Wednesday, December 6, 2017
Sports Central 2017 Pro Bowl Selections
At the three-quarters mark of the 2017 NFL season, here's a look at my Pro Bowl ballot. If you'd like to vote along as you read, you can do so here.
Tom Brady (NE), Drew Brees (NO), Russell Wilson (SEA), Jared Goff (LAR), Alex Smith (KC), Carson Wentz (PHI)
I nearly voted for Philip Rivers (LAC) instead of Wentz. Rivers leads Wentz in completions, completion percentage, yards, yards per attempt, net yards per attempt, first downs, and first down percentage, with fewer fumbles and half as many sacks. Touchdowns are important, but they're an overrated statistic; net yards per attempt is an underrated statistic. Wentz ranks 11th in passing yards and passing first downs. His completion percentage is low and he's near the league lead in fumbles, despite playing behind one of the best offensive lines in football. This thing of giving the MVP to the quarterback on the best team has got to end.
Alex Smith is obviously a controversial selection given his team's tailspin over the last two months, but the Pro Bowl isn't a November-only selection. During the Chiefs' 5-0 start, Smith was the most productive and efficient QB in football. He still ranks 2nd in passer rating and 3rd in NY/A, with 305 rushing yards and only 2 fumbles all season. His hot start is a big reason why Kansas City could still be a factor in the AFC playoff race.
Case Keenum (MIN) and Matt Ryan (ATL) were the other players I considered.
Todd Gurley (LAR), Alvin Kamara (NO), Le'Veon Bell (PIT), Melvin Gordon (LAC), Kareem Hunt (KC), Mark Ingram (NO)
Ingram leads the NFL in rushing touchdowns. He's 4th in rush yards, averaging 5.12 yards per carry, and on pace for 56 receptions. But his teammate Kamara has more yards from scrimmage, more TDs, fewer fumbles, and an otherworldly 7.05 rushing average. I like Ingram, but he looks like a product of the Saints' offense; Kamara looks dynamic and explosive.
Kareem Hunt has the same issue as Alex Smith. Actually, Hunt has gone much farther into the tank than his QB. But he's 3rd in the NFL in rushing yards and yards from scrimmage, he's got a good average, and he hasn't fumbled since his first touch of the season. I chose Gordon over LeSean McCoy (BUF) based on the eye test — he doesn't get a lot of help from his linemen — but he also has more TDs and fewer fumbles. Ezekiel Elliott (DAL) was a cinch Pro Bowler before his six-game suspension.
Antonio Brown (PIT), DeAndre Hopkins (HOU), Keenan Allen (LAC), Julio Jones (ATL), Adam Thielen (MIN), Larry Fitzgerald (ARI), A.J. Green (CIN), Doug Baldwin (SEA)
Brown, Hopkins, Allen, Jones, and Thielen are the top five receivers in the league: they all have over 1,000 yards, and no one is within 100 yards of them. The Pro Bowl once again functions in AFC-vs-NFC format, so I tried to balance the remaining spots according to conference, even though there are no conference-based restrictions on voting. In the AFC, I went with Green over Brandin Cooks (NE), Tyreek Hill (KC), and T.Y. Hilton (IND). Robby Anderson (NYJ) has been on fire recently, but he got off to a slow start. Baldwin edged Michael Thomas (NO) for the last spot on my ballot.
James Develin (NE), Tommy Bohannon (JAX)
In 2017, there are no fullbacks who are important to their teams. Only about half the league (18 of the 32 teams) even has a fullback on the Pro Bowl ballot, and only eight fullbacks average 10 offensive snaps per game. Develin gets regular playing time and is a solidifying element in New England's multi-headed run game. Jacksonville leads the NFL in rush yards per game, thanks in part to Bohannon's blocking. Kyle Juszczyk (SF) is the only FB on the ballot with more than 80 yards from scrimmage this season, if you really want to vote for someone on a 2-10 team because he averages 14 yards per game. He probably would be my third choice, actually.
