Winning a Ticket to Vegas: Austin Ekeler and Eight Other Potential First-Time Pro Bowlers in 2023

Jun 1st 2023

Bryan Knowles

The Pro Bowl! An annual event no one seems to care about, despite the NFL pulling out all the bells and whistles to get people to pay attention. Last year’s combination of skill competitions and flag football was a step in the right direction, entertainment wise, though there’s still some work to be done – viewership was down yet again, as they still haven’t cracked the code to get people to care about exhibition football between people who aren’t really trying a week before the biggest game of the year.

Ah, but one thing people do care about is Pro Bowl selections. While there are plenty of flaws in the process, the league generally does a good job of singling out a selection of the best players to participate. It serves as a convenient shorthand for us – calling someone a Pro Bowler, or a future Pro Bowler, or a five-time Pro Bowler or whathaveyou is a way of signifying how good someone is without having to dive into the minutia of the stats every single time. Player X is good, because we’ve voted him good and he appeared on the list of good players. Good enough!

With that in mind, a player’s first Pro Bowl nomination, moving them into that club, is an important one. It bumps them up a category in many fans’ estimation, and serves as a nice historical marker for trying to evaluate players across schemes and eras. Make the Pro Bowl, and you get included in more discussions.

With that in mind, here are nine players who might join the Pro Bowl club this year – one for every major position.

Quarterback: Tua Tagoviloa

For the first half of the season, Tagovailoa was on pace to not only lead the league in passing DVOA, but even threaten Peyton Manning’s record 58.9% from 2004. Even as late as Week 10, Tagovailoa was sitting at a 53.0% DVOA. He led the league in yards per attempt (both adjusted and otherwise), yards per completion, and touchdown percentage – in short, he was putting up numbers at a rate no one, not even the Mahomes and Allens of the league, were matching. Yes, a huge chunk of that was the presence of Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle. Great receivers will raise all boats. But, you know? Tagovailoa still gets to throw to those guys this year. His ups are up there with anyone else in the league, and a full season of that could easily see him earn a Pro Bowl nod.

The “full season” clause is huge, of course. Tagovailoa sustained at least two, and possibly three, concussions last season, and contemplated retirement before ultimately deciding to return. His long-term health is obviously the most important aspect here, but yes, any more significant health scares will keep him out of the picture. In addition, the AFC is tough sledding for quarterbacks at the moment, with an exceptionally crowded field. Mahomes, Allen, Joe Burrow, Lamar Jackson, Aaron Rodgers, Trevor Lawrence, Justin Herbert – the list goes on. It can be hard to stand out in that crowd. Tagoaviloa managed to lead the fan voting last season, but the players and coaches votes pushed Mahomes, Allen and Burrow over the top. Tagovailoa would have slipped in anyway due to a combination of injuries and opt-outs, but being in the concussion protocol kept him from accepting the invite. That could easily change this season.

Other Options: Brock Purdy has yet to lose a game he’s both started and finished. Yes, there are questions about his health, and yes, there are questions about the sample size we’re working with here, and yes, Kyle Shanahan rightfully gets a lot of the credit for the 49ers’ offense ticking. But if Purdy starts early in the year and keeps playing at the level he did in 2022? He was good enough to place third in the Rookie of the Year voting despite not playing the majority of the season. If he keeps that level of production up for 17 games, and the 49ers end up winning the conference? Look out.

Running Back: Austin Ekeler

It’s hard to believe Ekeler’s never gotten the call. His 38 touchdowns over the last two seasons are 12 more than anyone else in the league. He’s always been more productive as a pass catcher than as a rusher, which hurts him on the ballot – the default sorting order is by rushing yards, after all, so casual voters might skip over him. But he’s had over 100 rushing DYAR in each of the last two seasons, to go along with his astronomical receiving numbers. Fantasy players certainly understand Ekeler’s value; it may well be his play style that’s keeping him falling just short amongst his peers.

With the Chargers offense hopefully opening up with Kellen Moore taking over the playcalling in 2023, Ekeler could see his stock rise if he gets his usual dosage of heavy usage – I don’t see Josh Kelley or Isaiah Spiller eating into his workload too much. Yes, at age 28, there’s always the change that the tread will come off the tires and Ekeler will see his efficiency numbers tank; that’s why Ekeler and the Chargers couldn’t come to a long-term deal, after all. But it would be a shame if the most prolific pass-catching back of the past four seasons never gets a nod.

Other Options: Plenty, as a younger generation tries to move up into the spotlight. Among second-year players alone, both Brian Robinson and Dameon Pierce look poised to build on solid first-year starts. Rhamondre Stevenson became New England’s feature back last season, and now no longer has to put up with Matt Patricia designing his offense. D’Andre Swift gets to work behind an elite offensive line in Philadelphia, and is an interesting dark horse candidate if he emerges as the head of the Philly committee rather than just a member.

Wide Receiver: Garrett Wilson

Assume, for the moment, that Aaron Rodgers bounces back to something approaching his back-to-back MVP form. Wilson stands to benefit the most, as the Offensive Rookie of the Year still managed 83 receptions, 1,100 yards and 64 DYAR despite having to deal with Zach Wilson and Joe Flacco throwing him passes. Imagine what he can do with a quarterback who can throw the ball more than two yards downfield, and is willing and able to push the ball downfield to take advantage of Wilson’s speed and acceleration. Surely, he’ll get more than four touchdowns! Wilson was 13th in ESPN’s Open Score metric, but only received catchable passes on 81.4% of his targets, per SIS charting. Even in an off year, Rodgers threw catchable passes 85.1% of the time in 2022. Wilson is primed to explode.

