Each season for the past three years, I’ve made an attempt to project 10 new first-time Pro Bowlers. While this is a bit of a self-defeating process, given that the flawed voting methods skew heavily toward players with prior name recognition, it has not deterred me from trying to promote and correctly guess the new names that will squeeze their way into the NFL’s soon-to-be-shuttered all-star game. Last week, I introduced you to the most underrated players in each conference (AFC and NFC), and while there is some ideological crossover on this list, we’re going big-game hunting here. We know these guys. Some of them are rookies. Some of them are pushing 30. Most of them are better than they’ve been given credit for.
All of them are in unique positions to play their best football in 2022 and earn that luxurious vacation to … central Florida. Well, it’s the thought that counts.
Joe Burrow, QB, Bengals
I considered asking my editor if I even needed to compile a blurb for our first name on the list. Burrow is going to be one of the great quarterbacks of the next decade, dueling with Josh Allen, Patrick Mahomes and the like for many an overhyped Sunday Night Football broadcast to come. While the Bengals walk into 2022 with the heightened challenge of putting more film on tape than anyone and revealing some of their biggest tendencies on the biggest stage in sports, not to mention an increased usage of big play prevention defense, they do so with a quarterback who is uniquely equipped to handle the current NFL. How do I know? Go back and watch the wild-card game against the Raiders. On most snaps, it looked like a picket fence of defenders around the first-down marker, forcing Burrow to make air tight throws on every down. He picked apart the quintessential modern cover-first defense in the playoffs and went on to reach the Super Bowl, despite getting pummeled with regularity.
Penei Sewell, OT, Lions
The NFC Pro Bowl tackles from last year (and some of the names that will inevitably make the list again this year) are of the more veteran classification, meaning we’re going to see more fill-ins. Even if Sewell isn’t a main ballot Pro Bowler, I’d expect him to find his way onto the roster. He has two things going for him from a purely cynical perspective: The Lions are going to be much better than they were a year ago and Sewell is a recognized name given his draft status (No. 7 in 2021). This ultimately makes the hardest part of the climb more manageable. From an on-field production standpoint, I like Sewell to make the leap because the Lions ran the ball between their right tackle and guard last year more than almost any team in football at a rate of 5.1 yards per carry, which was good enough for seventh in the league. Sewell allowed just one sack last year and finished the season incredibly well. Seeing him make his first of many trips to the end-of-year gathering of extraordinarily talented individuals makes sense.
Jerry Jeudy, WR, Broncos
Watch Jeudy’s first career touchdown, which came against the Jets in 2020. This was a deep ball thrown by Brett Rypien into the upper-chest area of an opposing defender. Jeudy cared not, swiped it over the defender’s back and walked into the end zone. Imagine this kind of ball-tracking ability put to good use, with one of the best deep-ball quarterbacks of the modern NFL era. While Jeudy profiles differently than some of Russell Wilson’s recent, best targets, Jeudy’s route tree was similar to that of Tyler Lockett, especially the routes Lockett ran toward the end of last season. Wilson has had receivers in the Pro Bowl two times over the last six seasons, though some of that stagnation has to do with Seattle’s scheme. Nathaniel Hackett is a mastermind when it comes to lulling defenses into a trap that yields an explosive play. Jeudy’s fellow receivers on the depth chart, Tim Patrick and Courtland Sutton, are ideal space creators, while Jeudy possesses the rare athleticism and talent to break a defense open.
Darnell Mooney, WR, Bears
If you have yet to buy a ticket on the Darnell Mooney bandwagon, too bad. They cost more than Harry Potter seats on Broadway. The hyper-athletic third-year wide receiver, who overperformed in a broken offense last year, steps into a more refined, outside-zone-style offense that should, at the very least, put him in position to get the ball in space. While we have been notably grim on the prospect of a first-year Bears revival under Matt Eberflus, we are bullish on the idea of Mooney taking over a handful of games for the Bears this year and shoving his way into the elite tier of NFL wide receivers. Mooney is everything Fields needs right now. He overperforms despite a lack of schemed separation and can be just as productive running a bunch of stops and quick outs as he can knifing a defense with go balls.
Chris Olave, WR, Saints
One rookie wide receiver always seems to hit each year, right? While there is plenty of talent to gamble on, I think we have to side with the most experienced quarterback (Jameis Winston) and, year in and year out, the most successful scouting department. Jeff Ireland has remade this Saints roster from his perch as assistant general manager, and when a good scouting department stakes its reputation on a wide receiver, it’s time to take notice (the Saints, if you’ll remember, dealt for additional first-round equity in this year’s draft at a time when many teams were trying to flip assets for next year). Olave is patient and effective out of the backfield, which might help the Saints on intermediate passing plays without Alvin Kamara should he get suspended. He’ll likely get a heavy workload and has the luxury of an established, dominant possession wide receiver (Michael Thomas) on the other side of the formation who will command bodies.
Marcus Williams, S, Ravens
I think we’re all curious to see what kind of identity the Ravens’ defense will take on after the departure of Wink Martindale. What we can be certain of is the success of a targeted addition like Marcus Williams, who was one of the best safeties in the NFL a year ago. Williams fits the bill as a prototypical Ravens safety, who can manipulate offenses from multiple spots on the field. He is a more than capable run defender and last year was one of the Saints’ best individual players in terms of net yards over average. He allowed an astounding sub-50% opposing quarterback completion rate a year ago.
Ted Karras/La’el Collins/Alex Cappa, OL, Bengals
I’m hedging my bets a bit here. While I’d put the veteran (Karras) No. 1, I am assuming that one of the Bengals’ three new offensive linemen will receive the credit the overall unit earns for turning their fortunes around. No offense to Jonah Williams, who, at least according to advanced stats, surrendered 10 of Joe Burrow’s sacks a year ago, but is better than he’s given credit for. Hits on Burrow are a major story line and will be tracked doggedly this year. Should Burrow emerge from a successful season relatively free of dings and dents, at least one of the Bengals’ offensive lineman are headed to Orlando. It will be easier for us as a collective football-watching society to accept the idea that the new additions changed the face of this unit, instead of the idea that some of the developing players remaining actually, well, developed.
Haason Reddick, LB, Eagles
We’re closing the list with a bit of a wild card here, but hear me out. First, let’s look around the division. The Giants’ offensive tackles are going to be in their first and second years, respectively. The middle of their interior offensive line, save for Mark Glowinski, is vulnerable at best. The Cowboys are hedging their bets on a first-year guard, Tyler Smith, and a right tackle who was among the most penalized in football last year. The Eagles, meanwhile, are pairing interior pocket pusher Fletcher Cox with Jordan Davis. The amount of havoc they’ll be able to cause, and the attention they should garner, will open up opportunities for a speed rusher barreling off the edge. Reddick, a sixth-year pro, will be instrumental in closing out games for the Eagles this year and, after getting a chance to shine in a pressure-heavy system a year ago, now has the tape commensurate with his skill set. New coordinator Jonathan Gannon will have Reddick in the backfield often, especially if the Eagles continue their ascent and manage to lead a majority of their games, forcing opponents into obvious passing downs.
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