This exact day — the Wednesday after Week 9 — is the closest thing to the halfway point of the NFL season. There have been a total of 133 NFL games already played this season, with 123 still to come. There are some things we’ve learned by now: The Chiefs are good. The Buccaneers aren’t. On the other hand, we don’t know very much at all about teams like the Bears, Dolphins, and Chargers, teams that have put together great performances to go with some mediocre filler. And there might very well still be a team like Washington in 2012 — left for dead at 3-6 before ripping off a stunning run to the playoffs.
With what amounts to a half-season in the books, I’ll be using the rest of this week to take a look back at what we’ve seen over the first half of the season and what it tells us about the league’s broader picture. That starts with a look back at the NFL Trade Value Rankings I wrote with Bill Simmons over the summer. You can read the original article in two parts here and here. Today, I’ll be looking back and noting all the changes in value that stand out for the 50 players who made it onto the list, along with a few notable players who deserve to be on next year’s edition.
The good news is, there’s no obvious oversight the way there was last year. J.J. Watt narrowly missed out on the 2012 list before the season, but by the halfway point, he was a viable MVP candidate and very clearly the best defensive player in football. There are some really valuable players who were missing from this year’s list, but nobody as obvious as Watt. As it turns out, the most embarrassing moment for this year’s list actually comes from a player who made it to the top 50. Let’s start with him and the rest of the guys I no longer consider to be among the top 50 trade values in football …
Off the List
Josh Freeman, QB, Tampa Bay/Minnesota (50): LOL. OK, come on, I didn’t put Freeman on that list.
I swear, Freeman made sense three months ago. There was a pretty significant chance then that the nightmare scenario we’ve seen with Freeman this year was going to play out, but there was also a pretty significant chance that Freeman would be a valuable contributor to an impressive team. I promise. But, well, yeah, that didn’t happen. The funny thing is that Freeman will hit free agency this year and still get a signing bonus, even though the Buccaneers benched him and the Vikings gave him one start before immediately changing their mind and turning him into a healthy scratch.
Brian Orakpo, LB, Washington (47): In a contract year, Orakpo has basically gone missing. He has three sacks in eight games, and two of those came against Matt Flynn, who is basically target practice for pass-rushers. Orakpo tried to play the “there’s more than sacks” card when asked about his slow season this week, but he only has eight quarterback hits in eight games. Ryan Kerrigan has likely passed him as a player, and for whatever promise he showed as a rookie, Orakpo seems to have settled in as an above-average player, not a great one.
Joe Staley, LT, San Francisco (46): The 49ers left tackle had a slow start to the season, and while he has improved in recent weeks, that also came against an easy slate of teams. He would be an honorable mention this time around, alongside the likes of Andrew Whitworth and Matt Kalil at left tackle.
Haloti Ngata, DT, Baltimore (43): Baltimore has lined up Ngata as its nose tackle this year, and while he’s still a valuable asset, he isn’t quite as effective there as he is playing defensive end. His advancing age (29) and contract ($11.5 million cap hit this year, rising to $16 million for 2014 and 2015) bump him off the top 50.
Ryan Clady, LT, Denver (36): After finally returning to his prior form with an excellent 2012 campaign, Clady picked up a big contract and then suffered a season-ending Lisfranc injury in September. Clady has already torn his patellar tendon and suffered a serious foot injury during his professional career.
Clay Matthews, LB, Green Bay (34): Sometimes it feels like you’re more likely to see Matthews during the commercial break of a Packers game than in the game itself. That’s overstating it a bit, but the injury bug continues to bite the talented Green Bay linebacker; this time, it’s a broken thumb. Matthews is a productive player when he’s healthy, but his healthy days have been few and far between in recent years. That’s manageable on a rookie deal, but after he signed a $66 million contract extension this offseason, the Packers are counting on Matthews to stay in the lineup.
