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NFL Trade Value, Part 1

Bill Barnwell delivers his annual ranking of the NFL's top 50 most valuable assets, with a few notes from The Sports Guy

A new asset class was delivered to the NFL in 2012, as a crop of young, cheap, and extremely talented quarterbacks emerged to be the most valuable set of rookies in league history. With the new NFL CBA inducting rookies into the league at a fraction of their former price, teams like the Colts and Seahawks were not only able to get Pro Bowl production under center at a fraction of the market rate, they were able to use the millions of dollars they saved to go splurge on veteran talent during free agency.

And ever since the Gang of Four began to emerge, I’ve had people hounding me with one question: Where are they going to fall on the Trade Value Chart? Hell, I’ve been wondering about it myself for the better part of nine months now. Could it take as few as seven regular-season starts for a player like Colin Kaepernick to become the most valuable commodity in all of football?

So, of course, we had to bring the NFL Trade Value rankings back for a second season. “We,” of course, again being a two-man crew. Just as we ran it last year, I’ll be joined in this space by the man who spawned the NBA Trade Value rankings years ago, Grantland grand pooh-bah Bill Simmons, who will be offering up a running commentary in the footnotes. Simmons took it pretty easy on me last year, but that was before the Patriots’ depth chart at receiver made Simmons don the Celtics Press Conference face.1 This year, the standard is tougher and the stakes are higher.

I would say last year’s trade value rankings, one year later, get a B-. (You can see those rankings here and here. Simmons and I stumbled onto some right moves and had a few good ideas, but there were a few too many missteps to be grade-A work. I’ll just put this one Simmons comment down as the guide to our report card:

Also, Barnwell will rue the day that Aaron Hernandez wasn’t included on this list. My Top-Three Come-Back-to-Haunt-Barnwell’s-List-This-Season Predictions: Hernandez, Matt Kalil, and … (wait for it) … Russell Wilson.2

In all fairness, that could very well be construed as my boss looking out for my personal safety while living in Boston. And, of course, you’ll be seeing more of Mr. Wilson later on. But since this is the second edition of these rankings, we now get to go through my favorite part of the NBA Trade Value rankings: the sad list of players booted out of the top 50.

Victor Cruz (49th on the list last year) hooked up with Hov and got a new deal that takes him from the bargain basement up to that club from the “Can I Get a … ” video … Rob Gronkowski (31st) is going to try to spike a ball in October and have his arm just fall off …3 Mike Wallace (24th) attracted such little interest from the Steelers that nearly the entire league realized something was probably rotten; fortunately, Jeff Ireland was actually sneezing into a hundred-dollar bill when everybody was sniffing around Wallace … Michael Vick (17th) would still be on the list if this were the trolling Michael Vick’s old coaches rankings … and Philip Rivers (15th) has lost nearly two full yards per attempt over the past two years, which is weird, because checkdown machines don’t normally cost $17 million.

Larry Fitzgerald, Rivers, and Brandon Flowers each came close to making this list again, but the rest of those guys were a ways away from the top 50.4 These next players, though, were the ones who came up just short of cracking the charts. Starting with the easier cuts and working our way down to the toughest …

Anthony Castonzo, Lavonte David, Russell Okung, Trent Richardson, and Jabaal Sheard are the five young guys I can’t put on this list but who I am simultaneously worried will make me look bad for not doing so. Richardson is this year’s guy in fantasy football who is either going to be taken 10 picks too early or 10 picks too late in every draft, and nobody has any idea which side it will be.5

Andy Dalton is one of nine quarterbacks since the merger to start a playoff game during each of his first two seasons in the NFL. That’s cool, because it’s a list that includes John Elway, Joe Flacco, Dan Marino, and Ben Roethlisberger. On the other hand, the other guys on that list are Pat Haden, Bernie Kosar, Shaun King, and Mark Sanchez. Which side of the list do you think Andy Dalton fits in with?6

Roddy White has averaged a 94-1,296-8 line since the offseason training light went on for him before the 2007 season, and somehow he’s the third-most notable receiver in his own offense. It was a little suspicious that the Falcons didn’t offer White a new contract this offseason, since he has only two years left on his six-year deal, and the Falcons could have taken some of his $9.125 million cap hit and pushed it into the future, but he’ll continue to be productive and probably have a Derrick Mason–like run in his thirties.

