We’re past the midway point of the 2021 season, which means it’s just about time to start lining up candidates for praise.
In the NFL, we praise outstanding performers with annual awards and a summit of the league’s all-stars known as the Pro Bowl. The Pro Bowl often features repeat appearances by participants. But what about those who have not previously ascended to elite status?
With Pro Bowl voting officially open, let’s take a look at the top 10 candidates to make their first Pro Bowl.
Football fans, take note before you vote.
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- NFL Week 10's biggest decisions: Mike Zimmer outwits Brandon Staley on fourth down
- Nathaniel Hackett, Byron Leftwich, Patrick Graham among young NFL coaches to watch
Kupp has played 10 games in 2021 and has a league-leading 1,141 receiving yards and 10 receiving touchdowns. That’s it. That’s the explanation for Kupp’s presence here.
Jokes aside, it’s essentially guaranteed Kupp makes his first Pro Bowl in 2021. He’s one of the best receivers downfield, averaging 25.5 yards per reception on passes of 10-plus air yards (third among those with 30-plus such targets), and he is responsible for the most touchdowns down the seams. He’s playing the position better than anyone else in the NFL, and it would require a catastrophic offensive meltdown for him to not get the votes necessary to earn the honor. Last year, Stefon Diggs ended his Pro Bowl drought by leading the NFL in receiving. This year, it’s Kupp’s turn.
You have to know who Diggs is by now. The second-year corner has taken a massive leap when it comes to making plays on the ball, landing second on my list of top ballhawks entering Week 10 and improving on that standing by snagging his eighth pick in nine games during Dallas’ blowout win over Atlanta. Diggs is in the running for Defensive Player of the Year. He owns the lowest targeted-expected-points-added figure (-31.3) and the eighth-lowest completion percentage allowed over expected (-11.5%) among corners with at least 30 targets. And he’s a threat to steal possession any time a pass is headed in his direction. Diggs is about as close to a lock for a Pro Bowl selection as there is — save for the man ahead of him on this list.
This list is full of second-year pros building on a strong rookie foundation — and Taylor is adding multiple floors to his mansion. He’s currently tied with the injured Derrick Henry for the league lead in rushing yards (937), and only Nick Chubb (6.0 yards per carry) is outgaining Taylor (5.8) on a per-carry basis among qualified backs (6.25 rushes per team’s game played). What’s even more impressive about Taylor is his development as a pass-catching threat. Instead of being forced to deploy Nyheim Hines in all passing situations, the Colts have found they can rely on Taylor through the air, throwing to him 35 times for 29 receptions and 303 yards — he’s exceeded his rookie-season receiving yards total in just 10 games. Taylor is just scratching the surface as a pass-catcher, and he’s already ripping up chunks of yards on the ground, racking up the most rushing yards over expected this season (+275). It’s nearly impossible to ignore his success in 2021.
Samuel is a man among boys. He announced his presence to the nation with a stellar performance on Monday Night Football in Week 10, but his prime-time play was no surprise to those familiar with the Niners. Samuel is racking up receiving yards at a fantastic rate, closing in on 1,000 for the season after just nine games played — the only player with more receiving yards thus far is also the No. 1 player on this list, Cooper Kupp. San Francisco has fought through offensive struggles this season, but Samuel has been a constant, serving as an ultra-reliable target for both Jimmy Garoppolo and Trey Lance. And he’s about more than highlight-reel grabs, too: Samuel is dominating in yards-after-the-catch-over-expected (+4.5 per reception this season). The Niners have gotten the ball to Samuel, and he’s done the rest of the work, which should be enough to land him among the league’s best at the Pro Bowl.
By default, a Pro Bowl appearance in 2021 would have to be a first for Chase. The rookie has earned it to this point, compiling a historic debut campaign while becoming Cincinnati’s unquestioned No. 1 receiver and ranking among the top five in the NFL in receiving yards (835) and receiving touchdowns (seven) through 10 weeks. He’s the key that unlocks the Bengals offense, and former LSU running-mate Joe Burrow has benefitted — Burrow currently ranks seventh in the league in passing yards and eighth in passer rating (102.6). The two have hooked up for a handful of long touchdown strikes, good for highlight reels that will land Chase near the forefront of the nation’s football consciousness. Chase owns the NFL’s best catch rate over expected on deep targets among qualified players. That should prove valuable when it comes to collecting Pro Bowl votes.
