The 2013 NFL season reminded us that efficiency kills. On the field, despite an arm that would have been laughed out of the combine, Peyton Manning and a near-unstoppable Broncos offense set virtually every passing record by marching their way down the field eight yards at a time. Denver scored 606 points mostly by staying ahead of schedule. The team that eventually managed to shut it down, Seattle, was the league’s most efficient club off the field, as driven by Russell Wilson, owner of the league’s best contract. By delivering above-average quarterback play for less than $700,000, Wilson allowed the Seahawks to spend millions of dollars on the luxury of depth elsewhere. The players Seattle signed with that money — notably defensive linemen Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett — were key contributors in its run to a Super Bowl trophy. Manning is better than Wilson, but the $16.8 million difference between the two QBs’ cap hits is the superior choice.
And now, with the booming example of Russell Wilson ringing in our ears, it’s time for the third annual NFL Trade Value Column here on Grantland. Just as I did in 2012 and 2013, I’ve gone through each of the league’s 32 teams and identified the top 50 trade assets in football. There’s only one change this year: Now that I’ve successfully graduated from Trade Value School, Grantland editor-in-chief and Trade Value godfather Bill Simmons has given me permission to take this thing out for a spin on my own this year. Will I end up wrapping my boss’s greatest invention around a tree? Let’s see.
Trade Value Rules
1. Contracts matter. Joe Flacco is probably a better quarterback than Andy Dalton, but Flacco is in the middle of a franchise-killing, six-year, $120 million deal, while Dalton’s in the final season of a rookie contract that will pay him less than $1.7 million in 2014. The Bengals will have to pay Dalton soon if they want to keep him, so his contract isn’t quite as good as it was when he still had three years left at that price.
2. Contracts don’t matter as much as they do in the NBA version of this column. NBA contracts are guaranteed and clearly defined. NFL contracts have nonguaranteed base salaries as well as bonuses that are often paid early in a deal, even as the cap hit stretches across the length of the contract. Those bonuses then accelerate onto the current cap in the event of a trade, but the team can also get out of the contract without having to pay the nonguaranteed base salaries if they wa— you’re falling asleep. Just work through this. For the purposes of this column, we’re considering both the specific nature of the current point in the player’s contract (e.g., Randall Cobb having just one year left on his contract) as well as the broader terms of the contract (e.g., the entirety of Cobb’s deal). And in terms of our hypothetical trades, we’re pretending — just for this moment — that there’s no salary cap acceleration.
3. Age matters. When Peyton Manning entered the NFL, Blake Bortles was 6 years old and his arm talent was barely professional-caliber. Remember the golden rule of contracts: You don’t value a player for what he’s done, you value him for what he’s going to do.
4. Pretend that every team can fit each player on this list within its cap and that it has a below-average starter at the position in question. The Panthers aren’t going to deal Greg Hardy for Jay Cutler because they have Cam Newton, even though that trade could happen in a heartbeat if Derek Anderson suddenly had to take over in Carolina.
5. Positional scarcity matters. Quarterbacks are more valuable than pass-rushers, who are more valuable than wide receivers, who are more valuable than interior linemen. When in doubt, we looked at how organizations valued top players at each position when re-signing their own or shopping in free agency. You might know a lot more about Ben Tate than you do about Jared Veldheer, but there’s a reason Tate got $2.5 million guaranteed this offseason and Veldheer got $17 million.
6. It’s a question of degree. The Giants might not trade Eli Manning for Colin Kaepernick, but they would have to sit down and give it some thought. The 49ers would hang up if the Giants offered them Eli for Kaepernick. Well, maybe they would put on their headphones and walk away from the phone all cool. But they wouldn’t answer the Giants.
7. This list runs in reverse order. If A.J. Green is 25th on the list, the Bengals would probably at least consider dealing him for one of the first 24 players on the list, but they wouldn’t bother having much of a conversation for players 26 through 50.
