2023 Pro Bowl Games snubs: Justin Fields, Tua Tagovailoa among players left out

Published: Dec 21, 2022 at 08:07 PM

The 2023 Pro Bowl Games rosters have been announced and, for the most part, they represent the best of the NFL’s best.

But most know that the Pro Bowl will never be a perfect representation of the league’s finest for any given season. The voting process can favor popular players and superstars and/or unfairly penalize talented players who aren’t quite household names.

So having gone through the AFC and NFC reps, we’ll give some thoughts on players who were left off but should have made it. This is a tough auditing process, though, as there are only so many roster spots for each conference’s team, and some positions naturally will be more loaded than others.

Snubs happen every single year, which is unfortunate because players often have bonuses tied to earning Pro Bowl honors. We can’t make total amends and compensate every scorned player commensurately. But we can do our best to shout out players who are deserving of making it to Las Vegas for the reimagined event on Feb. 5.

NOTE: Players are listed alphabetically within each conference.

AFC

Tyson Campbell

Jacksonville Jaguars · CB

When we talk about the great young corners in the league, we often start with players such as Pat Surtain and Sauce Gardner — and for good reason. Both were slam-dunk Pro Bowl selections. But why not more love for Campbell? Perhaps some of it is Jacksonville-related, with many observers overlooking that team in general until its recent hot streak.

The 2021 second-round pick has had his hands full a couple times this season, such as against Davante Adams in Week 9, but the fact that the Jaguars asked him to cover one of the best wideouts man-to-man shows how far he’s come in one year’s time. With two picks, 12 passes defended and improved run defense, Campbell looks like a young star on the rise.

Alex Highsmith

Pittsburgh Steelers · Edge

When T.J. Watt suffered a significant injury in Week 1, sidelining him for the next two months, it was a devastating blow for a Steelers team that would go on to struggle and fall to the fringes of the playoff race. But in no way, shape or form can we place any blame at the feet of Highsmith, who was one of Pittsburgh’s defensive standouts during that stretch.

Highsmith has 11 sacks on the year, not going more than two straight games without one. He also leads the NFL with five forced fumbles, taking over the ball-stripping role from Watt in his absence. Pittsburgh’s defense has held opponents to 18 points or fewer in seven of the past nine games, and Highsmith’s emergence has been a big reason why.

Tyler Linderbaum

The Ravens’ offense has underperformed all year, scoring the fewest points per game (21.7) since Lamar Jackson became the team’s starter in 2019. That unit has looked even worse without Jackson over the past three weeks, scoring just 29 total points since Jackson’s first-quarter exit against Denver.

But don’t blame Linderbaum for the offense’s struggles; the rookie has been playing excellent ball, especially of late.

Turn on the Buccaneers tape from Week 8 for an example of what we’re talking about. The first-rounder takes LB Devin White on about a 7-yard ride on one play. Looking for something more recent? Check out the Pittsburgh game from two weeks ago, when the Steelers moved Cam Heyward over center quite a bit. Linderbaum more than held his own against the three-time All-Pro.

“I think they felt like they were going to test Tyler, and Tyler came through,” Ravens head coach John Harbaugh said the day after Baltimore’s 16-14 win over their rivals. “(He) had some really phenomenal blocks (and) just continues to improve all the time. So, (I’m) really happy we have him.”

Matt Milano

Milano has been one of the AFC-leading Bills’ MVPs this season, battling through a knee injury to hold Buffalo’s defense together. He’s been an outstanding tackler, terrific in coverage and an excellent blitzer. As the Bills try for an elusive Super Bowl title, his importance to that unit — especially with Von Miller now out for the season — cannot be overstated. Milano has 12 tackles for loss, but it’s his coverage ability (he’s allowed the second-fewest yards per target since entering the league in 2017 at 5.9, per PFF) that sets him apart.

The Bills lost to the Jets in their first meeting, which was the one game Milano missed this season. In the rematch, a 20-12 win, he had a team-high nine tackles, two passes defended, a tackle for loss, a fumble recovery and a crushing hit on Jets QB Mike White that briefly knocked him out of the game.

Jaelan Phillips

It took a little bit for Phillips to get cranked up this season, with one sack in his first five games, but he’s been hot pretty much since then. Perhaps the acquisition of Bradley Chubb has helped, but we can’t take anything away from Phillips himself as he develops into one of the better young pass rushers in the NFL.

