25 Players Poised to Make First Pro Bowl

Tyler WardAnalyst IJune 1, 2012

25 Players Poised to Make First Pro Bowl

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    There is always one constant thing in the NFL—surprises.

    Every year, there are surprises in America's favorite sports, whether it be Super Bowl participants, massive upsets, out-of-nowhere players or Pro Bowl nominees, among other aspects.

    Although the Pro Bowl has lost some of it's luster over the last few years, the game still represents the best players in the National Football League.

    It's always interesting to see which of your favorite players or the players from your favorite team will earn a trip to Hawaii, whether it be someone going for the first time or for the tenth time. I know I always enjoy seeing what surprises are in store for the Pro Bowl, even if it is something minimal.

    There is always at least one player that gets selected who stuns the majority of fans. Last season, Andy Dalton, Ryan Mathews, Geno Atkins and Paul Soliai made the Pro Bowl as alternates, when some people didn't even give some of them the thought of making it to Hawaii. Being selected does lose some recognition when you're an alternate instead of a vote-in, but a selection is still a selection.

    There are still many quality players that haven't made the Pro Bowl, even though a few of them substantially deserve it.

    In this list, the players given are athletes that have a solid chance of making their first trip to the Pro Bowl in 2012—some of which deserve it and some of which will surprise the fans.

    I cannot wait for the NFL season to begin. I know most of y'all agree with me.

Sean Lee, Dallas

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    2011 Stats: 105 total tackles, four interceptions, seven passes defensed, one fumble recovery

    Mark it down right here: Sean Lee is one of the most underrated players in the NFL, not just at linebacker.

    Since arriving in the NFL, Lee has done nothing but surprise folks.

    After not registering a single start in 2010, Lee came back to start fifteen games alongside DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer in 2011. Lee didn't disappoint either, as he was able to accumulate 105 total tackles, four interceptions and one fumble recovery.

    He's an amazing talent that seems to be a lock as the Cowboys' middle linebacker for the next decade. I believe he's that good.

    With a full season under his belt, Lee should be able to do even better next season. The 55th overall selection in 2010 reminds me a lot of his former teammate, Keith Brooking. While with the Falcons, Brooking was a five-time Pro Bowler and registered over 1,300 total tackles in his 14-year career. From 2001-05, Brooking accumulated over 100 tackles in each season and was recognized for his ability by being selected to the Pro Bowl in each of those five campaigns.

    Brooking didn't get selected to the annual game until his fourth season in the NFL and I think his comparison, Lee, beats that by one season. Lee showed so much promise in 2011 that I think he does even better in 2011.

    Unfortunately for Lee, he plays the same position in the same conference as Patrick Willis, Brian Urlacher, London Fletcher, Jon Beason, the suspended Jonathan Vilma, Stephen Tulloch and James Laurinaitis. Needless to say, a Pro Bowl nomination will be hard to come by, but Lee is ready for primetime. He will make the Pro Bowl sooner or later and I believe it could be this season if he plays his cards right.

    Fun Fact: In 2011, Lee became just the second linebacker in NFL history to intercept passes from Peyton Manning and Tom Brady.

Andrew Luck, Indianapolis

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    2011 Stats: N/A

    Over the past couple of years, former Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck was one of the most coveted collegiate players in recent memory. Before he even announced he was coming to the NFL, scouts were clammering over him, saying he was "the next Peyton Manning."

    Everyone thought that he would enter last year's draft and would undoubtedly be the No. 1 overall selection. But Luck ultimately decided to return to school for more seasoning, which may turn out to be one of the best ideas he's ever had.

    After a stellar season with the Cardinals, Luck officially entered the 2012 draft. The Colts held the No. 1 pick after Peyton Manning, Luck's comparison, didn't see the field at all after multiple neck surgeries. The Colts' front office decided to part ways with Manning and get ready for the future. Leading up to the draft, it was down to Luck and Baylor's Heisman winner, Robert Griffin III. However, everyone knew that there was no way the Colts would pass up on Luck, who many consider to be the best prospect since 1998's No. 1 overall pick, Manning.

    Luck's name was officially called by Roger Goodell with the No. 1 overall selection. Now, Luck will be the starting quarterback for a team that has been one of the best of the 21st century. Unfortunately, they are now in a rebuilding process, as they have severed ties with Dallas Clark, Gary Brackett, Joseph Addai and possibly Dwight Freeney, who has been the anchor of the defense since his rookie season.

    Fortunately, the Colts did manage to retain Reggie Wayne, who has been an amazing receiver since he came into the NFL. Many thought he would go elsewhere in free agency, but he ultimately stayed in Indianapolis. Now with an offense centered around Wayne and rookies Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener, Luck should have a solid rookie campaign.

    With such a belief that Luck can immediately come in and make an impact, there's a strong possibility that Luck can make the Pro Bowl during his rookie campaign. After all, Andy Dalton and Cam Newton managed to do it last season, even though they were both alternates.

    There's no doubt that Luck is a talented quarterback that should come in and fill the void Manning left behind. Hopefully he can live up to the expectations, starting now.

Jordy Nelson, Green Bay

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    2011 Stats: 68 receptions, 1,263 receiving yards, 15 touchdowns

    Boy, did Jordy Nelson have a coming-out party in 2011.

    Nelson flourished in the Packers' high-powered offense last season, as he undoubtedly had the best season of his young career. After three average seasons to begin his career, the former Kansas State star finally got things rolling in 2011.

    Nelson was arguably the team's best receiver last season, as he narrowly beat Greg Jennings for the team lead in receptions (68 to 67). He was also the team's only player to go over 1,000 receiving yards, as Jennings was the next closest with 949 yards. And of course, he also led the team in receiving touchdowns with 15. No one else scored double-digits in that category with second-place belonging to—you guessed it—Greg Jennings.

