Wednesday, December 7, 2016
Sports Central 2016 Pro Bowl Selections
Now that every team has played the same number of games, here's a look at my Pro Bowl ballot. If you'd like to vote along as you read, you can do so here.
The Pro Bowl returns to AFC vs. NFC this year, but the ballot is not organized by conference; you could vote for all AFC or all NFC if you want. (Don't do that, though.) Fan voting closes next week, on December 13.
Matt Ryan (ATL), Tom Brady (NE), Drew Brees (NO), Dak Prescott (DAL), Derek Carr (OAK), Kirk Cousins (WAS)
There are nine quarterbacks, I think, who deserve consideration. The others are Marcus Mariota (TEN), Aaron Rodgers (GB), and Russell Wilson (SEA), though you could maybe make a case for Ben Roethlisberger (PIT) or Matthew Stafford (DET). Rodgers put up big numbers in November, but he got off to a really slow start, and you have to downgrade him for that. He's in the bottom half of the league in average yardage, and his low interception rate is partly offset by a lot of fumbles. Mariota has thrown four pick-sixes, tied with Blake Bortles for worst in the league.
Ryan, Brady, and Brees should be on every ballot. Brees leads the league in passing yards (3,913) and touchdowns (30), and he's fourth in passer rating (105.0). Brady leads in passer rating (113.1); he has 19 TDs and 1 INT. Ryan's rating is less than a point behind Brady's (112.3). He leads in yards per attempt and first down percentage.
The other three spots are close. I like Prescott for his high average yardage, low INT rate, and rushing. Carr has very few negative plays and he's come up big at the most important moments. Cousins needs to play better in the red zone, and his fumble rate is high, but he's great at moving the ball downfield, and he's more consistent than Mariota, Rodgers, and Wilson.
David Johnson (ARI), Ezekiel Elliott (DAL), DeMarco Murray (TEN), Le'Veon Bell (PIT), Melvin Gordon (SD), LeSean McCoy (BUF)
Johnson and Elliott are obvious. Those two are playmakers, probably the most exciting and fun-to-watch players in the league right now. They're the top two in rushing yards, yards from scrimmage, and TDs.
Actually, that's not true. Johnson is third in rushing yards, not second. DeMarco Murray is second. He has a 4.55 average and 11 TDs. Bell, suspended for the first four games, now ranks among the top 10 in rushing yards and the top 5 in yards from scrimmage. His versatility, lining up as a wide receiver, creates problems for defenses and opportunities for teammates. Gordon ranks 4th in rushing yards, 4th in TDs, and he has the 3rd-most receiving yardage of any RB. McCoy ranks 6th in rushing yards, leads the league in rushing average (5.45), and has double-digit TDs.
If you're not sold on McCoy, I suppose you'd support Jay Ajayi (MIA) or Devonta Freeman (ATL). Lamar Miller (HOU) has really slowed down, LeGarrette Blount (NE) comes out on passing downs, and Mark Ingram (NO) ranks 13th in rushing and 12th in YFS. There's an argument to be made for Jordan Howard (CHI). I prefer Freeman, who has 1,100 yards, 9 TDs, and no fumbles.
Julio Jones (ATL), Antonio Brown (PIT), Mike Evans (TB), Odell Beckham (NYG), T.Y. Hilton (IND), Larry Fitzgerald (ARI), Amari Cooper (OAK), A.J. Green (CIN)
Jones, Brown, Evans, Beckham, and Hilton are the top five receivers in the league: they all have over 1,000 yards, and no one else does. A.J. Green is injured, and it's still possible he could miss the rest of the season. But through 10 weeks, he was as good as any receiver in the league. No one questions his talent.
Fitzgerald is tied with Brown for most receptions, he's 4th in first downs, and I think everyone agrees that he makes some positive contributions that don't show up on the stat sheet. Cooper is a big-play guy, 3rd in receptions of 20+ yards (behind Jones and Hilton). Cooper ranks 6th in receiving yardage, and his per-target efficiency is impressive.
