Wednesday, December 9, 2015
Sports Central 2015 Pro Bowl Selections
Pro Bowl voting has been open for over a month, but now every team has played most of its schedule. Here's a look at my ballot, continuing the league's recent "unconferenced" format. If you'd like to vote along as you read, you can do so here.
Tom Brady (NE), Carson Palmer (ARI), Cam Newton (CAR), Andy Dalton (CIN), Russell Wilson (SEA), Ben Roethlisberger (PIT)
Let's start by explaining the most notable absence on my ballot. Through Week 13, 26 players had at least 300 pass attempts. Aaron Rodgers (GB) had the second-lowest first down percentage in the group, 25th out of 26. He's a great quarterback, and he's handicapped by a receiving corps that can't get open, but he's not having a great season, and his production is declining. Here's his passer rating by month: 135.4 in September, 96.4 in October, 81.3 in November. Rodgers was amazing at the end of Thursday night's game, but other QBs are having better seasons.
Instead of Rodgers, I went with Ben Roethlisberger. He's missed a lot of time, sitting out part or all of seven games, but he is so explosive. Big Ben leads the NFL in yards per attempt and yards per game, and right now Pittsburgh's offense might be the best in the NFL. Other than Rodgers, Philip Rivers (SD) was the closest miss. He wills his offense to productivity, almost single-handedly. Rivers ranks 2nd in the NFL in passing yards, and he has a 97.1 passer rating, with very little support from his team.
Adrian Peterson (MIN), Devonta Freeman (ATL), Doug Martin (TB), LeSean McCoy (BUF), DeAngelo Williams (PIT), Lamar Miller (MIA)
Peterson, Freeman, and Martin should be on every ballot. Thomas Rawls (SEA) is not on the ballot, or I'd choose him for the last spot. I did not seriously consider Jonathan Stewart (CAR). He's third in the NFL in rushing yards, but ninth among RBs in yards from scrimmage. His rushing average is poor (3.9), and he's not used in the receiving game. Other than Stewart, the top 10 rushers average: 5.6, 5.0, 4.8, 4.8, 4.6, 4.6, 4.5, 4.3, 4.2, 4.2. He really doesn't fit in that group.
If you're not sold on McCoy, Williams, and Miller, I suppose you'd support Todd Gurley (STL) or Chris Ivory (NYJ). Gurley has been totally ineffective the last month (171 yards and a 3.1 average in the past four games); he's only had four good games. Ivory is a workhorse, and that's valuable, but I don't know if it makes him a Pro Bowler. I want to choose players based mostly on talent, and Ivory is just average. If you're looking for an unorthodox selection, Giovani Bernard (CIN) is a valuable all-around back whose stats are limited by a committee in Cincinnati.
Julio Jones (ATL), Antonio Brown (PIT), DeAndre Hopkins (HOU), Odell Beckham (NYG), Larry Fitzgerald (ARI), Allen Robinson (JAC), Brandon Marshall (NYJ), A.J. Green (CIN)
Jones, Brown, and Hopkins are obvious. I think Beckham and Fitzgerald are pretty clear choices, as well. Beckham has great numbers, and the best hands in the league. Fitzgerald is 7th in the NFL in receiving yards, and he blocks more than most tight ends.
Robinson and Marshall solidified their positions with exceptional Week 13 performances, but Green barely held off Calvin Johnson (DET), Demaryius Thomas (DEN), and Jarvis Landry (MIA). You could easily substitute there. I chose Robinson as a downfield threat (most 20+ yard receptions in the NFL), Marshall for his red zone presence and his general impact on the Jets' offense, and Green for his production despite double-teams.
Patrick DiMarco (ATL), Kyle Juszczyk (BAL)
This position is so hard to vote for, because — with the T formation extinct and the I formation critically endangered — these guys get very limited playing time. Only 21 of the 32 teams even have a fullback on the Pro Bowl ballot, and only about a dozen true fullbacks average 10 snaps a game.
I used to be a fullback purist, voting for guys who actually play fullback: lead blockers on run plays, good pass blockers and receivers, with an occasional carry in short yardage. Players like Tony Richardson and Lorenzo Neal were important to their teams. In 2015, there are no fullbacks who are important to their teams. I'm not a purist any more, so if you just want to vote for Mike Tolbert (CAR) and Marcel Reece (OAK), I don't care at this point. They both play a lot of halfback, and neither does much lead blocking, but at least they get regular playing time, and they touch the ball.
