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PFW:Predicting greatness is not an exact science.


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Pro Football Weekly


Predicting greatness is not an exact science.

But history shows the NFL's elite players generally are recognizable at the very outset of their pro careers, going back all the way to draft day.

Of last year's Pro Bowl starters, 23 of 44 were first-round picks. While this season's Pro Bowl starters won't officially be announced until Jan. 8, we do know who has been voted to the honors squads, and 54 percent of the players who already know they have earned a trip to Hawaii are former first-round picks.

So it should come as no surprise that when Pro Football Weekly polished off its crystal ball to help predict which of today's young NFL players could be next in line to earn Pro Bowl invites, a great number of them are recent high draft picks.

In the following team-by-team rundown, we considered players who have yet to earn a Pro Bowl berth other than as an alternate. We also took into consideration the competition a player might face at his respective position.

AFC East

Buffalo Bills

Future Pro Bowler: RB Willis McGahee

Projected year: 2005

McGahee is out to prove that his devastating knee injury has healed, and he has surprised observers with his hard-nosed, physical running style. He's fast enough to bounce a play outside and turn the corner, which is scary considering that his knee still is not 100 percent. As the focus of the Bills' smash-mouth offense, McGahee should continue to get plenty of carries, rack up tons of yards and serve as the Bills' top option in the red zone, giving him plenty of scoring opportunities. Observers expect him to be one of the AFC's top backs next season.

Miami Dolphins

Future Pro Bowler: LB Derrick Pope

Projected year: 2007

It takes a special player for a seventh-round draft choice to make the Pro Bowl, but the undersized, hard-hitting Pope is that kind of player. Projected as an outside linebacker coming out of Alabama, Pope paid his dues on special teams for most of his rookie season before being thrust into the starting lineup when MLB Zach Thomas went down with a hamstring injury.

New England Patriots

Future Pro Bowler: NT Vince Wilfork

Projected year: 2008

The mammoth rookie has split starts with veteran Keith Traylor this season as the anchor of the line in the Patriots' 3-4 scheme. He is expected to be the team's run stuffer for years to come and eventually fill the role that Ted Washington played during New England's Super Bowl run in 2003. Don't be surprised if Wilfork makes a big jump in his level of play next season, much like Jets DT Dewayne Robertson has done in his second year. The biggest Pro Bowl hurdle for him might be the presence of several good, young players at the DT spot in the AFC, including Robertson, Marcus Stroud and Casey Hampton.

New York Jets

Future Pro Bowler: MLB Jonathan Vilma

Projected year: 2006

The rookie has been everything the Jets hoped for and more, impressing the team from the first day of minicamp. He finally took over the MLB starting spot when Sam Cowart went down in Week 2 with a knee injury and hasn't left the lineup since that time. He is active, intelligent, fast, a hard hitter and opportunistic -- all of the qualities of the player he's most often compared to, Ray Lewis. The only reason why he might be delayed in reaching the Pro Bowl is that the AFC is loaded at the MLB position with players like Lewis, Zach Thomas, London Fletcher and Al Wilson.

AFC North

Baltimore Ravens

Future Pro Bowler: RS B.J. Sams

Projected year: 2006

This is a unique case. The Ravens have plenty of young stars, but they've all gone to the Pro Bowl. Others (like QB Kyle Boller) aren't ready to be on this list. A case can be made for ILB Ed Hartwell, but Baltimore might not be able to re-sign him after the season. So the nod goes to Sams. He has faded after a fast start, but he owns the talent to make it to Hawaii. C Casey Rabach also received consideration.

Carson Palmer has flashed Pro Bowl potential in his first season as the Bengals' starting QB.

Cincinnati Bengals

Future Pro Bowler: QB Carson Palmer

Projected year: 2007

Palmer has come along nicely in the second half of the season. His performance in Week 13 at Baltimore (29-of-36 passing, 382 yards, three touchdowns) was a shining example of his potential, but it could be some time before Palmer makes the Pro Bowl. After all, he plays in the conference that boasts Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. But should he lead the Bengals to the playoffs in the seasons to come, a couple of trips to Hawaii very well could be in his future.

Cleveland Browns

Future Pro Bowler: TE Kellen Winslow

Projected year: 2006

Winslow has the talent to become a Pro Bowl regular, but so do several other more established AFC tight ends. Do the names Tony Gonzalez, Antonio Gates, Todd Heap and Randy McMichael mean anything to you? Winslow faces an uphill battle to earn a berth in 2005. He missed much of his rookie season because of a broken leg, and he likely will have to learn a new offense in the offseason. Also, the Browns' QB situation is far from stable.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Future Pro Bowler: QB Ben Roethlisberger

Projected year: 2005

Roethlisberger has been a standout from the get-go, never looking overwhelmed by the task of being a rookie starting quarterback. His Pro Bowl candidacy would likely get a boost if the Steelers were less dependent on the running game, but he's made enough highlight-reel throws to remind even his strongest critics of his physical skills. If he can lead the Steelers deep into the playoffs and follow that with a strong sophomore campaign, he might become the first Class of 2004 quarterback to earn a trip to Hawaii.