Matt Schaub got a big contract extension before the season, so the Texans are basically all-in with him and Gary Kubiak for the next three years. Schaub’s numbers are fine, but has anybody ever stood across the field from the Texans and been terrified of Matt Schaub stepping onto the field? Will anyone ever be scared?7

Cameron Wake received a glowing write-up in the All-22 series, and he’s a great pass rusher, but that time in the CFL means that he’s already 31. He also has the beginnings of a Saberhagen odd/even year thing going on, and this is the bad year in that cycle. Can we just call that a Saberhagen from now on? And does a Saberhagen sound vaguely dirty to anybody else?8

Jason Witten caught 110 passes last year. No, really. The only players who have more catches than Witten since 2007 are Wes Welker, Brandon Marshall, Reggie Wayne, and Roddy White. He has fumbled five times in 10 years. He can block. And at the position where everybody gets hurt, Witten has only missed one game in his 10-year career. Not only is he a Hall of Famer, he might even be able to retire today and make it to the Hall of Fame. Nobody realizes this, so his trade value isn’t as high as it should be.

Alfred Morris plays with Robert Griffin in the zone read behind a zone-blocking offensive line, so even though he ran for 1,613 yards and cost the Redskins just over $400,000 last season, he’s not about to help the Redskins reverse the emotional ledger of the Clinton Portis–for–Champ Bailey trade. On the bright side, he made a lot of money for anybody who bet that there wouldn’t be a professional athlete with the name “Alfred” in the 21st century who didn’t go by “Al” instead.9

Matt Kalil and Andrew Whitworth are both very good left tackles who narrowly miss out on this list solely by virtue of there being a lot of young, talented left tackles in the league right now, with a handful more who just showed up in this year’s offensive line–heavy draft.

Chris Long is the best defensive lineman in football that nobody ever seems to think about, but he’s on a massive second contract by virtue of his status as a top-five pick before the old CBA. His partner at end, Robert Quinn, had 10.5 sacks last year and just turned 23 in May. I have the feeling one of them is going to have a monster season this year, but I also have no idea which one it will be.

Muhammad Wilkerson is a versatile, occasionally dominant 3-4 defensive end for the Jets who is currently a very poor man’s J.J. Watt. 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.10

Doug Martin ran for 1,454 yards and 11 touchdowns behind an offensive line that lost one Pro Bowl guard before the season (Davin Joseph) and the other (Carl Nicks) after seven games. Martin gets both those guards back this year. He fumbled only once on 368 touches, was often Josh Freeman’s best underneath receiver, and had a cap hit of merely $1.2 million. He’s not in the top 50 because there isn’t a market for running backs in 2013, but guess who is …

Group I: Top 25 or Bust

50. Josh Freeman, QB, Tampa Bay

It’s Jaaaaash! I simultaneously don’t know how Josh Freeman can be on this list and how I could keep him off this list, which is a bad sign with 49 players to go. I can make a pretty strong case for him. It seems like he’s been around forever, but Freeman turned only 25 in January; he’s actually two months younger than Colin Kaepernick. He’s had one genuinely great season, the 2010 campaign, when he averaged 7.3 yards per attempt and threw more than four touchdowns for every interception. He was having a second great season in 2012, and then, over the last five games of the year, this happened:

Without warning, Freeman stopped making big plays downfield and started throwing ducks. He threw four picks against the Saints in Week 15, and followed up with four more interceptions against the Rams a week later.

That latter game is the key to unlocking the Freeman puzzle. He was sacked five times, the only time all season he was sacked more than twice. Ron Jaworski noted in his quarterback rankings that Freeman was terrible under pressure; only Mark Sanchez was worse, and he’s a quarterback only in the same sense that Gustavo Fring was a fried-chicken magnate. Remember what I said earlier about Martin getting two Pro Bowl guards back in the lineup? Freeman gets those guys back, too. And when you consider that his wideouts are a pair of downfield threats (Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams), Freeman needs as much time as possible for those guys to get downfield and make plays.

I’m inclined to think the offensive line or some sort of hidden injury were most of Freeman’s problem, but then again, the organization basically sold Freeman out this offseason. Greg Schiano actually suggested that Mike Glennon would compete with Freeman for the starting job, and GM Mark Dominik didn’t even begin negotiations on a long-term deal with Freeman’s agents. That’s damning in and of itself. In any case, Freeman won’t be in this spot again next year. He’ll either be up in the mid-twenties after a big season or nowhere near the list at all, having failed to live up to the lofty promises of 2010.11

