Micah Parsons and the Perfect* Pro Bowl Roster
NFL Week 15 - Andrew: Hello and welcome to Scramble for the Ball, where this week's assurance that the end of the regular season is nigh comes in the form of the Pro Bowl fan vote closing this coming Thursday. We could grouse at the wisdom of a season-long award vote closing with around a quarter of each team's games left to play, but ours is not to reason why. Instead, we'll save you all the effort of composing your own ballot with this last-minute primer we're humbly calling Scramble's Perfect Pro Bowl Roster
Bryan: Note that we're saying "roster" and not "ballot" for the first time. Last year, we ranted and raved about the terrible official NFL ballot for this thing, and the NFL responded by … not changing anything whatsoever. You can still vote for six players at each position, regardless of their relative value. So you're limited to six wide receivers and six cornerbacks, but you can also pick six fullbacks and six long snappers.
Andrew: What gets me about that is it's not only regardless of value, but also regardless of actual Pro Bowl spots. So two fullbacks get to go to the Pro Bowl, but you can cast a vote for six of them. Eight wide receivers get to go, but again you can cast a vote for six of them.
Bryan: It's ridiculous. It's bonkers. It's the worst system I have seen in all the years we have been doing this, and for quite a long while before when I did this for free on an old phpbb message board. So, finally, we have snapped. The roster we're picking fits the number of players who will actually go to the game, rather than the entirely arbitrary system the NFL has for voting. I never thought I'd advise people to vote on Twitter rather than an actual ballot, because I am a curmudgeon at heart, but here I am.
Andrew: Given the task we have set ourselves, our very first position group puts us in a bind. To me, the NFC Pro Bowl candidates boil down to four options: Tom Brady, Matthew Stafford, Aaron Rodgers, and Kyler Murray. The AFC boils down to two: Justin Herbert and Patrick Mahomes. In the real ballot, that's fine, because you can pick six players regardless of conference, but we don't want to do that. So the real debate is which of Murray, Stafford, and Rodgers are we omitting for, uh, Derek Carr?
Bryan: Well, let's turn to DVOA for help, or at least as a starting point to argue against. By DYAR, our six quarterbacks should be Brady, Stafford, Rodgers, Herbert, Mahomes, and Carr. By DVOA, you swap out Stafford for Murray. And thank goodness that Kirk Cousins finally fell out of the top three on both sides, because I was having a really hard time coming up with a counter-argument for him other than "I have zero trust in Kirk Cousins."
Andrew: I guess it falls to us to write the header for the Irrational Murray-Stafford Discussion Thread. The argument for Murray is pretty simple: DYAR is a counting stat, DVOA is efficiency. If Murray had the same number of attempts that Stafford has, he would also have a higher DYAR, ergo, he would be the better choice.
Bryan: The argument against Murray is also fairly simple. He did miss time, and over that period, the Cardinals still went 2-1, with the offense looking fairly effective in both wins. That raises the question of how much of Murray's relative value is based on the team around him, rather than his own skill, and how much time can one miss and still be considered a Pro Bowler (more on that in a bit).
I don't know if I agree with that argument here.
Andrew: I do love an argument that pretty much says, "this guy is too well coached, so we should penalize him for it."
Bryan: It's also an argument against Murray, and not one for Stafford!
Andrew: So the argument for Stafford is that he has come into a new city, and a new offense, in a tough division, and immediately stepped in as one of the four or five most effective quarterbacks in the game.
Bryan: I'd also say that Stafford tends to make fewer stupid plays than Murray does, and his knowledge of situational football is lightyears ahead of where Murray's is at the moment; the difference between a veteran and a young player. But the counterargument to that is that Murray's stupid plays often work; I'm positive he leads the league in big plays in which the quarterback has turned his back on the defense at one point or another.
Andrew: I thought that statistic was the personal property of one Russell C. Wilson of Seattle, Washington.
Bryan: Historically, yes, but you'll note that Wilson is Sir Not Appearing In This Argument this year.
We can continue debating all we want about the relative values of Stafford and Murray, but I will say there's one thing that brooks no argument: it's a lot more fun to watch Murray, and maybe that works as a tiebreaker in a Pro Bowl conversation.
Andrew: Certainly, if it's trick plays we want, then I'm more intrigued by the idea of Murray running a wheel route off of play-action than I am Stafford. I do feel like it's a snub either way though, because much as I appreciate Derek Carr, I'd rather watch either of these guys than him.
Bryan: The AFC is less solid at the top than the NFC, for sure. But this also feels like a year where no one's really running away with a spot here (except for Tom Brady, who may well be an immortal supergod at this point; jury is still out on that). When I did my initial shortlists, I ended up with half of each conference as a potential pick. Mac Jones? Sure, why not, especially as an injury replacement. Ryan Tannehill? Come on down. Kirk Cousins? Always have room for you.
Andrew: The AFC is more clearly delineated at this point in the season. I wouldn't bet against Josh Allen making a late run back into form, but it will be too late for the vote. In the NFC, you find Kirk Cousins lurking just outside the top four on each stat, Dak Prescott lingering around despite a below-par start to the winter, and even Jimmy let's not think about that moving on.
Bryan: I snuck 10 49ers on to my initial 200-player short list, and zero of those players were Jimmy Garoppolo. We must uphold the sanctity of the Pro Bowl, Andrew.
Andrew: Which, naturally, means he'll go as an injury replacement, in perhaps the year's most ironic twist.
NFC: Tom Brady, TB; Kyler Murray, ARI; Aaron Rodgers, GB
AFC: Derek Carr, LV; Justin Herbert, LAC; Patrick Mahomes, KC
Andrew: You'll notice this header reads "running backs," not "blocking backs." More on that in a minute. We need to nominate three running backs for each conference, so a healthy number of options.
Bryan: Once again, let's look at our stats as a starting point. By DYAR, our running backs would be Jonathan Taylor, Austin Ekeler, James Robinson, Leonard Fournette, Tony Pollard, and Ezekiel Elliot. By DVOA, you swap Elliot for … Jamaal Williams?
Suffice it to say, I like those lists much less than I like the quarterback lists.
Andrew: Pollard and Elliott both being on the list makes a heck of an argument for the Cowboys offensive linemen, and less of an argument for those two players.
Bryan: Pollard also brings up another argument, as he has only played 301 offensive snaps this season. A lot of other potential candidates have relatively low snap counts, too—AJ Dillon and Cordarrelle Patterson in the NFC; Nick Chubb and Damien Harris in the AFC. There's a question about how much you value great numbers in small sample sizes versus more overall value there. These are much more extreme than the "Kyler Murray missed three games" argument from before.
Andrew: The two guys who are absolutely indisputable are Taylor and Fournette, as the clear best back in each conference. In fact, I think the AFC list is fine as is. Ekeler is the No. 1 dual-threat running back, Taylor is tops in every measure and an automatic selection, and Robinson is somehow having success in Jacksonville, and that despite their desperate attempts to bench him at every opportunity. (Which would be mad; he's almost the entire Jaguars offense.)
Bryan: We should also note that Derrick Henry is not on the ballot due to his injury, even though you could make an argument that his half-season of work would be enough to get him into consideration at the very least. He's still fourth in both attempts and rushing yards, just ahead of Nick Chubb. And yet you can vote for Chubb and not Henry, just because one has intact foot bones. Hardly seems fair!
Andrew: So what do we do with the NFC list? Fournette's a lock. Do we go with Pollard and Elliott? If not, who do we actually replace them with? This is almost the reverse of the quarterbacks, because I'd rather have Chubb than some of these options.
Bryan: Well, we can look at some other systems out there. SIS' total points earned metric has Cordarrelle Patterson, AJ Dillon, and James Conner as their top three running backs, which brings up an important point—the list we had above was just rushing DYAR, and Patterson and Conner get a ton of their value as receivers. If we add together rushing and receiving DYAR, our top AFC players become Taylor, Ekeler, and Damien Williams (Robinson has terrible receiving stats), while our top NFC players are Fournette, Patterson, and Conner.