Travis Kelce (KC), Rob Gronkowski (NE), Zach Ertz (PHI), Delanie Walker (TEN)
These selections seem obvious to me. If you prioritize red zone production, maybe you prefer Jimmy Graham (SEA) instead of Walker. If you insist on tight ends who can block, maybe you want someone like Vernon Davis (WAS). But Walker has more catches, more first downs, and a lot more yardage — over 200 yards more than Graham.
Andrew Whitworth (LAR), Riley Reiff (MIN), Lane Johnson (PHI), Tyron Smith (DAL), Daryl Williams (CAR), Taylor Lewan (TEN)
Whitworth and Reiff have turned their respective offenses around. Last year, Whitworth's Bengals ranked 13th in yardage and 24th in scoring; this year they're 31st and 25th. Last year, the Rams ranked dead last in both yards and scoring; this year they're 4th and tied for 1st. That's not solely because of Whitworth, but he's a critical factor. The Vikings had the worst offensive line in the NFL last season, and Reiff, who was somewhat of a disappointment in Detroit, has turned the whole unit around.
David Bakhtiari (GB), Marcus Cannon (NE), and Trent Williams (WAS) are Pro Bowl-caliber tackles, but they've been in and out of the lineup all year. Johnson and Smith have missed some time, too, but not as much.
David DeCastro (PIT), Zack Martin (DAL), Kelechi Osemele (OAK), Shaquille Mason (NE), Andrus Peat (NO), T.J. Lang (DET)
I chose four left tackles and only two right tackles, with four right guards and only two left. I don't think that's a big deal; I'm just looking for the best players. Brandon Brooks (PHI) and his teammate Stefen Wisniewski (PHI) are interesting. Brooks makes fewer mistakes, but Wisniewski is more impressive at his best. Both of them benefit from playing next to one of the league's best centers, Jason Kelce.
Andy Levitre (ATL) might have made my ballot, but he has a partial triceps tear and is going to miss some time. Other guards I might consider at the end of the season include Richie Incognito (BUF), Rodger Saffold (LAR), and Josh Sitton (CHI).
Travis Frederick (DAL), Alex Mack (ATL), Jason Kelce (PHI), David Andrews (NE)
Matt Paradis (DEN) looked good the first month of the season, but Denver's whole team has cratered out since then. Andrews is the opposite, playing well after a slow start. I also like Rodney Hudson (OAK), Maurkice Pouncey (PIT), and Max Unger (NO). Pouncey or Unger would be my fifth choice
Fifteen of the 42 offensive players I voted for also made my ballot last year. Thirteen of the 34 defensive players repeat from last year.
Calais Campbell (JAX), Everson Griffen (MIN), DeMarcus Lawrence (DAL), Joey Bosa (LAC), Cameron Heyward (PIT), Cameron Jordan (NO)
In 16 years of publishing my Pro Bowl ballot, this is the most loaded I have ever seen this position. The official ballot lists 55 players at this position, including some you might think of more as defensive tackles or rush linebackers, and probably a third of them could reasonably make it to Orlando.
If there's one "must" on the ballot, it's Calais Campbell, a longtime standout whose transition to Jacksonville has finally earned him long-overdue recognition; he has transformed that defense into an elite unit — not single-handedly, but Campbell is the critical factor. Lawrence and Bosa have double-digit sacks and 4 forced fumbles. Griffen has double-digit sacks and 3 forced fumbles.
I don't know how you fill out a ballot and leave off Brandon Graham (PHI), Akiem Hicks (CHI), Melvin Ingram (LAC), Khalil Mack (OAK), and Yannick Ngakoue (JAX), but there aren't enough ballot positions for everyone deserving. Heyward is devastating as a 3-4 DE, really an interior lineman on many plays, with double-digit tackles for loss and 9 sacks. Jordan has 10 sacks, 6 pass deflections, 2 forced fumbles, and an interception for a touchdown.
