Pro Bowl balloting closes the day after Christmas. In an effort to help “merit” trump “popularity,” I filled out a full ballot that’s based solely on film study from this season. Stats are noted in some of the analysis, but they did not factor strongly into any decisions. There are very few players who consistently pop on film and don’t have good stats anyway. But there are plenty of players who have good stats but don’t consistently pop on film.
Special teams were ignored because I do not watch film on that side of the ball. (And I don’t know any analyst who does. There simply is not enough time during the regular season.) The selections were made from NFL.com’s Pro Bowl ballot, which does not distinguish between 3-4 and 4-3 defensive positions or slot and outside receivers/corners. I was—and remain—a little leery of the new unconferenced format, in which the two top vote-getters on offense and defense become team captains and then “draft” their teams out of the voted Pro Bowlers, but I will admit it made for a smoother voting process. Choosing six players from 32 teams is easier than choosing three players from 16 teams. The players are listed in no particular order, though the players I would vote first team All-Pro are marked with an asterisk.
I’m sure you’ll take issue with some of these choices. The best part of Pro Bowl balloting is the arguments that come from it. Please feel free to share yours. And make sure to head over to page 3 for my preview of the Thursday night game between the Broncos and Chargers.
Peyton Manning, Broncos* — Easily the 2013 MVP. No player does more to make his teammates better.
Russell Wilson, Seahawks — Best on-the-move QB in football. His ability to extend plays and make touch throws—both underneath and downfield—are the biggest reasons the run-based, injury-plagued Seahawks lead the NFC in scoring.
Tom Brady, Patriots — No accident that New England is still on track for a first-round bye despite weekly changes in both scheme and personnel.
Andrew Luck, Colts — His Colts won the AFC South despite an erratic running game, understaffed receiving corps and athletically challenged offensive line. No quarterback has done more with less.
Drew Brees, Saints — Remains the most proficient progression-reader in the NFL.
Tony Romo, Cowboys — Choke artists don’t have a 3.8-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio.
Jamaal Charles, Chiefs* — More than just a speedster. Without his multidimensional receiving prowess and dependable pass-blocking, Kansas City’s offense would look like that of a really good high school team.
Adrian Peterson, Vikings — Still jumps out on film even by “future Hall of Famer” standards.
Matt Forte, Bears — Patience and versatility make him an invaluable stabilizer for Chicago.
Marshawn Lynch, Seahawks — Tenacity and power are well-known; less talked about is his lateral agility, which he relied on in creating a lot of his own yards when Seattle’s O-line was banged up.
LeSean McCoy, Eagles — Closest thing we’ve seen to Barry Sanders since Barry Sanders himself. A perfect fit in Chip Kelly’s system.
Reggie Bush, Lions — Brought balance to Detroit’s offense, both as a runner and multi-tool receiver.
Calvin Johnson, Lions* — No explanation needed.
A.J. Green Bengals* — Augmented his splendid raw talent by improving as a route runner.
Dez Bryant, Cowboys — Productivity has dipped a hair, but only because double-teams are up.
Demaryius Thomas, Broncos — The clear-cut No. 1 weapon on the league’s most prolific offense.
Alshon Jeffery, Bears — Combination of size and speed make him as tough a one-on-one matchup as anyone in the game.
Brandon Marshall, Bears — The reason Jeffery gets so many one-on-one matchups.
Josh Gordon, Browns — Okay, sometimes stats are just too big to ignore. And he’s playing in an offense that, aside from tight end Jordan Cameron, has no other weapons to worry about.
Antonio Brown, Steelers — Has been prolific in an offense that gets very little from its ground game. Barely edged out Andre Johnson, who had just a few too many negative plays to warrant a selection off a bad Texans team.
Bruce Miller, 49ers* — Firm blocker and underrated part of San Francisco’s passing game.
Mike Tolbert, Panthers — A key ball-handler in critical situations, both on handoffs and underneath routes. Has also provided stellar lead-blocking, particularly in Carolina’s read-option game.
Jimmy Graham, Saints* — Contract is up after this season. His agent will argue that he should have gone to Hawaii as a wide receiver.
Vernon Davis, 49ers — Kept afloat a Niners passing game that’s sorely missed a downfield wide receiver. Has also continued to be an assertive blocker, which is important in San Francisco’s creative running scheme.
Antonio Gates, Chargers — Is still the guy opponents zero their coverages around, which is why he’s become an even more movable chess piece in San Diego’s new spread system.
