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How Good Are Pro Bowl Teams?

Here's a thought experiment: how good would the NFL Pro Bowl teams actually be if they competed against regular NFL teams? Would the best NFL teams actually have a chance against the AFC or NFC Pro Bowl squads, or would the Pro Bowlers simply blow them out every time?

Player based team ratings are a bit of the norm when it comes to baseball and basketball analytics, but football analytics lag behind due to the complexities of evaluating each and every of the over 1500 NFL players. That puts us at ProFootballLogic in a unique position to answer the question, as perhaps the only publicly available source of NFL team ratings that are fully player based beyond just the QB level, short of the very inexact science of asking a video game like Madden.

But Who Gets the Snaps?

Of course, one of the great things about our team ratings is that they aren't just player specific, they are snap specific as well, in order to be able to adjust to injuries, coaching decisions, and which players only have the endurance to play limited snaps. That's an important distinction, because there are two ways to think about a Pro Bowl roster when it comes to snap counts.

The first is the way the Pro Bowl typically plays out, where all players on the roster typically see about the same percentage of snaps within each position. We'll call these our "Pro Bowl" ratings. In these ratings, we split the snaps only among players that will play in the Pro Bowl this year, not including those missing the Pro Bowl due to the Super Bowl, injury, or opting out.

The second is the way a Pro Bowl roster would be typically used by a coaching staff in a competitive game. We'll call these our "Starters" ratings. In this version, we have assigned the snaps first to the players that were voted as starters, and then to substitutes wherever necessary for things like different formations or substitutes playing behind starters that don't typically play 100% of the game snaps for their normal teams. In these ratings, we included all Pro Bowl players regardless of whether they will participate in the actual Pro Bowl.

Ratings

Below are the ratings for this year's AFC and NFC teams in each of the 2 scenarios. The ratings are in expected points added (EPA) each for the offense, defense, and overall. The totals are the combination of offense minus defense, where defensive ratings that are negative are better. The difference between 2 team's ratings represents an expected point spread if they played at a neutral location. For comparison, current ratings for this year's Patriots and Falcons Super Bowl teams are also included.

2017 Pro Bowl Team Ratings
Team Offense Defense Total
New England Patriots6.5-1.58.0
Atlanta Falcons6.71.15.5
AFC Pro Bowl5.5-4.910.4
NFC Pro Bowl8.0-5.613.6
AFC Starters12.4-7.620.0
NFC Starters11.0-6.217.1

The first thing that's clear is that the dilution that occurs when Pro Bowl starters miss the Pro Bowl is significant. When combined with spreading out the snaps to backups and alternates, the actual AFC and NFC Pro Bowl teams are about 9.6 and 3.5 points worse, respectively, than they could be.

For instance, the AFC offense is actually worse than that of the Patriots, largely because the Patriots have Tom Brady, while the AFC is without him, Roethlisberger and Carr, and left with the uninspiring likes of Andy Dalton, Philip Rivers, and Alex Smith. The rest of the offensive supporting cast is much better, but not enough to offset the deficit at quarterback. On the whole, the actual AFC and NFC Pro Bowl teams would only be favored by around 2.4 and 5.6 points respectively against the Patriots.

When we step up to the possible AFC and NFC Pro Bowl competitive "starter" teams, they do start to stand out on a different level compared to what you would ever see in a regular NFL team. They would be favored by around 12.0 and 9.1 points against the Patriots. That's very lopsided for an NFL game, but still less than the difference between the Patriots and some of the worst teams in the NFL. The Patriots would still probably be able to beat even these optimal Pro Bowl teams every now and then, especially if given a home field advantage.

If we imagined the best possible team that could be made from all NFL players, which would be like an All-Pro team or even a little better by including injured players or perfecting the voting process, it's likely that team could even be another few points better than the optimal AFC team above. Such a team would probably be favored by about 23 points against average NFL teams, and would be favored by about 12 even on the road against the best teams in the NFL. As such, they would probably win the Super Bowl in almost every season.

Implications for the Actual Pro Bowl

The important thing to keep in mind is that all the above scenarios assume the all star teams would actually have an entire offseason to prepare. With just a week to prepare like in the actual Pro Bowl, it is very difficult, and mostly irrelevant, to estimate what would happen in competitions against actual NFL teams.

Of course, the reality of the actual Pro Bowl is that the most important factor is simply which players will decide to actually play hard. But if that, and the lack of practice, can be assumed to be best estimated as equal for both teams, then it does make some sense to come back to our initial ratings as a base line projection. Interestingly, our ratings do give a spread of the NFC by about 3.2 points, which is similar to the current Vegas line of NFC by 4 points.

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