Sports Central 2009 Pro Bowl Picks

Pro Bowl voting has been open for over a month, but now every team has played most of its schedule, so 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 who has been placed on injured reserve.

Briefly, before we begin, why does the NFL switch the order of this ballot every single season? Just pick something and stick with it. Preferably the order that pretty much the entire rest of the world agrees on. Also: listing players alphabetically by first name? Really?

Quarterback

Peyton Manning (IND), Tom Brady (NE), Philip Rivers (SD); Drew Brees (NO), Aaron Rodgers (GB), Tony Romo (DAL)

Yeah, I left off Minnesota's QB, for three main reasons. (1) No defense plays the Vikings trying to shut down the passing game; they're all concentrating on Adrian Peterson. (2) Minnesota has also played an incredibly soft schedule that inflates his stats. (3) Last season, I said that fans "wouldn't be crazy" to vote for him, and he collapsed down the stretch, making me look like a jackass. For the remainder of the season, he averaged barely 200 yards per game and threw 2 TDs with 9 interceptions, for a passer rating of 55.2. You won't fool me twice, old man. In the AFC, Brady and Rivers were a close call over Matt Schaub (HOU).

Running Back

Chris Johnson (TEN), Maurice Jones-Drew (JAC), Ray Rice (BAL); Adrian Peterson (MIN), Steven Jackson (STL), DeAngelo Williams (CAR)

There are lots of RBs having good seasons, and in such a tight year, Cedric Benson (CIN) missed out because of his recent injury, and because he's a little one-dimensional, not much of a receiver. Ricky Williams (MIA) was a stronger candidate, but Rice has more rushing yards and many more receiving yards. Michael Turner (ATL) and Frank Gore (SF) might have snuck onto my ballot if they'd been healthy all season. Even with some good players left off, I am completely satisfied with the players I did vote for.

Wide Receiver

Reggie Wayne (IND), Andre Johnson (HOU), Randy Moss (NE), Wes Welker (NE); Larry Fitzgerald (ARI), Sidney Rice (MIN), Donald Driver (GB), DeSean Jackson (PHI)

The AFC choices are non-negotiable: those four receivers are game-changers. The other side of the ballot was tighter. Up-and-comers Steve Smith (NYG) and Miles Austin (DAL) were particularly tough to leave off. The last couple of seasons, we've all expected Driver to fade quietly into the twilight of his career, but he's on pace to challenge most of his career-highs, and he's been remarkably consistent from week to week. I'm wary of Rice for some of the same reasons as his quarterback, but Rice just keeps getting better every week. Jackson has over 100 rushing yards to complement his receiving accomplishments. This choice assumes his recent concussion won't force him to miss more than one game.

Tight End

Dallas Clark (IND), Antonio Gates (SD); Vernon Davis (SF), Tony Gonzalez (ATL)

After several seasons of voting for pretty much the same people every year, it seemed like we were finally due for a changing of the guard. Young players like Brent Celek (PHI), Zach Miller (OAK), and Davis are all on the rise. Chris Cooley (WAS) is hurt, and Jason Witten (DAL) is having the worst season of his career. Gonzalez left Kansas City and Gates got off to a slow start. In the end, though, only Davis crashed the party, and at this point in the season, I think these are clearly the four best tight ends in the NFL. Celek has fewer catches and yards than Gonzalez, even though Gonzalez draws double-teams. Heath Miller's (PIT) blocking is overrated, and he simply isn't the difference-maker that Clark and Gates are.

The next portion of the ballot concerns blockers. I'm a competent judge of line play, 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. I'll be more confident in the offensive line selections for my all-pro team at the end of the season, when I've had more chances to see these guys. That disclaimer aside, here are my picks:

Center

Nick Mangold (NYJ), Jeff Saturday (IND); Jamaal Jackson (PHI), Jonathan Goodwin (NO)

Close calls all around. Saturday missed last season with an injury and doesn't look the same as he did from 2005-07, but he still edged Matt Birk (BAL), Dan Koppen (NE), and Brad Meester (JAC). Shaun O'Hara (NYG), whom I chose for three years in a row, looks out of synch this season. Andre Gurode (DAL) still gets the job done, but he's not dominating defenders this year. Jackson is Philadelphia's best offensive lineman, and Goodwin's solid play in the middle is a big part of why the Saints' guards look so good. Zillion-year-old Olin Kreutz (CHI) still makes plays for Chicago's rancid o-line.

