Marc Sessler has plucked one prime candidate from each team to earn a first Pro Bowl nod in 2020. Below are his AFC picks.
BALTIMORE RAVENS: Patrick Queen, LB, first NFL season: It goes beyond Lamar Jackson tabbing the former LSU star as "Ray Lewis Junior." The Ravens are proven developers of young linebackers, with Bart Scott and C.J. Mosley part of a lineage that welcomes Queen into the fold. An asset in coverage, the rookie is a lock to play a core role out of the gate for a front seven now stocked with Calais Campbell and Derek Wolfe up front. Queen shined against the top teams in college football a season ago. "It's something we look at very closely," Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta told ESPN.com's Jamison Hensley in discussing LSU's ability to produce NFL stars. "We think Patrick is going to be the next great LSU defensive player." I'll go one step farther: Queen is my pick for Defensive Rookie of the Year.
BUFFALO BILLS: Stefon Diggs, WR, sixth NFL season: A top-heavy cast of NFC wideouts kept Diggs from Pro Bowl glory with the Vikings. Bills fans hope that will change for him as the centerpiece of a Buffalo attack angling to grow through the air. Under as much pressure to shine as anyone on this list, Diggs -- who has questioned what this season might look like -- offers clear-cut Pro Bowl-worthy traits. The open question is how he'll mesh with alluring-but-sometimes-erratic passer Josh Allen.
CINCINNATI BENGALS: Joe Burrow, QB, first NFL season: Is it a stretch to list a rookie quarterback on the heels of the most bizarre offseason in gridiron lore? Not in a world where Pro Bowl bids remain highly narrative driven -- and not if Burrow lives up to the billing. Surrounded by a sturdy cast of weapons, Cincinnati's savior-in-waiting will be one of the AFC's top stories when he helps the long-lost Bengals trade in last year's 2-14 finish for meaningful games in December. It would help if last year's first-rounder, Jonah Williams, shines at left tackle for an offensive line that doubled as a roaming disaster in 2019.
CLEVELAND BROWNS: JC Tretter, C, seventh NFL season: Kicked off the hype train after last year's implosion, Cleveland's roster screams playoff potential with Odell Beckham Jr., Jarvis Landry, Austin Hooper, Nick Chubb, Kareem Hunt and Joel Bitonio all operating as Pro Bowlers on offense. The defense boasts fire of its own in the form of Myles Garrett and Denzel Ward. The club would love to see second-year cover man Greedy Williams morph into a star across from Ward, but my choice is Tretter, the NFLPA president and a top-five AFC pivot in 2019, per Pro Football Focus. Teammates "almost universally named him as the smartest on the team," according to NFL.com colleague and former Browns employ Nick Shook. After signing a three-year extension in November, Tretter's seventh campaign is stuffed with promise.
DENVER BRONCOS: Bradley Chubb, edge rusher, third NFL season: Let's not overcomplicate matters. Peering beyond the wreckage of last year's injury-ravaged sophomore outing, Chubb's 12 sacks in 2018 set a franchise mark for rookies. Beyond the takedown tally, his rookie-leading 58 total pressures told the story of a chaos-spinning nuisance off the edge who -- when healthy -- forms the AFC's most dangerous pass-rushing duo with all-world talent Von Miller.
HOUSTON TEXANS: Brandin Cooks, WR, seventh NFL season: Four consecutive 1,000-yard campaigns and 29 touchdowns from 2015 to 2018 failed to produce a Pro Bowl for Cooks. From another angle, he's playing for his fourth team in five seasons and badgered by a concerning concussion history. In a post-DeAndre Hopkins vacuum, though, Cooks should lead the way ahead of 29-year-old slot man Randall Cobb and durability-challenged Will Fuller. Besides, Fuller isn't the only saucy deep threat here: Since 2017, only Tyreek Hill (58) tops Cooks (47) in targets with a step or more of separation on throws of 20-plus yards downfield, per PFF. His trade to the Texans flew under the radar during this hyper-rocky stretch in American history, but Cooks is set up for a genuine bounce-back run.
INDIANAPOLIS COLTS: Braden Smith, RT, third NFL season: The AFC's finest front five resides in Indy, anchored by the meanest interior mauler around in Quenton Nelson. In an attempt to bring a personal dream to fruition -- sending the entire Colts line to the Pro Bowl -- I'm trumpeting the name of Braden Smith, who finished 2019 as PFF's sixth-ranked run blocker. His pass protection could use a boost, but this 6-foot-6, 315-pound front-door-shaped human out of Auburn grows more formidable by the year and should have Philip Rivers sleeping easy at night when the games begin.
JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS: CJ Henderson, CB, first NFL season: The roster is light on obvious Pro Bowl party crashers. The stars of that old hit show Sacksonville are all but gone, but April's draft aimed to recast the series. Jalen Ramsey's character -- the flashy young cover man with a dash of lovable on-field attitude -- is now being played by Henderson, the ninth overall pick out of Florida whom Gators defensive coordinator Todd Grantham labeled as the "best corner I've ever coached." Gifted with 4.39 speed, Henderson caused all sorts of trouble for quarterbacks with his ability to track down wideouts on the fly. A starring role out of the gate makes sense inside a defense desperately in need of a ratings boost.
