Winning in the NFL is a team endeavor, but having a rock upon which to build one's franchise can go a long way.
Yes, as the Seattle Seahawks showed, success is about more than finding one or two studs. That said, think of how much Aaron Rodgers means to the Green Bay Packers, or where the Denver Broncos would be without Peyton Manning. Those guys make everyone around them better while forcing opponents to take extra measures to account for them.
With that in mind, I wanted to ponder this question: If I were constructing a franchise from scratch today, which young NFL star would I pick to be the cornerstone of my team? Who would be the first -- and, in some ways, most crucial -- building block? After weighing the necessary qualities, I came up with the six players listed below.
First, a few notes: Because I'd want someone who will be in their prime for years to come, I chose to limit myself to players 25 or younger, which is why you won't find Rodgers or Manning on the list. I also expanded my search beyond quarterbacks. Although that position is obviously a very important one, there are a handful of other spots that significantly impact a team's fortunes, and these are also worthy of consideration.
Here, according to the order in which I'd pick them, are my six franchise-starting players:
1) Andrew Luck, QB, Indianapolis Colts
Football is like anything else in the world: If you don't work at it, you're not going to be very good. A player can have all the talent in the world, but if he'd rather be on the golf course than the gridiron, he's not going to do much in the NFL.
So it follows that you'd want to build your franchise around a hard worker, a true grinder in the mold of Manning and Tom Brady. The very mature Luck -- who has great work habits and knows what he's doing at all times -- most definitely qualifies. He's also very smart, excels at reading opposing defenses and, as his eight career fourth-quarter comebacks prove, can handle pressure.
2) Cam Newton, QB, Carolina Panthers
The talented Newton has excellent arm strength and can make all the throws -- and, like Luck, he's a hard worker, a very competitive person. Newton also showed in 2013 that he has outstanding leadership abilities, helping to shepherd the Panthers to a 12-4 finish and a playoff berth after a 1-3 start. Through three seasons in the NFL, the quarterback has improved significantly, partially by virtue of gaining experience, something Newton did not have much of after spending just one full season as a starter at Auburn.
3) Robert Quinn, DE, St. Louis Rams
As I mentioned earlier, a franchise player should be able to impact multiple players on the field, either by opening up opportunities for his teammates or by significantly altering his opponent's game plan. A good pass rusher can do both, compelling the offense to, say, chip with a running back or pull the center or employ some other coping strategy that opens up weak spots elsewhere for the defense to exploit. Quinn, who racked up 19 sacks and seven forced fumbles in 2013, fits the bill.
One of the reasons I like him so much is that, like Newton and Luck, Quinn has exceptional work habits. He also has long arms and big hands, plus very good quickness and explosion -- he has a great first step. Quinn is one of those pass rushers who can bend, coming in really low to the ground -- you think he's going to fall, but then he gets to the quarterback, working his way under the arms of the offensive tackle.
4) Tyron Smith, LT, Dallas Cowboys
After finding a quarterback and a pass rusher, solidifying the left tackle spot is the next most important piece of the franchise-building puzzle, and Smith is a force who's rising fast. Arm length and hand size are two key traits to consider when it comes to offensive tackles, and in those areas, Smith (36 3/8-inch-long arms, 11-inch hands) is blessed. Breaking into the league as a right tackle three seasons ago, Smith shifted to the left side in 2012, going on to make the Pro Bowl this season. He's improved his footwork significantly and has a much better understanding of football, thanks to the guidance of line coach Bill Callahan.
Smith is still just 23 years old, which is almost unheard of for a guy entering his fourth season in the NFL -- and he can already block any defensive end in the league. Of course, when you have his size (6-foot-5, 310 pounds), you don't lose many battles.
5) J.J. Watt, DE, Houston Texans
The pass-rushing force I'd take after Quinn is Watt, an excellent athlete with -- you guessed it -- great work habits and a competitive drive. His long arms (34 inches) and hands (11-plus inches) are key, as they help him achieve proper hand placement when facing opposing linemen.
One of the most impressive things about Watt is that he forces fumbles. Yes, he's racked up the sacks (36.5 since entering the league in 2011), but he also knows how to jar the ball loose, collecting eight forced fumbles over the past two seasons. Forced fumbles aren't talked about as much as sacks, but, in my mind, they should be.
6) Luke Kuechly, LB, Carolina Panthers
Kuechly might be a bit of a reach here in that it would be tough to justify starting a franchise with a linebacker, but I have to include him simply because of how he makes everyone around him better. He has great lateral movement for the position, and he's a tackling machine; he's the reason that the Panthers' defense is as good as it is. Kuechly is the Brian Urlacher of his generation, and you want guys like that on your team.
Where's your favorite running back/receiver/cornerback?
If Adrian Peterson were young enough, he would easily have merited a spot on this list; alas, he'll turn 29 in March. And while receivers and cornerbacks are obviously valuable, they rely heavily on the abilities of players at other positions and can be too easily negated by an opponent with a focused game plan. A superstar receiver can't do anything if his quarterback can't get him the ball or if he's double-teamed all the time; likewise, even elite cornerbacks rely on a viable pass rush to be able to do their jobs.
Follow Gil Brandt on Twitter @Gil_Brandt.