Thursday, March 30 2023

LAS VEGAS — The Pro Bowl Confidential is back.

For the third time in as many Pro Bowls, we came up with a short, anonymous survey for the NFL’s best players, hitting on random superlatives, issues and curiosities on and off the field. We first conducted this at The Athletic in 2019 when the game was in Orlando, paused during the pandemic, then ventured to America’s playground last year when the game moved to its current home in Nevada.

Now we’re at it again, because as they always say, what happens in Vegas … is discreetly collected and carefully tallied and shared for all to read.

“I don’t do anonymous,” one unnamed player respectfully said, but we ended up getting answers from 27 players in all, mostly in person at Saturday’s flag-football practice at Allegiant Stadium but also over the phone with the help of teams, agents and social media.


You will find out their picks for MVP, for the most underrated players on both sides of the ball, for the head coach they’d most like to play for, the worst playing surface and the best touchdown and sack celebrations in the NFL. You’ll even get a playlist of the songs they turn to most when they need to fire themselves up before a game.

League MVP: Patrick Mahomes beats out Jalen Hurts

The top choices for league MVP ended up as the two quarterbacks batting in the Super Bowl in Arizona — the Chiefs‘ Patrick Mahomes and the Eagles’ Jalen Hurts, both among the finalists for Associated Press MVP honors (alongside Vikings receiver Justin Jefferson) to be announced Thursday.

Hurts jumped out to an early lead, but then Mahomes pulled away to win easily — he had 14 votes, compared to seven for Hurts. 49ers pass-rusher Nick Bosa earned three votes, a strong showing for a defensive player, and there was one vote each for Jefferson, Bills quarterback Josh Allen and Dolphins receiver Tyreek Hill.

Patrick Mahomes on Chiefs offense without Tyreek Hill

Patrick Mahomes joins Nick Wright, Chris Broussard and Kevin Wildes on First Things First to discuss how the Kansas City Chiefs offense did without Tyreek Hill this season.

Defensive MVP: Nick Bosa is a runaway winner

That Bosa would land votes for overall MVP in today’s offense-inclined NFL is telling, and when it came to picking a defensive MVP for the league, the NFL sack leader was the easy pick, getting 13 votes from the 25 players who chose one. The next closest? Cowboys linebacker Micah Parsons got 3.5 votes. Chiefs defensive lineman Chris Jones and Raiders edge Maxx Crosby got two. Also receiving votes: Rams defensive tackle Aaron DonaldPatriots defensive end Matthew Judon and 49ers linebacker Fred Warner got one, and Eagles outside linebacker Haason Reddick got a half-vote.

Most underrated offensive player: Falcons guard Chris Lindstrom

We asked players to name a most underrated player on each side of the ball, and while we stipulated it not be a current teammate, a few were vocal enough we let them do so. As in years past, this resulted in a wide range of nominations, and the only player to receive two votes was Falcons guard Chris Lindstrom, a first-time Pro Bowler this season.

Here’s the rest, keeping in mind that “underrated” means different things to different players. Travis Kelce, for instance, is highly decorated, but one player still chose him: “He gets a lot of press and gets talked about a lot, but I feel like he’s still not given enough credit for how good a player he is.” 

Keenan AllenChargers wide receiver

Gabe Davis, Bills wide receiver

Andrew DePaola, Vikings long snapper

Evan EngramJaguars tight end

Breece HallJets running back

Justin Herbert, Chargers quarterback

T.J. Hockensen, Vikings tight end

Tee HigginsBengals receiver

Jonah JacksonLions guard

Kyle Juszczyk, 49ers fullback

Travis Kelce, Chiefs tight end

Tyler LockettSeahawks receiver

Shaq Mason, Bucs guard

D.J. Moore, Panthers receiver

Dameon PierceTexans running back

Marquez Valdes-ScantlingPackers receiver

Kevin ZeitlerRavens guard

Most underrated defensive player: That guy whose name I can’t quite remember

What better way to illustrate someone being underrated than the idea that even the players nominating him aren’t sure what his name is. “What’s the linebacker for the Jags? Leads the league in tackles?” one asked. Said another: “No. 23 for Jacksonville, led the league in tackles. I can’t pronounce his name.

His name is Foye Oluokun, and he did lead the NFL with 184 tackles in the regular season — he leads in the playoffs as well right now with 27, despite the Jaguars being eliminated in the second round. He is one of four players to receive two votes, along with Eagles defensive lineman Javon HargraveSaints linebacker Demario Davis and the Eagles’ Reddick. 

