Instead of looking at those players who were snubbed from the initial Pro Bowl voting -- some of those "snubs" will still compete with vacancies certain as Super Bowl participants won't play -- I've decided to take a different route. I want to project the next wave of Pro Bowlers, guys who didn't get in because they're too green or the guys in front of them are too established.
A more fan-friendly affair
The NFL and the South Florida Super Bowl Host Committee have unveiled plans to make the Pro Bowl -- featuring Colts QB Peyton Manning -- perhaps more appealing than ever.
It will be tough for a lot of these players to reach the Pro Bowl anytime soon because young players, like NFC defensive tackles Darnell Dockett and Jay Ratliff, are going to be hard to unseat, as will AFC offensive tackles Ryan Clady and Joe Thomas. There is always some change, though, and these will be some of the position players waiting in the wings.
Quarterbacks: Matt Ryan, Falcons; Josh Freeman, Buccaneers: It will take Freeman longer to crack the roster, considering he doesn't quite have the weapons that Ryan has. However, Freeman looks like the real deal and if he continues to improve, he could emerge as the best of the three quarterbacks taken in the first round this season (Matthew Stafford and Mark Sanchez being the other two). Ryan isn't far away from joining Aaron Rodgers and Tony Romo as regulars. He didn't have as big of a year as he would have liked this season -- partially because he was injured -- but a better running game, the return of wide receiver Harry Douglas from injury and another receiving threat are on the way next season.
Running backs: Jonathan Stewart, Panthers; Beanie Wells, Cardinals: Minnesota's Adrian Peterson and Stewart's teammate, DeAngelo Williams, could be in place for a few years, but this position is going to be fluid. Stewart has been a monster while hurt and sharing carries. At some point, he is going to be healthy and break through and make his presence a must. While it is hard to imagine a running back with the Cardinals ever breaking 1,000 yards soon, Matt Leinart -- or someone else -- will be taking over for Kurt Warner at quarterback in the next year or two, meaning the offensive philosophy could change, especially if Anquan Boldin is allowed to leave.
Wide receivers: Greg Jennings, Packers; Michael Crabtree, 49ers; Jeremy Maclin, Eagles: Larry Fitzgerald, DeSean Jackson and Miles Austin could be staples for a little while, but these other three are going to be constantly nipping. Where's Percy Harvin and Sidney Rice? Once Brett Favre goes, so too could their big numbers. Systems are in place at the other stops and though San Francisco is run-based, Crabtree has showed us in a short time that he is the real deal.
Tight ends: Brent Celek, Eagles; Kellen Winslow, Buccaneers: The Cowboys' Jason Witten could be in place for a few more years, while San Francisco's Vernon Davis should have more than a five-year run, so Celek could get bypassed for another year or two -- maybe. Celek has 69 catches after 15 games on a team that spreads the ball around. He is a legit red zone threat (eight touchdowns) and can run after the catch. "Consistency was my main goal and I think I've done that," Celek said. Winslow had a great year in the shadows of repeated losses. As Freeman improves, so will Winslow, a true baller when you get down to it.
Line: Donald Penn, T, Buccaneers; Harvey Dahl, G, Falcons; Jason Smith, T, Rams; Phil Loadholt, T, Vikings; Jason Brown, C, Rams: Most of these guys played for bad teams this season but the development of Smith is very promising, and Brown is a monster at center. Penn is a fringe Pro Bowler already and Dahl is a nasty mauler who defenders (and 49ers coach Mike Singletary) can't stand.
X-Factor: Harvin, Vikings: Just find a way to get him the ball -- returns, handoffs, receptions. It doesn't matter.
Ends: Calais Campbell, Cardinals; Cullen Jenkins, Packers: A spot could open up next season if Carolina's Julius Peppers jumps to the AFC in free agency. Campbell and Jenkins technically are 3-4 ends, so they're not supposed to put up big numbers, but they have -- especially Campbell, who is a burgeoning star.
Tackles: B.J. Raji, Packers: Sedrick Ellis, Saints: Both young players have been bothered by injuries, but each is dynamically strong and athletic -- especially Raji. Since he's been healthy, Green Bay's defensive interior has been much better. Ratliff and Dockett have two spaces locked up the next few years. But one of these guys could move into a third spot.
Inside linebackers: Curtis Lofton, Falcons; James Laurinaitis, Rams: Both of these guys are hunters who make plays all over the field and cover up mistakes by others. If they're ever protected by some sound tackles up front, they are going to step into the tier of Patrick Willis, Jon Beason and Jonathan Vilma. Vikings rookie Jasper Brinkley, a thumper, could get there too.
