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NFL Trade Value, Part 2

Bill Barnwell completes his ranking of the NFL’s top 50 most valuable assets, with a few notes from The Sports Guy.

Robert Griffin III

If you missed Part 1 of the NFL Trade Value rankings, click here. As he did on Monday, Grantland grand pooh-bah Bill Simmons added notes to the rest of Bill Barnwell’s list. Now, on to Part 2.

Group VII: NFL MVP

30. Adrian Peterson, RB, Minnesota

There were two players that were far harder to slot on this list than any others. I’ll talk about the other one a little later, but Adrian Peterson is one of the two.

The real difficulty in evaluating Peterson’s trade value is that there are at least three distinct flavors of Adrian Peterson, and we have no idea which version is going to show up. If we get the 2012 league MVP version, well, that guy is obviously incredibly valuable! Despite his hefty contract and advancing age, if you could guarantee that Adrian Peterson will carry the ball 21 times a game and average six yards per pop, you would put him ahead of all but the very top quarterbacks in football in these rankings.

If you get the 2007-10 version of Adrian Peterson — the guy who was the league’s best running back, not the league’s best player — you get a player who averaged 1,446 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns on 300 carries. That’s a very talented player, but it’s essentially what Doug Martin did last season, and at a $13.9 million cap hold with some penalty for aging, it’s not an incredibly valuable contract. You might slot Peterson somewhere in the 40s with that deal, since a fair amount of the league’s teams wouldn’t want to (or be able to) commit that much money to a running back. And if you get the 2011 version of Adrian Peterson, who missed time with a high ankle sprain before suffering a catastrophic knee injury, well, you’ve spent $14 million to get disappointed. And in terms of evaluating Adrian Peterson’s value in a trade going forward, that 2011 season is just as meaningful as his 2012 campaign.

I’m not going to put any cap on what Adrian Peterson can do. I’d feel stupid, and it’s way more fun to think about a dominant running back making defenders look like children than it is to envision a guy being carried off the field. If you’re an NFL general manager, though, part of your job is to mitigate risk and not lose sight of the bigger picture. The attrition rate for running backs who have been worked as hard as Adrian Peterson through their twenties is scary high, and the chances that even a legendary player will produce record-setting numbers in consecutive years are very low. The guys ahead of Adrian Peterson on this list are the cream of the crop: elite quarterbacks, dominant players at more important positions that are scarcer with talent, and young players on exceedingly team-friendly contracts. If I were trying to win one game in 2013, Adrian Peterson would be one of the five most valuable players in football. If I were trying to win one Super Bowl in the next five years, Adrian Peterson would slot in right around here.1

Group VIII: Conversations in a Waiting Room


1.

Welcome to our biggest disagreement of the 2013 Trade Value column. I would have put Peterson in the top 12 for these reasons: (1) He’s BY FAR the best running back in football; (2) you can win 10 games with Peterson, a half-decent defense, a fairly easy schedule and Dennis Quaid playing QB for you; (3) if the Vikings DID shop him, he’d certainly fetch more than the 13th overall pick in the draft and a conditional third- or fourth-rounder (which is what Darrelle Revis cost Tampa Bay last April); and (4) if the Vikings traded Peterson, people in Minnesota would react about as well as they would if someone repainted the Mall of America green and gold. AD’s going for two first-rounders minimum, and even then, they’d never have the balls to trade him. Either way, can we make sure Peterson sees this column? I want to wager on him for the 2013 rushing title. He might write “F U B.B.” on his football cleats.

29. Peyton Manning, QB, Broncos

28. Matthew Stafford, QB, Lions

Five questions with regard to a comparison between two very dissimilar players at different points of their careers …

1. What would Megatron’s numbers look like if Peyton Manning had been his quarterback for the past four years? Include a year in which Manning is hurt all year and Megatron has to play with Curtis Painter.

2. How far could Matthew Stafford throw the ball in the thin air of Denver with the wind behind his back? Because I’m basically picturing that Michael Vick Powerade commercial.

3. Would Matthew Stafford be a better player if a Taser zapped him every time he tried to pull that sidearm shit?

4. What are the odds that Peyton Manning was snapping every one of those Johnny Manziel photos during that night out at his passing camp?

