Predicting Surprise Pro Bowlers for the 2014 Season
The NFL Pro Bowl has been a debated topic for the last few seasons because of the lack of effort by NFL stars, but the event has great meaning to players and prideful fans, if for no other reason to have bragging rights over rival teams.
Some Pro Bowlers get voted in based off reputation and popularity, resulting in notable snubs every year, but every year there are breakout players who claim their first trip to the all-star game.
In this article, we'll take a look at one player at each position who could make the Pro Bowl after flashing considerable talent and upside in 2013. Most of the players on this list are in the early stages of their careers, meaning they're stepping into a larger role, or their individual prospects for making the game have improved by virtue of their team having improved.
I didn't include guys that should've made it last season, as those would be too easy.
Don't forget to leave your thoughts below in the comments section.
Quarterback: Ryan Tannehill (Miami Dolphins)
2013 statistics: 60.4 completion percentage, 3913 yards, 24 touchdowns, 17 interceptions
After allowing 59 sacks in 2013 due to the mixture of a terrible offensive line and unbalanced play –calling, the Miami Dolphins enter the 2014 season with a much different offensive identity.
Former offensive coordinator Mike Sherman was replaced with Bill Lazor, who called plays for the University of Virginia from 2010-2012 and spent 2013 as the offensive coordinator under Philadelphia Eagles coach. Lazor won’t be using an identical playbook to what Eagles coach Chip Kelly employs, but he will be picking up the pace of the offense to burden opposing defenses.
What else will help the Dolphins third-year quarterback is the new-look offensive line. Gone are veterans that don’t fit the zone-blocking scheme, replaced by younger athletes that are more suited to handle the talented defensive lines in the AFC East.
When I went back and charted every throw of Ryan Tannehill’s 2013 season, he was a few throws away from forcing his way into the Pro Bowl conversation last season. Those throws were usually the biggest plays attempted, however: deep balls to star wide receiver Mike Wallace.
Had Tannehill connected on the throws to Wallace where he had clearly burned the secondary, Tannehill would have nearly 4,500 yards and 30 touchdowns. Those are Pro Bowl and franchise quarterback benchmarks. Tannehill might not reach those gaudy numbers due to an increased emphasis on the run game in 2014, but his efficiency and consistency will improve in a more dynamic and varied offensive attack.
Miami also added wide receiver Jarvis Landry in the second round of the 2014 NFL draft, which will provide Tannehill with another reliable target that can go across the middle and make tough catches. Landry joins a talented group of pass-catchers, including Wallace, Brian Hartline, Rishard Matthews, Brandon Gibson, Charles Clay and rookie Matt Hazel.
Between Tannehill’s own growth and what the Dolphins have done to create a better surrounding around the signal caller, he is my favorite surprise quarterback to make the 2015 Pro Bowl.
Running Back: Zac Stacy (St. Louis Rams)
2013 statistics: 250 carries, 976 yards, 7 touchdowns, 40 broken tackles
The 2013 fifth-round pick proved many internet draftniks and analytic measurements right when he received his opportunity to start in week 5, gaining 78 yards despite splitting carries. A few weeks later, he ravaged two talented defenses, the Seahawks and Titans, totaling 307 yards on 60 touches.
The rest of the season was up-and-down for Stacy, which included suffering a concussion against the Bears in week 11, but his production was likely directly related to quarterback Sam Bradford’s torn ACL. After Bradford was lost for the season, defenses keyed in against the run, but Stacy still nearly finished with 1,000 rushing yards.
Zac Stacy was a stud when he wasn't playing the NFC West. pic.twitter.com/4WzpFTOLL4— Fantasy Douche (@FantasyDouche) May 30, 2014
Unlike 2013, Stacy enters this season as the starting running back, as the Rams released Daryl Richardson earlier this offseason. Incoming third-round pick Tre Mason will receive considerable playing time, but he’s a different style of back than Stacy, so expect Mason to steal carries from Isaiah Pead and Benny Cunningham.
Behind an offensive line featuring No. 2 overall pick Greg Robinson, former No. 1 overall pick Jake Long (when he returns from injury), and Rodger Saffold, Stacy will be able to produce like no running back has since Steven Jackson’s prime years.
