Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Sports Central Pro Bowl Selections

By Brad Oremland

Pro Bowl voting has been open for over a month, but now every team has played more than half of its schedule, so it's finally reasonable to vote for each conference's representatives. And yes, voting 692 times is too many. Here's a look at my ballot, with AFC players listed first. I didn't vote for anyone who's out for the season.

Quarterback

Peyton Manning (IND), Philip Rivers (SD), David Carr (HOU); Drew Brees (NO), Marc Bulger (STL), Tony Romo (DAL)

Carr is a controversial choice, edging out Carson Palmer (CIN), Tom Brady (NE), and Damon Huard (KC), who's not even on the ballot. Carr has a lot less to work with than Palmer, and he's actually produced more than Brady. Donovan McNabb (PHI) would have been a lock if he hadn't gotten hurt. Manning is the only one of these players I've voted for prior to this season.

Running Back

LaDainian Tomlinson (SD), Larry Johnson (KC), Willie Parker (PIT); Tiki Barber (NYG), Frank Gore (SF), Steven Jackson (STL)

Easy choices in the AFC, but the third spot in the NFC was a toss-up. Jackson edged Warrick Dunn (ATL) and Brian Westbrook (PHI) for the last spot. The dynamic Jackson has more combined rushing and receiving yards than either Dunn or Westbrook. This is my fifth year writing this column for Sports Central, and it's the fourth time I've voted for Tomlinson and Barber.

Wide Receiver

Reggie Wayne (IND), Andre Johnson (HOU), Javon Walker (DEN), Lee Evans (BUF); Steve Smith (CAR), Marques Colston (NO), Torry Holt (STL), Anquan Boldin (ARI)

Wide receiver is always the hardest position to narrow down, and I'm not happy about some of the people I had to leave off. In the AFC, it was especially tough to cut Marvin Harrison (IND), Chad Johnson (CIN), and Hines Ward (PIT), all guys I voted for last year. In the NFC, others I considered were Donald Driver (GB), Brett Favre's only reliable target; Darrell Jackson (SEA), who leads the NFL in receiving touchdowns; and Roy Williams (DET), who's third in the conference in receiving yards.

Fullback

Lorenzo Neal (SD); Justin Griffith (ATL)

Neal, the lead blocker for LaDainian Tomlinson, was an easy choice. Griffith is my favorite from an unappealing list of NFC candidates.

Tight End

Tony Gonzalez (KC), Kellen Winslow, Jr. (CLE); Alge Crumpler (ATL), Jason Witten (DAL)

Another position at which the AFC is way ahead. I'd take Antonio Gates (SD) ahead of anyone from the NFC. Crumpler had a down season last year, and I didn't expect to vote for him this time around, but he's made some big plays for the Falcons.

Kicker

Shayne Graham (CIN); Robbie Gould (CHI)

Gould hasn't missed all season, including ten kicks from at least 40 yards out, making him an easy choice. The AFC was tighter, but Graham is perfect from inside 40, and solid from further out, including two successful attempts over 50 yards. He's also one of the league's better kickoff men. If you want to pick a sleeper, though, consider Sebastian Janikowski (OAK), who hasn't missed from under 50 yards all season.

Punter

Brian Moorman (BUF); Matt Turk (STL)

The AFC was a very close two-way competition between Moorman and Mike Scifres (SD). No one else was close. I voted for Shane Lechler (OAK) last season, but he's been terrible this year, bombing kicks past his coverage or into the end zone. Turk is having his best season in ages, with fewer than half his punts getting returned.

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:

Offensive Guard

Logan Mankins (NE), Kris Dielman (SD), Mike Goff (SD); Marco Rivera (DAL), Shawn Andrews (PHI), Steve Hutchinson (MIN)

Mankins, the second-year player from Fresno State, may be the best offensive player from last year's draft. This is the first year I haven't voted for Alan Faneca (PIT), and he was probably the closest to making my ballot. Rivera has re-discovered the Pro Bowl form he showed in Green Bay, while Hutchinson doesn't look like the same player he was in Seattle.

Offensive Tackle

Marcus McNeill (SD), Ryan Diem (IND), Matt Light (NE); Jammal Brown (NO), Jon Runyan (PHI), John Tait (CHI)

You could take pretty much the entire offensive lines of the Chargers and Colts, so Shane Olivea (SD) and Tarik Glenn (IND) were close. In New Orleans, everyone is talking about Brees, Colston, and Reggie Bush joining the team, but don't forget last year's first-round draft pick, Brown, who protects the quarterback's blind side for the team with the fewest sacks allowed in the NFL.

Center

Jeff Saturday (IND), Dan Koppen (NE); Olin Kreutz (CHI), Shaun O'Hara (NYG)

I didn't take the entire left side of the Patriots' line on purpose, but the team is fourth in the AFC in total offense, despite the absence of a strong receiving corps. A couple years ago Kreutz looked like he was past his prime, but he's back in top form, and solid line play is a big part of the reason Rex Grossman has been successful this year. Tom Nalen (DEN) barely missed making my AFC ballot.

