Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Sports Central 2010 Pro Bowl Picks

By Brad Oremland

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? At least this year the league lists players alphabetically by last name. If you'd like to vote along as you read, you can do so here.

Quarterback

Philip Rivers (SD), Tom Brady (NE), Peyton Manning (IND); Aaron Rodgers (GB), Matt Ryan (ATL), Drew Brees (NO)

There are four strong candidates in each conference. Kyle Orton (DEN) is having a hell of a year, leads the NFL in passing yards. I should also mention Matt Cassel (KC), who has been on fire, so I don't look like an idiot if he stays hot. In the NFC, Michael Vick (PHI) is obviously playing at a sensational level, and he certainly deserves a vote. But so do Rodgers, Ryan, and Brees. I couldn't decide which one to leave off, so I went with "hasn't murdered dogs" as a tie-breaker, but if you feel like you can't leave him off, that's understandable.

Running Back

Arian Foster (HOU), Jamaal Charles (KC), Peyton Hillis (CLE); Adrian Peterson (MIN), LeSean McCoy (PHI), Michael Turner (ATL)

Frank Gore (SF) was a lock before his injury on Monday night, so Turner sneaks onto my ballot, but the AFC is the stronger conference here. I'd go with my AFC selections from last year — Chris Johnson (TEN), Maurice Jones-Drew (JAC), and Ray Rice (BAL) — as well as Darren McFadden (OAK), over Turner, though he's having a nice season. It's not a pre-requisite, but these are well-rounded players; Turner is the only one without at least 300 receiving yards. If Peterson's ankle injury is serious, I suppose Steven Jackson (STL) or Ahmad Bradshaw (NYG) would be an appropriate substitute.

I know there are a lot of appealing choices in the AFC, but you can't leave Charles off your ballot. He's second in the NFL in rushing yardage, and he's averaging 6.34 yards per carry, which would be 2nd-best all-time (min. 150 att.). The record is 6.40, by Jim Brown in 1963. If you want to sneak CJ2K or McFadden or whoever onto your ballot, you have to either (1) sacrifice Hillis, or (2) hack the NFL's website.

Wide Receiver

Brandon Lloyd (DEN), Dwayne Bowe (KC), Andre Johnson (HOU), Mike Wallace (PIT); Roddy White (ATL), Calvin Johnson (DET), Greg Jennings (GB), Marques Colston (NO)

Let's get right to the obvious omissions, Terrell Owens (CIN) and Reggie Wayne (IND). Both look pretty on paper. But Wayne is having his worst season in memory, with uncharacteristic drops and little of his usual brilliance. The numbers are still big because the Colts throw a ton and everybody else is hurt, but Wayne has not played at a high level. Owens misses my ballot for several reasons. (1) He's dropped off recently, and if that continues, I'll look foolish for taking him. (2) A lot of his numbers have come late in the game when the outcome was already decided. The defense was playing soft and his plays had minimal impact. (3) I question his value as a team player. Carson Palmer is having the worst season of his career, and you expect a great receiver to elevate his quarterback's game, not diminish it.

Fullback

Marcel Reece (OAK); Owen Schmitt (PHI)

An increasingly irrelevant position, and it's easy to fall back on guys like Tony Richardson (NYJ) or Greg Jones (JAC), but let's shake things up a little. Reece has started eight games, scored rushing and receiving touchdowns, and led the way for Darren McFadden's breakout season. Schmitt is a good receiver, and he lead blocks for the most efficient running team in the NFC.

Tight End

Antonio Gates (SD), Marcedes Lewis (JAC); Jason Witten (DAL), Chris Cooley (WAS)

Gates and Lewis lead all tight ends in scoring. Gates has been a monster when healthy, and Lewis is an impact player in the receiving game, as well as a fine blocker. Witten and Cooley are solid blockers and reliable receivers, the NFC's top two in receiving yardage. Vernon Davis (SF) hasn't been a consistent threat in the receiving game this season, and his blocking is a tad overrated. He is a good blocker, but so are Witten and Cooley.

