LAS VEGAS — The Pro Bowl is an annual celebration of the NFL’s finest players, most of them well-established veterans with many years of pro experience.
And then there is Sauce Gardner.
The New York Jets rookie cornerback stormed onto the scene this season, announcing his entry into the league with his dominant brand of coverage and elite playmaking ability.
And he’s not alone. As the AFC and NFC teams gathered at Allegiant Stadium on Saturday for a walkthrough ahead of the Sunday conclusion of the Pro Bowl Games (3 pm ET, ABC/ESPN/ESPN+), it was impossible to ignore all the young blood. Fourteen players on this year’s Pro Bowl squads have three or fewer years of NFL experience.
It’s a vivid reminder that at a time when the last generation’s icons are reaching retirement, the future of the game looks bright.
“[Tom] Brady retired, and that’s decades of greatness right there,” second-year Dallas Cowboys edge rusher Micah Parsons said. “JJ Watt retired. Von Miller is still going but I don’t know how many years we have left to enjoy him. I hope he plays forever.
“So, it’s cool to be a part of this new generation and to carry on what those guys did and hopefully get those gold [Hall of Fame] jackets like they got.”
Some of the brightest stars in the Sunday events are also going to be some of the youngest players in attendance. There’s no better example than Minnesota Vikings receiver Justin Jefferson, who is in his third season but is already marking his third Pro Bowl selection. He also was a unanimous All-Pro selection.
“There’s so many good young players right now,” Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Trevor Lawrence said before being interrupted mid-sentence for a fist bump with Gardner. “See, speaking of good young players. It’s really cool for the game.”
Gardner, who led the NFL with 20 passes defended, became the first rookie cornerback selected first-team All-Pro in 41 years.
“You have a lot of young guys who watched the older guys and the foundation that they set,” Gardner said. “So, the mentality we have is that you don’t have to be an older guy to be able to dominate in this league. You’ve got to have heart and you’ve got to have a lot of confidence. I feel like all of these young guys around the league, I feel like that’s what we have a lot of.”
That might sound a bit bold for someone who is still 22 years old, but Gardner also understands the wisdom of those who came before him. He latched on to the words of Hall of Famers Peyton Manning and Ray Lewis this past week, as the two greats are serving as AFC coaches.
“They told me stuff that’s going to stick with me forever,” Gardner said. “We want to be where our idols are. … We want to be like the guys who motivated us and inspired us.”
Not all of the young and emerging stars are household names just yet. Detroit Lions second-year receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown is here after making 106 receptions for a surprisingly high-octane offense.
Seattle Seahawks cornerback Tariq Woolen went from the fifth round of the NFL draft to the Pro Bowl in one season after leading the league with six interceptions. He’s one of three rookies in this Pro Bowl, joining Gardner and Dallas Cowboys return specialist KaVontae Turpin.
As the teams wrap up their skills competitions and play the new series of flag football games Sunday, they might provide a small window into what the future of the league will look like.
“It’s exciting,” Lawrence said, “because every year guys are going to continue to get better and better.”