Group II: A New England

49. Nate Solder, LT, New England

Solder moved over from the right side to protect Tom Brady’s blind side last year and didn’t miss a beat. He took only three penalties for a total of 20 yards all season, allowed 3.5 sacks (per STATS), and was a capable one-on-one pass protector against just about anyone he came across. Not bad for less than $2 million, and he’s got two more years at a total of right around $5 million to come. Solder also allowed the Patriots to push Sebastian Vollmer to right tackle, where he’s a Pro Bowl–caliber player. If the Patriots really do move toward a more conventional run-based offense this year, Solder’s going to be an even bigger part of the picture for the Patriots.12

48. Luke Kuechly, LB, Carolina

I’ve been hard on Marty Hurney in the past, but the now-deposed Carolina general manager was very wise to go Best Available Player and take Kuechly with the ninth pick in the 2012 draft. The Boston College product became the heart and soul of the Carolina defense as a rookie, especially after he was moved from the weak side to middle linebacker. He also entered the draft at 21, so having turned 22 in April, he’s 13 months younger than the top linebacker from this year’s draft, Dion Jordan. He plays like Ray Lewis, so I think he should go all-out and steal Ray Lewis’s introduction and dance and deer-antler spray gimmick and see where it takes him.

Group III: The Able Veterans

47. Brian Orakpo, LB, Washington

Missed nearly the entire season after tearing his pectoral muscle in Week 2. Beginning to wonder whether there’s going to be any more production out of Orakpo than what we’ve seen so far; he looked like a stud pass rusher when he racked up 11 sacks during his rookie campaign, but he has now amassed a total of just 18.5 sacks over the ensuing three seasons. This is the last year of his rookie deal, so if you believe in contract years, Orakpo should be about ready to have one.13

46. Joe Staley, LT, San Francisco

Staley was a very good right tackle who was eventually pushed over to the left side out of sheer desperation, but he’s become one of the best left tackles in the league while working in lockstep with the NFL’s best starting five. The 49ers also absorbed the vast majority of the cap hit on his contract back when they were terrible, so his deal is a joy to behold: Staley will make $2.8 million this year, $3.4 million next year, and just over $6 million per year over the final three seasons of the deal. Now the 49ers just need to mind-trick him into not forcing a renegotiation.

45. Ndamukong Suh, DT, Detroit

Some guys peak during their rookie season. Ndamukong Suh may very well be one of those guys, because he was unblockable for most of 2010. He’s become a symbol of the “dirty” Lions for stomping on Evan Dietrich-Smith in 2011 and kicking Matt Schaub in the groin last ye … actually, can we stop and watch that kick again?

I don’t know whether that was intentional. I’m also pretty sure that tackling a defensive player is illegal, though, and I’m 100 percent positive that Suh is being dragged down by a Texans offensive lineman on that play. (The hold went uncalled.) Point being: Suh’s really good. He does everything you would want a defensive tackle to do. When the Lions are winning, people will describe the extracurricular stuff as “nasty.” When they’re losing, people will call it “dirty.” Whatever it is, it’s not as dirty as what Warren Sapp did to Chad Clifton, and Warren Sapp gets to say stuff like “Simeon [Rice] was a better rusher than Michael Strahan any day of the week” and get paid for it! So, let’s chill on Ndamukong Suh.14

44. Eric Weddle, S, San Diego

A few years ago, it seemed like Eric Weddle was going to be perennially underappreciated in the AFC, with a host of Hall of Fame–caliber safeties standing in his way. Now, Bob Sanders is retired, Ed Reed has slipped dramatically, and Troy Polamalu can’t stay healthy. That leaves Weddle as the best safety in the conference, and while he can’t match those guys at their peaks, he’s a versatile safety who does everything well. Weddle is exactly the sort of player who would be revered nationally if he played for the Patriots, but doesn’t attract a peep of attention because his team has spent the last three years battling home blackouts and Norv Turner.15

43. Haloti Ngata, DT, Baltimore

Networks mercifully moved on from the “Did you know Haloti Ngata played rugby?” packages during Ravens games last year, so Ngata went back to actually being a little underrated again. The Ravens really missed him in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl, but the knee injury he suffered on Frank Gore’s touchdown run shouldn’t bother him next year. Oh, and by the way, he’s another guy noted analyst Warren Sapp doesn’t like!

42. Tony Romo, QB, Dallas

Tony Romo is the NFL’s walking contradiction. He’s almost universally regarded as a quarterback who can’t handle the big moments and the pressure-packed situations, and yet Romo led the league with five fourth-quarter comebacks last season. He had a sixth comeback from 14 points down with five minutes left to force overtime in New Orleans, and a seventh comeback against the Ravens in Baltimore fell short when Dan Bailey missed a would-be game-winning field goal. Over the past five seasons, when the game has been within one score in the fourth quarter, the only guys with a higher passer rating are Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning, Eli Manning, and Drew Brees. Dude gets after it when the game’s on the line, I promise you, but his reputation is awful enough in those situations that even “Stone Cold” Steve Austin doesn’t think Tony Romo has what it takes there. (In all fairness, Austin was 5-2 at WrestleMania, so he might be qualified to evaluate Romo’s clutch performance.)

