Skip to main content

2021 NFL season: One potential first-time Pro Bowler from each AFC team

Marc Sessler has chosen one prime candidate from each team to earn a first Pro Bowl nod in 2021. Below are his AFC picks.

It's all about how Dobbins closed his rookie adventure. After receiving just 25 totes in September and October, the former Ohio State star put up 651 of his 805 yards down the stretch while finishing with the league's highest yards-per-carry mark (6.0) among qualified running backs. An ideal fit in Baltimore's RPO rushing express, Dobbins offers elite vision, powerful, knifing legs that can turn on the jets and college proof as a receiver. He'll grow in that pass-catching role come autumn and deserves mention as a dark-horse candidate to lead the NFL in touchdowns.

Dawkins ventured into last season with one lingering knock: His finest campaign came as a rookie in 2017. Those concerns were put to bed in 2020, when the 6-foot-5, 320-pound left tackle went wire to wire as a reliable run blocker and pass protector. Josh Allen's fireball rise is grounded in his almost-supernatural athletic gifts, but Buffalo brass deserve credit, too, for creating a stable environment. Dawkins -- who landed a four-year, $60 million extension last August -- is linked to Allen's future for years to come as a bookend on the rise.

First-round wideout Ja'Marr Chase will nab more press this summer, but Higgins has toiled behind the scenes, with ESPN's Ben Baby (incredible name, by the way) reporting "coaches and teammates have noticed Higgins' physical development, which was expected after he declared for the NFL early." Offensive coordinator Brian Callahan also declared that Higgins is "going to play a huge role" in the offense after finishing his promising rookie year with a 67/908/6 line that should only grow in 2021. There's plenty of mouths to feed in Cincinnati, but Higgins is poised to shine beside Chase and Tyler Boyd.

Teller was nothing short of a screaming Pro Bowl snub last season, finishing the year as a second-team All-Pro and a Pro Football Focus darling. PFF actually tabbed the burly Teller as the game's top guard, which checked out in real time, watching Cleveland's Bill Callahan-tutored front five mauling cowed defenders into dust. Entering the final year of his deal, Teller is bound for a big-money extension on a roster spiritually anchored around the squad's gnarly O-line.

It wasn't my intention to paint this piece with such a heavy coat of line talk, but Bolles fits the bill. Like Teller above, Denver's left tackle was a bona fide Pro Bowl snub after finishing as PFF's third-best tackle. The 2017 first-rounder made the leap in his fourth season as a count-on-me run blocker and protector of the quarterback. Missing just one game in four campaigns, Bolles has grown into an asset who allowed the second-fewest pressures among tackles during a breakout campaign.

Slim pickings on a Texans roster littered with a flood of new faces on low-wattage, one-year deals. Houston is mired in extreme transition with little overt hope come September. Cooks, though, sits in good position to produce as the leading man inside a wideout room featuring Donte Moncrief, Randall Cobb and Keke Coutee. With five 1,000-yard campaigns in the past six seasons, Cooks will be leaned on by an offense destined to spend Sundays toiling from behind -- no matter who plays quarterback.

If Carson Wentz thrives, he's not only Pro Bowl fodder, but Philip Rivers-esque Comeback Player of the Year material. I'm not sold on that feel-good narrative, but I harbor zero doubts about the rise of Taylor as the engine behind Indy's attack. Nor do I fret over Marlon Mack stealing away the lead role from a second-year back who was a picture of dominance over his final five games of the 2020 regular season, allowing him to finish third league-wide in rushing. Taylor's not Derrick Henry or Nick Chubb, but his on-field growth reads as legitimate.

Trevor Lawrence
Clemson · QB · Year 1

It's not impossible for a rookie passer to wind up in the Pro Bowl. Russell Wilson, Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Dan Marino, Dak Prescott, Cam Newton and even Jameis Winston pulled it off after fine first-year outings. Lawrence fits the bill as a celebrated top-flight prospect destined to start right away. Jacksonville's offense is far from star-studded, but Marvin Jones, D.J. Chark and Laviska Shenault Jr. form a reliable wideout group, while rookie runner Travis Etienne and 2020 sensation (and Pro Bowl snub!James Robinson give Lawrence plenty to work with. The looming curiosity: Can Urban Meyer stir this drink into a winning tonic?