5. What are the odds that a drunk Dirk/Nash photo exists of the Manning brothers?

Oh, and a bonus question …

6. What are the odds that Dirk Nowitzki thinks about how Dallas broke up a championship-winning team and saved their cap space for Jose Calderon and Monta Ellis and starts wanting to get that drunk again on a regular basis?

What, you want actual analysis? OK. Here are the prorated 16-game numbers for Manning and Stafford through the first four seasons of their respective careers:2

Group IX: Texas Road Graders


2.

We’re 3-for-3 in the “I Disagree With The Part 2 Rankings” department. I thought Peyton belonged in the mid-40s for all the reasons you would think (37 years old, expensive, four neck surgeries) and one that’s a little underrated, namely: Who else would trade for him? And what would they give up? For instance, Cleveland needs a QB so badly that a hypothetical in which the Browns would trade for Manning just made Mike Lombardi woozy at his desk. Do you really think they’d give up a 2014 no. 1 pick for him, though? For two to three years of Manning, max? Who would do this? As for Stafford, he’s ridiculously young (only a couple months older than Ryan Tannehill!), and we’ve never seen him with a good coach (sorry, Jim Schwartz) or a good running back. You’re telling me Detroit would deal him straight up for 31-year-old Ben Roethlisberger (no. 18 on your list)? I don’t see it. I would have had him 10 spots higher. By the way, backseat driving is really fun. WATCH THE ROAD, BARNWELL!

27. Duane Brown, LT, Houston

You have to really start picking nits to find something wrong with Duane Brown. He’s the sort of athletic left tackle that a zone-blocking scheme needs to cut guys on the backside of a stretch play, but he’s also got enough size to hold up at the point of attack if the Texans want to run right behind him. The former college tight end can get to the second level and run down a linebacker or a safety, but he also has the technique to create time for Schaub on one of Houston’s many play-action pass attempts. He’s also 27 and signed to a team-friendly deal that leaves him as merely the 10th-highest-paid tackle in football. It’s also always exciting to see dudes named Duane in professional sports. We were really at a high in the late ’80s with Duane Ward and Duane Sutter, but the sports world was pretty much down to Duane Starks for a while, and mentioning Duane Starks sends Simmons into a frenzy.3


3.

Greatest all-time Duanes: (1) Duane “Dog” Chapman, (2) Duane from The Walking Dead, (3) Duane Sutter, (4) Duane Thomas, (5) Duane Reade (whoever he was), (6) Duane Brown, (7) Duane Martin (Above the Rim alert!), (8) Duane Kuiper, (9) Duane Ludwig. Finishing last: Duane Starks.

26. DeMarcus Ware, DE, Dallas

The bloom’s off the rose a bit. Ware has never missed a game and he’s still productive, but he’s 31 and in the middle of a contract so demanding that the Cowboys are perpetually trying to renegotiate it to create cap space. Dallas is also switching to a 4-3 this offseason, which will move Ware from his traditional perch as an outside linebacker to a defensive end’s role for the first time. There are some advantages — Ware won’t have to worry about dropping back in coverage, for one — but there are certain players who don’t handle this switch very well, and we won’t know whether Ware is one of those guys for a couple of seasons.

Group X: NFC West Fistfight Edition

25. Aldon Smith, LB, San Francisco

24. Richard Sherman, CB, Seattle4


4.

Let’s give Vikings fans a few more minutes. They’re still reeling from the fact that Barnwell thinks Seattle would be more likely than Minnesota to say no to an “Adrian Peterson for Richard Sherman straight up” trade. Just take a break, stretch your legs, maybe go to the bathroom or something.

23. Earl Thomas, S, Seattle

22. Patrick Willis, LB, San Francisco

In discussions of these rankings with league observers, Aldon Smith was a hugely divisive player. On one hand, you can’t really argue with 33.5 sacks through two seasons; that’s more than anybody else in league history. Sack totals don’t stretch back through league history, but they go back far enough that we can put Smith ahead of Reggie White, Derrick Thomas, Bruce Smith, and every other pass rusher since 1983 in terms of his production at this point in his career. That’s already booked. On the other hand, everybody remembers Aldon Smith’s disappearing act after Justin Smith went down with a torn triceps tendon and came back at far less than 100 percent. There’s a reasonably significant portion of those league observers who think that Aldon Smith is merely a Justin Smith puppet show, and the evidence certainly raises some questions. That puts him at the back of this pile.