The Dearly Departed
Josh Freeman (50th last year) is not only out of the top 50 this year, he’s not even sniffing the top 500, and the top 1,500 could be a stretch … Brian Orakpo (47th) was replaced in DirecTV ads by a human who appears to have a steady sexual relationship with a marionette … Eric Weddle (44th) couldn’t carry a secondary that rated as the worst in football for most of the season … Haloti Ngata (43rd) remains a valuable defensive lineman, but the 30-year-old won’t renegotiate what is now a staggering two-year, $32 million contract … Randall Cobb (41st) went through a lost season and is now only one year away from free agency … NaVorro Bowman (38th) is still recovering from the gruesome knee injury he suffered during the NFC Championship Game … Ryan Clady (36th) is still recovering from the Lisfranc tear he suffered last September … Clay Matthews (34th) is still recovering from [activate random injury generator] … Jay Cutler (33rd) raised his level of play, but was outperformed by journeyman Josh McCown before signing an expensive new deal … Jason Pierre-Paul (31st) is in the final year of his rookie deal and is two years removed from his star-making season … DeMarcus Ware (26th) struggled with injuries for the first time; he’s either primed for a DPOY campaign or done, and I can’t tell which … Aldon Smith (25th) is sadly spiraling off the field and could be suspended for most of the 2014 season … Geno Atkins (20th) signed a big contract extension and promptly tore his ACL … Joe Flacco (14th) squandered all the goodwill of his improbable Super Bowl run about halfway through the first month of his new contract; his cap hit more than doubles this year ($6.8 million to $14.8 million) and he basically can’t be cut until after he costs the Ravens $28.6 million against their cap in 2016, but at least he has Gary Kubiak on his side now …
And yet, despite that awful contract, Flacco nearly managed to make this list again, just by virtue of being a competent quarterback in his prime who has never been injured. This list naturally gravitates toward quarterbacks: There are 17, technically 18, of them in the top 50, but there are still a few more who join Flacco and others on the honorable mention list.
Jay Cutler should be on this list. Then you remember that Brett Favre, Vince Young, David Garrard, Donovan McNabb, Matt Cassel, and Michael Vick have all made the Pro Bowl more recently than Cutler’s last trip (2008). He hasn’t made it through a full season since 2009, and at 31, he’s probably not about to become an ironman. There were serious thoughts at the end of last season that the Bears might be better off starting McCown, who was the definition of a replacement-level talent before getting hooked up with Marc Trestman. And the Bears are basically locked into paying Cutler a hair under $50 million over the next three seasons after 2014 (with only moderate flexibility to shift that into the future). I once wrote to let Jay be Jay, and he is a league-average starting quarterback who will have the third-largest cap hit of any passer in football next year. That looks appetizing if you don’t have a quarterback solution and unappealing if you do.
Alex Smith is a totally different type of quarterback from Cutler but seems to hit the same low-upside, high-floor demographic. The Chiefs are about to be stuck paying him $15 million a year in the hopes he’s just good enough to be carried to a Super Bowl. Really, his career should just be taking 2-14 teams with awful quarterback situations and massively improving them with around league-average quarterback play. Is there a real-life comp for that career, the guy who shows up and improves things with sheer competence? Is Alex Smith the Ted McGinley of football?
Andy Dalton is the quarterback who nobody in football wants to admit they don’t actually want. If you believe the inane platitudes about how football coaches want winners, you want Dalton! He’s 30-18 after three years, and only Dan Marino, Matt Ryan, and Joe Flacco have won more games during their first three NFL seasons. The list of quarterbacks who have started a playoff game in each of their first three pro seasons only includes Flacco, Marino, Pat Haden, and Bernie Kosar. Dalton’s yards per attempt and touchdown percentage have even made considerable leaps during each of his first three seasons, and he’s never missed a start. And then, yet, just taking a look around the league, there might be … 26 teams with more viable long-term quarterback options than Dalton? We recently found out he’s incredible at Pop-A-Shot, which is one of those things that can go both ways. If Dalton works out, some profile will look back and point out how great he was at mastering a tiny skill and use that as a metaphor for how he got better at playing quarterback. If he doesn’t, that exact same profiler will point out how he should have spent all that time he spent on Pop-A-Shot on football and how Wilson would never be great at Pop-A-Shot because there’s no Pop-A-Shot in the film room. This is when football can’t be fun.