Offensive Tackle

Matt Light (NE), Damien Woody (NYJ), Charlie Johnson (IND); Jason Peters (PHI), Donald Penn (TB), Jeff Backus (DET)

This is my least favorite position to evaluate. Honestly, we're in the midst of a real down period for offensive tackles. At the beginning of the decade, we had Jon Ogden, Willie Roaf, Walter Jones, Orlando Pace, Jon Runyan ... players of historic stature. Who right now looks like a good bet to put together a Hall of Fame career at the position? Maybe Peters, I guess. Some of the young guys might, but it's too early to make predictions on players like Penn, Branden Albert (KC), Demetrius Bell (BUF), Ryan Clady (DEN), Jake Long (MIA), and Marcus McNeill (SD). Charlie Johnson, by my evaluation, has surpassed center Jeff Saturday as the best player on the Colts' line.

Offensive Guard

Kris Dielman (SD), Ryan Lilja (KC), Brandon Moore (NYJ); Harvey Dahl (ATL), Carl Nicks (NO), Chris Snee (NYG)

This is my favorite offensive line position to evaluate. There are a lot of good guards in the league right now, so I had to leave off some guys I like, especially in the NFC. Let's get the list out of the way: Justin Blalock (ATL), Kyle Kosier (DAL), Jahri Evans (NO), Josh Sitton (GB), and Steve Hutchinson (MIN). Maybe I've just seen him on good days, but Antoine Caldwell (HOU) is one of my favorites. He's not starting, though, and he's not on the ballot. I guess Mike Brisiel (HOU) must be pretty good, to start ahead of Caldwell. Floyd Womack (CLE), the old Seattle RT we used to call Porkchop, has re-invented himself as a guard and played well.

Center

Dan Koppen (NE), Nick Hardwick (SD); Todd McClure (ATL), Jonathan Goodwin (NO)

The AFC is stacked. Nick Mangold (NYJ), whom I've chosen as an all-pro each of the last two years, is not having a great season, doesn't really seem 100%. Rookie Maurkice Pouncey (PIT) has generated a buzz, but he makes too many mistakes. Better, though, are Kyle Cook (CIN), Chris Myers (HOU), and J.D. Walton (DEN).

Defensive End

Robert Mathis (IND), Jason Babin (TEN), Mike Wright (NE); Julius Peppers (CHI), Trent Cole (PHI), Osi Umenyiora (NYG)

Aargh. There's just no fair way to do this. The AFC is loaded with 3-4 defenses, which means loads of 3-4 defensive ends, who are kind of hybrid interior/outside linemen. Two of the best defenses, teams with DEs who are Pro Bowl caliber — the Jets and Ravens — list their ends as DTs. The result is that the AFC ballot is really weak at this position. Wright, who leads New England in sacks, is the best of those who are actually listed, with Kendall Langford (MIA) and Randy Starks (MIA) also in the mix. I think Mathis is having a little bit better season than his teammate Dwight Freeney (IND). Babin leads all AFC linemen in sacks (9).

In the NFC, Peppers' impressive numbers (6 sacks, 6 pass deflections, 3 forced fumbles) don't even tell the full story; he draws penalties and double-teams and gets pressure even when he doesn't make the play. I have mixed feelings on Justin Tuck (NYG) and Umenyiora. Tuck has two 3-sack games, but just 1.5 in the other 9 games combined. Umenyiora had 8 sacks after just six games. He still has 8. But he also leads the NFL, by far, in forced fumbles (7). James Hall (STL) has 7.5 sacks and 4 forced fumbles, sort of Umenyiora Lite, but his consistency and lack of supporting cast almost make him a more appealing choice. Jared Allen (MIN) is having a down year, but he's still among the best. Will Smith (NO) could be a good choice as long as he doesn't go to jail. Cullen Jenkins (GB) is a good player in Green Bay's 3-4.

Defensive Tackle

Haloti Ngata (BAL), Antonio Garay (SD), Shaun Ellis (NYJ); Ndamukong Suh (DET), B.J. Raji (GB), Sedrick Ellis (NO)

The hype for Suh is legit. He and Kyle Vanden Bosch have almost single-handedly lifted Detroit's defense, from the worst in the league to merely below-average. The AFC has incredible depth here (see above, DE). It particularly hurt to omit Vince Wilfork (NE) and Tommy Kelly (OAK), both of whom could have made it if Ngata and Ellis were listed at DE. Wilfork probably is better than Mike Wright, whom I did select as an end. Darnell Dockett (ARI) and Jay Ratliff (DAL) were the best in the league last season, but they aren't playing at the same level this season and don't deserve your vote. Barry Cofield (NYG) and Anthony Adams (CHI) are better.

