AFC Defense: Who Should've Been Picked For The Pro Bowl?
In our final look at the NFL 2021 Pro Bowl, we look at who should’ve been picked for the AFC defense. You can see our articles looking at each Pro Bowl offense here: NFC or AFC, as well as the NFC defense on the link here.
By Greg Spires.
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The AFC had some incredibly strong defences in the 2020 season, including the league leaders in sacks, the Pittsburgh Steelers with 56. An action-packed year with lots to dissect and here I judge who did or did not deserve their spot on the AFC Pro Bowl roster this year.
*Denotes starter for official NFL Pro Bowl roster
Interior Defensive Linemen
Chris Jones* – Kansas City Chiefs
Jones had 7.5 sacks, three tackles for loss (TFL) and 36 tackles this year in a good year for the Super Bowl LIV champion. He also had two forced fumbles and has been causing havoc for QBs all year by bursting through the offensive line more often than not. An explosive player who has fewer sacks than last year and hasn’t had an elite year by his standards, but he has still been more influential than most defensive players for the Chiefs and deserves his places in the Pro Bowl.
Cameron Heyward* – Pittsburgh Steelers
The Steelers’ reliable defensive lineman racked up four sacks, 54 tackles alongside seven TFL in the 2020 campaign. Not his best campaign by any stretch of the imagination, but he has been very disruptive in the middle of the field and I have seen him maul his way to the QB with relative ease. An immense figure on the D-Line but an underwhelming season by his standards keeps him from being in my top two defensive tackles of the season.
Calais Campbell – Baltimore Ravens
Campbell is an absolute monster of a man at 6’8” and 300lbs and his size certainly helped him cause problems for lineman this year. With four sacks, 28 tackles and five TFL he hasn’t had an amazing year especially by his standards but with six passes defended, he has been disruptive at the line of scrimmage. Voted to his sixth Pro Bowl and his sixth consecutive but he didn’t do enough for me as an interior lineman to warrant such praise. Unfortunately, I feel he may have fallen into the ‘voted in because he plays for a popular/good team’ category because his performances this year have not been standout.
Should’ve been picked:
DeForest Buckner – Indianapolis Colts
Buckner spent his first year in Indianapolis tearing up defenses and harassing quarterbacks with great efficiency. 9.5 sacks, 14 TFL and 58 total tackles in 2020 have proved how effective the defensive lineman has been in his new home. He has the second most QB hits and second most tackles of all interior defensive lineman in the NFL and has been harshly overlooked in the AFC voting. His two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery show that he has more than just rushing the passer to his game. Unfortunately, Heyward plays for a team that were 11-0 for a period of the voting and plays for a team that is geographically dominated with hardcore football fans, which may have played a part in Buckner missing out, but he’d be in my team for sure.
Quinnen Williams – New York Jets
Williams was the most consistent defensive player for the Jets in their pretty dismal 2020 campaign. He collected seven sacks, 55 total tackles, 14 QB hits and two forced fumbles that have been crucial in the Jets forcing turnovers instead of conceding easy touchdowns. Williams has been a bright spark in a poorly managed team and being left out is hardly a surprise, but the Pro Bowl calibre player is showing a lot of promise and potential to be top-10 in his position very soon.
Gridiron Xtra change: Calais Campbell out, DeForest Buckner in
Myles Garrett* – Cleveland Browns
Garrett is an elite defensive end with an unbelievable physical frame that allows him to dominate even the best of offensive lineman. 2020 saw him produce 12 sacks, 10 TFL with four forced fumbles (joint third most in the NFL) and two fumble recoveries in a phenomenal season for the fourth-year pro. Garrett has only played 14 games this season and I believe he could’ve easily gotten 15 sacks or more had he been fully fit. A career-high year in forced fumbles and total tackles – it’s very easy to see why Garrett was selected for the Pro Bowl. An amazing player who I’m very fond of, especially now he’s rebuilding his reputation after bludgeoning Mason Rudolph with his own helmet in 2019.