Andrew: Patterson's a weird case there, too, because he was originally listed on the roster as a wide receiver, but he's a halfback on the Pro Bowl ballot.
Bryan: Patterson and Deebo Samuel are kind of playing the same position over the past month or so, but are in different sections on the ballot. Get used to that.
Andrew: While his rise in Atlanta has been fun to watch, I don't think the receiving value is enough to get Patterson in. However, adding in receiving does make the case for Conner stronger, which surprises me a bit. I never thought of him as that type of player. I'd be fine with him as our second NFC pick.
Bryan: Conner surprises me too, if for no other reason than I spent most of the first six weeks advising people to pick against him in Loser League, under the assumption that his touchdown rate could never hold up. Well, it has held up. And remember, Conner was a Pro Bowler in 2018 with nearly 500 yards receiving back them; it's a return to form more than an out-of-the-blue year. There's something in the water in Arizona, with Conner and A.J. Green returning to relevance.
My argument against Patterson would be that he has only played 366 snaps, and when it comes to brass tacks I'd rather have someone in there with a larger sample size. But like you said, the Cowboys running backs are a case of the offensive line more than the backs themselves, and after them … what, Aaron Jones? David Montgomery? Dalvin Cook, maybe?
Andrew: AJ Dillon is ahead of Jones in our numbers, which makes me say no to Jones more than it does yes to Dillon.
Bryan: The only other NFC back over 100 combined DYAR is Devontae Booker, which doesn't feel right either. Maybe it is Patterson, if for no other reason than the rest of the field isn't jumping out at me. Passing up on the leader in DYAR at the position is hard to get around, even if he's assembling it in a very strange fashion.
Andrew: I think this is one area where we can go with traditional statistics. It would be decidedly incongruous to leave the NFC's leading rusher off the ballot, and that is Dalvin Cook. Cook has missed a couple of games, deflating his numbers, but is still the conference's clear lead back. He adds value as a receiver and is playing behind a notoriously poor line.
Bryan: I would take Patterson's combined value over Cook's, but you're right; you can outthink yourself over "pick the guy with all the yards." I'll allow it!
NFC: James Conner, ARI; Dalvin Cook, MIN; Leonard Fournette, TB
AFC: Austin Ekeler, LAC; James Robinson, JAX; Jonathan Taylor, IND
Bryan: Oh, good luck parsing the NFC on this one.
Andrew: You reckon? It looks pretty indisputable to me, at least for the top three. Our one-two-three is Cooper Kupp, Justin Jefferson, and Davante Adams. Kupp was on a historic yardage pace and still leads the league by 200 yards; Adams is arguably the top receiver in the sport; and Jefferson has followed an all-time rookie season with almost 1,300 yards and counting in his second year.
Bryan: Agreed; they're a clear top three. And then, by DYAR, you have Mike Evans, and by DVOA you have Christian Kirk (and DeAndre Hopkins over Adams, for that matter), and then you have Tyler Lockett, Chris Godwin, CeeDee Lamb, and Deebo Samuel to parse through. If we were to pick just the best eight wide receivers, I think six or seven would come from the NFC.
Andrew: I don't think there's any way to justify putting Christian Kirk in the Pro Bowl, no matter how good his DVOA is, when he's not close to being the top receiver on his own offense.
Bryan: This is where I note that Deebo Samuel actually has more rushing DYAR than receiving DYAR, and if you added them together, he'd be third in the league behind Kupp and Jefferson. In fact, his 179 rushing DYAR is currently third all-time for receivers behind 2011 Percy Harvin and 2015 Tavon Austin, and we have a month to go. Also, unlike Austin, Samuel is actually good at football.
Andrew: That's a very intriguing argument for Deebo Samuel, Pro Bowl gadget player. I'm not sure it's a great one for Deebo Samuel, Pro Bowl wide receiver. Maybe we should just replace fullback with a total wild card.
Bryan: If you make that argument, I'm looking forward to your argument where Micah Parsons doesn't make the Pro Bowl team in a few sections. I'll just stick a pin in that riiiight here.
Andrew: This is the part where you would point out to me that it's foolish for me to expect you to have a consistent philosophy.
Bryan: And now you see why I said picking the four NFC receivers is really, really tough.
Andrew: We could go on for quite a while here. For me, the question is who ousts Mike Evans, and why? If you want to argue Lockett does because their efficiency numbers are very similar and Lockett has 150 more yards, that's an argument I'll listen to.
Bryan: Frankly, I think it has to be Samuel. He has produced more value in our numbers than Evans, and he's doing it in a Jimmy Garoppolo-led offense, not a Tom Brady one. Samuel is the top player in SIS' total points earned metric, beating Kupp 38 to 34. He's our YAC+ leader by a mile and a half. And, going back to the Kyler Murray argument, Samuel is producing value in fun and exciting ways.
Andrew: Alright, you can have him. So that's one conference...
Tyreek Hill is the best receiver in the AFC. Ja'Marr Chase is trying desperately to usurp that status, and despite the drops, I think Chase kinda has to go. Again, he's the leading receiver in the conference.
Bryan: By DYAR, our AFC receivers would be Hill, Mike Williams, Hunter Renfrow and … Tee Higgins, over Chase. By DVOA, it's Kendrick Bourne, Higgins, Emmanuel Sanders and Williams.
Andrew: I'm fine with Hill, Mike Williams, Hunter Renfrow, and Chase over Higgins. Chase's total is 200 yards higher than his teammate's, and he has completely changed the Bengals offense for the better.
Bryan: I have no problems with that list whatsoever, though I would say sorry to Stefon Diggs, who wasn't even mentioned until this sentence.
NFC: Davante Adams, GB; Justin Jefferson, MIN; Cooper Kupp, LAR; Deebo Samuel, SF
AFC: Ja'Marr Chase, CIN; Tyreek Hill, KC, Hunter Renfrow, LV; Mike Williams, LAC
Bryan: The NFL lets you vote for six fullbacks. The NFL lists only eight fullbacks on their ballot.
Andrew: Can the average fan even name those eight fullbacks? There are only eight of them, after all. Kyle Juszczyk, 49ers, check. Patrick Ricard, Ravens. Andy Janovich had a crazy highlight for the Broncos a few years back, but is Twitter-famous this week for muffing an onside kick for the Browns. C.J. Ham gets attention and the occasional Y-banana whenever anybody dares pay attention to the Vikings, and Jakob Johnson plays for the throwback I-formation Patriots. Then there's Michael Burton on the Chiefs, Jason Cabinda on the Panthers, and Keith Smith on the Falcons.
Bryan: For most teams, the fullback position is vestigial, and that goes for most fans, as well.
There are only three fullbacks who have had over 300 snaps this season, which I think has to be the bare minimum to go to the freaking Pro Bowl. That makes Ricard your AFC fullback by default, and leaves Ham and Juszczyk to fight over the NFC slot. Ham is the better traditional "I'm running forward, halfback, get behind me!" player, while Juszczyk is the one actually involved as a threat with the ball in his hands (he's not having his best blocking season, by which I mean he's only the third-best blocker on any given 49ers running play).
Andrew: Juszczyk is pretty much my favorite NFL player, so I'm fully in the tank for him. I'll accept Ricard as a default selection, even if I'd lean Jakob Johnson without the snap counts.
Bryan: I see what you're saying with Johnson, but with him playing less than half of Ricard's snaps, I think we'd have to do more than just lean in his direction; it'd have to be pretty clear and obvious he was the better player.
As for the Juice, I'm fully in the bag for him as well and he'll be our pick, but I at least wanted to acknowledge Ham's very solid season; it's not often we get an actual debate of any kind at fullback. Long live 1977.
NFC: Kyle Juszczyk, SF
AFC: Patrick Ricard, BAL
Andrew: George Kittle is Earth's TE1 whenever we enter the Galaxy Bowl, and indisputable here.