Aaron Donald (LAR), Geno Atkins (CIN), Fletcher Cox (PHI), Kawann Short (CAR), Linval Joseph (MIN), Brandon Williams (BAL)
This is a "Who's Who" of the interior defensive line the past few seasons. I chose four of these players (Donald, Cox, Joseph, and Williams) last year, with the other two (Atkins and Short) on my 2015 Pro Bowl ballot, joined by Donald and Joseph. I've complained many times that Pro Bowl voting is a popularity contest based on name recognition rather than performance, with too many players making the squad year after year based on ancient history. But this is a very strong era for defensive line play, with a number of players who will eventually be strong candidates for the Hall of Fame.
At this very competitive position, I also considered (in alphabetical order): Jurrell Casey (TEN), Kenny Clark (GB), Mike Daniels (GB), Damon Harrison (NYG), Malik Jackson (JAX), Grady Jarrett (ATL), Gerald McCoy (TB), and Ndamukong Suh (MIA). Jackson would be my third choice in the AFC. David Irving (DAL) isn't on the ballot, and probably wouldn't displace any of my top six anyway, but he's an impact player.
Inside LinebackerBobby Wagner (SEA), Luke Kuechly (CAR), C.J. Mosley (BAL), Ryan Shazier (PIT)
I'm sticking with Shazier despite a Week 13 spinal contusion that will likely end his season. The Steelers rank 4th in yards allowed and 5th in yards allowed; they're a great defense. Shazier leads the team in tackles, forced fumbles, interceptions, and passes defensed. Shazier has 11 PD this season; Alec Ogletree (LAR) has 7, and no other LB has more than 6 — Shazier is all alone. His 3 INT are tied for the most of any LB.
Vontaze Burfict (CIN) is a difference-maker, but he was suspended for three games, thrown out of a fourth, and carted off from a fifth. There are enough good players at this position that I can't in good conscience go with someone who's missed a quarter of the season, especially a live wire who picks up momentum-changing penalties.
They didn't make my ballot, but teammates Mark Barron (LAR) and Alec Ogletree are major contributors to the Rams' success. Barron, a linebacker-safety hybrid, has intercepted 3 passes and played brilliantly against the run. Ogletree has been a little up-and-down, but he's got 2 sacks and 6 passes defensed. DeMario Davis (NYJ), Deion Jones (ATL), and Blake Martinez (GB) are also having good seasons. Davis would be my fifth choice.
Jadeveon Clowney (HOU), Telvin Smith (JAX), Chandler Jones (ARI), Von Miller (DEN), Justin Houston (KC), Lavonte David (TB)
Outside linebackers are tough to compare, because there really are two distinct positions: 3-4 pass rushers and 4-3 space players. Clowney and Jones are the best of the pass rushers this year, the league leaders in tackles for loss. Telvin Smith is a must on your ballot; not only is he the leading tackler on the league's top-ranked defense, he has double-digit TFL, 5 takeaways, over 100 return yards, and 2 touchdowns.
The Broncos are having a down season, but Miller has 13 TFL with 8.5 sacks; Houston has 14 TFL with 8.5 sacks, plus 4 tipped passes and a touchdown. Lavonte David is playing below his usual standards in coverage, but he has 4 forced fumbles, 4 recoveries, and a TD. No player at any position has been more productive with regard to loose balls. Sean Lee (DAL), Mr. Glass, has missed half the season. He's a great player when he's on the field, but he doesn't spend enough time on the field. If you really want an even number of OLBs from each conference, Ryan Kerrigan (WAS) could even things out. If you prefer another 4-3 OLB, I guess you could look at Tahir Whitehead (DET).
