Several Raider players this season have made solid cases for the Pro Bowl. Unfortunately on a losing team, it can be difficult to get the kind of recognition they deserve. This is the main reason that Nnamdi Asomugha wasn't named to the Pro Bowl until two seasons after he first deserved the honor. How often does it take a player to be widely considered the best player at his position in the entire NFL to finally get a Pro Bowl nod? That is what being buried on a losing team will do for you.
The NFL, unlike the NBA and MLB, doesn't rely solely on the fans' vote to decide who is named to the pro bowl. But the votes do count and there is no limit to the number of votes one is aloud to cast. And you know that there are groups and individuals out there that are diligently casting vote after vote for only the players on their favorite team. So if you want the Raider players to get a fair shot, you have to fight fire with fire. Especially since there are big cities like New York and Boston (New England in this case) that are known for tipping the scales in their favor by sheer number of fans.
While the Raiders may be a "Nation" and have fans across the country and around the world, there are an equal if not greater number of fans who hate the team and would never vote for a player who dons the Silver and Black. Not only that but the city of Oakland just can't compete with the much larger markets.
This means that the less well known Raiders who are still having great years and have earned a spot on the Pro Bowl roster, will not get the votes they deserve. But the Pro Bowl isn't supposed to be about a body of work but a season of work. And the Raiders have a few guys that have shined this year.
This may come as a surprise to most fans but Branch actually leads the entire NFL in total tackles among defensive backs. There isn't even a close second. The next best player is Eric Coleman and he is 9 tackles behind him. Which means that Branch could take a game off and probably still have the lead. Not only that but he is tied for fourth in the entire NFL in total tackles as well. The three players ahead of him are all inside or middle linebackers-- a position typically known for racking up the most tackles on any team. Of those players, he is tied for the most forced fumbles with 2. While the NFL hasn't credited him with any passes defended, I have seen many occasions in which he has batted a ball down in front of a receiver. Which makes me wonder exactly what they consider to be a pass defended. Regardless of their definition, he is extremely solid in the passing game as well. He has been lauded several times this season by analysts for his ability to shut down the tight end in coverage. His run stopping skills are second to none and are an extremely valuable part of the Raiders' success defensively. The only reason that could keep him out of the Pro Bowl is recognition. Usually players either need to be drafted high and immediately dominate or they have to sustain success until they make a name for themselves. Branch was a fourth round draft choice that was injured his entire rookie season. No one has the first clue who he is or if what he is accomplishing is a fluke occurence on a bad team. But watching him very closely all season long, I can tell you this is no fluke. He is the real deal. Just ask his fellow strong safety, rookie Mike Mitchell:
"He's one of the best safeties playing right now. He doesn't have much of a name because it's only his second year, but you watch his tape, I mean, who's really doing more than him right now?"
The answer is: No one. And with Bob Sanders out for the season and Troy Polamalu being injured a good portion of the season, there isn't a strong safety in the NFL that is more deserving of a Pro Bowl bid than Branch. I would personally call him and All-Pro but that may be getting ahead of ourselves.
This is another guy who has quietly become one of the best at his position. Offensive lineman are nearly impossible for the average fan to choose correctly. You have to study them individually to know who is doing the best work. Each fan will likely just vote for the guard or guards they like on their own team and vote for them. If they vote for other guards, it will be a big name they recognize. Offensive guards are the least flashy position on the field and the only time you hear their name is if they were drafted in the first round, get a big free agent contract or get called for a penalty. So I consider my personal responsibility to shine a light on him and mention his name for the outstanding job he has done at right guard for the Raiders. He dominates the line and executes the complicated zone blocking scheme flawlessly. He's earned a trip to the Pro Bowl.
You ready for another surprise? Tommy Kelly leads the league in tackles among defensive tackles. He leads the league in both combined tackles and total tackles. What may be even more impressive is that he is tied for second in the league in tackles among all defensive lineman. Cleveland defensive end Robaire Smith is the only defensive lineman with more and he leads by just two tackles. So even though the Raiders have struggled against the run, it is pretty clear that Kelly is not the culprit. He is averaging over 4 tackles a game this season which he has done only one other time in his career (2006) and he has already equaled the number of total tackles he had all of last season.
If you wanted to dig a little deeper, there are a few other players that warrant some consideration:
Zach Miller- The Raiders leading receiver the past two seasons. No other tightend in the league has done more with less than Miller. And by less I mean JaMarcus Russell and no receivers around him to pull defenders.
Richard Seymour- He is a former Pro Bowler and his 4 sacks may not jump out at you, his run protection is second to none. Not to mention his leadership and winning attitude.
Mario Henderson- Gave up his first and only sack as a starter a few weeks ago. He also has improved his run blocking considerably since last season.
Sebastian Janikowski- Didn't miss a field goal in the first half of the season. He has missed two since then but one was from 57 yards out. He is also one of the best in the NFL in kick offs and touchbacks.
There is, of course, the Pro Bowlers Shane Lechler and Nnamdi Asomugha but the rest of the NFL already knows about them.
All of these players deserve every single NFL fan's serious consideration.