Offensive Tackle

Duane Brown (HOU), Max Starks (PIT), Andrew Whitworth (CIN); Levi Brown (ARI), Phil Loadholt (MIN), Jon Stinchcomb (NO)

This is a low point in recent history for offensive tackles, and there's no one who really thrills me. Willie Colon (PIT) gets more publicity than Starks, and both are playing well, but I think Starks is a little better. Whitworth has held up well against some of the AFC's best pass rushers. Ryan Clady (DEN) is not playing as well as he did last season, but he's a talented kid who creates plays and usually does a good job. Omar Gaither (BAL) is a sleeper, worth keeping an eye on. I hate everyone in the NFC, where for some reason all the best linemen play the interior. Levi Brown didn't play well against the Colts, but no one on that line really did. He's been mostly solid. Stinchcomb is the fourth-best lineman on his own team, but it's a pretty good team. Michael Roos (TEN) and Jason Peters (PHI) got off to slow starts, but have played well recently.

Offensive Guard

Logan Mankins (NE), Jake Scott (TEN), Ryan Lilja (IND); Steve Hutchinson (MIN), Carl Nicks (NO), Leonard Davis (DAL)

Old stand-bys in the AFC, all guys I've voted for in the past, though there are some young guys I'll have my eye on in the last few weeks. The NFC is stacked at this position, and I don't have space to explain all my preferences, but the other guys I particularly like are Justin Blalock (ATL), Harvey Dahl (ATL), Jahri Evans (NO), and Chris Snee (NYG). I like Blalock a little better than Dahl, though everyone else seems to feel the opposite. Leonard Davis isn't much of a pass-blocker, but the enormous holes he creates in the run game more than compensate.

Fullback

Jeremi Johnson (CIN); Madison Hedgecock (NYG)

I don't think there's a team in the league on which this is still an important position. Everyone goes three-wide or two tight ends most of the time now. Fullbacks get in the game so seldom that there aren't many I've gotten a good look at. I have a better idea who I don't like than who I do. Ahmard Hall (TEN) and Lousaka Polite (MIA) are overrated. I like Le'Ron McClain (BAL) better as a Jerome Bettis-type ball-carrier than a blocking back. Heath Evans (NO) would have been an easy choice before he got hurt, but now he's on IR and isn't even listed on the ballot.

Strong Safety

Brandon Meriweather (NE); Adrian Wilson (ARI)

Troy Polamalu (PIT) is the best when he's healthy. He's not. Wilson is a well-rounded, consistent producer. He's particularly effective in pass defense (3 interceptions), but he's also a big hitter and an effective pass rusher. Roman Harper (NO) is having a good year for the Saints, though he's mostly a run-stuffer. Quintin Mikell (PHI) isn't flashy, but he gets to the ball. Brian Dawkins (DEN) has had more impact in the locker room than on the field, and isn't a good choice. He's getting beaten a lot this year.

Cornerback

Darrelle Revis (NYJ), Johnathan Joseph (CIN), Champ Bailey (DEN); Charles Woodson (GB), Asante Samuel (PHI), Sheldon Brown (PHI)

Revis and Woodson are musts. If they're not on your ballot, you shouldn't be filling one out. Other than Revis, all these guys are part of successful tandems. Joseph and his teammate Leon Hall (CIN) are a big part of Cincinnati's success this year. Bailey's partner Andre' Goodman (DEN) is having a fine season. Nnamdi Asomugha (OAK) is overrated. He doesn't get thrown at a lot, but when teams test him, they always seem to be successful. Charles Tillman (CHI) isn't the greatest coverage guy in the league, but he has forced 6 fumbles this season, and that's valuable. Antoine Winfield (MIN) is a top-five corner when healthy, but he's only played in 6 games this season.

