We are now officially in the dead zone of NFL news. Sure, there will be the occasional contract extension or little piece of offseason drama, but for the next few months, this is torture for NFL fans.
However, this is one of my favorite times of the year because it allows us (specifically, me) the opportunity to start thinking outside of the box in terms of NFL coverage. We can start to explore the hypothetical more, which lends us to some interesting arguments/debates. Here is one of my favorite off-season conversations to have.
Every year, the question always arises as to who is the best “building block” in the NFL. This isn’t an original idea by any means. Typically, people will name one of the younger quarterbacks in the league and then move on to a different debate.
But what if instead of you having the first pick in this hypothetical question, you had the sixth selection. Who would you select then? Which players would go ahead of your selection? This concept of a leaguewide “fantasy draft” among all active NFL players is one that has interested me since my days of playing Madden, where you had the ability to do exactly what I just said.
Today, we are going to create a “big board” of the top 32 NFL assets and the order in which I (along with some of my friends in the NFL and in the media) would select them. This exercise isn’t so much about which teams get what players. Instead, it gives us a snapshot of who the most valuable players in the league are right now.
Before we begin, let’s establish some rules before heading into this exercise.
Rule No. 1 – Current Contracts Are Not Considered
Let’s go ahead and assume something happened with the current CBA that forced every player’s contract to void and that’s why this new type of fantasy draft is happening. If contracts were factored in, quarterback’s on rookie deals would almost assuredly fill the top 10 picks, even over players such as Aaron Rodgers or Russell Wilson. Instead, each player will be given a clean slate and an opportunity to negotiate a new contract once drafted by their new team.
Rule No. 2 – The Draft Is “Snake” Order
Just as your fantasy drafts are, this draft would have to use “snake” order to ensure competitive balance. The team that has the 32nd overall selection will also receive pick No. 33, while the team that has pick No.1 will receive pick No. 64. Where you are slotted in this draft could make all the difference in how you may build your roster.
With those two rules in mind, here is my top-32 big board of the players I would want to start a franchise with.
1. Aaron Rodgers (Age: 34) – Cleveland Browns
The easiest pick in the entire draft is at No.1. Despite Aaron Rodgers turning 35 at the end of 2018, there is no one like him in the NFL. When he is healthy, he can drag a below-average roster to the playoffs fairly easily.
Rodgers has the highest career passer rating of all-time (103.8) and doesn’t show any signs of slowing down. You can put him in any type of offense with any type of receiver and he will shine. He should be able to continue to play at this high level for at least the next half-decade. He is still the most valuable asset in the NFL and is so by quite a large margin.
2. Carson Wentz (Age: 25) – New York Giants
After Rodgers, the decision gets a little tougher. Most NFL people that I have spoken to agree that Carson Wentz is the second-most valuable quarterback in the league. In his second season in the NFL, Wentz was well on his way to becoming the league’s MVP. He had a quarterback rating of nearly 102 and threw 33 touchdowns to just seven interceptions. He is a big-bodied, strong-armed quarterback who has the athleticism to take off and run. The only concern about him is his injury history, but he is one of the most valuable players the NFL currently has.
3. Russell Wilson (Age: 29) – Indianapolis Colts
It’s easy to build an argument for Russell Wilson to be a top-five pick in this format. In his six seasons in the NFL, he has never missed a start. He has a career passer rating of 98.8 and he has the added ability to make plays on the ground with his legs (3,275 career rushing yards and 16 touchdowns). He also has playoff experience, has won a Super Bowl and has appeared in another. Depending on the coaching staff and the rest of the team, Wilson could be drafted as high as No.2 on a list such as this.
4. Deshaun Watson (Age: 22) – Houston Texans
The top three choices were fairly easy. Now is when it gets difficult. Do you opt for a seasoned veteran with a lot of big-game experience such as a Cam Newton or Matt Ryan? Or do you choose a young, exciting quarterback that hasn’t hit his ceiling yet?
I polled a few former NFL scouts and current members in the media and there was no clear-cut consensus. But after the top three, most agreed that the decision would come down to Deshaun Watson or Jimmy Garoppolo. For me, Watson gets the slight nod because he is younger and has more athleticism to keep defenses honest. But who would go first would be entirely dependent on the rest of the organization.
