On Twitter (@stevenlourie), I tweeted “It’s the most infuriating day of the year. Time to read this year’s Pro-Bowl rosters.” And I’m not referring to the stupidity of a game that none of the players care about anyway (my solution: make it like All-American teams, announce the teams, but never play the game. It’s still an honor to be named). I frequently have beefs with Pro-Bowl rosters and this is because, in football, individual players cannot be judged properly by commonly available statistics.
What does a sack mean? It means you tackled the quarterbacks behind the line of scrimmage. However, if you’re unblocked or blocked by a back, a sack is because less indicative of pass rushing skill than if you get a sack while unblocked. Or if you get a sack when the quarterback has barely been in the pocket for 3 seconds, as opposed to one where the quarterback has been sitting back there scanning the field, trying to find an open receiver for 5.
Taking things like quarterback hits (hitting a quarterback while he throws or legally after he throws) and quarterback hurries (forcing the quarterback to throw quicker than he’d like with pressure) helps paint a more accurate picture, but even that doesn’t take everything into account. You really need to watch every snap with a keen eye (or have someone do so on your behalf) to truly understand pass rushers’ skill level.
How about tackles? This might be the most useless one. If you get a tackle after you surrender a 25 yard completion, you didn’t do a whole lot of good, but if you tackled a guy two yards from the line of scrimmage, you’re actually stopping someone. This is where the statistic “stops” comes into play, with a stop meaning you tackle someone within 4 yards of the line of scrimmage on 1st down, within 6 yards on 2nd down, and before the first down marker on 3rd or 4th down, but even this can’t properly measure things like taking on two blockers to free up someone else to make a play. Like with sacks, you need someone to watch every snap (more on this later).
What about interceptions? This is also, in a vacuum, a useless statistic. If you get a bunch of interceptions because you’re being thrown on frequently because you suck in coverage, you’re not doing a lot of good and likewise some of the best defensive backs in the league have 3 interceptions or fewer. At the same time, a defensive back can have a 3 interception season and then a 7 interception season and not actually play any better. Some interceptions have a higher level of difficulty than other. Taking things into account like pass deflections and quarterback stats against help paint a better picture, but once again this doesn’t tell the full story. Sometimes, there’s simply nothing you can do to prevent a completion.
Offensive stats are better. Passing, rushing, and receiving yards aren’t perfect, but they’re better than traditional defensive stats, but for offensive lineman, there are no stats easily available and even if you know how many sacks someone allows, that doesn’t paint the whole picture the same way sacks don’t paint the whole picture for a pass rusher.
It’s not fans’ faults. The common fan doesn’t care enough to do all the work themselves (I don’t either) nor do they care enough to subscribe to a service like Pro Football Focus to do the work for them, which I and actually several NFL teams themselves do. As a result, we get generally crappy Pro-Bowl rosters. These have improved in past years because there’s more of a belief in more advanced statistics and there’s more readily available. Pro Football Focus (who I swear by) releases every two weeks their Pro-Bowl picks for non-subscribers. However, there are still a lot of flaws. Here are my thoughts by position. I also made my Pro-Bowl picks a few weeks ago.
AFC Quarterbacks: Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Matt Schaub
Manning and Brady were obvious choices. You don’t need advanced statistics to tell you that. I had Roethlisberger over Schaub, but of course that was before Roethlisberger choked away the season in the last 2 weeks. I’m just glad it wasn’t turnover machine Andrew Luck, who has led his team to a farce of a 10-5 record against a crappy schedule against with just 1 convincing win by more than a touchdown.
NFC Quarterbacks: Aaron Rodgers, Matt Ryan, Robert Griffin
My exact picks. Again, traditional stats work fine for quarterbacks.
AFC Running Backs: Arian Foster, Jamaal Charles, Ray Rice
Here’s where traditional statistics let you down even with skill position players: fantasy football. Arian Foster is great in fantasy football with 1328 rushing yards and 14 rushing touchdowns, ranking 2nd in the AFC in rushing yards behind Jamaal Charles. However, in reality, he didn’t have that good of a year. He averaged just 4.0 yards per carry and only had so many yards because he got 335 carries, 21 more than anyone in the NFL and 57 more than anyone in the AFC.