Joey Bosa* – Los Angeles Chargers
Bosa has been selected for his third Pro Bowl in just his fourth season in the NFL after being selected No.3 overall in 2016. Bosa had a good season with 7.5 sacks, 15 TFL, 39 total tackles and one fumble recovery in 2020. Whilst it isn’t a career high statistically for Bosa, his performances have more than enough impact during games. He caused the Bills all kinds of problems in our week 13 match-up and has caused QB’s all sorts of problems and panic with his speed rushing ability. Bosa has been good yet again although I’m unsure if he warrants a selection for the Pro Bowl, maybe he got selected because of previous years performances?
Frank Clark – Kansas City Chiefs
Another player who I think has had a good season but due to strong previous seasons, may have set the bar too high for themselves. six sacks, 29 tackles, eight TFL and a single fumble recovery are good figures from the two-time Pro Bowler and Super Bowl LIV champion. Definitely a down year compared to last year for Clark and while he has been very good for the Chiefs defensive line, there are certainly more deserving candidates based on this year’s performances.
Should’ve been picked:
Stephon Tuitt – Pittsburgh Steelers
Tuitt has been exceptional in the Steelers D-Line this year with 11 sacks (seventh most in the NFL), 12 TFL and two forced fumbles. An immense year for the disruptive and powerful defensive end who surprisingly has not made a Pro Bowl before. A career-high in forced fumbles and sacks for Tuitt shows how much he has stepped up his game this year and dragged the Steelers up to having one of the best defenses in the league (for the first 11 weeks anyway). Deserves a space over Bosa or Clark in my opinion and has been incredible to watch tear through helpless offensive linemen.
Olivier Vernon – Cleveland Browns
Vernon had a stellar year in a Browns defense that has ebbed and flowed in performing. His nine sacks, 12 TFLs, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery were a sign that he was able to showcase his agility and power this year. Certainly, a better year by Vernon than his previous two in Cleveland and New York has seen him standout on the defensive line in many crucial games this year. I would’ve loved to see him in the Pro Bowl and deserves a shot over Frank Clark due to his all-round skillset that has seen him be a play breakup merchant.
Gridiron Xtra changes: Joey Bosa and Frank Clark out, Olivier Vernon and Stephon Tuitt in
T.J. Watt* – Pittsburgh Steelers
Watt is simply a tackling machine. 15 sacks (most in the NFL) with 23 TFL (most in the NFL) as well as 53 tackles and two forced fumbles show how outstanding he really has been in 2020. Watt is all-action, with speed, intelligence to read the offensive lineman’s weaknesses and amazing tackling ability that sees QBs wrapped up in a vice-like grip. T.J. Watt has stood out among all defenders with his unique ability to do a lot of things extremely well, which is a rarity even in a talented league such as the NFL. Arguably the Defensive Player of the Year for 2020 and certainly a Pro Bowl calibre player for me.
Bradley Chubb* – Denver Broncos
Chubb is an exciting player who is always flying around the line of scrimmage putting his body on the line. With 7.5 sacks, nine TFL, 42 total tackles and one forced fumble he had a good year in 2020 in what a very difficult year for the Broncos defensively. A career high year in tackles for Chubb and an improvement on his 2019 performance with more sacks and more TFL makes it understandable that he was selected for the AFC. Personally, outside linebacker is a hybrid role that involves a lot of different roles and skills to be successful and I don’t think Chubb has been elite in more than one category this year, making it hard for me to include him in my team as a starter.
Matt Judon – Baltimore Ravens
Judon is a hard-hitting linebacker who had an exceptional 2019 season that saw him deservedly in the Pro Bowl, but I don’t think that form continued this year. 2020 saw Judon get six sacks, 50 total tackles and nine TFL in a year where he was supposed to be a leader for young firstt round draft pick at linebacker Patrick Queen, who actually got more almost three times the number of tackles, the same amount of TFL, more forced fumbles and more fumble recoveries than Judon. However, Queen is not considered a Pro Bowler by many and despite their difference in roles I just can’t see how Judon was an elite outside linebacker in 2020. Another popular vote sees him take his place, but I think Van Noy was more deserving.
