On Tuesday evening, the NFL will announce the AFC and NFC Pro Bowl rosters for the 2011 season.
Pro Bowl voting is made up of three equal parts — a fan vote, a collective players’ vote and a coaches’ vote.
The NFL is the only sports league that combines voting by fans, coaches and players to determine its all-star teams, and members of the media — to the great delight of many — have no votes or real say in the process.
Year to year, the Pro Bowl rosters are, for the most part, spot on. If I have any qualms with them — and this goes for most sports’ All-Star teams — players are often voted in based on reputation, name recognition, and past successes. Unlike the other major sports, though, with just 16 games — and only a select few teams on national TV each week — it’s hard for many NFL fans (and coaches and players) to watch every player on a weekly basis.
Combine that with the fact that these guys are all wearing helmets and most fantasy leagues only reward offensive skill positions, and it’s understandable if a workmanlike offensive guard isn’t given a Pro Bowl nod in a year he might deserve it.
This year’s Pro Bowl teams are awfully tricky. There are several positions — NFC defensive end, NFC quarterback, AFC linebacker — that are just loaded with deserving talent.
The Pro Bowl rosters will be announced on Tuesday, but here are my two squads — with some deserving guys I had to leave off, included.
Disagree? Let me hear it over email, on Twitter, and in the Comments section. That’s what this stuff is all about:
Schrager’s AFC Pro Bowl Team
Quarterbacks (3): Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, Andy Dalton
The Tough Decision: If Matt Schaub finished the year healthy, he’d probably be the third quarterback in the AFC. Instead, it came down to Dalton, Tim Tebow, or Joe Flacco. You could make the argument for Tebow, but I went with Dalton, who started 16 games for the Bengals, and has taken them to a win away from the playoffs, despite no real training camp, a shortened offseason, and a new offense to master. I expected more from Flacco this year, who despite beating the Steelers twice in the regular season, couldn’t seem to win big games on the road.
Running Backs (4): Arian Foster, Ray Rice, Maurice Jones-Drew, Fred Jackson
The Tough Decision: Fred Jackson missed the last month of the season with an injury, causing me some hesitation in putting him on the roster. But for the first 11 weeks of the season, he was not only a Pro Bowl shoe-in, but an outside possibility at league offensive player of the year. Who did I almost replace him with? Reggie Bush, of course. Bush, in his first year as a Dolphin, had a monster season, proving he actually can carry the ball 20 times a game and be a premier back in this league.
Fullback (1): Vonta Leach
The Tough Decision: No one’s in the same class as Leach these days, but I considered going with Houston Texans FB Lawrence Vickers, who paved roads for not only Arian Foster, but Ben Tate, too. That dilemma lasted a few seconds.
Wide Receivers (4): Wes Welker, Brandon Marshall, Mike Wallace, A.J. Green
The Tough Decision: By statistics alone, you’d have to put Dwayne Bowe on this list. Bowe had another tremendous season in Kansas City, catching 75 balls and breaking the 1,000 yard mark, despite horrific quarterback play. But I had to find a place for Green, the do-everything rookie in Cincinnati, who became not only a human highlight machine for the upstart Bengals, but a reliable receiver in the clutch. Without him, their offense doesn’t click and they’re not on the brink of another playoff berth. One oddity, here? No Andre Johnson on this list.
Tight Ends (2): Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez
The Tough Decision: It’s not often you see two tight ends from the same team represent a conference, but this one was a no-brainer. The two second-year players both had monster seasons, seemingly alternating to put the dagger into an opponent’s heart every other week. There wasn’t even another tight end worth consideration.
Offensive Tackles (3): Duane Brown, Michael Roos, Andrew Whitworth
The Tough Decision: Joe Thomas will likely make the Pro Bowl, but I don’t think the Browns All-Pro tackle had the same type of dominant year this season that he’s had in the past. The Browns running game was one of the worst in the league and Colt McCoy was under duress all season. D’Brickashaw Ferguson and Jake Long — two other fixtures on AFC Pro Bowl squads — weren’t as good as Brown, Roos, and Whitworth. The two guys I wish I had room for were Matt Light and Ryan Clady, each of whom were fantastic this season.
Offensive Guards (3): Logan Mankins, Brian Waters, Chris Kuper
The Tough Decision: Both Mankins and Waters make the squad from the Patriots, and Kuper — who was exceptional in opening holes for Tim Tebow and the Broncos running backs this year — gets the nod for the third spot.
Centers (2): Maurkice Pouncey, Chris Myers
The Tough Decision: Yes, Pouncey missed some time in the middle of the season, but when he was in the lineup, he was dominant. Myers, a longtime league veteran, gets the nod for his sturdy work in Houston. If Ben Tate goes for 155-plus next week, the Texans will feature two 1,000-yard backs. More impressive, they’ve been through three different quarterbacks and still won the division for the first time in franchise history.
