2011 NFL Predictions: Potential Surprise 2012 Pro Bowlers from All 32 Teams
Every year in the NFL there are players that seemingly come from nowhere to make it into the AFC-NFC Pro Bowl at the end of the season.
Last season, it was Arian Foster, Brandon Lloyd and Devin McCourty that shocked the AFC and proved their worth to the fans and players across the league.
Who will the surprises be in the next Pro Bowl? Who are the unknown, unheralded or underrated players who will shock the world and find themselves in Hawaii?
Let's have a look at all of the NFL rosters and analyze them from a third-party observer's point of view to determine who has a chance to break out and earn Pro Bowl honors unexpectedly.
We'll start with the NFC, so hang with me here...
Dallas Cowboys: Doug Free, LT
Doug Free took over the left-tackle position for a perennial Pro Bowler, Flozell Adams. Expectations put upon him were very high, and for the most part Free struggled to live up to them.
However, as the season progressed, Free improved and started looking like a solid player on the blind side.
Assuming injuries don't get him and he can beat out USC rookie Tyron Smith for the starting job, Free stands poised to have a great year for Dallas and find himself in Hawaii in February 2012.
Philadelphia Eagles: Trent Cole, DE
Trent Cole may be the most underrated defensive end in the NFL. Maybe that's because he doesn't put up ridiculous sack numbers.
What he does do is play solid on every down, versus the run or the pass. He has a motor that won't quit, and he never gives up on a play.
Constantly double-teamed and game-planned against, Cole leads the Eagle defensive line. He went to the Pro Bowl in 2007 and 2009, but was left out in 2010.
It may not surprise you to see Cole in Hawaii, but it may surprise all the "experts" that slept on him last year.
New York Giants: Hakeem Nicks, WR
Hakeem Nicks showed flashes of greatness last season. With good body control, decent speed, great hands and surprising power, Nicks has all the tools to emerge as a genuine threat for the Giants in the future.
He needs to stay healthy and show that he can fully understand the offense, but it can be done.
Nicks making it to the Pro Bowl may not surprise Giants fans, but him beating out the likes of Roddy White, Greg Jennings, Calvin Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald and Miles Austin would be a shocker of monumental proportions.
Washington Redskins: Ryan Torain, RB
When Clinton Portis went down to injury, Ryan Torain took over the starting job in 2010 and played pretty well.
As Portis gets older and older, and with no other legitimate option at running back, Torain looks to be the heir apparent for the starting job for Mike Shanahan.
Torain showed surprising speed for a "power back" and improved his understanding of the offense as the season wore on.
There are a total of six running backs on the Redskins roster, but I look for Torain to earn the starting job. In a Shanahan offense, that means lots of carries and lots of yards.
Green Bay Packers: B.J. Raji, DT
B.J. Raji didn't get his due last season until the Packers defense started dismantling opposing offenses in the playoffs.
People finally realized that Clay Matthews and Charles Woodson wouldn't be allowed to do what they did without Raji holding down the middle of the line.
Again, Raji being selected to a Pro Bowl wouldn't surprise many, but a 3-4 nose tackle actually being recognized by the fans and the league would be new.
Minnesota Vikings: Ben Leber, OLB
With the Williams tandem at defensive tackle getting older and less productive, Leber still managed to put in a solid year.
His fellow linebacker, E.J. Henderson, got to the Pro Bowl last year, but for Leber to do it, he'll be competing with great players like DeMarcus Ware, Jon Beason and Brian Orakpo.
It would be a surprise, and it won't be an easy task, but it is possible.
Chicago Bears: Anthony Adams, DT
Tommie Harris is gone. This leaves Anthony Adams as the best defensive tackle on the Bears roster.
Creating double-teams, stopping the run and mentoring rookies like Stephen Paea will be just some of Adams' responsibilities in the coming season.
Other than the usual Bears Pro Bowl suspects—Lance Briggs, Brian Urlacher and Julius Peppers—Adams is the most likely Bear to make a Pro Bowl.
Detroit Lions: Louis Delmas, S
Along with Ndamukong Suh and Kyle Vanden Bosch, Louis Delmas was a standout on the Lions defense in 2010.
Delmas is improving every day, and in 2011 he has a legitimate shot at reaching All-Pro status.
I'd be surprised—wouldn't you?
Atlanta Falcons: Julio Jones, WR (R)
The Falcons sent nine players to the Pro Bowl last season. That made it difficult to pick an All-Pro sleeper from this team.
Therefore, the only rookie to make my list is Alabama wide receiver Julio Jones.
The Falcons traded up 21 spots in the draft to get Jones, who had a great season for the Crimson Tide and blew the roof off the scouting combine—with a broken bone in his foot, no less.
