Now that the NFL has announced its Pro Bowl teams, we know who’s going – or, at least, has been chosen to go – to Las Vegas in February for the annual event. What we don’t know, however, is who should be going … but won’t.
No problem. That’s why I’m here.
I looked at the list revealed Wednesday night and compiled a cast of the 10 biggest snubs. My choices are based on a grading system that started 45 years ago when my father began Pro Scout Inc. (PSI), a third-party service that has worked with 33 Super Bowl winners and directly with 18 Hall of Fame coaches, GMs and owners, and they’re here for your perusal.
So who were the 10 most-overlooked players this year? Patience. Before we go the board, a quick word about how we evaluate players at PSI: Our system is based on a color scheme, and it’s simple. Colors are attached to players, and they read like this:
Blue: The best or the top 10-12 percent at each position. Blues make Blue plays and are difference-makers in close games.
Red: Starter production. Some Reds are Blues on the run or pass. Blues/Reds are players who win for you.
Purple: Players you can win with. Purples may have Red traits. They can match up with low Reds but cannot match up with Blues.
Orange: Backup production. They don’t match up vs. Reds and will be dominated by Blues.
Green: Players who get hurt. They may have skills but too often are injured.
Yellow: Skills lacking to match up or players who are too injury-prone.
Got it? Great. Now let’s go to my top 10 Pro Bowl slights:
In: Christian McCaffrey, RB, 49ers (Blue)
Out: Tony Pollard, RB, Cowboys (Red)
You could make a case for the Vikings’ Dalvin Cook or the Packers’ Aaron Jones here, too. But every facet that you want in a running back, McCaffrey can do at a blue level. Whether it’s running inside, running wide, pass routes out of the backfield, knowing whom to pick up on a blitz, or even running routes out wide or in the slot — he can do it all. The 49ers are in the playoffs and can go far with a third-string quarterback because of the versatility and the matchups that McCaffrey creates. Now, throw in TE George Kittle and wide receivers Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk, and a defensive coordinator finds that he doesn’t have enough people to feel comfortable about going man to man against those four.
In: Cesar Ruiz, G, Saints (Blue)
Out: Chris Lindstrom, G, Falcons (Red)
I like guards with the combination of good feet and strength, and that’s what this young man has. Look at the guards from the AFC team – Joel Bitonio, Joe Thuney and Quenton Nelson. Bitonio and Thuney have the good feet, and Nelson has the great strength. Ruiz has a combination of Blue change of direction and strength, and he should become an excellent guard. To me, he’s the one bright spot up front for New Orleans.
In: Jeff Okudah, CB, Lions (Blue)
Out: Jaire Alexander, CB, Packers (Blue)
My problem with Alexander goes back to the opening week of the season when Minnesota blew out the Packers, 23-7: Green Bay never matched him up on Justin Jefferson. Instead, he covered K.J. Osborn in the slot. The Packers used him more as a matchup corner after that, but I never got over that first game. Okudah is the Lions’ most consistent corner, and he’s finally playing healthy. If you remember, Detroit’s defense was so bad the first half of the year the coordinator was fired. But Okudah has stayed on the field, has a great attitude and is playing like a shutdown cornerback. In fact, he’s been playing matchup corner and playing it well. Look at their first game of the season against Philadelphia where it was basically a pick-your-poison scenario between A.J. Brown and DeVonta Smith. Okudah locked down Smith, who had no catches on four targets. He’s played to his draft status, and he’s stayed healthy.
In: Cam Bynum, S, Vikings (Blue)
Out: Quandre Diggs, S, Seahawks (Blue)
Bynum’s a converted college corner who made a lot of big plays when needed. In fact, he has saved Minnesota big-time on the back end. So why did I take him over Diggs? Simple. He has more range and because of the big plays he made on the ball.