Should’ve been picked:
Kyle Van Noy – Miami Dolphins
Van Noy enjoyed a very productive first season with the Dolphins as their defense drew lots of praise in the NFL this year. Van Noy managed six sacks, 10 TFL, 69 total tackles as well as two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. A dominant Dolphins defense has been motored by Van Noy and his ability to lead by example when it comes to breaking up plays. Adding six passes defended to the list shows how important he has been to the Dolphins this year in the passing game as well as shutting down running plays. Someone who has flown under the radar of many, but I think he deserves to fill one of the 3 OLB slots in the Pro Bowl for 2020.
Gridiron Xtra change: Matthew Judon out, Kyle Van Noy in
Darius Leonard* – Indianapolis Colts
Leonard is a human version of Action Man. He does it all and he does it with extreme skill, pace and power. 132 total tackles, two sacks, seven TFL, seven passes defended, three forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries tells the story of a very successful year at linebacker. Leonard tends to fly under people’s radar because he plays at an unfashionable team in the Indianapolis Colts, but he rightly got selected to his second consecutive Pro Bowl in just three years in the league. An exciting player who is always involved in the defensive action, a joy to watch and someone I would love to have play for my team.
Tremaine Edmunds – Buffalo Bills
As a Bills fan you might be expecting me to defend Edmunds and say he was elite and should be this and that but honestly, I think Joe Schobert and Zach Cunningham have been better. Edmunds’ 2020 consisted of 119 total tackles, two sack, four TFL, three passes defended and 37 mentions of how he was only 19 when he was drafted. Whilst that is impressive, there still needs to be some elite performances to make the Pro Bowl and I’m not sure Edmunds has produced that in 2020. Five games of 10+ tackles is impressive but the Bills’ run defense has been less than impressive and Edmunds has had to do a lot of mopping up work in the midfield. A very exciting young player with freakish athleticism but I’m not sure his performances in 2020 warrant a selection at one of just two linebacker slots.
Should’ve been picked:
Joe Schobert – Jacksonville Jaguars
The Jaguars acquired Schobert in free agency in the summer and he’s proved a fantastic addition alongside Myles Jack in the linebacker room. He totalled 132 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 10 TFLs as well as 1 forced fumble and 1 fumble recovery in a very productive year for the 27-year-old. His 3 interceptions are also noteworthy, as Schobert has 2nd consecutive season of 3+ interceptions and his 4th consecutive season of 2+ forced fumbles. Becoming an elite player and aging like a fine wine, I would’ve loved to see Schobert selected ahead of Edmunds in the Pro Bowl.
Zach Cunningham – Houston Texans
Cunningham had another fantastic year in Houston, despite their woeful 4-11 record that doesn’t reflect his personal performances. His 164 total tackles (most in the NFL), three sacks, seven TFLs and two passes defended demonstrates a very busy year for the four-year pro. A career-high year in sacks and total tackles prove how well Cunningham has progressed this year and how crucial he is to the Texans. It would have been his first Pro Bowl selection after covering a lot of ground and being a fantastic leader in what has been a woeful Texans defense. Definitely someone who should’ve had more respect and given more accolades and been included in the Pro Bowl discussion in my opinion.
Gridiron Xtra change: Tremaine Edmunds out, Joe Schobert in
Xavien Howard* – Miami Dolphins
Howard led the league in interceptions with 10 as well as having a league-high 20 passes defended too. Howard had a career year in 2020, with a forced fumble to add to some very rewatchable catches for his 10 interceptions. The Dolphins defense has been very strong this year, their turnovers have been numerous and given them a platform to score points in almost every game thanks to Howard’s ball-tracking capabilities. An amazing year sees Howard return to the Pro Bowl for only the second time but deservedly so.
Tre’Davious White* – Buffalo Bills
The Bills defense has been solid enough once again and White has set high standards for himself yet again. 11 passes defended, three interceptions, one forced fumble and two fumble recoveries is very much what you would expect from your No.1 cornerback. White has been excellent in pass coverage and his forced fumble on Drew Lock in week 15, that Jerry Hughes was able to return for a TD, was a personal highlight. White continues to squeeze himself into the top-five cornerbacks in the league conversation and rightly takes his place in the AFC secondary for his second consecutive Pro Bowl.