But if I'm going to vote for a fullback, I'll vote for one who actually lines up in front of the ball-carrier. DiMarco plays nearly a third of Atlanta's snaps (which is a lot for a fullback), he lead blocks for Devonta Freeman, and he's scored 2 receiving touchdowns this year. Juszczyk gets the most snaps of any true FB, and he has almost as much yardage as Reece and Tolbert. With slim pickings at a position that barely exists any more, that's good enough for me. I also considered Tommy Bohannon (NYJ), Jerome Felton (BUF), Zach Line (MIN), Bruce Miller (SF), and Anthony Sherman (KC), as well as Reece and Tolbert.
Rob Gronkowski (NE), Greg Olsen (CAR), Gary Barnidge (CLE), Travis Kelce (KC)
Gronk and Olsen should be locks. Both are incredibly valuable to their teams. I'm really impressed by Olsen's improvement as a blocker. He's dedicated himself to that part of the game, and it shows. Olsen is a tremendous team player.
Barnidge and Kelce were close calls over Tyler Eifert (CIN) and Delanie Walker (TEN), with Ben Watson (NO) in the next tier. Eifert was closer to making my ballot than Walker, who isn't a great blocker and leaves the field a lot. Kelce passed Eifert while the Bengal is out with a neck injury.
Tyron Smith (DAL), D'Brickashaw Ferguson (NYJ), Andrew Whitworth (CIN), Jared Veldheer (ARI), Kyle Long (CHI), Donald Penn (OAK)
Disclaimer at all the offensive line positions: I've watched about 80 games this season. That's roughly five per team, but it's not evenly distributed. There are some teams I've only seen once or twice, and that's really not enough to fairly judge players at a position which doesn't produce individual stats. I'll have more faith in my year-end All-Pro selections, and I welcome feedback from knowledgeable readers if there are standouts I'm missing or mediocre players I'm overrating because I saw them on a good day.
The state of offensive line play in 2015 is weak: the balance has shifted to defense. Teams employ the short passing game partly because they can't wait for deep pass routes to develop, or their quarterbacks will get killed. There are no great offensive tackles in the league right now. Tyron Smith is good, but he's overrated. When I saw that his Madden rating rose to 99, I couldn't understand it. He was better last year. Whitworth played better early in the season than he has recently. He probably pulls more than any left tackle in the NFL, which speaks to his athleticism even in his 10th season.
Ferguson is having his best season in a long time, maybe his best season ever. His improved play is a big part of the reason the Jets have given up so few sacks, and a big part of the reason their offense is having its most productive campaign since the heyday of Chad Pennington and Curtis Martin. Michael Oher (CAR), who struggled the last two seasons, is also having a bounceback season, but he's slowed down the last few weeks.
I voted for a bunch of left tackles. Most teams still put their best offensive lineman there, and those are the guys who impress me this year. I know some analysts believe omitting right tackles (and guards) is a crime against humanity, a denial of all that is fine and good in the world. If you want to try your luck with true RTs, I'll swing one of my guys over to the right side and we'll see who does better.
If you insist on right tackles, the ones who interest me most right now are Long and Doug Free (DAL). Long's still adjusting to a tackle's pass-blocking responsibilities, but he is a ferocious run blocker. Other tackles I might consider at the end of the season include Duane Brown (HOU), Jake Matthews (ATL), Joe Thomas (CLE), and Trent Williams (WAS).
Marshal Yanda (BAL), Josh Sitton (GB), David DeCastro (PIT), Chance Warmack (TEN), Richie Incognito (BUF), Andy Levitre (ATL)
Yanda isn't flashy; he doesn't look exceptional. But he's really solid: he does what he's supposed to, and he doesn't get beat. Sitton seems to play his best football late in the season. Warmack is a wall on Tennessee's mediocre line. Everyone else is getting beat, and he's there taking a defensive tackle one-on-one like it's no big deal. DeCastro's not great in pass protection, but he might be the best run-blocking guard in the league. Incognito's move to Buffalo is part of why the Bills' offense has been so effective. Andy Levitre and Mike Iupati (ARI) have had similar impact on their new teams. I'd like to see more of Ben Grubbs (KC), Mike Harris (MIN), and Josh Kline (NE).
