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Projecting Which NFL Rookies Will Make a Pro Bowl

Alessandro MiglioFeatured ColumnistJune 13, 2014

Projecting Which NFL Rookies Will Make a Pro Bowl

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Rookies come into the league with plenty of promise and potential. We build them up, tear them down and create buzz all around them for months heading into the draft. Then we dissect the picks and build up expectations for them, particularly those drafted on the first couple of days.

    But which rookies are Pro Bowl material? From the 200-plus players drafted, who will stand out at the next level enough to get voted to the annual all-star gig? Just because they were drafted in the first round doesn't mean they will all pan out—let alone make a Pro Bowl.

    Here are 15 rookies who are going to make a Pro Bowl at some point in their careers, perhaps multiple times.

Jake Matthews, OT, Atlanta Falcons

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    First Pro Bowl Season: 2018

    The Atlanta Falcons fell into an excellent pick at a position of need when offensive tackle Jake Matthews was there for the taking at No. 6. 

    He was the best left tackle in the draft. He might not have been the first tackle taken—that honor went to Greg Robinson with the St. Louis Rams—but he is the one who is best-suited to protect his quarterback's blind side.

    That quarterback is Matt Ryan, who should see better pass protection after a nightmarish 2013 season. He was sacked 44 times, tied for third-most in the league. That's why the Falcons needed to draft an offensive tackle.

    Matthews will prove his worth almost immediately, but he will need to prove it for more than a year or two before garnering a Pro Bowl vote. He'll get there eventually.

Mike Evans, WR, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    First Pro Bowl Season: 2016

    Sammy Watkins may have been the first receiver taken in the draft, but was he the best one?

    He is a dynamic player, to be sure, but Evans has a distinct advantage—size. The 6'5" receiver is a massive target.

    Of course, playing receiver in Tampa Bay may have its limitations for the next couple of seasons. Josh McCown did a fine job of throwing to big receivers in Chicago last year, but he is hardly franchise quarterback material. Mike Glennon enters his second year as McCown's backup, which doesn't elicit much confidence.

    Evans might thrive despite his quarterback, however. The big receiver is going to be difficult to stop, especially when opposing defenses have to worry about fellow big men Vincent Jackson and Austin Seferian-Jenkins.

    Evans is a big red-zone threat who is liable to score double-digit touchdowns during any given season. Touchdowns get positive attention, and attention gets you into Pro Bowls.

Ryan Shazier, LB, Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

    First Pro Bowl Season: 2017

    If there is one franchise that cranks out quality defensive players, it's the Pittsburgh Steelers. From Ernie Stautner to Troy Polamalu, the Steel Curtain has a long and storied history.

    Injuries and age have caused a rent to appear, at least if last season is any indication. The Steelers weren't their usual stout selves on the defensive side, and the unit bled players this offseason because of cap issues.

    Ryan Shazier is in town to fix that tear and—hopefully—add to that long line of great defenders.

    The former Ohio State outside linebacker is as athletic as they come. He is also versatile, capable of passing the rusher on the outside and playing the middle.

    The middle is where the Steelers have put him, and that's where he will shine and make the Pro Bowl after a few years of seasoning. 

Weston Richburg, C, New York Giants

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    First Pro Bowl Season: 2016

    There isn't much to say about centers in the league, but they are vital to team success nonetheless.

    Weston Richburg was the best center in the 2014 draft class—though Marcus Martin was right there with him—and he is heading right into a starting gig with the New York Giants. He brings experience and leadership as a rookie, in addition to his blocking skills.

    In New York he will grow into a Pro Bowl blocker in the middle, following in the footsteps of guys like Ryan Kalil and Max Unger in the coming years.

Carlos Hyde, RB, San Francisco 49ers

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    Jeff Lewis/Associated Press

    First Pro Bowl Season: 2017

    Could the San Francisco 49ers have found the heir to Frank Gore's throne?