Bryan: Kittle is the second-best blocker on any given 49ers running play, in what you'll notice is a theme I'm developing here. And he also now has back-to-back 150-yard receiving days, so yeah. We're good there. Picking the other NFC tight end is tougher, though, with Dallas Goedert, Rob Gronkowski, and Dalton Schultz all worth mentioning. DYAR and DVOA both give it to Goedert.
Andrew: Really, no mention of what rookie Kyle Pitts is doing in the post-apocalyptic wasteland that is the Falcons offense?
Bryan: Pitts has less than 50 yards receiving in three of his last four games and hasn't topped 65 since Week 7. He's one of the best rookie tight ends in years and we'll wax poetic about him on the all-rookie team, but no.
Andrew: ... yet he's still the third-leading receiver at the position, and the NFC leader, so dominant was he in September and October. He at least deserves an honorable mention, and I legitimately think a shout.
Bryan: It's not September and October, though, it's two games—119 yards against the Jets and 163 against the Dolphins make up more than a third of his yardage total this year. He doesn't crack the top 10 in DYAR or DVOA, and he doesn't really block. I think he's probably better than DVOA says because, as you point out, the Falcons offense is a disaster zone, but I don't think he's at Goedert or Gronk levels yet.
Andrew: In related news, this is a spot where the AFC has the clear advantage, and also the easiest one-two selection, in Mark Andrews and Travis Kelce. If we're going by advanced statistics, then I'm happy to give the second NFC spot to Goedert. Gronk isn't quite the force of nature he once was, and there's a Brady-Hurts difficulty modifier applied to Goedert. I'm sorry, Kyle. We'll see you in a couple of weeks.
NFC: Dallas Goedert, PHI; George Kittle, SF
AFC: Mark Andrews, BAL; Travis Kelce, KC
Bryan: Trent Williams is the first-best blocker on any given 49ers running play, and so my bit can rest.
Andrew: We get three tackles per conference, and three guards per conference, which then drags us down into the old left tackle/right tackle debate. Do we just pick three left tackles, in Williams, Andrew Whitworth, and Tyron Smith, or do we drag in a right tackle for balance?
Bryan: I'd honestly be fine with the big three lefties, but there are some decent right tackle options in the NFC if you wanted to bump Whitworth. There's Rob Havenstein on the other side of his own line, as well as Ryan Ramczyk in New Orleans and Tristan Wirfs in Tampa Bay. I think, of the three, I'd favor Wirfs, but any and all of them have an argument.
Andrew: I'm as big a Ramczyk stan as any, but Wirfs was the guy I was thinking of when I asked the question. Let's put him in so we can at least line up semi-correctly.
The AFC selection is more tricky, by which I mean wha...
Bryan: If we're looking for an obligatory right tackle, I think that comes down to David Quessenberry or Braden Smith in an AFC South battle.
Andrew: You could pretty much pick the Colts offensive line and I'd be fine with it, because there are so many down years or players getting hurt elsewhere. That said, I'd nominate a finally-healthy Isaiah Wynn, Jedrick Wills, and Garrett Bolles into the discussion. I'm reliably informed that Orlando Brown leads the position in fan voting, which I'm less persuaded about.
Bryan: A month ago, I would have said Michael Onwenu deserved a slot, but he has been essentially benched and put into a rotation, so that's rough. Rashawn Slater is having a heck of a rookie season in Los Angeles and deserves some attention. If you go by SIS' blown blocks, your AFC leaders (and you have to scroll WELL down past all the NFC guys) are, uh, Matt Feiler, Tytus Howard, and Smith again, which is no, no, and hey, he's back. Let's lock in Smith as our right tackle, at the least? Points earned goes to Slater, Robert Hunt, and Chukwuma Okorafor. There are a lot of names there, and none that really just jumps out at you. The NFC is much, much deeper here.
Andrew: Smith has missed half the season, which would give me pause, but he has still been very good when he has been on the field. On the left, I guess I'd nominate Wills and Bolles as our two guys for their performance in the run game.
Bryan: The numbers really don't like either of them—both have 16 blown pass blocks, per SIS charting, and both are in the bottom 25 in blown block percentage. And with Wills, specifically, I feel like it's more the guards leading the Browns rushing attack than the tackles, hence why they signed them to new deals worth roughly $Ohio.
At least with Bolles, it's only the pass game where he's blowing blocks (just one in the running game!), so I think he's alright in a clearly off year at the position. But I think I'd prefer the young Slater over Wills this year, especially since we passed up the two NFC Los Angeles tackles.
Andrew: I'm fine with that. This is a position that's tough to evaluate unless you know exactly what you're looking for, and I'm about as far as it gets from an expert here.
NFC: Tyron Smith, DAL; Trent Williams, SF; Tristan Wirfs, TB
AFC: Garrett Bolles, DEN; Rashawn Slater, LAC; Braden Smith, IND
Bryan: Well, we praised the Cowboys offensive line in the running back section, so Zack Martin should be in. And I just got finished saying it's the guards that are powering the Browns' rushing attack, so Joel Bitonio, at the least, should be in. That takes care of two slots. And honestly, I'd have no problems with sticking Wyatt Teller in there as well for Cleveland, as both are great and it makes up for passing over Wills earlier.
Andrew: I'm comfortable with that. Any suggestions for who fills out the AFC roster? Normally, the automatic pick here would be Quenton Nelson, but it sure seems like it has been a down year for him in part due to the three games he has missed.
Bryan: Joe Thuney would be a good shout; he's second in SIS' points earned statistic, ahead of both Bitonio and Teller. Shaq Mason's another solid option, as he has been a real force in New England's top-10 rushing attack.
Andrew: It is interesting that we haven't mentioned a Patriots player so far...
Bryan: I'll have you know I mentioned both Mac Jones and Michael Onwenu, both quickly followed by the word "no."
Andrew: ... OK, that we haven't really touted a Patriots player so far, considering they have a top-10 offense both running and passing. I was inclined to suggest David Andrews when we got to centers, but Mason is probably a better suggestion, so let's go with that.
In the NFC, I am quite strongly of the opinion that we should nominate Ali Marpet from the second-best rushing attack in the league. The Bucs are No. 1 in adjusted line yards up the middle and in power rank, and are stuffed at the third-lowest rate. (I'll also nominate Ryan Jensen in the next section, spoiler alert.)
Bryan: No argument from me there; after Martin, Marpet's the best interior run-blocker in the conference, and he ain't shabby as a pass-protector either. And as a third guard, I might go with Ereck Flowers. Washington is ranked fifth in power success and stuffed rank, so their comparatively poor ALY and rush DVOA is more on the backs than the linemen, I believe. Besides, I like the cognitive dissonance of suggesting Ereck Flowers as a Pro Bowler, and that kind of makes him stand out over much of a muchness for me.
Andrew: "Nominating players just because it sounds wrong" is a very Scramble approach to the Pro Bowl, I must admit.
Bryan: It's inspirational! You, too, may suck at your current job, but you might be well-suited for a different, slightly less important job.
I'd be fine with an Austin Corbett or maybe even a Chris Lindstrom for some Atlanta love after you passed on Patterson and I passed on Pitts.
Andrew: If you think we're nominating a Falcons lineman for this season...
Bryan: Lindstrom can run block! He can't do anything else, but he has one skill!
Andrew: You go pick Flowers, and you can deal with the consequences.
NFC: Ereck Flowers, WAS; Ali Marpet, TB; Zack Martin, DAL
AFC: Joel Bitonio, CLE; Shaq Mason, NE; Wyatt Teller, CLE
Andrew: While we're in the NFC, let me just get my nominations out of the way. Ryan Jensen is one of the best free-agent signings not named Tom Brady that the Buccaneers have made in the past decade. He's my top pick. My other is Jason Kelce, because the Eagles offense is somehow functional and he's at the core of what I believe to be the primary reason.
Bryan: Fine by me, especially with Chase Roullier not eligible due to his season-ending injury. Brian Allen deserves a shout, and so shout I will, but I'm more than fine with Kelce and Jensen.
