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11 New Orleans Saints on the path to the Pro Bowl

Drew Brees, Jimmy Grahm 2014 NFL Pro Bowl

Photo credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

By John Sigler
August 21, 2014 4:56 pm CDT

Every player on this list would rather play in the Super Bowl this year than the Pro Bowl, but they can still be credited with the nomination without actually appearing in it. Even so, if by some tragedy the New Orleans Saints do not make it to the big game the Pro Bowl is a satisfying reward for the roster’s best players.
pro bowl defense

Defense

Jairus Byrd: Previous Pro Bowl appearances in 2009, 2012 and 2013. Byrd has been one of the best free safeties in the NFL during his career and can certainly rival Seattle’s Earl Thomas for the title of best in football in 2014. Byrd has led the NFL in turnovers since 2009 with 11 forced fumbles and 22 interceptions while adding 14 passes broken up. That’s on only 145 targets over five years, an interception frequency of 15.15% and total passes defended rate of 24.79%. Compare that to Earl Thomas’ 17 interceptions and 9 passes broken up on 154 targets, rates of 11.04% and 16.88%. Byrd is also a better tackler, missing on more than four attempts just once in his career (2011) for an average annual rate of 6.36% while Thomas has missed 12 or more times every season he has played in the NFL, an average yearly rate of 13.59%. Byrd has already made a name for himself as a pro (and Pro Bowler), but his best days could still be ahead of him in New Orleans.

Keenan Lewis: No previous Pro Bowl appearances. Lewis broke out in 2012 but emerged as a top-10 cornerback in the NFL last season. He made it known that he wanted to play in the Pro Bowl but the voters neglected to include him. Lewis is as shutdown as anyone in pro football, being targeted in coverage less often than any other cornerback not named Darrelle Revis or Richard Sherman (Lewis was thrown at on 12.93% of his snaps in coverage; Revis was targeted 11.33% of the time, and Sherman 10.56%). Because of the fewer opportunities to make plays on the ball Lewis’ passes defensed frequency (interceptions plus passes broken up divided by targets) dropped to 13.24% from his 2012 rate of 14.29%, but his four interceptions were a career-high. With Byrd playing over the top and an effective pass rush pressuring quarterbacks, Lewis could take another leap in 2014 to take the stage in Arizona as one of the best players at his position.

Kenny Vaccaro: No previous Pro Bowl appearances. Vaccaro was a prodigy for the Saints in 2013, living up to his billing as the best safety in a rookie class deep at the position. His missed tackle rate of 3.70% (three misses on 81 attempts) was the best of all NFL starting strong safeties. He made 34.18% of his tackles for loss, no gain, or minimal gain, sixth-best at his position behind Pro Bowlers TJ Ward, Troy Polamalu, Kam Chancellor, and quality starters James Ihedigbo and Mark Barron. In coverage, even though Vaccaro was the third-most-frequently targeted strong safety (10.16%) and he played many snaps at slot and outside cornerback, his yards per catch allowed was the sixth-lowest at 9.79 and his yards after the catch allowed was eighth-best at 3.57. Vaccaro recorded only one interception in 2013 but his total passes defense rate was tied for fifth at 15.91%. He does need to improve as a blitzer and overall playmaker (having made only one sack and one forced fumble in 2013), but who doesn’t? At any rate Vaccaro appears to have made strides this offseason while returning from his late-season ankle injury, and many national analysts are already predicting him to be a perennial Pro Bowler in his NFL career. I feel safe making the same prediction.

Cameron Jordan: Previous Pro Bowl appearance in 2013. Cameron Jordan has taken a step every year in his young career in New Orleans to become one of the best defensive linemen playing today. He lines up at three- and five-technique for the Saints to wreck havoc in opposing backfields. In many ways Jordan is similar to Houston Texans all-universe defensive end J.J. Watt. Both players are highly athletic and smaller than typical players for their position (Jordan is listed at 6’4” and 287 pounds, Watt is 6’5” and 290 pounds) and they both have found an ability to convert speed to power when rushing the passer from the interior as well as the outside. In 2013, Jordan made his first Pro Bowl after pressuring quarterbacks on 13.90% of his pass rushes (third-best in the NFL for 3-4 defensive ends behind Watt’s 15.29% and San Francisco 49ers great Justin Smith’s 18.30%) and missing on only two tackle attempts. An underrated ability of Jordan’s is his still-developing skill at deflecting passes at the line of scrimmage; he made four deflections in 2013, tied for fourth-most at his position. Jordan is a young player who is still developing and learning, and has a great shot at returning to the Pro Bowl in 2014.

