This past August, with the blessing of the boss, I took Simmons’s annual Trade Value Column and applied it to the NFL, a league that never has any trades and is subject to more career-altering injuries among its top players than any other sport. That sounds pretty stupid in hindsight, but the column (in two parts here and here) actually seemed to turn out OK.
Half a season later, things are different. Players like Darrelle Revis and Brian Orakpo are on the shelf with season-ending injuries that affect their future value, while some players left off the list have worked their way into contention. And there were some places where I just screwed up on the initial list and wished I had made changes before I even sent the thing over to Simmons to be mocked in the sidebar. This is my chance. It’s time to review the first NFL Trade Value Column. Sans Simmons.
There were a few placements that I think, in hindsight, look even better. The Honorable Mention had a few longtime superstars who didn’t make the list because I had concerns about their advancing age, huge salaries, and the possibility that they might get injured, and those guys have dropped like flies this year. Ray Lewis is done for the year. Troy Polamalu and Charles Woodson have been and/or will be out for long stretches of the regular season. Maurice Jones-Drew is out indefinitely. And hey, since Simmons isn’t here, it’s OK to point out that he wanted to trade Stevan Ridley and a third-round pick for MJD in August, right? Now, you can flip that trade — MJD and a third-rounder for Ridley — and the Pats don’t do it.
Some other surprising placements look better on Halloween than they did in August. Placing Joe Flacco (27) ahead of Matthew Stafford (32) came about as a result of Flacco’s history of staying healthy and his smaller salary, and while he hasn’t been incredible this year, he’s been far more consistent than Stafford’s been. Of course, it would have been hard to predict before the year that somebody would have stolen Calvin Johnson’s identity and dressed up as him for Halloween during each of the first eight weeks of the regular season. That’s hurt Stafford’s performance a bit, but Stafford also had the benefit of playing with the real thing last year.
I pushed Matt Ryan up to ninth on the list, which inspired Simmons to say that he’d put Ryan in a group with Stafford, Flacco, and Vick in the mid-30s. I win that one.
I’m also pretty happy that I stuck to my guns and kept Clay Matthews in the 10th spot, even after his disappointing season last year. Matthews has cooled off a bit after a torrid start, but he’s still on pace for 18 sacks after finishing with just six of them a year ago. His impact as a run-stopper and havoc-causer is also still virtually unmatched. DeMarcus Ware (7) was ahead of him on the list, but now I’d have to include a second front seven player in front of Matthews.
J.J. Watt was an Honorable Mention on the list because I had my concerns about rookie sensations who failed to live up to expectations during their sophomore seasons. Even dominant rookies like Julius Peppers and Ndamukong Suh had followed tremendous debuts with somewhat disappointing second seasons. To the delight of Simmons, who specifically mentioned privately and publicly before the season that Watt should have been somewhere on the list, Watt’s been an unblockable monster this year and the best defensive player in football. He’s doing all that while earning less than $1.4 million this season, which is what guys like Charles Johnson make in a few weeks. If he keeps up this level of play for the entire season, he’s going to be the most valuable non-quarterback in the league, and I’d really struggle to put more than two or three quarterbacks ahead of him.
One of the guys I would slip ahead of Watt, though, is Robert Griffin III (16), who has been mesmerizing in his role as the league’s most entertaining player. His performance as a rookie passer has been leaps and bounds above anyone’s expectations, and you can probably make a case that he’s the best rookie quarterback in the history of the league. I had him in a grouping with Ben Roethlisberger, Jay Cutler, Philip Rivers, and Michael Vick, and each of those teams would fall over itself to deal one of those guys for RG3 these days. There is going to be a long debate between Simmons and me this offseason about whether RG3 should be listed ahead of Andrew Luck on next year’s list. I think the Colts would consider dealing Luck for RG3 for a moment before saying no, but I don’t think the Redskins would consider it for even that brief moment.
Another quarterback who is too low is Peyton Manning (50), who’s been extremely impressive outside of that one disastrous quarter against the Falcons and for most of the first three quarters against the Texans. You can’t bump Manning too much because of the concerns about his age, salary, and injuries, but you also have to figure that the Ravens and Lions would happily deal Flacco or Stafford for him. That tracks Manning into the mid-30s, which seems fair to me.
Finally, two players caught in logjams — A.J. Green (25) and Jared Allen (42) — have risen above the pack that surrounds them this year and deserve to be at the top of their groups. Allen’s been the anchor on a resurgent Minnesota defense, and Green’s quietly been the best wideout in football on a team with no other real weapons. The Falcons would deal Julio Jones for Green these days, and after his drop-happy past couple of weeks, the Steelers would send Mike Wallace and an autographed picture of the 60 Minutes cast to Cincinnati to get Green.
The Dearly Departed
Let’s take a brief moment to recognize those injured players who would be removed from the list if it went up today. That starts toward the top with Darrelle Revis (6), who will need to make a full comeback from a torn ACL before he shows back up on this list. His salary is too prohibitive for a merely average player, and while ACL repair and rehab have improved immensely over the past 15 years, it’s hard for a New Yorker to see Revis’s injury and not think of the torn ACL that reduced Jason Sehorn to a shell of his former self. (Sehorn’s injury, to be fair, also included a torn MCL.)