In: Jordyn Brooks, LB, Seahawks (Blue)
Out: Demario Davis, LB, Saints (Red)
When the Seahawks released linebacker Bobby Wagner earlier this year, it was to make room for Brooks. He hasn’t disappointed. Demario Davis has had a very good career, but if I were choosing I would opt for Brooks. He’s more sound and has made more big plays. Some people don’t know who he is, but they should. We’re talking about a guy who packs a punch when he operates within a phone booth; then has the speed and range to cover all over the field. With so many of these linebackers, they’re not flashy. But they’re the guys who turn 8-yard runs into two or one yard runs. They have the size, speed and change of direction to cover in space and run things down wide.
In: Kolton Miller, OT, Raiders (Blue)
Out: Orlando Brown, OT, Chiefs (Purple)
Orlando Brown is one of the most overrated players in the NFL. The reason: He struggles vs. blue edge rushers, and that doesn’t equate to a Pro Bowl tackle. The Chiefs have a stellar interior line, but pressure comes from speed on the outside. And that’s where Brown is lacking. If the Chiefs aren’t controlling the game and have to throw, that’s where the pressure comes from – and Mahomes knows it. At 6-foot-8, Miller is big, but he’s technically smart and sound, with good angles on both the run and the pass. He does the No. 1 job an offensive lineman is supposed to do: Keeps his man away from the ball in both run and pass situations.
In: Jaelan Phillips, Edge, Dolphins (Blue)
Out: T.J. Watt, Edge, Steelers (Blue)
T.J. Watt is a game changer … when he plays. But he missed seven games, or half the season, with a significant rib injury. That’s why I swapped him out for Phillips. Phillips has size and speed, and you can just see him getting better as the season progresses. When he makes big plays, you see the energy – and he makes a lot of big plays on the run and pass. The first half of the year, you probably weren’t thinking about Jaelen Phillips. But that’s changed. The second half of the year, offensive coordinators know two things: Where Jaelen Phllips is and that we’ve got to — no, need to — block him.
In: Matt Milano, LB, Bills (Blue)
Out: Roquan Smith, LB, Ravens (Blue)
This was a tough decision because Roquan Smith is also a blue linebacker. But the reason I’d replace him is because of where he lined up the first half of the season for Chicago. The Bears took a natural middle linebacker and moved him to ‘Will.’ Then they traded him. So the first half of the season I didn’t think he played at a Pro Bowl level — or at least, as high of a level as we’re used to — because he was out of position. Milano has always been a good player, and this season I think he’s played a step faster than his opponents. He’s all over the field. In fact, the Jets’ game of two weeks ago may be one of the best linebacker games of the season, against both run and pass.
In: L’Jarius Sneed, CB, Chiefs (Blue)
Out: Xavien Howard, CB, Dolphins (Red)
Howard is a smart player, but his play has descended the second half of the year. That’s the reason I swapped him out for Sneed here. He’s versatile, and nobody ever gives these versatile guys love. Sneed plays the left corner, but in nickel moves inside and covers the slot. And you know what? He can match up at either spot. To me, that’s a rare trait to be able to say you can match up outside or inside. If I’m forming a team I can’t take the three best outside corners. I need someone who can go inside when a Jefferson or a Diggs or any of these Blue guys go moves to the slot. They do that to create mismatches, and Sneed is the best slot corner in the league.
In: Jessie Bates, S, Bengals (Blue)
Out: Minkah Fitzpatrick, S, Steelers (Blue)
Stop if you heard this before: Fitzpatrick is an outstanding player … when he’s healthy. But that’s the problem. He missed two games this season. Bates has not. When the Bengals are the subject, everyone wants to talk about Joe Burrow or Ja’Marr Chase. But the Cincinnati defense is solid, and you can go with either Bates or linebacker Logan Wilson as Pro Bowl choices. Bates is a guy who has the range of a centerfielder. When you look at how Super Bowl teams are made, the great ones are really good down the middle. Baltimore is one example when the Ravens had Haloti Ngata, Ray Lewis and Ed Reed. If you’re solid in the middle of the field in the NFL and force people to gain yards outside the numbers, that’s not easy for an offense to do. Remember what Belichick wanted to do with Peyton early in his career? He said, “We’re not going to let him throw the ball down the middle of the field.” That’s why I like Bates. He’s doing his job, and he’s playing at a high level.