While the football world waits to see if Tom Brady and the New England Patriots will claim their record-tying sixth Super Bowl against the NFC Champion Los Angeles Rams, Orlando, Florida’s Camping World Stadium sets the stage for the 2019 Pro Bowl January 27 at 3 P.M. ET on ESPN.
Back in the Sunshine State for the third-straight year, the NFL All-Star game maintains its classic AFC vs. NFC format after utilizing the “Unconferenced” structure for the three matchups from 2014-2016. This year marks the tenth consecutive season that the Pro Bowl occurs the week prior to the league’s big game.
As the Patriots and the Rams compete for the Vince Lombardi Trophy, a combined total of six Pro Bowlers will miss out on the superstar showcase, opening the door for a heightened number of well-deserving replacements, amongst other available spots.
As in every professional sports league’s All-Star contest, however, there will always be a handful of meritorious players who will, unfortunately, watch the action at home. To highlight these recognition-worthy contributors, Last Word On Sports presents its sixth annual edition of “Top 10 Pro Bowl Snubs.”
Around this time four years ago, Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck finished the 2014 season just one game shy of the Super Bowl. Already making the playoffs in his first two years, it became championship or bust moving forward. As history would record, Luck’s injuries due to subpar offensive line play led to the team’s three-year demise. In the midst of that slide, former general manager Ryan Grigson failed to put a formidable roster together at multiple positions. When Grigson was relieved of his duties, Indianapolis hired Chris Ballard in 2017. A year later, Ballard drafted Darius Leonard in the second round. In the Colts’ season opener against the Cincinnati Bengals, Leonard recorded nine tackles and a fumble recovery. The following week against the Washington Redskins, he posted 19 tackles and his first career sack to earn Defensive Player of the Week and eventually Defensive Player of the Month honors. He would then go on to earn each of those distinctions another time. The budding star linebacker concluded his rookie campaign with a league-leading 163 tackles, which is also a franchise record for Indy. Having Leonard on the field was important to the team claiming the NFL’s 11th-best defensive unit. Even though he did manage to become a First-team All-Pro selection, he should’ve first been elected to be an NFL All-Star.
One of the most featured franchises in 2018 was the Kansas City Chiefs. Led by uncommonly-gifted passer Patrick Mahomes, the team exceeded expectations with its scintillating offense en route to the AFC Championship game as the conference’s number-one seed. With all of the explosive talent the offense had to offer, the defense did not carry much of its weight, placing 31st and 27th against the pass and run, respectively. The one defensive area the team did excel in, however, was in sacks. Their league-leading 52 takedowns were in large part due to Chris Jones. After a combined 8.5 sacks in his first two seasons, Jones stuffed the stat sheet with career highs in sacks (15.5), tackles (40), quarterback hits (29) and tackles for loss (19) in only 11 starts. Only Aaron Donald (the presumed Defensive Player of the Year) and J.J. Watt (First-team All-Pro and three-time DPOY) were better in the takedown category in 2018. Turning 25 in July, the pass-rushing defensive tackle will continue to grow. The overall improvement of the defense will make the Chiefs a nearly-unstoppable team, but they’ll need Jones to further produce.
3. Anthony Castonzo – Left Tackle, Indianapolis Colts
Along with Darius Leonard, Chris Ballard nailed another draft decision by taking Quenton Nelson sixth overall. The rookie guard from Notre Dame excelled as an interior lineman and become very popular leaguewide for his devastating blocking–and his intense in-game screams. As the impactful first-year guard nabbed both Pro Bowl and First-team All-Pro designations, left tackle Anthony Castonzo should’ve also booked his trip to Orlando. Starting 116 games for the Indianapolis Colts since 2011, Castonzo has quietly been one of one league’s most dependable blockers. Among casts of offensive linemen that have been unsteady throughout Andrew Luck’s career, Castonzo has been the constant for the franchise quarterback during the last seven years. Analytics site Pro Football Focus graded the veteran at a 76.8 overall for 2018, a mark that was slightly better than Nelson’s. With him on the field, not only did the Colts allow the fewest sacks in football (18), but also the team rushed for the fifth-most first downs by rushing toward the left side of the offensive line (44). This snub selection may be considered as a proverbial “lifetime achievement” representation to some, but Castonzo’s All-Star naming has been long overdue.
The 2018 season featured the Chicago Bears return to the postseason for the first time since 2010. For a franchise that constructed its legacy on defense, they used that side of the ball to return to football prominence. The team’s calendar year was headlined by acquiring superstar outside linebacker Khalil Mack from the Oakland Raiders. The hefty-priced trade paid off as Mack collected 12.5 sacks and once again earned First-team All-Pro regards. Along with Mack, Chicago boasted a Pro Bowler at every level on defense. From tackle Akiem Hicks to corner Kyle Fuller to safety Eddie Jackson, the Windy City will be well represented in Orlando. The defender who should be joining them is Roquan Smith. Picked eighth overall in last April’s draft, Smith fully lived up his top-ten billing. On just his first career snap in Week 1, he recorded a sack. The decorated collegiate linebacker from the University of Georgia would go on to pile double-digit tackles six times in a 10-game stretch. Smith concluded the campaign with 121 tackles, 8 tackles for loss, five interceptions and five pass deflections in 14 starts. He was equally important in Chicago finishing with the league’s third-ranked defense. The Bears have an extremely bright future, and Smith’s presence will keep their window of contention open.
