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Eli Manning, Rob Gronkowski among blue/red chips on offense

Elise Amendola/AP
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.

(Click here for the 2011 installment of blue-/red-chippers.)

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.

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Who are the league's best defenders? Michael Lombardi picks his blue-chip and red-chip players on the other side of the ball. More ...

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.

QUARTERBACK

Blue Chips
Aaron Rodgers, Packers
Tom Brady, Patriots
Eli Manning, Giants
Drew Brees, Saints
Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers

Red Chips
Cam Newton, Panthers
Matt Schaub, Texans
Joe Flacco, Ravens
Philip Rivers, Chargers
Matthew Stafford, Lions

Notes
» 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.

RUNNING BACK

Blue Chips
LeSean McCoy, Eagles
Ray Rice, Ravens
Arian Foster, Texans
Maurice Jones-Drew, Jaguars
Marshawn Lynch, Seahawks

Red Chips
Chris Johnson, Titans
Michael Turner, Falcons
Matt Forte, Bears
DeAngelo Williams, Panthers
Darren Sproles, Saints

Notes
» 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.

WIDE RECEIVER

Blue Chips
Calvin Johnson, Lions
Larry Fitzgerald, Cardinals
Victor Cruz, Giants
Jordy Nelson, Packers
A.J. Green, Bengals

Red Chips
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

Notes
» 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.

TIGHT END

Blue Chips
Rob Gronkowski, Patriots
Aaron Hernandez, Patriots
Jimmy Graham, Saints
Jason Witten, Cowboys
Vernon Davis, 49ers

Red Chips
Marcedes Lewis, Jaguars
Jared Cook, Titans
Brandon Pettigrew, Lions
Jermichael Finley, Packers
Antonio Gates, Chargers

Notes
» 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.

TACKLE

Blue Chips
Joe Thomas, Browns
Jake Long, Dolphins
Ryan Clady, Broncos
Michael Roos, Titans
Duane Brown, Texans

Red Chips
Michael Oher, Ravens
Joe Staley, 49ers
Jordan Gross, Panthers
Bryan Bulaga, Packers
Andrew Whitworth, Bengals

Notes
» 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.

GUARD


The coaches of the NFL weigh in on a number of hot-button topics in the league, including Andrew Luck vs. RG3, Tim Tebow, challenge flag etiquette, the Packers' QB tree and the 2012 Hall of Fame class.

Blue Chips
Carl Nicks, Buccaneers
Jahri Evans, Saints
Josh Sitton, Packers
Logan Mankins, Patriots
Chris Snee, Giants

Red Chips
Steve Hutchinson, Titans
Ben Grubbs, Saints
Marshal Yanda, Ravens
Mike Iupati, 49ers

Notes
» 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.

CENTER


Football is back! The Players Only Blog is the only way to follow your favorite players as they prepare for the 2012 season.

Blue Chips
Nick Mangold, Jets
Alex Mack, Browns
Max Unger, Seahawks
Maurkice Pouncey, Steelers
Ryan Kalil, Panthers

Red Chips
Mike Pouncey, Dolphins
Nick Hardwick, Chargers
Chris Myers, Texans
Scott Wells, Rams
Kyle Cook, Bengals

Notes
» 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.

AND NOW FOR THE DEFENSE AND HEAD COACHES...

Follow Michael Lombardi on Twitter @michaelombardi

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