We started this exercise of projecting first-time, non-rookie Pro Bowlers a year ago, and while there were some obvious missteps (buying high on the Seahawks defense) there were some notable wins. Indeed, Evan Engram, Josh Jacobs, Justin Simmons and Darren Waller all made the nonexistent 2021 Pro Bowl, while Baker Mayfield led the Browns to their first playoff win since the cold war. Another Saints tackle, Terron Armstead, reached the Pro Bowl despite our selection, Ryan Ramczyk, also turning in a formidable campaign. We’ll give ourselves a three out of five stars for effort.
With this exercise, we’re trying to project hot spots as much as anything. Which teams will catch on, thus drawing the kind of necessary fan attention that will generate enough votes to elect a first-time Pro Bowler who isn’t a rookie in the public eye. Coaching turnover makes the process more challenging, though in 2021 we’re planning to be a little more aggressive, as some of last year’s picks (Waller and Jacobs in particular) were fairly obvious.
Some emerging units/trends we’re looking at:
BRONCOS DEFENSE/RUNNING GAME
This Broncos defense is loaded. Vic Fangio’s scheme generates Pro Bowl talent wherever it goes and the complementary relationship between downhill running game and stout defense should deliver one or two statistical outliers (and, possibly, Fangio’s first winning season).
Rising star coordinator Patrick Graham had this team playing well above its collective skillset. The defense validated Dave Gettleman’s free agency swing on James Bradberry, who made the Pro Bowl last year, and could nab another Pro Bowl-caliber player this year along the front seven.
The Browns have never had this complete a team in their modern history. Both sides of the ball are stockpiled with playmakers and, perhaps more importantly, ancillary matchup pieces who can help them in a unique division.
Frank Reich is an expert gameplanner who will fix Carson Wentz. And by fix, we mean install a sensible offense with markers that can spike a young passer’s confidence early in games.
The addition of Bud Dupree and Caleb Farley make a stout defense even more difficult to deal with. From a statistical standpoint, this very good unit also gets to play the Texans twice a year, as well as a rookie QB (Trevor Lawrence).
That said, here’s our best guess as to who might make the jump from ascending young player to Pro Bowl-caliber talent …
BRANDON AIYUK, WR, SAN FRANCISCO 49ers
Bet against the No. 1 receiver in Kyle Shanahan’s offense at your own risk. While Deebo Samuel led the league in average separation last year, Aiyuk was still pacing right behind him, despite being asked to assume some more challenging roles within the offense that sometimes doesn’t yield the same matchup opportunities. Still, this is a receiver drafted for a role that has been wonderfully productive over time for those who play it well. In addition, the 49ers could be upgrading at quarterback in the near future. At some point, the scheme will change and having a quarterback who adds his hand in the running game will also force teams to cover the 49ers differently. This could also lead to a higher ceiling for Aiyuk.
ROBERT TONYAN, TE, GREEN BAY PACKERS
Tonyan was grossly overlooked a year ago, despite scoring double-digit touchdowns and flashing absolute mastery in the red zone. While Aaron Rodgers’s inevitable, begrudging return weighs heavily on this bet, Tonyan has married himself to a scheme that provided some brilliant opportunities, including the second most average separation per route run (more than four yards). That shouldn’t be going away any time soon, and while he may not score 11 touchdowns this year, he will score enough with the eyes of the football world on him to make up for the snub.
BAKER MAYFIELD, QB, CLEVELAND BROWNS
If we keep putting Mayfield on this list, good things will have to happen eventually. The Browns’ quarterback warranted attention last year, but a run-first offense can somewhat mute statistics and make his contributions seem—key word, seem—less worthy of Pro Bowl consideration. That said, Mayfield had a better completed air yards average than any full-time quarterback in the NFL last year and he pushes the ball downfield more than almost any quarterback in the league. While the system will keep him restrained somewhat, the re-addition of Odell Beckham and a second year in the offense (plus expected hangovers in Pittsburgh and Baltimore defensively) should lead to career numbers.
