|The New England Patriots boast two of the best tight ends in the game: Rob Gronkowski (left) and Aaron Hernandez.|
With the NFL season just nine days away, it's time for my 2012 edition of blue-chip and red-chip players.
As I formatted these lists, I made one firm rule: If a player missed all or a large portion of last season, I'm not going to assume he'll immediately return to elite status. Therefore, even though we all know new Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning is a future Hall of Famer and has been a perennial blue-chipper, his name will not appear below, because no one -- not even Peyton -- knows if he can reach his highest level of play this year.
These lists are based on last season's NFL performances, not 2012 projections. Thus, even though I believe Jacksonville Jaguars rookie receiver Justin Blackmon might have blue/red traits based on his play this summer, he will not make the cut until he showcases those skills over an entire NFL season.
Definition of a blue-chip player
» Demonstrates rare abilities and creates mismatches that have an obvious impact on the game.
» Is a premier player in the league and a weapon on the field.
» Combines competitiveness and skill to provide a consistent championship-level performance.
» Rates in the top five at his position in the league.
Definition of a red-chip player
» Has abilities that can create mismatches vs. most opponents in the league.
» Is a featured player on his team and has an impact on the outcome of the game.
» Can't be taken out of the game in a one-on-one matchup.
» Is consistent from week to week.
» Plays at a championship level.
» Rates in the top 10 at his position in the league.
» As I mentioned above, no Peyton. Also, no Tony Romo, even though the Dallas Cowboys quarterback played his best football statistically last year.
» I kept the list to 10 this year. While I dropped Rivers to a red, I really believe Flacco could be a blue by this time next year.
» Stafford and Newton appear on this list for the first time and both showed blue abilities in 2011.
» And yes, Eli was correct when he called himself an elite quarterback last offseason. This year, he's a blue.
» Tough to keep Adrian Peterson and Darren McFadden off the list, but both were hurt last year and must show they have still have the same talent -- and can play for all 16 games.
» Reggie Bush was close to making the red-chip list, but I couldn't take anyone off.
» Forte missed four games last year. He was a blue-chipper when he played, but the injury makes him a red right now.
» I fully expect Johnson to be a blue this year, but based on last year's tape, he was just barely a red.
Mike Wallace, Steelers
Andre Johnson, Texans
Steve Johnson, Bills
Vincent Jackson, Buccaneers
Brandon Marshall, Bears
Marques Colston, Saints
Greg Jennings, Packers
Steve Smith, Panthers
Wes Welker, Patriots
Antonio Brown, Steelers
» With so many teams using the three-receiver sets, I went with 15 wideouts on this list. It was very tough to pick between Green and Wallace for the last blue-chip designation, but Cincy's second-year man earned the spot.
» We all know Andre Johnson is a blue talent, but durability concerns arose during an injury-riddled 2011 campaign that saw him play in just seven regular-season games. He has worked hard this offseason on his conditioning, and if he does stay healthy, he'll be right back among the top blues.
» There's no debate: Nelson is the best receiver on the Packers.
» Julio Jones was closer to making the list then his Atlanta Falcons teammate Roddy White because of White's inconsistency catching the football. I expect Jones to be on this list next year.
» Blackmon is another young receiver I expect to be on this list next year.
» Hernandez might be more of an H-back than a true tight end, but regardless of his position, his quickness and athletic talent can take over a game.
» Houston Texans tight end Owen Daniels was close to making this list, but I just feel Cook is a more complete player.
» Finley has blue talent, but he had too many drops last year.
» Other than Oher and Bulaga, everyone on the list is a left tackle.
» Normally, New York Jets LT D'Brickashaw Ferguson makes this list, but he really struggled to block New England Patriots veteran Andre Carter last season and did not qualify.
» Brown has gotten better each year and was just rewarded with a new contract. Well deserved.
» I expect Dallas Cowboys LT Tyron Smith to make the list soon.
» I just couldn't find a 10th guard worthy of red-chip status. I was thinking about going with Evan Mathis, who did play well with the Philadelphia Eagles last season, but decided to stick with nine guys.
» Based on his play for the New England Patriots last year, Brian Waters would have been the No. 1 guard on this list, but he is M.I.A. and might be retiring.
» There are many quality centers in the league right now. I only featured eight centers on last year's list, but there is great depth at the position in 2012.
» Mangold might be the best, but Mack and Unger are both close to his talent level.
Follow Michael Lombardi on Twitter @michaelombardi