CHARLOTTE -- The Carolina Panthers will send four representatives to the Pro Bowl, but not the guy who might be the team MVP this year or the guy largely responsible for his success.
Wide receiver Steve Smith, left tackle Jordan Gross, defensive end Julius Peppers and middle linebacker Jon Beason will make the trip to Hawaii for the NFL's all-star game. Gross and Peppers will start.
That's quite an improvement over last year, when the Panthers sent none.
But with the Panthers surging down the stretch to an 11-3 record, it stands to reason that the snubs were as numerous as the ones who made it.
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Most notable was running back DeAngelo Williams, who leads all NFL rushers (with more than 100 attempts) with a 5.5 yards per carry. He made a late run, with four straight 100-yard games at one point followed by a four-touchdown day. For the season, he has 224 rushes for 1,229 yards and 14 touchdowns.
He's the NFC's fourth-leading rusher, and they take three.
The NFC will send Minnesota's Adrian Peterson, Atlanta's Michael Turner and Washington's Clinton Portis. Portis has 108 more yards than Williams (1,337), but 67 more carries (291) and half the touchdowns (seven).
Also left off the NFC squad were left guard Travelle Wharton, who helped revive the Panthers' inside running game, and kicker John Kasay, who has missed just one field goal all season.
It's the first trip for Beason and Gross, while it's number four for both Smith and Peppers.
Smith will be one of the reserves (along with Atlanta's Roddy White), behind the Arizona tandem of Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin. White and Smith are 1-2 in the conference in receiving yards.
Smith has caught 70 passes for 1,240 yards and six touchdowns. Smith, who was suspended the first two games for punching Ken Lucas, is also one of just two receivers in the league, along with Houston's Andre Johnson, to average more 100 yards per game.
"It's great," Smith said. "I am actually more excited for Jordan, Jon Beason and Julius than I am for myself. Especially for the first-time guys, I'm happy to be going with those guys. Our goal is still the playoffs and to get back in the playoffs would be so relieving."
"I feel great about the Pro Bowl, but the game before the Pro Bowl is the game you want to be playing in."
Gross was named a starter alongside Seattle's Walter Jones, who will need an injury replacement, meaning Washington's Chris Samuels will get promoted to block opposite Gross.
"It's a huge honor to be recognized at the top of an elite group of players," Gross said. "It says a lot about our team this year that we had four guys selected. I'm just proud to be one of them. It's a goal of every player, but it's something that I've had my sights on the past few seasons when I've been playing my best football.
"It's great when you've been picked high to validate their selection."
Beason garnered critical support last year, but was stuck behind higher-profile players Patrick Willis of San Francisco and Lofa Tatupu of Seattle. This year, despite leading the dubious league tackle stats, he'll back up Willis when he gets to Hawaii.
"Going into the process I was skeptical knowing that numbers were only a part of it," Beason said. "I'm emotional and didn't think I would be. It means a lot to know your peers recognize the way you play and to have all the hard work pay off is a dream come true."