Earl Thomas moves like Richard Sherman talks, and I’m complimenting each of them in saying so. Thomas is already the best safety in football and he’s just 24 years old, so if he stays healthy, we could very well be looking at a guy who is a lock for the Hall of Fame by 30. Sherman’s upside isn’t quite as high, and he’s not quite as good as his world-class shit-talking might suggest (I remember that Falcons game, too), but he’s a very good cornerback who fills in admirably in run support and who will have a cap hit of $600,000 this year and less than $700,000 next year. Both benefit from the presence of Pete Carroll, who is regarded as a wizard with defensive backs.

If Thomas plays at this same level for four more seasons, he’ll be Patrick Willis, who is as sure a bet for the Hall of Fame at 28 as anyone has been besides Tom Brady.5

Group XI: Last Stop for Veterans


5.

I’m OK with these rankings, even if it’s impossible to notice any Seahawks defensive players in the top 50 without thinking about this link, or this one, or this one, or this one. In the words of Richard Sherman, “It is what it is.”

21. Joe Thomas, LT, Cleveland

The last offensive lineman on the list! The numbers side of me just cried out with happiness. Remember when we were talking about Ryan Clady earlier and I mentioned the Mays piece that suggested how Clady benefited from the presence of Peyton Manning behind him? Well, during his career, Joe Thomas has been the left tackle for Charlie Frye, Derek Anderson, Bruce Gradkowski, Ken Dorsey, Brady Quinn, Seneca Wallace, Colt McCoy, Jake Delhomme, Thaddeus Lewis, and Brandon Weeden.6 It’s as if we took the T-800 from Terminator 2 and assigned him to protect Charlie Frye, Derek Anderson, Bruce Gra … you get the idea. Anyway, if you see him, give Joe Thomas a hug and a decent quarterback if you know one.


6.

God hates Cleveland. God hates Cleveland. God hates Cleveland. God hates Cleveland. God hates Cleveland. God hates Cleveland. God hates Cleveland. God hates Cleveland. God hates Cleveland.

20. Geno Atkins, DT, Cincinnati

He was overshadowed a bit by the J.J. Wattquake, but Atkins deserves attention in his own right as the best 4-3 defensive tackle in football. As an undersize rush tackle capable of penetrating into the backfield for quarterback pressures and tackles for loss, he brings up comparisons to, well, Warren Sapp. (Warren Sapp is the Arrested Development Season 4 ostrich of this list.) His dominance is such that he managed to pick up 12.5 sacks as a defensive tackle and make the ends on either side of him look great, which is why Carlos Dunlap just got a $40 million contract after starting all of two pro games across three seasons. It’s Atkins’s turn to get paid next, as he is in the final year of his rookie contract, making a paltry $1.5 million. I would suspect the Bengals will slap the franchise tag on him next year and pay him around $8.5 million on a one-year deal, mainly because they are and always will be the Bengals.7


7.

Mike Brown hates Bengals fans. Mike Brown hates Bengals fans. Mike Brown hates Bengals fans. Mike Brown hates Bengals fans. Mike Brown hates Bengals fans. Mike Brown hates Bengals fans.

19. Darrelle Revis, CB, Tampa Bay

Revis tears his ACL, misses virtually the entire season, and he only falls from sixth to 19th? That seems fair to me. We just got a glimpse into his market value at its absolute lowest, as the Jets had no leverage and Revis hadn’t reestablished his health, and Revis was still worth a mid-first-round pick and a third-rounder next year. He also got a six-year, $96 million deal with no guaranteed money, but one that will almost surely pay him at least $32 million over two years before the Bucs would consider getting rid of their newly acquired star cornerback. Atkins would fetch more in a trade, but he’s healthy and will get a smaller contract.8 I don’t see any reason to think that Revis will lose a noticeable step from the torn ACL, and by midseason he should be back to his previous form. Then again, I thought Nnamdi Asomugha was going to move back to the outside and become the best cornerback in the NFC last season, so let’s actually check back in on this one at midseason to ensure that I’m not as wrong as I was last year.


8.

Barnwell, you know I love you. You’re the illegitimate son I never had. Or, if I knew I had an illegitimate son, it would be you. But you just pulled a Jedi Mind Trick on yourself. Maybe Tampa wouldn’t jump at the chance to trade Revis for Atkins, but there’s no way in hell that the cheap-ass Bengals would in a million kajillion years ever consider taking on $96 million of Revis Island for $1.5 million of Atkins. (Jerry Seinfeld eye roll.) Having said that, I have Geno Atkins as the odds-on favorite to become 2013’s “so well known for being underrated that it actually makes him a tad overrated” guy. I love when that happens.

