NEWS FLASH: Many of the Best NFL Players Are Pro Bowl Snubs

The initial Pro Bowl selections were announced last night in one of just many weird things about the “new and improved” Pro Bowl. The selection process now consists of votes from fans, players, and coaches, and without any conference affiliation considerations. The NFL announced the selections at 9 PM on a Friday night, for some reason. Later two appointed captains will pick two teams from the selections, schoolyard style, but live on NFL Network, with like, celebrities and stuff, maybe. Eventually they will play what presumably we technically have to call a football game, in that there will be players on the field, and also a football, and in those ways the event will resemble a football game.

The selections triggered the usual outrage in media about players who were “snubbed”. Like this. Or this. Or this. You get the idea. It is a little weird. If you want the best players, why let so many people, especially fans, vote? And if you want the fan favorites, then why get upset when the best players do not get in? A common counterpoint is that various Pro Bowl bonuses and incentives are in many contracts across the league, and the money at stake makes a difference to players under such contracts (either by getting more money, or not). That is short-sighted.

If teams want to incentivize performance, they can use other metrics: tackles, touchdowns, passes defensed, whether the team makes the playoffs, etc. In fact, teams already do this! But as pointed out many times in my mid-season Search for the Best (& Worst!) Contract in Football, players may provide off-field benefits: ticket and jersey sales, television viewers, radio listeners, and other boons of popularity. However one does it, making the Pro Bowl (and bringing more publicity to one’s team by doing so) is most likely worth a bonus. It makes sense theoretically, and, even better, teams keep rewarding it! The annual fuss over this is getting old.

One thing is clear: some of the very best players in the league miss out. As many, hell, most people wrongly regard Pro Bowlers as the best players in the league, it hurts (me, at least) to see lesser known, elite players fail to receive the recognition they deserve. But maybe that is not a problem with the Pro Bowl, but with the way some perceive it. Making the Pro Bowl is an honor, but doing so does not necessarily honor your play, but perhaps instead your personality, your popularity. Either way, missing out is “a snub”, apparently.

Most irksome is when announcers and other “experts” (or really just anybody) invoke Pro Bowls as proof of a player’s on-field excellence. That this is bound to happen about 47 trillion times throughout tomorrow’s games compels this special feature, on a Saturday (!), against the grain of the normal Crossroads schedule. The rest of this post will be setting the record straight (or at least, straighter).

Do dominating players really miss out? You bet they do. Following are the Pro Bowl selections, along with performance-based snubs, grouped by position. The experts at Pro Football Focus measure on-field performance, as they grade every player on every snap of every game. For consideration a player must have played 25% or more of his team’s snaps.

Without further adieu… (PFF position rank, and grade, in parentheses; Pro Bowlers in alphabetical order by last name; snubs ordered by PFF grade)

Offense

QB (6)

  • Tom Brady, NE (7th, 17.7)
  • Drew Brees, NO (3rd, 21)
  • Peyton Manning, DEN (1st, 39.5)
  • Cam Newton, CAR (15th, 8.4)
  • Philip Rivers, SD (2nd, 23.3)
  • Russell Wilson, SEA (3rd, 21)
QB Snubs (2)
  • Matthew Stafford, DET (5th, 18.4)
  • Aaron Rodgers, GB (6th, 18.)

Rodgers missed seven games. Rodgers still has the sixth-highest grade. If you think a player should have to be healthy/play more to earn a spot, but still want on-field performance to be the primary goal, just replace Newton with Stafford.

WR (8)

  • Antonio Brown, PIT (3rd, 21.2)
  • Dez Bryant, DAL (23rd, 10.5)
  • Josh Gordon, CLE (14th, 13.9)
  • A.J. Green, CIN (18th, 12.4)
  • Andre Johnson, HOU (5th, 20)
  • Calvin Johnson, DET (2nd, 22.5)
  • Brandon Marshall, CHI (1st, 36.2)
  • Demaryius Thomas, DEN (8th, 18.4)
WR Snubs (3)
  • Alshon Jeffery, CHI (4th, 20.1)
  • DeSean Jackson, PHI (6th, 19.3)
  • Jordy Nelson, GB (7th, 18.6)

All bow to the big names of Bryant and Green! Nelson is seemingly punished for Rodgers’ absence, Jeffery seemingly for being in just his second season, and Jackson because… he is an #$#hole?

