The Pro Bowl matters!

OK, the Pro Bowl game doesn’t matter, which is why it no longer exists. The Pro Bowl Games last year were surprisingly entertaining, in a “put the game on in the background while doing other things” sort of way. A smorgasbord of skills competitions and some flag football games were more interesting than the quarter-effort-at-best parody of a football game the Pro Bowl had descended into in its final seasons. The world didn’t quite get the memo – just 6.3 million viewers last year, a disappointing effort for the NFL and a sensational result for pretty much every other sports league on the planet – but hey, there are worse things to put on TV on a February afternoon.

But Pro Bowl nominations do matter. They’re used as a quick shorthand for player quality in Hall of Fame arguments – missing out on a Pro Bowl nod has much more of an effect on a player’s chances than, say, having one really cool touchdown being called back by penalty. They matter in contract negotiations, in contract bonuses, and just in general prestige. Sure, no one really cares who actually makes the trip to Orlando, but being able to refer to someone as a “five-time Pro Bowler” or what have you matters in conversations, both official and unofficial. So it’s a shame when someone like Tyler Huntley ends up taking a Pro Bowl slot and becomes a trivia answer like Mike Boryla (1975) or Jeff Saturday (2012) rather than the roster legitimately reflecting the player's season.

So this is where we’d normally encourage you to take your ballot seriously but, well, the NFL doesn’t take their ballot seriously. As it stands, the NFL allows you to vote for up to six players at every position, with no regard to conference affiliation. Not only does that not allow you to actually fill a Pro Bowl roster – there will be eight wide receivers and cornerbacks who make the final squad – but it gets into ridiculous territory very fast. Pick six of the ten eligible fullbacks! Have a strong opinion on the sixth-best long snapper in the league! Continue to pretend that T.J. Watt and Myles Garrett play entirely different positions, as the concept of ‘edge rusher’ hasn’t made it to the Pro Bowl just yet! It is a bit of a hot mess.

No matter! We’re here to help you fill out your ballot anyway. With the voting deadline being Christmas Day, we’ve got to buckle up and pick the best of the best and brightest of the brightest. We’ll ignore the ballot’s arbitrary position limit (you can vote via social media, anyway), and give you one man’s take on the ideal 44-man rosters to send to Orlando. At least, until half of them back out because they’re hurt or in the Super Bowl, at any rate.

We’re starting today with the offense, and we’ll finish up with the defense and special teams on Thursday.

All stats through Week 14.

Quarterbacks

Since Dak Prescott and Brock Purdy are leading the MVP conversation, it seems fairly uncontroversial to suggest they make the Pro Bowl, as well, and we do not need to hash out which one is QB1 or QB2. The third quarterback in the NFC, however, is a tougher call. By pure passing, our numbers would give the nod to Jared Goff, third in the conference in both passing DYAR (970) and DVOA (19.5%). That ignores rushing value, however, where Jalen Hurts leads the NFC – and not by a shabby margin, either. His 103 rushing DYAR is more than double every other legitimate NFC contender (i.e., not Sam Howell), and the Brotherly Shove has been effective enough that the league is considering banning it. That is a legitimately tough call, and I was going to go Hurts … until Goff threw five touchdowns against a Denver defense that had been in the top 10 in the league since Week 6. For now, Jared Goff gets the third slot.

Meanwhile, in the AFC, your top three in passing DYAR are Tua Tagovailoa, Josh Allen and Patrick Mahomes, with C.J. Stroud replacing Mahomes when you go to DVOA. That list is missing Lamar Jackson, who jumps right below that top group when you include rushing DYAR, though he only has a 1.0% rushing DVOA, so call that your final five. Jackson, oddly enough, has less rushing DYAR than Allen or Mahomes, and his success rate on rushes is only 60%, 11th among quarterbacks with at least 25 rushes. While his 52 designed runs are more than anyone other than Jaylen Hurts or Taysom Hill, his efficiency as a rusher isn’t where it was last year or in 2019. Stroud’s concussion has cost him valuable time; he has fewer starts than the big names and so he hasn’t been able to show off down the stretch. Either of them would take my third slot in the NFC, but that’s not how conferences work, so we’re kind of stuck here. To supplant one of the top players in DYAR, you need a really bulletproof argument, and I don’t think Jackson or Stroud is quite there. So, we’ll take Tua and call it a day, meaning we have the six quarterbacks in the league with a passing success rate of 50% or better this season.

