There are two top contenders, right tackle Lane Johnson and middle linebacker Jordan Hicks. Johnson probably won’t make it as long as Jason Peters is still an automatic selection, unless the Eagles absolutely dominate the conference or something.
NFC middle linebacker also is a tough Pro Bowl nut to crack, when Seattle’s Bobby Wagner and Dallas’s Sean Lee are healthy. But Hicks’ nose for the ball might get him there. His 11 takeaways in his first two NFL seasons are the most since the Steelers’ Jack Ham, 45 years ago.
With Johnson, you always have the prospect of another drug-test problem, which would result in a two-year ban and pretty much end his career. With Hicks, there is the prospect of injury, which dropped him in the 2015 draft to the third round and ended his rookie season early. But Hicks played 95 percent of the defensive snaps last season. If I have to choose between the two, I’ll take Hicks, partly because he doesn’t have a Peters blocking his path.
It’s a tight race. The answer, clearly, is right tackle Lane Johnson, who would have made it in 2016 if he hadn’t been suspended for 10 games for a second PED offense. Those offenses might color voters’ opinions, even though both were the result of idiocy rather than duplicity. If that’s the case, then the next most likely player to go is tight end Zach Ertz, Carson Wentz’s new favorite target since the trade of Jordan Matthews. As the new favorite, Ertz, who is a pedestrian blocker, could compile 85 catches, eight or nine touchdowns, and a 13-yard average and compete with Greg Olsen, Jordan Reed, and Jimmy Graham for Pro Bowl honors. Ertz might never be a better player than Wentz, but he might have a better chance to go to the Pro Bowl than Wentz, who competes with Aaron Rodgers, Matt Ryan, Dak Prescott, Kirk Cousins, Drew Brees, Matt Stafford, and Russell Wilson.
The one who won’t play a snap this season. Sidney Jones will be the player who finally gives the Eagles an elite cornerback, once he fully recovers from Achilles tendon surgery. He’s got the whole package of speed, toughness, decent size, and instinctual coverage ability. You have to be good to be taken in the second round coming off an injury like that, and he is every bit that good. I almost picked Jordan Hicks, because he is approaching that caliber of play, but his history of injury works against him. Derek Barnett is another candidate, but defensive end is a tough position to break through and make the Pro Bowl, and he’s not playing in a system in which blitzers create gaps for everyone else to slip through. Crazy long shot? Mack Hollins. I think he’s going to be great. Not just good. The question is when.
Zach Ertz should start checking out flights for his family to Orlando, because he could become the Eagles’ next Pro Bowler. I know what you’re thinking: Stop talking about a breakout season for Ertz. It’s an annual rite of summer. What if I told you Ertz already had a breakout season? Ertz averaged 76.5 catches and 834.5 yards during the last two injury-shortened seasons. Those totals place him among the top five tight ends in the NFL in both categories, and I expect him to be more a factor this season. Without Jordan Matthews playing the slot, Ertz will become Carson Wentz’s trusted target in the middle of the field. Alshon Jeffery will be the Eagles’ top receiver, but even in Jeffery’s best year in Chicago, there was another Pro Bowler. Ertz must stay healthy, which isn’t a given. He also must find the end zone, where he hasn’t been nearly as effective as he should be. But he can top 80 catches and 900 yards. That will place him in a class with Jordan Reed, Greg Olsen, and Jimmy Graham in the NFC. Those three are Ertz’s main competitors for Pro Bowl status.