Hidden Stars: NFL's Best Who Have Yet to Make a Pro Bowl
The Pro Bowl voting process has left out recognizable names and rising stars over the past few seasons. Still, these unheralded gems have an opportunity to decorate their resume with an appearance at the NFL's annual All-Star exhibition.
We'll view this listing as a Pro Bowl snub team of sorts. In some cases, the player's best performance didn't earn a deserved invite. Others could've achieved the honor, but there's a valid argument why they missed the cut.
Players, coaches and fans are each responsible for a third of the Pro Bowl votes. With human participation comes natural error. We'll highlight notable omissions and provide justifications on the individual's ability to earn the distinct recognition in the coming seasons.
RB Lamar Miller, Houston Texans
Tailback Lamar Miller has eclipsed 1,200 yards from scrimmage in each of the last four seasons and ran for at least 4.5 yards per carry twice in that span. However, his inability to reach the end zone has dealt a significant hit to his value—fantasy football owners can attest to this. As a ball-carrier, he's reached paydirt eight times in the last two campaigns.
Miller produced a Pro Bowl-worthy 2014 term in which he rushed for 1,099 yards on 216 totes through 16 contests for the Miami Dolphins. He didn't make the game, though, and he hasn't been able to duplicate that level of efficiency in Houston.
Still, despite sharing carries, Miller still has a small window of opportunity to make the Pro Bowl. The Houston Texans added 2017 third-rounder D'Onta Foreman to the backfield last season, and he logged 78 carries and scored two touchdowns—one fewer than his starting running mate. Coming off a torn Achilles, the 22-year-old remains uncertain for Week 1, per the Houston Chronicle's Aaron Wilson.
Miller ranks fifth in combined rushing yards (3,932) over the past four seasons. A quick start while Foreman works his way back to 100 percent could lead to one of the 27-year-old's most productive years.
WR Brandin Cooks, Los Angeles Rams
There are two baffling aspects to wideout Brandin Cooks' career. For starters, he's logged three consecutive 1,000-yard seasons from 2015 through 2017 and is seventh in receiving yards and sixth in receiving touchdowns through that period but never made the Pro Bowl. Second, he's been traded after two of those campaigns—first from the New Orleans Saints and then from the New England Patriots.
Cooks will suit up for the Los Angeles Rams on the final year of his rookie deal. He's led his team's wide receiver corps in yards in each of the last three seasons. Expect him to flourish in head coach Sean McVay's system.
The 24-year-old pass-catcher burns defenders deep, and he'll need those huge gains to earn leaguewide recognition. Quarterback Jared Goff's ability to go through his reads and spread the ball serves as a positive for the offense, but it could negatively affect Cooks' numbers. Still, he should surpass the 1,000-yard mark for a fourth consecutive year.
WR Julian Edelman, New England Patriots
Wideout Julian Edelman isn't a hidden gem, but he belongs in the upper tier of players yet to earn a Pro Bowl invite.
Edelman's humble beginnings as a 2009 seventh-rounder didn't deter him from reaching the spotlight. Four years later, he started 11 contests and finished with 1,056 receiving yards and six touchdowns.
Nonetheless, the 32-year-old's breakout 2013 campaign didn't send him to Hawaii. Edelman looked well on his way to his best season in 2015 but suffered a broken left foot in November of that year. He finished with 692 receiving yards and seven scores through nine games.
After the Patriots traded Cooks in April, the 10th-year pass-catcher seemed primed for another big season as Tom Brad's most familiar receiving target. However, the league handed him a four-game suspension for violating its performance-enhancing drug policy.
A successful appeal would put him back on track for a 1,000-plus-yard campaign, but he must find a way to surpass his single-season high of seven receiving touchdowns for a Pro Bowl nod.
WR Michael Crabtree, Baltimore Ravens
Similar to Edelman, Michael Crabtree has had buzz as a playmaker. He's also a 2009 first-round pick and one of the best players without a Pro Bowl appearance. The 30-year-old logged two 1,000-yard seasons with at least eight touchdowns in each while playing for the San Francisco 49ers and Oakland Raiders.
Over the past three years, Crabtree is fifth in receiving touchdowns with 25 and flashed in multiple clutch moments during his three-year tenure in Oakland. The Thursday Night Football game against the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 7 last year showcased how reliable his hands are in critical situations (skip to 2:35 in the video).
In an attempt to bolster the aerial attack, the Baltimore Ravens acquired Crabtree, who's a legitimate No. 1 option at wide receiver and can still create separation in his routes, this offseason. He hasn't had a 10-touchdown season and may need to reach that threshold along with 1,000 yards for a Pro Bowl offer, though.
DE Danielle Hunter, Minnesota Vikings
Danielle Hunter put his name on the radar as a non-starting defensive end during the 2016 campaign, finishing with 12.5 sacks.
As a reserve, Hunter logged 600 snaps—58 percent of the Minnesota Vikings' defensive plays—which put a cap on his buzz. He started all 16 games in 2017 but couldn't reach double-digit sacks (seven).
