For these five players, it's only a matter of time
Overlooked for the Pro Bowl mostly because they play on losing teams, these five rising stars won't be kept out of Hawaii for much longer.
Usually, it takes a lot for a first-year player to make his way to Hawaii. But to do it on a squad that is 4-10? Well, all Willis must do is ask Houston Texans linebacker DeMeco Ryans about the difficulty of that feat. Ryans didn't even make last season's all-star game after winning defensive rookie of the year honors.
Willis' recognition actually is so impressive that it got us thinking about all the young players who didn't make this year's Pro Bowl. There are plenty of obvious ones -- come on, let's hear one more complaint about how Houston's Mario Williams was snubbed -- but there are many others who didn't get any love because of their team's lack of success. That's just how it works in this league. The more you lose, the more invisible you become when the voting process begins.
In fact, there are five rising stars who should be heading to Hawaii next year, even if their respective teams aren't in playoff contention. Here they are:
1. Brandon Marshall, WR, Denver: The man whose size (6-foot-4, 230 pounds) and athleticism earned him the nickname "Baby T.O." has delighted Broncos fans in his second season. Marshall already has 86 receptions and 1,136 yards and he's becoming a bigger target in the Denver offense each week (he's caught 21 passes in the Broncos' past two games). The key? Marshall apparently loves being the No. 1 option in an offense.
"If you show Brandon that you believe in him," said LSU receivers coach D.J. McCarthy, who coached Marshall at Central Florida, "he'll do anything for you."
The Broncos certainly can see that now. When injuries sidelined Rod Smith and Javon Walker earlier this year, Marshall developed a natural chemistry with quarterback Jay Cutler that could make this pair one of the more dangerous combinations in the NFL for the next 10 years. The bottom line: Marshall should be downright scary with the confidence he has gained this season.
2. Ernie Sims, OLB, Detroit: If Willis can make the Pro Bowl this season, it seems only fair to argue a case for Sims. After all, Sims' 122 tackles rank second to Willis in the NFL and he's been just as valuable to his team. In fact, Sims already is drawing comparisons to another standout linebacker who excelled in the Tampa 2 defense: Derrick Brooks.
Of course, the problem here is that the NFC is stocked with talented outside linebackers. Some are 3-4 pass-rushers (like DeMarcus Ware in Dallas). Others are bigger names (like Seattle's Julian Peterson and Chicago's Lance Briggs). But Sims' time is coming. Just wait.
3. Darnell Dockett, DT, Arizona: You want to know what's killing Dockett? Sheer numbers. He's in the same conference as Minnesota's twin terrors -- defensive tackles Pat Williams and Kevin Williams -- and Chicago's Tommie Harris is one of the best in the game as well.
That being said, Dockett is no slouch. He had eight sacks through his first eight games and probably would've been a lock for this year's Pro Bowl if his production hadn't declined (he has gone without a sack in his past six contests). The key point to be made here is that interior linemen usually don't generate huge sacks numbers. In fact, Dockett had only six career sacks coming into this season. If he repeats this effort in 2008, look for him to be on the field in Hawaii.
4. Haloti Ngata, DT, Baltimore: There are plenty of reasons why the Ravens' run defense has ranked among the best in the league all season and Ngata is the best place to start. The second-year veteran has 58 tackles and two sacks and almost certainly would've been selected if not for Baltimore's 4-10 record. As proof, just consider that San Diego's Jamal Williams, who played through injuries this season, is going back to Hawaii with 39 tackles and no sacks.Here's something else to think about: The Ravens still managed to put three players on the AFC Pro Bowl roster (left tackle Jonathan Ogden, linebacker Ray Lewis and safety Ed Reed). So there's still respect for the talent in Baltimore. It's just taking awhile for it to trickle down to Ngata.
5. Marques Colston, WR, New Orleans: Now here's a guy with a legitimate beef. Last season Colston produced numbers worthy of offensive rookie of the year honors, but he lost that award to Tennessee's Vince Young. This season he's increased his production and still found no accolades coming his way.
Colston currently has more receptions than every wide receiver on this year's NFC Pro Bowl roster and his overall statistics (87 receptions, 1,092 yards, nine touchdowns) are better than Green Bay's Donald Driver. And if you think his problems all come down to his playing on a team that will probably miss the playoffs, think again. Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald and St. Louis' Torry Holt will be in Hawaii and their teams will be home for the postseason as well.
Jeffri Chadiha is a senior writer for ESPN.com.