide receiver. Adams and Hill were easy selections. But Golladay was one of six receivers who earned votes for that flex spot, beating out Julian Edelman, T.Y. Hilton, Cooper Kupp, Courtland Sutton and Adam Thielen.
“There is only one reason why I can rest easy with my decision to leave the guys off that I did: These players have been overlooked before and will use it as fuel to be even greater going forward!” Yates said. “Ultimately, the toughest call is whether to include a player like Edelman or Thielen to dominate the slot (which would have been the direction I personally went). But adding Golladay with Hill will make for a perpetual presence to stretch defenses down the field.”
Biggest strength: Linebacker/edge rusher. These two groups were so loaded that we had to leave out first-team All-Pro linebacker Demario Davis, Leighton Vander Esch, Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins and Matthew Judon, among others.
“Davis was the best stack ‘backer in the NFL last season,” said Bowen, who voted for the LB trio of Wagner, Leonard and Davis. “The play speed jumps on film, so does his three-down skill set at the position. And the production tells a story, too. If I’m building a defense, give me Davis in the middle.”
Missing piece: Quarterback. There is no shortage of quarterback talent coming out of non-Power 5 schools. But the timing is unfortunate because Ben Roethlisberger is coming back from a major injury and Wentz and Jimmy Garoppolo are coming off of non-Pro Bowl seasons. That trio would’ve looked even better two years ago, when Wentz was a leading MVP contender and they combined for a record of 28-5 as starters.
Player pitch from Kevin Byard: “It’s almost like being a small-market team in the NFL. There are a ton of talented players that get overlooked sometimes because of it. But I think it also puts a bigger chip on our shoulders because you always feel like you have something to prove, not only to yourself but to everyone who ever slept on you (which usually dates back to high school recruiting as well).”