Eat your heart out, Meadowlands.
The most exciting weekend of NFL action is almost here!
Not the Super Bowl, you goof. I mean, who really cares about that game?
It's all about the commercials and musical genius of Bruno Mars in the tropical paradise that is New Jersey in February.
No, I'm talking about the Pro Bowl, where the NFL's very best gather each year for the hardest-fought game of the season, a 60-minute fight to the death in the frozen wastes of Honolulu.
In an effort to somehow make the Pro Bowl more exciting (like that's possible), the NFL made some big changes to the format for this year.
Rather than AFC vs. NFC, Hall of Famers Jerry Rice and Deion Sanders will pick teams fantasy-style from the pool of players, aided by fans and this year's player captains.
So, as the NFL prepares to make history with this unprecedented event, here's a look at how this year's new wrinkles will unfold into the greatest single game in the history of any sport ever.
I'll even stop being sarcastic.
I spent much of the last slide jesting because many see the Pro Bowl as something of a joke.
Scores of players have backed out of the game in recent years due to an assortment of phantom injuries. The level of play in the game two years ago was so horrific that there was talk of abolishing it altogether.
It got better last year, but that didn't stop the calls for the Pro Bowl to be put out of its misery.
However, the NFL isn't going to get rid of a game that, for all its problems, is still a money-maker. So instead, the league decided to turn the rules upside down.
Buckle up, folks. We're headed through the looking glass.
Each Pro Bowl team has a total of 44 players. 21 offensive players (four wide receivers, three tackles, three guards, two centers, two tight ends, three quarterbacks, three running backs and a fullback), 18 defensive players (three defensive ends, three defensive tackles, three outside linebackers, two inside linebackers, four cornerbacks and three safeties) and five special teams players (a punter, kicker, specialist, returner and "need" player, like a long snapper).
So, 88 players.
On Tuesday, Jan. 20, a coin toss will be held between captains Jerry Rice and Deion Sanders. The winner can either have their choice of player captain groups (one offense, one defense) or the first pick in each of the two player drafts.
Yes, two drafts.
On Tuesday, the first group of 22 players will be selected (defensive tackles, guards, centers, fullbacks, punters and specialists). If necessary, players will be assigned to rosters to meet requirements. The "need" player is also an assignee.
Picks are made in alternating order.
Then on Wednesday, the remaining players (wide receivers, tackles, tight ends, quarterbacks, running backs, linebackers, defensive backs, defensive ends, kickers and returners) will be chosen.
Some notes on Wednesday's "main event," courtesy of NFL.com:
Four of the players above will be captains and already on a team prior to the Wednesday draft.
There will be a minimum of 12 players assigned. There will be a maximum of 48 players drafted.
Once each team has two quarterbacks on its roster, they may not take a third quarterback until the last round of the draft.
At the conclusion of the draft, the team that chooses second may make one trade. Players must be the same position (e.g., wide receiver for wide receiver). This must only involve players selected beyond the fifth round. The trade may not be for a quarterback. If the team that chose second decides to make a trade, the trade is mandatory.
Given these rules, they really should have let Matt Millen pick a team.
Talk about TV history.
The 2014 Pro Bowl rosters will be selected by a pair of the greatest to ever play the game.
As he usually was during his playing days, Deion Sanders is full of confidence heading into Tuesday's draft, telling CBS Sports, “I think it is going to be a blowout. I don’t think Jerry has strategized.”
Jerry Rice, of course, disagrees, stating, “That’s not going to happen. I have a pretty good mindset of where I want to go.”
Both men have been rather coy about their strategy for the draft, but both indicated an affinity for younger players and newcomers to the game.
Said Sanders, “You want what you want. I know the guys that are going to cover. No matter what, they’re not cutting no deals.”
Rice was wary, though, adding that while he expects his team to be more balanced, Sanders "might go the opposite way and try to select some veterans.”
Rice and Sanders have the final say on picks, but they'll have help.
The four player captains are comprised of two pairs: The top vote-getter of offense and second-place finisher on defense (Drew Brees and Robert Quinn) and the top vote-getter on defense and second-place finisher on offense (J.J. Watt and Jamaal Charles).
Rounding out the "front offices" are a pair of very lucky fans who won the right to help select the teams via contests.
Say what you will about the Pro Bowl, but the league is making an effort to shake things up.
