Imagine growing up with a Ferrari in the garage that your dad only took out once a year. Wouldn’t it drive you nuts? You would become a teenager, start taking driving lessons in a Corolla, occasionally get to drive the family Altima, and eventually, you would buy a 989 Oldsmobile Custom Cruiser station wagon from your boss for $1 to serve as your first car, just like I did. All along, though, you would wait for the day where you would finally wake up to a set of Ferrari keys and a note of caution on your nightstand. After countless hours of showing your dad that you knew how to drive, you’d get a chance to take a legend out onto the street.
I have been trusted with the keys to the Ferrari of Grantland. This is our first NFL Trade Value Column. And just like any proud-but-suspicious father, Simmons is going to be riding along and backseat driving throughout — you can read his thoughts on my rankings in the footnotes, almost like the director’s commentary for a DVD. And just like a director’s commentary on a DVD, you can mute him whenever you want.
Of course, this is a much more difficult column to put together than the NBA version.1 I’ve got to weigh the relative merits of four times as many players across more than a dozen different positions while working with the obtuse financial system of a league that rarely ever makes challenge trades. It wasn’t easy. When I was struggling, I turned to the official video of the NBA Trade Value Column, the YouTube clip of “Roundball Rock” that has Simmons’s head transposed atop that of John Tesh. It gave me the natural energy boost of soft rock’s most motivational sports television anthem with the added kick of nightmare fuel, ensuring I’d stay awake for nights to come. After days of tinkering and toying, I had a 50-player list that actually seemed like it might make some sense.
A number of “name” players were excluded from our top 50 because of injury concerns, whether they’re out for the season (like Terrell Suggs and Jason Peters) or recovering from serious injuries and haven’t officially established their previous level of play (like Adrian Peterson, Jamaal Charles, Eric Berry, and Kenny Britt). From a short list of 150 players, I worked my way down to 70 before consigning 20 more to Honorable Mention. These guys aren’t ranked quite as intently as the players who actually made the top 50, but let’s discuss them in rough order of distance from the pin:
Steve Smith and Cortland Finnegan: In hindsight, doesn’t it seem obvious that Smith would be somebody who would absolutely respond to the motivation of basically being written off by the league because he spent a year with Jimmy Clausen as his quarterback?2 On the other hand, Smith is 33 and undersize; the last time a guy Smith’s age and height went for 1,000 yards in a season was Drew Hill in 1990. It’s still unclear whether 2011 was a last hurrah or a return to form. Meanwhile, Finnegan is basically Smith’s defensive doppelgänger — even if he’s five years younger, $27 million guaranteed is high for a cornerback who has made exactly one Pro Bowl in six seasons.
Cameron Wake: Wake drew nearly twice as many holding penalties as anyone else in football last year, but he also finished with just 8.5 sacks. That 14-sack season in 2010 was great, but because he spent a good chunk of his 20s in Canada, Wake’s already seven months into his 30th year. He’s only three years younger than John Abraham, who debuted when I was in high school. He’s not young, I’m saying.3
Jordy Nelson: That contract extension is brilliant, and Nelson was definitely a force last year, but he’s also the secondary target in a dominant passing offense, a player archetype that often rates as the most overrated in football. His 2011 performance was reminiscent of Austin Collie’s 2010 half-season (albeit with no games missed); you saw what happened to Collie with a lesser quarterback in 2011.
Maurice Jones-Drew: Great player, but you read the same articles I did when MJD hit the trade market a few days ago. It’s not like teams were offering up first-round picks for the privilege of giving Jones-Drew a new contract. In fact, the Jags might have gotten less than the Dolphins did for Vontae Davis earlier this week. And Davis isn’t exactly sniffing this list.4
Ray Lewis: It’s still crazy that the league’s players voted him as the league’s fourth-best player before last year when he was almost surely the fourth-best player on his own defense. Here’s a good example of the difference between a top-players list and a trade-value list, as Lewis has far more value to the Ravens than to any other team. Lewis is still a productive player, but he’s 37 and makes $5 million at middle linebacker, a position where teams often scrimp and save their money.5
Wes Welker: Ditto Welker, who has a perfect role carved out for him in an offense with a great quarterback. Of course, that team is also trolling him now, giving out deals to both of their tight ends while basically ignoring Welker’s calls. Can you really imagine him split out wide catching passes from Brandon Weeden in Cleveland, though?6
Tamba Hali: Every time I think about what Tamba Hali does while he’s not pass rushing, I remember him getting blocked handily by Jason Campbell on a Raiders reverse for a touchdown at the end of the 2010 season.
