Wednesday, November 23, 2005
Sports Central Pro Bowl Selections
Pro Bowl voting has been open for over a month, but now every team has played more than half of its games, which means it's finally reasonable to vote for each conference's representatives. Here's a look at my ballot, with AFC players listed first. I didn't vote for anyone on injured reserve.
Peyton Manning (IND), Tom Brady (NE), Carson Palmer (CIN); Matt Hasselbeck (SEA), Drew Bledsoe (DAL), Mark Brunell (WAS)
I say this every year, but the AFC has a huge edge at this position. I'd take Drew Brees (SD), Jake Plummer (DEN), and Ben Roethlisberger (PIT) ahead of anyone from the NFC. There are a lot of borderline candidates in the NFC, and I don't feel bad about leaving any of them out. I'm just sorry I had to vote for any.
LaDainian Tomlinson (SD), Edgerrin James (IND), Reuben Droughns (CLE); Shaun Alexander (SEA), Tiki Barber (NYG), Warrick Dunn (ATL)
The top two in each conference were easy, but the third player was a tough call. In the AFC, Droughns barely edged Lamont Jordan (OAK) and Willis McGahee (BUF). I like all-around backs who can catch and block, and I really wanted to find a way to vote for Brian Westbrook (PHI).
Chad Johnson (CIN), Hines Ward (PIT), Rod Smith (DEN), Marvin Harrison (IND); Steve Smith (CAR), Brandon Lloyd (SF), Santana Moss (WAS), Torry Holt (STL)
It was painful narrowing these lists to four each. I checked names, unchecked names, changed my mind at the last minute more than once. Johnson, Ward, and Steve Smith were locks. The last two spots in the AFC were between Rod Smith, Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne (IND), and Deion Branch (NE), whom I really wanted to find a spot for. In the end, though, I felt that Smith had to make it, and I couldn't leave Indianapolis off the ballot at this position. In the NFC, I dissed Arizona and Dallas, and I'm still upset there wasn't a fifth spot for Plaxico Burress (NYG), who is having a breakout season as his team's featured receiver.
Lorenzo Neal (SD); Mack Strong (SEA)
In the four years I've made Pro Bowl picks for Sports Central, this is the first time I haven't voted for Tony Richardson (KC). One day he and Neal will retire and I'll finally vote for Dan Kreider (PIT).
Antonio Gates (SD), Tony Gonzalez (KC); Alge Crumpler (ATL), Jeremy Shockey (NYG)
Gates is having the same impact for San Diego that Kellen Winslow had 25 years ago. I loathe Shockey, and really wanted to take L.J. Smith (PHI) instead, on character and route-running, but Shockey's just too explosive downfield, and he fights for yards in a way that's reminiscent of Mark Bavaro.
Nate Kaeding (SD); Neil Rackers (ARI)
Choices don't get easier than taking Rackers in the NFC, but I'm not real happy about Kaeding. It was close.
Shane Lechler (OAK); Mitch Berger (NO)
Berger is performing at a stunning level. He has 20 punts downed inside the 20-yard line, against just one touchback, and only 16 of his 43 punts (37%) have been returned. He's the only punter in the NFL with more fair catches than returns, and no one else in the NFC is even close. Lechler leads the NFL in net average (39.8).
That's the end of the "Express Ballot," bringing us to the offensive line selections. I'm fairly good at judging play on the line, 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:
Alan Faneca (PIT), Brian Waters (KC), Logan Mankins (NE); Steve Hutchinson (SEA), Kynan Forney (ATL), Adam Timmerman (STL)
Hutchinson is the best. I'm not crazy about Forney or Timmerman, and lots of other players got consideration. I'll have a better idea at the end of the season, when I've gotten a couple more looks at these guys, whether or not these selections make any sense. Waters remains one of the best in the game, but his teammate Will Shields (KC), whom I've selected each of the last three years, has dropped off a little. Mankins just edged Eric Steinbach (CIN).
Tarik Glenn (IND), Willie Anderson (CIN), Matt Lepsis (DEN); Walter Jones (SEA), Jordan Gross (CAR), Tra Thomas (PHI)
The top two in each conference were pretty easy, but I struggled with the third spots. In the AFC, perennials missed out because of injury (Willie Roaf, KC) or a rapid dropoff in performance (Baltimore's Jonathan Ogden hasn't been the same since he returned from the injury that forced him to miss the beginning of the 2004 season).
Jeff Hartings (PIT), Casey Wiegmann (KC); Olin Kreutz (CHI), Robbie Tobeck (SEA)
This is always a tough position, especially in the deep AFC. Jeff Saturday (IND) and Tom Nalen (DEN) would probably make the cut in the NFC, and injuries eliminated annual contenders like Kevin Mawae (NYJ) and Dan Koppen (NE). In the NFC, Hank Fraley (PHI) is on injured reserve and Shaun O'Hara (NYG) has an ankle injury, so character be damned, I'm taking Olin Kreutz.