Ryan Kalil (CAR), Rodney Hudson (OAK), Mitch Morse (KC), Weston Richburg (NYG)
This is Hudson's first year in Oakland, and it's the Raiders' first good offense in over a decade. Hudson is the best center I've seen this season, but he needs to get healthy. The Raiders' previous center, Stefen Wisniewski (JAC), has also played well, and Kansas City — Hudson's old team — has been fine, because rookie Mitch Morse has played so well. Three different Chiefs have rushed for 100 yards in a game this season, and that's a credit to the blockers.
I've always thought Kalil was a little overrated, but he's having a good season. Cody Wallace (PIT) has filled in for Maurkice Pouncey, and Pittsburgh's offense hasn't missed a beat, but Travis Frederick (DAL) and Nick Mangold (NYJ) were the closest misses. Russell Bodine (CIN) hasn't impressed me in the games I've seen, but the Bengals run inside very effectively, and I intend to take a longer look at him.
Only 13 of the 42 offensive players I voted for also made my ballot last year. Eleven of the 34 defensive players repeat from last year.
J.J. Watt (HOU), Ezekiel Ansah (DET), Muhammad Wilkerson (NYJ), Michael Bennett (SEA), Cliff Avril (SEA), Fletcher Cox (PHI)
The Pro Bowl ballot lists 53 players at this position, including some 3-4 DEs you might think of more as defensive tackles. For 25 years, glory has eluded 3-4 defensive ends, who often set the table for teammates rather than compiling big personal statistics. That seems to be changing. My favorite 3-4 DEs right now are Watt, Wilkerson, Cox, Cameron Heyward (PIT), and Malik Jackson (DEN). Watt lives up to the hype; he's the best defensive player in 20 years. Or more.
I'm probably the only person not picking Chandler Jones (NE). He's a good, explosive player, but he disappears for huge stretches of the game. He makes two great plays every game, but he's inconsistent. Other defensive ends who merit Pro Bowl consideration, in alphabetical order: Carlos Dunlap (CIN), Everson Griffen (MIN), Jerry Hughes (BUF), Cameron Jordan (NO), Khalil Mack (OAK), and Rob Ninkovich (NE). Mack was probably closest.
Geno Atkins (CIN), Aaron Donald (STL), Linval Joseph (MIN), Kawann Short (CAR), Mike Daniels (GB), Ndamukong Suh (MIA)
After a slow start, Suh has played his way back onto the list. I know the narrative is that Suh is a bust, but he's been his old self ever since the coaching change. He's probably not winning many friends in the locker room, but he is making plays on the field. Suh also has played by far the most snaps of any defensive tackle. It's tough to criticize a guy's work ethic when he's out there every play, facing double-teams. He's not an admirable person, but he's an impact player.
Atkins and Donald would be Defensive Player of the Year candidates if not for J.J. Watt. No DT blows up plays in the backfield like Donald. Most tackles for loss:
1. Watt, 24
2. Donald, 16
t3. Michael Bennett, 15
t3. Khalil Mack, 15
t5. Ziggy Ansah, Aaron Lynch, Suh, and Olivier Vernon, 13
I also considered Alan Branch (NE), Calais Campbell (ARI), Jurrell Casey (TEN), Bennie Logan (PHI), Gerald McCoy (TB), and Brandon Williams (BAL). Campbell's having a down season, but he's still a fine player. I have no idea why Domata Peko (CIN) isn't on the ballot.
Luke Kuechly (CAR), Clay Matthews (GB), D'Qwell Jackson (IND), Brandon Marshall (DEN)
Kuechly, despite missing three games, is having his best season. His play has finally caught up to the hype. Matthews is a hybrid inside-outside linebacker. He freelances and makes a lot of plays in the backfield, but he also gets out of position too often. He started the season very strong, and hasn't played as well recently.
Kuechly is a must, but for the other three spots, you could look around. Karlos Dansby (CLE) and Bobby Wagner (SEA) have both scored multiple touchdowns this season. Dansby has 3 interceptions and 92 return yards, while Wagner scored on a pair of fumble recoveries. NaVorro Bowman (SF) and Paul Posluszny (JAC) have the most solo tackles at this position, but that's partly because no one else on their teams can tackle. Bowman in particular has very few impact plays: only 4 TFL, 2 sacks, and no interceptions.
