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Several candidates worthy of their first Pro Bowl nod

Pro Bowl voting ended Tuesday and rosters will be announced next Tuesday. This is always an exciting time for players, not only for the honor of being named one of the NFL's best at their position but also because most players have clauses in their contracts calling for bonus money. In the early years with Cowboys, we usually built in a $5,000 bonus for making the Pro Bowl, $10,000 for starters, and even more if a player earned MVP honors in the game.

From 1966-69, the Cowboys had 35 players selected to the Pro Bowl, including 31 starters and two players who won the MVP (Mel Renfro, George Andre). You do the math!

These days, of course, that Pro Bowl bonus money is exponentially higher, as is the media exposure for players selected. So while it is a great honor to be chosen for the Pro Bowl, it also is a tremendous disappointment for the many players who thought they deserved to be in the Pro Bowl but didn't make the cut.

For these players, it's not the money issue as much as the prestige. The Pro Bowl is still an exclusive club, and you'd be surprised how many truly good NFL players ahave never made it to the league's annual all-star game.

Here are 20 active players who have yet to make the Pro Bowl but should:

Cliff Avril, DT, Lions
A fourth-year player who has 30 sacks in 42 career starts. He's got 11 sacks so far this season and plays hard every down.

Justin Blalock, G, Falcons
In his fifth season, it's hard to find a better, more consistent player at his position. Blalock, who has started 76 career games, plays hard on every down and never makes mistakes.

Red Bryant, DE, Seahawks
Bryant hasn't been up for Pro Bowl honors in the past, as he's really just come into his own this season. He only started seven games in three seasons coming into 2011, but he has emerged this year as a key player on a very good Seattle defense.

Marques Colston, WR, Saints
If not for injuries, Colston would have more obvious Pro Bowl numbers by now. He's started 64 games in six years, with 435 catches for 45 scores. His size and speed make him a very tough matchup for opposing defensive backs.

Matt Forte, RB, Bears
Forte had started 60 consecutive games for the Bears before suffering an injury in Week 12, and he was certainly a lock to make his first Pro Bowl at that point. In his fourth season, Forte has rushed for 4,233 yards and caught 223 passes, while accounting for more than 50 percent of his team's total offense.

Jimmy Graham, TE, Saints
Some NFL team needs to hire the University of Miami president, who was the person to suggest this former Hurricane basketball player try out for football. In his second season, Graham already has 87 receptions. He's blossomed, and there is just no way for defenses to match up with him.

Chad Greenway, LB, Vikings
After missing his rookie season due to injury, Greenway has averaged nearly 100 tackles in each of his five seasons since. Very athletic (he played 9-man football in high school), he is an every-down linebacker who makes plays all over the field.

Rob Gronkowski, TE, Patriots
An impossible matchup for defenses, and it's certainly shown in his two NFL seasons. Already with 25 career TD grabs, he has scored a touchdown every 4.5 receptions. And he can block, too. Gronkowski is one of those players who just loves to play the game, and it comes through all the time.

David Harris, LB, Jets
In his fifth year, Harris is a very smart player who is on the field all downs. He can blitz or play in space with equal ability, as evidenced by his four sacks and three interceptions in 2011.

Sebastian Janikowski, PK, Raiders
It's hard to believe, but Janikowski has never been to the Pro Bowl. In his 12th season, he has converted 79.4 percent of his field goals, averages 65 yards per kickoff, and shares the NFL record for longest FG made with a 63-yarder to his credit. He has at least one 50-yard FG in 11 of his 12 NFL seasons.

Derrick Johnson, LB, Chiefs
There have been 29 players named Johnson to make the Pro Bowl over the years, and Derrick should be no. 30. He didn't play well in 2009 after a solid rookie season in 2008, but he's been back on track. He's forced five fumbles over the past two years, making plays all over the field.

Johnathan Joseph, CB, Texans
Joseph played at a Pro Bowl level for most of his five seasons with the Bengals. After signing with Houston before this season, he's been one of the main reasons for the Texans' defensive turnarounds. Joseph has 18 career interceptions and 91 pass break-ups.

James Laurinaitis, LB, Rams
In his third year with the Rams, Laurinaitis has started every game in his career and plays hard on every down. He never takes a play off, and is equally adept against the run and the pass. Plays his position as well as anyone in the NFL.

Curtis Lofton, LB, Falcons
Lofton has started all but one game in four NFL seasons, and he's made 469 career tackles. The field leader of a very underrated defense, Lofton was a high school running back who is now one of the NFL's best tacklers.