5. Jimmy Garoppolo (Age: 26) – Denver Broncos
One of the most “fun” things about the 2017 NFL season was the Jimmy Garoppolo mania that ensued at the end of the season. When Garoppolo was inserted into the 49ers’ starting lineup, the team was 1-10 and was struggling to even stay competitive in most games. As soon as Garoppolo started playing, magic happened. The 49ers finished the season on a five-game winning streak, beating playoff teams such as the Jacksonville Jaguars, Tennessee Titans and Los Angeles Rams. Garoppolo has a career record of 7-0 in games in which he starts.
This pick is still a major projection considering how small the sample size is, but last year showed that Garoppolo has everything it takes to be an elite quarterback in the NFL. With a career passer rating of 99.7 and age on his side, he should be a clear-cut top-10 pick in a draft like this.
6. Cam Newton (Age: 29) – New York Jets
Newton doesn’t always get the respect from fans and from the media that he deserves. When he is healthy, there may not be a tougher quarterback to gameplan against in the NFL. With his cannon of an arm and his ability to make plays on the ground with his legs, Newton is the total package. By himself, he can cover up deficiencies on the offensive line and at receiver. There’s not much Newton can’t do at this stage in his career.
7. Jared Goff (Age: 23) – Tampa Bay Buccaneers
After a very shaky rookie season, Jared Goff exploded in Year 2 with the Los Angeles Rams under Sean McVay. Goff threw 28 touchdowns to just seven interceptions on his way to a passer rating of 100.5. There are still questions about Goff’s game and how much credit to give his innovative head coach, but at the age of only 23 and with his potential ceiling, he is an easy bet to be a top-10 pick. With another solid year in 2018, Goff could easily find himself inside the top-five next season.
8. Matthew Stafford (Age: 30) – Chicago Bears
In the early parts of Matthew Stafford’s career, it was fair to wonder if he would ever develop into a franchise quarterback. After missing a lot of time with injuries, it took Stafford awhile to get going. But over the last three seasons, he has been one of the most consistent passers in the NFL.
Stafford has three straight seasons with a passer rating of at least 93 and has incredible touchdown-to-interception ratio of 85 to 33. Stafford has a ton of experience, a strong arm and is still just 30 years old. He would be a very coveted player by many owners and organizations in the NFL.
9. Dak Prescott (Age: 24) – San Francisco 49ers
Dak Prescott is one of the most challenging players to rank in the entire first round. If we would have done this draft after his 24 games of his career, you could have made the case that he belongs inside the top-three selections when you consider his age, arm talent and athletic ability. But after the second half of the 2017 season, it’s fair to wonder how much of his previous success was due to his offensive line and Ezekiel Elliott.
Nevertheless, Prescott deserves to be selected inside of the top 10 in this draft because of everything he can do as a quarterback. There isn’t a scheme he can’t run and his ability to make plays outside of the pocket make him a dangerous weapon. Year 3 will be massive for Prescott and his public perception, but most people believe he is still a top 10 quarterback in the NFL.
10. Matt Ryan (Age: 33) – Oakland Raiders
Matt Ryan was a prime candidate to “regress to the mean” in 2017 after his MVP season in 2016. However, Ryan was still really good last year as he posted a passer rating of 91.4 and threw for 4,000 yards for the seventh straight season. Ryan is a franchise quarterback, but falls a tad on this list due to the fact that he is slightly older than most of the other players on this list (outside of Aaron Rodgers). However, Ryan would be a slam-dunk pick for any team looking for an elite passer outside of the top seven or eight picks.
11. Baker Mayfield (Age: 23) – Miami Dolphins
At this point in the draft, there are no clear-cut options. Do you go with an older quarterback with just a few years, such as a Tom Brady or Drew Brees? Or do you choose another young quarterback such as Marcus Mariota or Jameis Winston, hoping they can take the next step?
If a team wanted to gamble on youth rather than a veteran quarterback, who better to take a chance on than the 2018 No.1 pick in Baker Mayfield? Mayfield was the most efficient passer in college football history and also has the athleticism to make plays outside of the pocket. There were rumblings after the draft that not only did the Browns have Mayfield as the No.1 player in the draft, but so did the New England Patriots and New Orleans Saints. Mayfield has a lot of fans in the NFL and it wouldn’t be shocking to see him go even higher than this.