I don't think the Falcons front office would have traded up so far to get this kid if they didn't think he could contribute right away or if they didn't have a plan to use him immediately.
Wide receiver is a very difficult position at which to make the transition from college to the professional ranks. Add to that some great talent already on the roster, and Jones making the Pro Bowl in his rookie year would be a surprise for sure—but that's what this list is about.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Josh Freeman, QB
When Josh Freeman was taken with the 17th-overall pick in the 2009 NFL Draft, everyone thought the Buccaneers took him too high.
With his play last season, Freeman proved the Buccaneers scouts and front office justified in that pick. Freeman kept Tampa Bay in games all season and led it to a 10-6 record.
With the emergence of rookie standouts LeGarrette Blount and Mike Williams, I think Freeman is one more weapon away from making some real noise in the Pro Bowl voting.
Carolina Panthers: Dan Connor, LB
If you thought I was going to make this slide about Cam Newton, you were wrong.
Dan Connor is a solid linebacker from Penn State (a.k.a. Linebacker U). In his fourth year, he could be a breakout player for several reasons.
The biggest of those reasons is the new head coach. Ron Rivera always seems to get the most out of his linebackers. Shaun Phillips and Shawne Merriman were Pro Bowlers in Rivera's defense in San Diego.
Connor has all the skills to be very good and the mindset and work ethic to be great. I look for Connor to earn a full-time starting role, assuming injury doesn't slow him down—again.
New Orleans Saints: Malcolm Jenkins, S
Having to step in and play for injured All-Pro safety Darren Sharper, most thought Malcolm Jenkins wasn't ready.
He had his growing to do, and he made some mistakes for certain, but as the season progressed, Jenkins got better and better.
I fully expect this converted cornerback to be the full-time starter in 2012 and play great.
I genuinely believe that Jenkins is very close to being Pro Bowl-caliber and will show it in the coming season.
Seattle Seahawks: Russell Okung, OT
Russell Okung was drafted as the "heir apparent" to the legend that is Walter Jones. Big shoes to fill for anyone, much less a rookie.
When Okung was in the game, sacks went down, rushing and passing production increased and the Seahawks started the season 4-2.
When he went down with an ankle injury, the offense sputtered and the Seahawks started losing again. When he returned, the winning came back, and Seattle won its division and hosted a playoff game.
If I knew nothing else about Okung, this would be enough for him to earn my vote for the Pro Bowl. The only question is: Can he beat out Tyson Clabo, Jordan Gross or Donald Penn?
I think he can.
St. Louis Rams: Chris Long, DE
The simple fact that I picked Chris Long over Sam Bradford to represent the Rams in the Pro Bowl is shocking for most.
There's a reason for it. The Rams are still very lacking on the offensive line, and I think Bradford is going to be running for his life in 2011. That will make it hard to put up Pro Bowl-type numbers.
Under defensive-minded head coach Steve Spagnuolo, the Rams' defensive line play has steadily improved and should continue to do so.
St. Louis added Robert Quinn, a great defensive end, in the 2012 draft to compete for playing time opposite Long. This should take some pressure off Long, as well as motivate him to play even harder.
Long has inherited his father's (Hall of Famer Howie Long) drive and work ethic. No one will work harder or play with more fire. Long just needs to put all the skills and knowledge he's being taught by Spagnuolo together, and he can make a huge impact for the Rams.
I'm not saying Bradford has no chance to make the Pro Bowl—it's just that I feel Long is more likely to take the next step due to coaching style and overall team strength.
Arizona Cardinals: Paris Lenon, LB
I'm still trying to figure out how a player like Paris Lenon didn't make it to the Pro Bowl in 2010. Is it because he played on a losing team? Is it because he has plays for a small-market team?
Whatever the case, it's a travesty.
Lenon led the Cardinals in tackles with 125, 94 solo. He added two interceptions, six passes defensed and two fumble recoveries.
Assuming the Cardinals can find a decent quarterback, the Cardinals can start winning again, because the defense is already a top-shelf unit, and it's led by Darnell Dockett and Paris Lenon.
San Francisco 49ers: Dashon Goldson, S
Dashon Goldson is not a household name. In his fourth year with the 49ers, Goldson totaled 80 tackles, five pass deflections and one interception, which he took to the house for a touchdown.
On a defense with Patrick Willis, Aubrayo Franklin and Takeo Spikes, it's very easy for Goldson to be overlooked.
I just have a feeling that Goldson is going to break out in 2011 to make a run at earning Pro Bowl honors.
