Saturday, December 3, 2011

Sports Central 2011 Pro Bowl Ballot

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.

The league has not done a good job of keeping the ballot updated. At quarterback, for instance, you can still vote for John Beck, Matt Cassel, Jay Cutler, and Matt Schaub. A ballot-stuffing campaign for Beck would be hilarious, by the way. If you'd like to vote along as you read, you can do so here.

Quarterback

Tom Brady (NE), Ben Roethlisberger (PIT), Philip Rivers (SD); Aaron Rodgers (GB), Drew Brees (NO), Tony Romo (DAL)

Tough calls in both conferences, for different reasons. The AFC is incredibly weak after Brady and Big Ben. Actually, if you just go by stats, I'd say there are six or seven NFC QBs ahead of Ben, even: the three I chose, plus Eli Manning (NYG), Cam Newton (CAR), Matthew Stafford (DET), and maybe Matt Ryan (ATL). Rivers obviously is not having a good year; he's thrown more interceptions than touchdowns, and he hasn't led his team to victory the way he did in seasons past. But with alternatives like Andy Dalton (CIN), Matt Hasselbeck (TEN), and Ryan Fitzpatrick (BUF), I think Rivers measures up. Besides, I'd rather go with a great player having a bad year than a mediocre or unproven player doing a little better than expected. I'm still ashamed of the year I voted for David Carr.

Romo was a very close call over Manning and Newton. Eli has passed for the most yards of the three. Romo has the most TDs, fewest INTs, and best passer rating. If you include rushing, Newton takes over the lead in yards and TDs, and what he's done to elevate last year's horrific Carolina offense is remarkable. I know everyone thinks Romo is doomed to crash and burn in December, but Eli is just as bad. Per-game averages:

Chart

With the Giants' rough remaining schedule, I suspect Romo is going to look better a month from now than Eli. That said, Manning and Newton are both very reasonable choices.

Running Back

Ray Rice (BAL), Arian Foster (HOU), Maurice Jones-Drew (JAC); LeSean McCoy (PHI), Matt Forte (CHI), Adrian Peterson (MIN)

Just a few weeks ago, this position on the ballot was full of agonizing decisions. Now, injuries have cleared the way for much easier choices. The AFC ballot seems obvious to me at this point, but in the NFC, potential controversy remains in the form of Michael Turner (ATL), Frank Gore (SF), DeMarco Murray (DAL), and Marshawn Lynch (SEA). Peterson's talent is unmatched, but if his ankle injury is serious, you could certainly slide one of those other guys in. There's an argument to be made for Darren Sproles (NO), too, but I just don't think he's as important to his offense as the other RBs. Sproles has 59 carries, about five per game.

Wide Receiver

Wes Welker (NE), Mike Wallace (PIT), Brandon Marshall (MIA), A.J. Green (CIN); Calvin Johnson (DET), Steve Smith (CAR), Greg Jennings (GB), Larry Fitzgerald (ARI)

Really tough calls at this position. Marshall only has 3 touchdowns, and Green is just eighth in the AFC in receiving yards. Meanwhile, Dwayne Bowe (KC) and Vincent Jackson (SD) are both having fine seasons, and Eric Decker (DEN) is the only receiving threat in Denver's run-heavy offense, with 8 TDs, tied for the highest of any AFC wide receiver. But Green's production and play-making have stood out in a way that the others haven't.

Victor Cruz (NYG) is having a breakout season, third in the NFC in receiving yards, but he's not on the ballot. This will a theme for the Giants, by the way. Jordy Nelson (GB) has stats comparable to his teammate Jennings. But Fitzgerald has continued to produce like a star, even without quality quarterbacking, and Jennings is still the first player Aaron Rodgers looks for. The toughest omission may have been Roddy White (ATL), but he's been up-and-down, had some drops. Still, tough decisions here.

Fullback

Vonta Leach (BAL); John Kuhn (GB)

In an era of disappearing playing time for fullbacks, Leach remains an important player. Kuhn has scored 6 TDs.