Alike Roquan Smith, Jaylon Smith is another young linebacker who will see some defensive teammates go to the Pro Bowl without him. Veterans DeMarcus Lawrence and Byron Jones will represent the Cowboys in Florida but leave the developing star behind in the process. Coming out of Notre Dame, Smith was expected to be the number one overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft before his injury. Missing his entire rookie campaign, he posted 81 tackles in 2017. Starting all 16 games for the first time this season, Smith set career highs in stops (121), tackles for loss (six), sacks (four) and pass deflections (four), among other categories. Collecting at least seven tackles in 12 of those 16 contests, he used his athleticism to consistently corral ballcarriers. Dallas placing seventh in defense clearly displayed Smith’s value to that side of the ball. First-year standout Leighton Vander Esch received much adulation for his efforts in replacing Sean Lee, and rightfully so, but Smith was more than worthy of his due credit.
Of course, his ruptured Achilles would’ve kept him out of the game itself, Sheldon Rankins should’ve been voted to the initial Pro Bowl roster. Drafted 12th overall by the Saints in 2016, Rankins collected four sacks in nine games before a season-ending injury finished his rookie campaign. After tallying his just two the following year, Rankins exploded for eight takedowns this season, including six in a seven-game stretch. His interior presence was crucial in New Orleans boasting the NFL’s second-best rush defense, surrendering a touch over 80 yards per contest. Because of the franchise’s offensive explosion for much of the season–and frankly its stellar offense altogether for the past 13 years–Rankins and the defense didn’t get their full respect. As the offense began to sputter from December onward, its notoriety level increased. Whenever he does return from injury, Rankins will once again be greatly needed.
With the gradual decline of their once-vaunted and historically-dominant secondary, the front seven is now the anchor of the Seattle Seahawks defense. During his five-year stint with the team, Michael Bennett was a reliable edge-rushing force. At linebacker, Bobby Wagner has established himself as arguably the best interior player at his position. Another contributor who’s made his presence known is Frank Clark. Only posting three sacks as a 2015 rookie, Clark broke out for 10 takedowns in year two with only five starts. Though his sack dipped to nine in 2017, he concluded the 2018 season with career highs in sacks (13), forced fumbles (three) and fumble recoveries (two). His 13-takedown mark was not only tied for sixth in the NFL individually, but it helped Seattle finish as the league’s number six pass-rushing team this season with 43 sacks. Clark passionately vouched for teammates Chris Carson and others, but he was the most blatant omission among the group. Russell Wilson is the undisputed leader and future of the franchise, but the defense is still depended on week to week.
In a season that featured the injuries of significant starters, Damontae Kazee was one of the few Falcon bright spots during an otherwise underwhelming campaign. Entering 2018 as a backup, Kazee was named the Week 2 starter for Atlanta due to the injury to starting strong safety Keanu Neal, who was a Pro Bowler the previous season. The second-year defensive back went on to tally a career-high 82 tackles to go with a league-leading seven interceptions. He becomes the third Falcons defender to make our website’s Top 10 Pro Bowl Snubs list since the series began after the 2013 season. Though his production wasn’t transcendent enough to get the franchise back to the postseason, his output should be admired given the absences of Neal and linebacker Deion Jones. It’ll be interesting to see what his role will be moving forward, but Kazee definitely proved that he can be a consistent contributor in the defensive backfield.
Stefon Diggs narrowly edges out Los Angeles Rams wide receivers Brandin Cooks and Robert Woods for a place on our snub list. Although Cooks and Woods each compiled the 80-catch, 1,200-yard and five-touchdown stat line, Diggs’ production was slightly more critical for the Minnesota Vikings. Specifically, the Rams offense has been bolstered by running back and MVP candidate Todd Gurley, a luxury the Vikings don’t have. In spite of, Diggs continues to deliver. Entering the league in 2015, he recorded at least 52 receptions for 720 yards in his first three seasons. The “Minnesota Miracle” star followed up his 2017 playoff heroics by setting personal bests in receptions (102), yards (1,021) and touchdowns (nine). He was, in fact, the only 100-catch pass-catcher who did not make the Pro Bowl. His steadiness has been a tremendous asset for Minnesota during its transition from the rush-centric Adrain Peterson era. Teammate Adam Thielen has greatly earned his praise, but Diggs is also due his all-star recognition.
Mark Ingram isn’t the only former University of Alabama rusher in recent memory to achieve success in the NFL, as Derrick Henry himself has been impactful in team development. Drafted in the second round of the 2016 draft, Henry came to Tennessee with DeMarco Murray, who at the time was two years removed from being named First-team All-Pro and Offensive Player of the Year. Starting only four games in his first two seasons, Henry compiled 1,234 yards and 10 touchdowns on 286 carries. In 12 starts throughout 2018, the former Heisman Trophy winner reached personal bests in attempts (215), yards (1,059) and scores (12). He had a slow start to the campaign yet heated up with a 585-yard, seven-touchdowns stretch that featured him amassing 238 yards and 170 yards in consecutive weeks. Henry’s ability to control the clock was a key reason for the Titans remaining in the playoff hunt. It is unclear if Marcus Mariota will be the team’s starting quarterback moving forward, but regardless of the signal-caller, they will benefit tremendously from Henry in the backfield.
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