Jamaal Charles and LeSean McCoy are both incredible players, but nobody wants to take on the contracts of veteran running backs. Why commit $9.7 million to Shady on your cap this year when you don’t know whether you’ll get the guy from 2013 (314-1,607-9) or 2012 (200-840-2)? Running backs are too volatile to trust. And while Alfred Morris has produced nearly 2,900 rushing yards during his first two professional seasons for less than a million bucks, he’s not on the same level of in-a-vacuum ability as Charles or McCoy. Teams are rightly content to spend midround picks on guys like Eddie Lacy and let them produce 90 percent of the value of a guy like Charles or McCoy at 10 percent of the cost.
Keenan Allen is on the edge of this list after his heroics during the second half of the season, notably his pair of two-touchdown games against the Broncos. Including the playoffs, he started 16 games and posted a 79-1,209-10 line. At 21. Only Randy Moss has produced more receiving yards in an age-21 season. And he’s still signed for three more seasons at a total of $2.25 million. If he does that again, he’s in the top 50. And the same is probably true for Alshon Jeffery, who was uncoverable at times last year and might be the best red zone target in the league at 24.
And what to do about Sammy Watkins? We have a good idea of his trade value, as the Bills just dealt two first-round picks and a fourth-rounder for the Clemson product. On that level, Watkins would probably be somewhere in the low-30s for this list. I haven’t found anybody yet in or around the league who would have made the same desperate trade that the Bills did to trade up for Watkins. Plenty think he’s talented and ends up as a Julio Jones–caliber wideout in terms of impact, but I’m waiting a year before putting him onto the top 50.
D’Brickashaw Ferguson and Andrew Whitworth are top-eight left tackles who would probably make the top 50 were they on the right side of 30. Steelers guard David DeCastro is still plenty young, but he looked like the player he was supposed to be coming out of college only during the second half of 2013. If he’s all the way back from the traumatic knee injury that cost him virtually his entire rookie season, DeCastro will be one of the few interior linemen with significant trade value.
Every year, Grantland’s Robert Mays goes to bat for Calais Campbell to appear on this list, and every year, he seems to get a little closer. Campbell basically does everything you would want a 3-4 end to do, but the problems are that those guys don’t frequently get huge contracts in free agency and Campbell’s contract is already pretty big; he has three years left on his deal with an average cap hit of $13.75 million per year. Campbell has to be healthy and productive to justify that figure; on a cheaper deal, he’d be in the top 50.
A pair of pass-rushers just missed out. Justin Houston got off to a white-hot start last year, with 11 sacks in his first eight games, but he cooled down against a tougher slate before missing most of the second half with an elbow injury. Houston is also due for a massive new deal that will require him to hit double-digit sacks on an annual basis while getting better against the run. Would you rather have Houston at $10 million per year or Khalil Mack for half that much? It’s still not clear what Mack ends up doing at the pro level, but the frequent comps to Von Miller say a lot about what he can do as an impact pass-rusher, even for the moribund Raiders.
Vontaze Burfict is one of the best reclamation stories in the NFL, and he’s matured into a rangy linebacker in the mold of Lance Briggs during his first two seasons while making the league minimum, but the reality is that 4-3 outside linebackers simply aren’t treated like valuable assets these days. Cincinnati gets one more year of this before Burfict becomes a restricted free agent.
Jairus Byrd might very well be the best free safety in football after Earl Thomas, but the history of big free-agent contracts for safeties isn’t pretty. They’re not the same sort of player, but the last safety to get something comparable to the $26.3 million guaranteed that Byrd received from the Saints in free agency was Dashon Goldson, and the Buccaneers would really like to blame that contract on David Moyes. New Orleans doesn’t really care because it’s all in for Drew Brees over the next two to three seasons, but it’s not a contract a lot of teams would want to touch.
Let’s start the top 50! No. 50 has been an, um, interesting spot the first two times around. In 2012, no. 50 was Peyton Manning. He’s done OK for himself. Last year, it was Josh Freeman. Wild prediction: This no. 50 finishes up somewhere between those two in 2014.