    So needless to say, Nelson was unbelievable, but it didn't hurt that the person throwing him the ball was Aaron Rodgers, who many consider to be the league's best quarterback. After all, Rodgers was able to take home the NFL MVP Award last year as well, after throwing for 4,643 yards and 45 touchdowns with just six interceptions.

    Nelson is one of the most intricate pieces to the Packers' receiving puzzle, as he joins Jennings, Donald Driver, James Jones, Randall Cobb and tight end Jermichael Finley.

    With Rodgers throwing him the ball, there is no doubt that Nelson should surpass the 1,000-yard plateau for the second straight season in 2012. I don't think he will be able to match the touchdown total, but Nelson will likely increase his receptions and receiving yards. If he can manage to do that, Nelson will make his first trip to Hawaii.

Darren McFadden, Oakland

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    2011 Stats: 113 carries, 614 rushing yards, four touchdowns; 19 receptions, 154 receiving yards, one touchdown (injured; only played in seven games)

    It's a shame that Darren McFadden has had to constantly battle injuries since coming to the NFL in 2008. The former Razorback has started double-digit games just once in his four professional seasons.

    His best season came in 2010 when he started 13 games, registering 223 carries for 1,157 yards and seven touchdowns. He also caught 47 passes for 507 yards and three touchdowns as well. His stellar season remains as the only year in which he accumulated more than 625 rushing yards.

    If he can remain healthy, McFadden should have an awesome 2012 season. The Raiders also need him to stay healthy, as the backups are currently Taiwan Jones and Lonyae Miller. Last season's backup, Michael Bush, packed his bags and headed to Chicago during this year's offseason. Luckily for Oakland, if McFadden does go down there are still some quality free agents left, such as Cedric Benson, Ryan Grant, LaDainian Tomlinson, Thomas Jones, Cadillac Williams and Ronnie Brown.

    Anyway, McFadden has all the talent in the world. He has explosive speed, solid strength and the ability to make tacklers miss. He was drafted fourth overall, so people have definitely recognized talent in him. The problem is that he can't stay healthy. He was able to manage those difficulties while attending Arkansas, but McFadden hasn't been able to keep them in check once he donned an NFL uniform.

    As he showed in 2010, if he can remain healthy for the duration of the season he can be among the league's best running the ball. He's an exceptional dual threat, as he is one of the best receiving running backs in the NFL.

    Of course, if he can't stay healthy he won't make the Pro Bowl unless he just blows people away in the games he plays. If he can start at least 15 games, there's no doubt in my mind that McFadden can get the job done and fully return the Raiders back to respectability.

    There will be a Pro Bowl in his future.

Cliff Avril, Detroit

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    2011 Stats: 38 total tackles, 11 sacks, one interception (four-yard touchdown), six forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries (one touchdown)

    Since coming into the NFL, Detroit's Cliff Avril has slowly gotten better and better and better.

    In four seasons, his starts and sacks have increased every single time. During his rookie season, the former Boilermaker accumulated five sacks in four starts. Since then, he has recorded 5.5, 8.5 and 11 sacks, respectively, while starting 11, 13 and 16 games from 2009-11.

    His stats were practically meaningless a couple seasons ago, as the Lions were the same 'ole Lions. Now, with Matt Stafford, Calvin Johnson and Ndamukong Suh, they seem to have locked themselves into a perennial playoff-contending team.

    Now that the Lions have finally returned to that form, Avril and his stats should become noticeable. Although their defense wasn't as good as some people had hoped—22nd against the pass and 23rd versus the run—Avril was one of the few consistent, game-to-game contributors.

    In fact, he was a game-changer last season on a team that returned to the playoffs for the first time since 1999 when Charlie Batch, Greg Hill and Germane Crowell were leading the team in the major offensive categories.

    Now with a legitimate season under his belt, the Lions should be even stronger than they were during the 2011 season. Gunther Cunningham will be returning as the team's defensive coordinator and he should bring in the same packages he did last year.

    Avril could see an even bigger increase in his stats this season, as it is entirely plausible he could record 15 sacks during their 16-game schedule. His other numbers may not increase however, as he somehow accumulated six forced fumbles in 2011—that total was just second in the league behind Baltimore's Terrell Suggs.

    But needless to say, Avril should have another stellar season in 2012 and, hopefully, he will be noticed for his amazing defensive capabilities in the Motor City.

Brandon Browner, Seattle

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    2011 Stats: 54 total tackles, six interceptions (two touchdowns)

    Brandon Browner, an undrafted free agent last year, surprised the NFL world as he was one of the best players on Seattle's ninth-ranked defense.

    Browner, who played collegiately at Oregon State, started all sixteen games for Seattle, lining up alongside Marcus Trufant and Richard Sherman. The cornerback was able to record six interceptions, tied for second in the NFL—Kyle Arrington, Eric Weddle and Charles Woodson registered seven interceptions. Additionally, Browner returned two of those six interceptions for touchdowns, tied for first in the NFL and his 220 return yards were second, five yards behind Detroit's Chris Houston.

    Needless to say, Browner was a bright spot on a relatively unknown Seahawks defense.

    With the 31-year-old Trufant returning to Seattle for his tenth season, Browner will likely line up on the other side—if Trufant can remain healthy.

    Even though Trufant has been a quality cornerback for Seattle, he is no longer the best cornerback on Seattle's roster. Browner has now officially taken over that spot.

    There's no doubt that it will be exceedingly hard for Browner to repeat his rookie season, but it is possible. He showed that he belongs in the NFL with his phenomenal play in 2011. If he can play just as well as he did last year, the cornerback should earn a trip to Hawaii.

    He definitely has the talent to do so.

Andrew Whitworth, Cincinnati

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    2011 stats: N/A

    Like another offensive lineman later in this list, Cincinnati's Andrew Whitworth is one of the most unheralded players in the NFL.

