The sure to be riveting 2011 NFL Pro Bowl kicks off later today at 4:00pm pacific on FOX. The 49ers are represented by defensive end Justin Smith and inside linebacker Patrick Willis. While Bamm Bamm won't be playing today due to injury, Justin Smith will be starting in his second straight Pro Bowl appearance. Last season Smith was an alternate and made the roster after Kevin Williams was forced to miss the game due to injury. This year, Smith was selected as a starter from the get-go. It's pretty impressive considering before last year he'd never been selected for a Pro Bowl in his NFL career.
Since most folks don't really care all that much about today's Pro Bowl game, I thought a good discussion topic leading up to the game would be which 49ers are likely to make their first Pro Bowl appearance in 2012. Thus far, Willis, Smith, Frank Gore, Vernon Davis and Andy Lee have all made the Pro Bowl as 49ers. Takeo Spikes, Nate Clements, and Brian Westbrook have all made Pro Bowls as well with the Bills, Bills and Eagles, respectively.
Of the rest of the roster, who do you think has the best chance of earning a Pro Bowl nod in 2012? I took a look at the 49ers current roster and thought I'd list out a few potential candidates after the jump.
1. Mike Iupati - He was named to Pro Football Weekly's All-Rookie team and the folks at Pro Football Focus at one point had him ranked as the fifth best guard regardless of side or experience. The small school guard had some detractors given the level of college opposition he faced, but he showed he could hang with NFL competition. How he raises his game from year one to year two will be a big story to follow in 2011.
2. Manny Lawson - This is of course dependent on the team re-signing him. If the team gets Lawson resigned, I really think he could take a big step forward in 2011 in a blitzing Fangio defense. Lawson only had 2 1/2 sacks last season after leading the team with 6.5 the season before. I don't know if Lawson can ever be a double digit sack guy, but I do think he's got the talent to be as complete an outside linebacker as there is in the NFL. He can cover athletic tight ends, he can get in to stop the rush, and he can blitz quarterbacks. My favorite play of his was the diving interception he made while covering Raiders TE Zach Miller. If you combine that with a boost in his sack total, what's to stop him from making the Pro Bowl?
3. Michael Crabtree - He took a dip in his per game production in 2010 but the talent is still there. Crabtree is another player who will be a story to follow with the 49ers new offense in 2011. I suppose this entire list includes players who will be "big stories to follow" in 2011. What will be interesting to see is how much preseason playing time Crabtree sees in 2011 (assuming there is a preseason, of course). In 2010 an injury kept him out of the preseason and there was a bit of hubbub over that as some teammates were less than pleased with his lack of dedication. We'll see what this offseason brings for Crabtree.
4. Ted Ginn Jr. - Before people laugh to hard, I include Ginn for his return skills as opposed to his receiving skills. Devin Hester appears to have the returner role locked up for the foreseeable future, but Ginn showed this past year that he could compete for the role. He finished third in average punt return distance in his first season with the 49ers. Hester has the name recognition, but a few more big punt returns and Ginn could find himself in the conversation for the Pro Bowl spot.
These are a few of the 49ers I could see on the NFC roster in the 2012 Pro Bowl. There's a lot of football to be played between now and then, but I don't think any of these suggestions are entirely out of the realm of possibility. I think a guy like Joe Staley if healthy, could battle for a spot in the Pro Bowl (at least as an alternate), but I think the four guys above have a better shot than Staley. Do you have any suggestions on other potential first time Pro Bowlers on the 49ers current roster?