The Pro Bowl is a mess, and it’s never been more so. Having it the week before the Super Bowl has added countless withdrawals and replacements, yet some of the most deserving players are still going to be watching (or not watching) from home.
What if we lived in a world where the Pro Bowl was decided by guys who have watched every player on every play? It wouldn’t be perfect, but it would go a long way to eliminating some of the reputation picks, and ensuring some under the radar guys get the credit they deserve.
So step forth, ye olde Pro Football Focus NFC Pro Bowl squad. You’ve truly earned it.
Quarterback: Matt Ryan (Falcons)
Backups: Aaron Rodgers (Packers) and Drew Brees (Saints)
The clutch Matty Ice gets the start in an NFC that had four legit candidates for the spot. He led his team to the best record in the conference and he did so on the back of a number of game winning drives and big third down completions that don’t show up on the stat sheet. Rodgers may have ousted him but for a slow start, while Brees threw too many interceptions. He held off the challenge of Michael Vick who missed too much time for some, and wasn’t quite the passer of the other guys.
Actual QBs: Vick, Ryan and Brees
Running Back: Adrian Peterson (Vikings)
Backups: Matt Forte (Bears) and Ahmad Bradshaw (Giants)
Our top two choices weren’t always blessed with the greatest run blocking in front of them, but they made the most of it. Peterson may not be all that valuable in the passing game (indeed his pass protection at times is dreadful) but he’s called Purple Jesus for a reason as a runner, turning nothing into something for the Vikings. Forte had a good all round year and bounced back from a disappointing 2009. While the selection of Bradshaw (fumbles and all) will surprise some, his start to the season hasn’t been forgotten by us. We’d also like to give a special mention to LeSean McCoy, who like Forte, did everything and did it well.
Actual RBs: Michael Turner, Peterson, Stephen Jackson
Fullback: Ovie Mughelli (Falcons)
No real contest here as the Falcons’ fullback did more than any other in the NFC.
Actual FB: Mughelli
Tight End: Jason Witten (Cowboys)
Backup: Vernon Davis (49ers)
It was never in doubt that Witten would be selected here — he is the best tight end in the game. Spot number two was a lot harder, and a blocking tight end like Martellus Bennett even earned some consideration because what he did, he did well. In the end, though, Davis got the nod. He hasn’t ironed out all the inconsistencies from his game, but he massively cut down on the drops and penalties and whilst his blocking wasn’t what it should be it was still considerably better than the play-off endowed Tony Gonzalez.
Actual TEs: Witten and Gonzalez
Wide Receivers: Calvin Johnson (Lions) and Roddy White (Falcons)
Backups: Larry Fitzgerald (Cardinals) and Percy Harvin (Vikings)
Johnson’s game against Tampa Bay may have been the most impressive by a WR all season, but we’re still looking for him to show up big in every game. White faded a tad down the stretch and gives up too many penalties, but he made a lot of big catches this year. Many may look past Larry Fitzgerald, but to do what he did with the number of hospital balls thrown his way is verging on miraculous. Harvin edges out both Greg Jennings and DeSean Jackson for the final spot with some exceptional work after the catch in difficult circumstances.
Actual WRs: White, Johnson, Jackson, Fitzgerald, Jennings (not playing)
Tackles: Jordan Gross (Panthers) and Kareem McKenzie (Giants)
Backup: Jason Peters (Eagles)
There are a number of guys we’d take in the AFC over any left tackle in the NFC, but Gross gets our Pro Bowl seal of approval ahead of Peters. Peters is a better pass protector, but the difference isn’t great enough to make up for Gross’ ability as a run blocker. Doug Free deserves a mention for some exceptional run blocking, but his pass protection and 11 penalties held him back. The selection of Kareem McKenzie as our right tackle was as easy as it gets, although even after two replacements were picked he’s still not in for Hawaii.
Actual Ts: Gross, Tyson Clabo, Donald Penn, Chad Clifton (not playing), Peters (not playing).
Guards: Carl Nicks (Saints) and Josh Sitton (Packers)
Backup: Harvey Dahl (Falcons)
While Jahri Evans lived on the reputation he earned in 2009, Carl Nicks replaced him not only as the Saints best guard but also the best guard in the league (who played all season – for the Logan Mankins fans out there). Sitton made our All Pro team so why wouldn’t he make this, while Dahl was second string so he gets the backup spot.
Actual Gs: Evans, Chris Snee, Nicks.
Center: Andre Gurode (Cowboys)
Backup: Ryan Kalil (Panthers)
A heated debate about which center should start took place at our offices at 1 PFF Towers, with “Team Gurode” eventually winning the battle. We looked past his bad snaps in a way we couldn’t look past Ryan Kalil frankly getting abused by Remi Ayodele. The race was close enough for that week 9 game to be the difference.
