FTN’s 2023 Pro Bowl Ballot: Defense


Welcome back to part two of this year’s best possible Pro Bowl rosters! We covered the offense earlier this week; now, we have to dive into the muck that is the defensive side of the ball, as well as the mysterious land of special teams.

There’s not a lack of quality choices here, mind you; it’s just how the NFL chooses to highlight these choices that’s the problem. They still divide the front seven into defensive ends, defensive tackles, inside linebackers and outside linebackers, rather than grouping all the pass rushers together. This does get more pass rushers onto the roster, and part of the point of a Pro Bowl is to get as many stars in one place as possible which, fair enough. But pretending that Nick Bosa and Haason Reddick play fundamentally different positions is a silly ritual the NFL insists we continue to go through. At the same time, they don’t split outside and slot corners, but do split strong and free safeties, so it’s very slapdash just which distinctions we’re supposed to care about and which we’re supposed to ignore.

In addition, special teams voting is hard. You can pick six long snappers! Can you name six long snappers? What about six special teams specialists? Even more so than most of the positions on the ballot, it’s a real muck of guesswork to get through there, and a significant portion of the votes will go to whoever is in the top middle of the ballot and easiest to click on.

Ah well. We’re here to help you fill out your ballot anyway. With the voting deadline being Christmas Day, we’ve got to buckle up and pick the best of the best and brightest of the brightest. We’ll ignore the ballot’s arbitrary position limit (you can vote via social media, anyway), and give you one man’s take on the rest of the ideal 44-man rosters we’re sending to Orlando. 

All stats through Week 14.


Defensive End

Yes, the NFL still separates its edge rushers into defensive ends and outside linebackers, so you get to play a fun game of ‘find the player’ on your ballot. This year, it does seem to be tipped towards defensive end more – that’s where you’ll find Nick Bosa, Aidan Hutchinson and Maxx Crosby, 1-2-3 in pass pressures this season, as well as DPOY candidate Myles Garrett and run-stopping stud DeMarcus Lawrence and most of the other big names around the league. That fills up your NFC ballot before you can even get to Montez OR Josh Sweat, or Carl Granderson or anyone of that nature, which is kind of ridiculous. It’s a little more evenly balanced on the AFC side of the roster, so we can find room for Trey Hendrickson, the sack leader at the position. You could easily double the number of defensive ends you pick and still leave good names at home. This position is absolutely loaded.

NFC: Nick Bosa, SF; Aidan Hutchinson, DET; DeMarcus Lawrence, DET
AFC: Maxx Crosby, LV; Myles Garrett, CLE; Trey Hendrickson, CIN

Defensive Tackles

Hey, this is where we get to say something nice about New York football! The best interior line play in the league is taking place at MetLife, where you can watch Dexter Lawrence and Quinnen Williams on a weekly basis. I’m not sure “home of the defensive tackle” is going to catch on for the next Bruce Springsteen single, but it’s a start.

Aaron Donald might not quite be Aaron Donald, but he still leads the league in tackles for a loss and ESPN’s pass rush win rate and eight million other things. Picking a third NFC defender is tough, with Jalen Carter and Derrick Brown and Alim McNeill and Osa Odighizuwa all having cases, but Javon Hargrave is the only name in the top 10 in both ESPN’s pass rush and run block tables, so we’ll give him the versatility nod. On the AFC side, DeForest Buckner has nearly a 10-point lead in SIS’ total points saved metric, so he is a must. Christian Wilkins and Chris Jones lead the next tier below him; while Jones is the better pass rusher, Wilkins is the more balanced all-around player so I’ll lean towards him this time.

NFC: Aaron Donald, LAR; Javon Hargrave, SF; Dexter Lawrence, NYG
AFC: DeForest Buckner, IND; Christian Wilkins, MIA; Quinnen Williams, NYJ

Interior Linebackers

The two best teams in the league this year have a stud centerpiece at middle linebacker, a position which the league continues to devalue. Tell that to Fred Warner or Roquan Smith, centerpieces who make their defenses work. Warner is probably the best pass-covering linebacker in football and a missile of a tackler who can close down space in a heartbeat. Since Smith arrived in Baltimore, the Ravens have jumped from the middle of the pack to near first in most of the key yardage stats. Maybe you shouldn’t pay a ton of money for a regular linebacker. But if they can eat up space like Warner or Smith, find the cash for them.

Outside of them, I’m looking for linebackers who can run with running backs and tight ends and stop passes over the middle with my interior linebackers. In the NFC, that means Demario Davis; the Saints are second in pass DVOA against running backs and 12th against tight ends because of Davis’ coverage; he has a league-best 57.9% completion percentage allowed when targeted, and quarterbacks mostly don’t challenge him. In the AFC, I’m once again drawn to the Jets, where I’ll take Quincy Williams over C.J. Mosley, though either is a great pick. Is that because I want Quinnen and Quincy Williams on the same team? No comment.

NFC: Demario Davis, NO; Fred Warner, SF
AFC: Roquan Smith, BAL; Quincy Williams, NYJ

Outside Linebackers

The return of the pass rushers! We’ve got another pair of DPOY candidates in Micah Parsons and T.J. Watt leading the way. You’ve got Danielle Hunter, Khalil Mack, Josh Allen and Hasson Reddick all with double-digit sacks, and then, oops! You’re out of space. 

That’s a fine six, and that’s who we’re going with, but it’s a bit ridiculous that we have 12 pass rushers on this team, compared to six interior linemen and four interior linebackers. There’s no way a quality interior linebacker like Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah is going to get votes over a sack leader, but we’re being asked to compare them anyway. I know pass rushers are the superstars, but it would really be nice to balance the front seven players at some point, like the All-Pro ballot has already done.

NFC: Danielle Hunter, MIN; Micah Parsons, DAL; Haason Reddick, PHI
AFC: Josh Allen, JAX; Khalil Mack, LAC; T.J. Watt, PIT


Once again, the ballot only lets you select six but we’re picking the full eight that will make the final roster.

A few years ago, I was skeptical about Trevon Diggs’ 11 interceptions, and (unsuccessfully!) argued that he shouldn’t make the Pro Bowl. He was far too boom-and-bust for my liking – and, indeed, has just four interceptions in the two years since. That’s how Dan Quinn coaches up his cornerbacks; he wants them to take big risks and get big rewards. You might be tempted to think of Da’Ron Bland’s eight interceptions and five pick-sixes the same way; his 61.1% completion percentage allowed ranks 44th among 101 qualified corners, and his 7.4 yards per target is 54th, both firmly middle of the pack. Well, middle of the pack coverage with an upside of twice as many interceptions as anyone else is a pretty nice upside to have, even without counting the touchdowns! Unlike 2021 Diggs, Bland also can tackle, which is a nice bonus. Bland isn’t leaps and bounds ahead of everyone else like his highlights would suggest, but he’s absolutely a Pro Bowler.

This is a position where it would actually make sense to split things up, and get some dedicated slot corners rather than just grouping all the cornerbacks together in a big lump. That’s alright, though; we can do that manually. In the NFC, that means grabbing rookie Devon Witherspoon from Seattle; he may not be my pick for Defensive Rookie of the Year, but he gets a Pro Bowl nod with his 5.4 yards per target. In the AFC, it’s hard to choose between Trent McDuffie and Kenny Moore … so I won’t, and just have a pair of slot corners. The more the merrier.

For outside corners, I want yet another Jet – this year, D.J. Reed is slightly ahead of Sauce Gardner in the advanced stats, but you could take either or both without complaint. Of the four-interception club, Paulson Adebo and Jaylon Johnson stand out. Johnson’s 4.9 yards per target is fifth-best among qualified corners, while Adebo has yet to surrender a touchdown this year, making him the NFC corner with the most snaps without giving up a score. We’ll round it out with Brandon Stephens, second behind only Bland in SIS’ points saved metric.