RB (6)

  • Jamaal Charles, KC (2nd, 22.4)
  • Matt Forte, CHI (22nd, 6.2)
  • Frank Gore, SF (12th, 12.5)
  • Marshawn Lynch, SEA (6th, 16.1)
  • LeSean McCoy, PHI (1st, 29.)
  • Adrian Peterson, MIN (11th, 13.3)
RB Snubs (3)
  • Eddie Lacy, GB (3rd, 17.9)
  • Giovani Bernard, CIN (4th, 16.9)
  • DeMarco Murray, DAL (5th, 16.3)

This time it is the veterans Forte, Gore, and Peterson, at the expense of rookies Lacy and Bernard, and the still underrated Murray.

FB (2)

  • Marcel Reece, OAK (7th, 5.8)
  • Mike Tolbert, CAR (2nd, 11.1)
FB Snub (1)
  • Anthony Sherman, KC (1st, 16.1)

Reece and Tolbert run and catch passes more than other fullbacks. Sherman is by far the best blocker. All these things determine their final grade, but blocking seems unsurprisingly un-sexy and un-cared-about.

TE (4)

  • Jordan Cameron, CLE (47th, -5.6)
  • Vernon Davis, SF (11th, 6.3)
  • Jimmy Graham, NO (1st, 13.5)
  • Julius Thomas, DEN (22nd, 1.3)
TE Snubs (3)
  • Rob Gronkowski, NE (2nd, 12.4)
  • Ben Hartsock, CAR (3rd, 11.5)
  • Jordan Reed, WAS (4th, 10.3)

Jordan Cameron, everybody, with the first truly bad season to make this year’s Pro Bowl! Thomas presumably benefits from Manning’s 6,000 touchdowns, and with another solid season Davis’ reputation gets him in, over a Gronkowski who earned the second highest grade in only six-and-a-half games, a tremendous blocker in Hartsock, and the rookie Reed aboard that train wreck that is Washington’s football season.

C (3)

  • Ryan Kalil, CAR (8th, 10.8)
  • Alex Mack, CLE (1st, 16.6)
  • Max Unger, SEA (20th, -1.8)
C Snubs (2)
  • Manuel Ramirez, DEN (2nd, 15)
  • Travis Frederick, DAL (3rd, 14.9)

Max Unger joins the ranks of players with bad seasons to make the cut. The former backup Ramirez and the rookie Frederick fail to do so despite their excellent play.

G (6)

  • Jahri Evans, NO (15th, 9.8)
  • Ben Grubbs, NO (8th, 15.7)
  • Mike Iupati, SF (33rd, 0.7)
  • Logan Mankins, NE (21st, 8.5)
  • Louis Vasquez, DEN (2nd, 28.9)
  • Marshal Yanda, BAL (20th, 9.2)
G Snubs (5)
  • Evan Mathis, PHI (1st, 42.9)
  • Josh Sitton, GB (2nd, 28.9)
  • Larry Warford, DET (4th, 20.9)
  • Matt Slauson, CHI (5th, 17.9)
  • Travelle Wharton, CAR / Andy Levitre, TEN (16.7)

Iupati has been injured and was not playing too well before that, although he sure did last season! Mankins and Yanda also get in on their reputation. The true disgrace here is Evan Mathis, nine-year veteran, long-time dominant blocker, whose grade is 14 units above the second best guard in the league, missing out. Even among linemen, popularity, or something, reigns over actual performance.

T (6)

  • Branden Albert, KC (28th, 10)
  • Jason Peters, PHI (5th, 26.2)
  • Tyron Smith, DAL (8th, 23.3)
  • Joe Staley, SF (4th, 28.1)
  • Joe Thomas, CLE (1st, 34.9)
  • Trent Williams, WAS (2nd, 33.1)
T Snubs (2)
  • Jordan Gross, CAR (3rd, 32.6)
  • Jake Long, STL (6th, 25.8)

Curious that, by and large, the new voting system actually selected the best tackles.