Marlon Humphrey – Baltimore Ravens
Humphrey leads the league with eight forced fumbles (yes 8!) as well as having 82 total tackles, 2.5 sacks and one interception. Humphrey has been so difficult to keep quiet in 2020 and his forced fumbles record how much of a pain he has been for offenses around the league. He’s voted back to his second consecutive and third total Pro Bowl and it’s very hard to argue that he shouldn’t be there when you see how disruptive Humphrey has been this year.
Stephon Gilmore – New England Patriots
Now this selection annoys me. The guy has played 11 games this year with one interception, one forced fumble and just three passes defended. He’s been decent in those games he has played but he wasn’t even in the top two cornerbacks on the Patriots roster let alone a top four cornerback in the AFC. A joke of a selection and there were at least four or five other players who deserve a chance at the Pro Bowl over a player who has been elite but performed way worse than many other cornerbacks who don’t have Super Bowl rings or play for the fickle Foxborough fanbase.
Should’ve been picked:
Denzel Ward – Cleveland Browns
Ward has been a star in the Browns defense ever since he came into the league in 2018. His third consecutive year of two or more interceptions and third consecutive year of 10+ passes defended shows the consistently high level that Ward has been performing at. A career high year in passes defended for Ward that has been built upon excellent athleticism and ability to anticipate the QB’s passes shows he is Pro Bowl worthy. In a year that has been strong for cornerbacks, Ward has stood out as an excellent young player and although he harshly misses out this year, I would have him in my Pro Bowl team over Gilmore looking at their performances this year.
J.C. Jackson – New England Patriots
Gilmore’s heir and a way more deserving Pro Bowl cornerback partner/replacement was extremely good in 2020. 14 passes defended, three fumble recoveries and the second most interceptions in the NFL with nine. What a year for young Jackson who looks like a fantastic player already which may push Gilmore into free agency in the summer of 2021. His performances were more impressive, more consistent and definitely more warranting of a Pro Bowl selection when compared to Gilmore. People need to get their heads out of the past and watch Jackson play because he could be one of the leagues’ best come 2022.
Xavier Rhodes – Indianapolis Colts
Rhodes has been exceptional alongside rookie Julian Blackmon in the Colts secondary this year. With 12 passes defended, 42 total tackles and two interceptions it was a good year for the three-time Pro Bowler in his first year in Indianapolis. Rhodes is having his best year statistically since 2016 and looks to have recaptured some form in the Colts’ strong defense. A very interesting player who definitely deserves to feel like he missed out by not being selected, although he hasn’t done quite enough to be selected to one of just four slots at cornerback.
Gridiron Xtra change: Stephon Gilmore out, Denzel Ward in
Minkah Fitzpatrick* – Pittsburgh Steelers
Fitzpatrick’s move from the Miami Dolphins during the 2019 season could be the best decision he’s ever made. He’s settled in well in Pittsburgh and has quickly become a fan favourite with his athletic performances and excellent tackling. 74 total tackles, 11 passes defended as well as four interceptions, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery is a display of his wide skillset and intelligent playmaking. An exciting player who looks to be involved in every play, he’s someone you can’t take your eye off and certainly warrants his spot in the AFC team for his second consecutive Pro Bowl.
Tyrann Mathieu* – Kansas City Chiefs
Mathieu is a character in the biggest show of them all, the NFL. The Honey Badger had another standout season to follow up his Super Bowl ring from 2019. He had six interceptions as well as nine passes defended and 62 total tackles. A very productive year for the seven-year pro who continues to show incredible resilience and an incredible amount of athleticism for what is probably an undersized safety in the NFL. Mathieu is never too far from the action, seeking out contact at every opportunity with his electrifying energy which makes him addictive to watch. He certainly deserves a slot in the Pro Bowl this year after recapturing some of the elite form he showed earlier in his career.
