The Pro Bowl is one incredible contradiction. With contract bonuses to be triggered and respect to be metered out, players care about the Pro Bowl from the moment they’re selected (or snubbed) to the moment at which they actually have to show up and play the game, at which point they lose all interest and stuff like LeSean McCoy’s embarrassing touchdown run from last year happens. Fans care about the snubbing, too, and then pretend to not give a rip about the entire thing, even though the game did a 7.3 television rating last year, only slightly below the 7.6 average produced by this year’s World Series.
At any rate, with the end of the season approaching and the voting process for players and coaches finishing up today, I’ve gone through my notes and put together my picks for AFC and NFC Pro Bowl teams. First, I’m changing a few of the rules. I’m picking only 11 guys on each side of the ball for each team; I’ll leave the injury replacement process that ends up with Blaine Gabbert and Mark Sanchez taking Pro Bowl reps to you guys. It’s more fun this way. I’m also dumping the fullback and playing two tight ends. On the defensive side of the ball, I’m picking three defensive linemen, three linebackers, and using the seventh spot as a flex option between the two, basically to have a designated pass rusher. I’m not differentiating between front seven players on the interior or on the edge, because it’s dumb to compare a 3-4 defensive end who’s supposed to burst through the interior or occupy linemen to a 4-3 defensive end who pins his ears back and rushes the passer without any concern for the run. These are all changes the league should make anyway, so when Simmons becomes Sports Czar, he can point to this paragraph as his Pro Bowl manifesto.
Quarterback: Peyton Manning, Denver. Aren’t you shocked that a Brady-Manning debate on Grantland somehow ended up with Manning winning, too? OK, OK, calm down. I don’t really think there’s much of a difference separating Brady and Manning, so picking between the two of them basically depends on how you value different aspects of quarterback play. Manning has completed a higher percentage of his passes (67.9 percent to Brady’s 63.4 percent), and he’s averaging three-tenths of a yard more per pass attempt, but he’s thrown an interception once every 51 pass attempts, while Brady has thrown picks once every 93 times. Brady hasn’t had a game as bad as Manning’s fiasco against the Falcons, but he also has multiple Pro Bowl receivers to work with, while Manning has made stars out of Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker. I lean ever so slightly toward Peyton, but I could be talked very easily into Brady.
Also, have you noticed how heavily tilted the quarterback balance is toward the NFC? After Brady and Manning, there’s a huge falloff to Matt Schaub and then Andrew Luck, followed by another drop to the likes of Ben Roethlisberger and Philip Rivers. There are probably six quarterbacks in the NFC who would make it to the Pro Bowl before Schaub if the Texans were in the NFC.
Running Back: C.J. Spiller, Buffalo. Don’t go to the comments section and complain yet! Hear me out. Who else should be in this space? Ray Rice has been neutered by Baltimore’s play-calling and mediocre offensive line. Arian Foster has been struggling to average four yards per carry all year and has seemingly lost his value as a receiver. Jamaal Charles and Chris Johnson have been effective, but have they really been more valuable than Spiller? As freaky as Adrian Peterson’s 6.3 yards per carry figure is, Spiller is actually averaging 6.5 yards per pop; nobody in the history of the NFL has done that over 150 carries in a season. Ever. He can’t compete with Peterson, of course (spoiler alert), but Spiller has been a dynamic playmaker on a team that never scares anybody with its passing game. With no complete option available at running back in the AFC, I’m opting for the guy who does more with each touch than anybody else in the conference.
Wide Receiver: A.J. Green, Cincinnati. It’s hard to truly emphasize just how much of the Cincinnati passing game devolves into “Throw it up to A.J.,” but it works. Keep in mind that the Bengals have the likes of Andrew Hawkins, Armon Binns, and Marvin Jones running patterns across from Green; he’s a one-man show in an offense that simply doesn’t function without him. Normally, wide receivers tend to produce huge yardage totals in games where they’re losing (and vice versa), but the Bengals seem to need a big game from Green to win. They’re 2-6 over the past two years in games where Green fails to pick up 50 receiving yards, but 14-8 otherwise. I’m not enthused about wide receiver wins becoming a statistic, but Green is one of the rare players who makes it really difficult to see how the Bengals can win without him healthy and productive.