Charles Clay, Dolphins — Without his versatility, Miami would not be in wild-card contention.
Joe Thomas, Browns* — Has consistently handled top pass rushers one-on-one.
Tyron Smith, Cowboys* — Mechanics finally caught up to his otherworldly athleticism. Tony Romo has never felt so secure.
Jake Long, Rams — A big reason why St. Louis’s offense stabilized after changing to a run-first system in early October.
Joe Staley, 49ers — Mobile as a run-blocker out in front, steady on an island in pass protection.
Trent Williams, Washington — His explosive short-area movement and rangy downhill run-blocking are why almost half of Alfred Morris’ rushing yards have come on carries classified as “wide left.”
Duane Brown, Texans — Continued to be a strong pass protector, even with the Texans using fewer blocker-friendly play-action rollouts this year. Won individual battles against leading AFC sacker Robert Mathis and leading NFC sacker Robert Quinn.
Logan Mankins, Patriots* — Few notice that New England’s run-oriented offense centers around its man-blocking, both on the ground and in play-action. This veteran’s work as a pull-blocker has been key.
Josh Sitton, Packers* — The lone bright spot on Green Bay’s beleaguered offensive line. Has terrific feel angles and technique.
Zane Beadles, Broncos — One of the best at delivering double teams and then working up to the second level. Without his services, Knowshon Moreno this year would have looked a lot more like the Knowshon Moreno of past years.
Mike Iupati, 49ers — San Francisco’s rushing attack got on track once he got on track.
Evan Mathis, Eagles — Has consistently shown the movement skills required in Philly’s finesse ground game. (And has also shown the surprising brute power needed for winning in the snow.)
Andy Levitre, Titans — Tennessee’s rushing attack is constructed around his pull-blocking, which has been downright dominant at times.
Alex Mack, Browns* — No center locks and steers opponents better than the vastly underrated fifth-year vet.
Ryan Kalil, Panthers — The only source of stability on Carolina’s front five. Mobile run-blocker, savvy pass-blocker.
Eric Wood, Bills — Buffalo has usually been comfortable letting the 315-pounder go one-on-one against top-level nose tackles.
Mike Pouncey, Dolphins — There’s something to be said for raw athleticism, which he has in spades.
Robert Quinn, Rams* — This season’s most explosive 4-3 edge-rusher—and it’s not even close
Muhammad Wilkerson, Jets* — J.J. Watt, only with some of the “quickness” shifted to “power.”
Greg Hardy, Panthers — Has startling initial quickness for someone with such thunderous power. Could be the highest-paid defensive end in football next year.
J.J. Watt, Texans — Numbers have declined but week-to-week performance has not.
Olivier Vernon, Dolphins — His 11.5 sacks are impressive. More impressive is the fact that he weighs 270 and is a phenomenal playside run defender.
Cameron Jordan, Saints — His newfound lateral explosiveness and initial burst have spearheaded New Orleans’s pass rush, affording Rob Ryan more freedom in coverage concepts.
Dontari Poe, Chiefs* — A 330-or-so-pounder with the movement skills of a 260-pounder. Amazingly, he almost never comes off the field.
Ndamukong Suh, Lions* — A bona fide playmaker who might also be the best in the business at setting up stunts off double teams.
Justin Smith, 49ers — Then again, the stunt master himself has shown no signs of slowing down in Year 13. Destructive in a variety of other phases, too.
Jurrell Casey, Titans — Comparisons to Geno Atkins circa 2012 might be a tad far-fetched, but only a tad.
Jason Hatcher, Cowboys — Given their myriad injuries up front, the Cowboys would not be in playoff contention without the breakout season from their eighth-year veteran. (Which, by the way, coincided with his move from 3-4 defensive end to 4-3 “three-technique.”
Gerald McCoy, Bucs — Has learned how to fully parlay his unparalleled initial quickness into everydown destructiveness.
Luke Kuechly, Panthers* — The best player on the NFL’s No. 1 ranked defense. Also the best pure middle linebacker in the game.
NaVorro Bowman, 49ers* — A rock-solid run defender who can cover backs out of the backfield and, as of this year, ruin offensive game plans as a blitzer (particularly a green-dog blitzer).
Sean Lee, Cowboys — The Cowboys changed to a zone scheme specifically with the idea of creating more big-play opportunities for their fourth-year linebacker. He has delivered.
