I was fortunate enough to experience the last ever Pro Bowl in Hawaii—an event so cared for by the 50th state that I ended up having to get out of a shared rental car on the highway about a mile from Aloha Stadium and hike my way to the parking lot to get there on time. It meant something to the players who were there. The game, like most, was not memorable. But the symbolism of the moment seemed to resonate with a majority of those who were voted in.
I was also fortunate enough to cover the first Pro Bowl in Orlando, and while the vibe was certainly different, there was also a sense that this was a destination, both for the players who were exposed to practice crowds three times the size of the ones they saw in Hawaii and for their families, who had unfettered access to Disney’s parks and entertainment.
In 2021 the Pro Bowl will be in Las Vegas, and while lacking in both bucolic scenery and “family-friendly” attractions, it will still mean something to those who are selected, even if the game seems to have morphed into something far less sacred.
All-Pro voting, while not without its faults, is a far greater measure of a player’s worth, but the Pro Bowl is more visible. So when a player gets snubbed, it hurts (especially if there is a contractual tie). And, if a player makes it for the first time (especially if they did not come right into the league as a bona fide star) it is still a monumental achievement.
So, as we approach the 2020 season, we do so thinking about those who have yet to make the Pro Bowl but may this season. Here are 10 non-rookies who may be able to call themselves Pro Bowlers this time next year.
JOSH JACOBS, RB, LAS VEGAS RAIDERS
Over 13 games last year, Jacobs amassed 1,150 yards, seven touchdowns, eight runs of 20-plus and just one fumble. Next Gen Stats shows one of the league’s most efficient runners (roughly as north-south as Nick Chubb, who may be the best pure ballcarrier in the NFL) and a rushing success rate (via Football Outsiders) that was better than Saquon Barkley or Christian McCaffrey in 2019. Vegas’s offensive line is solid—so much so that the Raiders actually had two of the best rushing “sweet spots” in the NFL, outside the tight end on the right side and between the left guard and tackle. That combination of efficiency and offensive line diversity, plus the fact that Jon Gruden will almost certainly feed Jacobs the ball at a steady rate, puts him in a solid position to either lead the league in rushing or come close enough to earn a Pro Bowl nod in 2020.
JUSTIN SIMMONS, S, DENVER BRONCOS
Simmons’s rapid improvement under new head coach Vic Fangio was noticeable to almost everyone except those in charge of selecting the Pro Bowl. The second-team All-Pro went from a 71.1 completion percentage allowed to a 52.8. He went from a 94.5 passer rating allowed on targets to a 43.6. Every aspect of his game improved, even his missed tackle percentage. Simmons was asked to rush the passer significantly less in 2019, which allowed him to become a menace in coverage. PFF totaled the league’s interceptions plus pass breakups in 2019 and found that no member of the secondary interrupted more passes than Simmons. During the offseason, when most coaches and general managers were ducking and dodging questions about what they would do with franchise tag-bound free agents, John Elway was pretty unequivocal on Simmons: They wanted him here for the long term. This year, Pro Bowl voters will probably share that sentiment.
RYAN RAMCZYK, T, NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
Ramczyk is the perfect example of why Pro Bowl voting is so faulty. The Saints’ offensive tackle was second-team All Pro in 2018 and first-team All-Pro in 2019. So saying he will make the Pro Bowl is like suggesting that maybe one day a Grammy award-winning singer could appear on The Masked Singer. That said, Ramczyk has been operating largely in anonymity despite the fact that he’s directly responsible for something truly exceptional: As PFF noted, Alvin Kamara is gaining 6.5 yards per carry off Ramczyk’s outside hip, which is the best YPC for a right tackle/running back combination in all of football. More than 30% of the time Kamara goes to Ramczyk’s side, the result is a first down. Think about that for a moment. Think about a normal play success rate. All the factors that could diminish a run’s effectiveness on a given play. Despite all of this, 35% of the time it goes for a first down.