Group 1: The Wild Cards
50. Nick Foles, QB, Philadelphia
There seem to be two schools of thought on Foles. The first is that he was a prospect of moderate renown heading into the pros who managed to hit the jackpot, having learned under Andy Reid and now Chip Kelly. He’s parlayed this into a role in which he basically can’t fail, needing only to count and execute simple reads before making safe throws to open receivers, who do most of the work for Foles after the catch. The second school is actually located inside of a Wawa in South Philly. It holds that Foles’s numbers are so incredible that you cannot possibly doubt for a single second that he’s one of the premier young quarterbacks in football and, with two years to go on a four-year, $2.8 million contract, one of the best trade chips in the game. (They’re also very skeptical when I suggest Foles might not really be the best quarterback in football like his numbers indicate. “But you like stats!” they say, as if all stats are created equal and are of the exact same validity.)
Here’s what I know: Foles isn’t going to throw interceptions on 0.6 percent of his passes again. He’s going to miss DeSean Jackson, because for whatever benefit Jeremy Maclin and Zach Ertz offer, they’re not the same sort of receiver Jackson was, and there’s not an obvious deep threat on the roster. For whatever revisionist history is going around about how the Eagles knew Foles was special, Kelly chose Michael Vick to start ahead of Foles in training camp last season, and it didn’t seem to be a particularly difficult decision for him to make. Foles is a dab hand who does a good job of avoiding dangerous throws, and he’s good enough for the Eagles to win, but the system is the star here, not the quarterback. Foles could have a Pro Bowl–caliber season or he could be buried deep behind Mark Sanchez — or another quarterback who isn’t even on the roster — this time next year.
49. Jim Harbaugh, COACH, San Francisco
I believe this is the first coach in the history of the Trade Value columns, but Harbaugh is both good enough to justify a healthy return and unsure enough of his future in San Francisco to justify a plausible market. It was only February that the Browns were reportedly discussing a deal with the Niners for Harbaugh, whose trade value I broke down in December 2012. This will be a telling year for Harbaugh’s tenure in San Francisco, as he enters the fourth year of what’s turned out to be a bargain five-year, $25 million pact. Harbaugh is surely going to want a contract extension that avoids a lame-duck season and places him among the league’s best-paid coaches. His work in rebuilding the post-Singletary 49ers justifies such a deal. And yet, if the 49ers can’t overcome Seattle out West, it’s not hard to imagine enlightened 49ers GM Trent Baalke thinking that Harbaugh’s rah-rah style might have run its course and letting one of the league’s doormat teams blow him away with a bunch of draft picks for a coach who might have peaked two years prior. I mean, what would have been better for the Bills: two first-rounders for Watkins, or those same two first-rounders for Harbaugh?
Of course, if the 49ers win the Super Bowl this year, Harbaugh gets a five-year deal with a blank check and this ranking never happened. And I can’t even fathom constructing a trade offer for somebody like Bill Belichick or Pete Carroll at this point, so Harbaugh is the only coach on the list in 2014.
Group 2: The Space Eaters
48. Sheldon Richardson, DT, New York Jets
More than anybody else on this list, the panel went to bat for Richardson. I couldn’t believe it. I wondered whether everyone quietly had stock in Sheldon Richardson but me. And then I started thinking about what his ticker symbol would be (RICH, obviously) and what Grantland’s would be (GOAT, because the dream of theGOAT.com still lives), and I got sidetracked. But here’s the case for Richardson: The Jets had the league’s second-best run defense per DVOA last year, and the guy who came away with AFC Defensive Rookie of the Year had more to do with that than anything else. On top of that, Richardson still has three years to go on his rookie deal with cap hits of $2.3 million, $2.7 million, and $3.2 million before the Jets even have to consider giving him a raise. Run-stuffers aren’t always a valuable species in the NFL, but the Jets appear to have found a very good one.
47. Dontari Poe, DT, Kansas City
Nobody ever fights for the workout warriors. Everyone remembers the guy at the combine who puts up great athletic indicators and promptly sucks as a pro, even if they misremember that guy as Mike Mamula. We’ll always remember how stupid we were to worry about Kevin Durant failing to bench 185 pounds once before the 2007 NBA draft. Dontari Poe is the workout warrior done good! Poe settled down a bit after a terrifying start, but what makes him truly valuable for a team that didn’t (and now doesn’t) have much depth up front is that he never comes off the field. Despite sitting out the meaningless (to the Chiefs) Week 17 loss to the Chargers, Poe played 975 defensive snaps (87.8 percent) last season, more than any other defensive tackle in football. Compare that to, say, Ngata, who also suited up for 15 games but played only 700 defensive snaps (64.9 percent) for Baltimore. That’s like having Poe on the field for four extra games while Ngata is replaced by a backup. Kansas City has him for two more years with cap hits under $4 million with a fifth-year team option, so it won’t cost much, either.