Junior Galette: No previous Pro Bowl appearances. Galette was finally given his chance to start for the Saints and he fully seized the opportunity. He pressured quarterbacks on 12.08% of his pass rushes (15th of 42 players at his position who played 25% or more snaps for their teams), sacked quarterbacks on 2.50% of his pass rushes (12th-best), and missed on only 8.00% of his tackle attempts (18th-best). Galette led the NFC in sacks (12) and was second only to Robert Mathis (19.5) in the NFL as a whole. He did show weaknesses against the run and in coverage, overrunning opponents in the backfield and looking out of his comfort zone when dropping back to cover a receiver, but his well-publicized his efforts at improving those skills in social media this offseason. Another big year from Galette and declines from older 2013 Pro Bowlers like John Abraham, Robert Mathis, and Brian Orakpo could open the door for his first appearance in the all-star game.

Jahri Evans: Previous Pro Bowl appearances in 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013. This was a down year for Evans as he dealt with injuries and the transition to a zone-blocking rushing attack scheme, breaking his 114-consecutive regular season game streak. He was still one of the more productive guards in the NFL, allowing pressure on Drew Brees on only 2.97% of his pass blocking snaps which was good for fourth-best in the game. Evans allowed only two sacks of Brees as well (a rate of 0.33%) which was 21-st of the NFL’s 64 starting offensive guards last season. Saints running backs enjoyed an average 2.30 yards before contact when rushing through the gaps he was responsible for, 16th-best among NFL starters. Evans has struggled with some more injuries in training camp and the preseason exhibition games, though how much time has missed to precaution is a mystery. He should be ready to rock and roll for the Saints’ opening day match with the Atlanta Falcons, and hopes to continue his streak of Pro Bowl appearances into 2014.

Offense

Ben Grubbs: Previous Pro Bowl appearances in 2011 and 2013. Grubbs may not have the accolades given to Evans in his career, but he is still a top-flight option at offensive guard in the NFL today. Grubbs had the unenviable task of compensating for Charles Brown’s shortcoming at left tackle for most of the season, increasing his responsibilities beyond what they normally should be. Grubbs allowed three sacks, five hits, and twenty hurries on his pass blocking snaps (a rate of 4.01%, 15th-best in the NFL) and tied for the 33rd-ranked average yards before contact gained by Saints running backs at 1.89. Now that Grubbs isn’t saddled with cleaning up for Brown’s mistakes, he should perform much better as the Saints carve up opposing defenses on the ground in 2014 and he maintains his Pro Bowl form. The player lined up to Grubbs’ left will play a large role in that, which brings us to the next name on this list.

Terron Armstead: No previous Pro Bowl appearances. After fourteen weeks of inconsistent-to-bad play out of Charles Brown at left tackle, the sudden emergence of Terron Armstead was a welcome surprise late in the 2013 season. Armstead followed up a shaky game against the Carolina Panthers with a string of dominant performances as a run blocker versus increasingly stout defenses. Saints running backs averaged 2.01 yards before contact per carry when running behind the left side of the offensive line after Armstead stepped into the lineup. The Saints offensive line as a whole allowed pressure on only 29.93% of pass blocks with Armstead; without him they allowed pressure on 36.39% of pass blocks. Armstead hit the ground running and has looked fantastic this preseason. If he picks up where he left off, he could very well be the third Saints offensive lineman to make the Pro Bowl.

Brandin Cooks: No previous Pro Bowl appearances. Cooks is very much a wild card. He is the best “small” wide receiver to come out of the college ranks in over a decade and has completely lived up to the hype thus far in the preseason activities and exhibition games. The question of the day is whether or not he can transfer that kind of productivity into the regular season. Cooks has exceptional hands, body control, vision, route running, and speed, and if he can get over the rookie jitters and put those tools to use he can be a 1,000-yard receiver. How well he plays is dependent on the play calling, how quickly he can build a rapport with Brees, and his ability to get separation from defenders. Cooks can control that last variable and has a work ethic to rival his quarterback’s. If he conquers at least two of those three challenges he may not have a ceiling of production.

Drew Brees: Previous Pro Bowl appearances in 2004, 2006, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013. Is it really a question whether or not Drew Brees will make the Pro Bowl? He hasn’t missed the all-star game since 2008 and is at the top of his game with a pass-vulnerable schedule to rival what Peyton Manning had last year. Barring something very good (a Super Bowl appearance) or very bad (the i-word, knock on wood) Brees will once again lead a team in this year’s Pro Bowl.

Jimmy Graham: Previous Pro Bowl appearances in 2011 and 2013. After months of debate and deliberation we have settled the issue that, yes, Jimmy Graham is a tight end. He’s also easily the most productive receiving tight end in the game today (when Gronkowski isn’t healthy, anyway) and in the prime of his career with a future Hall of Fame quarterback throwing to him. Teams had enough trouble slowing Graham down last year, and with his health returned and contract disputes settled they have the pessimistic challenge of doing it again. Graham is looked at another 1,200+ yard receiving season with about a dozen touchdowns sprinkled on top, and should again be a shoe-in for the Pro Bowl in Arizona.

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