The AFC is deeper than the NFC, but I want to make my case for the second rookie on the AFC line in Creed Humphrey. Kansas City has rekafoobled their entire offensive line on the fly this season, and the success of both Humphrey and Trey Smith have been a significant reason why it hasn't been a massive disaster. Humphrey is fourth in blown-block rate, and second in the AFC—as a rookie! Being told "please do not let our $0.5 billion quarterback die" is tough; doing it at conference-leading levels as a rookie is phenomenal.
Andrew: I'm not sure Humphrey will get the actual nod, because the AFC has some fine centers, but I'm not opposed to the pick. My top choice for the conference would be J.C. Tretter, giving us a full Browns interior line. When everybody's on, there may not be a better rushing team in football. No, not even the Ravens. Tretter has been an outstanding signing for Cleveland, where even the idea of them having three Pro Bowl linemen would have been comedy gold just two seasons ago.
Bryan: I would not object to Tretter, but if we wanted more variety on the interior line, Corey Linsley is another option who deserves to be mentioned. If we had three centers like the other offensive positions, I'd stick all three of them in there, but we do have to choose. And if you want the Brownout rather than the Bolt, I won't fight it too much.
Andrew: I think I'd go Tretter and Linsley and leave Humphrey as the honorable mention, but I won't object if you disagree.
Bryan: Detente it is.
NFC: Jason Kelce, PHI; Ryan Jensen, TB
AFC: Creed Humphrey, KC; J.C. Tretter, CLE
Bryan: It's time to play everybody's favorite game show: FIND! THAT! PRO BOWLER!
Yes, the NFL, in their ongoing wisdom, continues to separate front seven players into defensive ends, defensive tackles, inside linebackers, and outside linebackers, paying little to no heed to the roles players actually play on the field. Every year, we have to pick between 4-3 pass-rushers and 3-4 interior linemen; 3-4 sack mavens and pass-coverage specialists. And they have really outdone themselves this year, as we'll get to in a couple more entries. But if you have always loved comparing apples to oranges—or even better, apples to nuclear submarines—then the NFL Pro Bowl Ballot is the thing for you!
Andrew: It is delightfully ironic that, in a game where teams are forbidden from blitzing, you could justifiably pick pass-rushers from every single spot in the front seven, and that's even before you get to tweeners who might be listed as safeties on the ballot. We have seven pass-rushers on the field, but we're only allowed to rush four! How exciting!
Anyway, at least at defensive end, the edge rush element is pretty darn significant. Myles Garrett is not just a surefire Pro Bowl selection, but a candidate for Defensive Player of the Year. Nick Bosa has 14 sacks. Trey Hendrickson has defied expectation that his numbers from New Orleans last year would regress in Cincinnati. All three are, in my view, must-picks.
Bryan: I'd agree with all three, and then I'd finish the AFC by adding in Maxx Crosby. His sack numbers aren't as high, but he's second in the league in pressures, squeezed right between Garrett and Henderson, and he leads the league in hurries and knockdowns. You can dock him some points for not finishing, but he's playing in a division with Mahomes and Herbert and company; it's hard!
Andrew: The NFC picture is complicated because, somehow, Brian Burns is a defensive end but Robert Quinn, Haason Reddick, and Shaquill Barrett are outside linebackers. So we're quickly moving away from edge rushers toward interior defensive ends or run-stuffers. That really, really dilutes the options for this spot.
Bryan: Also, we should note that Danielle Hunter, Chase Young, and Montez Sweat all cannot be picked, which really does dampen the NFC defensive end position even more.
If you really want pass-rushers, the highest pressure numbers for eligible ends after Bosa are, uh, Randy Gregory, who has missed big chunks of the year, and Cameron Jordan.
Andrew: I think I'd go Brian Burns, simply because I'm a huge fan of his, and Cameron Jordan as a lifetime achievement selection. There are no good options here after Bosa. It's way past time to change the way these are categorized.
Bryan: Brian Burns, Pro Bowl defensive end? Thanks, I hate it. Not Burns, mind you, just the positional designation. When I listed those pressure numbers earlier, I missed Burns, because he's listed as a linebacker, because he is a linebacker, because he plays linebacker. Burns versus Gregory is an interesting discussion, as I think Gregory would be far and away the pick … if he had played the full season, which he hasn't. So I'll hold my nose and go with him, though I'm not happy about this position. When you're trying to parse between Dexter Lawrence and Josh Sweat and A'Shawn Robinson, it's time to go elsewhere.
NFC: Nick Bosa, SF; Brian Burns, CAR; Cameron Jordan, NO
AFC: Maxx Crosby, LV; Myles Garrett, CLE; Trey Hendrickson, CIN
Bryan: Aaron Donald, of course, lives on the team. And Jonathan Allen at least rents out some room. They're two of the three NFC options I think, without any doubt. Chris Jones became good again when the Chiefs remembered that he was a defensive tackle and not an edge rusher; he and Cameron Heyward seem like they are two must-haves in the AFC.
Andrew: Which leaves us in the familiar position of debating the last pick for each spot.
Bryan: This is where I'd love to give an impassioned defense of Christian Wilkins, but he's listed as a defensive end, so welp! No dice. A'Shawn Robinson, too for that matter, though Greg Gaines is probably the better choice if you wanted two Rams for some reason.
I'll talk up Arik Armstead and D.J. Jones to anyone who will listen to me, and Kenny Clark would finally get some Packers onto the team. Javon Hargrave is the best pass-rusher left, because that's what the team needs; more pass-rushers. And then you have an Al Woods or a Shy Tuttle as a run-stopping specialist. Really, a lot of ways you could go in the NFC.
Andrew: Defeats provide an argument for Leonard Williams, who ranks fifth among defensive linemen in that stat, and third in the NFC. However, they provide a better argument for Hargrave, who ranks third. The sacks and pass-rush ability are not the only points in his favor, and he'd probably be my pick. I would, however, listen happily to an argument for Clark or the 49ers.
Bryan: The argument for the 49ers is that the secondary has been pants, and San Francisco's eighth-ranked DVOA is resting on that of the front seven, as is their third-ranked run defense. Armstead and Jones are major parts of that. And the Packers seem strangely underrepresented for the NFC's top team; it isn't ALL Aaron Rodgers-to-Davante Adams, just mostly that. We'll stick with Hargrave, however.
Andrew: In the AFC, it's tough to overlook Jeffery Simmons. He's tied with Hargrave and ahead of Jones for sacks, ranks fourth among defensive linemen in defeats, and is largely responsible for the Titans defense significantly outperforming its preseason projections.
Bryan: Simmons would be at the top, or near it, at least, on the NFC side of the ball, but I think the AFC is deeper in general here. You still have Calais Campbell and D.J. Reader competing with him, not to mention the Quinton Jefferson-Quinnen Williams quotient. But if you want Simmons, I can get behind Simmons.
Andrew: It sure seems like the statistical argument is all his, so I'd need a case for putting one of those guys ahead of him.
Bryan: You could argue that other players do individual things better than Simmons. I'd rather have Reader or Campbell stopping the run, and considering our other two interior linemen are pass-rushers, that's not nothing. But Simmons is very, very good at what he does, and he's not, like, flawed anywhere; it's not like teams have decided to run right at him or something. He's our third AFC player.
NFC: Jonathan Allen, WAS; Aaron Donald, LAR; Javon Hargrave, PHI
AFC: Cameron Heyward, PIT; Chris Jones, KC; Jeffery Simmons, TEN
Bryan: Micah Parsons is listed as an inside linebacker. Micah "12.5 sacks" Parsons is listed as an inside linebacker. You might not notice that at first, because the NFL arranges their inside linebackers by tackles and not sacks, so he's down on the third line. That's because inside linebackers don't rack up a lot of sacks, because they don't pass rush much. And Micah Parsons is listed as an inside linebacker.
Parsons is the only "inside linebacker" who has more than 150 pass rushes this season, per various charting numbers; he has over 250. And there are only four other inside linebackers up over 100. Admittedly, Parsons has spent more time in coverage this year than most edge rushers, but, counterpoint, he's not good at coverage, and the Cowboys have realized this, and mostly use him as a pass-rusher, because he's a pass-rusher.
