Picking first-time Pro Bowlers: DK Metcalf, Josh Allen shine

This one is a lock. Metcalf has grown from a draft prospect who intrigued with his sheer size and athleticism to a physical freak who is becoming a multi-level threat. Because of Metcalf’s production, the Seahawks landed atop my receiving corps rankings last week, and he’s a nightmare for opponents; he destroys them down the sideline and then wins inside with his frame, scoring six touchdowns on in-breaking routes. He’s also the No. 5 receiver in the NFL (min. 50 targets) in yards gained after the catch over expectation per reception, averaging 2.2 more yards gained after catch than expected, based on surrounding factors impacting his chances. His lack of impact in Week 10 against Jalen Ramsey shouldn’t be overlooked, but his success throughout the rest of the season outweighs that individual game. Metcalf ranks third in receiving yards, right behind perennial Pro Bowlers DeAndre Hopkins and Stefon Diggs. Metcalf is a Pro Bowler, plain and simple.

Josh Allen likely won’t win the award, but he’s made a legitimate case for NFL MVP in his third professional season — by improving in key areas that were once his downfall.

 

Allen is finding success by relying on his greatest strengths: athleticism and his lauded big arm. Allen is tied for third in the NFL in passing touchdowns thrown while on the run (8-plus mph at time of release), trailing only Patrick Mahomes (nine) and Russell Wilson (seven). He’s tied at six touchdowns with Aaron Rodgers, who has made a career out of throwing while moving. Allen’s also improved the accuracy of his cannon-like arm, nearly doubling his completion percentage on deep passes from the previous two seasons (23.1% in 2018-19) to this season (42.9%), moving from last in that category in 2018-19 to eighth in 2020 among qualified passers. Stefon Diggs‘ involvement helps there, no doubt, but so does play-action; Allen has completed nine of 18 passes for 295 yards and two touchdowns on deep attempts out of play-action. And lastly, Allen excels when using more than the standard three seconds to throw the ball — he’s first among QBs in completions (30), passing yards (511), TDs (five) and expected points added (26) on dropbacks that last four seconds or longer. And that’s not just an occasional occurrence; Allen’s rate of extended dropbacks (17.3 percent of all passes) is the highest among qualified quarterbacks.

 

Oh, and pressure Allen if you must, but don’t expect a positive outcome. Allen owns a 62.4 completion percentage, throwing for nine touchdowns, one interception and a 105.5 passer rating against the blitz. He’s done so by airing it out less, cutting down his average air yards per attempt against the blitz by nearly 2 yards from Years 1 and 2 to Year 3.

 

In total, Allen is playing at an elite level. This is what Buffalo dreamed of when it spent the seventh overall pick on him in 2018, and a gigantic reason for why the Bills are the favorite to win the AFC East.

The Packers are using Jaire Alexander as their primary lockdown corner, and he’s largely shutting down opposing No. 1 receivers. In Week 6 against Tampa Bay, Alexander covered Mike Evans on 79 percent of his routes run, allowing zero receptions on one target. He also blanked Houston’s Will Fuller in Week 7, covering him on 68 percent of his routes run and denying him a single catch. The story was the same in Week 4 against Atlanta’s Calvin Ridley, who went without a reception on three targets when covered by Alexander (82 percent of 27 routes run), while Minnesota’s Justin Jefferson caught just one pass on two targets (covered by Alexander on 11 of 14 routes run) for 12 yards. Only one receiver has found significant success against Alexander, and that was way back in Week 1, when the Vikings’ Adam Thielen faced Alexander on 22 of his 27 routes and caught four of six targets for 66 yards and a touchdown. The kicker: Alexander picked off Kirk Cousins on one of those targets. Alexander has grown into the shutdown defender Green Bay envisioned it was getting with the 18th-overall pick of the 2018 draft, and is deserving of his first Pro Bowl honor.

Terry McLaurin would probably receive a lot more attention if he were part of a more competitive team. Once seen as the second-best receiver in his position group at Ohio State behind eventual second-round pick Parris Campbell, McLaurin has since proven that evaluation wrong. He’s helped himself in his first two pro seasons by taking matters into his own hands — this season, McLaurin leads NFL receivers in yards gained after the catch (414) through nine games. Of those 414 yards gained after the catch, 149 were above expectation, giving him an impressive 35-yard lead over the rest of the league in that department. Only Tennessee’s A.J. Brown and Minnesota’s Justin Jefferson have more yards after the catch over expectation per reception. McLaurin has also made a habit of recording highlight grabs. Consider how he obliterated Next Gen Stats’ expectation for him on one 68-yard score in Week 9. On that play, 48 yards came after the catch — only 1 of which was expected to be gained. The touchdown probability on the play? Less than 1 percent. Plenty have underestimated McLaurin, but the fact that he scored in that situation is outrageous — as it would be if McLaurin doesn’t receive a Pro Bowl nod.