Outside linebackers: Clay Matthews, Packers; Brian Orakpo, Redskins; Aaron Curry, Seahawks; Anthony Spencer, Cowboys: Orakpo has already earned a Pro Bowl berth as a rookie, but he will be in place for awhile. Matthews is a bona fide playmaker, and Curry is on the uptick. This year's rookie linebacker class was as good as advertised. Spencer has blown up this season and arguably could have joined teammates Ratliff and DeMarcus Ware in the Pro Bowl.
Defensive backs: Aqib Talib, CB, Buccaneers; Mike Jenkins, CB, Cowboys; Tramon Williams, CB, Packers; Thomas DeCoud, S, Falcons: This group isn't quite ready, but their ability to cover and show excellent range will make them household names. They also have good ball skills, which separates great defensive backs from good ones.
Quarterbacks: Chad Henne, Dolphins; Joe Flacco, Ravens; Mark Sanchez, Jets; Matt Schaub, Texans: It's going to be tough to get through Tom Brady, Philip Rivers and Peyton Manning for a few years, but Schaub is knocking on the door, as is Flacco. Henne and Sanchez are on the right curve. Both Henne and Sanchez could hit some snags in year No. 2 as starters, but they will have better pieces to help them through.
Running backs: Rashard Mendenhall, Steelers; Jerome Harrison, Browns; Jamaal Charles, Chiefs: This trio could be longtime bridesmaids to Chris Johnson, Ray Rice and Maurice Jones-Drew, all players with four years or less in the league. However, they are just scratching the surface of what they can do, and Charles is super explosive.
Wide receivers: Vincent Jackson, Chargers; Santonio Holmes, Steelers; Mike Wallace, Steelers: Holmes and Wallace have already formed a dynamic tandem and made Pittsburgh regret/forget using a second-round pick on Limas Sweed. They also will benefit with Pittsburgh going with a more pass-first offense. Jackson already is one of the top wide receivers in the NFL. He's just in a crowded group that includes Brandon Marshall, Andre Johnson and Reggie Wayne.
Tight ends: Dustin Keller, Jets; Owen Daniels, Texans; Jared Cook, Titans: Daniels' injury took him out of contention this season, but he's a stud. Keller is going to start posting better numbers with Sanchez's development and incoming help on the outside. Cook is a phenomenal athlete but needs to learn to mix it up on running plays. He is a promising receiving target. Too bad for all these guys that Antonio Gates and Dallas Clark will hold spots for the next few Pro Bowls.
Line: Michael Oher, T, Ravens; Jared Gaither, T, Ravens; Ben Grubbs, G, Ravens: This group might have a hard time getting to the Pro Bowl because of all the youth already on the AFC offensive line, but Baltimore has built a formidable wall that will keep it in the playoff hunt for years. Oher could be a standout on either side.
X-Factor: Josh Cribbs, Browns: Other than Philly's Jackson and Tennessee's Johnson, the most dynamic player in the NFL.
Ends: Tyson Jackson, Chiefs; Michael Johnson, Bengals; Ziggy Hood, Steelers: These are developmental players who are years away, but each showed enough promise to emerge into standouts. Johnson could be a John Abraham-like situational pass rusher.
Tackle: Tony Brown, Titans: The fifth-year anchor eased the departure of Albert Haynesworth and continued his trend of getting to the quarterback and forcing turnovers. His time is near.
Inside linebackers: David Harris, Jets; Rey Maualuga, Bengals; Jerod Mayo, Patriots: With Ray Lewis nearing the end of his career, a spot will come open soon. It is shameful that Harris didn't get more love for the Pro Bowl voting. He is a man who stirs the Jets' defense. Maualuga is a big-time hitter who will be a monster once he becomes more disciplined. Mayo is established; he just needs to stay healthy.
Outside linebackers: Tamba Hali, Chiefs; Larry English, Chargers: This will be the toughest position to crack, especially with fringe bystanders like Calvin Pace and LaMarr Woodley next in line, and rookie Brian Cushing making a grand entrance. Even so, Hali was a bright spot on a bad team, and the promising English could soon receive Shawne Merriman's reps.
Defensive backs: Vontae Davis, CB, Dolphins; Brandon Meriweather, S, Patriots; Antoine Bethea, S, Colts; Quentin Jammer, CB, Chargers; Antonio Cromartie, CB, Chargers; Jonathan Joseph, CB, Bengals; Leon Hall, CB Bengals: This is a huge group, but it's a solid one. It is going to be tough for any safety to make it past Troy Polamalu and Ed Reed the next few seasons, but Meriweather is knocking on the door and Bethea is a step ahead of him. One of Cincinnati's corners should have made it to the Pro Bowl this season, and the same argument could be made about San Diego. Davis is a big, tough, all-around corner who is a few years away from being ready, but is on the right path.