12. Aaron Donald (Age: 26) – Cincinnati Bengals
The first non-quarterback to be selected is Aaron Donald, which was a consensus to everyone I talked to in the league or in NFL media. He is the league’s most disruptive pass-rusher and it isn’t particularly close. In four seasons with the Rams, Donald has racked up 39 career sacks and 72 tackles for a loss from the defensive tackle position. He creates so much havoc in the middle of the field that he is nearly impossible to game-plan around.
Donald finished as Pro Football Focus’ highest-graded player in 2018, with an overall grade of 99.7, which is pretty impressive. If a team wanted to “wait” on a quarterback in a draft like this, Donald would be the clear-cut No.1 defensive player drafted.
13. Sam Darnold (Age: 20) – Washington Redskins
The veteran quarterbacks continue to wait to hear their name called as another rookie quarterback is selected ahead of them. While Baker Mayfield went off the board just two picks prior, it wouldn’t be a shock to see the New York Jets’ quarterback Sam Darnold go near or ahead of him. Darnold isn’t the perfect prospect, but his youth, size and accuracy make him an intriguing option after the first dozen picks.
14. Jameis Winston (Age: 24) – Green Bay Packers
While this may be a controversial slotting for Jameis Winston, it shouldn’t be. Winston is one of the youngest quarterbacks on this list and has improved in each of his three seasons in the NFL. In 2017, Winston’s passer rating rose to 92.2 while averaging a career high 7.9 yards per attempt.
Winston isn’t perfect as he can be careless with the ball at times (he did lower his interception rate this year, however), but he has shown that he can be a star in the NFL. At just 24 years old, with three years of starting experience under his belt, he would be a fantastic selection in the middle portion of the first round.
15. Mitchell Trubisky (Age: 23) – Arizona Cardinals
The next two picks would be totally dependent on how much a team is willing to gamble on upside and playmaking versus a prototypical pocket quarterback who wins with accuracy and ball placement. For most teams, I’m betting Mitchell Trubisky would be the selection over Patrick Mahomes.
As a rookie, Trubisky played well despite being inserted into the lineup on a bad team with poor receiver play. With an upgraded pass-catching corps and a new, innovative head coach in Matt Nagy, expect Trubisky to take a big step in Year 2 towards becoming a franchise quarterback.
16. Patrick Mahomes (Age: 22) – Baltimore Ravens
The hype around Patrick Mahomes is real. Many people, including ESPN’s Louis Riddick, believe Mahomes is “set to take the league by storm in 2018.” Mahomes has one of the strongest arms in the league, is athletic and has a knack for making big plays. He needs to learn how to play within structure, but his natural talent is what coaches and talent evaluators dream of.
It wouldn’t be a shock to see him inside of the top three of this list next year once he has a full-year of starting experience with Andy Reid as a coach. This is certainly a projection, but Mahomes is easily worth this selection in the middle of the first round.
17. Joey Bosa (Age: 22) – Los Angeles Chargers
After Aaron Donald, the question arises about who should be the next non-quarterback to come off the board. For most people that I talked to, the choices came down to two young pass-rushers in Myles Garrett and Joey Bosa. According to pass-rush specialist writer John Owning, he would give the edge slightly to Bosa due to him being more “technically refined” and he doesn’t have the “history of lower leg injuries” that Garrett has. Bosa is the most productive, proven player and is probably the safer choice at this stage of his career.
18. Jalen Ramsey (Age: 23) – Green Bay Packers
The first defensive back to come off the board is one of the league’s most versatile and athletic defenders in the entire league. Despite playing just two years in the NFL, Jalen Ramsey has already made a name for himself as one of the most dominant defensive players in the entire league.
Ramsey has seven career interceptions (including the playoffs) as well as 114 career tackles. What makes him so valuable is that he’s not only a shutdown cornerback who can take the ball away, but he can also play strong safety, free safety, linebacker or wherever you need him to play.