Defense

Some notes before getting into the defensive side: defensive positions are much harder to classify, as defenders can pretty much line up wherever and however they want, and often exercise that right to confuse offenses. Also the position responsibilities for edge players in the front seven of a 3-4 defense are different from those of a 4-3 defense. For example, 3-4 outside linebackers generally rush the passer, while in a 4-3 usually defensive ends do. To account for these differences, PFF classifies 3-4 and 4-3 outside defenders separately. The NFL Pro Bowl appears to embrace these problems by making them much bigger. The Pro Bowl selections lump all defensive ends together (disregarding different scheme responsibilities), all outside linebackers together, and also improperly classified some players. Oh, and even though free safety and strong safety responsibilities are quite similar, such that PFF does not bother distinguishing between them, they are listed separately for the Pro Bowl.

For defensive ends and outside linebackers, per the NFL they are all together, respectively, with a note of which scheme the player’s team uses (in parentheses.)

The selections list Mario Williams as a defensive end, though he mostly plays 3-4 outside linebacker; Kyle Williams as a nose/defensive tackle though he mostly plays 3-4 defensive end; Justin Smith as a nose/defensive tackle, though he mostly plays 3-4 defensive end; and Vontaze Burfict as an inside linebacker, though he mostly plays 4-3 outside linebacker. These players are included among their official Pro Bowl position peers before determining their position ranking.1 As PFF does not classify strong versus free safeties, both positions’ players are ranked among all other safeties.

Okay, defense!

DE (6)

  • Greg Hardy, CAR (9th, 20.8, 4-3)
  • Cameron Jordan, NO (4th, 33, 3-4)
  • Robert Quinn, STL (2nd, 71.1, 4-3)
  • Cameron Wake, MIA (7th, 24.5, 4-3)
  • J.J. Watt, HOU (1st, 103, 3-4) (!!!!!!!!!)
  • Mario Williams, BUF (29th, 10.2, 3-4 outside linebacker)
DE Snubs (3)
  • Calais Campbell, ARI (3rd, 37.7) 3-4
  • Sheldon Richardson, NYJ (5th, 30.5) 3-4
  • Michael Johnson, CIN (6th, 25.1) 4-3

J.J. Watt is so freakin’ good. Mario Williams is so famous (apparently). Calais Campbell is so unappreciated. Oh and Sheldon Richardson is a rookie.

NT/DT (6)

  • Gerald McCoy, TB (1st, 56.2)
  • Haloti Ngata, BAL (16th, 13.7)
  • Dontari Poe, KC (9th, 23.5)
  • Justin Smith, SF (19th, 12.5, 3-4 DE)
  • Ndamukong Suh, DET (2nd, 42.5)
  • Kyle Williams, BUF (3rd, 36.1, 3-4 DE)
NT/DT Snubs (4)
  • Jurrell Casey, TEN (3rd, 36.1)
  • Damon Harrison, NYJ (4th, 32.6)
  • Randy Starks, MIA (5th, 30.3)
  • Brandon Mebane, SEA (6th, 29.8)

The star factor potentially helps Ngata and Smith, aided by appearances in last year’s Super Bowl possibly?

OLB (6)

  • John Abraham, ARI (17th, 6.3) 3-4
  • Ahmad Brooks, SF (57th, -4.4) 3-4
  • Tamba Hali, KC (8th, 22.7) 3-4
  • Justin Houston, KC (2nd, 31.8) 3-4
  • Robert Mathis, IND (5th, 25.7) 3-4
  • Terrell Suggs, BAL (13th, 12.8) 3-4
OLB Snubs (4)
  • Von Miller, DEN (1st, 40.3) 4-3
  • Elvis Dumervil, BAL (3rd, 31.8) 3-4
  • Lavonte David, TB (4th, 27.7) 4-3
  • Brian Orakpo, WAS (6th, 24.9) 3-4

