Cleveland Browns: Ranking the Probabilities of Browns' 2011 Pro Bowlers
The sunny skies of Honolulu, the relief that all the pressures of the regular season have ended at last, Bill Belichick in a Hawaiian shirt...
Even with the start of the NFL season still months away (assuming it even starts on time), it just never feels too early to talk about the only breezy, light-hearted event that exists in football: the Pro Bowl.
Last season, the Browns wound up with two Pro Bowlers and one second alternate on their roster. Given that the team went 5-11 and is expected to do much better this year, it may be reasonable to hope more of Cleveland's roster members earn this designation after the 2011 season.
Of course, it's early to start predicting just who those players might be with any sort of certainty, but there's no harm in having a little fun with it before the 2011 season gets rolling.
Following are six players on the Browns roster who could have a legitimate shot at the Pro Bowl after the team's 2011 campaign.
Please feel free to share any nominations of other Browns you think might make the trip to Hawaii next winter in the comments below!
6. S T.J. Ward
Rookie safety T.J. Ward made a huge splash for the Browns in the backfield last season, turning in a surprisingly excellent performance in just his first year in the NFL.
Ward started all 16 games for the Browns last season, ringing up 123 tackles, two interceptions and delivering all-around great coverage throughout the season.
Ward's 2010 stats were no where near enough to get him a Pro Bowl nod, but they were a good indication that he's the sort of player who just may find his way to Honolulu in the future.
To get there, Ward will absolutely need to raise his interception total, and he'll need to show up with more highlight reel worthy hits as well if he wants to grab the necessary attention to get the nod. The Browns defense and the secondary in particular would also likely need to turn in a better performance as a group as well.
Still, none of those things are out of the question in 2011, and while Ward is far from what you'd call a "good bet" for the Pro Bowl this season, he'll have a shot to go (at least as an alternate) and will likely make a big enough impression this year that he'll at least receive consideration for it down the road.
5. G Eric Steinbach
As much as we all lament the sorry state of the right side of the Browns offensive line, we also have to give credit to its other half for being among the best in the league.
The left side of the Browns' line in 2010 was the polar opposite of what happened on the right; all three starters on the left side played so well that they received Pro Bowl consideration.
LG Eric Steinbach was not ultimately selected for the Pro Bowl, but he was a second alternate, which is still the equivalent of pretty high praise. And Steinbach has a good chance to do as well or better in the Pro Bowl voting this season.
Steinbach is, for whatever reason, often a player who doesn't get the credit he deserves for getting the job done, even from the Cleveland faithful. Still, he got enough recognition to be a second alternate to last year's Pro Bowl (which was probably a fair designation for his performance).
If he plays as well as he did last year in 2011, he should earn that distinction again, and if he plays better? He might just find himself with Pro Bowl honors minus the "alternate" designation.
4. RB Peyton Hillis
Human battering ram RB Peyton Hillis wowed Clevelanders and football fans across the nation in 2010 with his spectacular and unexpected season.
His 1,177 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns won him critics' attention. His physical toughness, win-or-die attitude and touching allegiance to the city won him the hearts of Cleveland fans. Those fans' dedication to their team combined with his performance on the field in 2010 won him the Madden cover.
One thing he didn't win for his 2010 performance? A Pro Bowl nod.
There is no doubt that Hillis was spectacular last season, but the competition for Pro Bowl spots at running back is extremely steep.
HIllis' talents certainly indicate that it's possible for him to have the kind of season in 2011 necessary to earn a spot on the Pro Bowl roster. Many thought he was snubbed last year, but regardless of whether that's true, he's going to have to up the ante if he wants the nod this time around.
Most folks seem to think Hillis' numbers this season will, if anything, decline. Certainly no one is expecting anything less than excellence from Hillis, but there is good reason behind the argument that he won't post the same totals.
He probably won't have Lawrence Vickers blocking for him, and he probably can't keep taking the kind of beating he took last season, just for starters.
Still, if there's ever a guy you should never count out, it's Hillis. He might not be a favorite to make it to Honolulu this year, but I wouldn't bet against him either.
3. C Alex Mack
One of the previously mentioned offensive linemen who did make the Pro Bowl last year was center Alex Mack.
Mack was not originally slate to go to the Pro Bowl in 2010 but was added to the roster when Jets center Nick Mangold was injured in the AFC Championship game and subsequently unable to play in Honolulu.
Mack is a standout center for a lot of reasons, not the least of which being that he hasn't missed one snap in his two years in the NFL.
Still young and getting better all the time, Mack is an excellent bet to repeat for Pro Bowl designation again in 2011. If he has as good a season as he did in 2010, he should likely be an alternate. If he improves, he could find himself on the roster without having to back door his way in through an injury.
2. CB Joe Haden
There may not be another player out there who wasn't part of the 2010 Pro Bowl team but has an excellent chance to make the 2011 squad than CB Joe Haden.
Haden was absolutely amazing in his rookie campaign in 2010 for the Browns. Despite starting just seven games last season (though he did play in all 16), Haden banged out 50 tackles, seven assists and six interceptions.
His interception totals were incredibly impressive given his inexperience, and his overall play was a huge boost to the secondary, especially given his rookie status and the fact that he was only given the opportunity to start in seven games. Many even felt Haden deserved Rookie of the Year consideration.
So it's no wonder that he's one of the players most likely to make the Pro Bowl in 2011 from the Browns roster.
To lock that down, Haden will need to step up his already impressive game as much as possible, and he will also be somewhat at the mercy of how other established star CBs around the league perform throughout 2011. And as was the case for Ward, his chances would be seriously improved if the Browns secondary ups its game as a group.
Still, any improvement on his 2010 performance puts Haden well within contention for Pro Bowl consideration, and given the show he put on as a rookie last year, he's an excellent bet to do just that.
1. LT Joe Thomas
Our last 2011 Pro Bowl candidate is 2010 Pro Bowl Starter LT Joe Thomas. Considered perhaps the most established success on the Browns roster, Thomas has marked himself out as a leader on offense and as a player who delivers consistently year in and year out.
Last year was Thomas' fourth time making the Pro Bowl in four years and he was the leading vote-getter among all offensive tackles in 2010. He also received first team All Pro honors for the second year running in 2010. Pretty impressive for a player who is still only 26 years old.
More than anyone else on the team, Thomas is the closest thing the Browns have to a shoo-in for the 2011 Pro Bowl.
There are no guarantees of course in terms of performance or health, but as long as Thomas stays healthy and continues to play the way he has since the day he first showed up in Cleveland stadium, he'll be traveling to Hawaii next winter to represent the Browns among the game's elite yet again.