Making the Pro Bowl is becoming somewhat of a dubious distinction.
On one hand, you still need talent and achieving a Pro Bowl nod is still respected around NFL locker rooms.
On the other hand, so many players who are battling existing injuries, concerned about new injuries, busy with the playoffs, and just don't want to go, are bailing out of the Pro Bowl in record numbers.
This means that some of the players who wind up playing in the game aren't quite the star-studded entrants the game is supposed to showcase.
Still, making the Pro Bowl is a sign that you have arrived as an elite NFL player. Clearly, last year, Ray Rice arrived when he rushed for 1,339 yards on 254 carries (5.3 yards per carry) and scored seven touchdowns in just his second year in the league. As a result, he earned his first of what should be many trips to the Pro Bowl.
This article will give a brief description of 20 possible candidates to make their first trip to professional football's all-star game for the 2010-2011 season.
Obviously, all of these players won't make it, and remember, it's hard to crack into the Pro Bowl lineup at certain positions. For example, good luck breaking into the AFC lineup at cornerback with Darrelle Revis, Nnamdi Asomugha, and Champ Bailey almost mortal locks to make the roster annually.
But, in any case, here we go...
Despite the fact that many of his statistical numbers decreased in his second NFL season, Ryan remains a likely candidate to make his first trip to Hawaii (the game returns to the islands after a one-year hiatus to South Florida) this season.
Ryan's touchdown-to-interception ratio actually improved last season. He threw 22 touchdowns with only 14 interceptions in 2009. compared to just 16 touchdowns against 11 interceptions in 2008.
Most importantly, Ryan overcame some adversity last year, including a case of turf toe that sidelined him for a couple of games, but he should be a better quarterback for it.
It's a crowded pool at quarterback in the NFC, with the likes of Drew Brees, Brett Favre, Aaron Rodgers, Tony Romo, Eli Manning and Donovan McNabb, but keep in mind that signal-callers often pass the game up.
Furthermore, Ryan's natural progression might lead him to having a better season than some of these more established players.
With 3,613 yards passing, a 21-to-12 touchdown-to-interception ratio, and an 88.9 quarterback rating in 2009, it's a little bit disturbing that Flacco didn't make the Pro Bowl last season.
Especially when you consider that Vince Young and David Garrard had inferior statistical numbers on teams that did not make the playoffs.
However, it's a little more palatable when you consider that Flacco probably wouldn't have been able to go, as he was battling a significant hip injury in the NFL playoffs.
Adding Anquan Boldin to the pass receiving corps should help cement Flacco's Pro Bowl status this season.
Going out on a limb here, but probably not a long one with this possible selection.
Yes, Henne threw more interceptions than touchdowns in 2009 (14 picks and 12 scores). However, he also threw for 2,878 yards in 13 starts without a true No. 1 receiver.
Furthermore, it was his first year as an NFL starter and he showed glimpses of tremendous poise in the pocket.
The inevitable question will be why him instead of Mark Sanchez, Henne's counterpart for the New York Jets? The truth is that Henne's numbers are clearly better than the ones put up by Sanchez with far less in terms of weapons to work with at receiver and tight end.
Now, the Dolphins have added Brandon Marshall as a premier target for Henne to work with. ESPN analyst Tedy Bruschi picked Henne as his breakout player in the NFL and it seems like a smart choice.
If recent history is an indication, veterans such as Peyton Manning and Tom Brady would seem likely to pass on playing in future Pro Bowls, opening the door even wider for the young field generals of the NFL.
Beyond that, Flacco and Henne seem like better bets for the future than the likes of Young and Garrard, participants from last season.
Mendenhall has some strong positives and negatives to consider when assessing his Pro Bowl prospects.
On the plus side, he ran for 1,108 yards in 2009 with a 4.6 yards-per-carry average, and he carried the ball over the goal line seven times. With the early season suspension of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, running the football will become even more of a priority for the Steelers.