46. Gerald McCoy, DT, Tampa Bay
45. Ndamukong Suh, DT, Detroit
McCoy and Suh are both wonderful football players, even though McCoy toils in anonymity for Tampa Bay and Suh’s talents are overshadowed by his well-known moments of petulance. On ability alone, these guys should be way higher, but they’re afflicted by the loser’s curse. Suh and McCoy were the second and third overall picks, respectively, in the 2010 draft, which was the last draft to employ the massive rookie contract scale of the old CBA. As a result, Suh and McCoy are about to finish up untenably large contracts for defensive tackles. Suh’s cap hit for this season is $22.4 million, making him the most expensive player on paper in the NFL by more than $2 million this year. At $15.6 million, McCoy’s a relative bargain with a cap hit that’s still larger than Tom Brady or Calvin Johnson. By comparison, in the final year of his deal, 2011 third overall pick Marcell Dareus will have a cap hit of just $8 million. It’s the same problem that kept Eric Berry off this list and would have limited Sam Bradford’s value if Bradford’s value were a thing you could talk about without laughing. Bradford’s got a $17.6 million cap hit this year, by the way.
44. Mike Iupati, G, San Francisco
It wasn’t a great 2013 for Iupati, who missed time with a sprained MCL and struggled a bit upon returning before fracturing his fibula in the playoff loss to the Seahawks. He’s still the best interior offensive lineman on a rookie contract in football, and the 27-year-old enters the final year of that deal with the distinct possibility of becoming the highest-paid interior lineman in football next year. If that doesn’t happen in San Francisco and Baalke breaks up the best left side in football by taking Iupati away from Joe Staley, it might make Mays cry. And with good reason.
Group 3: The Question Marks
43. Ryan Tannehill, QB, Miami
Nothing is quite what it seems with Tannehill’s career. He was supposed to be a raw project after starting just 20 games at Texas A&M, but he’s started from day one and been a relatively boring quarterback. He was supposed to benefit from the tutoring and system of Mike Sherman, his former college coach, but now two years later, Sherman’s been fired and scapegoated for many of Miami’s offensive problems. Tannehill’s strength was supposed to be his arm … strength, but even after adding Mike Wallace, Tannehill was inconsistent on deep passes last year. Miami finished 26th in points scored, but it was better by DVOA, which ranked it 18th. And that came amid the Richie Incognito saga, which cost a team that already had a porous offensive line two of its remaining starters. Miami was rolling out one of the worst offensive lines in recent memory by the end of the season, which is why Tannehill was sacked a league-high 58 times.
The good news is that while Tannehill has been slightly below-average (for a high-risk choice who came off the draft board at eight), it’s safe to say that he’s not a bust of Gabbertian proportions. But we still have no idea whether Tannehill is going to develop the sort of accuracy and decision-making he needs to be a franchise quarterback. We’ll know a lot more about Tannehill after this season.
42. Adrian Peterson, RB, Minnesota
Last year, Simmons suggested you could win 10 games with Peterson, a half-decent defense and schedule, and Dennis Quaid at quarterback, leaving unanswered the question about whether he would have preferred Quaid to Christian Ponder, Freeman, and Cassel. But 2013 really illustrated how hard it is to win with Peterson under his current contract, and how nobody else in football really operates this way. Your typically good Adrian Peterson season is 15 games, 300 carries, 1,400 rushing yards, and 12 touchdowns. That comes with a cap hit, in 2014, of $14.4 million. No other back in football is above $10 million, and the median starting running back has a cap hit of somewhere around $3.4 million. That’s $11 million you can’t put toward an offensive line or a secondary or, yes, a quarterback. If you know you’re going to get a 2,000-yard season out of Peterson like you did in 2012, you would happily pay that extra $11 million. But you’re more likely to get the typical Adrian Peterson season, like 2013’s 279-1,266-10 line, which isn’t far off from what somebody like Alfred Morris can do for $500,000. Every team would love to have Peterson. Very few want to commit nearly 11 percent of its salary cap to a running back, even one as good as Peterson.