Wide Receiver: Keenan Allen (San Diego Chargers)
2013 statistics: 79 receptions, 1209 yards, 464 yards after catch, 10 touchdowns
The 2013 third-round pick had an incredible rookie campaign for the Chargers, as Allen finished as Pro Football Focus (subscription required) 10th ranked wide receiver for last season. As quarterback Philip Rivers’ favorite wide receiver, Allen was targeted 113 times, just one behind future Hall of Famer Antonio Gates.
Keenan Allen disagrees RT @AJGullotta There is no way a 3rd round pick would produce more than a proven vet.— Ian Kenyon (@IanKenyonNFL) May 9, 2014
What allows Allen to be a nightmare matchup for the opposition is his ability to use his 6’2” frame to grab the ball at its highest point and snag the ball with his ridiculous 10” hands. As an excellent route runner, Allen smoothly transitions in and out of breaks, giving cornerbacks little chance to contest accurate throws. With his agility, body control and catch radius, Allen is absolutely a No. 1 receiver right now.
Since the Chargers primarily focused on adding defensive talent this offseason, Allen returns as the bonafide star outside of the numbers. He also benefits from being healthy this offseason. Throughout the draft process in 2013, he was nursing an injury to his PCL, causing him to post alarmingly low numbers at the combine.
His competition for a Pro Bowl spot is diminishing by the day. Houston’s Andre Johnson could decline due to their uncertain quarterback situation. Cleveland’s Josh Gordon could be suspended for 2014. Considering all factors, don’t be surprised when Allen is in Arizona next February.
Tight End: Zach Ertz (Philadelphia Eagles)
2013 statistics: 39 receptions, 491 yards, 5 touchdowns
Another second-year player that finished 2013 strongly, Ertz will have more opportunities to make a difference for the Eagles this year.
With the departure of wide receiver DeSean Jackson, the Eagles will need to replace over 1,300 yards through the air. As quarterback Nick Foles enters his third season, he’ll be looking toward the athletic Ertz often, as he’s a difficult matchup for linebackers and safeties with his 6’5”, 250-pound frame and solid short area quickness.
Head coach Chip Kelly loves to utilize misdirection and route combinations to free receivers for major yards after catch opportunities. In week 13 against the Arizona Cardinals, Ertz posted a career high 68 yards, two touchdowns and five catches. As he became adjusted to the offense, he received more targets.
In tandem with Brent Celek, Ertz is a dangerous receiving option that can line up in the slot and allow the Eagles to effectively run the ball without compromising outside zone runs. That’ll give Kelly yet another chess piece to toy with and torment defensive coordinators yet again.
Offensive Tackle: Demar Dotson (Tampa Bay Buccaneers)
An undrafted free agent in 2009, Dotson has become yet another successful player to be undrafted in the NFL. In his fifth professional season, Dotson proved to be one of the best right tackles in the NFL due to his great pass blocking and above average run blocking abilities. His stellar 2013 season earned him the third highest grade for right tackles on PFF’s (subscription required) rankings.
By only allowing five sacks, Dotson proved to be the lone bright spot on an otherwise terrible Buccaneers offensive line. His technique and athleticism proved to be highly effective against edge rushers such as Buffalo’s Mario Williams, Carolina’s Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson, and Miami’s Cam Wake.
I love the #Buccaneers depth at running back. Three guys with starter skill sets.— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) June 2, 2014
Dotson also served as the lead blocker for the Buccaneers talented backfield as well. Some may argue that a talented back makes the line look better, and that is partially true, but without having a road-grading strong side of the line, it takes an extraordinary back to accomplish that. Dotson is a solid asset that this team counts on to help wear opponents down with their bruising backs.
Offensive Guard: Brandon Fusco (Minnesota Vikings)
Brandon Fusco has developed into one of the #Vikings best offensive linemen. Sixth round pick.— Darren Page (@DarrenPage15) November 19, 2013
Entering his fourth season in the league out of Slippery Rock University, Brandon Fusco is hitting his prime in strides after becoming PFF’s third-ranked guard in 2013.
Known for his ability to make impact blocks in the run game, Fusco mans the strong side for the Vikings. The right guard position is important for a run-based offense like the Vikings because it is Fusco’s job to crash down on big defensive tackles or nose tackles and spring big gaps for star running back Adrian Peterson to exploit.
