This past weekend, the NFL held its annual assembly of top tier talent that (a) isn't playing in the Super Bowl and (b) feels like playing football on a weekend off. Yes, the Pro Bowl took place in Orlando, with the AFC winning 38-33 in a game where the most passionate watchers are degenerate gamblers.
While the game itself is the ultimate exhibition, with very little trash talk and even less hitting, the designation of "Pro Bowler" is still important to players and their legacies. The Texans were represented on Sunday by Deshaun Watson and Laremy Tunsil. Tunsil was making his first Pro Bowl appearance of his career. Who will be the Houston Texan, if any, to make his first Pro Bowl NEXT season?
To me, the list (aside from specialists like Ka'imi Fairbairn or Bryan Anger) is whittled down to eight players:
2019 PRO BOWL ALTERNATES
WHITNEY MERCILUS, OLB
Mercilus probably leads the team in "number of times being discussed as a first time Pro Bowler." Since his breakout season in 2015, Mercilus is a guy who is viewed to have enough juice as a pass rusher and is solid enough in run defense to get Pro Bowl recognition. He is still waiting on that first invite, and was an alternate for the game last weekend. With a new four year, $54 million contract extension, Mercilus will need to improve on his 7.5 sack total to be worth the money, and if he's able to do that, then he could be on his way to Orlando.
NICK MARTIN, C
Nick Martin was another contract extension recipient whose new salary made Texans fans scratch their head a little bit before the 2019 season. As it turned out, Martin took a nice step forward as the leader along the offensive line, and like Mercilus, was a 2019 Pro Bowl alternate. If the Texans' offense can take a step into the top half dozen or so in the league, Martin may get Pro Bowl recognition in 2020.
ZACH CUNNINGHAM, LB
Cunningham took a big enough jump in his third season in 2019 that a contract extension for him is now a priority, and he should leapfrog Bernardrick McKinney's $9 million per year deal from two years ago. Cunningham was among the league leaders in tackles (142 total), and consistently made impactful plays around or behind the line of scrimmage. He will need the Texans' defense overall to take a big step forward to make a Pro Bowl himself.
D.J. READER, DT (if he is back)
Reader is the ultimate asterisk in this conversation, as it appears that the possession arrow is pointed toward his leaving, as opposed to signing a new deal (or getting a franchise tag). Barring a tag or new deal, Reader will be a free agent come March 18, and some team will overpay for him. If he sticks around, same goes for him as goes for Cunningham — if the Texans' defense takes a big leap forward in 2020, Reader could get the Pro Bowl recognition.
TYTUS HOWARD, T
MAX SCHARPING, G
The Texans' offensive line was better in 2019 than it was in 2018, but that was not exactly a difficult bar to clear. With some serious draft equity invested over the last 12 months — selecting Howard and Scharping in the first two rounds of 2019, trying two first round picks for Laremy Tunsil — the line SHOULD be better. There is still more room for the line and the offense to grow (the Texans were just 17th in offensive DVOA), and if they pave the way for an MVP level season by Deshaun Watson, perhaps Howard or Scharpinf join Tunsil in the Pro Bowl.
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JUSTIN REID, S
If I'm sitting there at gunpoint, betting my life on a Houston Texan to make his first Pro Bowl, give me Justin Reid, who would be a clear first round pick if you did the 2018 draft over again. Reid is a heady, physical player with a knack for big plays, and he's someone the team sees as a ten year Houston Texan. Reid is the best football player on this list.
THE WILD CARD
WILL FULLER, WR
The key for Fuller is health, and as we wrote in this space yesterday, Fuller took his first step toward full health over the weekend with sports hernia surgery. When he is fully healthy, with Deshaun Watson as his quarterback, Fuller trends as one of the most productive receivers in football, with a full season pace of around 1,200 yards. Add in the fact that the AFC receiver pool isn't all that deep — beyond his teammate DeAndre Hopkins, there's basically Keenan Allen and Tyreek Hill as cinch Pro Bowlers — and we could see a Pro Bowl with two Texans receivers if Fuller can stay healthy for a season.