    Whitworth should be a perennial Pro Bowler, but it doesn't help that he plays the same position within the conference as Miami's Jake Long, Cleveland's Joe Thomas, New England's Sebastian Vollmer, New York's D'Brickashaw Ferguson and Tennessee's David Stewart.

    Yet, Whitworth has been phenomenal at left tackle for the Bengals over the last few seasons.

    Whitworth is perhaps one of, if not the, best blocking offensive tackle at the professional level. He was recognized for his efforts, as he was named the team's MVP for the 2010 season according to the Football Writers of America.

    He had another stellar campaign last year, although he didn't do exceptionally well at the end of the season. Regardless, he is still an amazing tackle and should be quarterback Andy Dalton's best friend on the team.

    Whitworth is noted as being exceptionally consistent and is one of the best offensive linemen in pass protection. He's also able to be a stupendous pass-blocker in a division that includes Cleveland's Jabaal Sheard, Baltimore's Terrell Suggs and Ray Lewis, along with Pittsburgh's James Harrison, Ziggy Hood and Brett Keisel.

    It is a humongous surprise to me that Whitworth hasn't been selected to the annual game in Hawaii. Despite playing in a small market, Whitworth should be recognized as one of the best offensive linemen in football. The Bengals sure think he is, as they rewarded him with a two-year extension in Aug. 2011 that will keep him in a Bengals uniform until at least 2015.

Aaron Hernandez, New England

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    2011 Stats: 79 receptions, 910 receiving yards, seven touchdowns; five carries, 45 rushing yards

    Many people were confused when the Patriots drafted two tight ends in the first four rounds of the 2010 draft, but as of now, everyone is praising the front office's decision. The Colts even decided to replicate that in April after drafting Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen in the first three rounds.

    But the two rookies likely won't even compare to the Patriots' two-headed monster, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. Gronkowski had the best season ever for a tight end in 2011, as he recorded 90 receptions for 1,327 yards and 17 touchdowns. His teammate, Hernandez, caught 79 passes for 910 yards and seven touchdowns.

    Gronkowski was selected to the Pro Bowl, which was a no-brainer. Hernandez sat at home and watched, but he may not have to do that in 2012.

    Hernandez could have an even better season in 2012, thanks to Tom Brady and Bill Belichick's high-powered offense. However, there would have to be some things that fall his way, as the Patriots' receiving corps is absolutely loaded with himself, Gronkowski, Chad Ochocinco, Brandon Lloyd, Deion Branch, Julian Edelman, Jabar Gaffney and Donté Stallworth.

    With this big array of receivers there likely won't be enough passes to go around to all these players, unless Brady attempts 70 passes per game. I don't believe that all those players will be on the roster on Week 1 of the 2012 season, but I can guarantee that Hernandez and Gronkowski will survive the cuts.

    Last season, there's no doubt that Hernandez would have surpassed the 1,000-yard mark if he had participated in all sixteen games. He was just 90 yards short after playing in 14 games, starting 12 of those contests. If he can stay healthy for the 2012 season, there's no doubt in my mind that he will record over 1,000 receiving yards for the first time in his young career.

    If he's able to do that, there should definitely be a spot ready for him in Hawaii. Unfortunately for the former Florida Gator, he will have to battle his own teammate Gronkowski, San Diego's Antonio Gates, Cincinnati's Jermaine Gresham, Pittsburgh's Heath Miller and possibly, Denver's Joel Dreessen and Houston's Owen Daniels for a roster spot. In a high-octane offense in New England, Hernandez shouldn't have a problem replicating his 2011 season.

Charles Johnson, Carolina

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    2011 Stats: 41 total tackles, nine sacks, four passes defensed

    Boy, the Panthers have had a rough go of it over the past couple of seasons, primarily on the defensive side of the ball.

    From 2002 to 2009, the Panthers' stingy defense ranked in the top twelve in terms of points given up, six times. The other two seasons, they ranked a decent 15th in both campaigns (2004 and 2007).

    However, since the conclusion of the 2009 season, the Panthers' defense has ranked 26th and 27th in points allowed, while ranking 18th and 28th in yards given up. It's definitely been a far cry from those teams that were regular contenders to make it deep into the playoffs.

    Luckily for the Panthers, they are building their defense back up with players such as Jon Beason, rookie tackle machine Luke Kuechly, Chris Gamble, James Anderson, Charles Godfrey and Charles Johnson, their third-round draft choice in 2007.

    With a high-powered offense that ranked in the top ten in points and yards, the Panthers need a defense that won't give up a high amount of points per game. Johnson is definitely the focal point of that, as he plays one of the most important positions on the Panthers' defense.

    After three lackluster seasons in which he recorded a total of ten sacks, Johnson came back and registered 11.5 sacks in 2010 after franchise player Julius Peppers headed to Chicago. After the conclusion of the season, the NFL went into a lockout, as we all know. Once it was lifted, the Panthers apparently liked what they saw, as they signed him to a six-year, $72 million contract. Once the season got under way, Johnson was able to register 9 sacks, a slight dip from his 2010 campaign. ESPN the Magazine reported that Johnson was also the NFL's highest-paid player in 2011, making an astounding total of $34 million.

    Although he isn't putting up numbers like conference counterparts Jared Allen, Jason Pierre-Paul, Trent Cole or former teammate Julius Peppers, Johnson is still a solid player and is undoubtedly one of the Panthers' most vital parts.

    For this upcoming season, I believe Johnson will live up to his unbelievable contract and record a career-high in sacks, along with being named to the Pro Bowl. Unfortunately, it doesn't help that he plays in a market that isn't Dallas, Pittsburgh, San Francisco or New England. Hopefully, Johnson can blow people's minds this season and earn his first trip to Hawaii.