18. Ben Roethlisberger, QB, Pittsburgh

He doesn’t get to bring the Super Bowl trophies with him. If you acquire Ben Roethlisberger, you’re trading for a guy who has played exactly one full regular season through age 30, who misses an average of two games per season, whose ineffectiveness after a high ankle sprain knocked the Steelers out of the playoffs in 2011 and unavailability with a shoulder injury prevented Pittsburgh from making a run into the playoffs in 2012. The production’s still there when Roethlisberger is in the lineup, but does anybody want to make a big bet on a guy who gets hit as frequently as Roethlisberger playing deep into his thirties?9


9.

I have a better idea: Let’s just have our editors quietly switch the Stafford and Roethlisberger sections and pretend you had them ranked that way all along.

17. Von Miller, LB, Denver

Miller has 30 sacks to Aldon Smith’s 33.5 over their respective first two seasons in the league, but Miller is regarded around the league as a superior player. He’s considered to be a better all-around talent, taking on more responsibilities in coverage and accomplishing almost as much as Smith with much less talent around him. Almost everyone I’ve talked to considers Miller to be the superior player to Smith, and I’m inclined to agree.

There’s just one thing I have to mention, though. You know how Aldon Smith might appear to be a product of Justin Smith? Well, Von Miller doesn’t have a Justin Smith playing in front of him, but he did have a very good pass rusher playing on the other hashmark during his first two years: Elvis Dumervil, who was farcically cut this offseason and is now in Baltimore. Denver replaced Dumervil with Shaun Phillips, who is three years older than Dumervil and already a less effective player. Will the absence of a Pro Bowl–caliber partner slow Miller down? We’ll find out soon enough.10 One more thing, Miller might even have been higher on this list — like number 14 — before he received a four-game suspension.

Group XII: The Perennial Competition


10.

Come on, nothing can slow down Von Miller! Sorry, I had to.

16. Julio Jones, WR, Atlanta

15. A.J. Green, WR, Cincinnati

These guys are basically going to line up year after year until one significantly separates from the other. At the moment, it’s pretty staggeringly close: Green has averaged 77.6 receiving yards per game, while Jones is at 74.4 yards per tilt. They each have 18 receiving touchdowns. Jones is eight months younger than Green, which is almost enough to tip the scales in his favor, but the real advantage with Green here is that his production comes while needing to be the absolute man in Cincinnati. Green has to get his numbers with Andy Dalton at quarterback and Mohamed Sanu on the other side of the field. Jones gets his with Matt Ryan, Roddy White, and Tony Gonzalez. Certainly seems to me like an easier life for Jones. Let’s check in next year.11

Group XIII: Oh No, Not Joe Flacco


11.

Well handled. That was the best ranking battle of the column. For fantasy football purposes, I can’t see any scenario in which these guys get drafted more than two picks apart unless half the league is drunk.

14. Joe Flacco, QB, Baltimore

Joe Flacco was the other guy I knew I would find impossible to rate. Where on earth do you put him? Where do you even start?

It’s entirely possible that Joe Flacco could retain a fair amount of his gains from the postseason. Eli Manning did it after his first postseason run. He won’t post an 11-to-0 touchdown-to-interception ratio every four games like he did during the playoffs, of course, but a full season with Jim Caldwell at coordinator and Bryant McKinnie at left tackle should help. On the other hand, the Ravens also gave away Anquan Boldin and didn’t replace him, which makes Flacco’s job a bit harder.

I think Flacco’s most valuable asset is his health, actually. Compare him to Roethlisberger, who most observers would say is the better player in a vacuum and who produces better numbers. If it were 16 games of Roethlisberger versus 16 games of Flacco, I’d choose Roethlisberger, but it’s never 16 games of Roethlisberger. It’s 14 games of Big Ben and two of Charlie Batch or Byron Leftwich or somebody else of that caliber, and that’s a notable drop-off. Factor in the aggregate health impact of Roethlisberger’s assorted injuries and Flacco’s reliable standard of health, and there’s more of a case for Flacco than it might have seemed.

