The 2022 Pro Bowl rosters have been announced, and as is customary at this time of year, I've taken some time to consider who got the short end of the stick in the annual voting process.
There are plenty of deserving candidates who made the final roster, but that's not why I'm here. I'm here to provide a list of players who narrowly missed the cut.
Are some more deserving of a trip to Las Vegas than those who have the Pro Bowl in their February plans? It's time to explore their candidacies:
It's difficult to truly quantify the effectiveness of offensive linemen, which is why it's often the linemen clearing lanes for the league's top runners who end up in the Pro Bowl. That helps explain Ryan Kelly's selection, and while Kelly is deserving, it's tough to say he was ahead of Andrews in terms of performance. We turn to Pro Football Focus for help here, and PFF ranks Andrews well ahead of Kelly among all centers (as it does for another player on this list). New England doesn't have a Jonathan Taylor-type player to use as proof of a lineman's effectiveness, but the Patriots have started to run the ball rather effectively in the last couple of months, especially after they got their line fully healthy and on the field at the same time. We'll accept the choice of Kelly, who is still a solid pick, but we know Andrews deserves a spot in Las Vegas, too.
The big knock on Burrow is his turnover total, as he's tied for the most interceptions thrown in the NFL (14). But that doesn't come close to telling his entire story (though it does give me a chance to stump for a change in the way interceptions are recorded, because Burrow certainly hasn't earned all of them with his decision-making). Burrow is eighth in the NFL in passing yards (3,640), owns a 26:14 TD-to-INT ratio and still has a passer rating over 100, despite the picks. He's a primary reason why the AFC North-leading Bengals are in playoff contention. He's been a better passer than Lamar Jackson (though I'm fully aware Jackson is more than just a passer) and he owns a better passer rating than Patrick Mahomes, both of whom made the Pro Bowl. Burrow's time will come, of course, but it could have -- and maybe should have -- arrived with the announcement of this Pro Bowl roster.
Ekeler is one of the most important players to any team's offense in the NFL. Unlike last season, when he missed six games, the Chargers have been able to include him in their game plans all season (at least until this Monday, when he landed on the reserve/COVID-19 list). The veteran back is sixth in the NFL in combined yards this season (1,347), fourth in rushing touchdowns (10) and second to only Jonathan Taylor in total touchdowns (17). Joe Mixon got the nod over Ekeler thanks to Mixon's rushing total (1,094 to Ekeler's 789), but Ekeler has outperformed him in scrimmage yards (1,347 to 1,298) and total touchdowns (Mixon has 14). When you consider his overall production and what he means to the Chargers' offense, it's real tough to keep Ekeler out of the Pro Bowl.
What a turnaround for Lombardi Lenny. The running back who once questioned whether he wanted to be in Tampa Bay has blossomed in his second season with the team, morphing from just a one-cut runner to a back who is capable of producing on every down. Before suffering a hamstring injury that forced him out of action against the Saints on Sunday, Fournette was nearing his career highs in receptions and receiving yards, and he'd already reset his single-season mark for receiving touchdowns (two). He was also averaging a career-best 4.5 yards per carry. I'd replace James Conner, who made the Pro Bowl on his touchdowns total and the stunning nature of his play in 2021, with Fournette, whose importance to Tampa Bay was on display after he exited what became a shutout loss to New Orleans.
So the case for Godwin isn't quite strong enough for him to replace any of the Pro Bowl selections at receiver in the NFC (Cooper Kupp, Davante Adams, Justin Jefferson and Deebo Samuel are all rightly headed to Las Vegas), but I still want to include him for producing at a level that should make him first in line to be named an alternate, even if the torn ACL that ended his season on Sunday would render the honor ceremonial. Godwin broke 1,100 receiving yards for the second time in his career in 2021, and he played the perfect complementary role to Mike Evans in Tampa Bay's loaded offense, ending his season ranked fifth in receiving yards. That's good enough for me to recognize him here.
Let's keep this simple: Even though Henry hasn't played since Week 8 (because of a broken foot), he's still fifth in the NFL in rushing yards (937) and fourth in rushing touchdowns (10). No player has proven more valuable to his team's fortunes, as Tennessee's second-half record (3-3) proves. He didn't get the nod because he's been out for nearly two months, but when healthy, he's the best running back in the NFL.
A quick look at edge rusher selections reveals no flaws; all six players chosen for defensive end and outside linebacker earned their spots in the Pro Bowl. But I wish we could find room for Ngakoue, the NFL's second-best pass rusher in terms of total QB pressures (63) -- he's also tied for ninth with three turnovers caused by pressure. Ngakoue has been one half of an excellent edge-rushing duo, and his running mate, Maxx Crosby, ended up in the Pro Bowl despite having less sacks (five to Ngakoue's nine) and QB pressures (62), as well as a lower QB pressure rate (Ngakoue's is 16.3 percent and Crosby's is 14.8 percent). Crosby has been better against the run and a more complete defender, of course, but Ngakoue is right there with him.