Romo’s never going to change: He’s an incredible improviser capable of making both brilliant plays and absolutely abysmal decisions on the fly.16 The team around him will have to get better if the Cowboys are going to make a push toward a Super Bowl. And as the massive contract Romo just leveraged his way into begins to take hold, it will be harder for the Cowboys to acquire the sorts of surrounding talent they need to satisfy their fans’ thirst for a title.

Group IV: The Promise of Stardom

41. Randall Cobb, WR, Green Bay

At this point, Cobb is a Percy Harvin starter kit without the vast majority of the injury issues that have slowed Harvin’s career. Harvin just got a six-year deal that guaranteed him $14.5 million, with $11 million more coming if he’s on the Seahawks roster in 2014. Cobb has two years and a total of about $1.9 million left on his deal. He’s also about to turn 23 in August, so he’s only about seven months older than Tavon Austin, the top-selected wideout in this year’s draft. Keep in mind that Cobb had 80 catches without even serving as a full-time wideout last season; he caught a pass once for every 7.9 offensive snaps he saw last year, which was the third-highest rate in the league. The guy who caught passes most frequently on a per-snap basis? Percy Harvin.

40. Mike Iupati, G, San Francisco

The bulldozing guard at the heart of San Francisco’s dominant running game, Iupati is the best young interior offensive lineman in football. He’s also the prototypical Niner: a massively strong, hyperathletic ass-kicker with above-average technique. He’s also making right around $2.75 million per year for the next two years. The left side of the San Francisco line, with Iupati alongside the aforementioned Staley, could be the best side of any line in football for the next several seasons. Also, he’s got a great name for a mauling guard, right?

39. Tyron Smith, LT, Dallas

Dallas has been pretty lucky with left tackles the past few decades: Outside of spare years by the likes of George Hegamin and Doug Free, they’ve lined up Mark Tuinei, Flozell Adams, and now Tyron Smith, who seems ready to fill the position for the next 10 years. After allowing 9.5 sacks at right tackle during his rookie season, Smith moved to the more demanding left side and allowed just three takedowns of Tony Romo during a Pro Bowl–caliber season. Like Cobb, he also entered the league at 20, so the players from his birth year are just joining the league; Smith is less than one month younger than first overall pick Eric Fisher.17

38. NaVorro Bowman, LB, San Francisco

It’s close to impossible to get a true read on Bowman’s level of ability because he’s surrounded by Pro Bowlers on all sides. He plays alongside Patrick Willis, who is almost universally regarded as the best middle linebacker in football, and Willis made both Takeo Spikes and Aubrayo Franklin look great before they left town and failed to impress elsewhere. Bowman sure looks great, though, and he’s doing something that nobody expected: taking snaps away from Willis. There were times last year when Bowman, not Willis, lined up in five– and six–defensive back sets, and Bowman actually played 17 more defensive snaps than Willis during the regular season. I still think Willis is the better player, and Bowman does genuinely benefit from the players around him, but I’m of the opinion that he’s a significant asset in his own right.

37. Joe Haden, CB, Cleveland

Cleveland, not Oakland, is the black hole. There are a few great players there, but unless you’re an absolute football junkie, you don’t see them or hear about them.18 Joe Haden could change his name to Chris Gaines, grow a soul patch, and perform an adult alternative pop album at halftime every week and we wouldn’t hear about it for a month. When he’s not suspended, Haden is as close to a shutdown corner as there is in football, although he was more consistent in 2011 than he was in 2012. He’s also just 24 and has two years left on an old-CBA rookie deal that pays him a manageable $7 million or so per year.

36. Ryan Clady, LT, Denver

35. Trent Williams, LT, Washington

Pick one. Clady’s been the better player at each of their respective peaks, but he just got a brand-new contract that pays him something close to full market value, is two years older, and is one of the many NFL players to suffer a serious injury playing basketball, having torn his patellar tendon before the 2010 campaign. He didn’t return to his previous level of form until Peyton Manning showed up, and it was fair of Grantland colleague Robert Mays to wonder whether Clady’s resurgence had something to do with the quick release and flawless footwork of Manning. Williams isn’t as refined of a pass blocker, but he excelled as a downfield run- and screen-blocker last year in a Washington offense that requires a ton of energy. I’d want him over the next five years as opposed to Clady.19

Group V: This Isn’t It?