One begins this exercise by scanning a team's roster and looking for dudes who A) have unfairly been passed over by Pro Bowl voters or B) vibe as breakout candidates. I was caught off guard to see that Thuney -- a 2019 second-team All-Pro who's played in three Super Bowls and never missed a game -- has yet to make the Pro Bowl. That says more about the Pro Bowl than it does about Thuney, who now finds himself protecting Patrick Mahomes. You can already hear Tony Romo going bonkers over Thuney-themed highlights come September. That should be enough to grease the skids into Pro Bowl Land.

The Las Vegas roster is an odd one, populated with a legion of good-but-not-great players. Ideally, second-year wideout Henry Ruggs III explodes into something beautiful, but he struggled to look the part in an offense built around tight end Darren Waller. Crosby, though, has outperformed his fourth-round pedigree to lead the team in sacks two years running. That was supposed to be fourth overall pick Clelin Ferrell, but the NFL's a strange place. A place where Crosby belongs.

Tucked inside a truly bizarre, COVID-drenched football season, Justin Herbert brought waves of joy. Even a child could observe his beautiful arm and announce to the room: "This guy's got it!" Most impressive was Herbert's cowboy-hero calm behind PFF's 32nd-ranked offensive line. Adding rock-solid ex-Packers center Corey Linsley and first-round left tackle Rashawn Slater should serve as a balm. How will Herbert adjust to a new-look offense under coordinator Joe Lombardi? Fair concern, but first-year Chargers head coach Brandon Staley insists the attack will be catered to what Herbert does well, which appears to be just about everything.

The Dolphins weren't shy about adding firepower to an offense that too often fell flat with Tua Tagovailoa at the motherboard. First-round wideout Jaylen Waddle and difference-maker-when-healthy Will Fuller were tremendous offseason adds. That doesn't diminish the glow of contested-catch maven Mike Gesicki, whom I'd label as the team's most improved player on offense in 2020. He's a 6-foot-6 man-freak with an enormous catch radius and the physical tools wired for destruction.

Jackson has been the subject of light trade speculation, even after inking his second-round tender. On the field, he's operated as an under-the-radar revelation for New England, piling up 17 interceptions since 2018 alongside Pro Bowler Stephon Gilmore and the talented Jonathan Jones. One of the best corners around against the deep ball, this undrafted free-agent signee has doubled as money in the bank for Bill Belichick and friends. Set to hit free agency if the Pats don't pay up, Jackson should be highly motivated to author his finest work yet.

Largely lost in the fog of a hideous autumn for Gang Green was a bona fide sophomore breakout for Williams. Dishing out disruption one Sunday after the next, the former Alabama star grew into a run-stuffing bully who also badgered quarterbacks to the tune of seven sacks. Every player on the roster sits in a better place under new coach Robert Saleh, but the man crush between these two is real. "I'm a huge, huge Robert Saleh fan," Williams said during minicamp, while Saleh offered this: "I absolutely love Quinnen." Two peas in a pod!

Questions hover around Pittsburgh's offense. The line looks iffy, and it's unclear what's left of Ben Roethlisberger. The Browns fan in me tends to believe the following: The Steelers will figure it out. They always do. Besides, only a fool would ignore the weaponry. Electric wideout Chase Claypool and rookie runner Najee Harris are spicy Pro Bowl possibilities. I'm banking on Johnson, though, to reduce his frustrating drops and lean on his next-level ability to get open downfield. This is a special athlete with the skills to crack secondaries like an egg.

The additions of Denico Autry and Bud Dupree should serve as a boon to Simmons, who spent most of last season facing double- and triple-teams. There wasn't much help around him, but the second-year behemoth still finished with a higher PFF score than fellow 2019 first-rounders Quinnen Williams and Dexter Lawrence. Interior defenders are like dudes working construction in the boiling streets while you drive by in your air-conditioned lease car: They quietly grind away at a job only few could handle. Simmons is up to the task.

ALSO CONSIDERED: Bud Dupree, OLB, Tennessee Titans; Devin Bush, LB, Pittsburgh Steelers; Chase Claypool, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers; Marcus Maye, S, New York Jets; Joe Burrow, QB, Cincinnati Bengals; Jessie Bates, S, Cincinnati Bengals; Trey Hendrickson, DE, Cincinnati Bengals; John Johnson III, S, Cleveland Browns; Baker Mayfield, QB, Cleveland Browns; Jonnu Smith, TE, New England Patriots.

Follow Marc Sessler on Twitter.

Related Content