One reason why is his combination of athleticism, burst and effort. Next Gen Stats tracks “hustle stops” (defined as “tackles that result in a successful play for the defense where the player covers 20-plus yards of distance from snap to tackle”), and Phillips has a whopping 10 of them on the season, trailing only Dallas’ Micah Parsons with 11 among edge rushers.

For the 6-foot-5, 266-pound Phillips to rank so high in that category, and have seven sacks and two fumble recoveries, is impressive.

Rhamondre Stevenson

New England Patriots · RB

Can we ignore for a moment that he started one of the goofiest plays to lose a game in recent memory? In lieu, let’s focus on Stevenson’s excellent season to date, which has seen him fully wrest free the Patriots’ RB1 job and run with it. Sunday was actually his career-high for rush yards (172), which gives him a good chance to cross the 1,000-yard mark in the next game or two.

But, seriously, where would the Patriots be without the second-year back? They’re not a good football team now, and would be even less competitive without his consistent production. Stevenson has 60 catches (two-plus in all but one game), one fumble (which the Pats recovered) and is averaging 5 yards per carry. In a year when almost everything has gone wrong offensively for New England, Stevenson has been the one Patriots offensive player they’ve been able to count on.

Tua Tagovailoa

We’re with the fans, who made Tagovailoa this year’s highest vote-getter, in thinking he’s deserving of a spot. The past three games have brought us back to earth a bit, and the Jaguars’ Trevor Lawrence and Bears’ Justin Fields (in the NFC) have started to make similarly compelling cases that they deserve Pro Bowl mention. But for season-long accomplishments, even taking his two-game injury stretch into consideration, we’ll take Tua.

Before this season, the third-year signal-caller had one career pass TD of 40-plus yards. On Sunday, he recorded his seventh of the year, tying Dan Marino’s team mark. Tagovailoa and Mike McDaniel have been a great pairing so far, as have Tua and his receivers, with Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle both ranking among the best at their position this year.

In the three games in which Tagovailoa has missed time this year (Weeks 4-6), the Dolphins are 0-3 with 2.3 turnovers per game. In games he’s started and finished, Miami is 8-3 with just 0.7 turnovers per game.

We really couldn’t imagine swapping out any of the three AFC Pro Bowl quarterbacks — Patrick Mahomes, Joe Burrow or Josh Allen – so this would be making a case to carry a fourth QB.

Christian Wilkins

His teammate, Jaelan Phillips, naturally has more “hustle stops” than the 310-pound Wilkins. But the fourth-year defensive tackle has impressively displayed his athleticism and high motor this season, too. Take the tackle he made against the 49ers’ Jauan Jennings in Week 13: Wilkins was a good 8-9 yards behind the receiver when he caught a pass at the Miami 42-yard line but somehow caught up to him (and jarred the ball loose) at the 27-yard line.

A defensive tackle running 25 yards to make a tackle? That’s the kind of guy we want in the Pro Bowl Games. Throw in his 2.5 sacks, 14 tackles for loss, two forced fumbles and one recovery, and it’s hard to imagine he doesn’t deserve it. Maybe the Dolphins need to feed him another TD catch to get people to notice.

NFC

Justin Fields

Trivia question: How many Bears quarterbacks have been named to the Pro Bowl in the common draft era (since 1967)? Chicago fans likely know the answer is two — Jim McMahon in 1985 and, yep, Mitch Trubisky for the 2018 season. The first is a Bears fan favorite. The second is not. Fields’ ultimate place in their hearts remains undetermined, but his breakout in 2022 has been nothing short of fantastic for the QB-starved franchise.

Some might argue that Fields has room to grow as a thrower, but he’s taken big leaps in that department, completing 68.1% of his passes with 10 TDs and four interceptions in his past six games. That included a strong showing in a loss to the Eagles. Considering his supporting cast, Fields’ passing growth has been admirable.

But we all know why Fields is here, first and foremost. He’s become one of the most dangerous runners at the quarterback position, recently joining Michael Vick and Lamar Jackson as the only NFL QBs to rush for 1,000 yards in a season. In fact, he’s currently on pace to break Jackson’s single-season rushing record (1,206 in 2019).