Other players earning votes: 

Kam Curl, Commanders safety

Derrick Brown, Panthers defensive lineman

Lavonte David, Bucs linebacker

Tre Greenlaw, 49ers linebacker

Talanoa Hufanga, 49ers safety

Aidan Hutchinson, Lions outside linebacker

Dexter LawrenceGiants defensive lineman

Roquan Smith, Ravens linebacker

Montez Sweat, Commanders defensive end

Broderick Washington, Ravens defensive end

Pete Werner, Saints linebacker

For the record, we tried to ask for a most overrated player, and to their credit, most of these Pro Bowlers didn’t want to dog a player, even anonymously. The four who did draw votes, just for a little pettiness: Seahawks safety Jamal Adams, Bucs quarterback Tom Brady, Rams defensive lineman Aaron Donald and Rams cornerback Jalen Ramsey.

Favorite NFL city to travel to: Los Angeles

We ask this every year, and since it’s just the “favorite,” you’re going to get a wide range of answers, and that was definitely the case, with 11 different response from the first 12 players we interviewed. Los Angeles led the way with three votes, though in fairness, they have twice as many teams visiting with two teams there, and one East coast player said it was as much because the long-distance trips often send a team out on Friday night, where they actually have a night to enjoy the city.

Los Angeles: 3

Dallas: 2

Denver: 2

Houston: 2

Nashville: 2

New York: 2

Baltimore: 1

Chicago: 1

Detroit: 1

Las Vegas: 1

Miami: 1

Minnesota: 1

Philadelphia: 1

Phoenix: 1

Pittsburgh: 1

San Francisco: 1

Seattle: 1

Washington: 1

Least favorite NFL city to travel to: Yes, it’s Green Bay

First of all, we hear your valid points that NFL players are only in town for one night usually and, even post-COVID, rarely go outside the team hotel to really take in a road city, so these answers are often framed by cities that are, well, cold. 

Buffalo was a clear-cut winner in our first Confidential, and tied with Green Bay last year … but the Packers took the title this year, getting six votes, three times as many as any other city. “The atmosphere is awesome,” one player said, “but the hotel situation is not the best.”

If the list doesn’t convince you that it’s all about weather, consider this answer from one player who couldn’t pick just one: “I’m happy to go anywhere when it’s warm. But anything when it’s cold — Cleveland? Trash. Cincinnati? Trash. New York? Trash. Philadephia? Trash. Pittsburgh? Trash. The moment it gets cold, I hate myself for playing football.”

Green Bay: 6

Buffalo: 2

Cleveland: 2

New England: 2

New Orleans: 2

Pittsburgh: 2

Washington: 2

Cincinnati: 1

Detroit: 1

Jacksonville: 1

New York: 1

Seattle: 1

Head coach you’d most like to play for: 49ers’ Kyle Shanahan

We frame the question by asking players what current head coach, other than their own, they’d most like to play for, so it feels less like cheating, and even anonymously, a few refused to play for anyone other than their current coach.

We’ve had different winners each year for this category — Andy Reid and Pete Carroll shared the most votes in 2019, and Mike Tomlin had the honor most recently, but this time, it was Shanahan, with twice as many votes as any other coach. At the risk of losing anonymity, one player specifically asked for the right to name Broncos interim coach Jerry Rosburg.

Kyle Shanahan of the San Francisco 49ers shakes hands with Sean McVay of the Los Angeles Rams after a game at SoFi Stadium on October 30, 2022. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

Kyle Shanahan, 49ers: 6

Mike McDaniel, Dolphins: 3

Sean McVay, Rams: 3

Mike Tomlin, Steelers: 3

Bill Belichick, Patriots: 2

Andy Reid, Chiefs: 2

Pete Carroll, Seahawks: 1

John Harbaugh, Ravens: 1

Doug Pederson, Jaguars: 1

Jerry Rosberg, Broncos: 1

Brandon Staley, Chargers: 1

Most poorly officiated call in today’s NFL: Roughing the passer

This is an interesting trend, in that in 2019, the players’ pick for most poorly officiated call was easily defensive pass interference, which won again last year by a single vote over roughing the passer. But this season, the vote has shifted in a big way to roughing the passer, with a frustration as to when a hit is late, or if a pass-rusher lands with his body weight on the quarterback or throws him to the ground with too much force. “Definitely roughing the passer,” one said. Another: “By far. By far.”

Roughing the passer got 15 votes from the 26 who answered, as large a majority as we had for any question. There’s a certain positional loyalty to be expected, so offensive linemen are more likely to point to holding, for instance. One player suggested targeting is the toughest, because “the receiver’s going 19 miles per hour, the DB’s coming in at 20 miles per hour, and then you have somebody who ducks or a quarterback who’s scared for his life on Sundays.” Props to two special-teams player for staying on brand with the roughing the punter vote.

Roughing the passer: 15

Offensive holding: 3

Defensive pass interference: 2.5

Defensive holding: 1.5

Roughing the punter: 2

Targeting: 1

Favorite current athlete outside of football: LeBron James

Last year, this was dominated by NBA players, with literally zero baseball or hockey players named and only one each from golf and soccer. LeBron James repeated as the individual champ, and basketball is still king, but with only nine of 22 responses. It’s cool to see the diversity of answers, with three baseball players, two hockey players, golf, soccer and even boxing/MMA.

