The Patriots, as one of the top teams in the NFL, were rewarded with eight Pro Bowlers among the all-star game rosters that were announced Tuesday night on NFL Network. That number tied with the 49ers for most in the NFL, one more than the Ravens and Packers.
All on the list have a legitimate argument to play in the annual matchup of the best players from the AFC and NFC. New England's eight representatives at this point are: quarterback Tom Brady, wide receiver Wes Welker, tight end Rob Gronkowski, guard Logan Mankins, guard Brian Waters, defensive tackle Vince Wilfork, defensive end Andre Carter and special teams ace Matthew Slater.
Of that group, only Mankins would seem to be much a stretch to make the Pro Bowl, although it's hard to compare special teams players and my guess is that Slater got a bump in player/coach votes thanks to his playing time on defense.
Though clearly one of the better interior linemen in the game, Mankins has not had his best season in 2011. He's had too many penalties – including false starts – and hasn't blocked as well in pass protection has we've become accustomed to. Still, the All-Pro isn't exactly coasting into the game, although it is interesting that the Patriots have two starting guards in the Pro Bowl despite the fact that the team hasn't had a consistent running game all season.
Even with eight guys earning the Pro Bowl nod, New England does have couple guys who didn't make the cut but deserved plenty of consideration. Tops among those would be left tackle Matt Light and tight end Aaron Hernandez.
Cleveland's Joe Thomas and Miami's Jake Long are the Pro Bowl starters at tackle for the AFC. Jets left tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson is the backup tackle.
In my opinion Light, who's been to the Pro Bowl three times (2006, 2007, 2010) and was a 2007 All-Pro, is having the best year of his 11-year career. Though some thought his days in New England were over as he hit free agency last offseason at the same time that the Patriots drafted Nate Solder at No. 17 overall, Light re-signed with the team and has protected Tom Brady's blindside from elite rushers all season. New England has faced some of the more impressive pass rushers in the game on seemingly a weekly basis this fall, and Light has made guys like Brian Orakpo and Von Miller simply disappear.
I think Light deserved the honor more than Ferguson, and more than Mankins.
At tight end, Gronkowski is the starter for the AFC, as he should be. The second-year star is having a truly historic season. The backup in the AFC is veteran stud and future Hall of Famer Antonio Gates. Gates leads San Diego with 59 catches for 672 yards with six touchdowns, despite missing three-plus games with a foot injury.
Hernandez has more catches (72) and yards (772) and the same amount of touchdowns with a lower yards per catch average, having missed two-plus games himself with a knee injury. Clearly Gates gets the edge in notoriety, career work and name-recognition, but I don't think it's a stretch to say that Hernandez has had a similar or better season overall. Not a huge snub, but worthy noting for New England's other second-year pass catcher.
[UPDATE: According to Gronkowski, Hernandez is the first alternate at the tight end position for the AFC Pro Bowl team. So with Gates' injury issues and age, it's possilbe that the second-year Patriots teammates could still end up in Hawaii together.]