Jason Pierre-Paul, DE, New York Giants (31): Ugh. JPP clearly wasn’t 100 percent at the start of the season, but the guy who racked up 16.5 sacks two years ago and seemed to be the next great Giants lineman just isn’t on the field right now. Pierre-Paul’s playing time has picked up a bit as the season has gone along, as he’s now playing in excess of 80 percent of the Giants’ defensive snaps, but he’s just not the same player these days. If it’s his back, then he probably won’t appear on this list until his back’s right. And if it’s not his back … uh-oh.
Aldon Smith, LB, San Francisco (25): Smith is still a tantalizing option on the field given his production and relatively tiny contract, but since the summer list, he crashed his car into a tree, went to rehab, and was charged with felony weapons possession. He recently returned to the 49ers, but his short-term and long-term future remains a mystery.
Geno Atkins, DT, Cincinnati (20): Atkins signed a lucrative contract extension with the famously penurious Bengals before the season and lived up to the deal before tearing his ACL against the Dolphins last Thursday night. (If there’s any silver lining in the injury, it’s that Atkins got paid before he got hurt.) The torn ACL isn’t a death knell for Atkins’s career or anything, but teams aren’t going to trade for an athletic, undersize star like Atkins until they make sure he didn’t leave some of his athleticism on the operating table.
Darrelle Revis, CB, Tampa Bay (19): Revis has shown flashes of brilliance during his first year in Tampa Bay, but the Buccaneers have mostly used Revis as a zone defender, despite his success in New York having come as a man-to-man corner. Revis recently admitted that he isn’t healthy enough to play man coverage the way he used to, and while he should get better as the year goes along, it’s tough for a team to risk $16 million per season on “should.”
Adrian Peterson, RB, Minnesota (30): Even after his incredible touchdown run against the Cowboys on Sunday, Peterson hasn’t been the same player he was a year ago. Here are his season-by-season rushing averages as a starter (note that he split carries as a rookie with Chester Taylor — Peterson getting nine starts, Taylor eight):
The 2012 season sticks out like a sore thumb. He’s still great, but this year Peterson has been among the best running backs in football, not among the best players of any position. That’s troublesome, considering Peterson is in the middle of a seven-year, $96 million deal. A good number of the league’s teams wouldn’t even consider paying a running back this much, no matter how effective he is, while others would really struggle to justify Peterson’s contract, regardless of his effectiveness. He would probably be 50th, not 30th, on a new list today.
DeMarcus Ware, DE, Dallas (26): Another player in the middle of a mammoth deal, Ware had been relatively quiet after moving to defensive end in Dallas’s new 4-3 scheme before suffering a quad injury that has caused him to miss three weeks. Ware’s still a great player, but he’s 31 and has a $14 million–plus cap hit coming over the next four seasons. That’s a lot of risk.
Ben Roethlisberger, QB, Pittsburgh (18)
Eli Manning, QB, New York Giants (13): Two quarterbacks on the wrong side of 30 toiling away for bad teams on enormous contracts. Both have legitimate gripes about their offensive line. In a league where younger quarterbacks seem to be succeeding more quickly and more consistently than ever before, big-ticket veterans like Roethlisberger or Manning seem more like obstacles than solutions. If the Jaguars end up with the first pick in this year’s draft, would they trade it for Roethlisberger or Manning? Probably not. Then again, Philip Rivers looked to be in the same boat this past offseason, and he has been downright resurgent this year. They drop down on this list, but stay tuned.
Joe Flacco, QB, Baltimore (14): From 2008 to 2012, Flacco completed 60.5 percent of his passes and averaged 7.1 yards per attempt. In 2013, Flacco has completed 59.4 percent of his passes and averaged 7.0 yards per attempt. Gulp.
Tom Brady, QB, New England (7): Speaking of gulp … Brady is 28th among qualifying quarterbacks in completion percentage and yards per attempt this year. Chad Henne is ahead of Brady in both categories. That’s fun, right? Then again, with Rob Gronkowski and Danny Amendola looking healthy together for the first time all season last week, Brady’s offense dropped 55 points on the Steelers. Brady won’t be in the top 10 again, but it wouldn’t exactly be shocking if he had a mammoth second half, either.