NFC: Paulson Adebo, NO; DaRon Bland, DAL; Jaylon Johnson, CHI; Devon Witherspoon, SEA
AFC: Trent McDuffie, KC; Kenny Moore, IND; D.J. Reed, NYJ; Brandon Stephens, BAL


The NFL is weird here, in what should not come as a shock. They always pick three safeties, but are not consistent from year to year (or conference to conference) whether it’s two free safeties and one strong safety, or vice versa. They also split safeties into free and strong, which is becoming less relevant each year.

We’ll take advantage of that by taking two NFC free safeties and two AFC strong safeties, to best distribute the talent available. That lets us squeeze both Kyle Hamilton and Jabrill Peppers onto the roster rather than making a choice between them just because we don’t want to find a second NFC safety behind Malik Hooker. Peppers also completes the set of all 16 AFC teams, which is always nice to see. Jevon Holland then reigns as our one AFC free safety, and we don’t need to find a second one to match the duo of Antonie Winfield and Jessie Bates from the NFC South. The lack of consistency here ends up working out to our benefit for once.

NFC: Jessie Bates, ATL; Malik Hooker, DAL; Antoine Winfield, TB
AFC: Kyle Hamilton, BAL; Jevon Holland, MIA; Jabrill Peppers, NE

Special Teams


From here on out, we’re going strictly with what our numbers say. For the AFC, that’s easy – Harrison Butker has a fairly substantial lead on the field, having missed just one kick all season. The NFC is trickier, though, because it depends on which numbers you rely. Brandon Aubrey is the best at field goals, having hit all 31, including eight from 50+. He drops a little when you factor in his three missed extra points, but he maintains a lead. But Aubrey also kicks off, and the Cowboys rank 21st in kickoffs. If you include kickoff value, Jake Elliott slips into the lead, +9.1 to +7.0. I believe part of Dallas’ kickoff problem is scheme; Aubrey is just booting for touchbacks while the Eagles are getting runbacks and stopping people before the 25. I’m not going to ding Aubrey for what I think is a strategic choice by his coaches, but you could make the argument either way.

NFC: Brandon Aubrey, DAL
AFC: Harrison Butker, KC

Long Snapper


Long snappers work on field goals and punts. The teams with the highest combined value on field goals and punts are the Jaguars and the Cowboys. Ergo…

NFC: Trent Sieg, DAL
AFC: Ross Matiscik, JAX


Once again, we can look at our numbers two ways. In terms of net punting value, your winners are the Scottish Hammer Jamie Gillan in New York and the unnicknamed Logan Cooke in Jacksonville. That, however, does include return value, and while punters have some control over that, that also factors in coverage. In terms of just hoofing it downfield, it’s AJ Cole and Mitch Wishnowsky for the Raiders and 49ers. Either set is fine, but we’ll give some credit to punters for setting up their coverage, and stick with the net value leaders.

NFC: Jamie Gillan, NYG
AFC: Logan Cooke, JAX

Return Specialist

Marvin Mims has a 99-yard kickoff return touchdown for Denver, joining fullback Andrew Beck as the only to pull that feat off. He’s also averaging a not-too-shabby 16.9 yards per punt return, but it’s the touchdown that gives him the nod here. For the NFC, we go to Philadelphia’s Britain Covey, who leads the conference with 14.2 yards per punt return.

NFC: Britain Covey, PHI
AFC: Marvin Mims, DEN

Special Teamers

We have a very close race in the NFC, where San Francisco’s George Odum and Detroit’s Jalen Reeves-Maybin are tied with eight return stops each. The scale tips to Odum, because he has a higher stop rate, but pick your poison. In the AFC, there’s a three-way tie at seven stops, but only one of them is on the ballot, so congratulations, Ameer Abdullah!

NFC: George Odum, SF
AFC: Ameer Abdullah, LV 

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