Heading into his age-24 campaign, Hunter will need to push fellow pass-rusher and three-time Pro Bowler Everson Griffen for the team lead in sacks to earn a Pro Bowl invite.
As a starter in a contract year, Hunter has an opportunity to take the leap to the top tier of defensive ends as he looks for a new deal.
DE Mario Addison, Carolina Panthers
Defensive end Mario Addison bounced among four teams during the 2011 and 2012 seasons but has carved out a steady pass-rushing role with the Carolina Panthers over the past few years.
The Panthers signed Addison off the Washington Redskins practice squad in December 2012, and his sack totals have increased in each of the previous three terms. He's led the team in the category for the past two campaigns, with 20.5 in total.
As a starter in all 16 games, Addison tied Julius Peppers with 11 sacks in 2017, but he didn't receive Pro Bowl honors.
Nonetheless, his ascending numbers and added responsibilities in setting the edge against the run on an increased snap count should allow him more opportunities to make his first appearance in the January exhibition contest.
He's also aware of his lack of recognition. Addison called NFL.com's defensive line rankings "a slap in the face," per ESPN.com's David Newton. The Panthers didn't land in its top eight, which is off the mark. We'll see what the eighth-year veteran does to put his unit and himself on the radar.
DE/LB Olivier Vernon, New York Giants
Edge-rusher Olivier Vernon made headlines when he signed a five-year, $85 million deal with the New York Giants in March 2016, which made him the highest-paid 4-3 defensive end at that time.
In two campaigns with Big Blue, Vernon has been good, but he's yet to add another double-digit-sack season to his resume. The first came in 2013 with the Miami Dolphins when he tallied 11.5.
The Giants traded pass-rusher Jason Pierre-Paul to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in March, so we'll see how Vernon performs as the primary edge-rusher under new defensive coordinator James Bettcher.
The 27-year-old doesn't seem concerned about the change in scheme. NJ.com reporter Matt Lombardo tweeted the pass-rusher's thoughts from a press conference in April: "I played standing up in Miami. It's not much different. Right now it's about learning the playbook and going from there."
Vernon isn't likely concerned with Pro Bowl snubs, but the Giants will rely heavily on his ability to reach the quarterback. Ten or more sacks would put him among the top-tier edge-rushers.
DE/LB Bruce Irvin, Oakland Raiders
Bruce Irvin is one of the more recognizable names on this list. He's a Super Bowl champion and has had 37 sacks over the past six seasons. A 6.2 average in that category doesn't look impressive, but he's played defensive end and linebacker, which called for non-statistical contributions such as rerouting tight ends in coverage.
The 30-year-old matched his single-season high eight sacks last year but didn't make a consistent impact in that category until Week 11.
There's value in pressures that don't result in sacks, but racking up the latter puts pass-rushers in the spotlight. NFL insider Adam Caplan shared a possible change in the Raiders defense under new play-caller Paul Guenther.
The SiriusXM NFL Radio Twitter handle relayed his thoughts: "My understanding is [the Raiders are] making some changes no one knows about. One of them is Bruce Irvin is mostly going to play defensive end going forward."
If Caplan heard correctly, Irvin could shatter his single-season high in sacks while playing opposite Khalil Mack.
CB Trumaine Johnson, New York Jets
Cornerback Trumaine Johnson put together a jaw-dropping 2015 season, logging seven interceptions (returning one for a touchdown) and 17 pass breakups. Despite his stellar campaign, he became one of the biggest Pro Bowl snubs in recent memory.
Since then, Johnson has been average in terms of impact plays and production. He snagged three interceptions and broke up 25 passes over the past two years with the Rams.
In March, Johnson inked a five-year, $72.5 million deal with the New York Jets. He immediately became the best cornerback in their secondary. Can the 28-year-old accumulate takeaways in a defense that has question marks concerning the pass rush?
At 6'2", 213 pounds, Johnson has the size to challenge wide receivers early in their routes with physicality. As witnessed during the 2015 campaign, he also possesses the ball-tracking awareness to flip the field. He's primed for a Pro Bowl season as a Jet.
CB Robert Alford, Atlanta Falcons
His name isn't often associated with the best at his position, but Atlanta Falcons cornerback Robert Alford deserves recognition despite his Pro Bowl-less resume.
Alford plays opposite Desmond Trufant, who earned Pro Bowl honors in 2015. The Falcons acquired both cornerbacks in the first two rounds of the 2013 draft.
For whatever reason, Trufant made the Pro Bowl with 11 pass breakups and one interception over Johnson's big year, noted above, and Alford, who recorded two interceptions, returned one for a score and had 15 passes defensed.
Alford doesn't rank high in interceptions through five seasons with 10, but he's third in pass breakups with 72 from 2013 to 2017. In the flow of a game, stops have major value, especially on third downs. But the 29-year-old will need to increase his takeaways to add respect on his name as a top-tier cornerback and Pro Bowler.