Defensive End

Dwight Freeney (IND), Robert Mathis (IND), Brett Keisel (PIT); Jared Allen (MIN), Will Smith (NO), Andre Carter (WAS)

This is the best season I've ever seen Freeney have. Mathis is an almost equal threat from the other side. Keisel is the best player on Pittsburgh's line. Aaron Schobel (BUF) doesn't get much publicity — or help from his teammates — in Buffalo, but he keeps making plays. Trent Cole (PHI) is having another good season, but I think he's fourth in the NFC right now. Cullen Jenkins (GB), who plays a hybrid DE-DT in Green Bay's revamped defense, is probably fifth.

Defensive Tackle

Vince Wilfork (NE), Domata Peko (CIN), Haloti Ngata (BAL); Darnell Dockett (ARI), Jay Ratliff (DAL), Kevin Williams (MIN)

Kris Jenkins (NYJ) was better than anyone through six weeks, but he hasn't played since and is on injured reserve. It's hard to get away from nose tackles in the AFC, but Peko is probably the best of the 4-3 men, creating opportunities for Antwan Odom and Jonathan Fanene to make plays up front. Ngata hasn't played as well as last season, and he draws too many penalties. Raheem Brock (IND) plays effectively all over the line. Dockett is the driving force on Arizona's defense. Kevin is the better half of Minnesota's Williams Wall. Aubrayo Franklin (SF) has been getting some hype, but he's a good player, not a great one. I prefer Mike Patterson (PHI), Ryan Pickett (GB), and Justin Smith (SF), who is more of a DE but is listed here.

Free Safety

Jairus Byrd (BUF); Darren Sharper (NO)

I know nothing I say will stop you from voting for Ed Reed (BAL), but he doesn't deserve it this season. Byrd leads the AFC with 8 interceptions, but if you don't like him, pick Antoine Bethea (IND) or Eric Weddle (SD). Sharper seems like an obvious choice to me: 8 INT for 355 yards and 3 TDs. Nick Collins (GB) would be my next choice.

Inside Linebacker

David Harris (NYJ), Ray Lewis (BAL); Patrick Willis (SF), Nick Barnett (GB)

The Patriots really missed Jerod Mayo (NE) while he was hurt, and he'd probably be on my ballot if he'd played the whole season. Lewis isn't the player he once was, but that tackle on Darren Sproles in Week 2 was vintage Ray, as good a tackle as I've seen this season. I don't think Willis is as good as the hype, but he's certainly good. The Steelers have three players listed at this position, and they're all good, but my sleepers are Gary Brackett (IND) and Kirk Morrison (OAK). Brackett doesn't enough credit for the way he coordinates Indy's defense, and Morrison is overlooked because he plays for such a bad team. He's still a year or two away, but Morrison can be a great player. In the NFC, 34-year-olds Keith Brooking (DAL) and London Fletcher (WAS) would also be good choices. I thought Brooking was slowing down, and I'm shocked at how effective he's been this season. He makes a lot of plays.

Outside Linebacker

James Harrison (PIT), Elvis Dumervil (DEN), Brian Cushing (HOU); Lance Briggs (CHI), DeMarcus Ware (DAL), Chad Greenway (MIN)

Dumervil leads the NFL in sacks. I'd like to see him get more consistent pressure even when he doesn't make the play, but Dumervil seems to get to the quarterback once or twice every game, and that earns a spot here. Jarret Johnson (BAL) has surpassed Terrell Suggs (BAL) as the playmaker in Baltimore's linebacking corps. This isn't just Suggs drawing double-teams: Johnson is better right now. A trio of rookies, Cushing, Clay Matthews III (GB), and Brian Orakpo (WAS), all deserve recognition here — particularly Cushing, who leads the AFC in tackles and has really excelled in pass coverage. Thomas Davis (CAR) was having a terrific season before going on injured reserve. Julian Peterson (DET) is having a decent year playing on a terrible defense.