Casey Hayward (LAC), Patrick Peterson (ARI), Marshon Lattimore (NO), Jalen Ramsey (JAX), Xavier Rhodes (MIN), Patrick Robinson (PHI), A.J. Bouye (JAX), Kyle Fuller (CHI)
Lattimore, although he missed a couple games recently, has been the key player in the Saints' defensive awakening. Ramsey and Bouye have replaced Chris Harris (DEN) and Aqib Talib (DEN) as the premier cornerback tandem in pro football. Ramsey, playing his second season, came on strong toward the end of last year. Bouye, a free agent from Houston, is part of the reason the Jags are so much better in 2017, and the Texans so much worse.
Josh Norman (WAS) got off to a strong start, but missed a couple games in October and hasn't been the same since he returned. Malcolm Butler (NE) is playing great now, but he got off to a really slow start, part of the reason we were all freaking out about New England's defense for the first month or so of the season. Rookie Tre'Davious White (BUF) has been up-and-down at times, and I don't think he's a Pro Bowler yet, but he's a talented player to keep an eye on. Adoree' Jackson (TEN) is another intriguing rookie who's still a year or two away. Darius Slay (DET) was a near-miss on my ballot; Jimmy Smith (BAL) would have been a strong contender if not for his simultaneous four-game suspension and season-ending Achilles injury on Sunday.
Reshad Jones (MIA), Landon Collins (NYG)
Collins was the best safety in the NFL last year; Jones was the best the year before, but injured for most of 2016. Collins and Jones lead all defensive backs in tackles. Collins has 2 interceptions, a forced fumble, and 2 fumble recoveries. Jones has 2 INTs, 3 fumble recoveries, and 2 TDs.
If you're looking for new blood, consider Adrian Amos (CHI), Sean Davis (PIT), or Karl Joseph (OAK). Amos didn't start until Week 4, but he gets 6-8 tackles every game (literally), he's had three fumbles forced or recovered, and he had a 90-yard INT return for a touchdown in the Bears' overtime victory over Baltimore. Davis, in his second season out of Maryland, has been less flashy but a steady backstop on one of the league's best defenses. He's a good tackler and he's been more consistent in coverage than Amos. Joseph continues to improve, especially near the line of scrimmage.
Mike Adams (CAR), Micah Hyde (BUF), Tony Jefferson (BAL), Malcolm Jenkins (PHI), and Andrew Sendejo (MIN) also deserve consideration. I wish we could vote for more than two strong safeties. Jenkins would be my third choice.
Kevin Byard (TEN), Harrison Smith (MIN)
Byard leads the NFL with eight takeaways: 6 INT and 2 FR. He's also a sound run defender with 3 TFL, and a productive returner with over 100 yards. Smith, having one of his best seasons, has 50 tackles, 5 TFL, and 3 INT. Glover Quin (DET), one of the league's better safeties for several years now, would be my third choice.
Those three are so good, I don't know that anyone else merits serious consideration, but LaMarcus Joyner (LAR), Keanu Neal (ATL), and Jordan Poyer (BUF) are all playing well, as is Vonn Bell (NO), who's not on the ballot. D.J. Swearinger (WAS) looked like a Pro Bowler early in the season.
Greg Zuerlein (LAR), Stephen Hauschka (BUF)
Hauschka and Matt Prater (DET) have made the most 50+ yard field goals, 7 each. I prefer Hauschka to Justin Tucker (BAL) because he's made more long kicks. They're both perfect on extra points and field goals inside 40 yards. From 40+, Hauschka is 12/15 and Tucker 13/16, basically even. But Hauschka has 10 successful field goals of 49 yards or more, including four of 55 yards or more, compared to seven and two, respectively, for Tucker. Hauschka has been the best cold-weather kicker this season.
Zuerlein outdistanced Matt Prater (DET) as the best climate-friendly kicker. He leads the NFL in field goals and 40+ yard field goals, with a 6/7 mark from 50 yards and beyond.