He also ran behind a great offensive line and any back could total those kinds of numbers behind that line with that many carries. He averaged just 2.1 yards per carry after contact, a figure that only 7 eligible backs did worse than. The only thing commendable about his season was that he managed to have that many carries without getting hurt, but if he had, any back filling in for him probably would have given them comparable production.
Add in his surprisingly mediocre season as a pass catcher and the fact that only 5 backs graded out worse than him in pass protection and you have a guy who actually graded out below average on ProFootballFocus. He should have been replaced with someone like CJ Spiller, who averaged a league leading 6.5 yards per carry, a league leading 3.9 yards per carry after contact. Spiller had 143 fewer rushing yards than Foster despite having 152 fewer carries. Apparently all that separated Spiller from being a Pro-Bowl caliber back like Foster was 152 1-yard carries. Add in Spiller’s passing game advantage and he actually outgained Foster by 50 total yards this year, despite 149 fewer touches.
NFC Running Backs: Adrian Peterson, Marshawn Lynch, Frank Gore
I had Martin over Gore, but the difference is negligible.
AFC Fullback: Vonta Leach
Got this one right.
NFC Fullback: Jerome Felton
I had Bruce Miller over Felton, but again, negligible difference.
AFC Wide Receivers: AJ Green, Andre Johnson, Reggie Wayne, Wes Welker
I had Demaryius Thomas over Wes Welker, but again negligible.
NFC Wide Receivers: Calvin Johnson, Brandon Marshall, Julio Jones, Victor Cruz
Jones making it in over teammate Roddy White, who had better stats on the same team, is a little ridiculous and Victor Cruz makes it in on name value. Having a down year, he ranks just 14th in the NFL in receiving yards. Someone like Vincent Jackson (4th) would have been more appropriate.
AFC Tight Ends: Rob Gronkowski, Heath Miller
NFC Tight Ends: Tony Gonzalez, Jason Witten
Martellus Bennett had a better overall year than Tony Gonzalez, but no one was a better pass catcher than Gonzalez, so I can’t argue too much. It’s worth noting that only one tight end graded out as a worse run blocker, however.
AFC Offensive Tackles: Joe Thomas, Duane Brown, Ryan Clady
My exact picks.
NFC Offensive Tackles: Joe Staley, Russell Okung, Trent Williams
Russell Okung makes it in because he’s known for not surrendering a single sack all year, but his 12 penalties are 2nd worst in the NFL. I don’t hate the pick, however.
AFC Guards: Logan Mankins, Marshal Yanda, Wade Smith
Mankins makes it in on name value, but he was just ProFootballFocus’ 22nd ranked guard this season and the fact that he missed 6 games with injury had a lot to do with it. Smith ranks 29th. I don’t really know where that came from. Andy Levitre, Kevin Zeitler, and even Jet Brandon Moore deserve it much more.
NFC Guards: Mike Iupati, Jahri Evans, Chris Snee
Iupati and Evans are definitely deserving, but Snee is another name value guy as ProFootballFocus’ 19th ranked guard. Meanwhile, Evan Mathis, who has been the top player at the position in each of the past 2 years, surrendering just 1 total sack, has never gotten a Pro-Bowl nod.
AFC Centers: Maurkice Pouncey, Chris Myers
Myers deserves it, but they’ve got the wrong Pouncey brother. Dolphin Mike graded out 5th at his position (tops in the AFC), while Maurkice ranked 14th, not bad, but not quite deserving. But how can you judge centers without stats?
NFC Centers: Max Unger, Jeff Saturday
Saturday is probably the most famous center in the NFL today, maybe all time, but in one of the funnier Pro-Bowl related developments of the year, the now 37-year-old was benched last week by the Packers, a week before being named a Pro-Bowler. Out of 37 eligible, Saturday was ProFootballFocus’ 30th rated player. Unger, 4th, is a much better selection, but there were 3 NFC centers, John Sullivan, Will Montgomery, and Brian La Puente, ahead of him.
AFC Defensive Ends: JJ Watt, Cameron Wake, Elvis Dumervil
Watt and Wake were obvious selections. I went with Derrick Morgan over Elvis Dumervil. Morgan has 7 sacks to Dumervil’s 12, but Morgan has significantly more combined hits and hurries (62 and 47) on fewer pass rush snaps. As a result, Morgan graded out 3rd in pass rush efficiency, while Dumervil graded out 9th. Dumervil was also a significantly worse player against the run and committed 7 penalties, ranking 39th among 4-3 defensive ends overall, while Morgan ranked 4th.