Defensive Ends (4): Elvis Dumervil, Andre Carter, J.J Watt, Robert Mathis
The Tough Decision: I was tempted to put Dwight Freeney in over his teammate Mathis, but I felt like Mathis was the more productive of the two Colts defensive ends this season. It was a weird year in Indy, and it’s hard to put both elite pass rushers, let alone one, in during a season in which the defense was royally roasted on most Sundays. Another DE that I nearly included was Cleveland rookie Jabaal Sheard, who in his first year in the NFL, had 7.5 sacks and recorded 39 tackles. Maybe next year.
Defensive Tackles (4): Haloti Ngata, Domata Peko, Tommy Kelly, Richard Seymour
The Tough Decision: Ngata was the only sure-thing this year, and in the end I went with both of the Raiders’ interior defensive linemen. Peko stuffed the run in Cincinnati, but I could have replaced him with his pass-rushing linemate Geno Atkins, too. Rookie Marcell Dareus showed flashes in Buffalo, but didn’t quite have the full year’s worth of work required for a Pro Bowl berth.
Linebackers (6): D’Qwell Jackson, Terrell Suggs, Von Miller, Tamba Hali, Brian Cushing, Karlos Dansby
The Tough Decision: Weird not seeing Ray Lewis or any Steelers’ names on this list, right? Lewis wasn’t the best linebacker in Baltimore this year, missing much of the second half of the season to injury. As for the Steelers as a unit, they were fabulous, getting the same production we’re used to seeing. As individuals, though, both LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison missed significant time and Lawrence Timmons wasn’t quite the game-changer he’d have to be to make this list. Another difficult omission was Colts linebacker Pat Angerer, the conference’s second-leading tackler. You could also make the argument that Derrick Johnson was the leader of Romeo Crennel’s Chiefs defense and he — not teammate Tamba Hali — deserves a spot in the top six. In the end, I went with Jackson — the conference’s leading tackler and a viable candidate for League Comeback Player of the Year — Suggs, Denver rookie Von Miller, Hali, and a pair of unit leaders in Cushing and Dansby. Cushing’s a no-brainer and Dansby — despite a down year in Miami — again proved why he was worth the monster contract he was given last offseason.
Cornerbacks (4): Darrelle Revis, Johnathan Joseph, Joe Haden, Ike Taylor
The Tough Decision: Leaving Brandon Flowers off this list was very difficult, as the former Virginia Tech star “blossomed” (pun intended) into an elite cornerback this season. In Revis, Joseph, and Haden we have a trio of corners who should fill the conference’s first three slots for the next decade. Ike Taylor was the wildcard selection, but I’m sticking by it. Long considered a weak spot in Dick LeBeau’s Steelers defense, Taylor was outstanding this season, containing opposing receivers and forcing teams to throw elsewhere. In a year in which few Steelers defenders jumped off the board, Taylor was a consistent playmaker week to week. His statistics won’t tell the story, but Ike Taylor had a Pro Bowl season in 2011.
Safeties (3): Eric Weddle, Ed Reed, Troy Polamalu
The Tough Decision: Weddle and Reed were locks this year, with both veterans playing at high levels and making game-changing turnovers in key games (Reed vs. the Jets, Weddle vs. the Chiefs) this season. Polamalu? This wasn’t his best year and I very nearly went with one of the following instead — Colts safety Antoine Bethea (cleaned up the mess for a unit that was on the field 75 percent of every game), Brian Dawkins (had a resurgence after a down year last season in Denver), and Glover Quin (seamlessly moved to the safety spot after a career spent at CB). You can’t go wrong with Troy and the dominance of the Steelers defense this season warrants his selection.
Punter: Shane Lechler, Oakland
Kicker: Sebastian Janikowski, Oakland
Kick Returner: Brandon Tate, Cincinnati
Schrager’s NFC Pro Bowl Team
Quarterbacks (3): Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Matt Stafford
The Tough Decision: Staff or Eli? Eli or Staff? I went back and forth with that one for several hours this week, before giving Matt Stafford the nod over Eli Manning. Both had astronomical numbers this season, but bringing the Lions to their first playoff berth in 12 seasons in his first “healthy” year gives Stafford the edge. Oh, and those 36 touchdown passes didn’t hurt, either. In any other year, Cam Newton and Tony Romo would be locks for Pro Bowl berths with the seasons they had. The grand irony of it all, of course, is that if Jay Cutler had remained healthy, that third spot would most likely be his. Matt Ryan and Alex Smith are both going to go the playoffs this season, and neither even got a sniff of consideration. Nor did Mike Vick. The point? The NFC was loaded with good quarterback play this year.
Running Backs (4): LeSean McCoy, Frank Gore, Marshawn Lynch, Michael Turner
The Tough Decision: I really wanted to find a spot for Darren Sproles on this list, as the do-everything “scat back” made the Saints offense even more dangerous than it was a season ago. Always difficult leaving Steven Jackson, Adrian Peterson and Matt Forte off this list — especially in strong statistical seasons for each—but both of their teams were horrendous. Perhaps that’s even more of a testament to their talents. This year, though, I couldn’t leave McCoy, Gore, Lynch, or Turner off for one of them.