    It seems they finally have after taking Carlos Hyde out of Ohio State. Of course, they have been trying to find his long-term replacement for a few years now. Kendall Hunter, Anthony Dixon, LaMichael James and Marcus Lattimore haven't quite panned out yet.

    Hyde enters a crowded backfield that still features Gore, so it will be a little while before the rookie gets going at the next level. The powerful back will get his chance to win the starting job eventually, though, and he is the best back behind Gore, at least when injury is factored in.

    He will have stiff competition from the new and the old guard in the NFC—Adrian Peterson and LeSean McCoy today, Eddie Lacy and Andre Ellington tomorrow—but Hyde will hold his own against them sooner than later.

Pat O'Donnell, P, Chicago Bears

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    Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

    First Pro Bowl Season: 2020

    As NFL Network's Rich Eisen might say, punters are people, too.

    Pat O'Donnell had a fabulous college career, averaging 47.1 yards per punt as a senior with the Miami Hurricanes. He had a fantastic combine showing, too, outperforming many athletes who were jockeying for draft position at linebacker and safety. 

    He enters a league chock full of great punters, but he will eventually rise to the top of the heap with the Bears, if he stays with Chicago that long, anyway.

Trai Turner, OG, Carolina Panthers

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    CHRIS KEANE/Associated Press

    First Pro Bowl Season: 2017

    The Carolina Panthers may have had a brutal offseason, hemorrhaging key contributors without much cap space. They couldn't do much in free agency, and their draft was a bit of a dud.

    One good pick they did make was to take offensive guard Trai Turner out of LSU in the third round. The big offensive lineman is a fantastic run-blocker with the ability to grow into a solid all-around blocker in the middle of that line.

    He may not have been a sexy pick, but Turner was the best thing the Panthers did this offseason. In a few years, he will be paving a way to the Pro Bowl.

Telvin Smith, LB, Jacksonville Jaguars

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    Rob Foldy/Getty Images

    First Pro Bowl Season: 2018

    How often do fifth-round picks make the Pro Bowl? 

    The Jacksonville Jaguars had themselves a fantastic offseason, bringing in a nice haul in free agency and the draft alike. 

    One of their nice selections in the draft was linebacker Telvin Smith, the fifth-round pick out of Florida State. The former Seminole fell a bit after failing a drug test at the combine, which allowed the Jaguars to pounce late.

    Smith needs some seasoning, but the Jaguars got a great player at a low cost who is capable of starting sooner than later. He might be a bit undersized at 6'3", 218 pounds, but he is a fantastic cover linebacker. Adding a little weight and a year or two of experience will turn Smith into a Pro Bowl outside linebacker for the Jaguars.

Calvin Pryor, S, New York Jets

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    Julie Jacobson/Associated Press

    First Pro Bowl Season: 2014

    When LaRon Landry joined the New York Jets in 2012, he was better known for his massive muscles than he was for quality play. Then he made the Pro Bowl.

    Rookie Calvin Pryor joins a Jets team in need of quality safety play, and he couldn't have landed on a better squad. Head coach Rex Ryan will turn the hard-hitting defensive back out of Louisville into a Pro Bowler if the coach can last more than one more year in New York.

    Playing behind one of the best defensive fronts in the league will give Pryor an early opportunity to impress.

Louis Nix, NT, Houston Texans

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    USA TODAY Sports

    First Pro Bowl Season: 2015

    One of the biggest steals in the draft came when the Texans snagged defensive tackle Louis Nix III in the middle of the third round.

    Once considered a first-round lock, he fell due to weight concerns with, perhaps, a dash of outspokenness on the negative side. His loss was Houston's gain.

    He is going to be the anchor in the middle of a strong defensive front in Houston, where the Texans have built a talented unit all around. Playing next to J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney is going to make things easier on the big nose tackle.

Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Minnesota Vikings

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    Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

    First Pro Bowl Season: 2019

    Teddy Bridgwater? A Pro Bowler?

    Why, yes, at least once he's given a few years to get there. After all, the NFC is full of talented quarterbacks who are likely to make it ahead of him in the NFC. Guys like Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Cam Newton, Tony Romo, Matt Ryan and even Jay Cutler will have Pro Bowl-caliber seasons—for the most part—over the next several seasons.