With Patrick Mahomes also existing in the AFC, this will be a tough feat to accomplish, but Justin Herbert has been making the difficult look easy in 2020. Herbert owns a 10:1 TD-to-INT ratio against the blitz this season, good for the second most touchdowns in such scenarios in the entire NFL. The rookie also owns a 119.6 passer rating against the blitz, the fifth-highest mark in the league, and he’s thrown six touchdowns while under pressure, which leads the NFL. His scoring plays aren’t just products of short passes, either: Herbert has thrown eight touchdowns on deep passes in 2020, the second-most in the league. His 66.8 completion percentage, 2,333 passing yards and 19:6 TD-to-INT ratio stand as legitimate when considering how well he’s played under pressure, and though the Chargers have found more ways to lose than win in 2020, it’s not the fault of Herbert, who has a chance to reach the Pro Bowl in his first season.

Robby Anderson must feel as light as a feather after leaving the weight of New York behind with his move from the Jets to the Panthers. He sure looks like it on the field, catching 64 passes for 772 yards and one touchdown so far this season. Anderson’s production has come as part of a revamped offense directed by first-year coordinator Joe Brady and conducted by new arrival Teddy Bridgewater, and he’s among the most efficient receivers in the NFL. Anderson’s 2.5 receiving yards gained per route are the sixth most in the NFL (among receivers with a minimum of 200 routes), and he’s caught 34 of his 64 receptions (more than half) on in-breaking routes, the most in the NFL. His 330 receiving yards gained on such routes are the fifth-most in the league, proving he’s more than just a threat down the sideline. Anderson will soon be in line to join his second new team: the 2021 Pro Bowl squad.

Atlanta was forced to go without Calvin Ridley for much of Week 8 and all of Week 9 thanks to a foot sprain. Though Matt Ryan found ways to fill the gaps, Ridley’s effectiveness when available is impossible to overlook. Ridley is a threat along the boundary, seeing targets on over half of his out routes and gaining 182 yards and two touchdowns on such completions, tying him for second in both categories in the NFL. He trails only DeAndre Hopkins and Amari Cooper in out-route targets and is behind only Hopkins in receiving yards.

That’s not the only area of the field in which Ridley has been effective. Ridley had 45 targets of 10-plus air yards this season as of Week 8, the most in the NFL in that span; he also ranked first in receptions on such targets (26), yards (506) and was tied for eighth in touchdowns (three). He’s made easy work of soft coverage, against which he’s caught 19 of 28 targets downfield, gaining 341 yards and scoring a touchdown. He also accounted for 37.4 percent of Atlanta’s air yards, the eighth-highest share in the entire league, through Week 8.

Missing games will hurt anyone’s Pro Bowl case, but it shouldn’t for Ridley, who proved his value and effectiveness in the first half of the season.

Devin White has been a promising linebacker since his 2019 rookie season in Tampa, but with the increased exposure afforded him now that Tom Brady is in town, this could be the year he makes the leap. White is already ahead of his 2019 pace in total tackles (he has 88 so far, three shy of his 2019 total), sacks (five, which is twice as many as his 2.5 sacks from last year) and passes defensed (two, one short of his ’19 total). He’s been all over the field for Tampa Bay, recording 12 hustle stops (stops where the player covers 20-plus yards of in-play distance from snap to tackle) this season, good for the third most in the NFL. With added attention, folks will soon wake up to the potential and effectiveness of White, and that should earn him a Pro Bowl nod.

Emmanuel Ogbah’s inclusion on this list might surprise you — unless you’ve been watching the Miami Dolphins on a weekly basis, in which case you know Ogbah has been a consistent troublemaker along Miami’s defensive front. Ogbah is in the running for the league lead in sacks with eight, trailing NFL leader (and former Browns teammate) Myles Garrett by just 1.5 sacks, but he’s making an impact beyond just taking down the quarterback. Ogbah has caused four turnovers with his pressures, the third-most in the NFL, and his 25 quarterback pressures rank among the top 20 in the entire league. When the Dolphins take the field, they can count on Ogbah to make a difference up front, and he’s doing so consistently enough to deserve Pro Bowl recognition.

Josh Jacobs lost out on the Offensive Rookie of the Year award last season despite making a legitimate case — but he shouldn’t be left at the altar again when it comes to the Pro Bowl. Jacobs racked up 1,150 yards and seven touchdowns in 13 games in 2019, and he’s on pace to break that total this season and double his rushing touchdowns. He’s done so while working with a rotating cast up front due to injuries among the O-line. While his rushing yards over expectation (+0.13 per carry) isn’t anything to write home about, Jacobs is still doing his job and doing it well, powering a Raiders offense that has Las Vegas in a great spot as we reach Week 11. Jacobs is a huge reason why the Raiders are in playoff contention.

HONORABLE MENTIONS: Clyde Edwards-Helaire, RB, Kansas City Chiefs; Trey Hendrickson, DE, New Orleans Saints; James Robinson, RB, Jacksonville Jaguars; Joe Burrow, QB, Cincinnati Bengals.

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