Target efficiency is part of the reason I prefer Michael Thomas (NO) to Jordy Nelson (GB). The Packers have been most successful when they don't force the ball to Nelson. Green Bay is 3-1 when Nelson has under 40 receiving yards, and 2-1 when he doesn't score a touchdown. He has almost 100 yards more in the team's six losses than in its six wins. Terrell Pryor (CLE) is another possibility for voters who are skeptical about Green or Cooper.
I expect that some of my friends in the analytics community will disagree with me about Mike Evans, who leads the league in targets. There's an argument to be made that Evans isn't really a great receiver, he just gets the ball thrown to him more often than anyone else. The obvious response is that Jameis Winston throws the ball to Evans because Evans is a great receiver; you'd force it to him, too, if he was on your team.
But let's go deeper. Mike Evans leads the league in first down percentage. He has 76 catches for 64 first downs, a phenomal rate of 84%. Almost all of his routes are downfield, rather than quick screens, which I would argue don't require nearly as much skill. Let's say the Steelers have 3rd-and-7, and Antonio Brown runs a little slant that picks up 4 yards. Every system of statistical analysis counts that as a positive play, even though it didn't really help the team. They're still going to punt, or kick a field goal or whatever, and 4 yards is unlikely to be important.
Now let's say the Buccaneers have 3rd-and-7, and Mike Evans runs an 8-yard route that would pick up the first down. He's covered, but Winston throws to him anyway, because sometimes Evans makes that play. The defender gets a hand in and the pass is incomplete. If you penalize for targets, that's a mark against Evans. It shouldn't be. He leads the NFL in first downs per route run, and he's 4th in first downs per target. He's tied for 2nd in TDs and he's 3rd in receptions and yardage. Don't hold the targets against him.
Kyle Juszczyk (BAL), Patrick DiMarco (ATL)
In 2016, there are no fullbacks who are important to their teams. Only half the league (16 of the 32 teams) even has a fullback on the Pro Bowl ballot, and only about a dozen fullbacks average 10 snaps a game.
Juszczyk plays by far the most of any fullback, and this position is so irrelevant through most of the league that regular playing time is enough to earn my vote. DiMarco plays over a quarter of the Falcon's snaps, and he's an effective lead blocker for both Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman.
Greg Olsen (CAR), Travis Kelce (KC), Jimmy Graham (SEA), Jordan Reed (WAS)
Rob Gronkowski (NE) and Olsen are the best, but Gronk will miss the rest of the season following back surgery. He has 6 starts, 25 catches, and 3 TDs. I'll make playing time allowances for a player with his talent, but he's just missed too much time. Graham and Reed are the best pure receiving tight ends in football. Reed is having his best season as a blocker; I suspect that Vernon Davis (WAS) has been a positive influence. Graham is blocking a little more, too. Delanie Walker (TEN) was the closest miss on my ballot, but you could make a case for Jason Witten (DAL) or Martellus Bennett (NE).
Tyron Smith (DAL), Taylor Lewan (TEN), Alejandro Villanueva (PIT), Jack Conklin (TEN), Zack Strief (NO), Marcus Cannon (NE)
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.
Smith is the best, but Lewan is having a breakout season. His improved play, and the addition of Conklin, have transformed Tennessee's offense. Trent Williams (WAS) is a very good player, but a touch overrated, and he's just coming back from a four-game suspension, during which Washington scored a season-high 42 points. Teammate Morgan Moses (WAS) has a stronger case, though his play has slipped recently due to injury. I'd like to see more of David Bakhtiari (GB), Marcus Gilbert (PIT), Donald Penn (OAK), Joe Thomas (CLE), and Andrew Whitworth (CIN). Russell Okung (DEN) almost made my ballot purely on his run blocking.
Zack Martin (DAL), Marshal Yanda (BAL), David DeCastro (PIT), Richie Incognito (BUF), Brandon Scherff (WAS), Andy Levitre (ATL)
Yanda keeps getting better, although he's dealing with an injury and he's less effective at left guard. He is solid in pass protection and sensational as a run blocker, consistently gets to the second level. Ronald Leary (DAL) stepped in for La'el Collins and the Cowboys didn't miss a beat. He and Martin are the best guard tandem in the league. Scherff and Morgan Moses, in two years, have turned the right side of Washington's line from a dangerous liability into a potent weapon. Levitre has never made the Pro Bowl, but this is the fifth time I've chosen him. I like him better than anyone else does, I guess.