19. Myles Garrett (Age: 22) – Dallas Cowboys
While a few defenders went ahead of Myles Garrett, it wouldn’t be shocking to see him rise up this draft significantly in the next few seasons. Despite playing in just 11 games as a rookie, Garrett racked up seven sacks, 18 quarterback hits and 27 total pressures. That number should only rise as he grows into his massive frame and gains more experience. He has every single trait needed to be a dominant edge rusher in the NFL. The only thing that could potentially hold him back is his injury history.
20. Tom Brady (Age: 41) – Detroit Lions
Without a doubt, Tom Brady will go down as the greatest quarterback of all-time (at least in my eyes, anyways). However, at the age of 41, figuring out where his value lies for the next season or two is incredibly difficult. Brady is still playing at the highest of levels and probably could do so for the next three years, it’s hard to use a top-15 selection player who likely won’t be on the roster five years from now. But for a club/owner that is looking for instant success and jersey sales, the pick makes sense.
21. Marcus Mariota (Age: 24) – Buffalo Bills
After his first two seasons, it wouldn’t have been hard to make the argument that Marcus Mariota was one of the top-five most valuable assets in all of the NFL. He was an ultra-productive, dual-threat quarterback who did not turn the ball over. He scored 50 touchdowns and threw just 19 interceptions. But his 2017 season left many feeling unsettled. Mariota’s passer rating dropped all the way down to 79.3 and he threw more interceptions (15) than touchdowns (13).
However, due to his age and athleticism, he still lands in the first round. He is at his best when he is an extension of the head coach or offensive coordinator and isn’t asked to improvise much. Get him in an offense with defined reads and throws and you will see one of the more efficient passers in the NFL. His ceiling may not be as high as others on this list, but he still has the potential to be a top-10 quarterback in the NFL.
22. Khalil Mack (Age: 27) – Kansas City Chiefs
Over the last three seasons, Oakland Raiders’ edge rusher Khalil Mack has 36.5 sacks to go along with 228 tackles. He’s been as dominant as any other edge rusher during that time period. With his size, athleticism and versatility, he is one of a handful of defenders you can truly build a defense around.
23. Drew Brees (Age: 39) – Los Angeles Rams
Slotting Drew Brees in a draft like this is similar to what we had to do with Tom Brady earlier. Brees turned 39 this year, but his play doesn’t show it. For the third consecutive season, Brees had a passer rating of at least 101 and led the Saints to an 11-5 record. Brees doesn’t win with a big arm or athleticism, but he beats teams with his accuracy and ability to read defenses. As long as he stays healthy, Brees should be able to continue to play at a high level for the next several seasons.
24. Odell Beckham Jr. (Age: 25) – Carolina Panthers
Before the age of 26, Odell Beckham Jr. has three seasons of at least 1,300 receiving yards and 10 + touchdowns. He would’ve done that for a fourth-straight season if it weren’t for a season-ending injury in 2017.
Beckham has no flaws in his game and still hasn’t reached his physical peak. He has shown that he can carry an offense by himself as a receiver; something that has only happened a few times in NFL history. He can be a pain on and off-the-field at times, but he is the best receiver in the NFL when he is healthy.
25. Ben Roethlisberger (Age: 36) – Tennessee Titans
Is he retiring? Or could he play another three to five years? It probably depends on which day you ask Ben Roethlisberger. When Roethlisberger is on the field, he is productive. In 2017, he posted his ninth-straight season of a passer rating of at least 90. Roethlisberger has been marvelous over the past few years and should be able to continue to do so for at least the next few seasons.
26. Jadeveon Clowney (Age: 25) – Atlanta Falcons
After being selected with the first-overall selection in the 2014 NFL Draft, there were some questions as to if Jadeveon Clowney would ever reach his ceiling. After his first two seasons in the NFL, Clowney had a total of just 4.5 sacks. But in the last two seasons, Clowney has become a dominant player.
Excelling as both a pass rusher and as a run defender, there is nothing Clowney can’t do on the football field. He can lineup as a 4-3 defensive end on either side or as 3-4 outside linebacker who can be moved around to create mismatches. Over the last two seasons, he has racked up 80 total pressures and 37 tackles for a loss. He is one of the top defensive assets in the entire league.
