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.