Chad Greenway, Minnesota

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    2011 Stats: 154 total tackles, two sacks, one fumble recovery

    *Greenway did make last year's Pro Bowl as an alternate, but wasn't actually selected.

    It blows my mind that Chad Greenway hasn't been voted into the Pro Bowl. I believe he is one of the best linebackers in the game, not just in the NFC.

    Since 2007, the former Iowa star has been a tackling machine and the anchor of the Vikings' defense. Greenway has been one of the only consistent players on their defense, along with defensive end Jared Allen. Drafted in the first round in 2006, Greenway tore his ACL in the Vikings' first preseason game against the Oakland Raiders. But, he returned in 2007 without even seeming to miss a beat.

    Since his first true season in the NFL, Greenway has recorded 105, 115, 99, 144 and 154 total tackles. His 154 tackles last season was good enough for third in the entire league, just behind Washington's London Fletcher (166) and Cleveland's D'Qwell Jackson (158). 

    As stated above, Greenway made the Pro Bowl but was an alternate. The linebacker replaced Chicago's Lance Briggs on the roster, but he hasn't officially been voted into the league's annual All-Star Game.

    But this season, the Viking should actually be selected into the Pro Bowl. He will have another 100+ tackle season in 2012 and represent the franchise in Hawaii, possibly alongside the aforementioned Jared Allen.

    I said it earlier and I'll say it again: Greenway is a beast. He is undoubtedly one of the best linebackers in the league, although he doesn't record an insane amount of sacks like DeMarcus Ware or a healthy amount of forced fumbles like Terrell Suggs. But, he will go to Hawaii this year for the first time as a vote-in.

Josh Sitton, Green Bay

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    2011 Stats: N/A

    Josh Sitton could honestly be on of the most underrated players in the league. He is that good, but he is not recognized for his amazing blocking capabilities. It astounds me that he hasn't been called to the Pro Bowl, but his time his coming. I guarantee that.

    Sitton was chosen in the fourth round out of Central Florida, by the Packers. He began his professional career as an offensive tackle, as he seldom played as a rookie. In 2009, Sitton earned the full-time job at right guard and has started 46 of a possible 48 games since.

    Since that season, Sitton has been one of the best offensive linemen in football.

    Pro Football Focus ranks him as the fifth-best offensive lineman since he took over the starting gig in Green Bay. If you didn't know what PFF is, it is a site that aims “to provide the most in-depth, accurate and thought-provoking information on professional football player performance available on the web.” Pro Football Focus gives some of the most amazing stats that come unavailable on sites such as ESPN.com, Pro-Football-Reference and so on.

    Pro Football Focus also lists Sitton as the best player that has yet to be selected to the Pro Bowl. He's that good, yet so unappreciated.

    After the 2009 season concluded, the Packers' front office decided to reward Sitton with a five-year, $33.75 million extension, including $8.9 million in guarantees. He will also receive a $300,000 workout bonus each year.

    Sitton is definitely worth that extension. There's no doubt in my mind that he is one of the best offensive linemen in the NFL, and hopefully he should make the Pro Bowl this season.

Aldon Smith, San Francisco

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    2011 Stats: 37 total tackles, 14 sacks, two forced fumbles, one fumble recovery

    Many analysts and fans thought the 49ers reached on Aldon Smith last year in the draft, as they took him with the seventh overall selection. Those people were undoubtedly wrong, as Smith was one of the best rookies of the entire class.

    Last year for the surprising 13-3 49ers, Smith accumulated a team-high 14 sacks. The entire team registered 42 sacks the entire season, which means Smith had one-third of the team's sacks by himself. Additionally, he separated himself as the team's premier pass-rusher, as the next-closest defensive player was Justin Smith and Ahmad Brooks with 7.5 and 7 sacks, respectively.

    It was quite a surprise that Smith didn't make the Pro Bowl last season. In fact, it somewhat blew my mind, as Smith was tied for fifth in the NFL in sacks—behind only Jared Allen, DeMarcus Ware, Jason Babin and Jason Pierre-Paul. Smith's 14 sacks were, of course, the most by any rookie in 2011, as the next closest was Denver's Von Miller with 11.5. The former Missouri Tiger also recorded those numbers without even starting a single game during his rookie campaign.

    Despite playing linebacker, Smith managed to only record 37 total tackles. It definitely doesn't help that he is playing on the same defense as Patrick Willis, who is arguably the best linebacker in the NFL and is a tackle machine.

    Primarily used a blitzing linebacker, Smith definitely has a bright future in the NFL. If he can have a similar season to his rookie campaign, Smith will make the Pro Bowl for the first time in 2012.

Julio Jones, Atlanta

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    2011 Stats: 54 receptions, 959 receiving yards, eight touchdowns; six carries, 56 rushing yards

    After a stellar collegiate career in Tuscaloosa, Julio Jones decided to file the proper paperwork to submit his name into the 2011 NFL Draft.

    Projected as a first-round selection, no one saw what was coming. The Cleveland Browns, who held the No.6 overall selection, traded the pick to Atlanta in exchange for the 27th, 59th and 124th overall picks in the draft. The Falcons also parted ways with their first- and fourth-round selections in the 2012 draft. Atlanta decided to use that selection on Jones, who became the second receiver off the board behind Cincinnati's A.J. Green, who played collegiately in the SEC (Georgia) as well.

    Needless to say, Jones did not disappoint during his first professional season.

    Despite playing in just 13 games due to injury, Jones registered 54 receptions for 959 yards and eight touchdowns. His touchdown total led all rookie receivers, while his catches and receiving yards were second to the aforementioned Green.

    Jones really came into his own after the Falcons' game against the lowly Indianapolis Colts. During that game, Jones managed to catch just three passes, although they resulted in 131 yards and two touchdowns. Over the next three games Jones failed to replicate any of those stats, but he was back in the remaining four games.