Pharoh Cooper (LAR), Jamal Agnew (DET)
We'll review 14 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
12-14. Kaelin Clay (CAR), Dion Lewis (NE), and Bobby Rainey (BAL) are not on the ballot.
11. Andre Roberts (ATL) ranks 2nd in kickoff return yardage, but I have no idea why coaches let him return kicks. He's not good.
10. Alex Erickson (CIN) has the most combined returns in the league, but he's average as a kickoff returner, and poor on punt returns (7.5 avg, 3 fmbl).
9. Tyler Lockett (SEA) is having a nice year as a kickoff returner, but he might be having the worst season of any punt returner. In 26 returns and 20 fair catches, Lockett has produced just 166 yards, 3.6 per fielded punt.
8. Travis Benjamin (LAC) has no kickoff returns, a poor punt return average, and too many fair catches.
7. Jaydon Mickens (JAX) fair catches too much (16 PR, 11 FC) and his average is just pretty good.
6. Tyreek Hill (KC) is a great talent, but he's averaging 9.3 yards per punt return.
5. Tarik Cohen (CHI) scored a thrilling 61-yard punt return TD and does a good job holding onto the ball, but his return averages aren't at the level we associate with the Pro Bowl.
4. Michael Campanaro (BAL) fair catches too much and fumbles too much, but he's got a 13.8 PR average and a touchdown.
3. Ryan Switzer (DAL) is having a good year on both kickoff returns (469 yds, 26.1 avg) and punt returns, where his unremarkable average is buoyed by a TD, plus low fair catch and fumble rates.
2. Cooper leads the NFL in KR yards (713) and combined kick return yards (1,012). He is one of only three players with a KR TD in 2017, and he's also been an effective punt returner, with a 12.6 average and a very low fair catch rate. I make a big deal out of fair catches because they're essentially 0-yard returns that don't count against your average. It's rare for punters to adjust their hang time based on the returner, so a returner with lots of fair catches is never as good as his average implies, while a returner with unusually few fair catches, like Cooper, is more effective than his average implies. If you only get four yards on a return, that hurts your average, but it helps your team more than a fair catch would have.
1. Agnew leads the NFL in punt return yards (370), average (16.8), and TDs (2). He is the only player with multiple kick return TDs this season.
Rigoberto Sanchez (IND), Chris Jones (DAL)
Sanchez and Jones pin opponents near the goal line more consistently than anyone else in the league. Both have 12 punts down inside the 10-yard line and only 2 touchbacks. They're also among the league leaders in fair catches, taking pressure off their coverage teams with excellent hang time. Neither has allowed a total of 100 return yards in 2017.
Johnny Hekker (LAR) is having another great year, but he's too willing to settle for "inside the 20" and not aggressive enough about truly pinning opponents deep. If you prefer cold-weather punters, my favorites so far are Sam Koch (BAL) and Justin Vogel (GB), in that order.
Budda Baker (ARI), Derrick Coleman (ATL)
Baker is all alone here. He's my all-pro front-runner. Baker, a rookie, looks like a future Pro Bowler in the secondary, but this season, he's been a tackling machine on special teams, and he's downed not one but two punts at the 1-yard line. I also like Austin Ekeler (LAC), Sherrick McManis (CHI), and Rontez Miles (NYJ). As always, some of the most effective special teamers aren't listed on the ballot, including Nick Dzubnar (LAC) and Justin Hardee (NO).
The teams I voted for most this season were the Eagles, Rams, Saints, and Vikings (6 each). On the 2016 Pro Bowl ballot, my leading team was the Cowboys (6), alone at the top.
2017 Three-Fourths Awards
Offensive Player of the Year — Antonio Brown (PIT)
Defensive Player of the Year — Calais Campbell (JAX)
MVP — Calais Campbell (JAX)
Coach of the Year — Bill Belichick (NE)
Assistant — Keith Butler (PIT)
Rookie of the Year — Alvin Kamara (NO)