Marc Sessler has plucked one prime candidate from each team to earn a first Pro Bowl nod in 2019. Below are his NFC picks.
ARIZONA CARDINALS: Christian Kirk, WR, second NFL season: We lack an exact picture of Kliff Kingsbury's Air Raid-flavored offense, but it's apparent the attack will pepper enemies with four-wide sets that force defenses to make critical decisions on the fly: Blanket potential receivers? Key on do-everything back David Johnson? Or keep an eye on fleet-footed Kyler Murray in case he decides to blast into hyperspace by foot? Veteran wideout Larry Fitzgerald told NFL Network's Steve Wyche that Arizona's playbook was "different than anything he's] ever run," but noted Murray was ["already in the driver's seat" due to his familiarity with the system. Kingsbury went out of his way to note that Kirk "has a good feel for it, as well," after shining in a familiar scheme at Texas A&M. Off to a fast start, Kirk's stock is rising as the Cardinals prepare to feature his gifts as a deep threat. I'm betting on Kingsbury and Murray churning out a fleet of big-yardage targets led by the frisky Kirk.
ATLANTA FALCONS: Grady Jarrett, DT, fifth NFL season: The 6-foot, 305-pound Jarrett has been consistent on the field -- and consistently overlooked for Pro Bowl honors. Tough sledding, with Aaron Donald operating in a similar role, but Jarrett joined the Rams star last season as the only interior lineman to play at least 14 games while notching both a stop and a quarterback pressure in every tilt. Jarrett's space-eating ability and pass-rushing prowess landed him sixth league-wide at his position in 2018, per Pro Football Focus. His contract-year status (barring a long-term extension for the franchise-tagged Jarrett) won't hurt, either, this time around.
CAROLINA PANTHERS: Christian McCaffrey, RB, third NFL season: A notorious Pro Bowl snub a year ago, McCaffrey finished sixth overall in rushing (1,098 yards) and third in yards from scrimmage (1,965), only to watch the NFL's all-star game from a faraway love seat. Packing on noticeable muscle this offseason and looming as Carolina's pacesetter, McCaffrey will exact his revenge when autumn strikes.
CHICAGO BEARS: Roquan Smith, LB, second NFL season:Khalil Mack, Akiem Hicks, Kyle Fuller and Eddie Jackson all made the Pro Bowl a year ago. It's no stretch to suggest Smith will be next after logging 121 tackles, five sacks and 12 pressures as a first-round rookie. He made leaps as the season crept along, boasting tangible pass-coverage skills and playing one of his most impressive games all year in Chicago's tight playoff loss to the Eagles. Smith's finest days are ahead.
DALLAS COWBOYS: Jaylon Smith, LB, third NFL season: Let's remember that marvelous rookie Leighton Vander Esch was initially snubbed by voters before landing in the Pro Bowl as an alternate. His linebacking partner in crime could be next. Smith recorded the top pass-rush win percentage (27.8) and second-best pass-rush grade (84.8) at his position, per Pro Football Focus. Two Cowboys 'backers are not too many for this year's all-star festivities.
DETROIT LIONS: Kenny Golladay, WR, third NFL season: Already Detroit's clear-cut top wideout, Golladay is coming off a 1,000-yard campaign that saw him average nine targets, five catches and 73 yards per game after Golden Tate was shipped to the Eagles. One of the better contested-catch receivers around, only 14 pass-catchers league-wide absorbed more targets than the 6-4 Golladay in 2018. Detroit has talked about running up a storm, but room still exists for a monster season for the man known as Babytron.
GREEN BAY PACKERS: Jaire Alexander, CB, second NFL season: Giddy Packers fans discovered what they had in Alexander during a raucous playmaking performance against the Rams in Week 8. Los Angeles targeted the newbie nine times, but Alexander broke up a whopping five of those passes -- more than any cover man logged in a single game all season, per Pro Football Focus. A perfect fit for defensive coordinator Mike Pettine's system, Alexander has the tools to emerge as one of the division's most exciting defensive backs.
LOS ANGELES RAMS: Brandin Cooks, WR, sixth NFL season: Apparently four straight 1,000-yard seasons isn't enough to earn a Pro Bowl bid. Cooks boasts 360 catches and 34 total scores over five campaigns but has yet to put up the 100-grab year that serves as the doorway for most Pro Bowl wideouts. The Rams have plenty of mouths to feed, but let's not get too cute and select a plucky inside linebacker here.