Kick Returner

Joshua Cribbs (CLE); Clifton Smith (TB)

Easy choice in the AFC, tough one in the NFC. Percy Harvin has been an exceptional kick returner (29.8 avg, 2 TD), but he doesn't return punts. DeSean Jackson (PHI) is easily the NFC's best punt returner (15.5 avg, TD), but he doesn't do kickoffs. Smith excels at both (29.1, 10.1, KR TD) and is probably the best overall. You could go with any of those three. In the AFC, Cribbs continues to set himself apart. He leads the conference in punt return average and is one of only two players (Eddie Royal, DEN) to return both a kickoff and a punt for touchdowns this season. Cribbs also does subtle things to help his team, like returning anything he can get his hands on, even if it might hurt his return average. He only has three fair catches all season.

Kicker

Sebastian Janikowski (OAK); Ryan Longwell (MIN)

Janikowski has been effective this season on both field goals and kickoffs. Longwell's only missed kick this season came on a block. Longwell was also the best kicker in the NFL last year. I do wish he was better at kickoffs. Longwell's closest competition was probably David Akers (PHI), having his best season in years. He's not on the ballot, and shouldn't be, but rookie kickoff specialist David Buehler (DAL) gives the Cowboys an extra 25 yards of field position per game.

Punter

Mike Scifres (SD); Mat McBriar (DAL)

Let's talk AFC West, where there are three elite punters. Shane Lechler (OAK)'s punting philosophy is diametrically opposed to those of Dustin Colquitt (KC) and Scifres. Lechler's is simple: bomb the ball as far as possible and let the coverage team do its job. He gets a ton of touchbacks and a ton of returns, but he leads the NFL in both gross and net average. Colquitt is a more careful punter, looking to maximize field position and prevent big returns even when that means hurting his gross average. He leads the AFC in punts downed inside the 20 and is second in fair catches. Lechler has twice as many punts returned as Colquitt does. Scifres works with a short field and is the best at avoiding touchbacks. I've criticized McBriar in the past for Lechler-esque excesses, but this season he leads the NFC in fair catches and I20:TB ratio, with 29 punts down inside the 20-yard-line and only one touchback. He even forced a fumble when making a tackle in Week 10. Enthusiastic choice. Don't vote for anyone else.

Special Teamer

Joshua Cribbs (CLE); Tracy White (PHI)

There are seldom satisfactory choices on this part of the ballot, but it's refreshing to finally see Cribbs listed here. He's the best all-around special teamer in the league. White is a reasonable selection in the NFC.

The teams I voted for most this season were the Vikings (8) and Colts (7). Last season, my leading teams were the Giants (7), Jets (6), and Titans (6).

You can vote here.

Midseason Awards

Offensive Player of the Year — Drew Brees (NO)
Defensive Player of the Year — Charles Woodson (GB)
MVP — Drew Brees (NO)
Coach of the Year — Sean Payton (NO)
Assistant — Mike Zimmer (CIN)
Rookie of the Year — Brian Cushing (HOU)

I like Peyton Manning (IND) and Jim Caldwell (IND) just as much as Brees and Payton, but I've heard nasty rumors about the Colts resting their starters, and that's my tie-breaker right now in a pair of votes that would otherwise be too close to call.

This is my eighth year selecting a Pro Bowl team for Sports Central (2002-09). As we wrap up the decade, my most-chosen team is the Patriots (37), while my least-chosen — by far — is the Lions (4). No one else had less than 9.

Comments and Conversation

December 2, 2009

Eric Engberg:

My only qualm with picking Romo as a Pro Bowl selection right now is he typically sucks out loud in December.

I like Peyton as the MVP right now simply because he does not have the running game behind him that Brees does. The Saints may very well have a loss or two if not for their ability to run the ball as well as they have this season.

How many games has Manning single-handedly rescued the Colts this year. Not to mention he is doing it with two relatively new receivers in Garcon and Collie.

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