Tight End

Rob Gronkowski (NE), Heath Miller (PIT); Jimmy Graham (NO), Tony Gonzalez (ATL)

Graham isn't much of a blocker, but the way he's played this year, he would probably make this list as a wide receiver, and he's extremely valuable to the Saints. Jason Witten (DAL) and the ageless Gonzalez are the most consistent and reliable TEs in the game today. Gronkowski is a tremendous weapon in New England's passing game, and a legit blocker, probably the best tight end in the NFL this season. Miller finally makes my ballot after years of near-misses.

Offensive Tackle

Michael Roos (TEN), Andrew Whitworth (CIN), Matt Light (NE); Jason Peters (PHI), Jordan Gross (CAR), Kareem McKenzie (NYG)

Peters missed two games, but he's the best, a truly dominant tackle. Roos has been great when I've seen him, and the Titans have allowed fewer hits on the QB (39) than any other team. Light isn't the player he was a few years ago, but he's a solid anchor at left tackle. I will freely admit that there's more guesswork at the offensive line positions than I'm comfortable with. Some of these guys I've only seen once, and it's difficult to draw meaningful conclusions about offensive linemen from stats. I'd particularly like more looks at Eric Winston (HOU), Ryan Clady (DEN), and Charlie Johnson (MIN). Everyone knows how the Colts have fallen apart without Peyton Manning, but they also lost Johnson, who last year started 15 games at left tackle. If you insist on including right tackles, vote for Winston instead of Light.

Offensive Guard

Mike Brisiel (HOU), Andy Levitre (BUF), Cooper Carlisle (OAK); Jahri Evans (NO), Carl Nicks (NO), Mike Iupati (SF)

Evans and Nicks are rightly lauded as the premier guard tandem in the NFL. Other than those two, the best guards of 2010 are struggling a little bit this year. Logan Mankins (NE) doesn't look like himself, and isn't clearly outplaying 12th-year vet Brian Waters (NE). Chris Snee (NYG) still makes some dynamite plays, but he's making more mistakes than usual. Josh Sitton (GB) was injured on Thanksgiving and is likely to miss some time, but he wasn't blowing me away before that, either. Green Bay's line is solid, not exceptional. That offense excels because of the coaches, the receivers, and Aaron Rodgers. I'd like to see more of Stefen Wisniewski (OAK).

Center

Nick Mangold (NYJ), Chris Myers (HOU); Dominic Raiola (DET), Ryan Kalil (CAR)

Mangold is probably a little over-hyped at this point, but he is legitimately a very good center. The other spot in the AFC was a tough call, with Myers edging Kyle Cook (CIN) and Brad Meester (JAC) on my ballot. That might change if my local CBS affiliate ever decides to air the Bengals and Jaguars in my area. What do you people have against big cats, anyway? I'm not allowed to have a satellite dish where I live, so I can't get Sunday Ticket and I usually see a lot of the NFC East, plus the Patriots, Jets, Ravens, and Steelers. I've seen those eight teams more than the other 24 combined. I'm also interested in Jonathan Goodwin (SF), who came over from New Orleans in the offseason.

Defensive End

Cory Redding (BAL), Andre Carter (NE), Antonio Smith (HOU); Jared Allen (MIN), Julius Peppers (CHI), Chris Clemons (SEA)

Allen is a monster. He has 37 solo tackles, 13.5 sacks, 3 forced fumbles, 3 recoveries, 3 batted passes, and an interception. Known primarily as a pass-rusher, he's also sound on run defense. Jason Pierre-Paul (NYG), the Giants' one standout on defense, would be an easy choice, except that ... he's not on ballot. Pierre-Paul leads all NFC linemen in tackles, he's batted four passes, and he has more sacks than Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck combined. Oh well. Instead, I've got Clemons, a freelancer who plays more like a 3-4 OLB, as a close call over ... well, a lot of guys. To save space, I'll just list them in alphabetical order: Cliff Avril (DET), Jason Babin (PHI), Trent Cole (PHI), Chris Long (STL), Kyle Vanden Bosch (DET). If you prefer 3-4 DEs, you could vote for Stephen Bowen (WAS), Calais Campbell (ARI), or Adam Carriker (WAS) — or just focus on the AFC.

