Pro Bowl 2014: Rising Stars to Watch in Team Sanders vs. Team Rice

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Pro Bowl 2014: Rising Stars to Watch in Team Sanders vs. Team Rice
Pat Lovell-USA TODAY Sports

Young players in the NFL have something to prove in the 2014 Pro Bowl at Aloha Stadium in Honolulu, Hawaii on Sunday, Jan. 26.

For some veterans, the annual event is simply business as usual and serves as a bit of a vacation with a scrimmage worthy of the flag-football description at the end of the trip. This is even the case in the face of the new format, where Deion Sanders and Jerry Rice picked teams in the first-ever Pro Bowl draft.

But for the young players on the rise as they begin to etch their names in the books of NFL lore, the spectacle is a proving ground against the sport's best players—not to mention a nice financial bonus should their team emerge victorious.

 

Greg Hardy, DE, Carolina Panthers

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Greg Hardy is quickly on the rise as the NFL's next big defensive superstar. He has the look, the production (59 tackles and 15 sacks in 2013) and a great personality that drops gems such as this, via Mike Solarte Jr. on Instagram:

Interesting.

Hardy, otherwise known as "The Kraken," is sure to be one of the players who takes the game seriously, as he told ESPN's David Newton:

I'm going to get the job done as efficiently and effectively as I always do. You've got to be a monster to play defense. Monsters don't have [grading] curves. If they're going to give me the win, I'm going to take it easy. If not, you know me, I've got to do my thing.

While it helps that Hardy is certainly motivated by the fact he is headed to free agency for what is sure to be a massive contract, his angry demeanor ensures he is one of the potentially select few who would have given his all in the game either way.

Drew Brees, Alex Smith and Philip Rivers of Team Rice better get rid of the ball in a hurry, because The Kraken is on the hunt for recognition and a new contract.

 

Alshon Jeffery, WR, Chicago Bears

Fans surely know about Chicago Bears wide receiver Brandon Marshall, who has done his best to put on fellow receiver Alshon Jeffery in recent months.

Marshall told reporters back in October, via Scott Krinch of CSNChicago.com, that he believes Jeffery will be one of the best players—ever:

I've always said this guy could be the best to ever do it. He's probably going to shatter all the Bears' records by the time he's done at the receiver position. That's one of the only positives from our offense today.

There is obviously some exaggeration in there, but Marshall's point stands after an impressive year from Jeffery in which he caught 89 passes for 1,421 yards and seven scores. Marshall later publicly led the charge for Jeffery to make the Pro Bowl, which has obviously come to fruition.

Jeffery is simply dominant in the same way Marshall is thanks to his size and aggressiveness. He also tends to catch anything thrown in his general vicinity thanks to his stellar catch radius, which makes him even more exciting to watch at Hawaii considering Brees, Rivers and Smith will be the ones lucky enough to throw him the ball.

 

Vontaze Burfict, LB, Cincinnati Bengals

Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict has fought his way into the minds of fans around the globe the past two seasons after going undrafted out of Arizona State and eventually earning the starting gig.

Burfict was an elite player in 2013 as he led the NFL in tackles with 171. An all-around solid linebacker, former defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer told Burfict that he has what it takes to make it to the Hall of Fame, via Geoff Hobson of the Bengals' website:

Zim was telling me if I keep doing the things I have to do and keep my head on straight and stay out of trouble, there's no reason I shouldn't be in Canton. That's going to be another goal for my career. You always want to be the greatest player that you can be.

Known for hard hits and his feisty attitude, it will be interesting to see how aggressive Burfict is in the Pro Bowl, especially toward teammate A.J. Green. According to NFL Network's Aditi Kinkhabwala, Burfict will not touch the star wideout:

Fans may have a hard time believing that if they have ever seen Burfict play, but it does make some sense as being too physical with Green in practice got him in hot water with the Cincinnati coaching staff on last season's edition of HBO's Hard Knocks.

Regardless, Burfict is an intriguing player who is likely to bring fire to a game that has lacked anything of the sort in recent years.

 

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