Andrew: Parsons is the most extreme example of a recent influx of defensive players with malleable positional designations. It can take those guys a while to settle into a position in the NFL, and that's how you end up with safety Jeremy Chinn being listed as an outside linebacker—you know, the same position that edge rusher Robert Quinn plays. Teams submit their players' positions for the Pro Bowl, and at the time Parsons was an inside linebacker. He really isn't used that way now.
Bryan: Anyway, whatever position you call him—he's an edge rusher being played out of position about half the time, if'n you ask me—he's a Pro Bowler. And I will say he does a better job at inside linebacker then, say, Nick Bosa would do. But trying to compare him to Bobby Wagner or Eric Kendricks or something is just wrong on a deep level.
That also means we only have one other NFC inside linebacker spot for Wagner or De'Vondre Campbell, as we probably should get some more Packers on the team at some point, considering they're, y'know, first in the NFC at the moment. Not to mention the Lavonte Davids or Fred Warners of the world; no slot for you guys; we have to make room for Micah Parsons.
… I may have been ranting about this for several weeks at this point.
Andrew: I don't think Campbell's the choice here, which for me comes down to the obvious candidates of White, Wagner, Roquan Smith, and Demario Davis. Davis hasn't been the absolute force he was last season, but he's still on 20 defeats, with a 10/10 split between run and pass. Fred Warner is the best off-ball linebacker in the league, but he has been hurt this season.
Bryan: Oddly, SIS' points saved metric points Azeez Al-Shaair as the second-best linebacker in the league this season, and the best actual inside linebacker because, again, Micah Parsons. I like what Al-Shaair has done, and if we had more than one slot, maybe I could construct an argument, but no.
Andrew: Al-Shaair is tied with Davis in defeats, too, so maybe it's not as ludicrous as you suppose.
Bryan: I don't think Al-Shaair is crazy, mind you; I really like what he has done. But I would find it hard to put him over some of the big names with big track records, even after adjusting for the Homerism Gene.
I am surprised De'Vondre Campbell is so low in defeats, considering how high he shows up in other metrics—in points saved, he's third behind Parsons and Al-Shaair. Maybe that's just a factor of his pure raw tackle numbers; he cleans up a lot of things for the Packers without necessarily being asked to make plays behind the line.
Andrew: Cleaning up may be the reason, yeah, as he's behind everybody else around him in stop rate but above them in the percentage of team plays he's involved in finishing.
Bryan: Packers fans believe he's the best thing since sliced bread, though that may be because they have needed an inside linebacker since roughly before sliced bread was invented.
Andrew: Ah yes, who can forget the prototypical Micah Parsons inside linebacker that was Clay Matthews being deployed there instead of on the edge? If you feel strongly about Campbell, that's your call, but I'm more inclined toward Roquan Smith here: third at the position in defeats, among the tackle leaders, adds a few sacks,
Bryan: Oh no, if the other option is Smith, I'm going to put my foot down here. If you can have Brian Burns, I can have De'Vondre Campbell, and we'll call it a day.
And then we need to find a second linebacker next to Darious Leonard on the AFC. Maybe it can be Bobby Wagner in a false mustache?
Andrew: I'm partial to Denzel Perryman here, but that's in part because of how he ended up in Las Vegas. Signed for the Panthers as a free agent, then traded away before opening weekend so they could start somebody else. Perryman's one of the IDP leaders at his position, and fares well on the defeats table too. He's not the top choice, though. I think the top choice for me is probably Tremaine Edmunds on a Bills defense that remains top dog in the DVOA tables despite their offense's relative struggles. Matt Milano may have the better case of their inside linebackers though ... except Milano isn't even on this section of the ballot because he apparently plays a position more similar to Von Miller and T.J. Watt than Perryman and Edmunds.
Bryan: Both Perryman and Edmunds have been active liabilities in pass coverage however; both are under a 45% stop rate in the passing game, with Perryman down all the way at 36%. One reason they get a lot of tackles is because they allow a lot of completions. I'm OK with taking a great run-stopper who's so-so in coverage, but not with one who opposing offenses actively target.
That being said, there aren't a lot of great options here. Kyzir White, maybe? Ja'Whaun Bentley?
Andrew: That was going to be my question, right. Who do we pick instead? This is the AFC version of the NFC defensive end discussion. We'd almost be best just picking Bobby Okereke and making it a Colts tandem. The Broncos lost their top guys to injury. Logan Wilson is eligible but hurt. The Patriots players are situationally sound rather than truly elite defenders.
Bryan: White is tied with Edmunds at second-most defeats for an AFC linebacker, has a pair of interceptions, and a higher stop rate in the pass game. I think he's my pick, push come to shove.
Andrew: At least it's not somebody crazy like Damien Wilson. Let's do it. Kyzir White, collect your prize.
NFC: De'Vondre Campbell, GB; Micah Parsons, DAL
AFC: Darious Leonard, IND; Kyzir White, LAC
Andrew: What is an outside linebacker, conceptually? Because to answer this, we need to answer that, and it turns out there are many possible answers to that. About the most precise we can get is something between a 5-technique defensive end and a strong safety.
Bryan: It is the most hybrid position on the ballot. At least 3-4 defensive ends get involved in the muck on the line. A 4-3 outside linebacker is more like to drop into coverage more often than not, while a 3-4 outside linebacker might get two coverage snaps a season, and that's if we're pretending that 4-3 and 3-4 defenses really still describe roles in any meaningful way.
At least picking the AFC trio is easy this time. T.J. Watt is a DPOY candidate, Joey Bosa is a wrecking ball, and most people really like Matt Judon, though I think I'm lower on him than your average random fan. But hey, he's easy to see on film with those red sleeves!
Andrew: Judon is having a truly excellent season on one of the league's best defenses. He'd be a major snub unless you have a very strong case for somebody else.
Bryan: I do not! To be clear, I think of Judon as more very good than DPOY, but that's still more than enough to grab a slot.
Andrew: Oh, he's nowhere near the DPOY conversation, but easily a Pro Bowl pick.
Bryan: You haven't heard the conversations I have been hearing then!
Andrew: Boy, am I glad about that. In the NFC, we simply can't ignore Robert Quinn's numbers. At the very least, he represents the edge rush contingent, but with Chandler Jones, Shaq Barrett, Haason Reddick, and Markus Golden in contention, we'll probably have at least one more edge rusher before this is through.
Bryan: Von Miller is an interesting case, as his argument mostly comes from his games with the Broncos, but now he's eligible with the Rams. Cross-conference pollution!
Andrew: He shouldn't be in the conversation either way. Him making the Pro Bowl ahead of some of those other, more productive edge rushers would be a lifetime achievement award.
Bryan: Harsh, but fair. So Quinn is one. Shaquil Barrett feels like another, as Tampa Bay's defense needs more acknowledgement. And then I might go pick between Preston Smith and Rashan Gary for a Packers contingent.
Andrew: Browsing the defeats table once more, I am saddened that we're ignoring the NFC defeats leader at outside linebacker in Haason Reddick. I wonder if that might be a better pick than Barrett. Gary versus Smith is a debate for Packers message boards, not one I wish to have.
Bryan: Alright, then, name your three.
Andrew: Quinn, Reddick, ugh, probably Barrett. Fun with edge rushers yet again.
Bryan: I will never get your obsession with the Panthers' defense, but a pick is a pick.
Andrew: ... we have picked two Panthers defenders, and one of those was at a position with basically zero other options.
Bryan: And I have disagreed strongly with both!
Andrew: Haters gonna hate.
NFC: Shaquil Barrett, TB; Haason Reddick, CAR; Robert Quinn, CHI
AFC: Joey Bosa, LAC; Matt Judon, NE; T.J. Watt, PIT
Bryan: Again, we're picking four cornerbacks per conference, despite the ballot's instance on only letting us pick six. Fight the powers that be.
Andrew: There are a couple of obvious choices here too, by my reckoning. J.C. Jackson is having another incredible season in New England and is the AFC's top choice. Trevon Diggs leads the NFL in interceptions and was a DPOY pick early in the season. That has cooled off some, but it's not like the first half of the year didn't happen.
