The NFL has been tinkering with the Pro Bowl in an attempt to raise the interest for the general public, as well as the players themselves. Too often, the all-star game looked like a high school pre-game practice, as the defenses did not hit and there was an understanding between the linemen not to exert energy.
The 2013-14 changes involve the eradication of AFC/NFC teams.
Instead, in an attempt to draw in fantasy football participants, teams will be drafted.
That means Eric Weddle could be going up against Antonio Gates.
Other changes include no kick offs, defenses have more freedom to play different coverages and various rules regarding stopping the clock. But the main rule change is what the NFL is calling “unconferenced teams.”
Which, if any, Chargers get selected will be determined by fan votes as well as by an NFL.com fantasy league champion and team “captains” Deion Sanders and Jerry Rice.
San Diego should have at least four players represented in the Pro Bowl because of their level of play. Of course, we all know it is more of a popularity vote and not necessarily a true indication of the best in the league, so even four may be a long-shot.
There are also additional players who could potentially be selected for the Pro Bowl.
In order of “Most Likely” to “Least Likely,” here are the seven Chargers who could be headed to Hawaii for the January 26 game (unless, of course, San Diego makes it to the Super Bowl).
If the Chargers only had one player go to the Pro Bowl, it should be quarterback Philip Rivers.
Rivers is near the top in most quarterback categories: completions (No. 6), passes 20 yards or more (No. 5), yards (No. 4), touchdowns (No. 4), passes for first downs (No. 3), and completion percentage (No. 1).
There was talk before the season that Philip Rivers was finished and the best years of his career were behind him. But he has thrown more touchdowns (28) than all but two seasons (30 in 2010 and 34 in 2008).
He also has thrown nine interceptions, which would be the lowest in his career as a starter if can have a clean sheet in the final two games.
Beyond the stats, though, Rivers has looked comfortable and in control of the San Diego offense. He has played at a high level, even if he does not finish for a ton of yards (like the win Thursday in Denver).
He looks like an all-star.
The second-most-likely player to earn a trip to the Pro Bowl is tight end Antonio Gates.
Gates started the season strong, notching 25 catches in the first four games and 42 in the first seven games. He has slowed up a bit as of late (14 catches in the last four games and 28 in the last seven games), but what Gates did in the first half of the season should carry him through to Honolulu.
With injuries sidelining San Diego’s top two receivers before halftime of the second game of the season, Gates carried the burden as Rivers’ top target. Even with double-team coverage, Gates was able to haul in passes.
As the rest of the receiving corps started to grow, Rivers was able to rely more on them instead of constantly feeding the ball to No. 85 despite the tight coverages.
Gates currently has 70 receptions, which is the most he has had in a season since he caught 79 in 2009. Those 70 catches are fourth-most among tight ends this year.
His 799 receiving yards are also good for fourth in the NFL for tight ends this year. It also is the most receiving yards he has had since 2009 when he had 1,157.
Gates also has the advantage of having name recognition, so he could be named to the Pro Bowl via popularity as well as performance.
The San Diego offensive line has been a constant shuffle since the start of the season, but the constant has been Nick Hardwick at center.
He has started every game this season and has started every game at center since 2009. Of the 158 regular season games since he was drafted in 2004, Hardwick has started 133, or 84 percent of the games. He missed 13 games in 2009 with an ankle injury.
Despite his reliability and strong performance, Hardwick has been named to only one Pro Bowl (2006).
That could change this year.
Hardwick has been brilliant for the Chargers, making blocking calls, leading the way on screen plays and steadying an ever-changing line.
One thing that might be a hindrance to Hardwick is popularity.
Fans will probably vote for names they recognize like Mike Pouncey and Nick Mangold, or players who are in commercials, like Roberto Garza. They might even vote for players from popular teams like Travis Frederick and Stefen Wisniewski.
But Hardwick has been just as good if not better than all of those players.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required) Hardwick has allowed zero QB hits or hurries. He is the only regular starting center to not allow either.
Hardwick should get a Pro Bowl nod, but it is unclear if he will.
It is unfathomable that Mike Scifres has never been named to a Pro Bowl. He was an alternate three times, but never voted in as the starting punter. Voters chose Shane Lechler over Scifres year after year, even after the Oakland punter had declined.
The problem may be people do not know how to vote for the best punter in the league.
People regularly select the punter with the biggest average yards-per-punt, but simply booting the ball as far as you can is not what makes a punter great.
Scifres has great hang time, letting his coverage units converge on the returner or forcing a fair catch.
Of Scifres’ 50 punts this year only 18 have been returned and only one has gone into the end zone for a touchback. There are only six punters in the NFL who have fewer than 18 punts returned, and all except Chicago’s Adam Podlesh have more than one touchback.
More than just unreturnable punts, Scifres is the league’s best at pinning opponents inside the 20 yard line.
Scifres has 27 of his 50 punts land inside the 20 for a 54 percent average.
The next closest punter would be Podlesh with 41 percent of his punts ending inside the 20.
Scifres deserves to go to the Pro Bowl, but the reality is kickers with higher gross average punts will be selected unfortunately.
The only Chargers who should go are the four mentioned earlier, but other players have the ability to slip on to a Pro Bowl roster.
Eric Weddle has not had a very good year by his standards, but he could benefit from name recognition and inflated stats. He is second among NFL free safeties for total tackles (97), but those who follow San Diego know he and the rest of the Chargers secondary have not played well this season.
Keenan Allen has had the best season among rookie wide receivers. That alone might put him into the Pro Bowl, but it would be hard.
His 63 catches for 931 yards and seven touchdowns is easily the best for first-year players, but are outside the top 10 for all wide receivers. In fact, his catches and yardage are outside of the top 20 for all receivers. Only his touchdowns (tied No. 15) are in the conversation with elite wide receivers.
Danny Woodhead has been a spark for the Chargers offense. He is a threat as a runner, receiver and returner, but his role in the San Diego offense has declined recently.
Woodhead can no longer claim to be the running back with the most receptions anymore, either. That would be Pierre Thomas’ 71 receptions with New Orleans. In fact, Woodhead is tied with Chicago’s Matt Forte and New Orleans’ Darren Sproles with 66 receptions.
Still, a captain could be enthralled with Woodhead’s versatility to make a choice, but that is unlikely.
Ryan Mathews is having arguably the best season of his career, but that probably will not be enough to put him in the Pro Bowl. He has 1,012 rushing yards, but nine other running backs have more. The fact Carolina quarterback Cam Newton (6) has more rushing touchdowns than Mathews (5) is also not in his favor.
Lastly, D.J. Fluker has been possibly the best rookie offensive lineman in the NFL. He has been a major part of the rebuilding process for the Chargers line, which was one of the worst in the NFL last season. Fluker showed versatility by playing four games at left tackle, a position he had not played since high school.
But as much of an upgrade as Fluker has been to the line, the truth is he is not an elite tackle yet. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required) Fluker has allowed six sacks, eight QB hits and 33 QB hurries, all of which are in the bottom-half of the league for tackles.