2023 NFL season: One potential first-time Pro Bowler from each AFC team

2023 NFL season: One potential first-time Pro Bowler from each AFC team

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Hamilton struggled out of the gate in Year 1 before the Ravens moved him closer to the line of scrimmage as a slot corner and box safety. He flourished in that role, flashing ability as a short-area cover man, thriving against the run and showing a knack as a pass rusher. In Year 2, the Ravens could use Hamilton as a Derwin James-type defender, aligning him all over the formation to provide ample opportunity for game-changing plays. An already-banged-up Ravens secondary needs playmakers, and Hamilton owns the athleticism and ability to break out in 2023.

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Cook profiles as a three-down back in the Bills’ explosive offense, giving the second-year runner a great chance to stack numbers. The 2022 second-round pick came on strong at the end of last season, averaging 6.0 yards per carry in Weeks 11-18, portending bigger things for this fall. A gashing runner with speed and power, Cook led the NFL with a 48.6 breakaway percentage (percent of designed rush attempts that gained more than 15 yards) in 2022 (min. 75 carries), per PFF. His ability as a pass catcher should keep him on the field on third downs and provide an outlet for Josh Allen. With a big season, Cook could battle his brother, Dalvin, for Pro Bowl honors down the stretch.

Hill was buried behind Jessie Bates III and Vonn Bell last season. With the veterans gone, it’s the Michigan product’s chance to shine. Hill already showed off his incredible speed and range this preseason, foretelling big things ahead. The 2022 first-round pick should thrive as a center fielder in Lou Anarumo’s defense with the speed to make plays on balls other safeties simply can’t reach.

Like most Browns defenders, JOK struggled in 2022. To be fair, he dealt with injuries that relegated him to 11 games. Now healthy, the linebacker could thrive in Cleveland’s revamped defense under coordinator Jim Schwartz. Owusu-Koramoah boasts speed and agility to play sideline to sideline. With more veteran beef along the Browns’ D-line, the third-year pro should be freed up to make plays behind the line of scrimmage. If the unit makes significant strides in 2023, expect JOK to be in the middle of it all.

The fact that Jerry Jeudy is already dealing with a hamstring issue makes me skittish about including the former first-round pick on this list. Jeudy’s injury, however, could open the door to more playmaking opportunities for Dulcich to streak to the forefront. It’s pure projection to predict Dulcich will make a massive leap after catching 33 passes for 411 yards and two TDs in his rookie season. But the talent is there. The TE owns dynamic run-after-catch and vertical ability to become a force in Sean Payton’s offense. With depth questions at receiver, Dulcich could earn more targets early in the season on his way to a breakout sophomore campaign.

A ballhawk’s ballhawk, Pitre flew all over the field as a rookie, generating 147 tackles, five INTs and a sack. He was the only player in the league with 100-plus tackles and five-plus INTs in 2022. Pitre is always near the ball and brings bad intentions when he arrives. He’ll need to clean up the missed tackles in Year 2, but the talent is there for him to become one of the best safeties in the NFL. In DeMeco Ryans’ defense, Pitre’s second season should be full of splash plays.

Pittman has thrived despite some less-than-stellar quarterback play, generating 2,007 yards and 10 TDs in the past two years combined. The Colts receiver is a route technician who can get open in any offense, generating separation that should make him Anthony Richardson’s favorite target. Through three seasons, Pittman has yet to make a Pro Bowl — not for lack of talent, but because the offenses in Indy have been mediocre, to put it kindly. Pittman is a stud. He should fit smoothly into Shane Steichen’s system. There is some concern the output won’t be there with a raw rookie under center, but Pittman’s talent overcomes those questions for this exercise.

Consider me all in on the Ridley hype. The wideout boasts the speed and playmaking ability to thrive in Doug Pederson’s offense. With Trevor Lawrence tossing him the pigskin, Ridley should hit the ground running in Jacksonville. The last time he was on the field for an entire season, Ridley put up 1,374 yards and nine TDs in 15 games for the Falcons — apparently on a broken foot. The 28-year-old’s star was on the ascent before the last two seasons were wiped away. Rejuvenated in Jacksonville, Ridley can rise again.