Dre Greenlaw

San Francisco 49ers · OLB

San Francisco’s defense is currently riding a seven-game streak of holding opponents to 17 or fewer points — and it’s no shock that the 49ers have won every one of those games, even while recently making a quarterback change. The defense has been recognized with three other Pro Bowl selections in Nick Bosa, Fred Warner and Talanoa Hufanga. But we believe a fourth is warranted.

Greenlaw first became a folk hero after his goal-line tackle against the Seahawks in 2019 completely changed the 49ers’ course that season. But he’s become an even better all-around player in the years since, with 49ers GM John Lynch recently telling NBC Sports Bay Area that Greenlaw “has taken his game to new heights.”

And he’s been on fire lately, recovering a fumble for a touchdown versus Miami, tying his career best for tackles (15) against the Bucs and making a game-changing forced fumble last Thursday against Seattle. 

Javon Hargrave

The Eagles might be on the precipice of history, with four different players capable of hitting the 10-sack mark — that’s never been done before. Hargrave already has had a career season in the pass-rush department, as his two sacks of fellow snub Justin Fields on Sunday brought Hargrave’s total to 10.

The seventh-year veteran had never posted more than 5 sacks in a season prior to last year’s 7.5 tally, which was good enough for him to earn his first Pro Bowl nod. In many ways, Hargrave has been even better this year. He’s also forced one fumble and recovered two more, providing a playmaking element in the middle of perhaps the best pass-rush group in the NFL.

Christian McCaffrey

The trade from Carolina might have resurrected his career, but it strangely seems to have hurt his Pro Bowl campaign. Why a player getting traded (between two NFC teams, no less) would affect a player’s Pro Bowl viability is anyone’s guess, especially when said player has become a pivotal piece on a quality team.

McCaffrey might end up being a season-saver of sorts for the 49ers, who have had to lean on him more after Jimmy Garoppolo’s season-ending injury and with Deebo Samuel dealing with knee and ankle issues. Over McCaffrey’s past three games, which all fell in an 11-day span, he’s played 159 snaps and had a combined 73 touches.

Since coming to the 49ers, he’s run for, thrown for and caught touchdowns, also surpassing the 1,500-total-yard mark for the third time in his career. He’s arguably been one of San Francisco’s most important players on offense this season, despite only playing in eight games.

Isaac Seumalo

Occasionally overlooked on a star-studded offensive line, Seumalo was noticed more last season for his absence. As in, the Eagles just couldn’t get the interior of their offensive line figured out a year ago when Seumalo was out with injuries. But when healthy, he’s a rock-solid guard (one accepted penalty in 2022) who hasn’t missed a beat this season.

Granted, many blockers would look better playing between two possible Hall of Famers in Jason Kelce and Lane Johnson, but Seumalo’s excellent run blocking and very clean pass protection this season have helped fuel the Eagles’ offense and make Jalen Hurts one of the MVP favorites.

Penei Sewell

We can’t lie: Sewell going in motion and then catching an out route to convert a third-and-7 with just over two minutes to go in a tight game against Minnesota did tug at our heartstrings. But his place on this list is far more about what Sewell is doing as a blocker than as a receiver. We might have chosen the Vikings’ Christian Darrisaw, who also has been excellent, but his three-week stint on the sideline due to injury tilted us back to Sewell.

The Lions have a fun, talented young nucleus, and Sewell is a big part of that. He’s been flagged eight times, which is on the high side, and eventually he’ll need to grow out of the false starts. But when Sewell is locked in, especially when the Lions are running the ball in have-to-have-it situations, the former seventh overall pick has looked outstanding.

Amon-Ra St. Brown

Despite a slow start compounded by multiple injuries, which caused him to miss one game and parts of two others, St. Brown very quietly ranks among the league leaders in receptions (89; sixth), receiving yards (974; 10th) and yards per touch (11.0; seventh). He’s surpassed his rookie receiving and rushing totals in about the same number of chances so far this season, becoming more adept at breaking tackles and gaining yards after the catch.

St. Brown has been an absolute monster in the second half of the season, proving he’s healthy again. Since Week 9, St. Brown has hauled in a whopping 630 of his 974 receiving yards, while boasting the highest catch percentage (78.3%) among receivers with at least 50 targets, per Next Gen Stats. It’s not a coincidence that the Lions have gone 6-1 during that stretch, hurtling back into the playoff picture.

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