Rashean Mathis (JAC), Deltha O'Neal (CIN), Ike Taylor (PIT); Ronde Barber (TB), Ken Lucas (CAR), Anthony Henry (DAL)
One early-season star from each conference has dropped off, Nick Harper (IND) in the AFC and DeAngelo Hall (ATL) in the NFC. It's not that they're bad now, but just a notch below Pro Bowl level. Champ Bailey (DEN) has looked great at times, but he missed two games with injuries and was burned repeatedly in another. Tory James (CIN) was the last player I cut from the AFC ballot. Henry was a close call over, in alphabetical order, Sheldon Brown (PHI), Hall, Shawn Springs (WAS), Charles Tillman (CHI), and Nathan Vasher (CHI).
Troy Polamalu (PIT); Mike Brown (CHI)
Polamalu is a big-play guy, this year's version of Ed Reed (BAL). Brown contributes to every phase of Chicago's league-leading defense. He's third in tackles, tied for second in interceptions, and leads the team in interception return yards.
Chris Hope (PIT); Sean Taylor (WAS)
Eugene Wilson (NE) is the sole survivor in New England's defensive backfield, and I almost took him. Taylor is a little undisciplined, and he's too focused on the big hit, but he's a money player, the only big-play guy on that defense. Brian Dawkins (PHI) has been the best for years, but it seems like he's lost a step.
Dwight Freeney (IND), Aaron Schobel (BUF), Jared Allen (KC); Simeon Rice (TB), Osi Umenyiora (NYG), Bryce Fisher (SEA)
Taking sack specialists is like turning to the dark side, and it's a diss at guys like Aaron Smith (PIT) and Kimo von Oelhoffen (PIT), who don't put up big numbers in the 3-4. Freeney and Rice are inconsistent at times, but they probably create more problems for offenses than anyone else in the league.
Mike Peterson (JAC), Donnie Edwards (SD); Antonio Pierce (NYG), Brian Urlacher (CHI)
Possibly the hardest position to narrow down. Peterson and Urlacher benefit from the great lines in front of them, but they make the most of their opportunities. A couple years ago, I called Urlacher the most overrated player in the NFL, and this is only the second time I've voted for him. Honestly, he won a tiebreaker over Keith Brooking (ATL), who missed my ballot for the first time, and Jeremiah Trotter (PHI), who got thrown out of the opener and publicly defied his coach about a receiver's suspension. Keep an eye on young up-and-comers Odell Thurman (CIN) and Jonathan Vilma (NYJ).
Cato June (IND), Joey Porter (PIT); Derrick Brooks (TB), DeMarcus Ware (DAL)
I've never figured out why you can't choose three OLBs. June beat out Keith Bulluck (TEN) and Brian Simmons (CIN) as a rover, while Porter edged Shawne Merriman (SD) and Willie McGinest (NE) as a pass rusher. Demorrio Williams (ATL) is one of many Falcons defenders who just missed the cut, largely because the defense is less than the sum of its parts. There are lots of talented players, but they're middle-of-the-pack in total defense (16th) and points allowed (19th).
Kelly Gregg (BAL), John Henderson (JAC), Casey Hampton (PIT); Rod Coleman (ATL), Tommie Harris (CHI), La'Roi Glover (DAL)
Individual stats aren't much help at this position, but teams with good overall defensive numbers usually have someone doing the dirty work here. Marcus Stroud (JAC) comes out of the game less often than Henderson, but he's also slightly less explosive. Richard Seymour (NE) is the best, but he's been hurt. Chartric Darby (SEA), Booger McFarland (TB), and Pat Williams (MIN) almost beat out Glover for the last spot in the NFC.
And if anyone wonders, yes, I feel bad that I didn't take any Bronco defenders. Bailey, Trevor Pryce, and the whole linebacking corps were all pretty close.
Dante Hall (KC); Reggie Swinton (ARI)
Jerome Mathis (HOU), the only statistical standout in the AFC, isn't on the ballot, which makes Hall an easy choice. If the Pro Bowl is about who you want to see, I think Hall is one of the most exciting players in the NFL.
I never vote at this position — not enough information — but some of the guys I like are Sean Morey (PIT), Mike Furrey (STL), Fred McAfee (NO), and David Tyree (NYG).
This is the fourth time in four years that I have voted for Ronde Barber (TB), Derrick Brooks (TB), Alan Faneca (PIT), Tony Gonzalez (KC), Marvin Harrison (IND), and Hines Ward (PIT).
Offensive Player of the Year — Shaun Alexander (SEA)
Defensive Player of the Year — Troy Polamalu (PIT)
MVP — LaDainian Tomlinson (SD)
Coach of the Year — Jon Gruden (TB)
Assistant — Cam Cameron (SD)
Rookie of the Year — Shawne Merriman (SD)