AFC South

Houston Texans

Future Pro Bowler: CB Dunta Robinson

Projected year: 2005

Robinson has had a very successful rookie season, ranking among the AFC's leaders in interceptions and giving the Texans an ideal complement to heady veteran Aaron Glenn. Robinson is a dangerous blitzer off the corner and is good in run support. He has earned the respect of his veteran teammates, with MLB Jamie Sharper recently praising his play in the slot. Robinson has lost some battles to veteran wideouts this season, but it's clear the Texans were fortunate to draft him No. 10 overall last April.

Indianapolis Colts

Future Pro Bowler: TE Dallas Clark

Projected year: 2007

Just as Chiefs TE Tony Gonzalez reaches 30, Clark could be ready to close on him as one of the best tight ends in the conference. Antonio Gates and Gonzalez are virtual Pro Bowl locks for the foreseeable future, and the competition -- Todd Heap, Kellen Winslow, Randy McMichael -- is stiff. He figures to be a prominent figure in a Colts offense with Peyton Manning at the helm, and his role could increase depending on the future of Marcus Pollard, who is signed through 2005.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Future Pro Bowler: QB Byron Leftwich

Projected year: 2006

The QB race might boil down to Manning, Tom Brady, Leftwich and the other five AFC quarterbacks drafted in the first 20 picks since 2002 (David Carr, Kyle Boller, Carson Palmer, Ben Roethlisberger and Philip Rivers). Leftwich's improvement since Year One has been marked. His numbers don't yet stack up with Peyton Manning's, but Leftwich's supporting cast should improve again this offseason. No defense in the AFC South is daunting, but top target Jimmy Smith turns 36 in February and the Jaguars' offensive line can be a nightmare at times.

Tennessee Titans

Future Pro Bowler: RB Chris Brown

Projected year: 2007

Brown sprinted out of the gates this season and was in the top five in the NFL in rushing yards for much of the early season. But injuries -- namely a troublesome turf toe -- and fumbling have kept him from getting Pro Bowl mention. The other consideration is that there are several AFC backs (LaDainian Tomlinson, Jamal Lewis, Corey Dillon, Willis McGahee, Priest Holmes and Edgerrin James -- if he stays in the AFC) who are in the prime of their careers, which might make it tough for Brown to break through next year or even the season after. But his strong frame, good speed and the Titans' penchant to run the ball all make for a good formula for Brown to get the invite in '07.

AFC West

Denver Broncos

Future Pro Bowler: LB D.J. Williams

Projected year: 2006

In terms of just pure athleticism and playmaking ability, Williams should be in line for a Pro Bowl berth this season as a rookie. But considering the competition at his OLB spot in the AFC, it might take a bit longer to hone his craft to that level of consistency. Regardless, he leads the Broncos in tackles, which is no small feat with Al Wilson and John Lynch in the same locker room, and he has really grasped Denver's scheme.

Kansas City Chiefs

Future pro bowler: RB Larry Johnson

Projected year: 2007

Johnson didn't take long to hold his coming-out party. After sulking about his playing time and getting called out by head coach Dick Vermeil earlier this season, Johnson got his opportunity with Priest Holmes out of action the past month and ran with it. The organization took a lot of heat for ignoring the defense in the first round of the 2003 draft. It isn't out of the realm of possibility, though, that the Chiefs could deal the moody Johnson in the offseason to help bolster the defense.

Oakland Raiders

Future Pro Bowler: OT Robert Gallery

Projected year: 2006

Let's just say if Gallery, the second overall pick last April, isn't one of the game's most dominant blockers up front in a couple of years, it will be a disappointment that will be felt throughout the organization. Gallery, at right tackle for now, has all the makings of a great one, and he has shown plenty of progress in all areas as the season wears on.

San Diego Chargers

Future Pro Bowler: CB Quentin Jammer

Projected year: 2006

As the fifth overall pick in 2002, the Chargers are ready for Pro Bowl-type production out of Jammer in a young and talented secondary. His confidence waned a bit early in his career, but Jammer's aggressiveness has returned, and his play has picked up a notch or two in this, his third year. He can be special when allowed to press receivers at the line of scrimmage, and his recovery speed and ball skills should allow for more big plays.

NFC East

Dallas Cowboys

Julius Jones' late-seaon emergence validated the Cowboys' moves in April's draft.