Andrew Whitworth, Joe Staley, Mike Iupati: Three offensive linemen who deserve more recognition; Whitworth (Bengals) and Staley (49ers) are both excellent tackles who reliably protect the blind sides of two of the league’s more limited quarterbacks; Staley would be on this list if he had a better track record of staying on the field. Iupati, who lines up next to Staley at left guard, should have made the Pro Bowl last year. He’s also making about one-third of what big-name guards like Carl Nicks are commanding in free agency. With that being said, as talented and cheap as he is, it’s just impossible to get interior linemen onto this list.7
J.J. Watt: Watt’s always going to be under the radar because he’s a 3-4 defensive end and doesn’t accrue numbers, but after a tremendous rookie season, Wade Phillips suggested that Watt is going to be a Hall of Fame lineman. A year ago, Phillips compared Watt to Phil Hansen. Maybe we should see where Watt falls in the Hansen–to–Hall of Famer chart after his second year before getting him into the top 50.8
Chris Long: Because he toils in obscurity for the Rams, Long’s abilities get noticed solely by people in the St. Louis area and Sunday Ticket subscribers whose remotes suffered an untimely demise while the Rams game was showing on their television. He really is a great defensive end, though, and Long’s 13-sack season in 2011 was the first time his numbers matched his level of play. The problem is his contract. The Rams re-signed him this offseason to a five-year deal that guarantees him nearly $37 million, a stunning total for such a short duration. That guarantee happened because Marty Hurney gave Charles Johnson a similar contract after Johnson had one double-digit sack season and Hurney thought locking up the core of a 2-14 team was a good idea. And that’s where lockouts come from!
Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu: What are the odds on Reed and Polamalu ever combining again for 32 games in a given season, as they did in 2011? Again, this is the difference between performance and trade value; Reed’s about to be 34 and flirts with retiring every year, and Polamalu’s 31 but never seems to be anything resembling 100 percent. They’re both expensive players at safety, a place where teams cut costs, and play a freelance role that doesn’t exist in most schemes.9
Charles Woodson: Woodson’s been healthier than Reed or Polamalu, and been as effective on a per-play basis as either of them, but he’s also going to be 36 in October and is moving to safety in Green Bay’s base defense this season.10
David Harris: Harris is an anachronism. As a run-stuffing middle linebacker, he really has no equal in football beyond Patrick Willis, but that’s a skill set that’s a better fit for 1982 than 2012.
Vernon Davis: Davis’s average seasonal line as the 49ers’ starting tight end is 57-708-6. You can mix and match his 13-touchdown total from 2009 with his playoff performance last year and wishcast some superstar performance from him going forward, but he just doesn’t have the production of a top receiver at tight end in this era. Davis is a great blocker, but you can get 90 percent of Davis’s ability as a blocker for the veteran minimum.11
Arian Foster: Perhaps Foster makes it onto the list at his old salary, but the combination of his new deal and the possibility that he’s Mike Anderson and not Terrell Davis keeps him off.
Vince Wilfork: Chris Brown did a great piece before the Super Bowl on how the Patriots’ hybrid defense is built around Wilfork, but it’s also worth noting that the aforementioned Patriots hybrid defense is terrible. Wilfork’s not the problem, of course, but he also has a big contract and he’s on the wrong side of 30. There are younger, cheaper versions of him on the actual list.
Grantland’s Top 50 starts with the most difficult player to gauge on the entire list.
Group I: Oh Look, It’s Peyton Freaking Manning
50. Peyton Manning
Oh, just the greatest quarterback in league history in a historically unprecedented situation — this should be easy to figure out. There’s virtually no chance that Manning is actually the 50th most valuable asset in the league, but when you average out all the possibilities — maybe there’s a 30 percent chance he’s one of the 10 most valuable guys in the league, a 30 percent chance he’s a money pit, and a 40 percent chance he’s somewhere in between — 50th feels about right. If he comes back and he’s the Peyton Manning from 2010, two years older and with worse receivers, this is probably just a little low. Then again, he’s 36 and one positive neck examination away from making a guaranteed $58 million over the next three years.12
Group II: Reasons to Doubt the Scouting-Coaching Complex
49. Victor Cruz
Imagine going back 18 months and telling somebody in February of 2011 that Victor Cruz was a more valuable trade asset than Peyton Manning. I mean, tell them other stuff that’s more important first, but get to that eventually before you come forward in time. Once Cruz moved into the rotation at wideout in Week 3 last year, he averaged 108.5 yards per game, a figure that nobody’s hit over that many games since 1995. More important, Cruz was an undrafted free agent who made $405,000 last season. He’ll make about $500,000 this year before hitting the collusion-friendly waters of restricted free agency, so the Giants could have him for two more years at about $3.5 million total before even having to franchise him. He’s the biggest bargain in the entire league, even if his yardage total comes down in 2012. At the very least, he’s the most cap-friendly Giants star since the Icebox.13
