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  • The fact that the rookie linebacker was left off the AFC Pro Bowl roster encapsulates everything that’s wrong with Pro Bowl voting. Here’s a suggestion on how to fix it.
By Robert Klemko
December 19, 2018

NFL Pro Bowl snubs—you hear about them every year. Do they matter in the great big scheme of things? Probably not. But like the NFL Hall of Fame voting, targeting rules and representative democracy, there’s definitely a better way to get the job done. Case in point: The biggest Pro Bowl snub in recent memory.

I’m not talking about Alvin Kamara, Christian McCaffrey or Mike Evans. The competition was stacked against those guys, and it's hard to argue against the players who did get picked at their positions—you can’t tell me Todd Gurley, Saquon Barkley and Ezekiel Elliott shouldn’t make the NFC team. Secondly, and more importantly, those guys are already household names. Kamara, McCaffrey and Evans aren’t hurting for marketing opportunities, many of which are predicated on things like Pro Bowls.

No, I’m talking about Colts rookie linebacker Darius Leonard, the second-round pick out of South Carolina State who found himself without an invite to Camping World Stadium in Orlando. (I know, I know, the location sounds lame. But Disney World!).

Leonard is the biggest snub because his case encapsulates everything that’s wrong with Pro Bowl voting. He’s leading the league in tackles (as a rookie) with 146, 22 more than the next guy (Luke Kuechly!). He’s on pace to set the record for tackles by a rookie, and he’s not just dragging guys down at the second level. Among players with more than 100 tackles (there are 22 right now), he leads the field in sacks (7), comes in second in tackles behind the line of scrimmage (12) and second in QB hits (8) and seventh in pass breakups (6). You want big games? How about Leonard sacking Deshaun Watson and turning in 12 tackles and a pass breakup in a Week 14 win over the Texans, or Leonard stuffing Ezekiel Elliott behind the line of scrimmage and batting away a Dak Prescott fourth-down pass in the fourth quarter of a Week 15 win against the Cowboys.

Leonard’s competition on the AFC roster? There’s Texans linebacker Bernardrick McKinney, a standout standup linebacker finally getting his due. And then there’s Ravens linebacker C.J. Mosley, who is, at this point, living off reputation. Mosley’s a fine player, but with his 91 tackles, three pass breakups and half a sack, amounting to a 65.5 PFF grade, No. 37 among linebackers, he’s not an impact player at the moment. But Leonard is, so how does this happen?

Three bodies vote on Pro Bowlers: Coaches, players and fans. Necessarily, primetime broadcasts have a big influence on all three groups. Every coach won’t even see every linebacker in the opposite conference, because he’s only preparing for the teams his team will face in a given year. Same goes for players. But all three groups regularly watch primetime games. How many primetime games did the Colts get in 2018? One: Thursday Night Football on Oct. 4, vs. the Patriots (and it was the lone game Leonard missed this season due to injury). That was during Indy’s 1–5 start, when everyone wrote off the Colts, before they rattled off five wins in a row and became serious contenders in the AFC. Darius Leonard, like his team, snuck up on people. You know who he didn’t sneak up on?

NFL writers, PFF, Football Outsiders, Sports Info Solutions (To name a few)—folks who have the time and mandate to know the identity of the best football players in the NFL, regardless of whether Cris Collinsworth is drooling over them during the Sunday Night Football broadcast. Give the media ballots and weigh them as one-fourth of the vote, along with the three existing parties. Then you might just avoid the embarrassment of average players making Pro Bowls over great ones.

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1. Mike Tanier's fun, informative screed against the rule which holds if a player fumbles through the end zone, out of bounds, it's the other teams ball. To which I respond: If you don't like it, hold onto the rock.

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THE KICKER

A big piece of the NFL news cycle yesterday centered on a play during Sunday Night Football when a Saints ballcarrier fumbled at the goal line, through the end zone, and by rule, the Panthers were given possession at a pivotal moment late in the game (which they ultimately didn’t capitalize on). There was a lot of hand-wringing about the rule, which is as old as the game, and how it needs to be updated. I seem to be in the minority of folks who like it the way it is. The rulebook becomes friendlier to offenses year after year with no end in sight, so let the defense have just this one. Is it so bad to ask ballcarriers to hold onto the football as they approach the end zone, or face a turnover? Watching players dive for the goal line is good fun, but I’d like to see moments like this sprinkled in. Smart football beats high-flying football every time.

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