Matt Ryan, QB, Atlanta (6): Ryan’s numbers are still sound — he’s completing just less than 68 percent of his passes and averaging 7.4 yards per attempt — but a significant part of his value was as a leader and winner, in him finding a way to pull out games most other quarterbacks couldn’t. For whatever that’s worth, that simply hasn’t been the case in 2013. He sure is doing a lot more with Tony Gonzalez and a bunch of backup wideouts than Brady was doing with his backups before last week, though.
Robert Griffin III, QB, Washington (5): Simmons pulled out a comp I liked for RG3 in the summer article: Derrick Rose. Just like Rose is going to attack and attack and attack some more because it’s his nature, Griffin is going to be aggressive and try to create plays for his team even when it behooves him to be conservative. We’ve had two national discussions now about Griffin protecting himself near the sideline and conserving his body, and yet there he was on Sunday launching himself headfirst for a first down. You can’t fault his competitive spirit, but it’s awful tough to imagine Griffin having a long, consistent career right now.
J.J. Watt, DL, Houston (4): Like Peterson, Watt has regressed from being one of the best players in football to, likely, the best player at his position. There’s no shame in that, and during the Colts game, he was the second-best player on the field after Andrew Luck. His salary makes him a bargain, and he’s a viable Defensive Player of the Year candidate. But as a non-quarterback, unless he’s challenging records, it’s hard to put him in the top five again.
Luke Kuechly, LB, Carolina (48): As the leader and star player on a defense that ranks third in DVOA and second in points allowed per game, Kuechly has become one of the league’s most valuable properties. The Panthers still have him for two and a half more seasons at a cost of less than $9 million total (with a fifth-year option that will probably be about $8 million). Middle linebacker isn’t a position in which NFL teams place much value, but Kuechly is a hidden game-changing superstar in Carolina. Kudos to Marty Hurney — his last two first-round picks were quite good.
Ndamukong Suh, DT, Detroit (45): Suh’s play didn’t slip much during Detroit’s disappointing 2012 campaign, but he has been the best player by a significant margin on a surprisingly competent Lions defense in 2013. His rookie contract is still exorbitant because it was negotiated before the new CBA capped rookie salaries, and that limits his value as a trade asset, but you can’t argue with Suh’s play during Detroit’s hot start.
Joe Haden, CB, Cleveland (37): Haden has actually slipped over the past three weeks, but he had a viable case as the league’s best cornerback through the first six weeks of the 2013 campaign. Even with that knowledge in mind, Haden’s one of the five best cornerbacks in football, he plays against the other team’s top wideout every week on the vast majority of snaps, and he has two years left on his deal with an average cap hit of about $9.5 million. He’ll move up next year.
Peyton Manning, QB, Denver (29): He has to be higher than 29, right? If he keeps this up, it will be the best season of his career: Manning is completing 71.2 percent of his passes, which would be a career high, and his 8.8 yards per attempt would be his second-highest seasonal average. He’s nearly throwing five touchdowns for every interception. Hell, he even has that rushing touchdown. If he’s the best quarterback in football by a comfortable margin, can he really be in the mid-twenties?
Matthew Stafford, QB, Detroit (28): Stafford somehow was overrated and became underrated; his stats have always been inflated because the Lions throw the ball more than anybody else in football, but his rate stats are all up this year. His completion percentage and yards per attempt are near career highs, his interception rate is below 2 percent, and he has become virtually unsackable, as that sidearm delivery (thankfully used in moderation this year) prevents defenders from getting to him. Stafford’s 2.9 percent sack rate is the lowest in football, and don’t think teams investing hundreds of millions of dollars into a quarterback aren’t paying attention to that stat.
Cam Newton, QB, Carolina (10): I wrote about Newton’s run at length on Monday. Better than Derek Anderson.
Andrew Luck, QB, Indianapolis (3): No. 1.