Fullback (1): Ovie Mughelli
The Tough Decision: 49ers rookie Bruce Miller had a big year in San Francisco, but Mughelli was the best in the conference this season. John Kuhn will get the fan vote and Jed Collins may get some praise down in New Orleans. I couldn’t argue with the selection of any of those guys.
Wide Receiver (4): Larry Fitzgerald, Calvin Johnson, Roddy White, Steve Smith
The Tough Decision: No Victor Cruz? This one was very difficult. Cruz, the second-year Giants wideout, had a monster season in New York, catching 76 balls for 1,358 yards and scoring 8 touchdowns. More importantly, he made huge, game-changing plays in two of New York’s biggest contests—a Week 4 victory over the Eagles and Sunday’s Week 16 win over the Jets. In the end, I couldn’t put Cruz in over Steve Smith. Though, statistically, Cruz outdid Smith in key categories, the 11-year veteran helped make Cam Newton what he was in his rookie year and was not aided by a legitimate secondary option. Facing double teams all season, Smith caught 73 balls for 1,308 yards and 6 TDs. Two other players who had big years and were considered? Jordy Nelson and Greg Jennings, both of Aaron Rodgers’ top two targets, who combined for 126 receptions and 21 touchdowns.
Tight Ends (2): Jimmy Graham, Jason Witten
The Tough Decision: It was very difficult leaving Tony Gonzalez off the roster this year, despite a big season out of the 15-year veteran. Despite Gonzalez having better statistics, I went with Witten for what he provided the Cowboys offense this season. With a completely new offensive line in place and a rotating door of injured receivers and running backs, Witten was the one constant in the Dallas offense, catching 72 balls and serving as the consistent force in a wacky year in Big D.
Offensive Tackles (3): Tyson Clabo, Jordan Gross, Jason Peters
The Tough Decision: Peters may cause some head-scratching as the Eagles offensive line was skewered by the media for most of the season. But this was the veteran’s best season and he was outstanding in most games he played. Clabo and Gross were rocks for solid offensive lines in Atlanta and Carolina. The Packers and Saints tackles—all of them—are certainly worthy of consideration, too.
Offensive Guards (3): Jahri Evans, Carl Nicks, Chris Snee
The Tough Decision: I thought T.J. Lang, the do-everything guard/tackle in Green Bay, had a fine season protecting Aaron Rodgers, but he’s not in the same class as these three. Evans and Nicks keep Drew Brees upright, while Snee was outstanding again in New York.
Centers (2): Ryan Kalil, Scott Wells
The Tough Decision: Kalil, a guy whose little brother actually got more press than him this season, was fantastic in Carolina. Wells was a rock in Green Bay. There are others who are worthy, but I had to include both of these guys.
Defensive Ends (4): Jason Pierre Paul, Jared Allen, Justin Smith, Jason Babin
The Tough Decision: Imagine this conversation? “Oh hello, Julius Peppers. Yeah, you’re one of the best to ever play the position and if I had to build a team from scratch, you might be the first guy I’d take, but the NFC Pro Bowl squad this year? Yeah, I know you had a monster season, but you didn’t make it. But help yourself to some cookies on the way out!” That’s how I felt leaving Peppers—who had 10 sacks and forced 3 fumbles—off the NFC Pro Bowl squad this year. But who could you put him in over this season? Allen and Babin both nearly broke Michael Strahan’s single season sack record, Smith was the run stuffing force for a 49ers defense that gave up one rushing touchdown this year, and Pierre-Paul was an absolute demon in his second year in New York. No Peppers is weird and perhaps blasphemous, but I can’t see it any other way.
Defensive Tackles (4): Ndamukong Suh, Cullen Jenkins, Henry Melton, Jay Ratliff
The Tough Decision: The one guy I wanted to find a spot for is Brandon Mebane, the run-stuffing DT in Seattle. But Suh, Jenkins, Melton, and Ratliff get the nods, instead.
Linebackers (6): Patrick Willis, DeMarcus Ware, NaVorro Bowman, Daryl Washington, Clay Matthews, Aldon Smith
The Tough Decision: This one might have been the single hardest position to select this year. London Fletcher led the NFL in tackles this season. He’s not in the top six. Chad Greenway was everywhere for the Vikings. Not on the list. In the end, I went with three Niners linebackers and almost went with four (Ahmad Brooks). Ware and Matthews are obvious, but Washington might be a head-scratcher. The second-year star was the glue in the middle for Ray Horton’s resurgent Cardinals 3-4 defense this year.
Cornerbacks (4): Charles Woodson, Corey Webster, Carlos Rogers, Dunta Robinson
The Tough Decision: Seattle fans may want to see Brandon Browner in here, but in addition to being among the league’s top interception men, Browner also was among the league leaders in pass interference calls. These four were all stellar this season. DeAngelo Hall, Asante Samuel, and Nnamdi Asomugha were all solid, but none were Pro Bowl worthy this year.
Safeties (3): Earl Thomas, Dashon Goldson, Adrian Wilson
The Tough Decision: A trio of NFC West superstars, this one wasn’t too hard a slot. Wilson, whose role changed in the move from a 4-3 to a 3-4, was perhaps the most impressive of the bunch. His interception totals went down, but his overall play got better.