Last season, the Jets and Ravens listed their ends as DTs, so the AFC was really thin at this position. This year, I've got Redding, who pairs with Haloti Ngata and Terrence Cody to form the most dominant 3-4 defensive front in the game. The Ravens lead the AFC in sacks and opponents' rushing average. They're second or third in points allowed, yards allowed, and opponents' passer rating, and they lead the AFC in turnovers created. Carter leads all AFC linemen in sacks (9.0).

Defensive Tackle

Haloti Ngata (BAL), Geno Atkins (CIN), Tommy Kelly (OAK); Cullen Jenkins (PHI), Jay Ratliff (DAL), Justin Smith (SF)

Let's get this out of the way: Ndamukong Suh (DET) probably wouldn't have made my ballot even without his impending suspension for stomping on an opponent. He's played well this season, but he hasn't dominated the way he did as a rookie. B.J. Raji (GB) also has slipped a bit, but his old teammate Cullen Jenkins has been dominant in Philadelphia. I've seen quite a lot of the Eagles this season, and I believe Jenkins, Mike Patterson (PHI), and Trevor Laws (PHI) have more impact than the ends with the big sack numbers. Ratliff has probably created unrealistic expectations for himself at this point, but he remains a good player. I like Jonathan Babineaux (ATL) a lot, but he's missed some games.

Ngata is dominant, a playmaker. Kelly was a close call over his teammate Richard Seymour (OAK), though the Raiders could stand to improve their run defense. Vince Wilfork (NE), a standout in the past, is not playing at the same level this season and does not deserve your vote.

Inside Linebacker

Brian Cushing (HOU), D'Qwell Jackson (CLE); Patrick Willis (SF), Brian Urlacher (CHI)

You hate to do this, taking the big stars, Willis and Urlacher. But where else do you go? Lots of guys are having good seasons. I like Desmond Bishop (GB) and NaVorro Bowman (SF). I like London Fletcher (WAS) and James Laurinaitis (STL) and Sean Lee (DAL). None of them swing games like Urlacher and Willis. Those two are difference-makers. I guess Fletcher might be my third choice, even though he's like 80 years old. He leads the NFC in combined tackles, with 2 picks and 2 forced fumbles. He's also the captain of the 2nd-ranked defense in the conference. Only San Francisco has allowed fewer yards or fewer points than Washington.

Cushing is playing like he did as the Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2009. Last season, dealing with a four-game suspension, he was shuffled around and forced out of position by teammates' injuries. He's settled in this year, by far the leading tackler on the top-ranked defense in the NFL. Jackson's biggest game came in Week 1, but he gets the nod over Derrick Johnson (KC) and Karlos Dansby (MIA).

Outside Linebacker

Terrell Suggs (BAL), Tamba Hali (KC), Daryl Smith (JAC); DeMarcus Ware (DAL), Ryan Kerrigan (WAS), Clay Matthews III (GB)

Outside linebackers are so tough to compare, because there really are two distinct positions: pass rushers and space players. I've mostly selected pass rushers, because the best of them are true game-changers, impact players in a way the others usually aren't. There was one exception, Smith, who has transferred the skills he used as a middle linebacker to the outside, where's he quick to the ball, and one of the best pass defenders at his position. Lance Briggs (CHI) and Chad Greenway (MIN) are still good players, but neither is having his best season.

As for the rush guys, there are lots I like. Von Miller (DEN) leads the AFC in sacks, with 10.5. James Harrison (PIT) and LaMarr Woodley (PIT) are monsters when they're healthy. Connor Barwin (HOU) and Kamerion Wimbley (OAK) have had nice years. But Suggs is probably the best player on Baltimore's defense this year, and Hali is just doing it by himself in Kansas City, where he has more sacks than the rest of the team combined. Ware leads the NFL in sacks (14.5), Kerrigan has forced 4 fumbles and is outplaying his teammate Brian Orakpo (WAS), and Matthews has made a lot of positive plays that don't show up in the sack column.