Outside Linebacker

Shaun Phillips (SD), James Harrison (PIT), Terrell Suggs (BAL); Clay Matthews III (GB), Chad Greenway (MIN), Lance Briggs (CHI)

It's hard to get away from the pass rushers. Outside linebackers who can get to the quarterback are impact players, and there are a lot of them right now. Tamba Hali (KC) has 8 sacks. LaMarr Woodley (PIT) has 6.5 sacks, 3 forced fumbles, and an interception. Cameron Wake (MIA), who leads the AFC with 10.5 sacks, is probably on most ballots. He's too inconsistent for my taste, disappears for long stretches and is so aggressive he's vulnerable to manipulation by the offense.

Briggs and Greenway are so good they deflected my obsession with pass-rushers. DeMarcus Ware (DAL) and Brian Orakpo (WAS) have big names and good reputations, but they haven't been able to lift their teams, both of which have losing records and rank near the bottom of the league in defense. It's a shame more people don't know about Greenway, who leads the NFC in tackles. He's been a monster in space for a couple of years now, and he's the best player on Minnesota's defense.

Inside Linebacker

Lawrence Timmons (PIT), Jerod Mayo (NE); Jonathan Vilma (NO), Patrick Willis (SF)

Timmons is 4th in the AFC in tackles, with 3 sacks, 2 fumble recoveries, a forced fumble, 10 passes defensed, and 2 interceptions. No one else is having a season like that. Mayo leads the NFL in tackles. He's very quick and instinctive, crucial qualities in a middle linebacker. Ray Lewis (BAL) somehow continues to be among the best ILBs around, but I don't think he stands out from Kevin Burnett (SD), David Harris (NYJ), and Stephen Tulloch (TEN).

I'm not enthusiastic about Willis, but I can't come up with an excuse not to vote for him. Something about his game just doesn't excite me. If you feel the same way, consider E.J. Henderson (MIN), James Laurinaitis (STL), Barrett Ruud (TB), or Brian Urlacher (CHI). Henderson has 3 picks, Laurinaitis has 3 sacks, I don't need to tell you about Urlacher, and Ruud has more tackles than any of them. Vilma's numbers don't jump off the page — they're fine, same ballpark as the other guys I mentioned — but he's a playmaker, the best ILB in the NFC.

Cornerback

Antonio Cromartie (NYJ), Darrelle Revis (NYJ), Antoine Cason (SD); Asante Samuel (PHI), Charles Woodson (GB), Aqib Talib (TB)

Samuel leads the league in interceptions; Talib is tied for second and gets beat less frequently than most INT hawks. Woodson is starting to play more like a safety, freelancing wherever the ball is. He has 4 forced fumbles, 2 INTs, a sack, and a lot of tackles that aren't the result of his man making a catch. Cason's Chargers lead the AFC in opponent passer rating, followed by the Jets, who now have two shutdown corners.

Nnamdi Asomugha (OAK) has missed some time, and Vontae Davis (MIA) gets beat too often. In the interest of brevity, the closest calls in the AFC: Sheldon Brown (CLE), Brandon Flowers (KC), Kelvin Hayden (IND), Ike Taylor (PIT), and a pair of rookies, Joe Haden (CLE) and Devin McCourty (NE), who are 1-2 in the conference in interception return yards. In the NFC: Terrell Thomas (NYG) leads the NFL in passes defensed, Charles Tillman (CHI) is a turnover machine, and Tramon Williams (GB) is starting to resemble a shut-down corner. DeAngelo Hall (WAS) is having his best season in years, and he's made some big plays, but he plays on the last-ranked defense in the NFL, and that's partly his fault.