The Bears' Jakeem Grant earned the Pro Bowl nod for NFC returner, a product of two key factors: He has one return touchdown (scored on national TV, on a punt by the Packers) and he has a reputation as an explosive returner. Votes at positions like this one in the Pro Bowl (and other pro sports leagues' all-star games) can come down to name recognition, and Grant certainly carries that. But if you've paid attention to the return game this season, you know the more deserving candidate is Nwangwu, a rookie running back who has proven to be a potent weapon as a returner. Vikings fans are quickly falling for Nwangwu, who has taken two kicks back for touchdowns and done them the hard way, covering 98 and 99 yards. And get this: He's only returned 12 kicks all year. That means Nwangwu is taking a kick back for a touchdown at a rate of 16.7 percent, while he's averaging 37.2 yards per kick return. Grant is averaging 24.2 yards per kick return and 12.8 per punt return since being traded from Miami to Chicago in October. I think my work here is done.
I talked about combined yards when explaining Austin Ekeler's case for the Pro Bowl, and Patterson's argument might be even stronger. Patterson has become a do-everything weapon for Arthur Smith's Falcons in his first season in Atlanta, rushing, receiving and returning his way to the fifth-highest total of combined yards in the league (1,421). He's trailing significantly in scrimmage yards, but if you've watched the Falcons play this season, you know how much of a difference Patterson has made. He's done it unconventionally and deserves a nod for his effort, even if he doesn't fit inside the parameters of a traditional position.
I listed Simmons as one of my top 10 candidates to make their first Pro Bowl because he was on fire through mid-November, with his best display coming on a national stage in Tennessee's win over the Los Angeles Rams in Week 9. Simmons has been highly effective all season in what has been the latest step in a progression that truly started to show in 2020, yet he lost out on a Pro Bowl nod to more recognizable names. If I had to pick a player to replace, it would be DeForest Buckner, as Simmons has outperformed Buckner in every advanced metric: run stuffs (10 to 4), stops (43 to 40), QB pressures (48 to 37), QB pressure percentage (10.6% to 9.1%) and sacks (7.5 to 6.5). He's grown into a force along the defensive interior and deserves recognition. Hopefully the third-year pro receives it before long.
My gripe with Pro Bowl selections often comes down to position allowances. I think there should be four total safety spots -- two each for free safety and strong safety -- per conference instead of the current setup that allots for only three. There was only one free safety spot available this year, and though Kevin Byard is certainly deserving of his recognition, Simmons has also produced a Pro Bowl-worthy campaign. In his first season after signing a lucrative extension with the Broncos, Simmons is tied for the fourth-most interceptions in the NFL (5) and ranks sixth in targeted expected points added (-11.5) and third in ballhawk rate (27.5%) among free safeties (min. 25 targets, per NGS). Simmons has to be near the top of the list of alternates.
Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers certainly deserve their Pro Bowl nods, but the choice of Kyler Murray over Stafford is interesting. Murray has been in the MVP conversation for much of 2021 (though he might have fallen out of it in recent weeks), yet Stafford has a better statistical résumé than Murray. Stafford's Rams are also right on the heels of the Cardinals in the race for the NFC West, and Stafford outplayed Murray in their most recent meeting, which came as Pro Bowl voting was closing. There's no doubt, however, that Stafford's move to Los Angeles has elevated the Rams in both prestige and performance.
Surtain's case is somewhat similar to that of Atlanta's A.J. Terrell, who also made this list. Like Terrell, Surtain has been excellent at taking away opponents' scoring opportunities, posting the fourth-best targeted EPA (-23.0) in the entire league (among corners with a minimum of 40 targets), and his four interceptions (including one returned for a touchdown) are tied for ninth most in the NFL. Surtain has quickly lived up to his draft billing, and he should eventually earn a Pro Bowl selection. He could've found room in the spot occupied by Denzel Ward, but again, sometimes it's about name recognition as much as it is performance.
Folks might not be paying close attention to a Falcons team that hasn't spent much time in the national spotlight this season, but Terrell has improved significantly of late. Terrell owns the second-best ballhawk rate (25 percent) among all qualifying corners (minimum 40 targets), and he's built that number up despite posting just two interceptions. He's quickly becoming a blanket corner capable of shutting down attempts thrown in his direction, as he also ranks second in targeted EPA among all corners (-23.2). It's happened quietly, because the Falcons have remained near .500 for much of the season, but he's certainly worth paying attention to, and if the Falcons gain more of a foothold in the national consciousness in the future, we should expect Terrell to become a household name who garners plenty of Pro Bowl votes.
The argument in favor of Tretter is much like the one supporting David Andrews' case for the Pro Bowl: He has a rock-solid PFF grade (higher than both Andrews and Pro Bowler Ryan Kelly) and has been an integral part of one of the league's best rushing attacks ... well, until recent weeks, when defenses began focusing much of their game plans on stopping the run, while the Browns endured multiple injuries at key spots (e.g., Kareem Hunt). Still, Tretter has been very good and is worthy of the honor.
ALSO CONSIDERED: Bobby Okereke, LB, Indianapolis Colts; Shaq Mason, G, New England Patriots; Eric Kendricks, LB, Minnesota Vikings; De'Vondre Campbell, LB, Green Bay Packers; Mike Williams, WR, Los Angeles Chargers; Diontae Johnson, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers; Kirk Cousins, QB, Minnesota Vikings; Harold Landry, EDGE, Tennessee Titans; Creed Humphrey, C, Kansas City Chiefs