On the other hand, there are now 80 regular-season games that paint Flacco to be an average NFL quarterback against four playoff games that say he’s a superstar, and the Ravens were forced to give him a contract that pays him like he’s the guy from those four playoff games. The goal of every contract should be to obtain excess value, to get more than what you bargained for. The best-case scenario for the Flacco deal is that he lives up to the performance level implied from his six-year, $120 million contract; it’s almost impossible to imagine him playing better than a $20 million-per-year quarterback, though, and that makes this a very unpalatable contract.12

Group XIV: A Home for the Last Mortal Non-Quarterbacks


12.

I’m OK with this ranking. The Browns would give Baltimore two no. 1 picks right now for Flacco (and wouldn’t care how much he’s making). You’re getting 16 starts a year and someone who, for whatever reason, has an extra playoff gear. Also, I think Flacco’s career has a ton of momentum from the playoffs; I fully expect that momentum to keep going — if we’ve learned anything over the years, it’s that positive momentum can be sustained from one NFL season to another. (Sorry, I’m trolling Barnwell.)

13. Eli Manning, QB, New York Giants

A sneak peek into the production of this article: Before I put together the top 50, I go team by team rating about 150 players across the NFL on a 1-20 scale in five categories: age/place on career path, player health, expected level of production, contract status, and positional value. Eli, who hasn’t missed a game as a pro or really come all that close, is one of the three players who made the list to get a perfect 20 in health, alongside Flacco and Ware.13 There were seven 20s for production (Peterson, Peyton Manning, Willis, Revis, Megatron, Tom Brady, and Aaron Rodgers), none for age, and one for contract (Russell Wilson). All quarterbacks automatically get a 20 for positional value.


13.

Thanks for holding off on the Rob Gronkowski joke here, Barnwell. Much appreciated. I’ll delete my 500-word rant about how Flacco should have been ranked ahead of Eli. You totally sucked up to Katie Bakes here.

Last year was almost literally an average season for Eli. These are his average numbers over the past five seasons after the first Super Bowl win as compared to his 2012 line:

That’s still a pretty valuable player, and it seems like Eli will age well. He never gets hurt, he was sacked on a league-low 3.4 percent of dropbacks last year, and both his father and brother were able to make it to 35. At the same time, Eli’s currently occupying a monstrous $20 million in cap space, and the extension he’s going to get to drag him through his thirties is going to be for something in the $16 million-per-year range. If that completion percentage slips a bit more and he gets under seven yards per attempt, the Giants might end up with an average quarterback being paid like a superstar. I don’t want to scare our legions of Eli fans, but it might make sense for the Giants to run Manning’s existing contract out through his age-34 season and either let him go then or work with him on one-year deals after that.

12. Patrick Peterson, CB, Arizona

As everyone expected, teams stopped giving Peterson juicy punts to return, which meant that he didn’t take four punts to the house in 2012, while his return average was cut in half. On the other hand, Peterson was the anchor of the league’s second-best pass defense per DVOA, intercepting seven passes while breaking up 10 more and often lining up against the opposition’s best receiver. And that was on a team whose best pass rusher was a middle linebacker, so it wasn’t like there was a dominant rush forcing bad throws. Even if Peterson permanently cedes return duties to the Honey Badger,14 his work as a cornerback can be enough to justify his elite status. On top of that, Peterson still has two years left on his team-friendly rookie deal and just turned 23 in July; he’s younger than four of the top 10 picks in this year’s draft.


14.

You mean, for the three games before the Honey Badger gets kicked out of the league?

11. Calvin Johnson, WR, Detroit

It’s hard for a non-quarterback with an enormous contract to rate any higher than this in 2013, so cut me some slack if you feel like this is too low for Megatron, because he’s just about the perfect player. The injuries that nagged him a few years ago haven’t stuck around the past couple of seasons, which was the last concern for his peak. The garbage-time arguments thrown around when he set the receiving record last year were, well, garbage. Even if his next few seasons look more like 2011 than 2012, the 2011 Megatron is still a player who will rank in the top 20 for the next three years. Oh, and don’t read into those five touchdowns and the seemingly endless run of plays to the 1-yard line as anything more than an absolute fluke. There have been 18 instances since the merger of a receiver producing five touchdowns or fewer as part of a 90-catch, 1,000-yard season. Only one receiver, Wes Welker, pulled off the feat in consecutive seasons, and only Andre Johnson’s done it twice. Calvin’s touchdowns will be coming back.15

Group XV: The Second Tier of Quarterbacks


15.