However, offensive tackle Willie Colon, arguably the Steelers' best run blocker, is gone for the season with a torn Achilles tendon. Mendenhall carries a reputation for being a less instinctive running back who uses his blockers effectively. Colon's absence could have a major impact on him.
The AFC is also stocked at the running back position with young Pro Bowl veterans, such as Chris Johnson, Maurice Jones-Drew, and the aforementioned Ray Rice.
Stewart's prospects for a Pro Bowl nod also have pro and con arguments, similar in some ways to Mendenhall.
His statistics clearly warrant consideration. He rushed for 1,133 yards last season with 10 touchdowns and a gaudy 5.1 yards per carry.
Stewart, has the added problem of getting recognition in his own backfield, as D'Angelo Williams is the more quick, elusive, and dynamic running back.
Their statistics were almost identical last year and Williams has more of a pedigree. But, when Stewart was able to carry the ball 16 or more times, he rushed for over 100 yards five out of six times (he rushed for 87 yards in that other game), suggesting that he can be the workhorse for the Panthers.
Most of the game's best wide receivers have made the Pro Bowl, yet this is the type of under-the-radar selection that makes too much sense.
Because he plays in the small Jacksonville market, you might not have heard of Mike Sims-Walker.
In 2009, Sims-Walker caught 63 passes for 869 yards and seven touchdowns in his first season as a full-time starter.
He is 6'2," 214 pounds, has great hands, and will only get better.
Second-year wideout Mike Thomas gives the Jaguars a good option on the other side. The Jaguars have some other young talent that will open the field up even more for Sims-Walker.
Celek caught 76 passes for 971 yards and eight touchdowns in 2009. He is a big-play threat that was second among tight ends only to Antonio Gates for number of catches of more than 20 yards last season.
The problem for Celek, as it will be for the next Pro Bowl prospect on this list, is that a league only suits up two tight ends for the all-star game and it's going to be hard to supplant Jason Witten or Vernon Davis on the NFC squad.
Finley is fast, tall, has great hands, and is 23 years old. Even though he "only" caught 55 passes for 676 yards and five touchdowns last season, it was impossible to leave him off this list.
His 159 receiving yards against Arizona in the playoffs last season is a clear indication of how happy he will make Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers for years to come.
It's likely not if he makes the Pro Bowl, it's when.
Nick Mangold of the New York Jets is probably the NFL's top center. If anyone is going to join him at the top anytime soon, it will probably be Mack.
At 6'4," 311 pounds, Mack does not have to get by on technique like some of the league's lighter pivot men.
He is athletic, strong, and he started all 16 games as a rookie. Expect Mack and Mangold to be the AFC's Pro Bowl tandem for years to come.
Otah, at 6'6," 330 pounds, is a mauler. His skills in the run game have helped pave the way for two thousand-yard rushers in Williams and Stewart in 2009.
Combined with center Ryan Kalil and Jordan Gross, Otah gives the Panthers one of the best young offensive lines in football.
If you look at last year's NFC offensive tackle participants in the Pro Bowl, Jason Peters, David Diehl and Bryant McKinnie, there is little to reason to believe that Otah won't be better than all of them one day.
Edwards certainly benefits by playing opposite arguably the NFL's best all-around defensive end in Jared Allen.
However, Edwards also came into his own in 2009, recording 8.5 sacks in the regular season and then adding four more in the playoffs.
He is just 25 years old, and at 6'5," 285 pounds, he is unlikely to be blocked by a single man if healthy (he battled some knee problems in the playoffs).
Okay, this is going to take a leap of faith. Antwan Odom's 2009 campaign ended in Week Six with a ruptured Achilles tendon.
The recovery from this type of injury is hard enough, and yet he is going to go to the Pro Bowl?
Yes. Odom had eight sacks before his injury, including five in one game. The prediction here is that he will defy the odds and make the Pro Bowl.
The AFC doesn't have a lot of great ends, except for Mario Williams and Dwight Freeney, and regardless of Odom's comeback, there is an all-star roster spot open for the taking.