Future Pro Bowler: RB Julius Jones

Projected year: 2006

Jones' three-game burst and impressive workload after coming back from shoulder surgery have shown the powers that be -- namely owner Jerry Jones and head coach Bill Parcells -- that they made the right move in passing on more heralded running backs in this year's draft, trading down to get Jones and picking up an extra first-round pick in the process. The rookie from Notre Dame is not big but is built compactly, and the linemen love him. C Al Johnson told PFW recently that they respond to the fact that Jones can make something out of nothing and that they don't have to open huge holes. Parcells has sent RBs Joe Morris and Curtis Martin to Hawaii, and Jones could be the next to go.

New York Giants

Future Pro Bowler: QB Eli Manning

Projected year: 2007

Brother Peyton made the Pro Bowl in his second pro season (1999), but Eli might have to wait longer -- mainly because he doesn't have Marvin Harrison and Edgerrin James or anyone comparable in his arsenal. Eli's development has slowed because he took over the starting job midway through the season, during the toughest part of the schedule, but there are some who feel he'll end up being the best QB of the 2003 draft -- better even than Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger, who has yet to lose an NFL start. Manning isn't going to put up bigger numbers than Donovan McNabb or Daunte Culpepper any time soon, but with Brett Favre nearing the end of his career, Manning could begin a string of invitations in a couple of years.

Philadelphia Eagles

Future Pro Bowler: OG-OT Shawn Andrews

Projected year: 2008

This is a tricky projection because Andrews could move from guard -- where he was penciled in to start as a rookie before getting hurt in camp -- to tackle at some point with ORT Jon Runyan on the backside of his career. It's also not clear how the massive Andrews will bounce back from his broken fibula, even though a full recovery is expected. He might have to wait his turn because both the OT (Orlando Pace, Walter Jones, etc.) and OG (Larry Allen, Marco Rivera, etc.) positions tend to be represented by the same couple of players every year. In fact, his own teammate, OLT Tra Thomas, might overshadow Andrews until he is fully established.

Washington Redskins

Future Pro Bowler: FS Sean Taylor

Projected year: 2005

The Eagles' Brian Dawkins goes every year, and Cowboys FS Roy Williams is very popular with voters early in his career, but Taylor is starting to show why he was the No. 5 pick in last April's draft and how he could help revolutionize the safety position. The Redskins' defense has performed very well this season, and as the team improves in the standings, so will Taylor's campaign for a Pro Bowl invitation. Gregg Williams has begun unleashing all the various ways Taylor can be used: covering slot or outside receivers and tight ends, playing back as a center fielder, rushing the passer on a blitz or supporting the run like an extra linebacker. Safety is a position of big plays, and Taylor has the skills and intelligence -- on the field, anyway -- to make him a regular visitor to the Pacific island.

NFC North

Chicago Bears

Future Pro Bowler: CB Charles Tillman

Projected year: 2005

Scouts say Tillman already has the best natural ability of any cornerback in the NFC North. A knee injury has limited Tillman to seven games this season, but with the Bears building a staunch pass rush and Tillman showing signs of climbing to an elite level, his "arrival" is right around the corner.

Detroit Lions

Future Pro Bowler: RB Kevin Jones

Projected year: 2005

With a RB youth movement on the verge, there is no shortage of Pro Bowl competition for Jones. An optimist would point out that Shaun Alexander could leave the conference as a free agent in March and Ahman Green and Deuce McAllister (both unrestricted after '05) could soon follow. What might a pessimist say? Jones' draft classmates Julius Jones (Cowboys) and Steven Jackson (Rams) and 23-year-old Clinton Portis (Redskins) aren't going anywhere. Jones could wind up in Hawaii by default sooner than 2005, though, as he was tabbed as a Pro Bowl alternate this year.

Green Bay Packers

Future Pro Bowler: LB Nick Barnett

Projected year: 2006

Is there a future first-time Pro Bowl player on this roster? Some observers don't think so. But Barnett has the athleticism to play an OLB spot in another scheme, and a position switch might be the best vehicle for reaching the Pro Bowl. Bears MLB Brian Urlacher went to Hawaii after each of his first four seasons in the NFL, but the turnover at OLB is greater with fringe stars like Dexter Coakley (Cowboys, 2003) and Shelton Quarles (Buccaneers, 2002) getting selected in recent years.

Minnesota Vikings

Future Pro Bowler: DE Kenechi Udeze

Projected year: 2006

Playing alongside Pro Bowl DT Kevin Williams will do wonders for Udeze, the 21-year-old first-round pick. Udeze hasn't been fully healthy and is catching up physically. When he gets there, Minnesota anticipates a dominant, well-rounded defensive end (Udeze had 16 1/2 sacks as a junior at USC), and the Vikings are committed to building around their young D-line.