JEFFERY SIMMONS, DT, TENNESSEE TITANS
Simmons had 14 quarterback hits and five pass breakups in addition to three sacks and three fumble recoveries in 2020. Most incredibly, Simmons was among the league leaders in net yards over average against the run, which, when accounting for snap percentages and actual time on the field, was astounding. None of the three players who finished in front of him played anywhere close to 75% of their teams snaps, yet Simmons held a -0.71 yards average over the course of almost 900 snaps. So, the Titans could count on a run against them going for almost a yard less when Simmons was on the field.
CARL LAWSON, EDGE, NEW YORK JETS
While Robert Saleh may have liked to upgrade at the opposite edge beyond Vinny Curry, the Jets’ draft needs dictated a greater desire for a versatile, running guard like Alijah Vera-Tucker to aid in their scheme development. That said, Carl Lawson has been toiling in an aging defense for years in Cincinnati, and one that, in recent years, has lacked some imagination. Saleh will be challenged to recreate the kind of firepower he had in San Francisco, but he should get Lawson more opportunities to rush the passer than he had at his previous stop. Lawson has been used to doing more with less and will welcome any opening.
JONATHAN JONES, CB, NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS
Here’s the logic behind my thinking: At some point, Stephon Gilmore will get traded. And while he'll leave a massive gap in New England’s defensive scheme, the Patriots can find a way to recover and reassemble a formidable, top-10 defense. It’s not far-fetched considering the offseason additions Bill Belichick was able to make and the returns from COVID-19 opt-outs. It’s also not crazy considering how underwhelming the rest of the division is going to be offensively outside of Buffalo. Jones is productive, breaks up a good number of passes and is an incredibly willing tackler. This Swiss-army approach will help him pad the stat column enough to warrant votes.
JONATHAN TAYLOR, RB, INDIANAPOLIS COLTS
Taylor gained almost a full yard over expected per carry last year and fits well in an offense that is deeply committed to the running game. After finishing third in total yards last year, and with the Colts' adding a quarterback whose mobility should add another advantage in various run concepts, Taylor should be considered a favorite to lead the league in rushing next year, or at least come close as he did in 2020. He rarely fumbles (one fumble in 232 attempts), making him a safe bet to remain in favor.
GARETT BOLLES, OT, DENVER BRONCOS
I got banged pretty good for naming Bolles the Broncos’ most underrated player going into last season, only to watch him have a career year and sign a massive long-term deal that has him among the four highest-paid players at the position. Bolles’s surge was expedient enough to catch the Pro Bowl voting masses by surprise, apparently, as there were not enough tackles better than him in 2020 to warrant his being left off the roster. Denver’s high-powered running game this year and talented offensive line overall should aid in his publicity campaign moving forward.
JOHN JOHNSON III, S, CLEVELAND BROWNS
This feels like one of the bigger no-brainers on the list. Johnson was Pro Football Focus’s top safety last year and for good reason. He shifts over to a Cleveland defense that is loaded at nearly every position, and he'll get to orchestrate a secondary that could pick on a still-developing Bengals offense and aging quarterback in Pittsburgh. Johnson is a stout cover man and lines up everywhere, with more than 250 snaps in the slot last year. This means plenty of opportunities to show off in a place where he’ll receive the proper attention.
JESSIE BATES III, S, CINCINNATI BENGALS
According to NFL GSIS statistics, Bates was responsible for 714.67 fewer yards gained by opposing offenses last year than the average replacement defender. This is simply incredible, especially on a defense as bad as the one he’s playing on. Bates is the total package, a blistering hitter and an adept coverage safety who has a kind of overzealous pick up basketball defender vibe. He’s always on a higher frequency, seemingly, than the offensive players he’s trying to stop.
Other names to consider
Kareem Jackson, safety, Broncos; Wyatt Teller, guard, Browns; Dallas Goedert, tight end, Eagles; Corey Linsley, center, Chargers; Dexter Lawrence, defensive tackle, Giants.
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