Wide Receiver: Reggie Wayne, Indianapolis. Now, think about the players Wayne suits up alongside in Indianapolis. It’s a mix of rookies (Dwayne Allen, LaVon Brazill, Coby Fleener, T.Y. Hilton) and flotsam (Donnie Avery, Kris Adams). Wayne is the guy everyone knows to cover on every meaningful play, and somehow, he’s still on pace for 110 catches and 1,410 yards. That gives him the edge over Andre Johnson here. He also gets bonus points for taking over on that final drive against the Packers, which was the single most impressive possession I’ve seen from a wideout this year.
Tight End: Rob Gronkowski, New England. Put it this way: Gronkowski’s missed four full games now, and he still paces all tight ends in touchdowns. He’s fifth in receiving yards, too. When you throw in his massively underrated abilities as a blocker, even 10 games of Gronk is enough to make him the AFC’s best tight end.
Tight End: Owen Daniels, Houston. As crucial as Andre Johnson is to the Houston attack, Daniels might be even more important these days. He’s the huge matchup problem that every team seems to struggle to account for, which lets him take over on those umpteen drag routes across the field that serve as effective checkdowns for Schaub. He’s also the point man on play action, where his selling as a blocker is enough to convince teams time and time again that this one’s really the run play. And he remains an able and willing blocker on those plays that actually do end up as runs. He’s more valuable than his numbers.
Tackle: Ryan Clady, Denver. After he tore his patellar tendon before the 2010 season, I expected Clady to miss the entire campaign. Instead, he came back, but he suffered for two years as a shell of his former self. He made the Pro Bowl last year because nobody who votes on the Pro Bowl actually watches offensive linemen. This year, though, Clady is going to be a deserving pick. He’s having one of the best contract years a lineman has had since the heyday of Albert Haynesworth; after allowing 16.5 sacks over the previous two years, STATS calculates that Clady’s allowed only one sack all year while cutting his penalty totals nearly in half.
Tackle: Duane Brown, Houston. While the right side of the Houston offensive line has been in flux after offseason turnover, Brown remains the steady, reliable left tackle that makes everyone else’s life easier. Brown hasn’t committed a single holding penalty all year and has just two false starts under his belt; in fact, he hasn’t been flagged for holding since his rookie season.
Center: Chris Myers, Houston. The other veteran who has held down the fort for the Texans this year is their erstwhile center, who remains one of the biggest steals in football when you consider that the Texans got him from the Broncos for a sixth-round pick in 2008. This is where writers give biographical information about offensive linemen because there aren’t many reliable stats to recite. If you watch Myers regularly, you know he’s good.
Guard: Andy Levitre, Buffalo. If Spiller is gaining all those yards in an offense with a very limited passing game, somebody has to be out there blocking for him. The best guy out there for the Bills is Levitre, who is versatile enough to spot up at virtually any position on the line. He’s also very likely to be the best interior offensive lineman on the free-agent market this offseason, since the Bills haven’t locked him up yet and would be more likely to use the franchise tag on safety Jairus Byrd.
Guard: Zane Beadles, Denver. A left tackle in college at Utah, Beadles was once thought to be a possible option at right tackle before settling in next to Clady at guard. STATS suggests that he’s allowed only one sack this year, and I haven’t seen a lineman who has been able to use his 6-foot-4 frame to neutralize bulkier defensive tackles on the interior.
Defensive Lineman: J.J. Watt, Houston. Probably didn’t need to stretch that one out and save him for the final defensive end slot. You already know Watt is having a freakish season, and if you need pictorial evidence, J.J .Watt enthusiast Robert Mays put together an animated GIF tribute to Watt on the Triangle Thursday. Do you know how much Robert Mays loves J.J. Watt? Mays actually is investing in animated GIF poster technology so he can put moving pictures of Watt destroying offensive linemen on his wall. No, not his Facebook wall. His bedroom wall.