I also considered Derrick Johnson (KC), C.J. Mosley (BAL), Lawrence Timmons (PIT), and Danny Trevathan (DEN). Timmons is the only defensive player in the NFL who has played every snap this season. Rookie Kwon Alexander (TB) has played great, but he's suspended for the final four games of the season.
Thomas Davis (CAR), Telvin Smith (JAC), Lavonte David (TB), Justin Houston (KC), Malcolm Smith (OAK), Von Miller (DEN)
Outside linebackers are tough to compare, because there really are two distinct positions: 3-4 pass rushers and 4-3 space players. For the first time in ages, the space guys are the impact players this year. Davis, David, and the Smiths are all over the field: making tackles, covering backs and tight ends, disrupting plays in the backfield. Telvin Smith ranks second in the NFL in solo tackles, and he has double-digit TFL. Davis has 4 sacks, 3 INTs, 2 forced fumbles, and a fumble recovery. Lavonte David is the best LB in the league in pass coverage.
Miller made my ballot ahead of Anthony Barr (MIN), Tamba Hali (KC), Pernell McPhee (CHI), Brian Orakpo (TEN), and K.J. Wright (SEA). McPhee subs out more than I'd like, but he's rejuvenated a Chicago defense that's been missing its identity ever since Brian Urlacher retired. I nearly went with him over Miller. Orakpo is having a surprising bounceback season in his first year with Tennessee. The Titans' defense is better than you probably think, and Orakpo, along with Jurrell Casey, are its best players. Jamie Collins (NE) might have been my first choice a month ago, but he's missed too many games, and the Patriot defense held up fine without him.
Josh Norman (CAR), Aqib Talib (DEN), Chris Harris (DEN), Patrick Peterson (ARI), Marcus Peters (KC), Darrelle Revis (NYJ), Ronald Darby (BUF), Malcolm Butler (NE)
I don't see how a fair-minded person could vote for this position without selecting Norman, Peterson, and the two Broncos. J.J. Watt should repeat as Defensive Player of the Year, but in a normal season, Norman would be a strong candidate. He's a dominant shutdown corner, and a play-making ballhawk.
A pair of rookies, Peters and Darby, have made incredibly successful transitions to the NFL. Peters leads the NFL in INT return yardage, and Darby ranks second in passes defensed. Revis and Richard Sherman (SEA) aren't having their best seasons, but they're still good players. Revis was a critical acquisition for the Jets. Malcolm Butler, last year's Super Bowl hero, almost always goes one-on-one with the opponent's top receiver. The Patriot coaching staff has treated him like an elite corner, and he's held up pretty well.
Among other contenders, Adam Jones (CIN) is playing the best defense of his career. He just needs to stay on the field. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (NYG) is having a good season, but he's missed some time, too. Antwon Blake (PIT), Bashaud Breeland (WAS), and Darius Slay (DET) are still a year away. Early in the season, I thought Casey Hayward (GB) might emerge as the Packers' best CB, but Sam Shields (GB) is having a better season. I also like the Chargers' young corner, Jason Verrett (SD). Aaron Colvin (JAC) isn't a Pro Bowler, but he's having an awesome season as a blitzer, with 4 sacks.
Reshad Jones (MIA), Charles Woodson (OAK)
Jones does everything. He fourth in the NFL in tackles, with 2 sacks, 4 interceptions, and 2 TDs. If he's not on your ballot, you shouldn't be filling one out. Woodson has 7 takeaways (5 INT, 2 FF), and he almost never misses a snap.
T.J. Ward (DEN) or Mike Adams (IND) might be locks if not for injury. Mark Barron (STL) isn't a great cover guy, but he plays the run like a boss. You could also consider Will Hill (BAL) and Rashad Johnson (ARI). The line between strong safety and free safety is pretty blurry on many teams, and there aren't a lot of great players listed at this position. The free safety list is stacked.