    Over the final four games—against Carolina, Jacksonville, New Orleans and Tampa Bay—Jones accumulated 104, 85, 128 and 76 receiving yards, respectively. He also managed to catch six touchdowns from Matt Ryan in those games, as well.

    If Jones had played like that his entire rookie season and participated in all sixteen games, there's no doubt he would have been elected to the Pro Bowl. Now with a season under his belt and Roddy White lining up beside him, Jones is set for another stellar season. This time, if he can stay healthy, he should be able to surpass the 1,000-yard, 10-touchdown plateau.

Brandon Pettigrew, Detroit

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    2011 Stats: 83 receptions, 777 receiving yards, five touchdowns

    The Lions have done a phenomenal job at returning to a competitive team. After drafting offensive stars Matt Stafford, Calvin Johnson and Brandon Pettigrew, along with defensive studs Ndamukong Suh, Cliff Avril and Louis Delmas, the Lions are on the right track.

    Last season, Matt Stafford, along with Drew Brees and Tom Brady, became the third, fourth and fifth quarterbacks to pass for 5,000 yards in a single season. Calvin Johnson managed to record 96 receptions for 1,681 yards and 16 touchdowns. Stafford's tight end, Brandon Pettigrew, registered 83 receptions for 777 yards and five touchdowns.

    Pettigrew and Johnson have now given Stafford two legitimate options that defenses should be afraid of.

    In the NFL, there is that top-tier of tight ends that includes Jimmy Graham, Rob Gronkowski, Antonio Gates, Tony Gonzalez, Jason Witten and Vernon Davis. Then, there's the second-tier that includes Kellen Winslow Jr., Pettigrew, Aaron Hernandez, Heath Miller, Joel Dreessen and Jermaine Gresham.

    2012 could be the year that Pettigrew joins that first-tier of tight ends.

    Pettigrew is lucky to be in a high-powered offense that resembles those of the ones in Green Bay, New Orleans and New England.

    With Stafford as the signal-caller in Detroit, Pettigrew should surpass the 90-catch, 1,000-yard plateau for the first time in his young career. There's a very good chance that Stafford should throw for more than 5,000 yards again in the league's pass-happy times, and Johnson and Pettigrew would be his main beneficiaries.

    Pettigrew is definitely on the cusp of greatness in Detroit and it could officially start with the upcoming 2012 season.

Pat Angerer, Indianapolis

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    2011 Stats: 148 total tackles, one sack, one interception, two forced fumbles, one fumble recovery

    On a Colts defense that ranked 15th against the pass and 29th against the run, linebacker Pat Angerer was one of the few bright spots. The 25th-ranked overall defense was horrible last season, as it was a key component to why the Colts finished 2-14 and won the No. 1 overall selection.

    Angerer, a former Iowa Hawkeye, was a tackle machine last season, ranking fourth-overall in the NFL in tackles (148)—London Fletcher, D'Qwell Jackson and the aforementioned Chad Greenway were the only players that tallied more tackles.

    The middle linebacker showed great promise this season and ensured his position as the team's future force in the middle. His second season turned out to be his best thus far, as he accumulated 80 tackles in eleven starts last year.

    Unfortunately for linebackers such as Angerer, it doesn't matter how many tackles you get if you want to be selected to the Pro Bowl. It just matters how flashy you are, hitting a certain amount of interceptions, forced fumbles or fumble recoveries. A linebacker that records 100 tackles, five sacks, five forced fumbles and five interceptions will be selected ahead of a linebacker that registers 200 tackles, two sacks and one forced fumble.

    Angerer isn't one of those flashy linebackers. He's one of those technical linebackers that will flock toward the ball any time it's in play. No. 51 will try to register as many tackles as he can, instead of trying to record interceptions, forced fumbles and so on. If stats like that were well-recognized by the public, Angerer would have made the Pro Bowl last year. Hopefully, he can have a similar season and make the Pro Bowl for the first time this year.

Cam Newton, Carolina

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    2011 Stats: 310-for-517 (60.0 percent), 4,051 passing yards, 21 touchdowns, 17 interceptions; 126 carries, 706 rushing yards, 14 touchdowns (NFL Record)

    Of course Cam Newton, affectionately known as "Superman," would be on this list.

    The No. 1 pick last season, Newton arguably had the best season for a rookie in the history of the NFL. He set rookie quarterback records for passing yards in a season, passing yards in his NFL debut (422 yards), most rushing yards in a season and most total touchdowns in a season (35), among others. Newton also broke the NFL record for rushing touchdowns in a season by a quarterback, with 14.

    Needless to say, Newton lived up to the hype he came in with as a No. 1 overall selection.

    Newton was undoubtedly stupendous last season, despite playing for the lowly Panthers. Even though he put up amazing numbers, Newton only managed to lead his team to a 6-10—four of those wins came in the last six games, however.

    If Newton can avoid a sophomore slump, I think there's a strong possibility he can make the Pro Bowl this season. Of course, his stats would have to be somewhat replicated, but that is entirely plausible.

    The former Heisman Trophy winner has all the talent to becoming one of the elite players in the NFL who can be a dual threat in the aerial attack or in the running game. There's no doubt that he can even become better than Michael Vick, if he isn't already.

    In order to succeed, Newton will have to have a better supporting cast around him. He will have running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart back, along with receiver Steve Smith. The offense still doesn't have a legitimate No. 2 receiver, but they will eventually find it. In the meantime, hopefully David Gettis, Brandon LaFell or rookie Joe Adams can step up for Newton.

    Luckily for the Panthers, they finally have a franchise quarterback that could stay in Carolina for the duration of his professional career.

Mark Anderson, Buffalo

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    2011 Stats: 32 total tackles, 10 sacks, two forced fumbles, one fumble recovery

    Mark Anderson's career has been up-and-down since it began, to say the least.

