By Nick Shook
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As the saying goes around here, if you ball, you get the call. And if you ball for the majority of the season, you’ll likely get a Pro Bowl nod.
We have 2017’s best in professional football, selected with the help of the fans who so passionately watch this game. (Coaches and players also contributed to the selection of the final rosters.) But with each popular vote comes a few snubs. With only a finite number of openings available, it’s inevitable. Not everyone can join exclusive clubs — otherwise, they’d just be clubs.
We’re here to bring you five of the biggest snubs from the AFC and five from the NFC. Feeling left out? So are these guys, probably.
Yannick Ngakoue, DE, Jacksonville Jaguars
A lot of the attention for the Jags’ stellar defense lands on the broad shoulders of Calais Campbell. He’s one of four Jaguars defenders who made the Pro Bowl, joining defensive tackle Malik Jackson and corners Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye. All are deserving, but ask anyone who’s watched a good amount of Jaguars football, and they’ll tell you Ngakoue deserves to be on this list. The defensive end has terrorized opposing quarterbacks about as much as Campbell has throughout the season, and he’s becoming quite notorious for his penchant for strip-sacks. Ngakoue has recorded six forced fumbles on the season, and I can vividly remember three of them right now off the top of my head. He also owns two of the six fastest sacks recorded this season, having taken down Houston’s Tom Savage in 2.277 and 2.508 seconds in Week 1, per Next Gen Stats. Both were strip-sacks.
I suppose we can’t put three-fourths of the Jaguars‘ defensive line in the Pro Bowl, even if the unit is third in the league in total yards allowed per game. But Terrell Suggs is in the Pro Bowl as the leader of a similarly stingy Baltimore defense with the same amount of sacks (and 17 more tackles). Ngakoue should be in the Pro Bowl.
Alex Smith, QB, Kansas City Chiefs
This one has to be a combination of unfair reputation and a stretch in which Smith struggled more than we’ve come to expect during his time in Kansas City. In the middle of a four-game losing streak, Smith posted a TD-to-INT ratio of 1:3 in losses to the Giants and Bills. His decline has suddenly arrived,his detractors shouted with joy.
But then, a closer look at the numbers backs up Smith. The quarterback is sixth in the NFL in passing yards (3,738), tied for fifth in passing touchdowns (25) and has the least amount of interceptions (five) among quarterbacks with at least 400 pass attempts. His team just blasted one of the league’s hottest squads to regain the AFC West lead. The thing is, no matter how well he performs, he’ll always battle the stigma earned while playing for directionless San Francisco teams in the mid-to-late 2000s. It’s forever a Sisyphean journey for Smith. This writer recognizes he’s better than the public portrays him to be.
Leonard Fournette, RB, Jacksonville Jaguars
Fournette has made Jacksonville’s selection of him with the fourth overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft well worth it. At 923 yards, the rookie running back is one game away (he’s posting 83.9 rushing yards per game) from breaking 1,000 yards despite missing three games thus far this season. His eight touchdowns and five games of 100-plus yards have provided a legitimate punch to Jacksonville’s ground game, something that had been lacking since the days of Maurice Jones-Drew and Fred Taylor. Five of the seven backs ahead of Fournette in rushing yards made the Pro Bowl. He’s not far off.
Cam Heyward, DE, Pittsburgh Steelers
Pittsburgh already has a stunning eight Pro Bowl selections — way to go, Steeler Nation — but surprisingly, only one defender earned the nod: linebacker Ryan Shazier. Sure, this defense isn’t of Steel Curtain caliber, or even matching the Dick LeBeau units of the mid-2000s, but Heyward shouldn’t go overlooked. The Steeler recorded his 10th sack of the season in a close loss to New Englandon Sunday and is tied with two Pro Bowlers in the statistical category. He’s arguably Pittsburgh’s best remaining defender. As part of a team that locked up the AFC North before voting closed, he deserves this honor.
Brandin Cooks, WR, New England Patriots
Cooks got plenty of publicity when the Saints shipped him to the Patriots in the offseason, and he’s quietly lived up to expectations. The diminutive, speedy wideout has caught 58 passes for 984 yards and six scores and is on the verge of becoming the second Patriots pass-catcher to break 1,000 yards this season, with Pro Bowl tight end Rob Gronkowski being the first. Cooks is 10th in the league in receiving yards and right in line with Pro Bowl selection Larry Fitzgerald, who trails Cooks by just 2 yards and one touchdown. New England only has four Pro Bowlers, so we can’t make the “there’s too many Patriots” argument here, either.
Julius Peppers, DE, Carolina Panthers
We’ll keep this one brief, because this might be the biggest miss of them all. Julius Peppers is 37 years old. He’s only participated in 49 percent of Carolina’s defensive snaps this season. And even with those factors working against him, he’s tied for 10th in the league (along with two players who were voted to the Pro Bowl) in sacks with 10. Those two who made the Pro Bowl with the same amount of sacks have played at least 312 more plays than Peppers this season (Von Miller has been in 719; Cameron Jordan has been in 790). What Peppers is doing this season is remarkable.
Case Keenum, QB, Minnesota Vikings
Keenum was best known as the guy who was essentially waiting to have his job taken from him by heir apparent Jared Goff in Los Angeles last season. That eventually happened, and Keenum drifted to Minnesota, where he was suddenly called into action when Sam Bradford‘s troublesome knee sidelined him. Keenum has made Vikings fans forget about Bradford (and almost forget about Teddy Bridgewater, too), playing lights-out football for much of the season. The quarterback is 12th in the league in passing yards and owns a more-than-respectable 98.9 passer rating. He’s also helped turn teammate Adam Thielen into a Pro Bowl receiver, and carried an offense that lost franchise back Dalvin Cook early. Minnesota is heading to the playoffs, with a lot of credit due to Keenum.
Jordan Howard, RB, Chicago Bears
Chicago isn’t going to the postseason this year, but it’s found a nice little backfield tandem in Howard and Tarik Cohen. The former is fourth (!!) in the league in rushing yards with 1,069 and a sparkling 4.4 yards per carry average to go along with seven rushing touchdowns — and this is while also seeing some of the touches go to Cohen. Howard has come on strong as of late, but also keyed a major upset win over Pittsburgh early in the season. He should be on this roster.
Davante Adams, WR, Green Bay Packers
Green Bay is going to wish it had allocated funds to pay Adams, because after this season, a prospective buyer flush with cash will happily back a truck up to Adams to lure him away from Wisconsin. Adams is second in the league in receiving touchdowns and is a major reason why Green Bay remained in contention without Aaron Rodgers until Sunday’s loss to Carolina.
Blake Martinez, LB, Green Bay Packers
Martinez has been all over the field for the Packers, racking up 127 tackles in 14 games. He’s hit double digits in tackles in seven games this season as part of a Green Bay defense that had to shoulder an increased load during Rodgers’ absence. The unit isn’t the best, ranking in the lower third of the league against the run and in total yards allowed per game, but Martinez has made 13 percent of the 959 total tackles recorded by the Packers this season by himself. He’s in a three-way tie with Cleveland’s Joe Schobert and Washington’s Zach Brown for the league lead, which adds to his forced fumble, two fumble recoveries and one interception.