NFC Defensive Ends: Jason Pierre-Paul, Julius Peppers, Jared Allen
Three big name ends, JPP deserves it, the other two, slightly less so. Peppers and Allen ranked 13th and 17th among 4-3 ends in pass rush efficiency and didn’t offer much in the run game either, grading out 18th and 23th respectively overall. Another big name 4-3 end, John Abraham, graded 5th both in pass rush efficiency and overall. Two Panthers, Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson, were equally deserving, as was 3-4 end Calais Campbell, who was the NFC’s top 3-4 end. Also deserving, Brandon Graham, a situational end turned starter for the Eagles when Jason Babin was cut, who leads the NFL in pass rush efficiency and ranks 2nd among 4-3 ends.
AFC Defensive Tackles: Geno Atkins, Vince Wilfork, Haloti Ngata
Atkins is an obvious choice. Wilfork makes it in on name value, but there are far less one dimensional players out there, as good as he is against the run. Muhammad Wilkerson, technically a 3-4 end, but on the ballot as a tackle, is ProFootballFocus’ 2nd rated defensive lineman against the run, only behind Watt and actually significantly ahead of Wilfork in that aspect. Ngata, another guy who is technically a 3-4 end, is deserving, but Kyle Williams graded out 3rd among 4-3 tackles, while Ngata graded out 10th among 3-4 ends.
NFC Defensive Tackles: Justin Smith, Henry Melton, Gerald McCoy
Three very deserving choices, though I would have gone with Ndamukong Suh (4th) over Melton (6th), but that’s splitting hairs. A perfect example of how traditional stats are misleading, Suh, perceived to be having a down year, is actually having his year as a pro. His sack numbers are down, but his hits and hurries aren’t and he’s finally become a good run stopper and an all-around player.
AFC Outside Linebackers: Von Miller, Tamba Hali, Robert Mathis
Miller is an obvious choice. Hali should be replaced by teammate Justin Houston. The two actually had very similar raw pass rush numbers (10 sacks, 7 hits, and 27 hurries for Houston, 10, 7, and 26 for Hali), but Houston graded significantly out better in coverage and against the run. Houston dropped into coverage 164 times this year to Hali’s 75 and did a very good job of it and as a result, he saw fewer pass rush snaps and still outproduced Hali in the raw numbers. The total result: Houston ranked 3rd among 3-4 outside linebackers, while Hali ranked 16th.
Mathis is another name value guy, making it in with just 8 sacks, 5 hits, and 15 hurries, while struggling against the run and in coverage. He ranked 21st at his position overall. Deserving candidates include Miami 4-3 outside linebacker Nick Barnett (3rd at his position) and Baltimore 3-4 outside linebacker Paul Kruger (6th at his).
NFC Outside Linebackers: Aldon Smith, DeMarcus Ware, Clay Matthews
Smith and Matthews were obvious choices, though Smith is overrated (I’ll get into this when I do offseason awards in a few weeks) and Matthews had to save himself with 2 strong performances after returning from injury, as he missed 5 games. Ware, meanwhile, was outplayed by teammate Anthony Spencer, who graded out tops of 3-4 outside linebackers this year. Ware (8th) didn’t have a bad year, but Spencer graded out as the top run stopping linebacker overall not named Von Miller, did better in coverage, had 3 fewer penalties (Ware’s 9 lead the position) and had comparable pass rush production (11 sacks, 2 hits, and 25 hurries for Spencer, 14/12/30 for Ware). Only Clay Matthews and Aldon Smith graded out better than this position than Ware as pass rushers, while Spencer ranked 6th, but Spencer was the better overall linebacker.
AFC Middle Linebackers: Jerod Mayo, Derrick Johnson
My exact picks, but in the wrong order. Johnson doesn’t get his proper due on a 2-win Chiefs. There’s not a better middle linebacker in the league other than Patrick Willis and that’s not just this year.
NFC Middle Linebackers: Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman
Willis was obvious. His teammate Bowman was not, though not undeserving. Excluding Johnson (3rd), the NFC had the top-7 middle linebackers on ProFootballFocus this year (Mayo is technically an outside linebacker). Bowman was 7th, but still had a very good year. Divisional rivals Bobby Wagner (2nd) and Daryl Washington (4th), as well as rookie Luke Kuechly (5th), all graded out better than him. Even Sean Lee, who went down for the year week 7 graded 6th, which shows just how good he can be if he can return healthy and stay healthy.
