Every player on this list would rather play in the Super Bowl this year than the Pro Bowl, but they can still be credited with the nomination without actually appearing in it. Even so, if by some tragedy the New Orleans Saints do not make it to the big game the Pro Bowl is a satisfying reward for the roster’s best players.
Photo credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports.
Jairus Byrd: Previous Pro Bowl appearances in 2009, 2012 and 2013. Byrd has been one of the best free safeties in the NFL during his career and can certainly rival Seattle’s Earl Thomas for the title of best in football in 2014. Byrd has led the NFL in turnovers since 2009 with 11 forced fumbles and 22 interceptions while adding 14 passes broken up. That’s on only 145 targets over five years, an interception frequency of 15.15% and total passes defended rate of 24.79%. Compare that to Earl Thomas’ 17 interceptions and 9 passes broken up on 154 targets, rates of 11.04% and 16.88%. Byrd is also a better tackler, missing on more than four attempts just once in his career (2011) for an average annual rate of 6.36% while Thomas has missed 12 or more times every season he has played in the NFL, an average yearly rate of 13.59%. Byrd has already made a name for himself as a pro (and Pro Bowler), but his best days could still be ahead of him in New Orleans.
Keenan Lewis: No previous Pro Bowl appearances. Lewis broke out in 2012 but emerged as a top-10 cornerback in the NFL last season. He made it known that he wanted to play in the Pro Bowl but the voters neglected to include him. Lewis is as shutdown as anyone in pro football, being targeted in coverage less often than any other cornerback not named Darrelle Revis or Richard Sherman (Lewis was thrown at on 12.93% of his snaps in coverage; Revis was targeted 11.33% of the time, and Sherman 10.56%). Because of the fewer opportunities to make plays on the ball Lewis’ passes defensed frequency (interceptions plus passes broken up divided by targets) dropped to 13.24% from his 2012 rate of 14.29%, but his four interceptions were a career-high. With Byrd playing over the top and an effective pass rush pressuring quarterbacks, Lewis could take another leap in 2014 to take the stage in Arizona as one of the best players at his position.
Kenny Vaccaro: No previous Pro Bowl appearances. Vaccaro was a prodigy for the Saints in 2013, living up to his billing as the best safety in a rookie class deep at the position. His missed tackle rate of 3.70% (three misses on 81 attempts) was the best of all NFL starting strong safeties. He made 34.18% of his tackles for loss, no gain, or minimal gain, sixth-best at his position behind Pro Bowlers TJ Ward, Troy Polamalu, Kam Chancellor, and quality starters James Ihedigbo and Mark Barron. In coverage, even though Vaccaro was the third-most-frequently targeted strong safety (10.16%) and he played many snaps at slot and outside cornerback, his yards per catch allowed was the sixth-lowest at 9.79 and his yards after the catch allowed was eighth-best at 3.57. Vaccaro recorded only one interception in 2013 but his total passes defense rate was tied for fifth at 15.91%. He does need to improve as a blitzer and overall playmaker (having made only one sack and one forced fumble in 2013), but who doesn’t? At any rate Vaccaro appears to have made strides this offseason while returning from his late-season ankle injury, and many national analysts are already predicting him to be a perennial Pro Bowler in his NFL career. I feel safe making the same prediction.
Cameron Jordan: Previous Pro Bowl appearance in 2013. Cameron Jordan has taken a step every year in his young career in New Orleans to become one of the best defensive linemen playing today. He lines up at three- and five-technique for the Saints to wreck havoc in opposing backfields. In many ways Jordan is similar to Houston Texans all-universe defensive end J.J. Watt. Both players are highly athletic and smaller than typical players for their position (Jordan is listed at 6’4” and 287 pounds, Watt is 6’5” and 290 pounds) and they both have found an ability to convert speed to power when rushing the passer from the interior as well as the outside. In 2013, Jordan made his first Pro Bowl after pressuring quarterbacks on 13.90% of his pass rushes (third-best in the NFL for 3-4 defensive ends behind Watt’s 15.29% and San Francisco 49ers great Justin Smith’s 18.30%) and missing on only two tackle attempts. An underrated ability of Jordan’s is his still-developing skill at deflecting passes at the line of scrimmage; he made four deflections in 2013, tied for fourth-most at his position. Jordan is a young player who is still developing and learning, and has a great shot at returning to the Pro Bowl in 2014.
Junior Galette: No previous Pro Bowl appearances. Galette was finally given his chance to start for the Saints and he fully seized the opportunity. He pressured quarterbacks on 12.08% of his pass rushes (15th of 42 players at his position who played 25% or more snaps for their teams), sacked quarterbacks on 2.50% of his pass rushes (12th-best), and missed on only 8.00% of his tackle attempts (18th-best). Galette led the NFC in sacks (12) and was second only to Robert Mathis (19.5) in the NFL as a whole. He did show weaknesses against the run and in coverage, overrunning opponents in the backfield and looking out of his comfort zone when dropping back to cover a receiver, but his well-publicized his efforts at improving those skills in social media this offseason. Another big year from Galette and declines from older 2013 Pro Bowlers like John Abraham, Robert Mathis, and Brian Orakpo could open the door for his first appearance in the all-star game.