KYLER MURRAY, QB, ARIZONA CARDINALS
I did not lead with Murray because his ascension at this point seems like a given. His rookie year was spectacular. His offense keeps stacking weapons (even though they may regret not making a few offensive line upgrades) and he is only deepening his familiarity with a potent offense that will continue to run more four-wide sets than any team in football by a wide margin. The Cardinals are the preseason Browns of 2019, which is both terrifying and complimentary. They’ve taken some pretty dire straits and transformed the roster into something formidable enough to scare opponents each week. Arizona may not make the playoffs in 2020, but because of Murray, they will be good enough to beat any team in any given week.
HAYDEN HURST, TE, ATLANTA FALCONS
Hurst and Matt Ryan have already been working out together and, while Hurst falls perfectly into the cliché offseason trap of “former first-round pick will find new life in a different offense,” it is worth seeing freed from such a crowded a depth chart. Austin Hooper (who’s now in Cleveland) received 71 and 75 targets over the past two years, respectively, and had roughly a 13% share of the Falcons’ total Air Yards. Compare that with a 28.65 Air Yard percentage for Mark Andrews in Baltimore last year (the highest among all tight ends, leaving Hurst little opportunity in the passing game). Hurst’s opportunity will increase. He has more of a solid footing in the NFL now. He has a good quarterback who utilizes the position healthily. It’s not the worst buy-low prospect.
DARREN WALLER, TE, LAS VEGAS RAIDERS
Waller was targeted almost 120 times last year and had a positive expected catch rate, meaning he caught more of Derek Carr’s passes in 2019 than he should have been expected to. While that number can always go down, there is little evidence to suggest that Waller will all of a sudden become less integral in the team’s offensive scheme, especially given the fact that he was one of the better blockers in football at the position and almost half of his yards came after the catch.
EVAN ENGRAM, TE, NY GIANTS
An infusion of two minds that value the tight end position significantly, Joe Judge and Jason Garrett, could be a major boon for Engram. He has been on torrid stretches before in his career and still might be one of the more athletically unique players in the conference. Extending his 2019 numbers out to a full season shows a player who does not drop a ton of passes (three in half a season) and gets a decent amount of yardage after the catch. Last year, Engram seemed to be settling into a role where he was comfortable catching more medium-range passes as opposed to mostly intermediate range balls.
BAKER MAYFIELD, QB, CLEVELAND BROWNS
I think Mayfield is a perfect bounce back candidate who now operates behind a functional offense and offensive line. A few years from now, we will probably hear the full story of how disastrously disjointed Freddie Kitchens’s offense really was. Browns games were like watching a 7-on-7 team full of wildly talented individuals show up to a national tournament without a game plan. Odell Beckham was running and juking in space, Jarvis Landry was miles off the ball and poor Mayfield was trying to survive long enough to let the long routes develop. In comes Kevin Stefanski, a play action evangelist who can create a lot of diverse looks in more protected two-tight end sets. If nothing else, we may finally get the offensive version of the Browns in 2020 we were expecting in 2019.
QUINTON DUNBAR, DB, SEATTLE SEAHAWKS
My prediction is that both Dunbar and Shaquill Griffin reach the 2021 Pro Bowl (a second straight nod for Griffin). Dunbar’s 2019 was exceptional, with four interceptions and an opposing passer rating that was almost half of what Dunbar posted in 2018. In Seattle, the 6' 2" corner should be more at home in a scheme that prioritizes his skillset. While this might not be a Legion of Boom redux, despite the early rush to coronate it as such, Dunbar is the perfect example of a player who was simply underutilized in his career and finally gets to take center stage.
ARIK ARMSTEAD, DE, SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
Armstead had 10 sacks and 18 quarterback hits a year ago while continuing his stretch of being a regular backfield presence who doesn’t miss a ton of tackles. With DeForrest Buckner in Indianapolis, Armstead should be able to expand his role while the 49ers break in rookie Javon Kinlaw. After being somewhat of a snub in 2019, there will be heightened attention on Armstead, as well as the other non-Bosa components of the 49ers’ defensive line.
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