    A few years down the road will see some retirements or decline in play, however—not to mention a defection or two in free agency—and that is when Bridgewater will strike.

    Of course, it won't just be retiring and declining quarterbacks who will get Bridgewater to a Pro Bowl. He's going to have to earn it, and that means he will need to ascend to starter and try to avoid playing like his predecessor, Christian Ponder.

    Despite a rough predraft process that saw Bridgewater's stock fall down a ravine, he is a talented quarterback with plenty of potential to grow into a great one in the NFL.

    It will be interesting to see how the offense will look in Minnesota five years from now, but he's stepping into an excellent situation with Norv Turner as his offensive coordinator and some budding and veteran stars around him.

De'Anthony Thomas, KR, Kansas City Chiefs

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    Kyle Rivas/Getty Images

    First Pro Bowl Season: 2015

    They say special teams is one-third of the game. For Kansas City, that might be gospel.

    The Chiefs had a fantastic season from a special teams standpoint—among others—thanks to great coaching and leadership from unit coach Dave Toub. It helped that they had quality players, too, but now one of their key contributors is gone.

    Pro Bowl return man Dexter McCluster signed with the Tennessee Titans, leaving a hole in the return game for someone to fill.

    That someone will probably be De'Anthony Thomas. The speedy running back out of Oregon is a nice replacement for McCluster, and Toub could turn him into a monster in the return game not seen since the days Dante Hall terrorized opponents for the Chiefs.

Kyle Fuller, CB, Chicago Bears

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    Brian Kersey/Getty Images

    First Pro Bowl Season: 2018 

    It's going to be interesting to see which cornerbacks make it to a Pro Bowl from this rookie class. It was a deep class, but were there any elite ones in the bunch?

    Kyle Fuller is an excellent candidate to make that leap.

    The rookie out of Virginia Tech was drafted by the Chicago Bears, a great landing spot for a cornerback who is trying to make a name for himself. He will start off as a nickelback under the tutelage of former Pro Bowlers Tim Jennings and Charles Tillman.

    Fuller is a playmaking zone cornerback with the ability to grow into a fantastic all-around player in the NFL. A few years in Chicago will mold him into a Pro Bowler, much like his predecessors. 

Jimmie Ward, S, San Francisco 49ers

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    First Pro Bowl Season: 2015

    Jimmie Ward was a popular player among draft analysts.

    The rangy free safety was a versatile asset for Northern Illinois in college. He could play center field on one snap and press the slot receiver on the next. He has a great combination of size and speed and was a nice find for the San Francisco 49ers late in the first round.

    He will spend his rookie season stuck behind Antoine Bethea and Eric Reid on the depth chart, but that doesn't mean the 49ers will keep him off the field. He could see early action on passing downs, perhaps even as a nickel cornerback.

    A solid rookie year will lead to a great sophomore campaign as Ward will wrest the starting job away from Bethea in 2015.

    Assuming the defensive unit is mostly intact throughout this time, Ward will be playing behind a fantastic front, one that has helped Donte Whitner and Dashon Goldson become defensive studs and grab a lot of cash in free agency.

Jadeveon Clowney, DE, Houston Texans

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    Pat Sullivan/Associated Press

    First Pro Bowl Season: 2014

    Is there any doubt that Jadeveon Clowney will be a Pro Bowler?

    The top pick in the draft has all the talent and athleticism in the world and is capable of doing great things in the NFL right away. Even so, doubts crept into the minds of some analysts, as work-ethic concerns caused some to question his viability as the No. 1 pick in the draft.

    Clowney proved his doubters wrong in the draft, and he'll repeat that rebuke as a rookie for the Houston Texans. Aside from having all-world potential, the freakish athlete is set up nicely to succeed right away.

    He will get to play alongside fellow stud J.J. Watt in a defense that should bounce back in a big way in 2014. 

     

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