Thursday, November 18, 2004

Sports Central Pro Bowl Selections

By Brad Oremland

Pro Bowl voting has been open for weeks, but now every team has played more than half of its games, which means it's reasonable to vote for each conference's representatives. Here's a look at my ballot, with AFC players listed first.

Quarterback

Peyton Manning (IND), Ben Roethlisberger (PIT), Tom Brady (NE); Donovan McNabb (PHI), Daunte Culpepper (MIN), Brett Favre (GB)

McNabb and Culpepper are having terrific seasons, but this position is clearly an advantage for the AFC. Drew Brees (SD) would easily edge Favre for the third spot if he played in the NFC. Close calls were Brees in the AFC and Michael Vick (ATL) and Brian Griese (TB) in the NFC.

Running Back

Priest Holmes (KC), Edgerrin James (IND), Curtis Martin (NYJ); Tiki Barber (NYG), Shaun Alexander (SEA), Ahman Green (GB)

Again, the AFC is full of good candidates. Corey Dillon (NE) and LaDainian Tomlinson (SD) were especially tough to leave off. Barber and Alexander are having the best seasons of their already impressive careers.

Wide Receiver

Marvin Harrison (IND), Andre Johnson (HOU), Hines Ward (PIT), Rod Smith (DEN); Terrell Owens (PHI), Javon Walker (GB), Michael Clayton (TB), Randy Moss (MIN)

A lot of readers probably won't like my selections here, especially Moss. Assuming he plays another five or six games, though, he'll earn this spot. The closest contenders were Isaac Bruce (STL) and Torry Holt (STL), but I couldn't choose between them. In the AFC, I checked four names before I got to Ward. I didn't want to leave him off, so I unchecked Rod Smith. Then I changed my mind, put him back on, and left off Jimmy Smith (JAC). Really, any of those guys are good choices, and in the NFC, all that matters is that Owens and Walker are on your ballot.

Fullback

Tony Richardson (KC); Mack Strong (SEA)

There's no question on Richardson. None. Strong is a good player, but he gets my vote mostly by default.

Tight End

Randy McMichael (MIA), Tony Gonzalez (KC); Jason Witten (DAL), Alge Crumpler (ATL)

In both conferences, three tight ends are way, way ahead of the pack. In the AFC, the third guy is Antonio Gates (SD). In the NFC, the man is Eric Johnson (SF). Typing that, I realize Gates is the third Charger I've left off in a close call, but I swear I have nothing against San Diego. It's just an unfortunate coincidence. Gates will probably make the Pro Bowl, though, which means McMichael is likely to stay at home in February. In the NFC, Witten could have problems because he's come on lately, and most of the votes have already been cast. Crumpler is the safest bet.

Kicker

Adam Vinatieri (NE); David Akers (PHI)

Akers is a no-brainer, but I struggled with the AFC choice. Vinatieri is ahead by leaps and bounds in the points race, 20 ahead of the closest competition, and we all know he's clutch. But Phil Dawson (CLE) is having a great year, and if he played for New England, he'd probably have 93 points, too.

Punter

Shane Lechler (OAK); Mitch Berger (NO)

I've always liked Lechler, and each of the last two seasons; he's been my No. 2 guy in the AFC. Which means squat, since you only vote for one punter. This season, I'm leaving off Mike Scifres (SD). He's got a great net average and was terrific in the only game I saw him play. I'm sorry, San Diego.

That's the end of the "Express Ballot", and the best of the rest begins with offensive line. I'm much better at judging play on the line than I used to be, but having watched a limited number of games, I'm reduced to some guesswork at these positions. Other guys get highlights and statistics to help you choose, but not the offensive linemen. That disclaimer aside, here are my picks:

Offensive Guard

Alan Faneca (PIT), Will Shields (KC), Brian Waters (KC); Steve Hutchinson (SEA), Marco Rivera (GB), Chris Liwienski (MIN)

Faneca and Hutchinson were the only sure things at this position. Other guys I considered were, in the AFC, Joe Andruzzi (NE), Rick DeMulling (IND), and Dan Neil (DEN). I'm not totally confident with the Liwienski selection. In the past I've voted for his teammate, David Dixon, who this year is finally getting some credit. But when I've seen the Vikings, Dixon hasn't impressed me. Mike Wahle (GB) was probably the closest to getting Liwienski's spot.

Offensive Tackle

Willie Roaf (KC), Tarik Glenn (IND), Ryan Diem (IND); Walter Jones (SEA), Jon Runyan (PHI), Tra Thomas (PHI)

Glenn and Diem have been a big part of Peyton Manning's success this season. He's only been sacked six times, and that's partially a credit to Manning for knowing when to get rid of the ball, but it also means that his linemen are doing a great job. I've only seen Jones once this season, but he was terrific last year and I can't imagine he's dropped off so steeply that he doesn't belong in the Pro Bowl. Jonathan Ogden (BAL), when he's healthy, is the best, but he's missed too many games for me to mark him on the ballot.