Justin Simmons – Denver Broncos
Surprisingly, this is Simmons’ first Pro Bowl appearance despite having several years of 90+ tackles and three consecutive years of three or more interceptions in 2018, 2019 and 2020. In 2020, Simmons had another five interceptions and 96 tackles as well as nine passes defended and a fumble recovery. Another strong season from Simmons who continues to standout in the Broncos defense and has stepped up his game as a leader in the absence of Von Miller this year. A fantastic, hard-hitting safety with incredible physical tenacity and it’s brilliant to see him getting the recognition he deserves finally. He probably is the third-choice safety in the Pro Bowl but I’m glad that he was finally voted in after an exceptional few years in the league.
Jessie Bates III – Cincinnati Bengals
Bates has been a standout defensive player this year, single-handedly breaking up plays and shutting down offenses wherever he could while his teammates stood there twiddling their thumbs presumably. Bates III contributed 109 total tackles, 15 passes defended (most for any safety in the NFL), one forced fumble and three interceptions in an impressive 2020 season individually. His third season in the league has been very impressive, with his third straight season with 100+ tackles and three or more interceptions and I think it’s time that he received some accolades for his performances. Probably overlooked because the Bengals have been atrocious defensively and it’s an unfashionable team but he’s starting to show his elite level talent.
Jordan Poyer – Buffalo Bills
Poyer had the best year of his career in 2020 with the Bills. A career high year for tackles with 124 (most for a safety in the NFL), a joint career high in sacks with two and his fourth consecutive year of two or more interceptions. Poyer has been playing at an elite level for two or three years now but this year he really stood out, flying round the field making hits and forcing two fumbles along the way too. An excellent year for the eight-year pro who is still flying under the radar of pundits and other football fans. He actually led the votes for AFC strong safety position but was still not selected to the Pro Bowl which seems very odd/corrupt but that’s nothing unusual for the States. If there were four safety slots available, I think Poyer could easily have been in at safety if you base it off 2020 performances.
Again, special teams are a severely underrated aspect of the game and many special team kickers, punters and long snappers don’t receive any attention apart from both barrels when they mess up.
Justin Tucker from the Baltimore Ravens was voted into the Pro Bowl with an 89.3% field goal accuracy and 97.9% PAT accuracy. A very impressive year from what many would consider to be the best kicker in the entire NFL, but Jason Sanders of the Miami Dolphins had a very clean year too. Sanders had 91.9% field goal accuracy as well as 100% PAT accuracy (joint best in the NFL) and a 56-yard longest field goal.
Sanders was excellent in securing vital points for a relatively low-scoring Dolphins team this year that have relied heavily on a strong defence, I would’ve liked to see him selected over Tucker on this occasion.
Rodrigo Blankenship also led the votes for AFC kicker, probably due to his unique character and unusual look but his stats were impressive for a rookie. 90.9% field goal completion and 95.3% PAT completion is an excellent year for an undrafted rookie and he’s definitely worth a mention although I don’t think he deserves the sole kicker spot for the AFC.
Jake Bailey of the New England Patriots was voted in as the punter for the AFC and he has had an excellent year, with the highest net average distance punt yards in the NFL with 46.4 yards. He also managed to have 28 punts inside the 20 which is the 2nd most in the NFL. With a misfiring Patriots offence, Bailey saw the field more than the Patriots would’ve liked but he showed his class this year and was rightly voted to the Pro Bowl.
The return specialist is Andre Roberts from the Buffalo Bills who is widely regarded as one of the best kick returners in the NFL, even at 32 years old. He had 961 yards returning and averaged 30 yards per return who is attending his 3rd consecutive Pro Bowl.
Gunner Olszewski from the New England Patriots averaged 23.4 yards per return and has one touchdown in just 17 returns which earned him special team player of the week for Week 13. Devin Duvernay, the rookie at the Baltimore Ravens, had 578 return yards, one kick return touchdown and an average of 27.5 yards per kick return in a very impressive display for just 21 returns. Two players who definitely should’ve been in the conversation for return specialist but unfortunately, Roberts still has the tag as being one of the best returners in football.
Morgan Cox from the Baltimore Ravens has been selected for the AFC in the 2020 Pro Bowl. That’ll do for me.