Forget that the Chiefs paid Taylor big money to play LT, then flipped him back to RT after inking veteran Donovan Smith. Taylor is in the right spot for him to thrive. An under-heralded blocker in Jacksonville, Taylor has improved his pass protection each season. He allowed pressure on 2.9 percent of pass-blocking snaps in 2022, fifth among OTs with at least 250 pass-protection snaps, per PFF. Patrick Mahomes should make him look even better. Plus, when in doubt, select a Chiefs offensive lineman — three made the Pro Bowl last year. Playing with Mahomes has a lot of benefits.

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Kickers make Pro Bowls, too. Carlson has been a steady force for the Raiders since joining the team in 2018. Boasting a strong leg with good accuracy, he made 91.9 percent of his field goal attempts in 2022 with a long of 57 yards. Two of his three misses were from 50-plus yards (where he went 11-of-13). Loosening Justin Tucker’s grip on the AFC kicker spot is no easy task, but if anyone can do it, it’s Carlson. The Raiders kicker actually took home first-team All-Pro honors last year over Tucker, but was left off the Pro Bowl roster. 2023 can change that.

Can we get this man to the Pro Bowl already? For years, the do-it-all dual threat has been buried behind “more traditional” backs. Ekeler represents the modern NFL, where running backs are asked to be more than just ball-carriers. And he thrives. Ekeler has led the NFL in scrimmage TDs in the last two seasons with 20 in 2021 (tied with Jonathan Taylor) and 18 in 2022. He can become the first player in the Super Bowl era to pace the NFL in this category for three straight seasons. The only other players to do so in pro football history are Hall of Famers Don Hutson (twice) and Lance Alworth (AFL). Furthermore, since 2021, Ekeler has a league-high 25 rush TDs and leads all running backs with 13 receiving TDs.

The Dolphins have several players who could push for first-time Pro Bowl honors, including receiver Jaylen Waddle, safety Jevon Holland and defensive tackle Christian Wilkins. Tua is the choice because, if he can stay healthy, the QB has the chance to put up big numbers in this offense. When Tagovailoa was on the field in 2022, he led the NFL with a 105.5 passer rating and Miami averaged 26.4 points per game (16.0 PPG in the five games Tua missed). He led the NFL in completion percentage (61.9), passing yards per attempt (13.9) and passer rating (125.1) on passes of 10-plus air yards in 2022, per Next Gen Stats. With Tyreek Hill and Waddle at Tua’s disposal, the Dolphins’ offense could be even more dynamic this season. The key, as always, will be the quarterback’s health.

The AFC tight end spot is a tough nut to crack, but Henry could put up career numbers with the Patriots bringing back offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien and New England’s lack of consistent WR targets. He should be a regular red zone target for Mac Jones and could stack TDs. Henry is a reliable pass catcher, something New England sorely needs. I expect Jones to look his way often in high-leverage situations.

The 2022 Offensive Rookie of the Year missed out on the Pro Bowl in his first season, but his numbers could soar with Aaron Rodgers in New York. Wilson’s 1,103 receiving yards were the fifth-most by a rookie in the last 15 seasons. Each player above him on the list has made multiple Pro Bowls. Wilson’s ability to thrive moving around the formation will put him in advantageous spots to create mismatches for Rodgers to exploit. The four-time MVP quarterback isn’t shy about force-feeding receivers he trusts. Wilson could become Rodgers’ new Davante Adams.

Pro Bowl voting often lags a year behind a player’s breakout season. Highsmith burst out in 2022, generating 14.5 sacks (sixth-most in the NFL) and five forced fumbles (tied for first). The production led the Steelers to lock down the edge rusher with a four-year, $68 million contract extension in July. T.J. Watt might garner the headlines, but Highsmith is no slouch. With the attention paid to Watt, the 26-year-old can fly to the quarterback (11 of his sacks came in 10 games with Watt on the field in 2022). The Steelers boast a talented pass-rush crew that could wreck opposing offenses this season.

I’m just going to keep putting Al-Shaair on all these offseason lists. After years of mostly lurking in the shadows in San Francisco, the linebacker will put his talent on display in Tennessee. The 26-year-old showed what he could do with a more significant role in 2021 (102 tackles, five passes defensed, two sacks, nine TFLs in 13 games). Now, we get to see it in full force in 2023. Boasting speed and instincts to play downhill, Al-Shaair should gobble up negative plays in the Titans’ system.

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