NFC: Jared Goff, DET; Dak Prescott, DAL; Brock Purdy, SF
AFC: Josh Allen, BUF; Patrick Mahomes, KC; Tua Tagovailoa, MIA

Running Backs

We have a volume versus value question when it comes to running backs. Your top two players in the AFC in rushing DYAR are Raheem Mostert and De'Von Achane from Miami, and yes, we need to squeeze as many of the track team that is the Dolphins offense onto the roster in some description. But Achane doesn’t even have enough carries to make the main leaderboards; are we really going to crown him after only 81 touches? Achane’s 8.7 yards per touch is incredible, and promising, and almost certainly in part a result of small sample size. I’m satisfied just sending Mostert to represent the Miami rushing machine this year.

Your top six qualified backs in rushing DVOA are Mostert, Kyren Williams, Gus Edwards, Christian McCaffrey, Jaylen Warren and Jahmyr Gibbs. Rushing DYAR replaces Warren and Gibbs with Isiah Pacheco and James Cook, which overloads us slightly towards the AFC. But running backs also occasionally do catch passes. If we add in receiving DVOA, we get McCaffery, Mostert, Cook, Williams, Edwards and Bijan Robinson. There are some names missing from that list, but we’ll get to them shortly.

I’m satisfied just taking the top three in the NFC: McCaffrey, Williams and Robinson. Williams being as high as he is despite missing the middle portion of the season with an ankle injury is incredible, and while I was scared off by Achane’s 63 rushing attempts, Williams’ 159 are fine by me. He’s been a workhorse when healthy. Robinson, oddly, has not been a workhorse, despite Atlanta using a top-10 pick on him. He’s only gotten more than 20 touches once this season; a mark top backs regularly hit. He’s racking up 5.3 yards per touch, eighth most in the league, while splitting touches with Tyler Allgeier at 3.8. I would never claim to be an offensive genius on Arthur Smith’s level, but maybe give Robinson a few more touches every now and again?

The AFC is trickier. I have no problem with Mostert being our first name on the list, but the other top names have problems. Firstly, neither Gus Edwards nor Jaylen Warren are the top running back on their team, at least in terms of usage. Edwards has seen Keaton Mitchell pass him on the depth chart, while Warren has not yet been able to knock off Najee Harris. At least Robinson is the acknowledged top back for Atlanta, even if they strive as hard a possible to let everyone on the roster get a touch. Edwards and Warren aren’t, and it’s hard to give a Pro Bowl vote to a player if his own team doesn’t have him as their top guy.

Instead, I’m going slightly off the board and grabbing Derrick Henry. Player DVOA is contextual; it’s impossible to truly remove a player’s contributions from that of his offensive line blocking for him or his offense throwing well enough to provide empty boxes to run in. For Henry to be putting up a positive DVOA in Tennessee’s offense is a minor miracle. Per FTN’s charting, he faces a stacked box 30.8% of the time – by comparison, Warren is at only 13.8%. He’s not the juggernaut he once was, but he’s still averaging 2.51 yards after contact per rush, and his 537 yards after contact are third behind McCaffery and Mostert. He’s also third in avoided tackles at 47, behind McCaffery and Williams. Henry is doing great work in a terrible situation; it’s not his fault he only gets 2.3 yards before contact before he’s swarmed. That leaves me to choose between Cook and Pacheco for the third pick, and that really is a coin toss. Let’s see here, a coin toss between Buffalo and Kansas City, let’s see how this goes… 

NFC: Christian McCaffery, SF; Bijan Robinson, ATL; Kyren Wililams, LAR
AFC: Derrick Henry, TEN; Raheem Mostert, MIA; Isiah Pacheco, KC

Wide Receivers

I’m picking eight receivers rather than the six the ballot lets me. Fight the powers that be!