You just veered perilously close to getting a nasty “Get off my corner” e-mail from Matthew Berry.

10. Cam Newton, QB, Carolina

Cam unfairly gets kept out of all the “Gang of Four” articles I’m writing because he was drafted a year earlier and doesn’t fit into my narrative about players with virtually no pro experience suddenly taking over the league. Also, then I’d have to call the group “Five Guys,” and we would lose Subway as a sponsor.16


16.

NEVER! I have “Subway 4 Life” tattooed on my back.

The other thing is that Cam’s passing production really isn’t on par with those guys. He has better numbers than Andrew Luck did during his first season, but Cam can’t make the same winners’ argument that’s spurring Luck into the group right now. Two years in, Cam’s completing only 58.9 percent of his passes; he’s averaging a robust 7.9 yards per attempt, which is impressive, but Russell Wilson and RG3 can do that while completing 64-65 percent of their throws. Cam could use a possession receiver to work across from Steve Smith, but the Panthers keep adding deep threats like Ted Ginn. If Domenik Hixon could stay healthy, he could be that guy, but Domenik Hixon refuses to even consider staying healthy for any stretch of time.

The other thing holding Cam back a bit is that he is already through the first two years of his guaranteed four-year deal, meaning that the Panthers really have only one more year of Cam at a team-friendly price before they get to his mammoth second contract. Having three years of team control on a rookie contract is significantly more valuable than having two years, and that comes into play for another young quarterback I’ll get to in a moment.17


17.

You left out the whole “There’s also a half-decent chance he might be a prima donna who doesn’t lead or inspire teammates” narrative that snowballed a little last May, then again last December. Or that there are headlines on the Internet from as recently as two months ago that read, “Mike Shula wants more emotional balance from Cam Newton.” I like Cam, but it makes me nervous seeing him this high. I’m getting flashbacks to the time I ranked Tyreke Evans 15th and had him over Rajon Rondo, Marc Gasol and Blake Griffin in the 2010 NBA Trade Value rankings.

9. Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans

From 2009 to 2011, Drew Brees completed 69.9 percent of his passes. Those three individual seasons included both the first- and second-best completion percentages in league history (and the 19th, you slacker). That’s otherworldly. Last year, Brees was down to 63.0 percent, which was his lowest rate in eight years. His yards per attempt fell from 8.3 to 7.7. He led the league in interceptions, although he also threw nearly 42 passes per game, so his interception rate wasn’t all that bad. Brees’s value is derived from throwing all those passes; with 690 attempts on the year, he threw nearly twice as many as the likes of Russell Wilson or Robert Griffin (each at 393). Brees never gets sacked and is rarely hit because of his quick release, so when he’s completing 70 percent of his passes, he’s just too consistent moving the ball to really stop. When he’s back at 63 percent, Brees is still good, but he’s far easier to control.

Where did the catches go? Mostly, his wideouts got way worse:

There’s no one wideout who it affected, either, which is odd. One of two things are about to happen, though: Either Sean Payton is going to come back and restore Drew Brees to that near–70 percent level,18 and the Saints are going to be a terror to stop in 2013, or Brees won’t hit that level of accuracy again, and he’ll struggle to offer a return on his record-breaking contract.


18.

Worth mentioning: I can’t remember who coached the Saints last season. I’m not even kidding. I have Brees ranked behind only Betty Draper for 2013’s Comeback Player of the Year award.

8. Colin Kaepernick, QB, San Francisco

Because Kaepernick was drafted in 2011 (as opposed to the other three members of the Gang of Four, who were drafted in 2012), he also has only two years left on his contract. Unlike Newton, who’s making an average of over $5 million per year, Kaepernick’s contract as a second-rounder pays him only $5.1 million over the entire four-year deal, so it’s a much friendlier contract.

On the other hand, Kaepernick is nearly 18 months older than Newton and has started just 10 professional games to Newton’s 32, so there’s not as big of a gap between these two as you might have thought. Kaepernick’s going to greatly enjoy a full year of first-team reps while working with Jim Harbaugh, but he’s also going to be without his best receiver, Michael Crabtree, for most of the 2013 season. If Anquan Boldin plays like the regular-season Anquan Boldin of the past three seasons and not the playoff version of Anquan Boldin, this group of receivers begins to get pretty hairy. It’s enough to temper our enthusiasm about Kaepernick just a tiny bit, bumping him down to no. 8 for now.