49ers players are officially the “He plays on a good team/offensive line/defense/whatever, so he should go to the Pro Bowl!” guys of the year.2  In eight games, after returning from his suspension and before tearing his ACL, Von Miller recorded the best grade by far. Lavonte David has been getting the most press of these snubs, perhaps justifiably as the top 4-3 outside linebacker after Miller. If the Pro Bowl is not going to classify 3-4 and 4-3 guys differently, it looks like the 4-3 guys do not have much of a chance. Seldom rushing the passer, they are much less valuable and much less fetching than their 3-4 counterparts.

ILB (4)

  • NaVorro Bowman, SF (1st, 15.8)
  • Vontaze Burfict, CIN (6th, 13.3, 4-3 OLB)
  • Luke Kuechly, CAR (8th, 8.3)
  • Patrick Willis, SF (3rd, 14.6)
ILB Snubs (2)
  • Derrick Johnson, KC (2nd, 15.4)
  • Stephen Tulloch, DET (4th, 14.1)

Okay, THIS is where the 49ers earn it. Damn, but Bowman and Willis are the best. Now we get a 4-3 outside linebacker, classified wrongly… oh well, good for Burfict. Kuechly’s rewarded for his reputation after he earned Defensive Rookie of the Year last season, as Johnson and Tulloch (and five other guys) have actually been better this season.3

CB (8)

  • Brandon Flowers, KC (85th, -5.9)
  • Brent Grimes, MIA (4th, 14.9)
  • Joe Haden, CLE (16th, 8.4)
  • Patrick Peterson, ARI (12th, 9.8)
  • Darrelle Revis, TB (1st, 18.2)
  • Richard Sherman, SEA (6th, 12.1)
  • Aqib Talib, NE (66th, -2)
  • Alterraun Verner, TEN (11th, 9.9)
CB Snubs (5)
  • Tyrann Mathieu, ARI (2nd, 15.5)
  • Vontae Davis, IND (3rd, 15.4)
  • Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, DEN (5th, 12.4)
  • Captain Munnerlyn, CAR (7th, 11.3)
  • Tramaine Brock, SF (8th, 11.1)

Flowers and Talib, 85th and 66th respectively among all cornerbacks, both make the cut with impressive negative grades. Anyone want to bet how many times announcers mention their Pro Bowl inclusion tomorrow in a context affirming their, uh, “quality” play this season? Poor Honey Badger.

FS (3)

  • Jairus Byrd, BUF (9th, 8.7)
  • Earl Thomas, SEA (12th, 6.6)
  • Eric Weddle, SD (8th, 9.2)

SS (3)

  • Eric Berry, KC (3rd, 14.5)
  • Kam Chancellor, SEA (11th, 6.7)
  • Troy Polamalu, PIT (6th, 10.5)
S Snubs (4)
  • Devin McCourty, NE (1st, 18.7)
  • T.J. Ward, CLE (2nd, 15.1)
  • Will Hill, NYG (4th, 14.4)
  • Donte Whitner, SF (5th, 12.9)

In defense of Byrd, he earned his ninth-best grade in only 10 games. Of course, Will Hill earned his fourth-best in just 11 games, playing even fewer snaps than Byrd. Also Whitner made the Pro Bowl last season as the 53rd ranked safety. Now that he has stepped up his play (contract year coincidence?), he is snubbed? Or maybe less popular for that considered name change? Gosh the Pro Bowl is silly.

Special Teams

P (2)

  • Brandon Fields, MIA (11th, 11.7)
  • Johnny Hekker, STL (2nd, 32.8)
P Snub (1)

Shane Lechler, HOU (1st, 39.2)

Not much to add here, except Shane Lechler is Really Good, and while most good players on bad teams fall out of the spotlight, you would think the punter would be an exception, right?