Defensive Lineman: Geno Atkins, Cincinnati. The criminally underrated Atkins has 10.5 sacks on the year, the highest total for a 4-3 interior lineman since Rod Coleman had 10.5 for the Falcons in 2005. Atkins is more than his quarterback takedowns, though; he’s a force of nature on the interior who easily penetrates into the backfield and disrupts plays on a regular basis. Pretty impressive for a fourth-round pick who makes $540,000 this year.
Defensive Lineman: Vince Wilfork, New England. I’m not adding Wilfork to the list solely for the infamous butt fumble he forced from Mark Sanchez, but it’s hard to think of a defensive lineman who dictates so much of what the offense tries to do. Wilfork is the crux of an otherwise inconsistent defense, one that builds its scheme from Wilfork out.
Linebacker: Von Miller, Denver. Miller has 16 sacks and, like Atkins, is much more than that simple number. He showed flashes of brilliance as a cover guy last year, and he’s been even better at that in 2012. He’s doubled his forced fumbles, going from three to six, and he has more stuffs1 than any player in the AFC besides Watt. He’s the best player on the league’s fifth-ranked defense by leaps and bounds, even with Champ Bailey around.
Linebacker: Derrick Johnson, Kansas City. If the Scott Pioli era ends in Kansas City after this season, one of the positive legacies will be the way that Pioli and Todd Haley developed Johnson into a franchise player. They took a top-15 draft pick out of the starting lineup in 2009, basically used him as a backup all season, and convinced Johnson to focus on football and become a team leader. The result is one of the most effective inside linebackers in football, one who (according to STATS) leads the conference in tackles.
Linebacker: Rob Ninkovich, New England. I’ll excuse you if you take a step back from the computer screen right now, but Ninkovich always seems to show up when the Patriots need him most. He’s managed to make huge plays in a number of games over the past year, most notably when he strip-sacked Mark Sanchez to end the Pats-Jets overtime game earlier this year. His impact stretches across the stat sheet, as Ninkovich ranks among the league leaders in sacks (eight), stuffs (seven), and forced fumbles (five). Once a practice squad journeyman and backup long snapper, Ninkovich has become an essential part of the New England defense virtually overnight.
Seventh Defender: Cameron Wake, Miami. Wake’s played as both a 3-4 outside linebacker and as a 4-3 defensive lineman, but in either scenario, his primary job is as a pass rusher who creates havoc on the outside. After a disappointing 2011, Wake’s back on track in 2012, tying his career-best with 14 sacks, which leads the AFC among people who weren’t drafted during the mutants class of 2011.
Cornerback: Antonio Cromartie, New York Jets. Yes, Cro. When Darrelle Revis went down with his torn ACL, the Jets were basically stuck shifting Cromartie into the Revis role and building their pass defense around him. Despite the lack of a notable pass rusher or the presence of the torched Kyle Wilson across from him, the Jets remain a respectable pass defense (per DVOA, seventh in the league), and a lot of that has been due to Cromartie’s work. Joke all you want about how he’s going to need to rent a plane to bring all his kids to Hawaii; Cromartie deserves to make the trip.
Cornerback: Champ Bailey, Denver. I’ve been off the Bailey bandwagon for a few years now, thinking that he was getting noted as an elite cornerback by people who were relying on the label affixed to his play from years prior, but Bailey has been every bit as good as any other cornerback in the league when I’ve seen him play this year. That’s partly the result of disappointing seasons from guys like Brandon Flowers and Johnathan Joseph, and Bailey’s not the game-changing cornerback he was in his prime, but he finishes just ahead of Sean Smith as the AFC’s second-best corner this year for me.