Expect him to become more important under new offensive coordinator Norv Turner, who favors a power run game between the tackles.
Fusco isn’t a slouch in pass protection, either. Ignoring week 1 against the Lions, Fusco only had one significantly poor PFF grade, and that was facing Green Bay’s Mike Daniels, a very good player himself.
If Fusco builds off his 2013 season, he could be the best lineman on the best offensive line unit in the entire league, and that deserves a Pro Bowl nod.
Center: Weston Richburg (NY Giants)
Biggest adjustment for second-round pick Weston Richburg is learning the terminology #giants— Jordan Raanan (@JordanRaanan) May 20, 2014
When scouting Richburg at the Senior Bowl, I was extremely impressed with his use of leverage and ability to stonewall bigger defensive tackles. Going back to his time at Colorado State, I tracked how often he “won” against his opponent in one on one situations, and he was the most productive center in the country.
His polish and ability to recognize defensive fronts will give the Giants more stability on an offensive line that desperately needs it. If Richburg can digest the playbook and have an impressive training camp, it’ll be no surprise if he can take advantage of a somewhat poor crop of centers in the NFC and make a trip to Arizona in his first season.
Defensive End: Lamarr Houston (Chicago Bears)
2013 statistics: 63 tackles, 6 sacks, 41 QB hurries
The former Oakland Raider defected to the Chicago Bears after a terrific 2013 season, in which his athleticism and strength caused offensive coordinators nightmares. Houston posted a career-high in sacks and tackles in his fourth season, and he cashed-in with a team-friendly $35 million contract.
Defensive coordinator Mel Tucker can utilize the skill set of the 305-pound lineman all over the defensive front. If the Bears want to switch to a pressuring 3-4 front for a few snaps a game, Houston can play as a pass-rushing 5-technique, where he can use his extraordinary ability to convert speed to power to blast between a guard and tackle.
While in a base 4-3, Houston is more than comfortable as a strong-side defensive end, proving to be stout against the run and pass. In nickel situations, it’s time to unleash Houston as a 3-technique defensive tackle. His speed off the snap and hand quickness devastate guards, forcing offenses to commit a running back to pass protection.
The Bears invested heavily in the defensive front this offseason in hopes of reviving a once-great defense, and talented players such as Jared Allen, Jay Ratliff, and rookies Will Sutton and Ego Ferguson will surround Houston.
If Tucker can get Houston into enough one-on-one situations, expect huge production from the budding star.
Defensive Tackle: Jurrell Casey (Tennessee Titans)
2013 Statistics: 37 tackles, 11 sacks, 36 QB hurries
Playing as a three-technique for the Tennessee Titans has produced impressive seasons in recent years, and Casey is the latest to benefit from a scheme that deters double teams. Other players to have played significant snaps there are Albert Haynesworth, Jason Jones, Randy Starks and Mike Martin.
Under new defensive coordinator Ray Horton, he will be transitioning away from that role, but he will still be highly effective due to his skillset.
Although the aforementioned players were highly talented, Casey is more well-rounded and only entering his third professional season. At 306 pounds, he has unbelievable quickness for an interior defensive lineman. He creates immense pressure right up the middle in the passing game, causing quarterbacks to take his eyes away from his downfield receivers and stare at the incoming pressure.
He isn’t a one-trick pony though. Casey is stout against the run, logging 39 run stops at, or behind, the line of scrimmage. That type of impact causes outside rushers Derrick Morgan, Kamerion Wimbley and Akeem Ayers to get cleaner looks at the backfield.
Still concerned about his new role under Horton? Look at how Horton utilized defensive end Desmond Bryant with the Browns. The former Raider primarily played in a 4-3 scheme until he signed with Cleveland, but he starred as a one-gapping five-technique in 2013.
Outside Linebacker: Jamie Collins (New England Patriots)
2013 statistics: 38 tackles, 19 run stops, 1 sack
Jamie Collins looks a little bigger, and an early impression is he might not come off the field too much.— Jeff Howe (@jeffphowe) May 30, 2014
The national audience found out about Jamie Collins in the Patriots Wild Card victory over the Indianapolis Colts, where he played every defensive snap possible and had a career high in every major statistical field. But the emergence of Collins began week 14 against the Browns, which was shortly after the Patriots began using him more often as a weak-side linebacker.