    During his rookie season in 2006 with Chicago, Anderson registered twelve sacks, despite starting only one game. The next two seasons, Anderson started fourteen games, but accumulated just six sacks.

    After four games and zero sacks with the Bears in 2010, the front office ultimately decided to sever ties with him. He was soon picked up by the Texans, where he recorded four sacks in eleven games, including two starts.

    He then latched on with the Patriots for the 2011 season and had one of the best seasons of his young career. There's no doubt that the Patriots' defense was downright awful last season, but Anderson was one of the few bright spots.

    The former Alabama star managed to accumulate a team-high ten sacks, tied with Andre Carter. He also started just one game in 2011, as well. Anderson was a catapult for the Patriots' success, as they won the AFC crown and made it to the Super Bowl, only to lose to the Giants for the second time in five years.

    Many teams around the league took notice of Anderson's accomplishments, as the Buffalo Bills signed Anderson to a four-year deal that could potentially be worth $27 million, which includes $8 million guaranteed. The Bills also made the biggest splash in free agency by signing former Texan Mario Williams to a six-year, $100-million deal.

    The front office is hoping that the additions of Anderson and Williams will give them a stellar pass-rushing attack to go along with last year's first-round pick Marcell Dareus, Kyle Williams, Nick Barnett, Shawne Merriman, Jairus Byrd, George Wilson, Terrence McGee and others.

    Anderson is expected to start on the defensive line, opposite Dwan Edwards, who registered 52 tackles and 2.5 sacks last season. If Anderson can replicate his 2011 season, the Bills would have struck gold with the acquisition. Anderson is a quality talent that can get to the quarterback quickly and if given the right amount of snaps, he can undoubtedly accumulate ten sacks.

    Anderson could definitely become a Pro Bowl threat this season with a re-vamped Bills defense.

Evan Mathis, Philadelphia

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    2011 Stats: N/A

    Evan Mathis has had a weird NFL career since he was drafted in the third round by the Panthers in 2005.

    Considered a journeyman, Mathis played his first six seasons with the Panthers, Miami Dolphins and Cincinnati Bengals. Prior to the 2011 season, the Eagles announced they had signed Mathis to a one-year deal.

    Mathis then won the starting job in training camp and actually had one of the best seasons of any offensive lineman in the NFL in 2011. He was extremely dominant, as the guard failed to give up a sack during the entire 16-game regular season.

    He was also phenomenal in run-blocking, as he helped lead LeSean McCoy to a league-leading 17 rushing touchdowns.

    The most amazing stat surrounding Mathis, however, is that he hasn't allowed a single sack since 2008 (at least). That's an astounding 1,846 snaps, that we know of, in which he hasn't let his man get to his quarterback, whether it be Chad Pennington, Carson Palmer, Ryan Fitzpatrick or Michael Vick.

    Given the production Mathis had in 2011, he was practically a shoo-in to re-sign with the Eagles. And he was.

    In March, ESPN's Adam Schefter announced that the Eagles rewarded Mathis with a five-year, $25 million deal, of which $7 million is guaranteed.

    The Eagles' offensive line is now practically set for the upcoming season. Many people were weary of the young offensive line last season, but according to Pro Football Focus, the line ranked second in the NFL. Many people can thank Mathis for that, as he was arguably the best of the group. The front office felt that way as well, thanks to the five-year deal.

    If Mathis continues to play like he has lately, there's no doubt that there will be a few Pro Bowls in the near future for the 30-year-old.

Michael Crabtree, San Francisco

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    2011 Stats: 72 receptions, 874 receiving yards, four touchdowns; one carry, six yards

    Crabtree has somewhat struggled since he came into the NFL as one of the most highly-touted receiving prospects of the 2000s.

    While attending Texas Tech, Crabtree was amazing. And that's understating it quite a bit. During his first season as a Red Raider, Crabtree caught 134 passes for an astounding 1,962 yards and 22 touchdowns. The following season, his stats declined a little bit, as he recorded 97 receptions for 1,165 yards and 19 touchdowns.

    His stellar two-year stretch at Texas Tech led him to become one of the draft's top prospects. Crabtree, in fact, threw his name into the 2009 draft hat and was chosen with the tenth overall selection by the 49ers.

    Through his first three years in the NFL, Crabtree's receptions and receiving yards have increased every year but they haven't been what 49ers fans had envisioned when his name was called. Some people credit it to his lack of a quarterback, but Alex Smith has been doing exceedingly well under the leadership of head coach Jim Harbaugh.

    With Smith having the best season of his career last year, it now seems that both he and Crabtree can now reach their ceiling. Last season, despite not starting two games, Crabtree caught a career-high 72 passes for 874 yards and four touchdowns.

    The 49ers' offense is going to be exciting this season, as Alex Smith finally has the right system. Frank Gore, Brandon Jacobs and rookie LaMichael James will be taking care of the run game, while Crabtree, tight end Vernon Davis, Mario Manningham, Randy Moss and rookie A.J. Jenkins will be catching passes.

    Even though the receiving corps is stacked, Crabtree should enter the season as Smith's No. 1 target on the depth chart. As the No. 1 receiver and slowly getting better, we should see an increase in his numbers yet again. They may not be Pro Bowl-worthy, but Crabtree should be reaching that plateau within the next couple of seasons.

Derek Cox, Jacksonville

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    2011 Stats: 22 total tackles, two passes defensed (injured; participated in just six games)

    Derek Cox is one of my favorite players in the NFL, as I believe he is extremely underrated.

    As we all know, the Jaguars' offense was horrendous last season. Their offense was so poor that it rendered no chance of succeeding. Rookie Blaine Gabbert seemed to regress as the season went on and it didn't help that he had one of the worst receiving corps in NFL history. Yes, in NFL history.

