Love it or loathe it, the Pro Bowl has become the primary way to recognise individual excellence among NFL players. It can be hard to keep track of every player at every position to know who deserves to go. So you get the same old players going every year, even after they’ve declined. But fear not! Now Pro Bowl voting has opened, I’m going to take you through some deserving first-time Pro Bowlers at each position, so you can nominate some deserving newbies and keep the whole thing fresh!
Quarterback: Carson Wentz, PHI and Jared Goff, LAR
I’m not overly worried about either of these two excellent second-year players making their first Pro Bowl, but they’re still deserving. Wentz has played well enough that he’s in the MVP conversation. He has 2,430 yards and a 25:5 TD:INT ratio, and plenty of the 9 wins Philly has have been on Wentz. He’s demonstrated a wide range of throws, mobility, defense-reading nous…you name it. He’s also been in a favourable system, as has Goff, the spearhead of the Rams’ #2 scoring offense. He’s out-thrown Wentz for yards (2,610) but has fewer TDs (16). Goff has shown playmaking ability, can read the field, avoid risky throws, and has displayed the knack and nous for a wide range of throws. Both these 2016 picks look like keepers; both should make their first Pro Bowl.
Running Back: Kareem Hunt, KC and Alvin Kamara, NO
It should surprise no-one that first-timers at the running back position are likely rookies. And less so that it’s these two. Hunt started off strongly and has slowed down, but frankly I’d give him a Pro Bowl nod for that first game against New England. Through ten games he has 1,208 scrimmage yards and 6 touchdowns, coming in to the starting job late in the preseason. Getting him some 100 yard rushing games will be vital for Kansas City to get a good playoff seed. Kamara has excelled even without the starting job in New Orleans’ two-headed monster rushing attack. Not only does he have 916 scrimmage yards and 7 TDs, he’s running at over 6 yards/pop, making clutch plays (that game-tying TD and 2-point conversion against Washington) and giving the Saints offense the unpredictability that’s driven it to 8 straight wins.
Wide Receiver: Adam Thielen, MIN and Brandin Cooks, NO
Forget Pro Bowl, Adam Thielen is a legitimate shout for All-Pro. He’s a fantastic route-runner, great after the catch, good hands, speed etc. He and Stefon Diggs are close to if not the best WR duo in the league. Thielen is second in yards in the league but his importance to that Minnesota offense is huge. Cooks is still mostly the same screens-and-bombs receiver he was in New Orleans, but he’s, inevitably, more efficient in a Tom Brady offense otherwise starved of receivers. And I say mostly because you’re also starting to see him be useful more on intermediate passes. Whether you’d call him a true WR1 doesn’t matter when he’s fourth in the league for yards on the league-leading scoring offense.
Tight End: Zach Ertz, PHI
I live in hope someone develops a sweet “Mega-Ertz” nickname for this guy. Anyway, I was surprised Ertz hasn’t made a Pro Bowl, but he’s broken out in 2017, taking slack up as Brent Celek becomes even more primarily a blocking tight end. Ertz is a dynamic threat up the same, a sneaky big play threat, and a comfort blanket for Carson Wentz. That’s pretty much what you want of a tight end. The blocking’s fine, but we’re kind of past a Pro Bowl tight end needing to be an elite blocker. He has 536 yards and 6 touchdowns despite missing Philly’s week 9 blowout of Denver, and is every inch a Pro Bowler.
Offensive Tackles: Mitchell Schwartz, KC and Charles Leno Jr, CHI
It’s a bit of a meagre field for left tackles this year. Terron Armstead’s the best active left tackle to have not made a Pro Bowl, but he’s missed time with injury and been good-not-great when he has been fit. Leno is the best of the rest. He’s improving year on year, and has had some very good games (both Green Bay games and the Pittsburgh win). I like his pass-blocking more than his run-blocking, and he’s become reliable protecting his rookie quarterback. Given the slim pickings, why not nominate an elite right tackle? Schwartz is a fantastic run blocker (you didn’t think Kareem Hunt started like that on his own) and an excellent pass blocker at a position that doesn’t normally get Pro Bowl recognition, but should.
Offensive Guards: Brandon Brooks, PHI and Joel Bitonio, CLE
I think we can all agree, picking your Pro Bowl big uglies (both sides) can be the most challenging position. I guess that’s why Brandon Brooks has never made a Pro Bowl. He was PFF’s no.2 guard last year, he’s no.3 this. Notice how Philly’s rushing attack is incredible, and how Carson Wentz is developing relatively unmolested by interior pass rush? Brooks is a big part of that, on an incredible O-Line. Sadly for Bitonio, all his hard work isn’t helping DeShone Kizer develop, but his bounce-back 2017 might have him as the best left guard in the league. He’s a pass-blocking force, too often when everything is collapsing around him.
Center: David Andrews, NE
Having multiple wide receivers go down hobbled isn’t a great start, but give Tom Brady enough time to throw and a dynamic run game and he’ll still be incredible. Andrews’ breakout season has seen him, at one point, go three consecutive games without a single pass-rush pressure allowed (weeks 7 through 9). His run blocking is coming along, as the Patriots start to use Lewis and Burkhead between the tackles more, with predictable consequences.