The first order of business is the coin flip that will determine the captains and draft order.
Sanders lost the coin toss affording Team Rice the choice of first pick or the captains.
For Rice, the decision was an easy one.
As good as Jamaal Charles was this year for the Kansas City Chiefs, running backs are devalued in the Pro Bowl. In snatching up Drew Brees and Robert Quinn, Rice gets a two-fer: a 5,000-yard passer and a defensive end who finished 2013 with 19 sacks, which was second in the league.
So it's Brees and Quinn to Team Rice, Charles and J.J. Watt to Team Sanders.
Team Sanders is on the clock.
Tuesday's draft won't make or break the game, but it has its importance. It's not that the interior linemen comprising the majority of the player pool aren't all very good at what they do. The type of game played in Honolulu just isn't one that fits their skill set.
The two captains selected for each team, however, could make all the difference.
Here's a look at the selections made on Tuesday:
|Jason Hatcher||DT||Dallas Cowboys|
|Marcell Dareus||DT||Buffalo Bills|
|Kyle Williams||DT||Buffalo Bills|
|Jahri Evans||OG||New Orleans Saints|
|Ben Grubbs||OG||New Orleans Saints|
|Evan Mathis||OG||Philadelphia Eagles|
|Ryan Kalil||C||Carolina Panthers|
|Nick Mangold||C||New York Jets|
|Mike Tolbert||FB||Carolina Panthers|
|Justin Bethel||ST||Arizona Cardinals|
|Johnny Hekker||P||St. Louis Rams|
|Matt Overton||LS||Indianapolis Colts|
|Drew Brees||QB||New Orleans Saints|
|Robert Quinn||DE||St. Louis Rams|
Selecting his captains first, Rice wasted no time adding Drew Brees and Robert Quinn to his roster. Brees could easily be the MVP of the game given the way defense has played in this all-star game of late.
Robert Quinn will be a problem for whichever signal-callers Sanders selects Wednesday.
Fullback Mike Tolbert was the second biggest weapon added to the team on Tuesday. The Panthers ball-carrier can be extremely effective out of the backfield.
|Ndamukong Suh||DT||Detroit Lions|
|Gerald McCoy||DT||Tampa Bay Buccaneers|
|Dontari Poe||DT||Kansas City Chiefs|
|Marshal Yanda||OG||Baltimore Ravens|
|Logan Mankins||OG||New England Patriots|
|Kyle Long||OG||Chicago Bears|
|Mike Pouncey||C||Miami Dolphins|
|Alex Mack||C||Cleveland Browns|
|Marcel Reece||FB||Oakland Raiders|
|Matthew Slater||ST||New England Patriots|
|Brandon Fields||P||Miami Dolphins|
|J.J. Jansen||LS||Carolina Panthers|
|Jamaal Charles||RB||Kansas City Chiefs|
|J.J. Watt||DE||Houston Texans|
Selecting second, Sanders was able to add the league's most dynamic running back in Jamaal Charles and the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, J.J. Watt.
Whichever QBs he adds on Wednesday night will be well protected with Yanda, Mankins, Long, Pouncey and Mack manning the interior line.
Special teamer Matthew Slater has been one of the league's best for a number of years.
Wednesday is when the magic happens.
On the second day of the Pro Bowl draft, a three-hour televised special will detail the picks that will win this game.
Whether it's passing the ball or stopping it, the road to victory at the Pro Bowl involves a trip to the airport.
Before we get to the picks, a few notes...
For the sake of this exercise, I attempted to approach this game with the understanding that the Pro Bowl isn't a "regular" football game. Some positions increased in value as a result, while others fell.
It's a good day to be a quarterback. Not so much a pass-rushing outside linebacker in a game where blitzes aren't allowed.
Also, the nuances of the rules can impact draft strategy. If you have only one remaining slot at a position, your next choice there will automatically reward the remaining players at that position to the other team.
An example: When Team Rice selected Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver DeSean Jackson with the 26th pick, that filled their wideout corps. Team Sanders then automatically received Alshon Jeffery and Brandon Marshall, while also picking next.
When Sanders and Rice do this for real, they may be less wary of those occurrences, but I was leery of affording too many "freebies."
(Pick number in parentheses.)