Other guards I might consider at the end of the season include Jahri Evans (NO), Ramon Foster (PIT), and Kelechi Osemele (OAK).
Travis Frederick (DAL), Max Unger (NO), Rodney Hudson (OAK), Matt Paradis (DEN)
I don't follow college football closely, so when the Cowboys drafted Travis Frederick, all I knew was that he was considered a reach. The Mel Kiper types (I don't know about Kiper specifically) said that Frederick had limited upside, so I wrote that Frederick had "limited upside." That was wrong. He's the best center in the NFL, and it's not close. It's early in his career for this kind of projection, but if I had to guess, I suspect he'll be a Hall of Famer.
A lot of people really like Paradis, and I don't see it so much, but there's no one else I love for the last spot, so I'll defer to people who have seen more of the Broncos than I have. The best division for centers is unquestionably the NFC South. I don't get as excited about Alex Mack (ATL) and Ryan Kalil (CAR) as some other people do, but certainly they're good players. Kalil is on IR, though, so you shouldn't vote for him; he only played half the season. I also like Joe Hawley (TB), and Unger is the best of a very strong group. As time goes on, it will be interesting to evaluate the trade that sent Unger to New Orleans and Jimmy Graham to Seattle. As well as Graham has played this year, I think the Seahawks miss Unger more than they benefit from Graham.
Seventeen of the 42 offensive players I voted for also made my ballot last year. Fourteen of the 34 defensive players repeat from last year.
Khalil Mack (OAK), Cliff Avril (SEA), Akiem Hicks (CHI), Jason Pierre-Paul (NYG), Leonard Williams (NYJ), Carlos Dunlap (CIN)
The Pro Bowl ballot lists 53 players at this position, including some you might think of more as defensive tackles or rush linebackers. Seattle has as devastating a tandem as you could ask for, but Michael Bennett (SEA) is just coming back from a knee injury, and he's missed too much time to merit a Pro Bowl vote. Frank Clark (SEA), who's not on the ballot, has 7.5 sacks and has filled in nicely. I also like the Giants' combination of Pierre-Paul and Olivier Vernon (NYG). It's not obvious to me which one is better; they're different. Pierre-Paul is rangy; Vernon is more of a pressure guy, tied with Rams DT Aaron Donald for the lead in tackles for loss (15). Jadeveon Clowney (HOU), Brandon Graham (PHI), and Vernon were the toughest to leave off my ballot.
Williams and Hicks frequently line up at DT. Williams is outplaying Muhammad Wilkerson, whom I had chosen the last three years in a row. Hicks has been incredibly disruptive when I've seen the Bears this season. Dunlap has batted 14 passes, which is J.J. Watt territory, and he has 7 sacks.
Other defensive ends who merit Pro Bowl consideration, in alphabetical order: Everson Griffen (MIN), Danielle Hunter (MIN), Cameron Jordan (NO), Cameron Wake (MIA), and Derek Wolfe (DEN). I haven't seen enough Viking games to be sure whether Griffen or Hunter is having a better season. Rookie Joey Bosa (SD) got a late start to the season, but he's worth keeping an eye on. Kerry Hyder (DET) is a backup, and not on the ballot, but he's been productive, playing both inside and outside. Chris Baker (WAS), who really should be listed at DT, is having a nice year.
UPDATE: With Pierre-Paul out for the season, let's sub in his teammate Olivier Vernon (NYG).
Aaron Donald (LA), Calais Campbell (ARI), Fletcher Cox (PHI), Kyle Williams (BUF), Linval Joseph (MIN), Brandon Williams (BAL)
With J.J. Watt out of the way, Aaron Donald is the most dominant defensive lineman in the NFL, and a contender for Defensive Player of the Year. Cox has switched from 3-4 DE to 4-3 DT, with no drop in performance. I like Williams a little better than his teammate Timmy Jernigan (BAL), but they're both playing at a high level. Terrell Suggs gets more hype, but they're the heart of that defense.