Strong Safety

Troy Polamalu (PIT); Quintin Mikell (PHI)

No one else at this position particularly interests me. There are other good players in the AFC, but none of them are Polamalu. Mikell consistently gets to the ball. He's an aggressive tackler, and better in coverage than most strong safeties. LaRon Landry (WAS) is a hitter, and he's made some good plays this year, but he's just useless in coverage.

Free Safety

Michael Griffin (TEN); Earl Thomas (SEA)

Please don't vote for Ed Reed (BAL). He's missed half the season. And don't vote for Brian Dawkins (DEN), either. He's a million years old and he can't play any more. Denver has the worst defense in the league. Also, you shouldn't vote for anyone in the NFC. Everyone good is in the AFC. But Thomas has 5 picks and he gets 8 tackles every week, so since I have to pick someone, there you go. Griffin leads all AFC free safeties in tackles, and he has more passes defensed than any except Reed, who I will remind you has only played 5 games. I also like Antoine Bethea (IND), Patrick Chung (NE), Abram Elam (CLE), and Eric Weddle (SD).

Kicker

Billy Cundiff (BAL); John Kasay (CAR)

No one's really blowing the field away this year, so why not go with a solid field goal guy who is easily the best in the league on kickoffs? That's Cundiff. He's only missed three times this season, and more than half his kickoffs go for touchbacks. Otherwise, I guess I'd say Rob Bironas (TEN), who leads the league in FG%, Dan Carpenter (MIA), who leads in field goals made, or Josh Scobee (JAC), whose last-minute 59-yarder beat the Colts in Week 4. Kasay missed a potential game-winning kick in Week 12, but he hasn't failed from under 40 yards all season and he's tied for the league lead in 50+ yard FGs.

Punter

Steve Weatherford (NYJ); Chris Kluwe (MIN)

I'll save my annual punting lecture for the all-pro column, but here's what I like about Weatherford: great net average despite playing for a good team, plays in tough kicking conditions, tied for the league lead in fair catches, very good at pinning opponents deep. Kluwe has a phenomenal 23:2 ratio of punts downed inside the 20 (I20 to its friends) to touchbacks, and his punts come back an average of only 2.4 yards.

Weatherford and Kluwe are second in their respective conferences in net average. The leaders, Shane Lechler (OAK) and Mat McBriar (DAL), both play for mediocre offenses that give them the whole field to work with, and both in stadiums that offer good kicking conditions. Lechler is a line drive kicker who gets no hang time and seldom forces fair catches, so everything gets returned. McBriar can't stay out of the end zone; he has an awful 5:2 ratio of I20:TB, meaning Kluwe is almost five times better at pinning opponents deep.

Kick Returner

Marc Mariani (TEN); LaRod Stephens-Howling (ARI)

Mariani is the only player to return both a kickoff and a punt for touchdowns this season. He leads the AFC in kick return yardage (1,013) and punt return average (16.6). Stephens-Howling doesn't return punts, but he leads the NFL in KR yards (1,219), with 2 KR TDs and another 2 called back by penalties. He's tied with Leon Washington (SEA) for most kickoff returns of at least 40 yards and hasn't fumbled all year. If you insist on a dual KR-PR man, go with Stefan Logan (DET) or Washington.

Special Teamer

Keyaron Fox (PIT); Jason Pierre-Paul (NYG)

Most of my favorite special teamers don't appear on the ballot. Pierre-Paul gets my vote as much for his contributions on defense as special teams. He's quite an athlete. Fox has two fumble recoveries on special teams this season.

The team I voted for most this season was the Chargers (7), followed by the Eagles, Jets, and Saints (6 each). I didn't pick anyone from the 6-5 Dolphins, but they had a lot of close calls. It wouldn't be crazy to vote for Lousaka Polite, Jake Long, Kendall Langford, Randy Starks, Cameron Wake, Yeremiah Bell, and Dan Carpenter. That's seven players. In 2009, my leading teams were the Vikings (8) and Colts (7).

Midseason Awards

Offensive Player of the Year — Arian Foster (HOU)
Defensive Player of the Year — Clay Matthews III (GB)
MVP — Philip Rivers (SD)
Coach of the Year — Todd Haley (KC)
Assistant — Mike Mularkey (ATL)
Rookie of the Year — Ndamukong Suh (DET)

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