34. Clay Matthews, LB, Green Bay

You can see a superstar inside Clay Matthews’s numbers, but you have to play around a bit with the timing. Look at him on a season-by-season basis and you see the steady churn of a very good if not dominant pass rusher: He had 10 sacks as a rookie, then 13.5, an off-year with six, and 13 last season. Start finessing the numbers a bit, though, and you can locate a truly great player. Add his excellent work in the playoffs, where he has 7.5 sacks in eight games (and spent most of Green Bay’s Super Bowl win as a decoy and spy on Ben Roethlisberger). Ignore his slow start as a pro, when he wasn’t playing full-time. If you don’t start at the beginning of a given season, you can find a stretch of 16 consecutive games in which Matthews recorded 18.5 sacks, and a 14-game stretch dating back to the beginning of last season in which he recorded 16 sacks. He’s an excellent player with some nagging injury issues, and I still don’t think we’ve seen his best full season of football.

33. Jay Cutler, QB, Chicago

Josh Freeman has about $25 million in guaranteed money riding on his success this season, which is maybe more than anybody else in football. Jay Cutler is just behind him. I wrote last year that we should stop waiting for Jay Cutler to change into some drastically different quarterback, but if Jay Cutler ever was going to change and take a sustained step forward, this would be the year. He’ll have the best offensive line he’s seen since his days in Denver, with first-round pick Kyle Long slotting in at guard and free-agent tackle Jermon Bushrod finally pushing overwhelmed left tackle J’Marcus Webb to the right side. He’ll have a tight end who can actually catch, Martellus Bennett. And he’ll finally have a head coach who has experience working with quarterbacks, former Montreal Alouettes head coach Marc Trestman. In the final year of his contract, Cutler has the best cast around him that he’s had during his time in Chicago.

The difference between Freeman and Cutler is, the latter has a much higher ceiling.20 If Cutler has a disappointing season and the Bears don’t re-sign him, he’ll still attract plenty of attention in free agency and get $15 million or so in guaranteed money. If Freeman has a disappointing season, he’s more likely to get a Kevin Kolb sort of contract with a few million dollars guaranteed. At 30, this might also be Cutler’s last chance to get a megabucks long-term deal, so he has everything to play for in 2013.

Group VI: NFC East Crossroads

32. Dez Bryant, WR, Dallas

31. Jason Pierre-Paul, DE, New York Giants

Sometimes we get overly caught up in career sequencing and make too much out of what a player did last year. These two guys are a perfect example of that issue because they’re eerily similar. Both Bryant and JPP are 24-year-old first-round picks from the 2010 NFL draft who play in the NFC East. They each exhibited flashes of brilliance in situational roles during their respective rookie seasons. They’ve each had one disappointing year as a full-time starter and one dominant season that seemed to deliver on all the promise they exhibited coming out of college. The difference is that JPP’s breakout season came during his second year in the league, and Bryant’s phenomenal campaign was last year, during his third season. Because Bryant’s career path was more conventional, though, I get the feeling that folks are expecting a lot more out of Bryant than they are from JPP. That seems too robotic. Players are subject to so many whims, and the sample size of the NFL season is so small, that we only get a small window into what they are and what they can do each year. Pierre-Paul hasn’t stagnated and Bryant hasn’t broken out; they’re just two really talented players who did a better job of exhibiting their brilliance at different points in their careers.21

Filed Under: NFL, Bill Barnwell, NFL Trade Value, Trade Value, Victor Cruz, Mike Wallace, Rob Gronkowski, Michael Vick, Philip Rivers, Larry Fitzgerald, Brandon Flowers, Anthony Castonzo, Lavonte David, Russell Okung, Trent Richardson, Jabaal Sheard, Andy Dalton, Roddy White, Matt Schaub, Cameron Wake, Jason Witten, Alfred Morris, Matt Kalil, Chris Long, Robert Quinn, Muhammad Wilkerson, Doug Martin, Josh Freeman, Nate Solder, Luke Kuechly, Brian Orakpo, Joe Staley, Ndamukong Suh, Eric Weddle, Haloti Ngata, Tony Romo, Randall Cobb, Mike Iupati, Tyron Smith, Navorro Bowman, Joe Haden, Ryan Clady, Trent Williams, Clay Matthews, Jay Cutler, Dez Bryant, Jason Pierre-Paul

Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell