1. DeAndre Levy, linebacker, Lions
With all respect to Ndamukong Suh, Levy is the heart and soul of the Lions' defense. He's one of the smartest players in the league, seemingly knowing what play the opposing offense will run before they do it. He can cover tight ends and is incredible pursuing runners. Levy had a far better year than Clay Matthews, who made the team off name recognition.
2. Antoine Bethea, safety, 49ers
The former Indianapolis Colts stalwart was a revelation this season in San Francisco. He's been one of the five best defensive backs at either position this season, making big plays week after week. Bethea was a far stronger choice than Seattle's Kam Chancellor, who was ineffective for much of the season while playing hurt. T.J. Ward was also not an inspired pick after a middling season.
3. Fletcher Cox, defensive end, Eagles
The immortal Chris Wesseling named Cox one of the best ten best defensive players of the year, rightly noting that only J.J. Watt outplayed him in the second half of the season. We love watching Cox shed blocks with ease and disrupt running plays in the backfield. There are no bad picks at defensive end, but Cox deserves inclusion over Mario Williams and Clay Matthews.
4-5. Odell Beckham and Golden Tate, wide receivers, Giants and Lions
The Pro Bowl should be about what players matter in the NFL. What players that fans want to see. Beckham has made as big a per-game impact as any rookie wide receiver since Randy Moss. Voters held Beckham's missed games against him, but Calvin Johnson and A.J. Green both made the team despite similar missed snaps. And Beckham has been more productive than the big names at the position, averaging far more than Green and Johnson per game.
Tate, meanwhile, has been more productive overall than Megatron. Few receivers were more valuable in the first half of the season; Tate won multiple games on his own. It's a tough call, but we'd leave Green and Johnson off the list this season at a wildly deep position.
6. Dont'a Hightower, linebacker, Patriots
When the Patriots have needed a big play this season, Hightower has delivered. He's listed at outside linebacker, but gets extra credit for playing inside and out all season. What other player racked up eight sacks while also being a tough run stopper and playing well in coverage. Teammate Jamie Collins had a similar breakout season, but Hightower was easily the better player. We'd remove Tamba Hali from the mix to insert Hightower.
7. Matt Forte, running back, Bears
Forte plays on a team that refuses to run the ball. He plays for a quarterback that is terrible checking out of run plays when he is facing a bad defensive look. Forte is still third among all players in yards from scrimmage, in part because he has 94 catches for 785 yards receiving. That's essentially Jimmy Graham's receiving production, with 1,000 rushing yards thrown in for free! Let's kick LeSean McCoy off the team; his season was erratic until late.
8-9. Mychal Kendricks and Thomas Davis, outside linebacker, Eagles and Panthers
Outside linebacker was not so loaded this year, and that's why Kendricks and Davis deserve mention over Clay Matthews (replaced above), Tamba Hali and Elvis Dumervil. Davis is a sentimental pick after two outstanding seasons coming off three ACL surgeries. But he's earned it. Kendricks has quietly emerged as a week-to-week force. Rookie Khalil Mack would have also been a fine pick.
Honorable mention snubs:Everson Griffen, Vikings; Philip Rivers, Chargers; Antonio Gates, Chargers; Justin Forsett, Ravens; Muhammad Wilkerson, Jets; Sheldon Richardson, Jets; Lavonte David, Buccaneers; Michael Bennett, Seahawks; Devin McCourty, Patriots; Khalil Mack, Raiders; and Harrison Smith, Vikings.