Other players whose stocks have dissipated due to season-ending injuries include Brian Orakpo (23), Lardarius Webb (36), and Brian Cushing (46). Like Revis, each of these players could eventually find his way back onto the top 50, but it’ll take a full recovery to do so. B.J. Raji (47) slipped off because of his multi-week injury, but having just returned to the active roster last week, he should find his way back on shortly. Mario Williams (41) might not be so lucky if his wrist doesn’t heal up anytime soon.
Let’s start with the Eagles. It’ll be fun. Obviously, as you might suspect, Michael Vick (17) has seen his trade value go up in a cloud of dirt raised by 300-pound men clawing at each other’s groins to try to recover the latest Vick fumble. Even if he doesn’t get benched for rookie Nick Foles this week, it sure seems like Vick will be released or traded by the Eagles at the end of the season, and nobody’s going to be giving up a top-50 player for him. And 18 months ago, he might have been in the top-five! Football is dumb.
Joining Vick in the Philadelphia shop window are Nnamdi Asomugha (40) and Trent Cole (43), defenders on the wrong side of 30 who appear to have taken a huge step backward with time. I wrote a bunch about Asomugha on Monday, but Cole’s disappointing season has been mostly ignored. Through seven games, Cole has just 1.5 sacks. That’s tough for a player who averaged 11 sacks per season over the previous five campaigns. He’s losing snaps to the likes of Brandon Graham, but not quite as much as his partner at end, Jason Babin, who played just 44 percent of Philly’s snaps on Sunday during their loss to the Falcons.
You can also throw Cam Newton’s eighth-place ranking onto the scrap heap. I don’t think Newton has been the problem with the Panthers this year, but it’s clear that some of the bloom has come off his rose and that he’s no longer seen as a top-10 asset around the league. He would still be on this list, but it would be somewhere in the 20s in a grouping with the likes of Stafford and Flacco. Of course, with a solid second half, Newton could move back up toward the top 10.
The New Arrivals
And now, with all that talk of players moving around the list or dropping off of it altogether, it’s time to finish up with the fresh blood that will likely be making next year’s list as either an Honorable Mention or an actual top-50 player. Because the obvious skill-position candidates were already on or near the list, many of these players are at less traditionally valuable positions. In any case, they’re stars who are mostly on cheap contracts, justifying their presence among the league’s top trade assets.
A set of inside linebackers starts the group off. Daryl Washington of the Cardinals has attracted media attention as the second star on the Cardinals defense behind Patrick Peterson (who certainly wasn’t a star on Monday night). Calais Campbell deserves to be in the running, but Washington’s an excellent run defender and a devastating blitzer in Arizona’s “mug” packages, which line up linebackers in each of the A-gaps (between the center and either guard) and place immediate pressure on the quarterback. Washington has eight sacks in eight games this year, which is nearly unprecedented for an inside linebacker. Joining him is injured Cowboys linebacker Sean Lee, who played at an All-Pro level before suffering a season-ending toe injury that is unlikely to bother him in 2012, and rookie Panthers star Luke Kuechly, who’s been the star on a defense ravaged by injuries and poor decisions.
Sticking up the middle, there’s room on the list for a pair of defensive tackles. Geno Atkins of the Bengals is somebody who deserved to be on the first list and wasn’t; as a 4-3 defensive tackle, he might be the best interior pass rusher since Warren Sapp. After impressing in limited time as a rookie in 2010, Atkins had 7.5 sacks as a starter last year and has followed it up with seven more sacks in his first seven games this year. Tampa Bay’s Gerald McCoy, meanwhile, has made his name by penetrating into the backfield and making big plays behind the line of scrimmage for losses as a run defender. His huge salary (a curse related to him appearing in the final pre-CBA draft in 2010) probably limits him to being an Honorable Mention, but he’s been a better player than Ndamukong Suh (taken second overall in the same draft) this season, and it’s not close.
The defensive side of the list finishes up with a pair of secondary contributors. Earl Thomas is the linchpin of the often-dominant Seattle defense, a big hitter who also has the instincts to read route combinations quickly and efficiently from center field. And for all the criticism I just had for Philadelphia’s stars on defense, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie has matured into a cornerback who deserves to be close to this list. He’s been Philadelphia’s best player on either side of the ball through eight weeks, and only DeMeco Ryans might be in the same ballpark.
A shorter offensive list includes just three players. Ray Rice was the only running back to make the list this year, but with his success as a multipurpose back continuing this year, Matt Forte probably deserves to be in this discussion somewhere, even if it’s just as an Honorable Mention. He’s joining the chat along with Vikings wide receiver Percy Harvin, who plays several spots on the offense each week and seems to play at a high level at all of them. And while RG3 moves up the list, his left tackle deserves some credit, too. Trent Williams might have lost four games to a marijuana suspension last year, but he’s been dominant at times this year and represents a left tackle that Washington would be loath to deal, even as his salary rises on his next deal. For now, though, he’s one of the three or four best left tackles in the league.