Tyrann Mathieu (ARI), Malcolm Jenkins (PHI)
The players listed here are significantly more compelling than the strong safeties. Other than Josh Norman, Mathieu is probably the best defensive back in the NFL this season. He's got the numbers to back that up: 66 tackles, 10 TFL, 14 PD, 4 INT. He's been playing a lot of cornerback, but they could list him at linebacker and I'd vote for him. Jenkins has contributed both at the line of scrimmage (66 tackles, 8 TFL, 3 FF) and in the defensive backfield (7 PD, 2 INT, TD).
The embarrassment of riches at this position leaves other fine players off the list — most notably, Reggie Nelson (CIN) and Kurt Coleman (CAR), the NFL's interception leaders, with 7 and 6, respectively. Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix (GB), Chris Conte (TB), Corey Graham (BUF), Dwight Lowery (IND), and Earl Thomas (SEA) are all having fine seasons, though not the same level as Mathieu and Jenkins. Thomas is great in coverage, but I wish he would make more plays in the run game. You think of a Pro Bowl safety making plays all over the field, and Thomas mostly stays deep.
Devin McCourty (NE) and Harrison Smith (MIN) are good safeties, but they're not Pro Bowlers without more impact plays: TFL, sacks, INTs, etc. Smith has missed most of the last two games, and appears likely to miss more, with knee and hamstring issues. Dashon Goldson (WAS) has a lot of tackles, and he's a leader in the secondary. He's not quite a Pro Bowl player on the field, but he is in the meeting room and the locker room.
Stephen Gostkowski (NE), Dan Bailey (DAL)
Gostkowski is the best. His only miss was from 54 yards, in sub-freezing temperatures. He leads the NFL in extra points (43), without a miss, and he's made 11 field goals of 40+ yards, tied for second-most. He's one of the best kickoff men in the league, and he's even 2/2 on onside kick attempts. Gostkowski is the all-pro front-runner at this position, and no one else is close.
The second spot was a tough call. Bailey is only one FG off the NFL lead, he only has one miss, and he's perfect on PATs. Of course, Bailey plays in a stadium with a retractable roof. Josh Brown (NYG) has done almost the same thing, but playing outdoors. I gave Bailey the edge because Brown has a missed extra point and Bailey is better on kickoffs.
Steven Hauschka (SEA) is having his usual good season. He's missed three extra points, but two of them were blocked, and his only missed field goal came on a block. Brandon McManus (DEN) leads the NFL in 50-yard field goals, but that's sort of expected when you play at Denver's altitude, and he's got a few misses. Mason Crosby (GB) routinely plays in terrible weather, but he's made a number of long kicks and he's perfect on XPs.
Also in the running were Phil Dawson (SF) and Matt Prater (DET). Dawson, old as the hills, is perfect except for a pair of blocks: none of his kicks have been short, or off-target. Prater is 17/17 on field goals, but he's missed three PATs.
Dwayne Harris (NYG), Darren Sproles (PHI)
There are only three or four players who merit serious consideration. If you want the short version, scroll down a bit. But to be thorough, we'll review 18 players:
1. everyone who has a kick return TD
2. anyone in the top five of kickoff return yardage
3. anyone in the top five of punt return yardage
4. anyone in the top 10 of both KR and PR yardage
That excludes the Bengals' Adam Jones. I voted for him last year, but this season, Jones is not near the league lead in any returning category. He's more deserving as a cornerback.
16-18. Kaelin Clay (BAL), Cordarrelle Patterson (MIN), and Andre Roberts (WAS) are not on the ballot. Patterson has 2 KR TDs, a league-leading 31.1 average, and no fumbles.
15. Jeremy Kerley (NYJ) leads the NFL in punt returns, but his average is poor, and he has more fumbles (1) than touchdowns (0).
14. Omar Bolden's (DEN) KR average is poor, and he's only fielded eight punts. He did return one for a touchdown, but he also has three fair catches and a fumble.
13. Tavon Austin (STL) has the second-lowest punt return average (8.4) of anyone profiled here, and he doesn't return kickoffs.
12. Jarvis Landry (MIA) doesn't have good averages on kickoffs or punts.
11. Bobby Rainey (TB) has fumbled on four of his 26 punt returns. Hold onto the ball.
10. Antonio Brown (PIT) doesn't return kickoffs. He has 15 punt returns and 11 fair catches. Don't be scared, homie. He also has two fumbles, out of 15 returns, which is outrageous.