Other Options: Look out old guard, the year-two receivers are coming. We could have easily picked Drake London or Chris Olave here; Wilson ended up being the pick because of his quarterback situation. There’s a passel of talented WR2s who could get credit if their slightly more famous running mate stutters, from DeVonta Smith and Tee Higgins to Jaylen Waddle, Mike Williams and Brandon Aiyuk. And if Sean Payton drags Russell Wilson back from the edge, Jerry Jeudy’s long-rumored potential could actually become a thing.

Tight End: Pat Freiermuth

In his second season in the league, Freirmuth took a significant step forward and became a threat with the ball in his hands. He was eighth among tight ends in YAC above expectation at +1.3, and was a sure-handed threat all season long, despite the overly-simplistic Steelers offense. The training wheels were firmly on Kenny Pickett as a rookie, and the hope is that a significant jump from the second-year passer will boost Freiermuth’s raw numbers to Pro Bowl levels. Freiermuth was in the top 10 among tight ends in average depth of target, yard after contact, and target share, so the opportunities are there. If Pittsburgh’s offense takes the next step forward, Freiermuth will be included in that top tier of tight ends more often than not.

Other Options: Dallas Goedert wasn’t even on the Pro Bowl ballot last year due to injury, which is absolutely insane. He should have made the NFC squad over TJ Hockenson last year. David Njoku and Chigozem Okonkwo are good shouts, too, if their quarterback situations stabilize.

Offensive Line: Tevin Jenkins

There’s a whole list of tackles who could go here – see the other options column there – but I’m going to single out Jenkins, who keeps producing despite being shuffled around Chicago’s offensive line. Per SIS charting, Jenkins led all guards last season with just a 1.1% blown block rate; Chicago’s offensive line problems certainly were not his fault. Switching him from tackle to guard was a major boost for him, hiding his lack of length and short range and allowing him to do what he does best; burying guys in run defense. Interior linemen for losing teams don’t make Pro Bowls. Jenkins should have last season.

Other Options: Any and all of Christian Darrisaw, Andrew Thomas, Kaleb McGary, Kolton Miller or Jordan Mailata could be due to get picked this season. If I had to take one, I’d go with Thomas, but it’s a tossup.

Edge Rusher: Montez Sweat

Sweat was a pass-rushing machine in 2022, setting career highs in pressures (63), pressure percentage (15.9%), sacks (8.0), QB hurries (37), hits (49) and knockdowns (21). In every category except for sacks, Sweat was also in the top ten among all defensive ends – and the NFL still, for some reason, separate players into defensive ends and linebackers, rather than having edge rushers in their own category, so that matters. Sacks still rule the world when it comes to fan voting, though, so Sweat stayed home. Sweat set up plenty of sack opportunities, but they were often finished by Daron Payne or Jonathan Allen, both of whom ended going to the Pro Bowl. If Sweat can finish more of his own work in 2023, he’ll join them.

Other Options: Jaelen Phillips was fourth in ESPN’s pass rush win rate among edge rushers, and is worthy of a shout. Rashan Gary missed half the year with a torn ACL; if he comes back in his 2021 form, he’s another real possibility. Somewhat surprisingly, Denico Autry has never once made the Pro Bowl in his nine years in the league. Could year 10 be the charm?

Inside Lineman: Christian Wilkins

I was loath to put two Dolphins on the list, but it’s hard not pick Wilkins among the interior linemen. Wilkins was first in ESPN’s run stop win rate as a defensive tackle, and finished fourth with 23 tackles for a loss. He’s also taken steps forward as a pass rusher in recent years as he’s rounded out his game; 3.5 sacks is a good total for a run-stuffer. He will forever be lost in the shuffle with more pass-rush focused tackles putting up big sack numbers, but Wilkins’ ability to control the middle of an offensive line is worthy of acknowledgement, and not just in Miami.

Other Options: I’m sure Bengals will say I should have picked D.J. Reader rather than double down on Dolphins, and they may well be right. Derrick Brown has also been improving each year he’s been in the league, and if the Panthers become relevant in the near future, he should get consideration, as well.

Linebacker: Nick Bolton

Pity the off-ball linebacker. Thrown into direct, head-to-head competition with edge rushers, the coverage linebacker fights a massive uphill battle to get any acknowledgement whatsoever on the ballot. That includes Bolton, who was a tackling machine in the center of Kansas City’s defense – 178 tackles, second most at the position, as well as 14 TFLs per SIS’ charting. Already one of the best run stoppers at the position, the tackling machine should make a Pro Bowl sooner rather than later, especially if the league changes the format for selecting players.

Other Options: Deep breath time, as the ballot means that lots of qualified players are still waiting for their first trip: Ja’Whaun Bentley, Kaden Ellis, TJ Edwards, Dre Greenlaw, Germaine Pratt and Alex Singleton all qualify.

Defensive Back: Kyle Hamilton

By the end of his rookie season, Hamilton had become arguably the best safety in the league. It wasn’t a Sauce Gardner-type year, dominant from the beginning. Rather, Hamilton developed more and more into an integral part of Baltimore’s defense as the year went along. He only started four games, but saw his playtime dramatically increase as the year went along. And now, with Chuck Clark out of town, Hamilton will have the ability to start week in and week out, working more as a true safety rather than just a box player. Hamilton came on too late to really rack up votes as a rookie, but an expanded role in 2023 should see him atop the ballot in December.

Other options: Kamren Curl missed some time with injury last season, but continued to be one of the best box safeties in the league when he was on the field – he’s been a regular feature on ‘most underrated’ lists ever since he was drafted, and one day, he may very well reach the point of simply being rated. If you’d prefer a cornerback, Duke Shelley put up great coverage numbers in 2022, and now has a chance for more usage in Las Vegas. If he can repeat that efficiency in a larger sample size, he should be Pro Bowl bound. “If” is doing a lot of work there, but you never know.