Safety: Eric Weddle, San Diego. The best all-around safety in the AFC these days, Weddle deserves a better team around him than the one that A.J. Smith has compiled in San Diego. It took an illegal block from Anquan Boldin on Weddle to spring Ray Rice for the first down on that infamous fourth-and-29 play, so it’s harsh to count that against him.
Safety: Ed Reed, Baltimore. Reed has needed to be the absolute leader of the Baltimore defense with Ray Lewis out and virtually every other star on the defense missing time with injuries. He’s held up despite the fact that the Ravens are starting a human torch (Cary Williams) and a special teams gunner (Corey Graham) at cornerback these days. Baltimore has only league-average pass defense this year, but Reed has been surrounded by a lot of below-average talent, making his task all the more difficult.
Quarterback: Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay. If I’d done this exercise after eight weeks, I would have picked Matt Ryan. If I’d done it after 12 weeks, I probably would have chosen Robert Griffin III. But with Ryan regressing and Griffin missing his second game due to injury, Rodgers sneaks into the top spot by virtue of his volume and his ability to avoid turnovers. Griffin’s rate stats are roughly similar to or better than those of Rodgers, but Rodgers has thrown 123 more passes than Griffin has. If I were picking three quarterbacks, I think you’d pretty clearly have to take Rodgers, Griffin, and Ryan, but that’s all pending these final two weeks.
Running Back: Adrian Peterson, Minnesota. Peterson’s now averaging 6.3 yards per carry on his 289 attempts, which isn’t just freaky; it’s beyond belief. The only other guys to average more than six yards per carry on 300 or more attempts are O.J. Simpson and Barry Sanders, and they both did it in leagues that were friendlier to the run than this one. You wonder whether running backs are going to sign up for gruesome knee tears after what Peterson’s done this year. It’s stunning.
Will he win MVP? If he breaks Eric Dickerson’s record for rushing yards in a season, he’s got a pretty good shot. The electorate has traditionally only considered running backs if they break a record and/or pass 2,000 rushing yards, and there’s no obvious quarterback who is going to get a majority of the votes from the people who would never vote for a running back. If the quarterback vote gets split among five or six guys, Peterson could work his way into the top spot.
Wide Receiver: Calvin Johnson, Detroit. You like fun stats, right? Here’s one. Calvin Johnson has 32 receptions for 20 yards or more this year. Not only is that nine more than anybody else in the league, it’s 11 more than the last-place Dolphins have as a team.2 In an offense where the quarterback throws sidearm, the other starting wideout deliberately lines up in the wrong place, and the running game goes through starting backs like they’re a renewable resource, Johnson is the picture of elite performance. Find it in your heart to forgive his propensity for being tackled on the 1-yard line this year and bask in his brilliance.
Wide Receiver: Brandon Marshall, Chicago. The touchdowns finally came in for Marshall this year; after scoring nine touchdowns across two years as a Dolphins wideout, Marshall produced a 10-touchdown year that’s seen him serve as everything from screen target to downfield weapon. His average season with Jay Cutler at the helm: 104 catches, 1,277 receiving yards, eight touchdowns. His average without: 83 catches, 1,114 yards. That will only rise with two more games to go.
Tight End: Tony Gonzalez, Atlanta. Assuming that the whole Mayan thing is a hoax, we can probably look back and wish that we all just asked Gonzalez what the Mayans were like when he was growing up. Sure, it’s an easy old joke, but Gonzalez continues to contribute like time simply isn’t advancing. He’s on pace to finish with 1,000 yards for the first time in a Falcons uniform, and he could hit 10 touchdowns if Matt Ryan feeds him a couple extra touches in the red zone. He also nearly posterized a referee on a dunk over the goalposts last week, which was pretty incredible in its own right.
Tight End: Jason Witten, Dallas. Witten, on the other hand, is already setting career records. He’s at 97 catches for the year, and if he can average 40 yards over his final two games, he’ll hit 1,000 for the fourth time in his career. This all comes despite a slow start that saw him drop a handful of passes, including two possible huge gains in the loss to the Seahawks. Witten is the league’s quietest lock Hall of Famer at a skill position.