9. Marcus Murphy's (NO) averages are good, but not outstanding. He's fumbled three punt returns.
8. Rashad Ross (WAS) doesn't return punts, but he had a 101-yard KR TD.
7. David Johnson (ARI) doesn't return punts, but he had a 108-yard KR TD.
6. Ameer Abdullah (DET) doesn't return punts and hasn't returned any touchdowns, but he did have a 104-yard return to the 1-yard line, and his 30.8 KR average is excellent.
5. Marcus Sherels (MIN) has four punt returns of at least 20 yards, tied for most in the NFL.
* daylight *
4. Tyler Lockett (SEA) is an explosive player, a big-play threat every time he's in the open field. Which is why it's so shocking that he averages 6.7 yards per punt return, despite fair-catching a third of the time. He has KR and PR TDs, though, and he worries opponents.
3. Travis Benjamin (CLE) doesn't return kickoffs, but he's got a nice PR average (12.4), with a PR TD, and he doesn't fair catch or fumble a lot.
2. Darren Sproles (PHI) only has one KR, but he's the best punt returner in the league, with a good average (12.9) and 2 TDs. He broke about a million tackles on his 89-yard PR TD in Week 3.
1. Dwayne Harris (NYG) is the special teams player of the year so far. He's excellent on kickoffs (590 yds, 29.5 avg, TD), excellent on punts (283 yds, 10.5 avg, TD, only 5 FC), and he's one of the best downfield coverage guys in the league. Terrific off-season pickup for the Giants.
Dustin Colquitt (KC), Sam Koch (BAL)
Do not vote for Mike Scifres this year. He's one of the best punters in history, but he's having an awful season. His average is terrible, even though he's frequently had the whole field to work with, and he's not kicking away from returners. He's only booted one touchback, but he has the fewest I-20 of any regular punter in the NFL. Another popular choice in past years, Shane Lechler, is even worse. They're probably not the two worst punters in the NFL this year, but they're really close.
I had six finalists: Colquitt, Koch, Johnny Hekker (STL), Kevin Huber (CIN), Chris Jones (DAL), and Thomas Morstead (NO). This is not a surprising group. Colquitt, Hekker, Huber, Koch, Morstead, and Pat McAfee (IND) are probably the six best punters in the league right now, and five of the six are having Pro Bowl-caliber seasons. McAfee is an excellent punter, and I'm glad he's finally getting recognition, but this is not the right season to vote for him. He's got four touchbacks, which is a lot in this group, and he's had two punts returned for touchdowns.
Among the indoor punters, Jones is having the best season. He has a better average than Morstead, fewer touchbacks than Hekker, and 39% of his punts have been fair caught, highest in the NFL. You want a punter who makes things easy for his coverage team, it's Jones. He even recovered DeSean Jackson's fumble on Monday night. But I ultimately went with two outdoor punters. Koch leads the NFL in net average, and he's terrific at pinning opponents deep. Colquitt also has a great average — half a yard better than Jones — despite frequently punting from around midfield. Make sure you vote for Dustin, not his brother Britton.
Justin Bethel (ARI), Matthew Slater (NE)
Bethel and Slater are great, but I also like Johnson Bademosi (CLE), Cody Davis (STL), and Kelcie McCray (SEA).
Many of the top special teamers are not on the ballot, including Jamell Fleming (KC) and Bradley Marquez (STL). The Falcons don't list anyone.
The teams I voted for most this season were the Panthers (7) and Cardinals (6). On the 2014 Pro Bowl ballot, my leading teams were the Broncos (7) and Patriots (6).
There are four teams from whom I selected no one: New Orleans, San Diego, San Francisco, and Washington. I know Washington is in the NFC East race at 5-7, but it's not a very good team. Trent Williams is the only player I seriously considered as a Pro Bowler, and not all that seriously. If you're a huge fan, you could maybe make an argument for Morgan Moses, Bashaud Breeland, and Dashon Goldson. But that's seeing the world through burgundy-and-gold-tinted glasses.
2015 Three-Fourths Awards
Offensive Player of the Year — Julio Jones (ATL)
Defensive Player of the Year — J.J. Watt (HOU)
MVP — Tom Brady (NE)
Coach of the Year — Bill Belichick (NE)
Assistant — Wade Phillips (DEN)
Rookie of the Year — Marcus Peters (KC)