Which Saints deserve Pro Bowl bids?

Tied for the best record in the league and currently holding the #1 seed in the NFC, the Saints seem like a strong bet to garner a big number of Pro Bowl bids this year. And they have a lot of players who are deserving– probably more on offense, obviously, as they have one of the league’s most high-flying attacks, but the strong performance of the defense is in part due to a number of worthy players as well. Without further ado, let’s go position by position. QUARTERBACK Drew Brees is a legitimate MVP candidate and will be the NFC’s Pro Bowl starter. (The game went back to an AFC-NFC format in 2016 after experimenting for three years, although fan voting is still irrespective of conference.) He’s playing at level this year that only Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes is approximating; Brees is also leading the fan voting. Unfortunately, while Taysom Hill has been a valuable part of the team on both offense and special teams, he probably hasn’t done enough to be one of the NFC’s three representatives at quarterback. RUNNING BACK The top five running backs in yards from scrimmage all come from the NFC. Alvin Kamara is one of those five. Unfortunately, there are only three slots for running back in each conference. That means two of Ezekiel Elliott, Saquon Barkley, Todd Gurley, Christian McCaffrey, and Kamara will lose out. Kamara might ride a wave of Saints sentiment, but unfortunately he’s the fifth of those five in yards from scrimmage. (He’s second in touchdowns, though.) I’d like to see a way to fit Kamara in, and I believe he deserves it, but I’m about 50/50 on whether he will get in right now. Mark Ingram has been fine, but he’s nowhere near those top five (and his four-game suspension certainly didn’t help). FULLBACK I honestly have no idea how the NFC’s fullback will be selected, so I suppose Zach Line has a reasonable shot. WIDE RECEIVER Michael Thomas is a lock for one of the four NFC WR slots, as he’s second in the league in receptions, fifth in receiving yards, and first by a mile in catch rate among non-RBs (102/1218/86.4%). Nobody else is close; Tre’Quan Smith’s 371 receiving yards are second on the team at the position. TIGHT END Ben Watson leads the team with 31 receptions for 337 yards. Dan Arnold and Josh Hill’s combined totals don’t reach either. That’s not nearly enough for one of the two NFC tight end slots. (George Kittle and Zach Ertz are miles ahead of everyone else for those spots.) OFFENSIVE LINE This one has been the subject of fascination for me, because the honest truth is, the Saints have an extremely strong offensive line with no weak points. All five starters have played at a level worthy of the Pro Bowl, but it’s even more unlikely for that to happen than it was for all four Saints linebackers to make the Pro Bowl way back in 1992. So which ones are most likely to make it, and which ones would I choose? This actually ended up being simpler than I expected it to be. Terron Armstead has missed four games this season; Andrus Peat has missed three. Armstead has played about 65% of the Saints’ snaps on offense; Peat about 70%. They’ve both been great when they’ve played, but Max Unger and Ryan Ramczyk haven’t missed a single one of New Orleans’ 858 snaps, and Larry Warford has only missed 18. I think those are the three most likely to actually be voted in, too. Pro Bowl voting on the offensive line often manifests in the form of team success and reputation. The offense, and the Saints’ overall record, is certainly of a caliber to get them those votes. Warford was the line’s sole representative last year. Unger was a two-time Pro Bowl pick with Seattle (and All-Pro in 2012), but hasn’t gotten any such recognition with New Orleans. And Ramczyk was a first-round pick last year who was most notable as a rookie for starting the year at left tackle, moving to right tackle, playing every snap, and doing so at a remarkably high level for a rookie. He’s been even better this year, and is well deserving of the honor. (Each conference gets three tackles, three guards, and two centers.) That said, Armstead is, at last count, the leading vote-getter at tackle in the NFC, so he may well get a nod, especially in a year where many of the usual suspects have had down years or been injured (Tyron Smith and Trent Williams come to mind). You know what? I think I’ve talked myself into this. Let’s give Terron Armstead a selection, too. (Sorry, Andrus Peat.) Unger is also leading the fan vote at center, a strong indicator for his chances to be selected (especially with NFC perennial representative Travis Frederick missing the entire season). DEFENSIVE END Cameron Jordan is one of the league’s most relentless defensive linemen, playing nearly every snap and tied for second in the conference with 12 sacks. Last year’s All-Pro (and three-time Pro Bowler) should be an easy selection for one of the three NFC defensive end spots. While Marcus Davenport has been productive on a per-snap basis, between his injury and how he was brought along slowly early in the season, he just hasn’t done enough for a spot. And opposite starting end Alex Okafor is capable, but not Pro Bowl talent. DEFENSIVE TACKLE Perhaps less obvious than Jordan, but also deserving, is Sheldon Rankins, who’s never made a Pro Bowl before but stepped up his game this year, becoming a fearsome interior pass rusher. Playing on an 11-2 team, with some highlight sacks, and an eight-sack total that only trails Aaron Donald and DeForest Buckner among NFC defensive tackles. While I’m less confident he’ll be selected than Jordan, if largely because name recognition so often matters to voters, he’s very much deserving as a crucial part of a defense that has been on