I wouldn't call this a "shocking" pick, but to beat out Antrel Rolle and Adrian Wilson at safety to play in the Pro Bowl would indeed surprise a lot of people—including me.
Now on to the AFC...
New England Patriots: Patrick Chung, S
Patrick Chung came from virtually nowhere in 2010. I had never even heard of this guy until all of a sudden he started having his name called on nearly every down.
With the way Bill Belichick coaches the Patriots defense and the way he is able to mix and match players to fit his scheme, Chung stands ready to make a full-time impact for the Patriots in 2011.
Devin McCourty did it last year; I think Chung can do it this coming season—if there is a season!
New York Jets: Shonn Greene, RB
Shonn Greene was drafted to be the long-term starter for the New York Jets. However, the team acquired future Hall of Famer LaDainian Tomlinson last offseason. That moved Greene to the No. 2 spot on the depth chart.
I don't see that as the case in 2011.
Greene has had another year to learn the offense and a full year watching and learning from one of the best running backs ever, and let's be honest—Tomlinson is another year older.
Greene had 34 fewer carries than Tomlinson did last year, but I'm confident that won't be the case come the 2011 season.
I expect the two running backs to swap roles next year. Greene should be the starter with Tomlinson being the "change-of-pace" guy.
Miami Dolphins: Yeremiah Bell, S
Yeremiah Bell is one of those players who you don't hear a whole lot about—unless you live in south Florida.
Bell led the Dolphins in tackles and added one interception, one sack, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery.
On a defense that sent CFL transfer-sensation Cameron Wake to the Pro Bowl, Bell was one of the most consistent players in the NFL, but simply didn't get the headlines.
I have a feeling we'll be hearing a lot more about Bell in the not-too-distant future.
Buffalo Bills: Paul Posluszny, LB
Paul Posluszny led his team in tackles with 151. That was good enough for third in the entire NFL.
All this guy does is find the ball and make tackles. Hard tackles! He has a motor that won't quit and is improving by leaps and bounds every game.
If he can stay healthy, I wouldn't be surprised to see him in the Pro Bowl at the end of the year, but many "experts" might be.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Bryant McFadden, CB
With all the big-name stars on the Steeler defense, Bryant McFadden's name gets lost.
McFadden finished the season with 81 tackles. That was good enough to be ranked third on one of the best defenses in football.
McFadden is an every-down player who is very good in run support.
It would be surprising to see McFadden start the Pro Bowl for the AFC over Darrelle Revis or Nnamdi Asomugha, wouldn't it?
Baltimore Ravens: Dawan Landry, S
Dawan Landry is another one of those players who fails to get noticed due to being surrounded by superstars on his team.
When Ed Reed went down to injury, the phrase "tackle by Dawan Landry" was said more and more frequently by stadium and television announcers.
Landry is slowly becoming another household name on a defense full of them.
It may or may not surprise people to find someone with Landry's talent on the Pro Bowl roster, but for him to get enough notice to be elected to the Pro Bowl from that team would be surprising indeed.
Cincinnati Bengals: Jermaine Gresham, TE
This team may be the one most in turmoil. Carson Palmer and Chad Ochocinco want out, Terrell Owens is a free agent and the Bengals didn't draft a replacement for those receivers, and they are talking like they're ready to start TCU rookie Andy Dalton if Palmer doesn't come back.
What they will have is a great, young tight end in Jermaine Gresham.
Gresham has been mired in the controversy that surrounds the Palmer-Ochocinco drama. The fact is that Gresham put in a solid 2010 season and is likely to only get better—assuming there is a season and the Bengals have a quarterback—while rookie A.J. Green pans out as a legitimate replacement for Ochocinco.
OK, this one may be a bit of a stretch.
Cleveland Browns: Colt McCoy, QB
Colt McCoy has a tough job to do in Cleveland, taking over a team in disarray, with limited weapons, a new head coach and a new front office staff.
Not an easy task for anyone.
Judging by his performance in 2010, McCoy is just one thing: a winner.
I expect the changes in Cleveland to start paying dividends. I also expect him to utilize his new weapon, Greg Little, and returning veterans like Peyton Hillis and Joshua Cribbs to turn the Browns franchise back into a contending team in 2011.
Will this get him into the Pro Bowl? We'll see.
Houston Texans: Bernard Pollard, S
Bernard Pollard is most recognized for two things:
1. He's the player who tore up Tom Brady's knee and instigated the "Brady Rule" in which players can't, even accidentally, hit a quarterback below the knee. It was a clean play, and the league overreacted.
2. He is the starting strong safety on one of the league's worst defenses.
For some reason, Pollard doesn't get recognized for his 111 tackles, 2.5 sacks, five pass deflections or four forced fumbles.