MINNESOTA VIKINGS: Dalvin Cook, RB, third NFL season: Lost to a devastating knee injury as a rookie, Cook was held to 615 ground yards last season in a pass-happy offense that saw him split time with Latavius Murray and miss five games with a hamstring injury. Coach Mike Zimmer appears determined to run the ball to a fault in 2019, signaling a breakout -- and bell cow -- year for Cook. With little competition in the backfield, Cook's biggest challenge is staying on the field. His talent will pave the way if so.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS: Marcus Davenport, DE, second NFL season: The narrative for eons in New Orleans was Drew Brees and a high-octane offense scoring points in bunches to mask a defense that, at best, showed up on time for games. That once embattled unit is now a strength, especially up front, where starry Cam Jordan headlines a deep group of behemoths. Davenport saw his rookie season cut short by a toe injury, but he also notched 28 pressures with just one missed tackle. Set for starting snaps in 2019, the first-rounder looms as a future household name.
NEW YORK GIANTS: Will Hernandez, LG, second NFL season: The heavily henpecked Giants quietly house a flock of young players who could bust out in 2019. As a rookie, Hernandez tied Nate Solder for the most snaps played on offense (1,027), while not allowing a sack after Week 7, per Pro Football Focus. After manning the line for years with a flock of ham-and-eggers, the Giants have found something legitimate in Hernandez. If it's good enough for Baldy, it's good enough for me:
PHILADELPHIA EAGLES: Derek Barnett, DE, third NFL season: The 14th overall pick from 2017 was off to a solid start last season before a torn rotator cuff sent him into the abyss. With Michael Bennett out the door, Barnett is a candidate for double-digit sacks as a full-time contributor. "He started out lights out last year," coach Doug Pederson said in March, per PhillyVoice.com. "He was playing well. He was one of our top edge rushers. ... He doesn't necessarily have to prove anything to us. He just has to be Derek, and he'll play."
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS: Jimmy Garoppolo, QB, sixth NFL season:"If not now, then when?" Tracy Chapman asked in her 1988 self-titled debut album. Were those words penned for Jimmy Garoppolo, the future quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers? Entirely unlikely, as Jimmy G wasn't even born yet, but it's an apt message for a quarterback set to turn 28 in November. Assuming his surgically repaired knee is ready to roll, Garoppolo has a golden opportunity to nab Comeback Player of the Year honors and possibly a playoff bid. He and uber-creative coach Kyle Shanahan are under a fair amount of pressure to make the latter happen come September. The time is now.
SEATTLE SEAHAWKS: Jarran Reed, DT, fourth NFL season: The 26-year-old lineman is currently healing from sports hernia surgery. Assuming he's ready for camp, Reed should add to an impressive resume that saw him become one of just 15 players to trigger a pass-rushing triple-double in 2018: double-digit totals in sacks (10.5), hits (13) and hurries (26). With jettisoned Frank Clark replaced by the oft-injured Ziggy Ansah and rookie L.J. Collier, Seattle will rely on Reed to stir chaos.
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS: Chris Godwin, WR, third NFL season: This was a coin flip between Godwin and dominant-when-healthy tight end O.J. Howard. New coach Bruce Arians has a reputation for deemphasizing tight ends, but he acknowledged he's never had an athletic specimen the equal of Howard. I trust Arians will use his best players, but I know the coach has fallen hard for his young wideout -- who posted a 59/842/7 line in 2018 -- saying in March: "I think Chris Godwin is going to be close to a 100-catch guy, especially because I think he can play in the slot. He's never coming off the field."
WASHINGTON REDSKINS: Jonathan Allen, DE, third NFL season: Washington's defense is stocked with young talent up front. Defensive lineman Daron Payne is an evolving talent, and Matt Ioannidis just earned a three-year extension. I'm going with Allen, though, the 3-4 end out of Alabama who piled up eight sacks a year ago after a Lisfranc injury sideswiped his rookie campaign. His ability to cast off blockers makes Allen a force from the inside for a unit that should cause problems for quarterbacks in 2019.
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