    Mike Thomas, Chastin West, Cecil Shorts III, Taylor Price, Kassim Osgood, Jarrett Dillard and Brian Robiskie weren't going to get the job done. Despite a horrible offense, the Jaguars did have a surprisingly good defense that ranked eighth against the pass and ninth against the run, which also ranked sixth overall in the entire NFL.

    They managed to do it all with relative unknown players, such as Jeremy Mincey, Terrance Knighton, Tyson Alualu and Clint Session, along with known players Rashean Mathis, Paul Posluszny, Dawan Landry and Daryl Smith. And somehow, they did all of this without a superstar-in-the-making, cornerback Derek Cox.

    I believe Cox has amazing talent and it is a very distinct possibility that he could become one of the best cornerbacks in the league when he reaches his ceiling and is able to stay healthy.

    During his rookie season in 2009, Cox started all 16 games and registered 72 tackles, 11 passes defensed and four interceptions. In 2010, the cornerback started 11 games, but still managed to accumulate 49 tackles, eight passes defended and four interceptions. He played in just six games last season, while only accumulating 22 tackles.

    Regardless, Cox has superior talent. In 2009, Cox was bad, to put it nicely, in coverage. But since then he has significantly improved against the pass and he can only get better. If Cox can stay healthy for the entire 2012 season, I believe it's a legitimate possibility that he earns his first career trip to the Pro Bowl.

Jabaal Sheard, Cleveland

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    2011 Stats: 54 total tackles, 8.5 sacks, five forced fumbles, one fumble recovery

    Some people were puzzled during the 2011 draft, as the Cleveland Browns selected former Pittsburgh defensive end Jabaal Sheard with the 37th overall selection. The 2010 Big East Defensive Player of the Year would go on to have a stellar rookie season for the Browns.

    Despite a struggling offense that was led by Colt McCoy, the defense played decently well throughout the regular season. The rush defense ranked 30th in the NFL, but the pass defense was stupendous as it ranked second overall, giving the Browns the tenth-ranked defense. The Browns also gave up just 19.2 points per game, good enough for fifth in the league.

    Sheard was one of the main reasons why, as he led the team in sacks (8.5) and forced fumbles (five).

    He was one of the few bright spots on a rather mediocre Cleveland team.

    With most of the returning cast such as D'Qwell Jackson, Joe Haden, Ahtyba Rubin and T.J. Ward, Sheard should have an even better season on an up-and-coming Browns team.

    The Browns' offense has gotten slightly better in the offseason, as they used their first-round selections on Alabama running back Trent Richardson and Oklahoma State quarterback Brandon Weeden. With an offense that already includes linemen Joe Thomas, Alex Mack, rookie Mitchell Schwartz and receivers Greg Little, Josh Cribbs and Mohamed Massaquoi, the Browns' offense should help alleviate pressure from their stellar defense.

    Hopefully, the defense won't have to try so hard for the 2012 season. But Sheard should be able to avoid a sophomore slump and have an even better season this upcoming year.

    Sheard, who hasn't reached his full potential yet, should be able to form a solid combination with Jackson, Ward, Haden and Rubin. With most of the attention paid towards Rubin and Jackson, Sheard should be able to come in and perform like he did last year. If he weren't in a small market like Cleveland, there's no doubt in my mind that Sheard would have made the Pro Bowl last season. He just wasn't recognized enough for his physical talent. But hopefully, he can turn some heads this season.

Demaryius Thomas/Eric Decker, Denver

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    Thomas' 2011 Stats: 32 receptions, 551 receiving yards, four touchdowns

    Decker's 2011 Stats: 44 receptions, 612 receiving yards, eight touchdowns

    These two receivers are going to be two of the most intriguing players in the NFL this upcoming season.

    Why? Two words: Peyton Manning.

    Last season, Thomas and Decker had to resort to a then-mediocre Kyle Orton and Tim Tebow, who didn't have any accuracy whatsoever. He also couldn't get the ball to open targets, as evidenced by his paltry 46.5-percent completion.

    So this offseason, the Broncos ultimately decided to end the Tebow experiment and acquire someone else that resembles a "gunslinger." That turned out to be Manning, a life-long Colt who is used to 4,000-yard seasons.

    Manning sat out the entire 2011 season after undergoing multiple neck surgeries. The Colts, with the No. 1 overall pick, decided to select Andrew Luck and rid themselves of Manning, perhaps the best player in the team's storied history.

    There's no doubt that Manning will have some troubles next season. After all, he has missed the better part of a year in football and will have entirely new teammates, a new playbook and a brand new coaching staff. So struggles are likely. But luckily it is Peyton Manning, who is arguably one of the best quarterbacks in NFL history.

    Once he gets into his groove, he will be hard to beat. Over the years, Manning has turned receivers such as Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne into potential Hall of Fame candidates. Also, Brandon Stokley and Dallas Clark were made more serviceable than they would have been in any other offense. Manning can do wonders with decent wide receivers, and Thomas and Decker are just that. Thomas has all the capabilities of being Manning's next Wayne and Decker as his next Stokley.

    If both players can stay healthy, there's no doubt in my mind that Thomas and Decker will surpass the 900-yard plateau, along with six touchdowns apiece. Both receivers will turn out having stellar seasons in 2012, thanks to Manning's arm.

Morgan Burnett, Green Bay

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    2011 Stats: 109 total tackles, one sack, eleven passes defensed, two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries

    Morgan Burnett, a third-round draft choice by Green Bay in 2010, showed glimpses of hope in 2011 with a stellar campaign. He started the first four games of the season for the Packers in 2010, but tore his ACL in the Packers' fourth game of the season against the Detroit Lions.