Tackle: Joe Staley, San Francisco. Hope you like 49ers linemen. Most of the league’s left tackles are there for their abilities as pass blockers, but Staley is a mauler of a run blocker who just happens to also be a very good pass protector. He allows a few more sacks than you might like, but Staley makes up for it with his abilities in the running game. The 49ers are second in the league on runs to left end, and Staley is a big part of the reason why.
Tackle: Russell Okung, Seattle. Staying out West, Okung has managed to piece together his healthiest season as a pro, missing just one game this year after being forced to the bench for 10 games over his first two seasons. When he’s played, the former sixth overall pick has allowed just one sack in 13 games, allowing Russell Wilson to develop without turning into a pressure-obsessed Blaine Gabbert or David Carr. The nine penalties he’s accrued are a little disconcerting, but six of them are of the lesser false-start variety, with only three coming up for holding. It’s a down year for NFC tackles, and Okung may have to take a backseat to the likes of Matt Kalil and Tyron Smith in future seasons, but he profiles as an impressive all-around tackle this season.
Guard: Mike Iupati, San Francisco. Staley’s partner in crime on the left side of the San Francisco line is three years into what should be a Hall of Fame career at guard. He’s roughly an Alan Faneca clone, and after failing to make the Pro Bowl in each of his first three years, Faneca promptly made nine Pro Bowls and six All-Pro teams. Iupati is about to embark on that same path. Oh, and just for fun: The 49ers drafted Iupati with the 17th pick in the first round of the 2010 draft, a pick that the Panthers traded away to get an extra second-round pick for use on pass rusher Everette Brown, who accrued six sacks in two years for the Panthers before being let go. He’s now out of football. Don’t trade away your first-round picks for second-rounders, GMs.
Guard: Chris Snee, New York Giants. Snee is perpetually the strong suit in one of the league’s weaker offensive lines, and while he missed the Pro Bowl last year after three consecutive trips to Hawaii, his play this year next to a number of different right tackles should be enough to get him back on the flight to the island. Of note: Snee has committed just one penalty all year.
Center: Max Unger, Seattle. Unger hadn’t fulfilled his potential through his first three seasons in the league; he missed 15 games in 2010 with a toe injury, and was inconsistent when healthy in 2009 and 2011. This year, his flashes of brilliance have settled into a very solid full season of play, one where he’s committed just one false start penalty, hasn’t been caught holding, and hasn’t allowed a sack. That’s less impressive for a center than it is for a tackle, but zero’s still a pretty good number.
Defensive Lineman: Calais Campbell, Arizona. Campbell is sort of a poor man’s J.J. Watt, which makes him a rather valuable asset as a 3-4 defensive end who can rush the passer and disrupt play in a number of different ways. Campbell has only 4.5 sacks in 11 games this year, but only Tampa Bay’s Michael Bennett has more stuffs at defensive end in the NFC than Campbell. Prorate that for the three games he missed, and the only end Campbell trails in that category is, coincidentally, Watt.
Defensive Lineman: Chris Clemons, Seattle. One of a few excellent pass rushers nabbed off of the Philadelphia bench and pushed into a starring role, Clemons got national attention when he was part of that first-half mauling of Aaron Rodgers in Week 3. He’s second in the NFC with 11.5 sacks, and while four of the sacks came in that Packers game, Clemons has been heating up alongside his teammates over the past few weeks. After a four-week stretch without a sack, Clemons has 4.5 sacks over his last three games. The Seahawks will rely on him to help contain Colin Kaepernick in their enormous NFC West tilt this weekend.