Lining up on the weak-side, Collins can clean up plays using his elite athletic traits to close on ball carriers from behind. He’s also able to drop into coverage, where his fluidity and mirror ability smothers most tight ends. Those are traits that will only improve as he gets more comfortable in the Patriots scheme and with the speed of the NFL.
Looking at the additions on defense this offseason, Collins will be surrounded by elite talent at key positions. Star defensive lineman Vince Wilfork will be returning from injury in 2014 as well, which can only help keep blockers off Collins as he works to shed tackles in the run game. All-Pro cornerback Darrelle Revis adds a dynamic to the defense that they haven’t had since the days of Ty Law. He could buy Collins that extra second needed to jump an underneath route or sack the quarterback.
Collins could be a star at the end of the 2014 season, which would lead to a Pro Bowl berth.
Inside Linebacker: Stephen Tulloch (Detroit Lions)
2013 statistics: 112 tackles, 67 defensive stops, 4 sacks
One of the best tacklers in the NFL, Tulloch has been an impact interior linebacker for Detroit since signing with the team as a free agent in 2011. Although the Lions defense doesn’t get much positive attention, Tulloch certainly deserves recognition for the way he wafts through traffic near the line of scrimmage and makes plays.
As a run stopping linebacker, he doesn’t get too involved on passing plays, but that’s by design in they 4-3 defense the Lions use. Instead of hip fluidity and short area burst, Tulloch has the ability to stack and shed blockers with ease, despite his below-average height and arm length. Many linebackers with that same limitation wash out early in their careers, or are limited to special teams roles, but the technique Tulloch uses is elite.
With the depth of inside linebacker throughout the NFC, it will be difficult for Tulloch to find his way to Hawaii, but not impossible. By putting up another 110-plus-tackle season, his name will be mentioned often for consideration.
Cornerback: Alan Ball (Jacksonville Jaguars)
2013 statistics: 46 tackles, 2 interceptions, 13 passes defensed
Relatively unknown unless you live in the Duval, Florida area or a Jaguars fan in general, Alan Ball is a safety that converted to cornerback when he signed with the team in 2013.
Standing nearly 6’2”, Ball is a press-man cornerback that fits the physical mold that head coach Gus Bradley desires in defensive backs, which emulates what he helped build with the Seahawks. According to PFF (subscription required), Ball lined up in press coverage 33.6 percent of his snaps in 2013, allowing him to be in the best position to win that snap.
Ball’s specialty is defending downfield passes, allowing only three completions longer than 20 yards. His ball-skills and length help defense passes at the last second, even on underneath routes. With only two touchdowns allowed last season, Ball is an emerging star, despite being in his eight NFL season.
Ball plays at one of the deepest positions on the Pro Bowl roster, but if the Jaguars can take the next step in 2014, he should get much more attention for his solid play.
Safety: Deone Bucannon (Arizona Cardinals)
2013 statistics: 114 tackles, 6 interceptions, 3 forced fumbles (Washington State)
Deone Bucannon (1.27 #Cardinals) could have the most impact immediately of any first rounder. Versatile safety who'll start immediately.— Chris (@insidethefilm) May 27, 2014
As I’ve detailed previously, Deone Bucannon is an immediate impact player for the Arizona Cardinals. Ranked my top safety in the 2014 NFL draft class, Bucannon is yet another physical force for the Cardinals defense and creates a tremendous pair with Tyrann Matheiu.
By recognizing plays early, Bucannon doesn’t waste a lot of movement getting into coverage, or attacking the line of scrimmage on run plays. Playing teams such as Seattle and San Francisco will present challenges due to their elite talent and coaching, but his physicality and mindset will be a big asset to defensive coordinator Todd Bowles.
In a contained role as mostly an in-the-box safety and occasionally playing man-coverage, Bucannon can be a terror for offenses as a rookie. He won’t let receivers forget that he’s lurking with his big-hit ability, and is a threat to jump routes for an easy touchdown. I expect he’ll be able to impact this talented defense early and often.
Ian Wharton covers the NFL and NFL draft for Bleacher Report. You can follow and interact with Ian on Twitter @NFLFilmStudy.