This might be a confusing pick to some.
Pickett is an excellent run-stuffer and typically makes a fair bit of tackles for a nose tackle (only 33 stops last season, but he has recorded over 60 tackles a couple of times in his career).
Most importantly, he takes up double teams with his 6'2," 340-pound frame. With end John Jolly being indefinitely suspended, expect Pickett's talent and natural leadership skills to be showcased even more.
Even if Pickett's move to defensive end to replace Jolly doesn't stick while B.J. Raji assumes the nose tackle position, there is a clear reason why Green Bay franchised Pickett this offseason and then signed him to a three-year deal.
It's going to be very tough for any middle linebacker to break through the elite duo of DeMeco Ryans and Ray Lewis to become a Pro Bowl middle linebacker for the AFC (especially Lewis, who has gone nine times).
Jerod Mayo of the New England Patriots has a shot.
He was hampered by a knee injury and a poor defense around him in 2009. Despite missing three games, he still had 103 tackles last year. Entering his fourth season, he only figures to get better.
If not Mayo, David Harris might be the next great AFC middle linebacker. Actually, both might wind up supplanting Ryans and Lewis as AFC Pro Bowlers sooner than you might think.
Consider Harris' performance against Indianapolis in the AFC title game. The Michigan product produced 11 tackles and two sacks of Peyton Manning.
In 2009, he had 127 tackles, 5.5 sacks, and two interceptions.
Talk about a player under the national radar and the first name to come up on defense might be Greenway. Perhaps it's due to the fact that he tore his ACL in the first preseason game of his rookie year.
Well, he has made up for lost time.
In his three subsequent seasons, he has been basically good for 100 tackles (he had 99 last season) each year, with the ability to come up with an interception, a forced fumble or a sack when needed on a very talented defense overall.
It's hard to pinpoint exactly when Dallas linebacker Anthony Spencer arrived as a Pro Bowl prospect.
Yet, it would be hard to argue that one possibility would be the Cowboys' back-to-back games against the Philadelphia Eagles in the regular season finale and opening round of the playoffs.
Spencer looked downright vicious in recording three sacks and in his relentless pursuit and pressure of Donovan McNabb.
Spencer clearly isn't the player, teammate, and fellow outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware is, but who is?
Regardless, he'll join Ware in Hawaii soon.
In 2009, Hali racked up career highs in sacks (6.5) and tackles (62), but it's what he is capable of in the future that makes him a possible Pro Bowl invite.
He's quick, strong, young, and yet inexperienced. He escaped from war-torn Liberia when he was 10 and really didn't have an idea of how to play football until he was in 10th grade.
He has a pretty good idea now, and that's after just one year in coach Todd Haley's 3-4 system, which seems ideally suited for his talents. Now, new defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel will get to mold him even more.
It's got to be quite a journey from the hell of Liberia to the paradise of Hawaii. Hali will be motivated to complete the trip.
Detroit—yes, I said Detroit—has a few Pro Bowl possibilities. Calvin Johnson, Kyle Vanden Bosch, and, making his first trip, Louis Delmas.
The second-year safety out of Western Michigan was a revelation for the Lions.
Delmas had 94 tackles and two interceptions, but just as importantly brought an intensity that should mature into leadership for a young defense that needs it.
No offense to Nick Collins or Antrelle Rolle (the NFC's Pro Bowl safeties last year) but Delmas would bring some needed "young blood" to the position.
Yes, the Pro Bowl does select a return specialist for each conference, and in the AFC, who can argue with Joshua Cribbs, a two-time Pro Bowler?
But returners aren't typically successful for a prolonged period, and Cribbs will be called on to do more in the Cleveland offense in 2010.
Enter Jacoby Jones. In 2009, he was third in the AFC in kick returns with a 26.6 yards-per-return average and fifth in the conference in punt returns with a 10.9 yards-per-return mark.
Well, there you have it—20 players who might make their first Pro Bowl trip.
Did I overlook someone? Do you agree? It's time for the football nation to speak up.