7. Tom Brady, QB, New England

This is partly unfair, because Brady left money on the table to help try to build a winner in New England; if he got traded, I suspect he would want to grab that money off the table, so I’m factoring that in.

Brady’s numbers unquestionably dipped last year. His completion percentage was 63.0 percent and he averaged 7.6 yards per attempt; both are the lowest figures he’s hit since Moss and Welker arrived in 2007. Those are still excellent figures, of course, but they’re not the greatest-of-all-time figures from 2007 or 2010. At age 36, it’s safe to say those days are gone. His interception rate was an unsustainably low 1.3 percent, so he’ll add a few more picks next year, and this is all before we consider the drastic overhaul in his receiving corps and what that’s likely to do to his performance. The odds are against Brady ever being this high again.19


19.

Barnwell delivered that news so coldly, didn’t he? Thank God he never became a doctor. Anyway, here’s our final tally: Only two Pats in the top 50, a 42-spot drought between them, and a franchise QB who will “never be this high again.” Hey, at least our best receiver is in jail, our second-best receiver is coming off four surgeries, and our best running back is recovering from getting knocked out cold in the AFC Championship Game. We might as well permanently bring back Pat Patriot and the red uniforms. I’m so bummed out.

6. Matt Ryan, QB, Atlanta

Ryan’s lack of a contract extension both helps and hurts his value. On one hand, he isn’t tied into an enormous deal with tons of guaranteed money if he were to get hurt this season; on the other hand, you’re basically stuck paying him franchise tag money or forced to shell out an enormous up-front signing bonus in giving him a new long-term deal.

In terms of his 2012, you saw what happened: Atlanta moved away from Michael Turner and went pass-happy; Ryan completed nearly 69 percent of his throws, kept his yards per attempt high, and won a playoff game to get those dudes off his back. If he sustains all of those 2012 gains, he’s a top-five quarterback in the prime of his career. If he drops back to his pre-2012 levels, he’s a good quarterback, but one who is likely to be overpaid by virtue of a market-value deal.20


20.

Obligatory Sliding Doors reference: If one break goes against Flacco (Rahim Moore alert!) and one or two breaks go Matt Ryan’s way (NFC Championship Game collapse alert!), Flacco falls at least 12 to 14 spots and Ryan probably climbs into the top four. And maybe the Pats beat Denver to make the Super Bowl, and maybe … wait, I can’t do this to myself. I really need to move on.

One thing to note: I talk a lot about how teams can’t consistently win a large percentage of those games that are decided by seven points or fewer, but there does seem to be an exception for great quarterbacks who are particularly effective at managing the clock and creating extra possessions for themselves at the ends of halves. This comes up for three people: Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, and Matt Ryan, who is 27-11 in one-score games since arriving in the league. Normally, Atlanta’s 7-2 record in one-touchdown games in 2012 would inspire fiery calls for regression toward the mean. I don’t think they will go 7-2 again, but I’m skeptical that their performance in those games is totally random in the way that it is for other teams. If Ryan can pull out a disproportionately high percentage of those close games, he’s worth millions more than his other numbers indicate. Like, a few dozen millions more.

5. Robert Griffin III, QB, Washington

RG3 was the best young quarterback in football a year ago. His level of play was unprecedented for rookies, and he outplayed everybody else in and around the Gang of Four. If I could guarantee that he would play 16 games without getting injured, I’d put Robert Griffin at the top of this list.

I can’t guarantee that, though, and I see a guy who gets into dangerous situations where injuries are a continual possibility. I can almost forgive him for slipping and sustaining a concussion near the sidelines against the Falcons, but a few weeks later, he was diving headfirst in the middle of the field at the end of a comfortable loss to the Panthers. More people who had tickets to that game heard about that on the radio trying to leave the parking lot than did actually sitting in their seats inside the stadium. He would eventually suffer a knee injury against the Ravens, make it worse by trying to play on it, and reaggravate the injury in the playoffs against the Seahawks. I really hope Robert Griffin proves me wrong, but I don’t have a lot of faith in his knee or his team’s ability to keep his competitiveness in line, and for players who are this valuable, a ding like that is enough to move a guy down a tier.21

Group XVI: Mutants


21.

