CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The top 10 players in fan voting for the 2014 Pro Bowl were released this week and -- not a big surprise -- not one was a Carolina Panther. When it comes to household names, outside of quarterback Cam Newton, there aren't many on this roster.
But the hottest team in the league, with six straight wins and seven in the last eight games, has several players worthy of strong consideration as the Dec. 26 deadline for online voting gets closer.
Here are my Carolina candidates:
MLB Luke Kuechly: The reigning NFL defensive rookie of the year leads the league's third-ranked defense with 87 tackles. He's so good that New England designed its defense to keep him occupied, and he still made 12 tackles. ESPN "Monday Night Football" analyst Jon Gruden calls him the best middle linebacker in the league -- period. Enough said.
OLB Thomas Davis: He was snubbed last year in voting for the NFL comeback player of the year. He shouldn't now be denied the Pro Bowl. He's second on the team with 83 tackles, and has three sacks and an interception. He had 17 tackles in Monday night's victory over New England, and is having arguably the best season of his career.
DE Charles Johnson: He's likely out for this week's game against Miami, but Carolina's sack leader with 8.5 is playing as well as any defensive end in the league. That opponents are averaging more than a yard more per play against this stout defense when he's on the sideline says it all.
DE Greg Hardy: His six sacks won't get him to Hawaii, but his team-high 20 quarterback pressures and the fact he's playing every position on the defensive front should at least get him noticed. Opposing quarterbacks notice.
FS Mike Mitchell: Forget he's the emotional leader on this defense, look at his numbers. He has three interceptions, 2.5 sacks and 38 tackles.
QB Cam Newton: I'm not suggesting he should be ahead of New Orleans' Drew Brees or even Nick Foles -- I can hear the Russell Wilson supporters screaming now -- but after him, few quarterbacks in the NFC are playing better. He has 16 passing touchdowns and four rushing. He's completed a career-best 63.2 percent of his passes and ranks second in third-down passer rating (111.9).
LT Jordan Gross: I can't throw a lot of statistics at you, but when his coach says no tackle has played better the past few months I tend to listen.
K Graham Gano: He sends practically every kickoff to the back of the end zone or through it, he is 5-for-5 on field goals of 50 yards or more and he's 14-for-15 on field goals overall.
I won't get into whether Ron Rivera deserves consideration for coach of the year. He shook his head no adamantly early in the week at the mere suggestion. That will take care of itself if the Panthers (7-3) continue to win.
While Rivera doesn't get into self-promotion, he doesn't hesitate to say Davis deserves Pro Bowl consideration.
"I'm very biased," he said of the player who has overcome three ACL surgeries on his right knee. "I hope he gets the opportunity to go. He's playing at a very high level, as is Luke."