K (2)

  • Matt Prater, DEN (1st, 58.2)
  • Justin Tucker, BAL (5th, 32.5)
K Snub (1)
  • Stephen Gostkowski, NE / Graham Gano, CAR (2nd, 42.4)

How could Tucker possibly not be the very best kicker EVER, especially this season???? Well, there are these things called “kickoffs” and this other thing called “opponent field position”, and even these other things called “touchbacks”, and the difference in field position after touchbacks compared to field position after non-touchbacks is worth about one point fewer for a team’s opponent for every touchback, so they are kind of awesome that way. Check it out. (And a more recent bit!)

PR (2)

  • Antonio Brown, PIT (4th, 6.1)
  • Dexter McCluster, KC (2nd, 6.8)
PR Snub (1)
  • Golden Tate, SEA (1st, 12.1)

Kind of sad Cordarrelle Patterson does not get anything, because he only does kickoff returns and now the Pro Bowl has no kickoff returns, and no kickoffs.

ST (2)

  • Justin Bethel, ARI (1st, 18)
  • Matthew Slater, NE (54th, 2.5)
ST Snub (1)
  • Robert Golden, PIT (2nd, 10)

And this is where the confusion really deepens. It seems it is unlikely you would get a consensus on Bethel unless people recognized his dominance– hard to make a case for a lot of popularity among special teamers whom even ardent fans have not heard of. But then how does Slater get in there, with 52 others between him and the top? #confused

Across the board, not a single position slot was filled by the top players in that position. If you replaced the current Pro Bowl roster with the actual best players, allocating the same number of slots for all positions, only 45% of the current Pro Bowlers would remain. 55% would see their status stripped in favor of those whom were snubbed on this basis. 19% of this year’s selections have not even performed in the top 25% of the players in their respective positions. See the chart below for additional breakdowns:

Position Slots Snubs % Snubs Pro Bowlers Below 75th Percentile % Pro Bowlers Below 75th Percentile
All 85 47 55% 16 19%
Offense 41 21 51% 10 24%
QB 6 2 33% 1 17%
WR 8 3 38% 0 0%
RB 6 3 50% 1 17%
FB 2 1 50% 1 50%
TE 4 3 75% 2 50%
C 3 2 67% 1 33%
G 6 5 83% 3 50%
T 6 2 33% 1 17%
Defense 36 22 61% 5 14%
DE 6 3 50% 1 17%
NT/DT 6 4 67% 1 17%
OLB 6 4 67% 1 17%
ILB 4 2 50% 0 0%
CB 8 5 63% 2 25%
S 6 4 67% 0 0%
Special Teams 8 4 50% 1 13%
P 2 1 50% 1 50%
K 2 1 50% 0 0%
PR 2 1 50% 0 0%
ST 2 1 50% 0 0%

Making the Pro Bowl is simply not an indication of elite talent, pure and simple. Most, but not all elite players do make it. Many Pro Bowlers are merely above average, not the best. And some Pro Bowlers reach Honolulu despite downright poor performances on the field throughout the season. Again, this is not necessarily a problem in itself, so much as how people perceive it. Pro Bowl appearances are a measure of NFL success, defined more broadly than mere quality of play, including popularity among fans and individuals (players and coaches) of the NFL. This is the way the league wants it (at least for the moment), not an accident. Blaming the voters for the results of any election is inferior to blaming the system. And we all know the line, so come on. Hate the game, not the player.


  1. This is kind of stupid, because they are not exactly graded on the same things, or the same situations, but there are not any better solutions. The Pro Bowl is dumb, basically. 
  2. Brooks is actually the worst-graded outside linebacker on the 49ers. Aldon Smith has a 21.2, good for 9th (but also DUIs and missed games), Dan Skuta (Smith’s rehab replacement) has a 7.1 for 25th, and bit rookie pass rusher Corey Lemonier has a 1.8 for 39th, among the 76 outside linebackers (both 3-4 and 4-3) who have played 25% or more of their teams’ snaps. 
  3. In fact, when tweeting at PFF Analyst Pete Damilatis, he mentioned that he was already preparing for the outrage on their site for when Kuechly does not make their annual Top 101 Players List, which is a definite possibility this season. 
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