Defensive Interior: DeForest Buckner, SF and Cameron Heyward, PIT
I’m under-interested what position designation the Pro Bowl uses; this is a good one. Buckner has been an elite lineman on a poor team. He’s a fantastic pocket-crusher and devastating run blocker. While the sack numbers are down this year, it’s one of those odd occasions where he’s getting more pressure on quarterbacks. He’s also defending more passes, forcing fumbles. He’s a force. Heyward has been in the league longer, and is finally starting to rack up sack numbers from the 3-4 end position – 7 in 10 games is his quickest career rate, and couple that with his fantastic work stopping the run and he’s overdue a Pro Bowl nod.
Edge Rushers: Demarcus Lawrence, DAL and Brandon Graham, PHI
Lawrence has always seemed a bit flaky – like the one potentially great edge rusher at Dallas brought low by inconsistency. Well the co-leader in sacks (with Calais Campbell, natch) is averaging 1.15 per game, has forced three fumbled (two recoveries, too), and is basically the Dallas defense at this point. Playing for a well-supported team and excelling in a countable stat, I doubt he’ll be overlooked. I thought about Yannick Ngakoue for the second slot, but Graham is so perennially underrated. Cris Collinsworth noted he’s never seen a player get so many pressures on a quarterback without hitting a big sack season ever. If Fletcher Cox or Vinny Curry are racking up the sacks, have a look at how often it’s pressure from Graham pushing quarterbacks into the arms of his compatriots.
Linebackers: Telvin Smith, JAX and Reuben Foster, SF
Two years ago, Smith made some flashy plays but had loads of underrated holes in his game. Last year he eliminated those holes. This year he’s even better. A sideline-to-sideline monster, Smith leads the league in tackles since 2015 (254!), and this season has a couple of interceptions (including a pick-six), a forced fumble, even a sack despite seldom rushing the passer. He can, and does, do everything. Reuben Foster’s becoming that player. Still a bit of a wide collection of flailing limbs to an extent, he’s instinctive enough a football player that he always seems to be in the right place. He excels in coverage and against the run already, and is great fun to watch hurling himself in for tackles.
Cornerbacks: Marshon Lattimore, NO and Jalen Ramsey/A.J. Bouye, JAX
Lattimore is the poster child of the revitalised Saints’ secondary, and quarterbacks have a lower passer rating throwing into his coverage than they would throwing the ball away. He’s a rookie sensation and a frontrunner for Defensive Rookie of the Year. I didn’t want to pick one of the two Jacksonville cornerbacks and not the other, but couldn’t justify only picking Jags. Bouye is a rare free-agent superstar, generally not racking up the interceptions because what kind of mad quarterback would you have to be to throw into his coverage? Ramsey has cut out the mistakes pretty much entirely, and as AJ Green will evidence, now has that most cornerback-y knack of getting in opponents heads, too. Quite a year for would-be first-time Pro Bowl corners though – the excellent Jimmy Smith in Baltimore would also be a good shout.
Safeties: Kevin Byard, TEN and Adrian Amos, CHI
I’m exceptionally pleased with myself for choosing a free and strong safety here. Byard leads the league in interceptions, and it’s not through luck. He has that modern-NFL-safety center-fielder skill, with the speed and agility to cover from anywhere on the field, the instincts to jump the right route. He’s the best in coverage on a decent Tennessee secondary, and has the tackling skills to do it all, too. Amos has been underrated for a couple of years, but has been fantastic this year. He’s a gifted tackler – one who relies on technical ability, angles and using his arms well rather than being a more violent hitter. He’s also developed fantastically in coverage this year, giving Chicago the beef and versatility their secondary has needed, and helping them defend those shifty running backs and short/intermediate routes much more ably.
Kicker: Harrison Butker, KC
Butker has made 22-of-23 field goals, and his form enabled KC to cut Cairo Santos loose when he got injured. Those 22 include 2-of-2 from beyond 50 yards, and though his long of 53 is by no means elite, it’s his reliability that’s helped Kansas City kick on and win games early.
Punter: Michael Palardy, CAR
A few big names have punting tied up, it’s hard to nominate a first-timer. But Palardy has consistently punted safely and effectively for Carolina. Hitting a reasonable average distance of 47.2 yards, it’s the 13-of-40 fair caught and just 13-of-40 returned (for an average of under 6 yards) that make him stand out. The 4 touchbacks are maybe a bit higher than you’d like, but he’s consistently got good field position and avoided the threat of big returns.
Kick Returner: Pharoh Cooper, LAR
The kick returner is a dying breed in NFL, with touchbacks going to 25 yards making it more often than not a fool’s errand. Cooper, though, averages 30.2 yards per return, with 2 over 40 including one taken 102 yards to the house against Jacksonville.
Punt Returner: Jamal Agnew, DET
He needs to cut out the fumbles, but Agnew has been an excellent punt returner, collecting two of the six punt return touchdowns in the league this year (against the Giants and Saints). His average of 16.8 yards/return leads the league among players with more than 10 returns. And for a bonus, when not returning punts he’s full of promise in the coverage unit on special teams anyway.