The questions regarding Jackson’s ability to produce outside of Stephon Gilmore’s shadow have evaporated in 2021, Jackson’s first season without Gilmore. Jackson has been stellar as New England’s clear No. 1 corner, ranking first in passes defensed (14) and tying for second in the NFL in interceptions (five) through 10 weeks. Jackson landed at No. 3 on my list of top ballhawks entering Week 10 because he’s been stellar when challenged, posting the third-best ballhawk rate (21.9 percent) as the nearest defender in coverage among those with 40-plus targets. He’s not just a good corner — he’s become elite. That deserves Pro Bowl recognition, especially if he carries this level of play through the rest of the season.
This one comes down to choosing between Simmons and teammate Harold Landry. Both are legitimate Pro Bowl candidates, but while Landry might get the edge from the stat-watchers counting sacks, the tape-viewers know Simmons is the right selection. The former first-rounder has come on incredibly strong as of late, detonating the Rams’ offensive ambitions in Week 9 by dominating center Brian Allen and wreaking havoc in a narrow Week 10 win over the Saints. And though he has fewer sacks (7.5) than Landry (10), Simmons has still compiled quite the statistical resume in 2021, ranking third among all defenders in total quarterback pressures (44) and adding 29 stops and seven run stuffs. Once seen as a risk due to a knee injury suffered while training for the 2019 NFL Draft, Simmons has proven Tennessee wise in spending the 19th overall pick on him. He should get his first trip to the Pro Bowl this winter.
Herbert threw his way to last season’s Offensive Rookie of the Year award, placing high expectations on himself entering 2021. So far, he’s largely lived up to them. Herbert has the Chargers in the thick of a tight AFC West race at 5-4 after throwing for the sixth-most passing yards (2,545) through 10 weeks. His only red flag has been a recent run of interceptions (four in his last four games). Still, he has a 19:7 touchdown-to-interception ratio. He’s excellent at making plays out-of-structure, averaging 11.3 yards per pass attempt on passes outside the pocket (the most in Next Gen Stats history in a single season, among those with a minimum of 200 attempts), and he makes the Chargers a legitimate contender on a weekly basis. When combined with his statistical performance and the current landscape of AFC quarterbacks, Herbert has a good chance to earn his first Pro Bowl nod in 2021 — especially if the Chargers end up reaching the postseason.
I’m leaning on a bit of projection with this selection, as I expect Dallas to remain explosive throughout the rest of the season and run away with the NFC East title, thanks to an air attack powered by Dak Prescott, who should be an MVP candidate. As the Cowboys’ top receiver, Lamb figures to benefit tremendously from Prescott’s performance. Lamb currently ranks 10th in receiving yards in the NFL (726) and is tied for ninth in touchdown receptions (six). He appears poised to build upon a strong rookie campaign with his first career 1,000-plus-yard season, boosted by his ability to make unlikely catches (+19.5 percent catch rate over expected when aligned in the slot this season). Should he exceed 1,000 yards and help the Cowboys into the playoffs, he’ll be tough to ignore when it comes to choosing receivers for the Pro Bowl.
The Pro Bowl is often a popularity contest, especially when it comes to lesser-known positions, and the AFC will likely see Justin Tucker reach his fifth Pro Bowl. But if we’re going off conversion rates, Bass deserves this honor. The kicker has made 19 of 20 field-goal attempts, good for the best field-goal percentage in the league (95%) among qualified kickers, and he’s hit all 29 of his extra-point tries this season, meaning he’s the most consistent kicker in the NFL to this point. He’s even making the occasional unlikely kick, converting at a rate of +4.9 percent over expected. Again, it’ll likely end up being Tucker, but we can all dream, can’t we?
ALSO CONSIDERED: Joe Burrow, QB, Cincinnati Bengals; Harold Landry, OLB, Tennessee Titans; Haason Reddick, OLB, Carolina Panthers; Trey Hendrickson, DE, Cincinnati Bengals; Michael Pittman, WR, Indianapolis Colts; Marquise Brown, WR, Baltimore Ravens; Najee Harris, RB, Pittsburgh Steelers; Darrell Henderson, RB, Los Angeles Rams.
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