Bryan: If it wasn't already five o'clock my time, I'd argue against Diggs. He's going to make the team, because big interception number is big, but he's late-career Adam Dunn—everything is either a highlight reel play or a blown coverage, with very little in between. He's fourth in the Cowboys secondary in SIS's total points saved and well down on charting numbers, but he did get a lot of balls thrown at him early, so he'll be going to … where the hell is the Pro Bowl this year? … Las Vegas.
Andrew: You can argue against it until you're blue in the face, but as you note, he'll be there. He'll be joined, in the NFC, by Jalen Ramsey of the Rams, I would hope. My third pick for that spot would be Darius Slay, though I'll listen to other offers.
Bryan: Not from me, you won't! Slay was one of the three guys I had as must-haves, along with Ramsey and, surprisingly to me, A.J. Terrell.
Andrew: Terrell is a good shout, but he's third of those three and he isn't supplanting Diggs on the ballot.
Bryan: It's a good thing we get four, then!
Andrew: Oh, yeah! This is the other category where you can't even vote for the right number of people! It's a good job we have all those fullback spots free to make up for it!
Joining Jackson in the AFC, I'll open by nominating L'Jarius Sneed, then continue by staring at my screen in bewilderment for a few minutes. Did I really just nominate Sneed?
Bryan: You did, and I would really like to understand why!
All joking aside, he's not a terrible pick, though he's not someone I had on my shortlist. I was looking more at players such as Kenny Moore, Patrick Surtain, and … well, it would be Marlon Humphrey, but he's actually not eligible to be picked because of his injury.
Andrew: He leads the position in defeats, and actually charts quite well per SIS too. He's CB 13 in their Total Points Saved metric, and of course Humphrey is one of the players ahead of him.
Bryan: Chidobe Awuzie is another candidate.
Andrew: I'm loving the career resurrection of Awuzie in Cincinnati, after he was something of a punching bag in Dallas. The Bengals are doing a very solid job this season of getting good performances out of veteran free agents.
Bryan: I also made a point to try to find some candidates for every team, and if this was like MLB All-Star Game where you needed a representative from every roster on the squad, maybe you squeeze in Tavierre Thomas from the Texans here. We, fortunately, do not need to do that, but I feel like I'm contractually mandated to say at least one nice thing about the Houston Texans this article.
Andrew: I feel like this year's Pro Bowl can do just fine without representation from the Texans, Jaguars, Jets, and Lions. James Robinson is the exception that proves the rule.
Bryan: So, let's go with Sneed, and with Awuzie and … do you have an opinion between the likes of Kenny Moore, Kristian Fulton, or A Raiders Cornerback Of Some Description?
Andrew: Kenny Moore would be my vote, because I feel that he has been severely underrated for several years now and this would be worthy recognition of his performances.
NFC: Trevon Diggs, DAL; Jalen Ramsey, LAR; Darius Slay, PHI; A.J. Terrell, ATL
AFC: Chidobe Awuzie, CIN; J.C. Jackson, NE; Kenny Moore, IND; L'Jarius Sneed, KC
Bryan: Odd situation at safeties. The NFL always puts three safeties on each team, and splits them between strong safety and free safety. But whether the extra player is a free safety or a strong safety varies from year to year, so we have some freedom to play around with here: one of each, and a third bonus player of our discretion. So even though it's two different categories on the ballot, we'll group 'em here to talk about them.
Andrew: Again, there are probably some obvious choices. Kevin Byard tops the charting stats, tops the interception leaderboard, and is probably the best safety in the AFC at the very least. Derwin James is once again Mr. Do-Everything in Los Angeles and might actually make it through a season healthy for once.
Bryan: That's one strong safety and one free safety, so our third AFC pick is a free choice. Maybe Adrian Phillips?
Andrew: Phillips would have been my nomination, so consider it done. He's also charting well, putting up a lot of defeats, and drawing effusive praise from a head coach who is not famed for effusive praise. He has been a great signing for the Patriots. The only competition I'd offer there is Micah Hyde, but I prefer Phillips this season.
Bryan: The NFC is a little harder. The leader in SIS' points saved metric is Jamal Adams, which, no. No, not that.
Andrew: Wait, they didn't list Adams under, like, defensive end or something? Yeah, no, not that. Even though he's also the NFC leader in defeats. This is an instance where that says more about his role than his ability relative to his peers.
Bryan: You don't get defeats playing safety, typically—you have to stop someone short of a line of success. Almost by definition, safeties play deeper than that—they're, uh, the safety mechanism to stop 5-yard gains from becoming 50 yard gains. Adams is very weird, playing a very weird role.
Andrew: If you disagreed with the selection of Trevon Diggs, what about Jayron Kearse? He's the top safety on the league's No. 1 pass defense, healthy numbers in the charting and play-by-play stats tables, looks a very solid choice.
Bryan: Kearse is a much better selection in my mind, and thank you for nominating him so I don't get Cowboys fans thinking I hate their secondary. I don't! I don't even really hate Diggs; I just hate a lot of the hype he has gotten from highlight-reel plays. Kearse doesn't make as many highlight reel plays. He just shuts things down.
Andrew: So he's our strong safety. At free safety, we could have Quandre Diggs, who is a much better choice than Jamal Adams from the Seahawks, or Xavien McKinney. I wonder whether McKinney is the guy here who'll benefit from those highlight-reel plays, cos he has picked up a few interceptions this year. Alternatively, this is where you can feed your Packers addiction, because I do love Adrian Amos.
Bryan: See, I had none of those guys you mentioned. My "top player on top team" nod here wasn't a Packer, but was Antoine Winfield in Tampa Bay, who is in the argument for top cover safety in the league. Another person in that argument is Marcus Williams for the Saints, though it's easy to forget that with the Saints continuing to plummet. And I saw what the 49ers secondary looked like with Jimmie Ward (bad) and without Jimmie Ward (catastrophic), so I feel he deserves a mention, if not necessarily a pick.
Andrew: Winfield is another great option. Marcus Williams is not, because he has developed a really bad habit of twisting himself in knots in deep coverage. I like him, but this is not his year. It could be Winfield's.
Bryan: Let's go with Winfield then, and then maybe another strong safety? Harrison Smith is playing at Standard Harrison Smith levels, and I have enjoyed Kamren Curl for two years now.
Andrew: This is one of those spots where there's an abundance of options, and they should really allow two safeties of each type instead of one each and a tweener.
Bryan: Out of curiosity, how does the defeats list go after Adams?
Andrew: Ahem. Well I was trying not to mention it, but since you asked ... next is versatile Panthers defender Jeremy Chinn.
Bryan: … OK, we'll just put that list in a box and tape that box closed and put that box in a closet and then light that closet on fire. Good. Done.
Andrew: I would hear an argument for Logan Ryan, as the Giants defense is slightly better than advertised. I would also hear an argument for a Cowboys tandem with Kearse and Damontae Kazee, who is better than ever now that he has been freed from the black hole of defensive competence that is the Falcons. Really though, if you ask me to pick one of your nominations, then I do like the Kamren Curl suggestion. He has had a very good season that may well be overlooked because the Football Team defense has disappointed.
NFC: Kamren Curl, WAS; Jayron Kearse, DAL; Antoine Winfield, TB
AFC: Kevin Byard, TEN; Derwin James, LAC; Adrian Phillips, NE
Bryan: Lightning round time, I think! Justin Tucker is the AFC nominee, because he's freaking Justin Tucker and also set the record for longest field goal in NFL history, so we're good there. In the NFC, Matt Gay and the Rams lead our numbers, though it's worth at least thinking about Jake Elliott, who is not a million miles behind him.
Andrew: Gay leads the NFC per SIS too, so we're good with him here.
NFC: Matt Gay, LAR
AFC: Justin Tucker, BAL
Andrew: Do ... do people actually track long snappers?
