Sponsored by Verizon Wireless
By Jason Catania
With the season starting to wind down, it’s time for another peek at this year’s potential Pro Bowlers. Having already covered the leading offensive candidates in the NFC and AFC to make it to Honolulu in January, our attention now turns to the NFC defense. As per voting rules, three each of defensive ends, defensive tackles, outside linebackers and cornerbacks make the cut, along with two inside linebackers.
The annual showdown of football’s biggest stars, sponsored by Verizon and Motorola, is set for Sunday, Jan. 29, 2012, at Aloha Stadium.
Enter for a chance to win a trip to see it live, courtesy of Verizon and Motorola at: www.verizoninsider.com/probowl
Jared Allen, Vikings
Allen has been his usual dominant self, registering at least 14.5 sacks – second-most in the NFL – for the fourth time in the past five seasons. He’s already gone to the Pro Bowl three of those years, and considering he’s on pace to surpass his career-high 15.5 sacks (2007) and also has 51 tackles, 4 forced fumbles and an interception, the 29-year-old will be saying “aloha” for the fourth time.
Jason Babin, Eagles
After notching a career-best 12.5 sacks and his first Pro Bowl invite during a breakout 2010 season, the 31-year-old Babin is looking to achieve a new personal best in QB takedowns – he currently has 12 – and make it two straight trips to Hawaii.
Chris Long, Rams
Long, 26, has steadily improves since going No. 2 overall in the 2008 NFL Draft. His sack total has increased each of his four seasons to a career-high of 12 this year, tying him with Babin for third-most in the game.
Honorable Mention: Julius Peppers, Bears; Calais Campbell, Cardinals; Chris Clemons, Seahawks
Justin Smith, 49ers
Smith is getting the hang of this Pro Bowl thing. He made it in both 2009 and 2010, and he’s making a strong case for three straight. With 43 tackles (most among NFC DTs), 4.5 sacks and 2 forced fumbles, he’s become a force for the imposing San Francisco defense.
Cullen Jenkins, Eagles
Jenkins, 30, is a versatile anchor up front who sports a good mix of run-stopping (31 tackles) and pass-rushing (5.5 sacks) skills on his tool belt. One that fits around his 305-pound waist.
Ndamukong Suh, Lions
The No. 2 pick in 2010, Suh has gained a rep as a dirty player – his two-game suspension for an on-field stomping incident supports as much – but he is, quite simply, a force to be reckoned with. With 31 tackles and 3 sacks, he won’t repeat his impressive 10-sack rookie season, but you try telling him he won’t make his second Pro Bowl.
Honorable Mention: Ray McDonald, 49ers; Darnell Dockett, Cardinals
DeMarcus Ware, Cowboys
Ware, 29, is unquestionably the best pass rusher in football. With an NFL-best 15 sacks, he’s gunning to lead the league for the third time in the past four years – and he has an outside shot at the single-season record of 22.5. A no-doubter for his sixth consecutive Pro Bowl.
Ryan Kerrigan, Redskins
You’ve heard of doing a little bit of everything? Well, Kerrigan has done a lot of everything. The 16th pick overall last April has 55 tackles, 6.5 sacks, 4 forced fumbles and a pick. Honolulu, here he comes.
Sean Weatherspoon, Falcons
The 23-year-old Weatherspoon is emerging into a stud in his second year. His 96 tackles are among the leaders at his position, and he’s become more of an all-around threat with 3 sacks and 7 passes defensed, to boot.
Honorable Mention: Brian Orakpo, Redskins; Clay Matthews, Packers; Anthony Spencer, Cowboys; Chad Greenway, Vikings
London Fletcher, Redskins
At 36, Fletcher is as good as ever. He leads the NFL with 124 tackles and continues to impress with his all-around play, notably a pair of forced fumbles, 2 interceptions and 1.5 sacks. A third straight Pro Bowl bid would be proof that Fletcher is, indeed, a fine wine.
Patrick Willis, 49ers
Willis has made the Pro Bowl in each of his four seasons, and the 26-year-old’s a lock again, thanks to (deep breath) 93 tackles, 4 forced fumbles, 2 recoveries, 2 sacks, 1 interception speak and 13 passes defensed – a number that ranks with most defensive backs. The only thing that could get in his way is a hamstring injury.
Honorable Mention: Desmond Bishop, Packers; James Laurinaitis, Rams
Charles Woodson, Packers
Woodson, 35, continues to perform at an elite level, which should get him a fourth straight Pro Bowl appearance. His 6 interceptions rank second in football, and if he managed one more pick-six, he’ll tie Hall of Famer Rod Woodson for the most ever.
Patrick Peterson, Cardinals
The fifth overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, Peterson is paying immediate dividends for the Cardinals, with 52 tackles and 2 interceptions. But it’s his dynamite return skills that earn him the ticket here. He recently tied the record with his fourth punt return for a score in a single season – all have been 80-plus yards – and he’s averaging a ridiculous 17.5 yards per return.
Charles Tillman, Bears
The 30-year-old leads NFC corners with 81 total tackles and 3 forced fumbles (2 recoveries), so he can be excused for the fact that he only has 1 pick so far.
Honorable Mention: DeAngelo Hall, Redskins; Carlos Rogers, Redskins
PHOTOS: Jared Allen: Rich Gabrielson/Icon SMI; DeMarcus Ware: Jerome Davis/Icon SMI; Charles Woodson: Robin Alam/Icon SMI