Previously Assigned Players
Team Sanders: Jamaal Charles (RB, Kansas City Chiefs), J.J. Watt (DE, Houston Texans), J.J. Jansen (LS, Carolina Panthers)
Team Rice: Drew Brees (QB, New Orleans Saints), Robert Quinn (DE, St. Louis Rams), Matt Overton (LS, Indianapolis Colts)
Team Sanders (1): Cam Newton, QB, Carolina Panthers
Team Rice (2): Jimmy Graham, TE, New Orleans Saints
Team Sanders (3): Darrelle Revis, CB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Team Rice (4): A.J. Green, WR, Cincinnati Bengals
Team Sanders (5): Patrick Peterson, CB, Arizona Cardinals
Team Rice (6): Josh Gordon, WR, Cleveland Browns
Team Sanders (7): Luke Kuechly, ILB, Carolina Panthers
Team Rice (8): Derrick Johnson, ILB, Kansas City Chiefs
Team Sanders (9): Dez Bryant, WR, Dallas Cowboys
Team Rice (10): LeSean McCoy, RB, Philadelphia Eagles
Team Sanders (11): Antonio Brown, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers
Team Rice (12): Joe Thomas, OT, Cleveland Browns
Team Sanders (13): Cameron Jordan, DE, New Orleans Saints
Team Rice (14): Joe Haden, CB, Cleveland Browns
Team Sanders (15): Andrew Luck, QB, Indianapolis Colts
Team Rice (16): Robert Mathis, OLB, Indianapolis Colts
Team Sanders (17): Jordan Gross, OT, Carolina Panthers
Team Rice (18): Eric Berry, S, Kansas City Chiefs
Team Sanders (19): Justin Houston, OLB, Kansas City Chiefs
Team Rice (20): Larry Fitzgerald, WR, Arizona Cardinals
Team Sanders (21): Brandon Flowers, CB, Kansas City Chiefs
Team Rice (22): Matt Forte, RB, Chicago Bears
Team Sanders (23): Tony Gonzalez, TE, Atlanta Falcons
Team Rice (24): Jairus Byrd, S, Buffalo Bills
Team Sanders (25): DeMarco Murray, RB, Dallas Cowboys
Team Rice (26): DeSean Jackson, WR, Philadelphia Eagles (Fills WR slots)
Note: Per Pro Bowl Rules, Brandon Marshall (WR, Chicago Bears) and Alshon Jeffery (WR, Chicago Bears) are assigned to Team Sanders.
Team Sanders (27): Duane Brown, OT, Houston Texans
Team Rice (28): Tim Jennings, CB, Chicago Bears
Team Sanders (29): Antrel Rolle, S, New York Giants
Team Rice (30): Trent Williams, OT, Washington Redskins
Team Sanders (31): Cordarrelle Patterson, KR, Minnesota Vikings (Fills KR slot)
Team Rice (32): Greg Hardy, DE, Carolina Panthers
Note: Per Pro Bowl rules, Dexter McCluster (KR, Kansas City Chiefs) assigned to Team Rice.
Team Sanders (33): Brian Orakpo, OLB, Washington Redskins
Team Rice (34): Tamba Hali, OLB, Kansas City Chiefs
Team Sanders (35): Eric Weddle, S, San Diego Chargers
Team Rice (36): Philip Rivers, QB, San Diego Chargers
Team Sanders (37): Jordan Cameron, TE, Cleveland Browns (Fills TE slots)
Team Rice (38): Alterraun Verner, CB, Tennessee Titans
Note: Per Pro Bowl rules, Jason Witten (TE, Dallas Cowboys) assigned to Team Rice.
Team Sanders (39): Brent Grimes, CB. Miami Dolphins (Fills CB slots)
Team Rice (40): Branden Albert, OT, Kansas City Chiefs (Fills OT slots)
Note: Per Pro Bowl rules, Antonio Cromartie (CB, New York Jets) assigned to Team Rice. Tyron Smith (OT, Dallas Cowboys) assigned to Team Sanders.
Team Sanders (41): Eddie Lacy, RB, Green Bay Packers (Fills RB slots)
Team Rice (42): Vontaze Burfict, ILB, Cincinnati Bengals (Fills ILB slots)
Note: Per Pro Bowl rules, Alfred Morris (RB, Washington Redskins) assigned to Team Rice. Paul Posluszny (ILB, Jacksonville Jaguars) assigned to Team Sanders.