Center

Kevin Mawae (NYJ), Jeff Hartings (PIT); Hank Fraley (PHI), Andy McCollum (STL)

This is another position at which the AFC has a clear advantage. Dan Koppen (NE), Tom Nalen (DEN), Jeff Saturday (IND), and Casey Wiegmann (KC) are all having good seasons. Matt Birk (MIN) will probably start for the NFC, but he hasn't impressed me.

Cornerback

Chris McAlister (BAL), Pat Surtain (MIA), Anthony Henry (CLE); Ronde Barber (TB), Fred Smoot (WAS), Lito Sheppard (PHI)

One of the reasons Baltimore's defense is so successful is that McAlister is extremely reliable in one-on-one coverage. That frees up safety Ed Reed to stuff the run, blitz, and help out on the other side of the field. Barber, after a down year, is back in top form.

Strong Safety

Ed Reed (BAL); Mike Green (CHI)

Rodney Harrison (NE) was my Defensive Player of the Year last season, and he's having another fantastic campaign this time around. I hate not being able to vote for him. I would take Harrison, Troy Polamalu (PIT), and Donovin Darius (JAC) over Green, who narrowly edged rookie Gibril Wilson (NYG).

Free Safety

Eugene Wilson (NE); Brian Dawkins (PHI)

I feel dirty voting for Wilson, but not his teammate Harrison.

Defensive End

John Abraham (NYJ), Justin Smith (CIN), Aaron Schobel (BUF); Patrick Kerney (ATL), Bertrand Berry (ARI), Alex Brown (CHI)

I just like voting for Chicago players named after colors. Abraham and Kerney were easy selections, and Berry has been a standout for Arizona, which is 4-5 on the strength of a surprisingly effective defense. Smith's pressure is a big part of why Cincinnati CBs Tory James and Deltha O'Neal keep coming up with interceptions.

Inside Linebacker

Al Wilson (DEN), James Farrior (PIT); Antonio Pierce (WAS), Nick Barnett (GB)

Last year, I voted for Ray Lewis (BAL) and Zach Thomas (MIA). This year, neither one has been up to snuff. Pierce has been gold in his first season as a defensive starter, and Barnett has quickly established himself on Green Bay's defense. I wouldn't be surprised if none of the guys I voted for actually makes it to Hawaii.

Outside Linebacker

Keith Bulluck (TEN), Willie McGinest (NE); Keith Brooking (ATL), Derrick Brooks (TB)

McGinest, Joey Porter (PIT), and Terrell Suggs (BAL) usually play out of the 3-4, and their statistics resemble those of defensive ends. All three are worthy candidates, but for balance there should probably be a 4-3 guy in there, too. I also considered Eric Barton (NYJ), Brian Simmons (CIN), and Takeo Spikes (BUF). Brooking, a perennial at inside linebacker, figures to make it this year on the outside.

Defensive Tackle

Kelly Gregg (BAL), Richard Seymour (NE), Monsanto Pope (DEN); Rod Coleman (ATL), Cornelius Griffin (WAS), Darwin Walker (PHI)

Coleman, when healthy, has been untouchable. Gregg is the most underrated player on the Baltimore defense. Playing both inside and outside, Seymour is having another terrific season. By the way, in case anyone is wondering, I do feel bad about having only one player from the league's top-ranked defense (Pittsburgh) on my ballot. I really wanted Porter and Polamalu on there, but it's tough to fit all the great players in the AFC.

Kick Returner

Dante Hall (KC); Eddie Drummond (DET)

Hall's average on kickoffs is nothing special, but he's the top punt returner in the AFC, and his explosiveness is unparalleled. Jerry Azumah (CHI) would be a very reasonable choice in the NFC most years, but in 2004 Drummond's three TDs can't be overlooked.

Special Teamer

I never feel like I have enough information to make an educated choice at this position, so I left it blank on my ballot. I do, however, like Larry Izzo (NE) and Adalius Thomas (BAL) in the AFC; their NFC counterparts are Alex Bannister (SEA), who has missed a couple of games this year, and James Thrash (WAS), who isn't even on the ballot.

Midseason Awards

Offensive Player of the Year: Peyton Manning

Defensive Player of the Year: Ed Reed

MVP: Peyton Manning

Coach of the Year: Bill Cowher (PIT)

Assistant: Tom Moore (IND)

Rookie of the Year: Ben Roethlisberger

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