The 2015 numberFire Pro Bowl Team: Who Deserves a Spot?
For fans, the National Football League’s Pro Bowl is intended to be a showcase of the best production of a particular season, the crème de la crème of any given year. For players, it’s supposed to be an honor for those selected to play in it to have a pickup game on an all-star team of their peers.
In reality, it’s often a trumped-up popularity contest where fan favorites and big names get picked, and then decline the invite to play anyway. C’est la vie.
Still, despite the fact that we know that selection to the Pro Bowl is often somewhat meaningless, there are still frequent vehement arguments over who was most deserving of the honors. Whether it’s fantasy fanatics who believe a player who posted incredible numbers in a small sample size should have been picked, or a hometown fan who staunchly defends their favorite player’s spot on the squad, there’s a lot of subjectivity in this particular debate.
We at numberFire try to remove subjectivity from the NFL discussion, and instead look at the facts of the situation. To help us with that, we use a metric called Total Net Expected Points (NEP), which shows us how much total value a player contributes to his team. With this in mind, we can explain which selections we would have made to the Pro Bowl different than the voters.
Who deserves to be on the 2015 NEP Pro Bowl team?
Pro Bowl (alphabetical order): Tom Brady, Cam Newton, Carson Palmer, Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger, Russell Wilson
Should Have Been (Total NEP order): Palmer, Brady, Wilson, Newton, Andy Dalton, Roethlisberger
The quarterback position is usually where much of the disagreement occurs between the advanced analytics – like numberFire’s Total NEP metric – and often narrative-based awards. Here, though, five of the top-six signal-callers by Total NEP (here, Passing NEP value and Rushing NEP value combined) are going to Honolulu.
The only discrepancy between the Pro Bowl roster and our rankings is that the Green Bay Packers’ Rodgers snuck onto the roster over the Cincinnati Bengals’ Dalton. In the box score, Rodgers has 129 more yards and four more touchdowns this year, but on 114 more attempts. His completion rate is 5.3% lower than Dalton’s, to boot. In Total NEP, Rodgers ranks 12th among the 43 quarterbacks with at least 100 opportunities through Week 15, and is 13th in Total NEP per opportunity. Dalton is fifth in Total NEP and second in Total NEP per opportunity. This one was decided pretty simply due to name value.
Pro Bowl: Devonta Freeman, Todd Gurley, Doug Martin, Lesean McCoy, Adrian Peterson, Jonathan Stewart
Should Have Been: Danny Woodhead, Freeman, David Johnson, Giovani Bernard, DeAngelo Williams, Mark Ingram
This was one area where there was practically no overlap between the Pro Bowl and Total NEP. These running backs we would nominate were the highest by the aforementioned metric with at least 125 opportunities through Week 15, and yet only Freeman makes both lists. It’s true that the Atlanta Falcons’ running back has been incredible this year – he ranks second in Total NEP among running backs and fourth in Total NEP per-play – but how far off was everyone else?
Martin is a defensible choice for the Pro Bowl voters. He ranks 11th in Total NEP going into Week 16, and his 6.27 Rushing NEP currently ranks 7th among high-volume running backs. Gurley, too, is one of just eight running backs with at least 150 attempts and a positive Rushing NEP. Even McCoy is top-15 in Total NEP among these backs.
Still, none of the above-nominated runners have the same kind of explosive utility that the numberFire brigade brings. Woodhead is the only NEP star who is a receiving back-only option (-4.91 Rushing NEP, 54.71 Reception NEP). The reason he's listed, really, is because receiving is more efficient than rushing. That said, Johnson is a rookie sensation with more versatility than Gurley (1.05 more Rushing NEP, 19.72 more Reception NEP), Bernard and Williams are redemption stories in their own ways, and Ingram (although injured) has a stronger Rushing NEP per play (0.07) than the latter three who made it.
Pro Bowl: Odell Beckham, Antonio Brown, Larry Fitzgerald, A.J. Green, DeAndre Hopkins, Calvin Johnson, Julio Jones, Brandon Marshall
Should Have Been: Beckham, Brown, Hopkins, Jones, Marshall, Allen Robinson, Green, Eric Decker
Just like the quarterbacks, the wide receivers almost perfectly line up, but for two differences. Were we in charge of the Pro Bowl, veterans Fitzgerald and Johnson would miss the game, and young bucks Robinson and Decker would take their places.
Fitzgerald has a few things going for him: he has a great redemption narrative, but his production has also been very good. Since moving primarily to the slot in 2015, Fitz has seen his Reception NEP per target bounce back (0.67 in 2015), as well as a 6.35% increase in his Reception Success Rate (the percentage of catches that go for positive NEP gains). He ranks 10th in Total NEP among wide receivers through Week 15. Johnson, despite a career-worst season in counting stats, ranks 12th in Total NEP among wideouts. In fact, 93.06% of his catches have contributed positive NEP, one of the higher marks in Reception Success Rate.
Still, Robinson has about the same number of targets as the veterans, but 0.79 Reception NEP per target, and a 95.65% Reception Success Rate. He ranks 6th in Total NEP at the position. Decker has had lower receiving volume, but a better Reception NEP per target (0.82). He ranks eighth in Total NEP at wide receiver, and should have just nudged Fitz and Megatron.
Gronkowski and Olsen are the two most-obvious choices for this plaudit at tight end, and numberFire agrees with the voters there. That said, the big breakout seasons for Eifert and Kelce are nice, but they are not the most deserving. Eifert is fascinating; his 0.95 Reception NEP per target is the highest mark among tight ends, but he has been injured and hasn’t had a featured role in his offense. Kelce, too, has seen some big days, but has been inconsistent at points, collecting just 0.60 Reception NEP per target. They rank seventh and eighth in Total NEP at tight end respectively.
Two tight ends who missed this list but should be on it are: the tight end Total NEP leader – Barnidge of the Cleveland Browns – and a steady Walker of the Tennessee Titans. Barnidge is a no-brainer, as his late-blooming story warms the heart while his position-leading 94.98 Reception NEP (0.91 per target) pleases the mind. Walker also has the yeoman story working for him, and now he’s finally an offensive threat like he always should have been. His 79.10 Reception NEP (0.76 per target) isn’t incredible, but it ranks fourth at the position, and is still better than two who got in.
Although part of the Pro Bowl choice has to likely do with blocking, by Total NEP Mike Tolbert would have just missed the Pro Bowl. Instead, Juszczyk of the Baltimore Ravens should have earned a spot alongside Reece, who was indeed a correct choice. Juszczyk’s Total NEP ranked tops among fullbacks with at least 20 opportunities.
This is only the second article I’ve ever gotten to reference Field Goal NEP in, so I’m going to seize the opportunity: Gostkowski ranks second among kickers in Field Goal NEP, and is therefore deserving of his spot (though he’s just fifth in the per-play version, behind Bailey). The voters whiffed by omitting Seattle Seahawks kicker Hauschka, though, who ranks first in Field Goal NEP among the 36 kickers with at least 10 attempts. He also is first in Field Goal NEP per-play among these kickers.