Your top eight in receiving DYAR are Tyreek Hill, Brandon Aiyuk, CeeDee Lamb, A.J. Brown, Nico Collins, Keenan Allen, DJ Moore and Amon-Ra St. Brown. In DVOA, it’s Aiyuk, Collins, Deebo Samuel, Hill, Josh Reynolds, Lamb, Brandin Cooks and Moore.

You select Hill faster than he can run 40 yards downfield, and Aiyuk should be right behind him. Hill is on pace to be third all-time in receiving DYAR with 584; Aiyuk’s 45.9% DVOA would be in the top 15 all time, and would break 1989 Jerry Rice’s record for most DVOA on at least 100 targets (45.1%). That’s two positions sorted, and both offenses are strong enough that they could justify sending two receivers to the Pro Bowl, too; four of the 15 receivers with 200 receiving DYAR play for San Francisco and Miami. Deebo Samuel missed a bit too much time and only caught on fire in the last month, while Jaylen Waddle just doesn’t quite get enough volume to keep up with the tippy-top talent.

200 DYAR seems like a good cutoff for inclusion this season, even though that cuts out notable names like Puka Nacua, Tank Dell, Stefon Diggs and DeAndre Hopkins – there are simply too many receivers putting up big numbers to justify dipping that far down. In fact, I’m fine just literally going with the top four receivers in each conference, which swaps out St. Brown for Ja'Marr Chase. The toughest call is Moore over Samuel and St. Brown, but Deebo and Amon-Ra get to receive passes from Pro Bowl quarterbacks with top offensive playcallers. D.J. Moore plays for the Chicago freaking Bears. Case closed.

NFC: Brandon Aiyuk, SF; A.J. Brown, PHI; CeeDee Lamb, DAL; DJ Moore, CHI
AFC: Keenan Allen, LAC; Ja'Marr Chase, CIN; Nico Collins, HOU; Tyreek Hill, MIA

Fullbacks

There are three fullbacks who have played at least 300 snaps this season, so I suppose we at least have a choice to make. That choice is Patrick Ricard over Alec Ingold due to run-blocking prowess, while Kyle Juszczyk gets the nod by default in the NFC. Allegations that the Pro Bowl is just a front give Richard and Juszczyk free vacations every offseason remain unconfirmed at this point in time.

NFC: Kyle Juszczyk, SF
AFC: Patrick Ricard, BAL

Tight Ends

The ballot is weird on which injured players are eligible and which are not. You can’t vote for Mark Andrews. You can vote for Kirk Cousins. No, it doesn’t make any sense to me, either.

George Kittle and Travis Kelce each have over 150 receiving DYAR so they’re in. In the AFC, we then have a problem. Andrews is next with 116 DYAR; he’s not eligible. Then it’s Pharaoh Brown at 77; he’s not eligible. New England’s entry is Hunter Henry, which is…uninspiring. The true answer is that without Andrews, the AFC has no second tight end this year. We could take Henry; we could take PFF’s highest-graded remaining tight end in Pat Freiermuth; we could take SIS’ highest Points Earned player in Michael Mayer. But sometimes, the old stats are the best. Evan Engram is second in receiving yards for AFC receivers, because he’s one of just two AFC tight ends to have more than 75 targets. When excellence isn’t available, go for volume.

The NFC, at least, has competition. T.J. Hockenson leads all tight ends in yardage; Sam LaPorta has been the rare immediate contributor as a rookie; Trey McBride and Cole Kmet have been rare bright spots on their respective offenses this season. While LaPorta has a small lead in DYAR, Kmet has the DVOA lead in that quartet – and again, plays in Chicago, not Detroit.