Jason Pierre-Paul, DE, Giants
The scouting report on Pierre-Paul when he was drafted in 2010 was that he'd be a project, since he had very little football in his background. So how's he doing? I think he has made as much progress in one year as any player I have ever watched. He plays hard on every down and displays great athleticism. He has 13.5 sacks this season to go with six passes defensed. We will see him break the single-season sack record at some point in his career. Just a treat to watch.

Ike Taylor, CB, Steelers
Taylor is looking for his first Pro Bowl bid in his ninth NFL season. In 105 career starts, Taylor has proven to be an excellent blitzer as well as a corner who can cover the opponent's best receiver all over the field.

Mike Wallace, WR, Steelers
If Wallace didn't play in an offense that spread the ball around to many different receivers, he'd easily have 100-plus receptions. One of the fastest wideouts in the NFL, he has averaged 18 yards per catch and last year scored a touchdown every six catches.

Eric Weddle, S, Chargers
Weddle has always been a solid safety and this should be his year to make the Pro Bowl. In his fifth season, he's a very smart player who has good coverage ability and also makes lots of plays vs. the run. He has seven interceptions this season.

Andrew Whitworth, OT, Bengals
Despite having to go up against the likes of both James Harrison and Terrell Suggs twice a year, Whitworth routinely turns the man he is blocking into a non-factor. Whitworth has started 84 games at left tackle for the Bengals. He is very athletic and quite simply one of the best left tackles in the game.

Eric Winston, OT, Texans
Houston's offense is one of the best in the NFL, averaging 377 yards per game, and Winston has been a constant. He's a very good athlete who could probably line up and play tight end.

Best misses

Some of the above players are shoo-ins for this year's Pro Bowl. For any of them that miss out, they would be in line to someday join these two players as perhaps the best who never made the Pro Bowl:

Jim Plunkett: No Pro Bowl, but all he did was play 15 years and win two Super Bowls.

Jethro Pugh:Sacks were not an official stat when Pugh played for the Cowboys, but he led the team in sacks five years in a row (1968-72), unofficially racking up 62.5 sacks in that time.

NFL Odysseys

»For the first time in NFL history, two rookie quarterbacks have passed for at least 3,000 yards. Cam Newton has 3,722; Andy Dalton has 3,012.

»Despite losing to New England, Denver at least solved their first-quarter offensive woes last week. The Broncos had 218 yards of offense in the first quarter Sunday, and scored their first first-quarter TD since Nov. 13.

»If the Ravens are trailing at halftime on the road, don't expect much of a comeback. The Ravens have lost their past 19 games when trailing at halftime on the road.

»Chargers QB Philip Rivers is 22-2 in December. Chargers coach Norv Turner is 20-2 in December.

»Rookie starting quarterbacks have led their teams to victory 19 times this season. The all-time record is 22 in 2008. Of course, that was done by just two rookies, with Atlanta's Matt Ryan and Baltimore joe Flacco winning 11 games apiece.

»With two weeks to play, there have already been 14 400-yard passing games in 2011 -- most ever in one season.

Game of the Week:

Giants at Jets

Under normal circumstances, owners on both sides of this Gotham City rivalry would be reminding their coaches how important this game is. Not sure that's necessary this week -- bragging rights are big, but it's even bigger when you consider the loser here most likely is out of the playoffs. These teams have only met 11 times in the regular season, and they've gone into overtime twice. While coaches Rex Ryan and Tom Coughlin are complete opposites, both are very good. Two other key matchups:

Eli Manning vs. Mark Sanchez. Manning was playing at the highest level in his career until last week, and who knows what happens is Hakeem Nicks doesn't drop two sure TD passes? Manning faces a good Jets pass defense, but the loss of safety Jim Leonhard hurts - and it showed last week against Eagles, when TE Brent Celek caught five passes for 156 yards. Meanwhile, Sanchez needs to play flawless football - he can't afford turnovers and must take advantage of the Giants' less-than-stellar pass defense.

Jason Pierre-Paul vs. D'Brickashaw Ferguson. This should be a great battle between two young athletic players. Pierre-Paul has been unbelievable rushing the passer, with great first-step quickness off the ball. He has a knack for batting down passes and is very good in space. Ferguson, who has played in the last two Pro Bowls, has long arms, good punch and good footwork. The winner of this battle will be a good indicator of which team comes out on top.

Prediction: Giants 31, Jets 28 in overtime

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