LeBron James (NBA): 5

Kevin Durant (NBA): 3

Lionel Messi (soccer): 2

Tiger Woods (golf): 2

Albert Pujols (MLB): 1

Aaron Judge (MLB): 1

Steph Curry (NBA): 1

Gervonta Davis (boxing): 1

Jon Jones (mixed martial arts): 1

Cale Makar (NHL): 1

T.J. Oshie (NHL): 1

Justin Thomas (golf): 1

Mike Trout (MLB): 1

Kamaru Usman (mixed martial arts): 1

Worst playing surface in the NFL: MetLife Stadium

We added this question this year, curious to see which stadium would be chosen as having the worst playing surface in the league. Much like Los Angeles in the city vote, it’s worth noting that both the Jets and Giants call MetLife home, so there’s twice as much bad interaction as most stadiums, but it got 6.5 votes, three more than any other venue.

“Every time I played the Jets, my whole body would hurt,” one said.

“I had to play there twice this year. It’s not good,” another offered.

There also were a few votes for “any turf field,” and another kindly asked “Am I allowed to answer my own on this one? It’s rough.”

And given how few games are played overseas, it’s worth noting that two players named London’s Tottenham Hotspur Stadium (“terrible”) and another mentioned Allianz Arena in Munich, Germany. Here are the individual results for U.S. stadiums:

New York: 6.5

Chicago: 3.5

Carolina: 3

Green Bay: 2

Washington: 2

Dallas: 1

New England: 1

New Orleans: 1

Tampa Bay: 1

What team are you playing in Madden? Ravens edge Eagles

As another new wrinkle, we asked players what team (besides their own) they like playing when they play Madden NFL football in their spare time. Several said they don’t play or haven’t in years (with a shoutout to Eagles quarterback Michael Vick in Madden 2012), but the clear winners were offenses with mobile quarterbacks: Baltimore and Lamar Jackson led the way with six votes, while the Eagles and Hurts were next with four, as the only teams getting more than one vote. “I run the s— out of wide zone,” one said of the Vikings offense.

Ravens: 6

Eagles: 4

Bengals: 1

Bills: 1

Chiefs: 1

Dolphins: 1

49ers: 1

Lions: 1

Panthers: 1

Patriots: 1

Saints: 1

Vikings: 1 

The Pro Bowl Playlist: If you play one song to fire you up before a game, what is it?

Just so it’s not all about football, we asked players if they had only one song to get them fired up in the locker room before a game, what would it be? It added up to quite an eclectic playlist — we’re listing it alphabetically for quite a shuffle of assorted genres, from rap and hip-hop to country to gospel and hard rock.

Some players named an artist without a specific song, so we don’t want to leave out another wide assortment, in “anything Lil Baby” and “maybe some Brian McKnight” and “anything Creedence Clearwater Revival,” along with Linkin Park.

Bebe Rexha and David Guetta: “I’m Good (Blue)”

Big Walk Dog: “Son of a Gun”

Cody Jinks: “Loud and Heavy”

Drake: “God’s Plan”

Farraku: “Pepas”

George Strait: “Every Little Honky Tonk Bar”:

Jeezy: “Done It”

Jeezy: “Get Allot”

Kodak Black: “No Flockin'”

Lil Boosie: “Set it Off”

Lil Wayne: “Sportscenter”

Lil Yachty: “Poland”

Meek Mill (featuring Lil Uzi Vert): “Blue Notes 2”

Metallica: “Master of Puppets”

Phil Collins: “In the Air Tonight”

Phil Wickham: “Battle Belongs”

Styx: “Renegade”

Surfaces: “Let Me Know”

Young Thug: “Chocolate”

Best touchdown or sack celebration: Justin Jefferson’s griddy

Another landslide here, with Jefferson and his griddy winning easily — “It’s an all-timer,” one player said. “It’s a global thing,” said another. “My son would say Justin Jefferson,” one said. “The only thing he asked me for this week was a football autographed by Justin Jefferson.”

Three players liked the phenomenon enough to split their votes equally between Jefferson and Bengals receiver Ja’Marr Chase. There were points for creativity, from Vita Vea’s lawn mower to Patrick Peterson’s World Cup-style celebration. One player may have politely asked to vote for himself: “I’m unanimous,” he explained.

Justin Jefferson: 9.5

Maxx Crosby: 2

Matthew Judon: 2

Dexter Lawrence: 2

Ja’Marr Chase: 1.5

A.J. Brown: 1

Cameron Jordan: 1

CeeDee Lamb: 1

Patrick Peterson: 1

Jordan Phillips: 1

Preston Smith: 1

Vita Vea 1

J.J. Watt: 1

Greg Auman is FOX Sports’ NFC South reporter, covering the Buccaneers, Falcons, Panthers and Saints. He is in his 10th season covering the Bucs and the NFL full-time, having spent time at the Tampa Bay Times and The Athletic. You can follow him on Twitter at @gregauman.  

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