NFC South

Atlanta Falcons

Future Pro Bowler: LB Demorrio Williams

Projected year: 2006

Williams has great speed, and the game seems to be slowing down for him as his rookie season progresses. He is showing all the signs of being an impact player for years to come, but that doesn't mean he's going to jump right to Pro Bowl status. Williams has yet to move into the starting lineup -- that likely will come next season -- and he will have plenty of competition for a Pro Bowl spot with Derrick Brooks, Julian Peterson and LaVar Arrington around.

Carolina Panthers

Future Pro Bowler: CB Chris Gamble

Projected year: 2005

Gamble is among the NFC leaders in inteceptions and has a real nose for the ball. He's flashy without being too risky, and he has the speed to close quickly when he does make a mistake. The NFC isn't overly stacked with talent at the position, and Gamble is developing at a rate that could allow him to be the premier shutdown corner in the conference in the very near future. With only guys like Ronde Barber, Lito Sheppard and Dre' Bly in his way, Gamble should go far.

New Orleans Saints

Future Pro Bowler: DE Charles Grant

Projected year: 2006

Grant got some consideration for a Pro Bowl spot this year, but his future in Honolulu isn't a sure thing, as he will be battling the likes of Michael Strahan, Simeon Rice, Julius Peppers, Bertrand Berry and Patrick Kerney for years to come. Grant has been one of the bright spots for a sorry Saints defense, and his combination of quickness and speed has made him one of the most dangerous pass rushers in the NFC.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Future Pro Bowler: WR Michael Clayton

Projected year: 2007

Clayton has been a breakout star this season, but he faces a lot of competition from the likes of Randy Moss, Terrell Owens, Javon Walker, Torry Holt & Co. to break through for a Pro Bowl invite. In three years, however, Moss will hit 30 and Owens will be 34, so Clayton should be ready to take the next step. The Bucs' offense is balanced and doesn't rely on any one receiver right now, but Clayton can make Jon Gruden rethink his attack.

NFC West

Arizona Cardinals

Future Pro Bowler: WR Larry Fitzgerald

Projected year: 2006

With tremendous hands, a great combination of size and strength and marvelous football instincts, Fitzgerald has displayed Pro Bowl-type potential on occasion this season. But Arizona's No. 1 pick has also had his share of rookie lapses and isn't considered as far along as fellow WR Anquan Boldin at the same stage of his rookie campaign a year ago. Fitzgerald needs to continue working on his route-running and separation. He also has been bothered all year by an ankle injury suffered in the preseason and isn't expected to be 100 percent until next season. If both he and Boldin can stay relatively healthy and perform at the consistently high level Dennis Green expects, perennial Pro Bowl consideration is only a matter of time.

St. Louis Rams

Future Pro Bowler: RB Steven Jackson

Projected year: 2007

Daily observers of the Rams believe Jackson has the the potential to become the team's most potent power runner since Jerome Bettis in his pre-Pittsburgh mode. In addition to packing a wallop with his bruising inside running, the Rams' 2004 first-round pick also has the speed to turn the corner. He has quickly shown a knack for making sound decisions and always seems to get positive yardage, even when the holes aren't there. With Marshall Faulk on his last legs, Jackson figures to assume the featured role at some point next season. After a couple of seasons as the undisputed starter, he could be looking at an annual postseason trip to the islands. Jackson has had some injury concerns this season, though, and his long-term durability remains open to question.

San Francisco 49ers

Future Pro Bowler: WR Brandon Lloyd

Projected year: 2008

Because of the terribly altered state of the Niners' offensive line, it's really difficult to project the success of any of the Niners' offensive players. As it now stands, though, Lloyd -- a first-time starter this season after being drafted in the fourth round in 2003 -- figures to have the best shot at developing into a Pro Bowl-caliber player. "I've been around a lot of young receivers, and I've never seen a guy with such amazing body control," 49ers WR Curtis Conway says of Lloyd, whose flair for making acrobatic catches could make him more attractive in the eyes of future Pro Bowl voters. "He just hasn't been able to showcase his total talents yet."

Seattle Seahawks

Future Pro Bowler: SS Michael Boulware

Projected year: 2006

Clearly, the Seahawks' second-round pick in the 2004 draft appears to be on a fast track to NFL stardom. Boulware has seamlessly made the conversion from collegiate outside linebacker to pro strong safety and has almost single-handedly kept Seattle's playoff hopes alive with four interceptions that either saved or won games for the Seahawks this season. "The more he plays in space and gets familiar with the proper angles to play as a deep defender, he's going to be a good player for them," Jets head coach Herman Edwards said. If he continues making big plays at the same rate he's currently making them, Boulware has a great shot at becoming a regular Pro Bowl selection.

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