Team Sanders (43): Justin Tucker, K, Baltimore Ravens (Fills K slot)
Team Rice (44): Mario Williams, DE, Buffalo Bills (Fills DE slots)
Note: Per Pro Bowl rules, Stephen Gostkowski (K, New England Patriots) assigned to Team Rice. Cameron Wake (DE, Miami Dolphins) assigned to Team Sanders.
Team Sanders (45): John Abraham, OLB, Arizona Cardinals (Fills OLB slots)
Team Rice (46) Eric Reid, S, San Francisco 49ers (Fills S slots)
Note: Per Pro Bowl rules, Terrell Suggs (OLB, Baltimore Ravens) assigned to Team Rice. T.J. Ward (S, Cleveland Browns) assigned to Team Sanders.
Team Sanders (47): Nick Foles, QB, Philadelphia Eagles (Fills QB slots)
Note: Per Pro Bowl rules, Alex Smith (QB, Kansas City Chiefs) assigned to Team Rice.
With Team Rice already having a quarterback, there was really no need for Team Sanders to take one so early. However, there also isn't a player in the pool more tailor-made to run the "Prime Time" offense than Cam Newton of the Panthers.
From there, it was defense. Sanders, as a former cornerback, will likely prioritize the secondary. That's reflected in the back-to-back picks of Darrelle Revis and Patrick Peterson. In fact, in Watt, Revis and Kuechly, Sanders may have the best individual player at each level of the defense in this year's game.
It's also not as if the offense suffered unnecessarily. The Team Sanders stable of young guns under center has plenty of options in the passing game, and DeMarco Murray joins Charles as a second tailback more than capable of hurting teams through the air.
Meanwhile, it should come as little surprise that the NFL's greatest receiver might favor the passing game, and that's the direction Team Rice took in this draft.
Whether it was Brees' teammate Jimmy Graham with their first pick, wideouts A.J. Green and Josh Gordon with the next two selections or DeSean Jackson, Larry Fitzgerald and Jason Witten later on, there are no shortage of targets for Team Rice's quarterbacks.
About those quarterbacks: They may be a bit long in the tooth, but the duo of Brees and Philip Rivers have combined to win a few shootouts in their day.
Granted, on paper at least, Team Rice doesn't appear as stout defensively. However, it's worth pointing out that safeties Jairus Byrd and Eric Berry are among the very best in the NFL at their position in coverage.
Team Rice also has a nice combination of youth and experience in the pass-rush, especially since both Robert Mathis and Terrell Suggs have experience playing with their hand down.
Team Rice also elected not to use their trade option, standing pat.
Combining Tuesday's results with Wednesday's projections, here's a look at the final rosters for each team in the 2014 Pro Bowl.
QB: Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints
QB: Alex Smith, Kansas City Chiefs
QB: Philip Rivers, San Diego Chargers
RB: LeSean McCoy, Philadelphia Eagles
RB: Matt Forte, Chicago Bears
RB: Alfred Morris, Washington Redskins
FB: Mike Tolbert, Carolina Panthers
WR: A.J. Green, Cincinnati Bengals
WR: Josh Gordon, Cleveland Browns
WR: Larry Fitzgerald, Arizona Cardinals
WR: DeSean Jackson, Philadelphia Eagles
TE: Jimmy Graham, New Orleans Saints
TE: Jason Witten, Dallas Cowboys
OT: Joe Thomas, Clevalend Browns
OT: Trent Williams, Washington Redskins
OT: Branden Albert, Kansas City Chiefs
OG: Jahri Evans, New Orleans Saints
OG: Ben Grubbs, New Orleans Saints
OG: Evan Mathis, Philadelphia Eagles
C: Ryan Kalil, Carolina Panthers
C: Nick Mangold, New York Jets
DE: Robert Quinn, St. Louis Rams
DE: Greg Hardy, Carolina Panthers
DE: Mario Williams, Buffalo Bills
DT: Jason Hatcher, Dallas Cowboys
DT: Kyle Williams, Buffalo Bills
DT: Marcell Dareus, Buffalo Bills
OLB: Robert Mathis, Indianapolis Colts
OLB: Tamba Hali, Kansas City Chiefs