Cornerback

Darrelle Revis (NYJ), Johnathan Joseph (HOU), Ike Taylor (PIT); Tramon Williams (GB), Carlos Rogers (SF), Chris Houston (DET)

Revis Island isn't as desolate as it was a couple years ago, but he's still the biggest factor in the Jets' pass defense, which ranks third in the NFL in opponent passer rating (71.8). Ron Jaworski praised Joseph, on Monday night, as perhaps the best free agent acquisition of 2011. I don't know if he was actually the best, but he's certainly on the short list. Of course, Rogers — second in the NFC in interceptions — was also a free agent pickup, and he's been a standout for the top scoring defense in the NFL.

Taylor was the only Pittsburgh defender to make my ballot this year. Casey Hampton, James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley, and Brett Keisel have all missed multiple games, Troy Polamalu's had two concussions, and the Steelers are tied for last in the NFL in takeaways. But what's a Pro Bowl defense without some black and gold? Taylor has been the team's most consistent defensive player this season. The same can't be said of the league INT leaders, Kyle Arrington (NE) and Charles Woodson (GB). They've obviously made some positive plays, but they get beat too often. Out of those two, I prefer Woodson, who really plays more like a safety now, does a lot of freelancing, but puts himself around the ball.

The other guys I really like in the AFC are Brandon Flowers (KC) and Lardarius Webb (BAL). In the NFC, Brent Grimes (ATL) and Charles Tillman (CHI). Peanut gives up some plays because he's so aggressive, but the man is a turnover machine: 3 forced fumbles, 2 recoveries, and an interception return for a touchdown. Chris Houston leads the NFC in interception return yardage (184), with two picks returned for touchdowns.

Strong Safety

George Wilson (BUF); Roman Harper (NO)

Normally, you give the AFC to Troy Polamalu (PIT). Since 2005, Polamalu has played at least 3/4 of the season four times, and I've chosen him on my Pro Bowl ballot in three of them. He doesn't look like himself this year. Maybe it's the head injuries. Maybe it's age. Maybe it's just an off year. He still flies around like a crazy person, but this season he often seems to get there a step late. Troy has 44 solo tackles, 1 sack, no interceptions. Those aren't bad numbers, but they reflect his level of play this season, which is more like above average than exceptional.

I prefer Yeremiah Bell (MIA), Tyvon Branch (OAK), Dawan Landry (JAC), and especially Wilson. He missed the last two games with a neck injury, but still leads all AFC safeties, with 60 solo tackles. Wilson also has 4 interceptions and a forced fumble, and he's Buffalo's leader on defense. The NFC candidates are less exceptional. Harper has 6.5 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, and a ton of tackles, and he gets my vote mostly for the big plays. I also like Charlie Peprah (GB), who has 4 INTs, Kam Chancellor (SEA), who's deflected or picked 11 passes, and Donte Whitner (SF), another new addition to the formidable 49er defense.

Free Safety

Ed Reed (BAL); Dashon Goldson (SF)

Where have all the great free safeties gone? Reed is a stud, of course, but he's not having a particularly big year. Eric Weddle (SD), a consistently good player in the San Diego secondary, this season has the best numbers of his career, including 5 INTs and 7 other pass deflections.

Morgan Burnett (GB), has probably the best numbers of any NFC player at this position: 71 tkl, 7 PD, 3 INT, 2 FF, FR, sack. But I just don't see him as a standout on that defense, which ranks 30th in yards allowed. He's made a lot of plays because a lot of plays have gone toward him. Earl Thomas (SEA) has had his moments, and he's got a lot of tackles. My not entirely enthusiastic choice is Goldson, who has 3 interceptions, a forced fumble, and a fumble recovery.

Kicker

Sebastian Janikowski (OAK); Robbie Gould (CHI)

Tough calls in both conferences. Janikowski missed a game due to hamstring problem, and he was gimpy in several others, most noticeably on kickoffs. But he blasted six field goals last week, and he's connected from 50 yards or beyond five times this season, including a record-tying 63-yarder in Week 1. Slightly less exceptional, but more consistent for health reasons, is Josh Scobee (JAC), who's also made five 50-yarders. Gould edges out Mason Crosby (GB), who's actually a little tough to evaluate because the Packers score so many touchdowns. Crosby is 46/46 on PATs.