I also considered Geno Atkins (CIN), Mike Daniels (GB), Gerald McCoy (TB), Kawann Short (CAR), and Ndamukong Suh (MIA). I know a lot of people don't like Suh, but he's the hardest-working DT in the league, and when he's on, he's a play-wrecker. I don't think he's quite at Pro Bowl level, but Damon Harrison (NYG) has made a lot of plays. You notice Harrison because the announcers like to use his nickname, Snacks. He has the most solo tackles of any DT in the league, by a lot. The Giants have one of those defensive lines where probably no individual player is quite as good as his stats suggest, because of the attention given to his linemates.
Bobby Wagner (SEA), Luke Kuechly (CAR), Vontaze Burfict (CIN), Kwon Alexander (TB)
Kuechly and Burfict are easy choices despite missing a few games. Kuechly keeps getting better. He's probably the best linebacker in the league at shedding blockers, and he's terrific in pass coverage. Wagner is like a guided missile seeking the ball-carrier; he makes plays all over the field. Alexander, who played brilliantly as a rookie before a four-game suspension, is even better this year. Zach Brown (BUF), in his first year with the Bills, was the closest cut. He's in contention for the league lead in tackles, plus he has three sacks and two forced fumbles.
Kiko Alonso (MIA), Deone Bucannon (ARI), Alec Ogletree (LA), and Zach Orr (BAL) are also having good seasons. Ogletree is horribly underrated. He plays on a bad team, and he's overshadowed by Aaron Donald, but Ogletree leads the Rams in tackles every year, and he's excellent playing the pass. Alonso leads the Dolphins in tackles, leads the NFL in fumble recoveries (4), and returned an interception 60 yards for a game-winning touchdown.
Von Miller (DEN), Thomas Davis (CAR), Telvin Smith (JAC), K.J. Wright (SEA), Lorenzo Alexander (BUF), Sean Lee (DAL)
Outside linebackers are tough to compare, because there really are two distinct positions: 3-4 pass rushers and 4-3 space players. Alexander, a longtime backup and special teamer who started 16 games in his first 10 seasons, just might be the best story in the NFL this year. Chandler Jones (ARI) and Brian Orakpo (TEN), Pro Bowlers for their previous teams, have thrived in new homes. Vic Beasley (ATL), who leads the league in forced fumbles (5), and Dee Ford (KC), who trails only Miller in sacks, have taken big steps forward. Melvin Ingram (SD), Ryan Kerrigan (WAS), Nick Perry (GB), and Terrell Suggs (BAL) have also played well, but I can't see how to fit them onto the ballot at this stacked position. Beasley and Ford were the toughest cuts.
The space players aren't having the same kind of year they did last season, but Thomas Davis continues to excel, defying our expectations about age and return from injury. Telvin Smith might be the most underrated linebacker in football. He's among the league leaders in tackles for loss, and he makes plays in pass coverage. It's not his fault he plays for the Jaguars. Lavonte David (TB) is a good player having a good season, but he just missed the cut on my ballot. Mark Barron (LA) is one of those safety-linebacker tweeners, who are tough to evaluate statistically, and I haven't seen a lot of the Rams this season. But his numbers jump off the page. Dude makes a lot of plays.
Aqib Talib (DEN), Malcolm Butler (NE), Marcus Peters (KC), Chris Harris (DEN), Patrick Peterson (ARI), Xavier Rhodes (MIN), Casey Hayward (SD), Josh Norman (WAS)
The Broncos simply have the most exceptional cornerbacks in the NFL. Von Miller dominates the press, but Talib and Harris and even nickel corner Bradley Roby are where the Broncos truly shut down opponents. Talib is an unparalleled playmaker, and no one covers the slot better than Harris. Super Bowl XLIX hero Malcolm Butler continues to develop into one of the game's great corners. He's New England's best defensive player.
