The end goal is to play on the first Sunday of February, not the final Sunday of January. But earning an invitation to the Pro Bowl still matters even if the exhibition game does not. It remains an acknowledgement of one’s hard work, an addition to one’s Wikipedia page, and oftentimes, an incentive in one’s contract.
Having to decline because of Super Bowl commitments makes it all the sweeter.
Perhaps the following New England Patriots will have that luxury next season.
None of whom have been voted to the Pro Bowl before. But that did not stop Dont’a Hightower in 2016, or Malcolm Butler as well as then-Patriots in Chandler Jones and Jamie Collins back in 2015.
Here are five who could be on deck for New England in 2017.
No. 5: Julian Edelman
Edelman has caught 356 passes since 2013, good for fifth-most in the league behind only Larry Fitzgerald, Julio Jones, Demaryius Thomas and Antonio Brown. He’s posted a pair of 1,000-yard seasons over that stretch, and set a career-high with seven touchdown grabs in 2015 despite missing seven games. But the fact Edelman’s production to this point hasn’t brought home Pro Bowl honors is why the 31-year-old lands fifth here.
Edelman’s high volume of targets – 159 in 2016 – figures to drop back to earth in 2017. His importance to the offense, however, figures to stand as resilient as his 5-foot-11, 200-pound frame does after the catch. “He’s not like a lot of other little receivers – they catch the ball, they want to fall,” former Buffalo Bills and current Washington Redskins linebacker Zach Brown said. “He’s got like a running back mentality.” Edelman’s peers slotted him No. 71 overall on NFL Network’s Top 100 list.
No. 4: Nate Ebner
Ebner was on the field for a Patriots-high 359 special-teams snaps in 2016. The 28-year-old didn’t miss a tackle, according to Pro Football Focus, and led all core members of the NFL kicking game in tackles. Ebner also forced a fumble and recovered one. And he did all of that after spending the offseason program and most of training camp vying to become the first active NFL player to participate in the Olympics.
Ebner went on to garner a second-team All-Pro selection last season, but Patriots captain Matthew Slater – a sixth-time Pro Bowler and four-time first-team All-Pro – believed the reserve safety was deserving of more for his efforts on special teams. “I've gone on record saying this: I really feel like he's one of the elite players in this league,” Slater said in December. “If you turn on the film, you definitely see that.”
No. 3: Marcus Cannon
Projecting Cannon as a Pro Bowl candidate would have been laughed at last July. But the 2011 fifth-round pick, who started just 19 games through his first five seasons, is the one laughing now. In the absence of the now-retired Sebastian Vollmer, Cannon started 15 games at right tackle last campaign. The Patriots rewarded his performance with a five-year, $32.5 million contract extension before December arrived.
And with good reason. Per Pro Football Focus, Cannon finished 2016 having conceded only 27 quarterback pressures while playing over 90 percent of the offense’s snaps. It was a stark turnaround; Cannon averaged 29 pressures per season over his previous three seasons despite playing just 60 percent of New England’s offensive snaps. The second-team All-Pro has found his footing, and looks poised to take another step under the tutelage of Dante Scarnecchia in 2017.
No. 2: Trey Flowers
Flowers didn’t have a sack on his NFL resume until Oct. 30. Yet the 2015 fourth-round pick quickly made up for lost time thenceforth. Flowers notched two sacks against the Bills, two against the Seattle Seahawks, one against the Baltimore Ravens, and two against the Denver Broncos by the time the 2016 regular season was over. The 23-year-old put himself in good company by then, as over the past decade, only seven players drafted after the third round have gone on to notch seven-plus sacks in their sophomore NFL seasons.
Flowers went on to add another 2.5 sacks in Super Bowl LI while delivering the Atlanta Falcons a combined loss of 31 yards. And as the Arkansas product enters 2017 without veterans Chris Long and Jabaal Sheard nearby, there is a wide-open opportunity for that trend to continue. If New England’s defensive front hits home in 2017, connect the dots to Flowers as the reason.
No. 1: Brandin Cooks
Cooks hasn’t been a Pro Bowler? Thus far, the answer is no. The only New Orleans Saints player to make the make the Pro Bowl over the past two seasons, defensive end Cameron Jordan, did so as an alternate in 2015. But Cooks amassed 162 catches for 2,311 yards and 17 touchdowns through those two seasons with the Saints. He turned 33 of quarterback Drew Brees’ throws into completions of 20-plus yards during that span, and 11 of 40-plus.
The 2013 Biletnikoff Award winner and 2014 first-rounder begins his Patriots tenure with a clean slate. It is a new offense. It is a new depth chart. Still, Cooks will play a home-run part in it. Even with Edelman accounting for his share of targets, both wideouts operate in their own ways. And for the 23-year-old Cooks, those ways often cast him into the end zone. There’s a good chance they’ll cast him into the Pro Bowl as well. He is due.