Punter

Zoltan Mesko (NE); Sav Rocca (WAS)

Mesko has a lot working against him. He plays for a good team, so he often has to shorten punts to avoid the end zone, hurting his average. He plays in chilly New England, and hasn't had a single game in a dome this season. Yet he has the second-best net average in the AFC, behind only Britton Colquitt (DEN), who gets a substantial boost from the thin air at Mile High. In the NFC, I couldn't decide among Thomas Morstead (NO), Adam Podlesh (CHI), and Rocca. So I copped out and went with Rocca because I've never chosen him before. I've never voted for Morstead or Podlesh, either, but Rocca has been a very good punter for several years, and this is my version of a make-up call. Rocca is the best in the NFC at pinning opponents deep, with 21 kicks down inside the 20, and only one touchback.

Kick Returner

Jacoby Jones (HOU); Devin Hester (CHI)

Normally, you'd expect the NFC to be a blowout. Randall Cobb (GB) has scored on both kickoff and punt returns, with great averages. Slam dunk, right? But Ted Ginn (SF) also has KR and PR TDs, and he hasn't fumbled all year, whereas Cobb has dropped three. But Devin Hester has supplemented a KR TD with his usual nastiness on PRs: NFL-best 19.4 average, 2 TDs, only 7 fair catches. But Patrick Peterson (ARI) has a record-tying four punt return TDs, including a game-winner in overtime. I went with Hester, in an awfully close call over Peterson and Ginn.

No one in the AFC has had that kind of success, so I actually went with a pure punt returner. Jones has four punt returns of at least 40 yards, tied with Peterson for most in the NFL. He returns almost everything (only 5 FC), and scored on a 79-yard return. Marc Mariani (TEN) is probably the best AFC returner who does both kickoffs and punts.

Special Teamer

Kassim Osgood (JAC); Corey Graham (CHI)

As always, many of my favorite special teamers don't appear on the ballot. Osgood and Graham, though, consistently help their teams. My NFC special teams ballot was almost a sweep for the Bears: Gould, Hester, Graham, and very nearly Podlesh. I should go back and change my vote from Rocca to Podlesh just for the angle.

The AFC team I voted for most this season was the Texans (7), followed by the Patriots and Ravens (6). In the NFC, the Bears' special teamers edged them ahead (6) of the Packers, 49ers, and Saints (5). The best team I didn't vote for was the 6-5 Broncos. Decker and Clady were close, and Von Miller was very close. On the 2010 ballot, my leading team was the Chargers (7), with five each from the Packers and Steelers.

2011 Midseason Awards

Offensive Player of the Year — Aaron Rodgers (GB)
Defensive Player of the Year — Jared Allen (MIN)
MVP — Aaron Rodgers (GB)
Coach of the Year — Mike McCarthy (GB)
Assistant — Wade Phillips (HOU)
Rookie of the Year — Von Miller (DEN)

This is my 10th season picking a Pro Bowl team for Sports Central. Either to celebrate my favorite players, or reveal my own biases, here's an all-star team of the guys I've chosen most often, 2002-11:

QB: Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, 7 each
RB: LaDainian Tomlinson and Adrian Peterson, 5 each
FB: Tony Richardson, 3
WR: Torry Holt, 5
WR: Andre Johnson, 5
TE: Tony Gonzalez, 8
C: Olin Kreutz, 3
G: Steve Hutchinson, 6
G: Alan Faneca, 5
OT: Matt Light, 5
OT: Willie Roaf, Walter Jones, and Ryan Diem, 3 each

DT: five players tied, 3 each
DE: Julius Peppers, 5
DE: Jared Allen, 5
OLB: DeMarcus Ware, 6
OLB: Derrick Brooks, Lance Briggs, James Harrison, 4 each
ILB: Brian Urlacher, 4
CB: Ronde Barber, 6
CB: Asante Samuel, 4
S: Ed Reed, 4
S: Darren Sharper and Troy Polamalu, 3 each

K: John Kasay, 3
P: Shane Lechler and Mitch Berger, 3 each
KR: Dante Hall, 3

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