Actual Cs: Gurode, Kalil and Shaun O’Hara (not playing)
Defensive Ends: Justin Smith (49ers) and Trent Cole (Eagles)
Backup: Charles Johnson (Panthers)
The only real dilemma was whether to put Smith (who was my defensive player of the year for what it’s worth) at tackle or end. Just such a good player who once he found his 2010 feet was pretty much unstoppable, and goes to Hawaii as an interior lineman. Cole may not have had as many stops or QB disruptions as Johnson, but he showed up big time throughout the year and continues to be the most complete defensive end in the league. Julius Peppers can feel slighted to not make this team, but he did make our 2nd string All Pro outfit.
Actual DEs: Julius Peppers, Justin Tuck, John Abraham.
Defensive Tackles: Kevin Williams (Vikings) and Fred Robbins (Rams)
Backup: Aubrayo Franklin (49ers)
In 2008 he was on another level to all, but Williams has taken a small step back from that. It says something that’s he still the best DT in the NFC even with this in mind. Robbins was a great pickup for the Rams, who managed his snaps well and were rewarded with some excellent all-around play (including a healthy 34 total QB disruptions). In terms of the prototypical run stuffing nose tackle, there wasn’t anyone better than Franklin. He may seem allergic to getting pressure the passer but so what when you can effectively just stop any team running up the middle.
Actual DTs: Jay Ratliff, Justin Smith, Darnell Dockett, Ndamukong Suh (not playing)
Outside Linebackers: DeMarcus Ware (Cowboys) and Clay Matthews (Packers)
Backup: David Hawthorne (Seahawks)
While I’ll admit to not being the biggest Clay Matthews fan (I react with rage every time I hear that he “makes more plays than any other defensive player”), I’d be fool to not acknowledge how productive he was in leading the Packers’ pass rush. I’d still rather have Ware, even if he did inflate his sack numbers a bit against the Eagles backups. Hawthorne was a tough pick because he comes off in nickel situations (why we’re still not sure), but he’s such an active player on a defense that doesn’t make it easy for him.
Actual OLBs: Ware, Brian Orakpo, Jon Beason, Lance Briggs (not playing), Matthews (not playing).
Inside Linebacker: Patrick Willis (49ers)
Backup: Desmond Bishop (Packers)
A down year for Willis? Well yes, as he battled injury, it probably was but when he’s on he’s so good you can’t better him. Bishop was the revelation of the year, and gives the Packers an interesting offseason problem considering just how much better he is than A.J. Hawk. Special mention to E.J. Henderson, Brian Urlacher and Takeo Spikes who all had great years — not sure how Jonathan Vilma made it after an incredibly subpar season He even struggled in coverage which is usually his strength.
Actual ILBs: Vilma, London Fletcher, Brian Urlacher (not playing), Patrick Willis (not playing)
Cornerbacks: Antoine Winfield (Vikings) and Tramon Williams (Packers)
Backup: Brent Grimes (Falcons)
The first two spots picked themselves. I mean, how did Charles Woodson and all his penalties (and these were “smart penalties” to stop himself getting badly beaten at times) get in over his Packers teammate? Winfield didn’t give up a pass of longer than 27 yards all year or a TD, while being beastly in run support. Our last spot was a lot more contentious and went to the PFF voting system. Many wanted Asante Samuel, but a number of factors worked against him. He missed time, missed tackles and Grimes himself had a superb year in finishing 2nd in pass breakups and allowing just 50.4% of passes thrown at him complete. We wouldn’t argue with anyone who said Samuel should go in, because the base numbers are superb. If only they matched up the number of corners with wide receivers in the Pro Bowl.
Actual CBs: DeAngelo Hall, Grimes, Winfield, Woodson (not playing), Williams (not playing), Samuel (not playing)
Safeties: Danieal Manning (Bears) and Quintin Mikell (Eagles)
Backup: Kenny Phillips (Giants)
While Mikell was a no-brainer (the guy does it all and then some), you’d struggle to find many names at safety in the NFC deserving of the spot (the actual choices were as bad it gets). We went with Manning, who didn’t allow a TD, only missed three tackles and was extremely solid for the Bears this year. Kenny Phillips of the Giants gets the backup spot, in large part because of some of the plays he made coming up in run support. Roman Harper was in the discussion (but this was before he forgot his team wasn’t on a bye week for wildcard weekend).
Actual: Antrel Rolle, Adrian Wilson, Harper, Nick Collins (not playing)
Kicker: Matt Bryant (Falcons)
What separated Bryant was his kicking in the clutch where he won the Falcons three games with hugely pressurized kicks. Numbers weren’t as great as they could have been as the Falcons are a pretty aggressive team on fourth down.
Actual K: David Akers
Punter: Mat McBriar (Cowboys)
Just 205 return yards allowed on the year. Not bad at all.
Actual P: McBriar
Returner: Devin Hester (Bears)
The greatest returner of all time?
Actual KR: Hester
Special Teamer: Corey Graham (Bears)
Just kept on making tackles.
Actual ST: Eric Weems