Cam Newton, Luke Kuechly headline Panthers' Pro Bowl picks

jjones@charlotteobserver.comDecember 27, 2013 

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DECEMBER 1: Carolina Panthers' Cam Newton jokes with Brandon LaFell on the sideline, late in the game, against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Bank of America Stadium. The Panthers won 27-6.

DAVID T. FOSTER, III — dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

The Panthers have five tickets to paradise.

Quarterback Cam Newton and linebacker Luke Kuechly headline a five-player class heading to Hawaii for the 2014 Pro Bowl on Jan. 26, the NFL announced Friday night.

Newton and Kuechly are joined by fullback Mike Tolbert, center Ryan Kalil and defensive end Greg Hardy as the Carolina representatives in the all-star event.

It’s the most players the Panthers have sent to the Pro Bowl since the 1996 season when seven went.

It’s the second trip for Newton, who played as an alternate following his offensive rookie of the year season in 2011. He shot up the rankings in fan voting in the final week, going from ninth to fifth when the final fan votes were announced Friday afternoon.

Kuechly, who was second among inside linebackers in fan voting, is going to his first Pro Bowl. The reigning defensive rookie of the year, he is a contender for defensive player of the year this season with 146 tackles and four interceptions to lead the NFL’s second-ranked defense.

“It’s an honor to be selected to the Pro Bowl,” Kuechly said in a statement. “I’ve grown up watching the games at the end of the season and it’s awesome to have a chance to be a part of it. I would like to thank the players, coaches and fans who voted for me. Our defense has played great this year and made this possible.”

Kalil is the most experienced of the group going to Hawaii. This will be his fourth Pro Bowl appearance after he went in 2009-11. His annual trip was interrupted last year when he broke his foot early in the season, but he’s returned to form to anchor the offensive line.

“I am a firm believer you are only as good as the guys you play next to. As a center, I have good guards and credit goes to the offensive line as a whole when you run and protect,” Kalil said in a statement.

Along with Kuechly, Tolbert and Hardy will be new to the Pro Bowl. Tolbert finished first in fan voting among fullbacks. He’s Carolina’s third leading rusher with 332 yards and five rushing touchdowns this season. Hardy’s 11 sacks lead the team and tie a career high.

Absent from the group is outside linebacker Thomas Davis. Davis, who’s in the midst of the best season of his career, didn’t crack the top 10 in fan voting and didn’t get enough votes from the players and coaches to get an automatic bid.

With the new Pro Bowl format this season, players will not be on teams based on their conference. Instead, a draft will be held on Jan. 22 to determine the teams named after Hall of Famers Jerry Rice and Deion Sanders.

Jones: 704-358-5323; Twitter: @jjones9

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