Peters, the reigning Defensive Rookie of the Year, leads the NFL in takeaways (5 INT, 3 FR). I know he's been burned some, but it's worth it for his playmaking. I liked Casey Hayward (SD) in Green Bay, and I like him in San Diego. He doesn't get enough credit. Or at least, he didn't before taking the league lead in INTs a week ago.
Richard Sherman (SEA) and Josh Norman are perceived by some fans as loudmouths; they're not the most popular CBs in the league. Sherman doesn't shut down receivers the way he did a couple years ago, but if you test him, he still makes big plays. He's also terrific playing the run. He freelances a lot and mostly gets away with it. Norman had that one game with five penalties, but he's really made a difference on Washington's defense. He's the best player on that unit. I give him a slight edge over Sherman right now.
If you wanted to go in a different direction, Janoris Jenkins (NYG) has really helped the Giants turn their defense around. David Amerson (OAK) is near the league lead in passes defensed, and Terence Newman (MIN), the oldest defensive player in the league, was having another strong season before his recent neck injury. Brent Grimes (TB) is having a bounce-back season. Jenkins and Sherman were the closest misses.
Landon Collins (NYG), Eric Weddle (BAL)
Landon Collins is mandatory. He's tied for 2nd in interceptions, with 3 sacks, double-digit passes defensed, 5 tackles for loss, a touchdown, and he leads the Giants in tackles. Aaron Donald, Von Miller, and Collins are the DPOY front-runners right now.
The line between strong safety and free safety is pretty blurry on many teams, and the line between strong safety and linebacker is getting blurry in some quarters, as well. I went with a converted free safety, Weddle, over a traditional strong safety, T.J. Ward (DEN), and a safety who plays a lot like a linebacker, Tony Jefferson (ARI). Ward is a hard-hitting strong safety (3 FF, 2 FR) who isn't a liability in coverage (7 PD, 1 INT). Jefferson has 11 TFL this season, which is outrageous for a defensive back.
Eric Berry (KC), Collins, and Weddle are the best in coverage. This year, I like the players listed at strong safety a lot more than those at free safety. Kam Chancellor (SEA) would probably be my 6th choice at SS, but he'd make my ballot at FS.
Rodney McLeod (PHI), Reggie Nelson (OAK)
Earl Thomas (SEA) was having a Pro Bowl-quality year before his injury in Week 13, but not such a great year that he's deserving in only 11½ games. McLeod, a free agent from the Rams, leads the Eagles in tackles, with three INTs, a sack, and a forced fumble. He makes plays on both sides of the line of scrimmage. Last year's interception leader, Nelson moved from Cincinnati to Oakland and has lifted his new team.
Former CB Devin McCourty (NE) is excellent in coverage, really gives the Patriots flexibility with his ability to play two positions. Darian Stewart (DEN) is having a fine season — he just got a four-year extension — and I like the Packers' safeties (Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix and Morgan Burnett), but not enough for a Pro Bowl vote. If Tyrann Mathieu (ARI) can stay healthy, he's capable of dominating the game, though he's having trouble staying healthy. Bradley McDougald (TB) merits attention.
Justin Tucker (BAL), Adam Vinatieri (IND)
Unless you ding Vinatieri for not kicking off, I think this is pretty straightforward. Tucker hasn't missed from any distance, and he leads the league in 50+ yard field goals. Vinatieri ranks second in 50+ FGs and hasn't missed from inside 40 yards, including perfect on extra points. The next tier includes Matt Prater (DET), Dan Bailey (DAL), and Matt Bryant (ATL). Bailey and Bryant haven't made many long kicks, and Prater has two missed XPs. Bryant and Prater, like Vinatieri, don't kick off.
Other than Tucker, none of the cold-weather kickers are having seasons that merit consideration.
Tyreek Hill (KC), Jamison Crowder (WAS)
We'll review 13 players:
1. anyone in the top three of kickoff return yardage
2. anyone in the top three of punt return yardage
3. anyone in the top five of both KR and PR yardage
4. everyone who has a kick return TD
8-13. Benny Cunningham (LA), Kenyan Drake (MIA), Will Fuller (HOU), Marcus Sherels (MIN), Wendell Smallwood (PHI), and Jordan Todman (IND) are not on the ballot. Most of them are part-time returners who scored a TD. Sherels is the best of the bunch. He's not on the ballot because the Vikings have two top returners.