Cornerback

Champ Bailey, (DEN) Rashean Mathis (JAC), Chris McAlister (BAL); Ronde Barber (TB), Anthony Henry (DAL), Charles Tillman (CHI)

Bailey and Mathis were easy choices in the AFC, as was Barber in the NFC. Every year, I expect him to slow down, look for new guys to pick, and every year, Barber keeps himself in the mix. This season, he leads all cornerbacks in tackles and has double-digit deflections, plus two interception returns for touchdowns. Tillman barely beat out Lito Sheppard (PHI) for the last spot in the NFC. Sheppard has played very well since his return from injury, and if you're voting a few weeks down the line, you should take a good look at him.

Strong Safety

Troy Polamalu (PIT); Gibril Wilson (NYG)

Polamalu had some injury problems earlier in the season, but he certainly seems healthy again now, and no one else can match his instinct for being where the ball is. I'm not crazy about any of the NFC candidates. The best might be Sean Considine (PHI), who wasn't listed.

Free Safety

Marlon McCree (SD); Brian Dawkins (PHI)

Tough call in both conferences, with lots of qualified candidates in the AFC, and no real standouts in the NFC. I voted for Sean Taylor (WAS) last season, but he's been a huge disappointment this year. It seems like Taylor gets called for a stupid penalty or caught in blown coverage in every game.

Defensive End

Jason Taylor (MIA), Derrick Burgess (OAK), Jared Allen (KC); Julius Peppers (CAR), Alex Brown (CHI), Aaron Kampman (GB)

One of the few positions where I'm really happy with my choices, though I had to leave some good players off. I especially wanted to get Trent Cole (PHI), Leonard Little (STL), and Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate Mark Anderson (CHI) onto the ballot, but there wasn't room. Bertrand Berry (ARI) would have been in contention, too, but he's on IR.

Inside Linebacker

London Fletcher-Baker (BUF), Zach Thomas (MIA); Brian Urlacher (CHI), Antonio Pierce (NYG)

Finally, a position where the NFC is stronger. Pierce, the on-field general for the Giants' defense, barely beat out contenders like Lofa Tatupu (SEA), Jeremiah Trotter (PHI), and Will Witherspoon (STL). At the beginning of the season, Ray Lewis (BAL) looked like he was Pro Bowl material again, but he slowed down, and now he's hurt.

Outside Linebacker

Bart Scott (BAL), Shawne Merriman (SD); DeMarcus Ware (DAL), Lance Briggs (CHI)

Merriman, serving a four-game suspension for violating the league's steroid policy, is a controversial choice, but when he's on the field, Merriman is capable of totally disrupting an offense. San Diego's defense has struggled noticeably in his absence. The AFC has a ton of talent at this position, so I'll just list alphabetically the other guys I wanted to take: Keith Bulluck (TEN), Ian Gold (DEN), Clark Haggans (PIT), and Mike Vrabel (NE). If you're looking for a sleeper, consider rookie edge rusher Kamerion Wimbley (CLE).

Defensive Tackle

Kelly Gregg (BAL), John Henderson (JAC), Vince Wilfork (NE); Tommie Harris (CHI), Pat Williams (MIN), Kevin Williams (MIN)

Always a tough position to narrow down, with lots of underappreciated difference-makers on the ballot. The NFC was especially tricky, with Minnesota's DTs, who anchor the league's best run defense, edging Rocky Bernard (SEA), Rod Coleman (ATL), Chuck Darby (SEA), Fred Robbins (NYG), and Darwin Walker (PHI). It seems like every year there's one team who's always listed as barely missing the cut. Last year, it was San Diego. This season, apparently it's the Eagles. Sorry, Philly fans.

Kick Returner

Chris Carr (OAK); Allen Rossum (ATL)

Rossum has been among the league's best return men for years now, but Carr, who leads the NFL in kickoff return yards, is only in his second season. I almost voted for Wes Welker (MIA) just because I wanted him on my ballot.

Special Teamer

I never vote at this position — not enough information — but some of the guys I like are Kasim Osgood (SD), Gerald Sensabaugh (JAC), Josh Scobey (SEA), David Tyree (NYG), and Considine (PHI), although he's not listed as a choice. Sleeper pick: rookie linebacker Rocky McIntosh (WAS), another player who's not listed on the ballot, but has been a terrific special teamer all season, and should crack Washington's starting defense by the beginning of next season.

The Chargers and Bears lead my ballot this year, with eight selections each. Last season, my leading teams were the Steelers (8) and Seahawks (7).

Midseason Awards

Offensive Player of the Year — LaDainian Tomlinson (SD)
Defensive Player of the Year — Julius Peppers (CAR)
MVP — LaDainian Tomlinson (SD)
Coach of the Year — Sean Payton (NO)
Assistant — Cam Cameron (SD)
Rookie of the Year — Marques Colston (NO)

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