- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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Last year, a staggering 46 first-time players were either voted into or received invitations to the Pro Bowl.
Part of the transition can be attributed to the format change. To boost ratings, the Pro Bowl was played the Sunday between the conference championship games and the Super Bowl. Pro Bowlers from the Super Bowl teams were excused. With the Pro Bowl being so close to the playoffs, more Pro Bowlers from other teams, still aching from the pains of the regular season, pulled out.
Knowing the door is open for more players to draw consideration, here's a look at who could make a maiden voyage to the Pro Bowl, which returns to Hawaii this season.
- Robinson has been considered one of the best cornerbacks in the AFC for years, so it's somewhat surprising to think he's never been to a Pro Bowl. A former franchise player of the Houston Texans, Robinson signed a six-year, $57 million contract with the Falcons this offseason. Robinson has the platform on a possible 11- or 12-win team to be recognized as one of the best coverage specialists in the NFC.
- Like Robinson, it's hard to believe Jennings hasn't been to a Pro Bowl. He's averaged slightly more than 1,200 yards receiving over the past two years and he has a total of 23 touchdowns over the past three seasons. Aaron Rodgers has established himself as one of the NFC's top quarterbacks, and at the young age of 26, Jennings is just entering his prime.
- This is the best cornerback combo that doesn't get enough recognition leaguewide. Under coordinator Mike Zimmer, the Bengals have turned their defense around over the past two seasons; the shutdown abilities of Joseph and Hall have been key to that improvement. Joseph ended up being a second alternate last season while Hall was a fourth alternate. Sure, it's hard to crack the AFC cornerback Pro Bowl list with the trio of Nnamdi Asomugha, Darrelle Revis and Champ Bailey at the top, but Joseph and Hall are knocking on the door.
- In two seasons, Ryan has established himself as an elite quarterback, and if his forecast of an 11- or 12-win season comes true, Ryan will be in the mix. Kurt Warner's retirement moves Ryan one spot up on the NFC elite quarterback list and everyone knows Brett Favre won't show up to the Pro Bowl if he's selected. Drew Brees and Rodgers are favorites to be in the top three selections, but Ryan could beat out Donovan McNabb and Eli Manning if the Falcons have a better record and Ryan puts up big numbers.
Atlanta Falcons QB Matt Ryan:
- Mayo was defensive rookie of the year two years ago and has quickly established himself as one of the best inside linebackers in the AFC. Bart Scott and Harris were first and second alternates last season behind Ray Lewis and DeMeco Ryans. Because of Scott, Harris and others, the Jets feel as though they are ready to challenge the Patriots for the AFC East title, but if the Patriots hold off that threat and the Patriots' defense improves, Mayo could draw more Pro Bowl consideration.
- The AFC guard spot is wide open as far as the Pro Bowl is concerned. Nine-time AFC Pro Bowl guard Alan Faneca was cut and moved to the Arizona Cardinals. Patriots guard Logan Mankins could be a holdout because he's not happy with his contract offer. That puts San Diego Chargers three-time Pro Bowler Kris Dielman at the head of the class and moves everybody else up. Grubbs was a first alternate last season and the Ravens' line projects to be even better with Michael Oher moving to left tackle.
- Le'Ron McClain has had a stranglehold on the AFC fullback spot for the past two seasons because of his blocking and his ability to run as a big back. Still, it's going to be hard for McClain to hold off Hall, who's the blocking back for 2,000-yard rusher Chris Johnson. Hall was the first alternate last season. As long as Johnson doesn't hold out, Hall should get his first shot at the Pro Bowl.
- The NFC wide receiver race had the biggest turnover last season. Four first-time Pro Bowlers made it -- Miles Austin of the Cowboys, DeSean Jackson of the Eagles, Sidney Rice of the Vikings and Steve Smith of the Giants. Crabtree is the next NFC receiver ready to break out. Crabtree held out into the regular season last year and had to learn the offense and sync up with Alex Smith as the season progressed. Despite those obstacles, he caught 48 passes in 11 games. All Smith has to do is get Crabtree five or six completions a game to put him in the Pro Bowl mix.
- OK, I'm going to again put myself in the line of fire for putting Flacco among the elite quarterbacks in the league. Calm down and follow my logic for a second. The Ravens have a great chance of winning the AFC North this year, which would be Flacco's third playoff run. Plus, other quarterbacks might pull out. Don't forget, the three quarterbacks who played for the AFC in the last season's Pro Bowl were Matt Schaub, Vince Young and David Garrard. Flacco could win that race.
Baltimore Ravens QB Joe Flacco:
- The AFC is looking for the next young center to step up. Nick Mangold of the Jets is considered to be at the top of the class, but Amano might be the next in line. The Titans nominated Amano by giving him a five-year, $26.25 million contract on a very talented line. Mack was the Browns' first-round choice in 2009 and could also be poised to emerge.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
32mEric D. Williams