    Given the starting nod for the 2011 season, Burnett showed that he can be a valuable starter for the Packers. Lining up alongside Charlie Peprah, Burnett registered 107 total tackles over the 16-game season. His tackles total was second in the NFL amongst safeties, ranking only behind Indianapolis' Antoine Bethea (139). Miami's Yeremiah Bell and Oakland's Tyvon Branch were right behind him with 107 apiece.

    Although the Packers weren't their normal selves on defense last season, Burnett was one of the team's regular contributors.

    However, Burnett did have some problems in 2011, mainly in coverage. The Packers played a lot of zone defense, which left Burnett and Peprah to constantly get exposed. It also didn't help that they had to play so much zone coverage because linebackers A.J. Hawk and Desmond Bishop were mediocre, at best, in coverage. The Packers also really had no pass-rush whatsoever, so that practically eliminated their ability to play man coverage.

    If the Packers can fix some of these problems in 2012 the secondary will be set, especially at the safety positions. Charles Woodson is practically a Hall-of-Famer, while Tramon Williams, Sam Shields and rookie Casey Hayward should be able to handle the rest of the duties.

    Burnett has all the talent in the world. He can become one of the best safeties in the NFL, even better than his predecessor, Nick Collins, whose professional career is over because of injuries. Burnett is a solid hitter and a ball-hawk, as evidenced by his three interceptions in 2011. If he can fix the minor coverage issues, Burnett could be a top-tier safety.

    I believe he'll be able to better himself for this upcoming season and will undoubtedly be in the mix for a Pro Bowl roster spot. He is just 23 years old, so he's still got a lot of time left in the NFL. But a visit to the Pro Bowl will come sooner than later.

Daryl Washington, Arizona

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    2011 Stats: 106 total tackles, five sacks, two interceptions

    A second-round pick in 2010, Daryl Washington has officially taken over the linebacking duties for the Cardinals.

    Washington, who played collegiately at TCU, started eleven games as a rookie while recording 74 total tackles, one interception, one sack and one forced fumble. Last season, while starting fourteen games, Washington had an even better campaign as he accumulated 106 tackles, five sacks and two interceptions.

    The Cardinals have come a long way since their conference championship team in 2008. They have replaced Kurt Warner with Kevin Kolb, Edgerrin James with "Beanie" Wells, Anquan Boldin and Steve Breaston with rookie Michael Floyd and Early Doucet, Antrel Rolle with Kerry Rhodes, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie with phenom Patrick Peterson and Karlos Dansby with Washington.

    Although they are definitely in a rebuilding process, Washington is one of the cornerstones that will get them back to a competitive team in the NFC West. Their defense has been extremely mediocre over the last decade, especially last season. But with Calais Campbell, Darnell Dockett, Adrian Wilson, Washington, Peterson, Kerry Rhodes, Dan Williams and Paris Lenon returning for 2012, the Cardinals' defense should get much better. All of these players have a season together under the belt and the team should surprise some opposing offenses this upcoming season.

    And it all starts with Washington, a player who plays the signal-caller on the defensive side of the ball. The linebacking spots are perhaps the most important on defense and if a team has a couple of premier linebackers, the team should be set.

    Washington has definitely gotten better since his rookie campaign and he will better his stats this season on an up-and-coming Arizona defense. Washington is a sure tackler and also tallies a decent amount of sacks for an inside linebacker. Not to mention, he plays fairly well in coverage and should register a couple of interceptions this season as well.

    There will be a Pro Bowl in Washington's future. I guarantee it.

Fred Jackson, Buffalo

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    2011 Stats: 170 carries, 934 rushing yards, six touchdowns; 39 receptions, 442 receiving yards

    Fred Jackson was one of the most pleasant surprises of the 2011 season. In fact, when Jackson even decided to enter the NFL, he wasn't given much of a thought, but he has proved many people wrong. I can say that I'm a fan and became an even bigger one after I used a late-round draft choice on him in Fantasy Football last year—the pick definitely panned out before he suffered the late season-ending injury.

    Jackson played collegiately at Coe College, a Division III school. He was named to five All-American teams in 2002 after rushing for 1,702 yards and 29 touchdowns. Scouts believed that he wouldn't pan out because he was small for a running back at 6'1" and 195 pounds. After playing in the National Indoor Football League, United Indoor Football and for NFL Europa, he was invited to Buffalo's training camp in 2006.

    After starting a total of four games in 2007 and 2008, Jackson started 11 games in 2009 and didn't disappoint. Jackson managed to accumulate 1,062 rushing yards and two touchdowns, along with 371 receiving yards. The following season, he started 13 games and rushed for 927 yards and five touchdowns.

    Last season, Jackson got off to a phenomenal start for Buffalo, as he had five 100-yard games in the Bills' first seven contests. He also recorded three games of 70 or more receiving yards in that span, as well. The next two games, against the Jets and Cowboys, Jackson recorded 82 and 114 rushing yards, respectively.

    Unfortunately, in the next game against Miami Jackson suffered a fractured fibula, which caused him to miss the rest of the season. At the time of his injury, Jackson's 934 rushing yards were good enough for third in the NFL. The Bills lost their game against Miami, their third straight loss. They would go on to post a 1-5 record in the games that Jackson missed.

    Clearly, Jackson was an important part of the Bills' offense, and as he comes back healthy for 2012 the Bills should be in for a solid season. I firmly believe, that if Jackson can remain healthy for all 16 games, he will go over the 1,200-yard plateau, which would be a career high. I can also see him scoring at least eight rushing touchdowns, meaning he should make his first trip to Hawaii this season. After a very intriguing journey to the NFL, I hope he does that well.

    Fun Fact: While playing for the Sioux City Bandits of the Indoor Football League, Jackson got paid $200 per week. He will have a $2.205 million base salary for 2012.

    Another Fun Fact: Jackson got invited to the Bills' training camp in 2006 mainly because Buffalo's general manager and former head coach, Marv Levy, is an alumnus.