NFC: George Kittle, SF; Cole Kmet; CHI
AFC: Evan Engram, JAX; Travis Kelce, KC

Offensive Tackles

We’ve left individual DYAR land and have to go to charting stats now to help us make our decisions. There is no one killer stat that really is best here, so I like going with a smorgasbord of numbers. To wit:

Rob Havenstein leads all tackles with at least 450 snaps with a blown block rate of just 1.8%; he’s a big reason why Kyren Williams has had so much space to run. He has just 12 blown blocks all season, rarely allows backs to get stuffed, and has taken a significant step forward in his pass protection as well, allowing just one sack so far this season after being charged with at least five in each of the previous four years. He gets a nice shiny “most improved” Pro Bowl vote, to go along with Penei Sewell and Trent Williams’ customary “you’re always here” nods as anchors of two of the top four lines in adjusted line yards. The Bills are another one of those top four, and Dion Dawkins gets a nod as well there. The Eagles are the other one, and while Jordan Mailata is a perfectly good vote, we’ll have the Eagles represented more in a moment. While we’re at it, honorable mentions to both Tyron Smith and Zach Tom as well; the NFC is a bit loaded at tackle this year. 

Garett Bolles is one of the very few players atop both ESPN’s pass block and run block win rate leaderboards; impressive when you have a quarterback like Russell Wilson who runs laps in the pocket and don’t exactly boast the world’s most threatening run game. That leaves us one tackle spot left in the AFC, with Laremy Tunsil and Rashawn Slater as my top choices there. Slater leads in SIS’ points earned rankings, so we’ll go with him.

NFC: Rob Havenstein, LAR; Penei Sewell, DET; Trent Williams, SF
AFC: Garett Bolles, DEN; Dion Dawkins, BUF; Rashawn Slater, LAC

Offensive Guards

There are two teams with a pair of stud guards, and we should acknowledge at least one of each. In Dallas, that’s Zack Martin and Tyler Smith; in Cleveland, that’s Wyatt Teller and Joel Bitonio. You could make arguments for all four, but I’ll just take one from each to spread some of the recognition around. I’ll tip my hat to Smith, who has allowed the fewest pass pressures for any guard with at least 500 snaps, and to Teller, who has a phenomenal 1.6% blown block rate on over 900 offensive snaps.

In the NFC, we’ll go ahead and add Chris Lindstrom and Kevin Dotson to that list. Dotson has been great this season, moving back to his natural right guard position, while Lindstrom is probably the best run-blocking interior lineman in football today. The AFC is a little trickier, though Quinn Meinerz was the first name that immediately jumped to mind. We’ll go with him and Miami’s Robert Hunt, who led all interior linemen with at least 500 snaps with a blown block rate of just 0.9%.

NFC: Kevin Dotson, LAR; Chris Lindstrom, ATL; Tyler Smith, DAL
AFC: Robert Hunt, MIA; Quinn Meinerz, DEN; Wyatt Teller, CLE

Centers

Somehow, I left Jason Kelce off my initial short list. The guy flies under the radar – maybe he should get a podcast or a famous girlfriend or something. Of course, everyone is talking about the Kelce-Swift connection, as the Eagles’ running game, both tush push and not, is led in large part by Kelce and the line. The Eagles could have multiple Pro Bowlers here; Kelce is just the most obvious one. He and Creed Humphrey have a significant lead over the other centers in the league, in terms of snaps per blown block or pass block win rating and so on and so forth.

Elsewhere, it seems well past time for Erik McCoy to make his first Pro Bowl – he might be the most consistent run blocking center in the game, allowing just three stuffs and five blown blocks this season. In the AFC, Miami center Connor Williams is surprisingly not on the ballot. Instead, we’ll go for the point man for the other contender for the AFC bye week in Tyler Linderbaum, essentially tied for second among centers with a 1.2% blown block rate and dishing out pancakes left and right.

NFC: Jason Kelce, PHI; Erik McCoy, NO
AFC: Creed Humphrey, KC; Tyler Linderbaum, BAL

Tomorrow: Defense and Special Teams selections!