lockdown for the stretch run. And he’s not just a pass rusher, but pretty mean in coverage, too: LINEBACKER Each conference gets three spots for outside linebacker and two for inside linebacker. This can make it difficult for off-ball linebackers to get recognition, as inside linebacker spots are limited and outside linebacker spots often go to pass rushers in 3-4 defenses who rack up gaudy sack totals. That said, Demario Davis has been one of the best off-ball linebackers in the league this year, exactly the kind of player the Saints were trying to get in last year’s free-agent linebacker spending spree but didn’t quite land then. He’s been a sure tackling machine– leading the team by a wide margin– strong at diagnosing and stuffing runs, defending running backs in the passing game, and even chipping in three sacks and two forced fumbles. He’s as deserving of the honor as any off-ball linebacker in the league. Unfortunately, he’s listed on the fan ballot as an outside linebacker, which may make it difficult for him to beat out the sack masters. Alex Anzalone is on the fan ballot for the Saints at inside linebacker; he’s been solid, with a couple of signature plays, especially as he’s moved into a clear starting role. It’s probably not enough to beat out stalwarts like Luke Kuechly and Bobby Wagner, though. DEFENSIVE BACK Each conference selects four cornerbacks and three safeties. As a rookie, Marshon Lattimore was a complete lockdown corner, earning Pro Bowl recognition by almost single-handedly turning the pass defense from an atrocious unit into a respectable one. He had a shakier start to the year– as did most of the pass defense– but he rounded back into his usual form after the first few weeks. Even better, he hasn’t missed the time for injury he did last season, when he missed three games and played around 70% of the total defensive snaps. (This year he’s at nearly 90%, with only Marcus Williams playing more for the Saints.) That said, I’m a little unsure of his chances, as the field is stacked with both previous selections playing well (Patrick Peterson, Xavier Rhodes, Darius Slay) and young guys who have taken a serious leap forward this year (Byron Jones, Kyle Fuller). Eli Apple has been good since he arrived from the Giants, shoring up one of the team’s weakest spots, but he’s probably not Pro Bowl-level good, especially considering he’s only played 7 games for New Orleans after falling out of favor in New York. Patrick Robinson was a strong nickel corner before he got hurt, but it’s less common for those guys to get recognition. P.J. Williams has been better at making plays since moving inside, but he’s not going to get a Pro Bowl nomination. At safety, Marcus Williams has mostly been good, although he’s made some visible mistakes, particularly earlier in the year, and those tend to stick out in fans’ minds. He also doesn’t have the big numbers of some of the other safeties, particularly NFC leading vote-getter Eddie Jackson. I do think he’s good and has the talent to be deserving, although he hasn’t taken the kind of step forward this year I had hoped he would. Vonn Bell has been a tackling machine at strong safety, but inexplicably, Kurt Coleman is listed on the ballot as the starter instead of him. Bell is playing about… no, he’s played exactly twice as many snaps as Coleman on defense this season (590 to 295), and he’s trending upward in that regard: The split between Bell and Coleman was 75/25 the previous two weeks, and 80/20 against Tampa Bay. SPECIAL TEAMS Wil Lutz is the leading vote-getter in the league at kicker. He’s also leading the league in scoring, between having kicked the second-most extra points in the league and having only missed one field goal all year. Kicker voting can be somewhat arbitrary, but I believe he’s a deserving choice. Thomas Morstead is having a good year, but in the NFC, Michael Dickson (SEA), Andy Lee (ARI), and Cameron Johnston (PHI) have higher gross and net averages. Plus, the Saints offense is so good that Morstead has punted only about half as often as the other guys. Justin Hardee is the Saints’ ballot option for special teams. I mean, I voted for him, but I couldn’t tell you how the actual process will go. Last year’s selection was Arizona’s Budda Baker, who isn’t on the ballot at the position; Mark Nzeocha of the 49ers is currently leading the fan voting in the NFC. Taysom Hill is on the ballot at return specialist; he might have had more success if he was listed as the special teamer. He’s got a reasonable kick return average, but nothing among the league leaders, and doesn’t return punts (one punt return this year). Tarik Cohen is currently leading the NFC votes, and also leads the NFC in punt return average. So, if you’re keeping score, I’m not certain my selections will be the final ones, but here’s who I’d choose. Bolded means I think they’re locks or close to it. Italics mean I think they have a strong shot:
  • Drew Brees
  • Alvin Kamara
  • Michael Thomas
  • Terron Armstead
  • Ryan Ramczyk
  • Larry Warford
  • Max Unger
  • Cameron Jordan
  • Sheldon Rankins
  • Demario Davis
  • Marshon Lattimore
  • Wil Lutz
Well, twelve is a lot of selections. (Last year, Pittsburgh led the league with eight; New Orleans had six.) This is a fairly optimistic version of the list, where every close case I could think of made it, and I do think all of these players are deserving. Looking at the particular selections I chose and trying to estimate a rough probability on them, a more realistic number is nine, which would still be a very strong showing. The Saints are fully deserving of leading the league in Pro Bowl selections. Fan voting on the Pro Bowl continues through Thursday; the selections will be announced on Tuesday.