OLB: Terrell Suggs, Baltimore Ravens
ILB: Derrick Johnson, Kansas City Chiefs
ILB: Vontaze Burfict, Cincinnati Bengals
CB: Joe Haden, Cleveland Browns
CB: Tim Jennings, Chicago Bears
CB: Alterraun Verner, Tennessee Titans
CB: Antonio Cromartie, New York Jets
S: Eric Berry, Kansas City Chiefs
S: Jairus Byrd, Buffalo Bills
S: Eric Reid, San Francisco 49ers
K: Stephen Gostkowski, New England Patriots
P: Johnny Hekker, St. Louis Rams
KR: Dexter McCluster, Kansas City Chiefs
ST: Justin Bethel, Arizona Cardinals
LS: Matt Overton, Indianapolis Colts
QB: Cam Newton, Carolina Panthers
QB: Andrew Luck, Indianapolis Colts
QB: Nick Foles, Philadelphia Eagles
RB: Jamaal Charles, Kansas City Chiefs
RB: DeMarco Murray, Dallas Cowboys
RB: Eddie Lacy, Green Bay Packers
FB: Marcel Reece, Oakland Raiders
WR: Dez Bryant, Dallas Cowboys
WR: Antonio Brown, Pittsburgh Steelers
WR: Brandon Marshall, Chicago Bears
WR: Alshon Jeffery, Chicago Bears
TE: Tony Gonzalez, Atlanta Falcons
TE: Jordan Cameron, Cleveland Browns
OT: Jordan Gross, Carolina Panthers
OT: Duane Brown, Houston Texans
OT: Tyron Smith, Dallas Cowboys
OG: Marshal Yanda, Baltimore Ravens
OG: Logan Mankins, New England Patriots
OG: Kyle Long, Chicago Bears
C: Alex Mack, Cleveland Browns
C: Mike Pouncey, Miami Dolphins
DT: Ndamukong Suh, Detroit Lions
DT: Gerald McCoy, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
DT: Dontari Poe, Kansas City Chiefs
DE: J.J. Watt, Houston Texans
DE: Cameron Jordan, New Orleans Saints
DE: Cameron Wake, Miami Dolphins
OLB: Justin Houston, Kansas City Chiefs
OLB: Brian Orakpo, Washington Redskins
OLB: John Abraham, Arizona Cardinals
ILB: Luke Kuechly, Carolina Panthers
ILB: Paul Posluszny, Jacksonville Jaguars
CB: Darrelle Revis, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
CB: Patrick Peterson, Arizona Cardinals
CB: Brandon Flowers, Kansas City Chiefs
CB: Brent Grimes, Miami Dolphins
S: Antrel Rolle, New York Giants
S: Eric Weddle, San Diego Chargers
S: T.J. Ward, Cleveland Browns
K: Justin Tucker, Baltimore Ravens
P: Brandon Fields, Miami Dolphins
KR: Cordarrelle Patterson, Minnesota Vikings
ST: Matthew Slater, New England Patriots
LS: J.J. Jansen, Carolina Panthers
So, what have we learned from this little exercise?
Well, if this mock was any indication, it's possible to go defense early in the Pro Bowl draft and not suffer too badly, but the impact is a little more apparent the other way around.
This isn't to say that Rice or Sanders can't load up offensively early and still field a good defense (relatively speaking), but the depth at spots like wide receiver, tight end and even quarterback is such that those positions don't need to be a priority early.
For a game with so much passing, the talent pool at cornerback is shallower. For that reason, if I had to choose a player as the individual with the most value, my vote would lie with Tampa Bay Buccaneers cornerback Darrelle Revis.
Finally, those nuances I mentioned in the draft rules could add a very interesting wrinkle or two to draft night(s), or have no impact whatsoever.
It will be interesting to see how much the two GMs try to use those rules to their advantage, or Rice will exercise the trade option.
All in all, this new format for the Pro Bowl is just that—new. Right now at least, the novelty is refreshing, although that could quickly change if a botched draft leads to a blowout.
And that's the rub. None of this will matter if the game's lousy. Maybe the new format will bring a bit more effort out of the players, and the two teams will be more evenly matched than ever.
Or it will be a train wreck, and we'll be back to AFC vs. NFC in no time.
Either way, the NFL has already accomplished its goal.
We're talking about the Pro Bowl without snickering.
Well mostly, anyway.