Group 4: The Young Guns
41. Nate Solder, LT, New England
It’s a real-life Patriots player who isn’t Tom Brady and doesn’t have a body that is rapidly decaying into dust! And he’s going to be around for a while! How does that make Simmons feel?
OK, OK. Solder has stepped in for Matt Light after the latter’s retirement and been an above-average left tackle for the past two seasons. Those guys retail at about $8 million per year. Solder will make $2.7 million in the fourth year of his rookie contract, and New England has already exercised the fifth-year option on his deal, which will pay him $7.5 million in 2015. After one year with Bruce Armstrong, Belichick turned the left tackle slot over to Light for the next 11 seasons; it would not be a surprise if Solder were Belichick’s third and final regular at left tackle as Patriots head coach.
40. Joe Haden, CB, Cleveland
39. Trent Williams, LT, Washington
A pair of selections from the first round of that evil 2010 NFL draft, Haden and Williams have salaries at the ends of their respective deals, which aren’t quite as onerous as those of Suh and McCoy because they play more valuable positions and weren’t drafted quite as high. Haden’s already been able to sign a five-year extension that retains his base salary of $6.7 million from the old contract, while Williams still has two years left on his rookie deal at reasonable (for a very good left tackle) cap hits of just about $11 million and then $14.2 million. These two have also seemed to settle down after drug suspensions earlier in their careers; Williams was Tasered and hit in the head with a champagne bottle in a Honolulu club in January 2013, but not only was he not at fault for the incident, the Tasering didn’t even knock him down. That’s incredible. I tripped and fell getting out of bed last week. Like, not even on something that I left on the floor. Tripped by air.
38. Muhammad Wilkerson, DE, New York Jets
Last year, Wilkerson earned honorable mention status, and I wrote this: “When I sent my list around to a number of close NFL observers inside and outside the league, Wilkerson was the guy whom more people told me to add than anybody else. That means he was destined to end up just short of the list and have a monster 2013. I’m doing this for you, Muhammad.”
I have a PayPal account, Muhammad. Wilkerson had 10.5 sacks and killed the running game from a number of different spots up front while carving out his status as the second-best 3-4 defensive end in football, behind J.J. Watt. Mays wrote an excellent piece on Wilkerson before last season as part of the All-22 series, and with that compliment, I also have to note that the Bears used the pick before Wilkerson to draft Gabe Carimi. Nobody gets to have nice things if I had to watch that Giants team last year. Nobody.
37. Demaryius Thomas, WR, Denver
Yes, Thomas’s numbers are inflated some by virtue of playing with Peyton Manning. And sure, he still has some work to do in terms of using his 6-foot-3 frame to win at the line of scrimmage and get through his routes cleanly. You know what, though? Even if Thomas never gets any better, he’s already real good. Since Manning arrived, Thomas has posted consecutive seasons with 90-plus catches, 1,400-plus receiving yards, and 10-plus touchdowns. The only other players who have done that are Larry Fitzgerald, Marvin Harrison, Terrell Owens, and Jerry Rice. They had good quarterbacks, too, but they weren’t slouches on their own. Denver was right to let Eric Decker go and plan on signing Thomas, in the final year of his rookie deal, to a long-term extension. He is, Decker aside, perhaps the only good draft decision to come out of the Josh McDaniels era.
Group 5: The 2013 Tampa Bay Buccaneers
36. Lavonte David, OLB, Tampa Bay
You’ve heard of David before. He was the guy who hit Geno Smith while he was (debatably) out of bounds at the end of the opening game of the season, turning a sure win into what ended up as a pretty typical loss for the Buccaneers. Now that that’s out of the way, David is quite possibly the best run-stopping linebacker in the league. Stopping isn’t even the right word. He extinguishes the running game. David seems to live in the opposing backfield at times, knifing past opposing blockers like they’re inanimate cones. Here’s a detailed look from a Reddit poster (?!) at David’s first quarter against Atlanta in Week 7, which was one of the best performances I saw all year from any player in the league. Lovie Smith has come in and started comparing David to Derrick Brooks, and David might already be that caliber of player. He’s also signed for two more years with an average cap hit of less than $1.1 million. Damn. Lavonte David got me excited for football now.