Whatever the reason, Pollard has a tough task ahead of him if he is to unseat Troy Polamalu or Ed Reed in the Pro Bowl.
Tennessee Titans: Will Witherspoon, LB
Will Witherspoon is what coaches often refer to as a "high-motor, high-football IQ" guy. He works hard, plays with passion and rarely makes mental errors.
With the current state of the quarterback position in Tennessee, the Titans defense is going to have to win games for the team.
I expect Witherspoon to step up even more than he did in 2010, when he tallied 92 tackles, three sacks, three interceptions, one forced fumble and eight pass deflections.
Improving on solid numbers like that could lead Witherspoon to a place on the AFC Pro Bowl roster.
Indianapolis Colts: Antoine Bethea, S
When you play for the Indianapolis Colts and your name isn't Peyton Manning, Reggie Wayne, Dwight Freeney or Robert Mathis, you don't get a lot of press.
Antoine Bethea has done nothing but play consistently and average 105 tackles over his career. He always seems to be near the ball, makes critical tackles and leads the secondary with his fire and passion for the game.
Once again, beating out the great safeties in the AFC will be no easy task, but Bethea has all the tools to do it.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Mike Thomas, WR
Mike Thomas made some great plays at critical times for the Jaguars last season.
None of us can forget the ricochet catch at the goal line as time expired to beat the Texans. Unfortunately, most people forget the other 65 catches he made and four touchdowns he scored.
It won't be easy for Thomas to break into the Pro Bowl because there's a lot of talent at the wide receiver position in the AFC.
It would be a surprise, though, wouldn't it?
Denver Broncos: D.J. Williams, LB
How D.J. Williams hasn't made a Pro Bowl yet is beyond me. He's a phenomenal player (and that is extremely difficult for this Raiders fan to admit!).
In 2010, he had 119 tackles, 5.5 sacks, one fumble forced, one fumble recovery and nine passes defensed. If that doesn't get you into the Pro Bowl, what does?
If the Broncos can improve their defense overall, perhaps Williams will finally get his due and wind up in the NFL Pro Bowl.
San Diego Chargers: Kevin Burnett, LB
Shaun Phillips, Darren Sproles and Philip Rivers get all the press, but the Chargers defense wouldn't be as good as it is without Kevin Burnett.
Constantly among the team leaders in tackles, Burnett is an every-down player. He can rush the quarterback, stuff the run and cover backs and tight ends with equal aptitude.
Once again, Burnett finds himself at a loaded position. Competing against Ray Lewis and his teammate Phillips won't make it easy for Burnett to make the Pro Bowl—but man, what a surprise it would be.
Kansas City Chiefs: Tamba Hali, DE
I still can't figure out how Tamba Hali didn't make the Pro Bowl with 14.5 sacks (again, not easy for a Raiders fan to say!).
I'm guessing it's because of his low number of tackles, but the truth is that he was asked to rush the passer on every down. You can't expect a lot of tackles from a guy in that situation.
Fact: Hali had more sacks than any of the outside linebackers that made the Pro Bowl (Cameron Wake 14, Terrell Suggs 11, Shaun Phillips 11).
Can you say "snubbed?"
Whatever—Hali belongs with the NFL elite. Maybe he'll get the credit he deserves in the 2011 season.
Oakland Raiders: Stanford Routt, CB
When you play on the other side of the field from arguably the best cover cornerback in the league, Nnamdi Asomugha, you better bring it.
Stanford Routt struggled early in the season, but gathered himself and finished very strong.
Routt faced more pass attempts than any other cornerback in the NFL last year, but only Darrelle Revis had a better "burn percentage."
If Asomugha stays, Routt has no chance to make the Pro Bowl. If Asomugha leaves in free agency, Routt would be a surprise to most, but not to Raider Nation.
To Sum Up...
I need to make something very clear: I do not necessarily think that all of these players will, or even should, be in the Pro Bowl. I am just throwing out names that I feel are in position to surprise us all with breakout seasons.
There are some on this list that have better shots than others. D.J. Williams, Tamba Hali and Hakeem Nicks come to mind.
There are some that have no legitimate chance at all. Seriously, does anyone think that Colt McCoy can make the AFC team with Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Matt Schaub and Philip Rivers still playing in the same conference?
I didn't think so.
My ultimate goal with this was to offer up players that have had good seasons, but got overlooked or are on the verge of great seasons and could electrify everyone.
So what do you think? Which of these players has the best shot? Who has no shot? Who would you have left off this list? Who would you have included? Who could be the surprise player on your favorite team?
Let me hear your thoughts in the comments.
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