For NFL players, there are few greater honors than being named to the annual Pro Bowl squad.
It means that by the consensus of fans, coaches and colleagues, they were one of the best players at their position in their conference that season. Many players have bonuses or incentives tied to Pro Bowl nods, and its traditional location in Hawaii means a free vacation to a place even wealthy superstars still find exotic.
No players find the selection more honorable, impressive or humbling than rookies.
When a rookie bursts on to the NFL scene with authority and announces his presence with eye-grabbing production, making the Pro Bowl can be the capstone of the most incredible year of his life. Pro Bowl honors can ensure the rookie has major leverage when it comes to his second contract—typically, the deal that determines whether his playing career sets him up for life.
Unfortunately, naming the Pro Bowl roster is one of the NFL's thorniest problems.
Fans, coaches and players rarely watch a balanced schedule of games and teams. Players often get in based on reputation or stat totals alone—especially along the offensive line and defensive backfield, where few stats and uncooperative TV angles make it hard for fans to judge ability.
Worse yet, voting starts in the middle of the season and ends before it's over, giving a leg up to players who start hot and freezing out players who perform when it counts the most. Players in big markets (like New York) can get in just on fan size alone.
The biggest "in" of all, though, is having big numbers. Double-digit touchdowns and sacks, triple-digit catches and tackles, four-digit totals of yards—they all pull in votes like crazy.
The rookies who have the best chance to earn the honors are talented players who'll be Day 1 starters in featured roles on good, contending teams. Even then, they have to fit into an opening on a roster typically log-jammed with veterans expecting to start.
It's rare that all the elements line up just so, but it is possible. Here are the rookies who have the best chance of making the Pro Bowl this season.
The easiest way for a defensive back to get into the Pro Bowl is to snag a lot of interceptions, and New Orleans Saints safety Kenny Vaccaro is uniquely positioned to do exactly that.
Not only does the 6'0", 214-pound safety have the size and power to rack up big tackle numbers, his speed and coverage skills are so sharp he could even see time at nickel corner.
Beyond all that, Vaccaro will feature on the Saints defense, a unit that always faces a ton of pass attempts. Drew Brees and the offense score points quickly, which forces opponents to respond in kind. The Saints faced 602 pass attempts last season, fourth-most in the NFL (per Pro Football Reference).
Offensive coordinators and quarterbacks like to pick on inexperienced defensive backs, and they won't be testing incumbent cornerback Jabari Greer and safety Malcolm Jenkins too often. The other corner, Keenan Lewis, is a young veteran with a good track record in Pittsburgh.
Quarterbacks will throw at Vaccaro early and often, and he has the tools to make them pay.
It's incredibly hard for a guard to make an obvious impact on the game.
Even the greatest offensive guards of all time are only known as such after years of those who watch film pounding the table for them in front of those who don't. The only way a guard can make the Pro Bowl in his rookie season is if he comes in riding a wave of hype, and Tennessee Titans guard Chance Warmack hung 10 throughout the draft cycle.
Warmack, touted by many as the best guard prospect in years, has a special chance to prove he's worth it.
Not only will Warmack benefit from two Hall of Fame guards coaching him (offensive line coach Bruce Matthews and head coach Mike Munchak), Warmack will be opening holes for the most exciting, dynamic, explosive runner to be bottled up by poor blocking since Barry Sanders.
If Warmack can spring mercurial tailback Chris Johnson for a few big gainers, the entire football world will take notice.
After Adrian Peterson, the NFC's tailback crop is pretty thin. Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch won't get as many carries this season, and San Francisco 49ers stalwart Frank Gore has clearly lost a step (and he wasn't a burner in his prime).
Green Bay Packers tailbacks Eddie Lacy and Johnathan Franklin will both compete with DuJuan Harris for carries, yet both have the opportunity to skip to the head of not only the depth chart, but also the NFC pecking order.
Lacy was widely seen as the most complete back in the draft; only questions about consistency and conditioning dropped his stock.
Franklin was insanely productive at UCLA; his 1,734 yards, 6.1 yards per carry and 13 touchdowns as a senior stood with some of the best in the nation.
If either can emerge as the lead dog in training camp, he has a clear flight plan to Hawaii.
Monstrously productive pass-rusher Jarvis Jones entered the draft evaluation cycle as a surefire top-10, possibly top-five pick.
Concerns about his diagnosis of spinal stenosis dropped Jones to the No. 17 slot; the Pittsburgh Steelers happily turned in a card with his name on it.
Jones, standing 6'2" and weighing 245 pounds, is a picture-perfect replacement for departed Steeler legend James Harrison. Harrison, who took his aging 6'0", 242-pound frame to the division-rival Cincinnati Bengals, was a multi-tooled monster coming off the edge.
Jones led the SEC in tackles for loss and sacks as a redshirt sophomore and led the nation in sacks (14.5), tackles for loss (24.5) and forced fumbles (seven) as a redshirt junior.
The Steelers have a crying need for a fast, strong, gifted pass-rusher to step in and start in the defense's feature role. Jones will supply those talents, and the Steelers will supply some of the best defensive coaching in the NFL and as many reps as Jones can handle.
None of the top rookies will have as much opportunity to put up sexy numbers as Detroit Lions defensive end Ezekiel "Ziggy" Ansah.
Ansah, at 6'5" and 271 pounds, is nearly identical in size to former Lions rush end Kyle Vanden Bosch. While Vanden Bosch was the prototypical end for head coach Jim Schwartz's system, Ansah is blessed with the insane closing speed Vanden Bosch never had.
Like his new linemate Ndamukong Suh, Ansah will benefit tremendously from: A) playing in a scheme that maximizes sacks for linemen and B) being out there for every snap he can physically stand.
The Lions are so thin at defensive end that Ansah will be parked atop the depth chart at rush end and left there for as long as he can take it. Even if his play is uneven, inconsistent or one-dimensional (as Suh's was), Ansah should have no trouble pushing for double-digit sacks on talent alone.
Of all the rookies, Giovani Bernard of the Cincinnati Bengals has the best chance to make the kind of eyeball-grabbing impact that gets rookies into the NFL's annual popularity contest.
Bernard doesn't have shocking deep speed (he ran a 4.53 second 40-yard dash at the combine, per NFL.com), but he is an incredibly explosive athlete. Bernard recorded a 10'2" broad jump despite standing only 5'8" and followed that with a 33.5-inch vertical leap, 6.91-second three-cone drill and 4.12-second short shuttle.
With just 184 carries his last year in college, Bernard piled up 1,228 yards rushing (6.67 yards per carry) and 12 touchdowns. A gifted receiver who knows what to do in open space, Bernard also caught 47 passes for 490 yards and five touchdowns.
In Cincinnati, Bernard will have every opportunity to convert that athleticism and explosion into yards and touchdowns. With superstar wideout A.J. Green and fellow rookie Tyler Eifert adding his receiving talents to a tight end corps that already features Jermaine Gresham, triggerman Andy Dalton should have no problem putting defenses back on their heels.
That's when Bernard should be able to make plenty of SportsCenter-caliber plays, the kind that garner big numbers and many Pro Bowl votes.