35. Darrelle Revis, CB, New England
It might not last very long given that $25 million cap hit looming in 2015, but Revis — even at 29, even after the ACL tear — is the best cornerback Belichick has ever had. Revis wasn’t the same player in Tampa that he had been in New York, but he was only one year removed from the ACL tear and wasn’t exactly employed effectively during his time under Bill Sheridan. Revis will be able both physically and schematically to play more man coverage in 2014 under Belichick, who will likely shift from building his defense around Vince Wilfork to structuring it around the skills of Revis. The structure of this contract makes it a low-risk, high-reward deal for New England too. I suspect that Patriots fans would be happy enough if Revis’s jersey said NOT ARRINGTON on the back.
Also, that’s three members of the 2013 Tampa Bay Buccaneers defense on this list already. I think that says something about them or about this list. Or both.
Group 6: The Stars by Any Price
34. Patrick Willis, ILB, San Francisco
Here is a list of the guys who have started their careers by making seven consecutive Pro Bowls, in chronological order: Lou Creekmur, Les Richter, Jim Brown, Merlin Olsen, Mel Renfro, Jon Morris, Dick Butkus, Joe Greene, Franco Harris, Lawrence Taylor, Derrick Thomas, Barry Sanders, Richmond Webb, Joe Thomas, and Willis. The only guys on that list who are eligible for the Hall of Fame and not in are Morris and Webb, both of whom are offensive linemen; when I take over the Hall of Fame and elect only offensive linemen for the first five years of my reign, Morris and Webb are getting in. I may devote an entire wing to Lou Creekmur. My tyranny works in weird ways.
33. Matthew Stafford, QB, Detroit
Doesn’t it feel like Stafford’s race has already been run? I know he’s only 26, and he’ll have a new coaching staff working with him this season, and that it’s entirely possible he’ll improve. But it sure feels like he’s going to be this maddening forever, a guy capable of both winning and giving away games in the fourth quarter. Part of it isn’t Stafford’s fault; his Lions have often had no interior runner or secondary of any reliability, making it close to impossible to close out games, but Stafford either lacks the situational awareness in those moments to make smart decisions or gets so caught up in the moment trying to make plays that he has no qualms about forcing throws or taking mammoth sacks.
32. Tony Romo, QB, Dallas
Oh, hi, 34-year-old version of Stafford. Romo rates ahead of Stafford because he’s a far better quarterback during the other three and a half quarters of the game, even if he seems to share some questionable tendencies later on. I’ve defended Romo as much as anyone, but it’s just so much fun to make Romo jokes! The masochistic side of me wants to see if Cowboys fans start chanting for Johnny Manziel, Brandon Weeden, or Dirk Nowitzki first this season. Oh, by the way, until the Cowboys restructure his deal again and push their cap problems even further into the future, Romo’s cap hit rises from $11.8 million this year to $27.8 million next year. That’s a serious problem, because they have to re-sign …
31. Dez Bryant, WR, Dallas
… who is in the final year of his rookie contract and is actually one of the few Cowboys veterans Jerry Jones wouldn’t be stupid to re-sign. Releasing Ware went a huge way toward creating the space needed to re-sign Bryant, and Dallas will likely structure his deal into a seven-year contract to spread the signing bonus hit across as many years as possible, just as it did when locking up the critically essential Dan Bailey through 2020 this past offseason. If the Cowboys are the NFL Knicks (and the Cowboys, to be clear, are the NFL Knicks), Romo is their Melo, Bailey is their Jerome James, and Bryant is their Tyson Chandler, the talented player whom they actually should keep around. Oh, wait, the Knicks got rid of Chandler? That’s a very Knicks thing to do.
30. Julio Jones, WR, Atlanta
I’m not a doctor, but if your job involves running and jumping, it seems like a bad thing if you break your foot twice in three years. It’s worse than that, actually; not only did Jones break the same bone in the same spot during his foot fractures in 2011 and 2013, he actually broke the screw that had been put into his foot in 2011 against the Jets last year. Jones is obviously a marvelous wideout, and the fact he tried to play on with the injury last year just exhibits how tough he is, but a chronic foot problem certainly adds a lot of risk to Jones’s future. He’s no longer neck-and-neck with classmate A.J. Green.