Defensive Lineman: Gerald McCoy, Tampa Bay. Reason no. 947 why you don’t judge a draft class after its first year. McCoy, taken one pick after Ndamukong Suh in the 2010 draft, was seen as a bust after tearing his biceps in each of his first two pro seasons, while Suh became a superstar. In 2012, though, things changed: While Suh was struggling to make an impact on a losing team, McCoy emerged as a sensational run defender, constantly using his athleticism to alter the routes of ballcarriers coming out of the backfield and creating plays for his teammates. Three of the eight players in football with more than 10 stuffs are Buccaneers, and they’re all in that top eight because of McCoy.
Linebacker: Patrick Willis, San Francisco. The last player I can find who made the Pro Bowl from his rookie year on without missing a season, like Willis has so far during his career, is Merlin Olsen. Olsen made 14 consecutive Pro Bowls to start his career, and when he finally missed one in his 15th season, he retired. I see no reason to think that Willis will slip anytime soon.
Linebacker: Luke Kuechly, Carolina. In a sea of dismal Marty Hurney contracts and draft picks, it’s Hurney’s final first-round pick that should give Panthers fans hope. Kuechly is the absolute real deal at middle linebacker, a Brian Urlacher–caliber player who took over the middle in midseason after the team finally let an ailing Jon Beason off the hook. With a dismal pair of defensive tackles in front of him, Kuechly has still managed to make more tackles than anybody in the league short of Chad Greenway, who just missed out on a spot on this list.
Linebacker: Daryl Washington, Arizona. In addition to being a stout run-thumper in the middle of the Arizona defense, Washington has found enough time on Arizona’s many double A–gap twist blitzes to pick up nine sacks, which is rarified air for an inside linebacker. The last time a dedicated inside linebacker got to double-digit sacks was when Charlie Clemons did it for the Saints in 2001. Of course, he had exactly 1.5 more sacks left in him before leaving the game, so maybe that’s not the person Washington wants to be compared to. At 26, Washington should be a mainstay of the underrated Arizona defense for years to come.
Seventh Defender: Aldon Smith, San Francisco. What, you thought I was going to skip him? Even if you think Smith is a one-dimensional player, well, that dimension has 19.5 sacks, so it’s a pretty useful dimension. When you’re comparing him to J.J. Watt, sure, Smith isn’t the same player. The same might be true if you look him up against Von Miller, the third member of the most terrifying defensive draft class in recent memory. But against the rest of the league, you’d take the guy with 19.5 sacks and tell someone else to stop the run, and with good reason.
Cornerback: Charles Tillman, Chicago. It hasn’t been quite as fun for Tillman or the Bears in the second half, but the memories of that astounding first-half run are enough to push Tillman into his second consecutive Pro Bowl. Tillman’s 10 forced fumbles still lead the league by three, and while he only has two picks, they’re both pick-sixes. Teammate Tim Jennings has the gaudy interception totals, but that’s a product of teams not being afraid to throw at him. Tillman rightly gets more respect.
Cornerback: Richard Sherman, Seattle. Again, you can split hairs in selecting between Sherman or his teammate, Brandon Browner, but Sherman just edges ahead for me. Besides, Browner made the Pro Bowl last year, so all other things equal, it’s Sherman’s turn.
Safety: Earl Thomas, Seattle. The best player in the league’s top secondary, though, is Thomas. Roughly somewhere between a meteor and Sean Taylor, Thomas is arguably already the best safety in football, three years into his career. His range makes everything work for the Seahawks defense; it gives those big cornerbacks on the edge a security blanket and allows them to play more physical football on the underneath routes, and it allows the linebackers to be more aggressive in attacking the line of scrimmage. Of course, he also makes his own fair share of plays.
Safety: Antrel Rolle, New York Giants. Finally, 5,000 words later, let’s sneak another Giants player in there. Rolle excelled in the Giants’ big win over the 49ers, picking off Alex Smith twice, but it’s his versatility that makes him such a valuable player. Rolle can play any position in the secondary or even sneak down and serve as an extra linebacker, and he’s called upon to do any or all of those tasks in a given game. In a league where hybrid defenders are shiny and valuable, Rolle’s a prototype.