7. Eddie Royal (CHI) has a punt return TD, but he also has an 8.7 PR average, and he doesn't return kickoffs.
6. Jakeem Grant (MIA) is a decent kickoff returner and a bold punt returner, but he fumbles too much (16 PR, 3 fmbl).
5. Jalen Richard (OAK) doesn't have any return TDs, and his averages are good, but not special.
4. Andre Roberts (DET) leads the NFL in combined kick return yardage, and he has two punt return TDs, but his KR average is mediocre (22.1) and he fair catches too much (14 PR, 13 FC).
3. Cordarrelle Patterson (MIN) recently replaced teammate Marcus Sherels on the ballot. Patterson has a 104-yard KR TD and a league-leading 30.5 average.
2. Jamison Crowder (WAS) is as dangerous an open-field runner as anyone in the NFL right now. He leads the NFL in punt return average, including an 85-yard touchdown against the Ravens.
1. Tyreek Hill (KC) ranks second in combined kick return yardage, he had a KR TD against Denver, and he doesn't protect his 15.0 PR average with fair catches (25 PR, 6 FC).
Johnny Hekker (LA), Sam Martin (DET)
Hekker is all alone. He leads the NFL in net average by a full yard, despite that he frequently kicks from around midfield, where you have to shorten your punts to keep them out of the end zone. Hekker is brilliant near the goal line, with 40 punts down inside the 20 and only 1 touchback. Leaguewide, the average is about 5 I-20 per TB, but Hekker is at 40:1. He also leads the NFL in fair catches, and the return average against him is just 3.7. He's best in the league at everything. Hekker is the best special teams player in the NFL this season, including Justin Tucker.
Martin edged my other finalist, Matt Bosher (ATL), because he has a better net average and better directional kicking. He also has many more punts, because the Falcons' offense is really good. My favorite cold-weather punters are Jon Ryan (SEA) and Jordan Berry (PIT), but the indoor/nice-weather guys are having better years.
The league leaders in gross average — which is a useless stat and should be ignored — are Pat McAfee (IND) and Marquette King (OAK). McAfee is a great punter, but he's having an off year and leads the NFL in touchbacks. King was my all-pro punter last season, and he's having another nice year, but I'd like to see him focus less on distance and more on hang time. He's been a little sloppy compared to Martin and Bosher.
Justin Bethel (ARI), Darrell Stuckey (SD)
I'm not sure why some teams get two or three players listed, and other teams only one.
Bethel is the best right now. Some of my other favorites aren't on the ballot, including Jonathan Meeks (BUF) and Nate Ebner (NE), though Stuckey is a great choice. I also like Andre Holmes (OAK), one of several Raiders distinguishing himself on special teams.
UPDATE: The number of players listed at Special Teamer has more than doubled in the last week. Meeks and Ebner are both on the ballot now. Bethel is the best, but I might substitute one of them for Stuckey.
The team I voted for most this season was the Cowboys (6). Second place (5) was a four-way tie involving the Raiders and three teams I don't expect to make the playoffs. There's a lot of parity, and not really any great teams right now. On the 2015 Pro Bowl ballot, my leading team was the Panthers (7).
Five teams missed my ballot entirely: the Browns and 49ers, but also three potential playoff teams — Green Bay, Houston, and Miami. Houston is the only one I think will actually make the playoffs, but I'd hate for anyone to think I was overlooking these teams deliberately. The most glaring omission is probably Houston's defense, where Jadeveon Clowney's injury cost him a spot.
2016 Three-Fourths Awards
Offensive Player of the Year — David Johnson (ARI)
Defensive Player of the Year — Aaron Donald (LA)
MVP — David Johnson (ARI)
Coach of the Year — Jack Del Rio (OAK)
Assistant — Wade Phillips (DEN)
Rookie of the Year — Ezekiel Elliott (DAL)
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