AFC Cornerbacks: Champ Bailey, Johnathan Joseph, Antonio Cromartie
Champ Bailey and Antonio Cromartie are both deserving, though I only picked Cromartie (my other two picks were Alterraun Verner and Sheldon Brown, who have had shitty two week stretches since I wrote my picks). Both Bailey and Joseph were outranked by teammates Chris Harris and Kareem Jackson, who ranked 5th and 6th respectively. Bailey (11th) was still deserving. Joseph (51st) is one of the best cornerbacks in the league, when healthy, but he hasn’t been for most of this season. Brandon Flowers (7th) also doesn’t get his proper due on the Chiefs. It’s worth mentioning that the top-4 cornerbacks this year were all NFC cornerbacks.
NFC Cornerbacks: Charles Tillman, Tim Jennings, Patrick Peterson
Only one of those 4, only one was voted in, however, Tillman (3rd). Jennings (9th) wasn’t undeserving, but he’s the perfect example of how a player can have inconsistent interception totals and not have inconsistent years. Jennings ranked 15th in 2011, as one of two cornerbacks to not surrender a touchdown all season, but was unknown with 2 interceptions. This year, the league leader in interceptions makes the Pro-Bowl, even though injuries (he missed 2 games), should have kept him out in the loaded NFC.
Peterson makes it in on name value, but actually graded out 14th overall, which is so much better than 2011, when he ranked 102nd (rookie cornerbacks never do well). The other three of the top-4 cornerbacks who were kept out were, in order, Antoine Winfield, Richard Sherman, and Casey Hayward (the exception to that rookie cornerbacks rule). Hayward wasn’t on the ballot and Sherman may have been kept out by his impending potential suspension, but there’s no excuse for Winfield being left out. The 35-year-old had one of his best seasons this year and is a 3-time Pro Bowler on a playoff contending team.
AFC Free Safety: Ed Reed
Another name value guy, Reed (55th) has lost a couple steps, but no one has noticed yet. The AFC is loaded with free safeties as the top-3 safeties were all AFC free safeties, Eric Weddle (who has taken the top safety mantle from the aging Polamalu and Reed), Jairus Byrd (who is right behind Weddle), and Reshad Jones (a breakout star).
NFC Free Safeties: Dashon Goldson, Earl Thomas
The 4th rated was Kerry Rhodes and he didn’t make it either. Goldson (13th) wasn’t undeserving, however. A Pro-Bowl fraud in 2011, Goldson had an eye popping 7 interceptions, but was among the league leaders in receptions and yards surrendered and graded out 64th overall. This year, he had fewer interceptions (3), but played better football, particularly in coverage, where the 44.8 QB rating he allowed ranked 3rd in the NFL among starters, only behind Weddle and Byrd. Thomas (54th) is just overrated and doesn’t belong.
AFC Strong Safeties: Eric Berry, La’Ron Landry
Berry is making his 2nd Pro-Bowl and he didn’t deserve either of them. In 2010, he ranked 17th as a rookie, not bad, but not Pro-Bowl worthy. He made it anyway and looked it have a bright future either way, but he tore his ACL in 2011 and didn’t seem fully healthy this year and ranked 44th. On a 2-win Chiefs team that actually has some talented individual players on defense, it’s not right that Tamba Hali and Eric Berry would get in, but Justin Houston and Brandon Flowers would not.
Landry, meanwhile, was even worse at 55th. These are two former highly drafted safeties that never panned out (I haven’t given up on Berry though) that are still viewed as top tiered guys. There’s a reason no one wanted Landry when he hit the open market last offseason and had to settle for a 1 year deal. He’ll get a better one this offseason because he’s less of an injury risk, but he’s not a Pro-Bowler.
NFC Strong Safeties: Donte Whitner
Ugh. No. Like Earl Thomas, this is Pro-Bowl by association. The Seahawks and the 49ers both have excellent defenses, but that doesn’t mean every player on it is excellent. Whitner was less than pedestrian at 63rd and his deficiencies in coverage and have the 49ers considering taking him out in sub packages and making him a pure box safety.