27. Von Miller (Age: 29) – New Orleans Saints
Von Miller has been one of the most productive pass-rushers in the NFL for the past several seasons. He has four straight seasons of double-digit sacks and he has been a Pro Bowl selection during that same time-frame.
While Miller is 29, his versatility, athleticism and intelligence make him a fit for any defense. While a few defenders went ahead of Miller, there may not be a more “safe” pick in the bottom half of the first round.
28. Kirk Cousins (Age: 29) – Pittsburgh Steelers
The NFL told us what they think of Kirk Cousins this spring; he is the first quarterback in NFL history to have a fully-guaranteed contract. In total, he is the second-highest paid quarterback in the NFL, just behind Matt Ryan. While the NFL may say he is worth that much money, I think it’s far more likely that he would be selected in the second half of the first round, rather than in the top half.
Cousins turns 30 in December and has solid numbers (a career passer rating of 93.7), but he just doesn’t have the upside of some of the other names on the list. However, you can bet that he would be selected high because of his pedigree and accuracy.
29. Andrew Luck (Age: 28) – Jacksonville Jaguars
Figuring out where Andrew Luck factors into this list was one of the more challenging things to do. The 2016 Luck may very well have topped this when you factor in his age. But after missing the entire 2017 season with a shoulder issue and potentially missing even more action in 2018, it’s hard to imagine he goes inside the top 20 picks.
More than likely, Luck would “fall” in a draft like this to the end of the first round or potentially out of it all together. But there is one thing we know, when Luck is out on the field playing, there aren’t three quarterbacks in the league that are better than him.
30. Marshon Lattimore (Age: 22) – Minnesota Vikings
At this stage of the draft, 21 quarterbacks are already off the board. For me, I would rather take a premiere player at a premium position rather than take an average to slightly-above average quarterback such as Andy Dalton or Derek Carr. One of the players that should/would be targeted in the late parts of the first round would be Saints’ cornerback Marshon Lattimore.
As a rookie, Lattimore finished as the fourth-highest rated cornerback, according to Pro Football Focus and the eighth-highest according to the NFL1000 done by Bleacher Report. Lattimore has the chance to be the rare shutdown cornerback who can also take the ball away. At the age of only 22, Lattimore would be one of the top non-quarterbacks to be drafted.
31. Tyron Smith (Age: 27) – New England Patriots
Without a doubt, at least one offensive lineman would be selected in the first with it more likely coming somewhere in the late 20s or early 30s. Each and every year, the price of top offensive linemen are going up in free agency, so it makes sense that arguably the best one would be among the top-32 most valuable assets in the NFL.
For this exercise, Smith would be the choice among all the NFL offensive linemen. While he has dealt with injuries over the past few seasons, his talent and production is unmatched. Smith has started seven years already for the Cowboys despite being just 27 years old. He is a freak athlete who might be the most athletically gifted tackle we have ever seen. Smith has made five straight Pro Bowls and is a two-time All-Pro player. He’s reliable and nearly flawless in each and every game. He is the safest pick in the bottom of the first round.
32. Derek Carr (Age: 27) – Philadelphia Ealges
Last, but not least, is Oakland Raiders’ quarterback Derek Carr. In this simulation, Carr would be the 22nd quarterback to come off the board. And while I’ll fully acknowledge that some NFL teams might have him higher on their board, there are a few reasons to be concerned.
If you just look at the raw stats, there are reasons to be optimistic about Carr. Over the last three seasons, his completion percentage is above 61 percent. He doesn’t take a lot of sacks and he has a modest career interception rate of 2.0. However, in many of the “advanced” stats, he falls behind the top players. His average yards per attempt in 2017 (6.79) was 21st in the NFL, behind quarterbacks such as Blake Bortles, Josh McCown and Carson Palmer. His adjusted yards per attempt (6.51) was 23rd in the NFL, behind the likes of Bortles, Andy Dalton and Tyrod Taylor.
Carr has had the benefit of playing behind one of the best offensive lines in the NFL during that time, so how would he fare if he were ask to shoulder more of the load? That’s a question many general managers would need to ask themselves before making Carr the face of their franchise.