Bryan: Some people do, yes! It is mostly other long snappers and people who train long snappers. And also Bill Belichick, who went on a five-minute tangent about them a while back.
Andrew: Can we use this as, like, an inclusion box or something? Who's a good team that we haven't mentioned yet?
Bryan: I will note that, at least as of a few weeks ago, the leading vote-getters were Joe Cardona and Camaron Cheeseman, who happen to be two of the people on the top line of the ballot, as it's sorted alphabetically. In fact, they're in the dead center of the top of the line, so they may be the easiest to tap on a mobile device.
Andrew: I think you and I just opened the exact same DraftKings article. It is a little suspect when both of the top vote-getters begin with the same letter, and that letter happens to be directly below the link you click to open this page of the ballot.
Bryan: Plus, if you know nothing else about them, how can you not vote for a guy named "Cheeseman."
Andrew: Joe Cardona does seem like a safe bet, as the Patriots guy. The Rams guy, Matt Orzech, is further down the ballot, but likewise seems like a safe bet.
Bryan: I am not going to pretend I know a dang thing about this. I know J.J. Jansen's name gets popped up several times in various "best long snapper" rankings, and he's the highest paid long snapper in the NFC, and it's another Panthers player to feed your ever-growing hunger.
Andrew: You are unbelievable. The one time I don't nominate the Panthers guy...
NFC: J.J. Jansen, CAR
AFC: Joe Cardona, NE
Bryan: By our numbers, the 49ers have the best punting unit in the NFC, and Mitch Wishnowsky is not a bad choice. I think that's being slightly overrated thanks to some muffed Bengals punts, however, so if you'd prefer someone else, I could be convinced.
Andrew: I know what I said earlier about no Lions players, but if there's one I would nominate, it's Jack Fox. He gets plenty of practice, and benefits from that. He might be their best offensive player.
Bryan: There's also Michael Dickson, who gets even more practice than Fox does—70 punts to Fox's 55, and Seattle's punt unit ranks higher in our stats than Detroit's.
Andrew: Dickson is a very fun punter, too. Yeah, why not? Michael Dickson.
Bryan: This could be where we get a Texans on the team, however, with Cameron Johnston's unit ranked tops in the AFC, just ahead of Tommy Townsend and the Chiefs.
Andrew: Nominating the Chiefs punter seems like a practical joke. Let's go with Johnston, because that's at least one little bit of joy for a Texans player this season.
Bryan: There is a bit of a volume discrepancy, with Johnston at 71 punts and Townsend at, uh, 31. So yeah, total value rather than per-punt value here.
NFC: Michael Dickson, SEA
AFC: Cameron Johnston, HOU
Bryan: Now, here's why you could almost, but not quite, have a Lions player—Kalif Raymond is one of five punt returners in the league with at least 10 yards per return. Doesn't top what Kene Nwangwu has done in terms of highlight-reel plays, mind you.
Andrew: I know it's weird to nominate somebody who switched teams midseason, but Jakeem Grant just became the only player so far this season to return a punt for a touchdown—the third time in four seasons he has done so. He has 16.3 yards per return for Chicago, though granted that's with two games against the Packers to pad his stats.
Bryant: Grant is the only player above +10.0 on punt returns. Nwangwu is the only player above +10.0 on kickoff returns, so it's a high-level competition. Nwangwu is at +15.1 to Grant's +10.4, and he has two touchdowns to Grant's one, so I think he gets the nod there.
In the AFC, Devin Duvernay has the highest punt return value (+8.0) and Braxton Berrios has the highest kickoff return value (+7.2), so pick your poison.
Andrew: It's my considered opinion that punt return value is tougher to generate than kickoff return value, and Jets opponents kick off a lot. Duvernay gets the edge for me, and takes it to the house.
NFC: Kene Nwangwu, MIN
AFC: Devin Duvernay, BAL
Bryan: The leader in special teams stops is Ashton Dulin of Indianapolis with eight. The NFC's leader, Seattle's Cody Barton, is not on the ballot. So it falls to a mess where I'd go with J.T. Gray of the Saints or Shaun Bradley of the Eagles, both with six stops.
Andrew: At 11:45 on a Tuesday night, we're past the point at which we make nuanced choices. Homerism all the way, welcome to the team Mr. Gray.
NFC: J.T. Gray, NO
AFC: Ashton Dulin, IND
Andrew: So there you have it: the perfect Pro Bowl roster, spelled out in epic fashion by your ever-insightful Scramblers. We're sure nobody will dare to disagree. Just don't forget to vote!
Keep Choppin' Wood
We're all familiar with the running joke that is the Los Angeles Chargers special teams, right? So much so, that we just naturally assume they'll rank No. 32 in DVOA, and move on with our lives? What if we told you that there exists a squad with worse special teams, that is not only in playoff contention, but that leads their division and is in play for a first-round bye?
Step forward the actual No. 32-ranked Packers special teams. In just the first half of their Sunday night matchup against the Bears, the Packers:
- allowed the first punt return touchdown conceded by any team this season;
- allowed another 34-yard punt return;
- allowed two kickoff returns of 40 yards or longer;
- kicked off out of bounds (presumably because if you're going to give up 40-yard returns anyway, may as well remove the danger of them being longer);
- and muffed a kickoff return at their own 5-yard line.
In the second half, they went on to shank a punt 22 yards, allow an onside kick recovery, and almost muff a punt as well, except the muff was fortuitously negated by a penalty on the Bears' punt coverage. Twenty of Chicago's 30 points came either directly (punt return touchdown) or indirectly following Packers special teams mistakes. As that list of miscues suggests, it's not just one area either: the Packers rank No. 32 on field goals/extra points, kickoff returns, and punt returns. These issues predate Maurice Drayton and Drayton's predecessor Shawn Mennenga, tracing back at least to former All-KCW coordinator Shawn Slocum, so this is clearly a unit that, like in San Diego/Los Angeles, defies coordination.
Still, it's not like special teams issues have ever bitten the Packers in the playoffs before, so they surely won't have an impact this time either.
John Fox Award for Conservatism
The worst thing about the Bears penalty negating a Packers punt muff is that the punt was a ridiculous decision in the first place. At the start of the fourth quarter, trailing 38-27, the Bears faced fourth-and-inches from their own 36-yard line. The Packers had scored on four of their previous five drives at this point, meaning the Bears could not afford to concede possession easily. Yet Matt Nagy elected to punt, and the Packers drove for a touchdown anyway to salt the game away. Our understanding since Thanksgiving has been that Nagy is coaching for his job. It'd be nice if he'd start coaching like he wants to keep it.
Herm Edwards Award for Playing to Win the Game
Two teams faced similar situations in this weekend's action, and two initially made the right decision. Trailing by 15 points, both the Carolina Panthers and the Baltimore Ravens scored a touchdown to leave them down nine, needing a touchdown, an extra point, and a two-point conversion if they were to tie the game. Smartly, both teams lined up to go for the two-point conversion early, knowing that if they failed, they could adjust the rest of their strategy accordingly. Alas for Matt Rhule, the Panthers committed a false start and ended up making the (correct) decision to kick the extra point instead. John Harbaugh had no such issue, and explained the reasoning very clearly after the game.
The #Ravens attempted another two-point conversion this week against the Browns.
Here's why they did it
— The Sporting News (@sportingnews) December 13, 2021
Despite Phil Simms and crew's utter refusal to comprehend it, the reasoning is very simple: the more information you have, the earlier you have it, the better you can tailor your strategy to try to win the game. In the end, the Ravens had a chance to win the game despite failing with the two-point conversion, precisely because their next touchdown drive was quicker than it might otherwise have been. This isn't even an analytics point, it's just basic sense. Or as Harbaugh put it, "really, a non-decision."
Jeff Fisher Award for Confusing Coaching
Andrew suggested we pick Matt Rhule and his continued insistence that the Panthers will rotate Cam Newton and P.J. Walker at quarterback. While confusing (because it's not working), your other humble Scrambler was excited about the possibility of the 49ers pulling the quarterback shuffle earlier in the season, so that would be a tad hypocritical to harp on. Plus, Rhule isn't the only coach of a 1990s-era franchise to have had a tough week. We hate to pile on Urban Meyer … wait, check that, no we don't.