48. Jimmy Graham
Let’s move from the college backup at UMass to Graham, who just caught 99 passes and took over as the star receiver in a dominant passing attack during his third year of organized football. You know Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours theory? Jimmy Graham apparently somehow fits about 204 hours into a normal day. And as a third-round pick, he is making an exorbitant $540,000 this year.14
Group III: Guys Who Know Clay Matthews
47. B.J. Raji
Remember how I said there were cheaper, younger versions of Wilfork? Wilfork might be a better player than Raji, but it’s not by much, and Raji’s just under five years younger. That’s five fewer years of carrying around a 330-pound frame. Raji’s entire five-year deal is also for less money ($23 million) than Wilfork’s guarantee ($25 million). It’s also a shame that Raji, a Boston College product, didn’t get to see the rebuilding of BC landmark Eagle’s Deli and the ceremonial removal of the Mike Mamula jersey that had been hanging on its walls for a decade.15
46. Brian Cushing
Cushing was incredible as a 4-3 outside linebacker in 2009 and almost as good as a 3-4 inside linebacker in 2011. In between was a 2010 season marred by that weird PED suspension and court case where he blamed his positive drug test on overtrained athlete syndrome. In a year, it will be safe to throw out that 2010 season as the outlier and wonder if Cushing is the best linebacker in football who doesn’t rush the passer.16
Group IV: Pile of Defensive Ends
45. Justin Smith
It says a lot about Smith when you consider that he plays as a 3-4 defensive end (or occasionally as a tackle) and still manages to show up on the stat sheet; he has 22 sacks over the past three seasons, more than any other player of a similar vein. As good as the guys behind him are, there’s a reason Smith was named team MVP last year; he could easily have been the AP Defensive Player of the Year, too. The only problem? He turns 33 next month.
44. Julius Peppers
43. Trent Cole
42. Jared Allen
41. Mario Williams
Picking between these four guys is mostly a function of what you’re looking for as a team. Do you want the best all-around player today? That’s Peppers, the best run defender of the four. Cole’s the best value, producing an automatic 10 sacks per year for about half of what he’d get if he ever hit the free market. Allen’s the best pass rusher, but the guy who’s likely to perform the best over the next three to five years is Williams, who is three to five years younger than the rest of the group. Of course, you have to pay the Buffalo Premium that was priced into Williams’s deal if you trade for him, too.17
Group V: Those With Sore Backs From Carrying Dismal Units
40. Nnamdi Asomugha
Everyone jumped off the Asomugha bandwagon awful quick, huh? After carrying Oakland’s secondary on his back and emerging as one of the top two cornerbacks in football at the end of the decade, embattled Eagles defensive coordinator Juan Castillo (his actual name now, I think) moved Asomugha out of his comfort zone at cornerback and onto some sort of hybrid Charles Woodson shit that didn’t suit Asomugha whatsoever. Sticking a guy who uses the sidelines as an aid like nobody else in the league in the middle of the field makes a ton of sense, right? Maybe that’s the sort of move you would make if you didn’t have any experience at any level as a defensive coordinator! Asomugha will be back on the outside full-time this year, which means he should be the best cornerback in the NFC.18
39. Ray Rice
The only running back on this list, Rice is the entirety of the Ravens offense and still the early favorite to claim the best running back in football crown. His new contract makes him more expensive, but $24 million in guaranteed money on a five-year deal is still 20 percent less than what Chris Johnson got and two-thirds of Adrian Peterson’s guarantee.19
38. Jake Long
Long’s the first guy afflicted by a problem you’ll see come up a bunch along the rest of the way: Old Draft Pick Syndrome. That’s not age I’m referring to, it’s salary. When Long was drafted by the Dolphins in 2008, he immediately became the highest-paid offensive lineman in league history. Starting a player off at that level basically warps his salary expectations for his entire career. Long got five years and $57.75 million with $30 million guaranteed in his first contract, and he’s turned into a very good left tackle. So what do you give him for his second contract? Joe Thomas saw his guaranteed money basically double between his first deal (as the third overall pick) and his second one, going from about $23 million to $44 million. What do you do with Long, then? Do you bump his guarantee to $60 million? $50 million? If he was an undrafted free agent who played just as well as the real Long did, you’d probably be able to get him for $25 million to $30 million in guarantees on a six-year deal. You can’t credibly go to Long’s agent and offer to give him the same sort of deal as the one he got out of school, which is partly why the Dolphins still haven’t locked Long up to an extension. He could hit unrestricted free agency next year, and while you would assume that a normal front office might lock up their best player or choose to franchise him, this is the Dolphins.20