Derrick Johnson, Chiefs — His ability to defend the run in space allows the Chiefs to regularly play dime, which is where they’re most dangerous.
Robert Mathis, Colts* — Has been every bit as electrifying as his 15.5 sacks and five forced fumbles suggest.
Ahmad Brooks, 49ers* — A shutdown front- and back-side run defender who also consistently makes game-breaking plays against the pass.
LaVonte David, Buccaneers — Instincts are topped only by his sheer speed to the ball.
Tamba Hali, Chiefs — A top-flight pass rusher who can stalemate—and occasionally defeat—double-teams no matter what the situation.
Justin Houston, Chiefs — Continuous improvements in run defense set him apart.
K.J. Wright, Seahawks — Doesn’t have DeAndre Levy’s interceptions, but overall he’s been an equally effective pass defender thanks to his deftness in zone and man. Has also stood out as an attack-minded run defender, including in the two games where he filled in for injured middle linebacker Bobby Wagner.
Richard Sherman, Seahawks* — It’s almost to the point where quarterbacks don’t even look his way.
Patrick Peterson, Cardinals* — Plays more Deion-style Cover-0-man than anyone in the league. And always against the opponent’s No. 1 receiver.
Aqib Talib, Patriots — Has won battles against Julio Jones, A.J. Green, Steve Smith and Demaryius Thomas, playing hefty snaps of true solo man coverage.
Alterraun Verner, Titans — Quick closing speed and keen sense of angles make him a defensive playmaker and offensive play-stopper. Not many guys are both.
Vontae Davis, Colts — The primary reason Indy has transformed into a predominant man coverage defense.
Joe Haden, Browns — Has tailed off a bit lately, but not nearly enough to negate his outstanding first half of 2013.
Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Broncos — Value was affirmed in Weeks 12 and 13 when Denver’s secondary fell apart in his absence.
Sean Smith, Chiefs — Has turned out to be the steadiest cover guy in Kansas City’s very good press-man defense.
Eric Berry, Chiefs* — Has prospered defending tight ends man-to-man and sniffing out run plays from the box.
Troy Polamalu, Steelers — Like Berry, evolved into more of a dime linebacker this season. Stayed healthy and recaptured a lot of his old playmaking prowess.
Earl Thomas, Seahawks* — The fulcrum of Seattle’s dynamic defense.
Tyrann Mathieu, Cardinals — Uncanny football instincts and short-area quickness are why he thrived as a slot cover artist and blitzer.
Thursday night preview
Chargers offense vs. Broncos defense
The Broncos had a lot of success with overload zone blitz concepts against the Titans last week (Von Miller was particularly destructive). This week John Fox and Jack Del Rio won’t be able to pull as much from that bag of tricks, as many of the blitzes aren’t designed for a quick-passing system like San Diego’s. The Broncos will be more reliant on their man-to-man defenders, who have been hit-or-miss as of late.
When these teams met back in Week 10, top cover corner Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie opened the game matched on Vincent Brown but eventually moved over to Keenan Allen. The third-round rookie runs good routes and can make contested catches, which is why he’s blossomed into San Diego’s top wideout. Expect Rodgers-Cromartie to shadow Allen whenever he aligns outside—and expect Philip Rivers to throw elsewhere, likely to tight ends Antonio Gates and Ladarius Green. Green, who played about a third of the snaps in the last meeting, will play the bulk of this game (barring a repeat of the run-oriented game-plan that San Diego got away from last time). Green’s emergence as a flex weapon has made the Chargers a very multidimensional two-tight end offense.
Broncos offense vs. Chargers defense
The Broncos will likely also be a two-tight end offense Thursday night, with Jacob Tamme playing in place of a concussed Wes Welker. This won’t drastically alter Peyton Manning’s approach. Tamme played throughout the second half last week and ran most of his routes out of an inside receiver alignment, just like Welker. The Titans still felt compelled to keep six defensive backs on the field, which the Broncos easily ran the ball against. The Chargers should take a similar approach and hope that their defensive front can make a few more run stops than the Titans did. That won’t be easy given how well the Broncos offensive line—particularly center Manny Ramirez and guard Zane Beadles—is playing right now. But it’s still the best bet. In the last meeting, the Chargers kept the box crowded; Manning dropped back on 23 of 26 first half snaps and picked apart their two-deep coverages for touchdown drives of 85, 80 and 73 yards.