Every season, there are a handful of rookies that truly dominate in the NFL, blasting through the “rookie barrier” and earning a plane ticket to Hawaii to play among the “elite” in the league. Moreover, as a result of the ludicrous Pro Bowl date and rules, there is another handful of player that make the cut as a result of an injury to a player or because the original player will be suiting up for the Super Bowl.
Last season, five rookies made the final cut, although only two players made the “first ballot,” prior to the replacement players being named: Robert Griffin III (did not play due to injury), Andrew Luck (replaced Tom Brady), Russell Wilson (replaced Robert Griffin III), Doug Martin (replaced Frank Gore), and Blair Walsh (starting NFC kicker).
In the lull of the long NFL offseason, some are now beginning to speculate which rookies might make the Pro Bowl roster this season. The difficulty in making the Pro Bowl as a first year player is two-fold. First, the players need to essentially put up Top 4 numbers in order to make the final cut, meaning that even a highly productive season might not be enough to garner the attention or numbers necessary. Second, even if they put up those numbers, they might miss the cut as a result of the Pro Bowl format. in itself, being extremely flawed. The easiest two ways to get snubbed from Hawaii are to play in a “small market” or to play on a losing team. The easiest two ways to make the cut are having high name recognition or playing on a team that is either in a large media hub, consistently playing on television, or both! Most casual fans cannot name six guards in the league, let alone tell you which ones were the most productive throughout the season. Players like Jeff Saturday and Jason Pierre-Paul will make the cut merely because people have heard their name said on the radio. That does not bode well for rookies, unless they are a media darling like an RG3 or Andrew Luck.
So, does any rookie have a chance this season?
Bernard Giovani, RB, Cincinnati Bengals
Giovani might not be the best running back in the class, but he is certainly in the best position to succeed in 2013, at least in terms of making it to the Pro Bowl. The first key for any rookie running back to get the invite is simply to not have been drafted into the NFC. Adrian Peterson, Marshawn Lynch, Alfred Morris, and Doug Martin will all vie for three spots, and that is assuming Frank Gore, Matt Forte, Steven Jackson, and LeSean McCoy are having down seasons. In the AFC, the picture is wide open, even with players like Arian Foster and Jamaal Charles. Giovani is in a nearly perfect situation, joining a team on the rise in the AFC North, within an offense that is jam-packed with offense weapons and a solid offensive line. Between Jermaine Gresham, A.J. Green, and the newly drafted Tyler Eifert, defenses will put little thought into how to slow the ground game. If a washed-up BenJarvus Green-Ellis can put up 1,094 yards and 6 touchdowns last season, the Bengals’ new rookie can certainly put up some big numbers. He will have the added benefit of a weak run-defense schedule, with games against the 32nd ranked Colts’, 28th ranked Lions’, and 23rd ranked Bills’ rush defenses, as well as a handful of middle-tier squads in the Vikings, Chargers, Dolphins, and Jets. They will also get the Cleveland Browns, a depleted Baltimore Ravens, and an aging, injury prone Pittsburgh Steelers twice a piece in 2013. A relatively easy schedule, solid surrounding offensive talent, and a weak pool of candidates in the AFC could pave the way for Giovani’s ticket to Hawaii next season.
Tyler Eifert, TE, Cincinnati Bengals
It seems odd that the first two names off of the board are both from the Cincinnati Bengals’ roster, but they both make a compelling case… and for nearly the same reasoning. Outside of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, the AFC is bare in terms of tight end talent. Health Miller, Brandon Myers, and Jermaine Gresham are the next tier of tight ends in the conference, which should bode well for the rookie. Gronkowski will be having his fifth surgery in less than a year next month (four on forearm, one on back), while Hernandez has had troubles of his own staying on the field, missing six games last season. Miller will be playing in an offense without a running back or a true playmaker on the outside and with an aging defense that likely will have trouble holding a lead, if there is even one to hold. He was the best player in their offense last season, and still managed only 816 receiving yards before getting run into the ground at the end of the season, being helped off the field with a knee injury in Week 16. Myers will no longer have the pass-happy Carson Palmer to sling the football his direction, and Gresham… well he plays on the same team as Eifert. Tyler Eifert could see the brunt of the offensive snaps at tight end in Cincinnati, especially given his reputation as an in-line blocker. While Gresham did post an impressive 64 receptions for 737 yards last year, he graded out horribly as a blocker, allowing 3 sacks, 2 hits on the quarterback, and 4 hurries. He also committed a league-high nine penalties in 2012, three more than any other tight end on the list, dropped eight passes, and lost two fumbles. More chances on the field for Eifert could easily translate into a Pro Bowl birth, especially will sparse competition in the AFC at tight end, and the added benefit of having an A.J. Green hogging all the attention in the secondary.