Arriving on the List
Finally, here are the players who seem likely to crack next year’s top 50, given what they’ve done over the first half of the 2013 season. And apologies to Andy Dalton, Jerrell Freeman, Josh Gordon, and Terrell Suggs, who were the final four honorable mention cuts. Roughly in order of where they would appear on next year’s list (counting down) …
Robert Mathis, LB, Indianapolis: I know that Mathis is already 32, but he’s a complete player and, arguably, the best pass-rusher in football. Mathis has more sacks this year (11.5) than the rest of the Indianapolis roster combined (10.5). And Mathis only makes about $10 million per season; that’s a relative pittance for a superstar.
Alterraun Verner, CB, Tennessee: Quietly emerging as one of the best cornerbacks in football, Verner has been the key player on Tennessee’s defense under Gregg Williams this year. His work is what allows Williams to be so creative in producing pressure with blitzes. It seems shocking that Verner had to win his starting job in camp this year, but given his level of play and that he’s still on a rookie contract, a lot of teams would love to have Verner around.
Lavonte David, LB, Tampa Bay: Wasting his days away in Tampa Bay, David is quite possibly the best 4-3 outside linebacker in football. He’ll be known for a long time as the guy who pushed Geno Smith out of bounds in Week 1 and cost the Buccaneers the game, but David’s play on a snap-by-snap basis has been truly brilliant. His first half against the Falcons in Week 7 might be the best defensive half I’ve seen any player have all season.
Robert Quinn, DE, St. Louis: Already suiting up for his third season in the league at the tender age of 23, Quinn has surpassed teammate Chris Long and become the primary focus of opposing offensive lines when the Rams come to town. After accruing 10.5 sacks during his breakout 2012 campaign, Quinn has 10 sacks in nine games this year. He also still has a year and a half left on his rookie deal, which pays him a total of $9.4 million over four years. He’s a necessity on a team with enormous payouts to the likes of Sam Bradford and Cortland Finnegan.
Philip Rivers, QB, San Diego: Somehow, behind an offensive line that has been missing starters every week, and with a group of rookies and sophomores at wideout, Rivers is completing 72.2 percent of his passes and averaging 8.4 yards per attempt. It’s going to be a crime when Alex Smith or Brady goes to the Pro Bowl ahead of Rivers. He even had another kid! What a fun player to watch, and given his play this year, what a valuable asset the Chargers have.
Muhammad Wilkerson, DE, New York Jets: I suspected before the season that Wilkerson would be the honorable mention player I would regret not putting on the list, and that’s how it turned out. Wilkerson’s not Watt, but he is the best mortal 3-4 defensive end in football. He also makes only about $2 million per season in 2013 and 2014, the final two years of his deal. When the Jets clear the Mark Sanchez contract off the books, they should use that money on Wilkerson.
Jimmy Graham, TE, New Orleans: The injuries are always going to be a concern with Graham, but he doesn’t need to be 100 percent to change games. Graham’s the league’s scariest weapon up the seam, and outside of Gronkowski, he might be the best red zone weapon in football. He’s also in the final year of his rookie deal, which makes him a bargain in 2013 at $1.5 million, but a major risk going forward. He also turns 27 in November, which means he could already be approaching the downside of his career.
Jamaal Charles, RB, Kansas City
Dontari Poe, NT, Kansas City
Justin Houston, LB, Kansas City: And, finally, there are three Chiefs in town from the league’s last undefeated team. Charles plays the most fungible position of the three, but he’s also responsible for the majority of Kansas City’s offense as a runner and receiver. Poe has been a dominant nose tackle in 2013, but it’s only his second season in the league and his first at this suddenly elite level of play. Houston has a longer track record as an impact player, but he has already surpassed his sack total from 2012 (10) with his 11 sacks this time around. Nobody collapses pockets more frequently than Poe and Houston. And given that they’re both on manageable rookie contracts, the Chiefs’ star duo are two of the league’s most valuable assets.