#Jaguars HC Urban Meyer was asked about Andre Cisco playing more (again). He said "Cisco is playing a little bit more, I believe, I don't have his numbers in front of me"
Cisco played 0 defensive snaps yesterday.
— Demetrius Harvey (@Demetrius82) December 13, 2021
Mike Vrabel was on Urban Meyer's coaching staff at Ohio State pic.twitter.com/E5v0xfiQWd
— Trevor Sikkema (@TampaBayTre) December 12, 2021
A reporter tells #Jaguars HC Urban Meyer that his offensive line is not playing up to how much they're getting paid.
— Ari Meirov (@MySportsUpdate) December 12, 2021
"If there is a source, that source is unemployed," Jaguars coach Urban Meyer said of any person within the organization who may be leaking information. https://t.co/5h6R7E1Cyi
— USA TODAY (@USATODAY) December 13, 2021
Doing good there, Urbs.
"No Cigar" Fantasy Player of the Week
Typically, we try to shy away from injury replacements here, as of course no one started Tyler Huntley. But Huntley's performance, coming off of essentially no preparation, was really quite something, nearly leading the Ravens to a massive comeback—270 passing yards and a touchdown, plus an additional 45 yards on the ground. Anytime you can do something like this, you have to be squeezed into Scramble somewhere.
Someone give Tyler Huntley some oxygen, made everyone misspic.twitter.com/1pMXT7MEFy
— Dov Kleiman (@NFL_DovKleiman) December 12, 2021
Garbage Time Performer of the Week
Garbage time started for Las Vegas about eight seconds after the opening kickoff, as the Chiefs just blew them out of the water. That meant a lot of passing, and that meant a ton of Hunter Renfrow, who was targeted 14 times and caught 13 of them for 117 and a score. More than two-thirds of that came with Las Vegas hopelessly behind, but it never looked like Renfrow was giving half-effort out there.
— ✯✯✯✯✯ (@FTB_Vids_YT) December 12, 2021
Comfort in Sadness Stat of the Week
Three teams were officially eliminated from playoff contention this week: the Jacksonville Jaguars, the New York Jets, and the Detroit Lions. Really, nary a sadder trio could you find in any professional sport right now.
The comfort for Lions fans is how hard the team continues to play for their head coach: the Lions are 8-5 against the spread, the joint fifth-best record in the league, and are playing well above expectations despite their quirky 1-11-1 record.
Comfort for the Jets is the fact that rookies lead their team in every major offensive category: passing yards and touchdowns (Zach Wilson), rushing yards and touchdowns (Michael Carter), and receiving yards and touchdowns (Elijah Moore). This season has had its moments, notably victories over the Titans and Bengals, and there is some reason for optimism next time out.
It's more challenging to find comfort for Jaguars fans, especially with news this week that Shahid Khan sounds unlikely to fire Meyer after just one season in Duval. The Jaguars do few things well, but they do at least generate pressure: Josh Allen and Dawuane Smoot each have double-digit quarterback hits (per Pro Football Reference) to go with their handful of sacks apiece.
Game-Changing Play of the Week
Scramble for the Ball is proud to present a countdown ranking all of the 700th touchdown passes in NFL history from worst to best. No. 1:
TOM BRADY TO BRESHAD PERRIMAN FOR THE WALK-OFF WIN
TD pass No. for Brady!
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) December 13, 2021
End of list.
The Bills' furious comeback ended up falling just short, and while we can argue about the officiating all we want, at least it ended on a great play, yeah? No? I'm sensing a lack of consolation coming from the Buffalo region.
In the short run, the result doesn't change much—the Bills are in the seventh seed rather than the sixth; the Buccaneers lose a tiebreaker to the Packers rather than beating the Cowboys. But it pushes the Bills down into the 7-6 muck with the Colts, Browns, Bengals, and Broncos, and while the Bills have good tiebreakers, they don't have unbeatable ones. At the very least, this loss could be what sticks them behind the Colts (who have a much better conference record) when the postseason comes around, and heaven help them if they slip up against the Falcons, Panthers or, worst of all, Jets.
Bryan: There was just one upset during the day slate on Sunday, and, of course, I picked it for both the Lock and the Survival league. I am an idiot of the highest caliber.
Records to Date:
Andrew: I freely admit that there's an element of hedging in this week's pick, as at least if my Double Survival pick doesn't come through, I'll get a boost in Lock of the Week. That said, I genuinely think the Texans are more likely than the Jaguars to win this week's matchup. Houston has the stronger roster at every spot except quarterback, and even that is somewhat debatable given what the Jaguars are doing to Trevor Lawrence. The Texans defense is by far the strongest unit on the field in this game, at least by DVOA. The Texans beat the Jaguars earlier in the year, and that was before the Urban Meyer experiment started returning the sort of results that would get it outlawed in a majority of states. Most important of all, if I know I'll get a result from this game one way or the other, that reduces even further the temptation to watch it. Houston (+3) at Jacksonville.
Bryan: I'm going to take Denver (-1.5) at home against Cincinnati as the 7-6 pileup in the AFC begins to sort itself out. DVOA still hates the Bengals in relation to the rest of the world, and while I'm not quite as low on them as our numbers, I still have very little trust in them as a whole. This is going to come down to whether or not Joe Burrow can pass against Denver despite Denver having the better pass defense DVOA, or if the Broncos can run against Cincinnati despite the Bengals having the better rush defense DVOA. I think the Broncos have been a bit more consistent this year, and 1.5 points is not enough for me to go past "I think the Broncos will win this game," so I'll grab 'em.
Double Survival League
Records to Date:
Andrew: JAX, LAC, MIA, NO, NYJ, SEA
Bryan: ATL, BUF, CHI, NYJ, PHI, SF
Andrew: This is now getting interesting, because we only have one common pick still available, and that's a Jets squad that is unlikely to win most games anyway. It's finally time for us to actually diverge!
My first pick is, as is relatively habitual, against the aforementioned Jets squad, as they travel to face a Miami Dolphins team that has dragged itself back into the wild-card picture with five straight wins after being 1-7 at midseason(ish). Miami may still pull off their traditional upset shenanigans against the Patriots in Week 18, but we can't pick that game, and this game looks closer to a sure thing anyway. If they're going to secure that wild card, they'd better keep the run going with a win here.
My second pick is one I absolutely hate, but I need to pick the Jacksonville Jaguars some time and at home against Davis Mills is the time to do it. The Texans benefited from some hero ball by, of all people, Tyrod Taylor to beat the Jags in September, but Taylor won't be starting this time and their offense is the worst in the league by a defense-adjusted country mile. Yep, I have spent two of this week's picks on the game featuring the two most dysfunctional franchises in the current NFL. What could possibly go wrong?
Bryan: Carolina's loss to the Falcons may have ended the competitive portion of their season, but more importantly, it puts me in a major bind here. I have six teams left, and only 10 games left on the schedule I'd even consider picking, and that's being generous and saying "49ers at Titans" is even in the realm of possibility as a solid choice. I have a lot of forced picks here, is what I'm saying.
There are only three games this week that I really feel I can pick. The 49ers over the Falcons and Bills over the Panthers both seem like very, very safe picks, and would allow me to get some revenge on the NFC South game that really flattened my chances in Week 14. I could just pick both, but that leaves me in a hole. See, in Week 17, I'm not picking the Falcons over the Bills, or the Jets over the Buccaneers. That really limits my options for the final week, especially if I take both San Francisco and Buffalo this week.
That would force me into Philadelphia, on the road, against Washington in Week 17. Interestingly enough, that's also my other option for this week—Philadelphia, at home, against Washington. Home-field advantage may not be what it used to be, but I'd rather take the Philadelphia Eagles at home than on the road, all else being equal—and with Taylor Heinicke getting an MRI on his knee this week, things might not be equal. So, we'll add that to the San Francisco 49ers over the Falcons as I look to get some revenge.