Jarvis Jones, OLB, Pittsburgh Steelers
There is one key to making the Pro Bowl as an outside linebacker, and one key only… sacks. Over the last two to three seasons, making the “big game” at this position has been heavily skewed towards any and all 3-4 outside linebackers that specialize as pass rushers. In fact, all but one of the “original” six outside linebacker selected to the Pro Bowl last season were 3-4 backers, with the lone exception being Von Miller, who was the only 4-3 linebacker in the league to tally more pass rushing snaps than run defense snaps. Jarvis Jones is the only rookie with the blitzing skill set and the situation to put up huge sack numbers in 2013, filling the void left by James Harrison as the Steelers’ top pass rushing linebacker. Not only will be get the chance to blitz, he will be going head-to-head against some of the “most sacked” quarterbacks in the league, including Aaron Rodgers (1st, with 51 sacks taken), Andy Dalton twice (3rd), Jay Cutler (5th), Joe Flacco twice (T-9th), and Ryan Tannehill (T-9th). It would not be unthinkable to see Jones tally anywhere between 12 to 16 sacks in 2013, which would easily slot him over players like Tamba Hali and the aged Robert Mathis in an AFC Pro Bowl slot.
Dee Milliner, CB, New York Jets
If there is any position that is rookie friendly in the NFL towards making the Pro Bowl, it is cornerback. Aside from the fact that he will see very few “desperate” quarterbacks next season, with few teams likely to be trailing the Jets at halftime, Milliner is in a prime spot to sneak into the Pro Bowl, even if he posts merely an “above average” season. The combination of a) playing the New York spotlight and b) the story-line of “replacing” Darrelle Revis, should make Milliner a household name by the time the regular season starts, and should only grow if he maintains respectable play throughout the year. On top of that, he will play in the AFC East, where E.J. Manuel and Ryan Tannehill will be slinging the ball in his direction early and often, which could lead to some big interception numbers by the end of the season. In some cases, a Pro Bowl spot is all about location, location, location, and in New York, there is no easier way to get your name stuck in the heads of NFL fans across the country. Tack on the fact that Jonathan Joseph (two interceptions) and Champ Bailey (two interceptions) were the AFC representatives last season, and you have the perfect storm for a Dee Milliner Pro Bowl birth.
Tavon Austin, KR, St. Louis Rams
There is virtually no chance for any NFC rookie to make the Pro Bowl on the traditional roster, with players like Aaron Rodgers, Calvin Johnson, and Adrian Peterson locking up the offense, and the Seahawks’, Bears’, and 49ers’ rosters filling up nearly the entire defensive roster. The exception to that might be from a special teams position, which is where Tavon Austin can fit in. Several rookies have made the cut as a kick returner, including Patrick Peterson (2012). Last year, the representative from the NFC was Leon Washington, who returned only one kickoff for a touchdown, and did not score on any punt return; although he did average an impressive 29.0 yards per return. The Rams were borderline pathetic last season, with Chris Givens leading all returnmen with a 23.4 yard average on 23 attempts, good for 50th overall in the league. Danny Amendola was the only punt returner worth noting, but he was injured for a majority of the season, and is now with another team. With an completely made-over offense and an upgraded defense, the St. Louis Rams should find themselves in better position this season to return kicks. Austin was a phenom in college, returning both a kickoff and punt for a touchdown in his senior season, two kickoffs for touchdowns as a junior, and tacked on another in his freshman year. With the national media already swooned by the explosiveness of Austin, if he can produce an above average year and register, at least, one return for a touchdown, it should be enough to entice fans to send the Rams’ rookie their vote.