KANSAS CITY CHIEFS: Mitchell Schwartz, RT, ninth NFL season: Here's a fellow who hasn't missed a single start during his eight-year career. Mimicking his friend and former teammate Joe Thomas for rarified ironman status, Schwartz has evolved into a rock who nabbed All-Pro honors in 2018, but evaded the eyes of the seemingly hammered house party of voters deciding how the Pro Bowl should look. Last season, Schwartz was the only tackle in the league to play 750-plus pass-blocking snaps without allowing a single sack. When Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs needed Schwartz at his finest, the count-on-me lineman responded with a postseason etched in gold:
LAS VEGAS RAIDERS: Johnathan Abram, S, second NFL season: Shame on Las Vegas if Mike Mayock is ever forced to pay for a steak at Circus Circus. The Raiders general manager served as the brains behind the 2019 rookie class that accounted for the most rushing yards, scrimmage yards, scrimmage touchdowns and sacks. Runner Josh Jacobs gave the offense identity on the ground while overachieving Maxx Crosby lifted the defense with 10 sacks. Both loom as Pro Bowl fodder, but my pick is Abram. Lost in the season opener to a torn labrum and rotator cuff, the first-round safety shined during camp as an old-school, hard-hitting polestar in the secondary. Just a hunch, but I expect Abram to become a household name in short order for a Raiders team on the rise.
LOS ANGELES CHARGERS: Austin Ekeler, RB, fourth NFL season: There were quarters at a time in 2019 when Ekeler flashed as the finest player on the field for a hot-and-cold Chargers outfit. With Melvin Gordon off to Denver, Ekeler finally has a shot to explode for a full season in a sky's-the-limit role that will see him used all over the field. PFF's highest graded pass-catching back over the past three seasons, Ekeler is a tackle-shedding Mr. Everything boasting centerpiece vibes on a team destined to see Tyrod Taylor and rookie Justin Herbert flip-flop at quarterback.
MIAMI DOLPHINS: Tua Tagovailoa, QB, first NFL season: There's no way Joe Burrow and Tua both make the Pro Bowl, but there's a path for each of them to carve out that type of headline-grabbing season. Assuming he stays in one piece, Tagovailoa hits Miami as the southpaw hope of tomorrow for fans still waltzing around town in Dan Marino jerseys. All the handwringing over his hip injury makes it easy to forget Tua posted the highest passer efficiency rating (199.4), most adjusted yards per passing attempt (10.9) and gaudiest touchdown rate in college football history, as The Ringer pointed out this spring. More than anything, I want this to work for the Dolphins, for coach Brian Flores and for a fan base existing in a hellish netherworld for decades.
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS: Joe Thuney, OG, fifth NFL season: With 64 uninterrupted starts over his first four seasons, Thuney is nothing short of a Bill Belichick fever dream. Finishing last season as one of just three offensive linemen to play 600-plus snaps without a penalty, Thuney was graded by PFF as the league's fifth-best player at his position and turned heads by netting the club's franchise tag this offseason instead of escaping to fill-in-the-blank lesser franchise in free agency. With Cam Newton at the ready, New England's much-anticipated nosedive is on hold. To the wayward gaggle of voters who made Thuney a Pro Bowl snub a year ago, I leave you with these words from Lorca: THE LIVING IGUANAS WILL COME AND BITE THE MEN WHO DO NOT DREAM.
NEW YORK JETS: Sam Darnold, QB, third NFL season: I ask you this, Jets fanatics: If you had peered into a crystal ball after the 2018 NFL Draft to learn that Sam Darnold wouldn't sniff the Pro Bowl in his first three seasons, would you be stung with disappointment? As it goes for Baker Mayfield in Cleveland, Darnold's third campaign is tremendously important in the category of public perception. We've seen the Jets signal-caller shine in a handful of games, but also underwhelm behind a grisly O-line. Drafting Mekhi Becton at left tackle was a coup. Better protection alone could transform Darnold's fortunes, but will it be enough? Adam Gase was hired to mold his young passer into a burning star. Anything less could mean curtains for the embattled coach.
PITTSBURGH STEELERS: Devin Bush, LB, second NFL season: Caught on radar where the Allegheny and Monongahela meet to form the proud Ohio River: a linebacker armed with a freakish skill set. Bush hit the NFL with an outrageous SPARQ score of 142.9, which places him above 97 percent of his peers at the position. Rousing 4.43 speed allowed Bush to evolve in man coverage over 15 starts -- essential for today's linebacker -- with room to grow this autumn. The former Michigan star screams on tape with blazing quickness, a nose for the ball and the requisite skill set to make a big jump come September. Bush looms as the special sauce in a rowdy, Super Bowl-level Steelers defense.
TENNESSEE TITANS: Jeffery Simmons, DT, second NFL season: With Jurrell Casey out the door, Simmons becomes the centerpiece of Tennessee's defensive front after a promising -- if delayed -- rookie outing. A torn ACL suffered before the 2019 draft kept him out of the first six tilts, but the former Mississippi State standout showed why scouts were so enthralled with his steady work against the run and hints of what could come as a pass rusher. Simmons brought identity and attitude in a limited rookie role. Now it's time for the main course.