You could have talked me into anything from no. 5 to no. 15 for RG3. The best thing about RG3 is also the thing that scares you the most: his fearlessness. He’s always going to attack. That’s what makes him great. Derrick Rose was and is wired the same way — that’s the biggest reason he was right not to come back last spring. Guys like Griffin and Rose can’t just downshift to that “I’ll pick my spots and be safe” gear. It’s not in them. Vaya con dios, RG3.

4. J.J. Watt, DL, Houston

I mean, you saw the dude play. He’s like a video-game boss stuck into the middle of a football game. He does the same stuff all the other football players do, but when he does it, it hurts a lot more. And then, when you hit the reset button and try again, he does the same thing until you cheat to beat him. He also looks like Britt Daniel ate Henry Rollins, which is even more off-putting.

What’s the difference between Watt’s unprecedented level of production from last year and, say, Adrian Peterson’s? For one, we have only two years of information on Watt and six or so on Peterson. We have much more evidence suggesting that Adrian Peterson is a 1,500-yard back than we do implying he’s going to regularly hit 2,000 yards. That evidence doesn’t really exist with Watt. What we have seen is a rookie year with some flashes of brilliance and then a second year with 20.5 sacks and 16 knockdowns. Peterson’s also 28 with a lot of miles on his tires; he’s at an age where we would expect even a Hall of Fame–caliber running back to begin declining. Watt is 24. By all accounts, he should be getting even better. I’m not really sure how that could happen, but if it does, that might be proof he has some adamantium in there somewhere. That’s what Rollins is made out of, right? Wouldn’t Brady-for-Watt be the perfect escape route from the Brady era for the Patriots? If the Patriots had a legitimate backup quarterback (they don’t now), I really think Bill Belichick would go for it. Watt’s on a rookie contract, he’s the most destructive lineman in a generation, and Brady’s 36 years old. My guess is that Belichick treats Watt’s game tape like porn.22 I also think the Texans would trade Watt for Brady if they had let Matt Schaub go this past offseason, but they would have to spend more time thinking about it than the Patriots would.

Group XVII: The Other Big Three


22.

No — that’s Robert Mays. By the way, I’d never trade Brady for J.J. Watt. Brady is a Patriot for life. He has earned that luxury. There’s just no loyalty in sports anymore, as Peyton Manning and Paul Pierce found out recently. I hate that about sports. Tom Brady should retire as a New England Patriot. Got it? Got it. (Thinking.) Well, unless we could get Russell Wilson or Andrew Luck for him.

3. Andrew Luck, QB, Indianapolis

2. Russell Wilson, QB, Seattle

1. Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay

The case for Luck over Wilson before the draft last year was built around Luck’s height and arm strength. They might sing a different tune now, but before the draft, personnel evaluators told Adam Caplan that Russell Wilson reminded them of Seneca Wallace, which makes sense because … oh, no, wait, that makes no sense. He actually slid off some teams’ draft boards because of his height, which is stupid, because teams should build draft boards that don’t let the names of really talented football players slip off so easily.

Now that Russell Wilson has proven that his work ethic, intelligence, and heaping gobs of football ability translate to the NFL level, there’s no reason to think that other stuff matters. And in terms of the skills that actually translate to pro performance, Wilson’s every bit as good as Andrew Luck. He also has a far better performance record after one season and, by virtue of teams passing on Wilson 73 times between Luck’s selection with the first pick and Wilson’s arrival into Seattle at no. 75, Wilson’s four-year contract will cost the Seahawks just $2.2 million, which is about half of what Luck will make in just one season of his four-year deal. And Luck’s contract is a bargain!23


23.

Russell Wilson over Andrew Luck!!! This was like the reveal at the end of The Sixth Sense! I don’t know what to do with myself right now. The Russell Wilson stock that I bought last summer is like Apple circa 1992. I’m giddy.

As great as Wilson’s contract is and as wonderful as he played last year, though, I think the Seahawks would deal him straight-up for Aaron Rodgers if they could. Rodgers isn’t the foolproof no. 1 he was a year ago, since he’s a year older and signed a massive new contract in April, but his level of play is still so remarkable (and likely to stay that way over the next three years) that I think the Seahawks would make the deal and try to win now. And I don’t think the Packers could trade Aaron Rodgers and live to tell the tale.24


24.

Good work, Barnwell. I agree wholeheartedly with the order of your final four picks. Here’s how you drove the Trade Value Ferrari this year.