[This article introduces B/R contributor Jack Harver's "State of the DTs" series. Follow the links for more.]
Becoming a Pro Bowl defensive tackle is a bit like getting a star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame: most of the grunt work comes beforehand, and it's pretty much set in stone once done.
Over the past six seasons, 12 tackles have accounted for 37 of the 43 Pro Bowl selections at their position. On average, that's three to a man within that group of perennial elites. Compare that to Pro Bowl cornerbacks over the same six-year period: 26 different starters out of the 40 corners selected, or one trip each and even odds of getting picked twice.
The difference is that defensive tackles, like offensive linemen, aren't judged heavily on their statistical production—or the lack thereof. Corners and other "skill position" players are sometimes rewarded for a measurable jump in their numbers.
Walt Harris (2007 Pro Bowl) and Antonio Cromartie (2008) are two examples of players who were noticed by fans, players, and coaches after having career-high interception totals.
At defensive tackle, a player has to make a name for himself first-hand, knocking people on their butts and wrecking game plans, to build up to a Pro Bowl nod. Since his team plays against less than half of the league's other teams in a season, real notoriety usually takes multiple years to achieve.
(It's like politics, except "hitting" the campaign trail is much more literal.)
Once a tackle reaches that status, though, he sticks out in the minds of the fans and his peers. When Pro Bowl balloting starts, the names of tackles who've played hard against a good portion of the league—and whose names have had time to trickle down to the media—rise to the top. That name recognition is as difficult to lose as it is to gain; the result is a lower rate of turnover than other positions.
That's the kind of prominence Albert Haynesworth has achieved, and that's why his move from the AFC to the NFC is going to be revealing on two fronts:
In the NFC, whose place might he take? The Williamses, Minnesota's Kevin and Pat, are in legal limbo over trouble with a banned substance after both made the 2009 Pro Bowl. Even if they successfully fend off the the NFL's four-game suspension, negative public opinion from baseball's ongoing drug controversy might spill over and endanger their Pro Bowl status.
Cowboys nose tackle Jay Ratliff, a seventh-round pick in the 2005 draft, made his first Pro Bowl trip this past season. Haynesworth's presence in the NFC will test the durability of the reputation Ratliff has built over two seasons of stellar play.
Arizona's Darnell Dockett emerged as a potential contender in the playoffs this past season. Dockett, an injury replacement for Chicago's Tommie Harris in the 2008 Pro Bowl, forced a game-changing fumble against Atlanta and tallied three sacks against Pittsburgh in the Super Bowl. A solid season could cement his stardom in the minds of voters.
In the AFC, who will take Haynesworth's place? Kris Jenkins and Shaun Rogers, two NFC-to-AFC transplants, rounded out the conference's depth chart at defensive tackle in last year's Pro Bowl. As newcomers, they bumped 2008 Pro Bowler Vince Wilfork off the roster.
With Haynesworth gone, there's an extra spot open to accommodate all three, but only two of them might make it if Baltimore's Haloti Ngata keeps generating buzz as an immovable object at the front of the Ravens' elite defense.
Whoever ends up heading to the Pro Bowl in 2010, the conference switch of Washington's $100 million man will test the staying power of some established names and the reputations of several emerging stars at defensive tackle.