A short time ago, I caused a bit of a stir when I surveyed NFL Network's "Top 100 Players of 2016" list and categorized a handful of players as "system guys" -- and some others as stars -- based on their talent, potential and production.
I solicited opinions from a few NFL executives, scouts and coaches to help me compile the list. Still, the piece drew the ire of a few players and fans due to the negative connotation the "system guy" label has in some circles. Now, I don't really understand that outrage, based on the fact that the overwhelming majority of players must play in schemes that accentuate their playing strengths, but now that the top 10 players on the Top 100 list have been revealed, I've put the issue to bed to focus on a more compelling question: Which guy among that top 10 would you want as your franchise player for the next five seasons?
Before you blurt out your answer, I want to provide a little perspective about building a franchise around a single player. During my time as a scout, I heard a few different philosophies on building a perennial contender. My experience with the Seattle Seahawks and Super Bowl winner Mike Holmgren taught me that you need to identify a championship-caliber quarterback and build the team around his talents. The Seahawks acquired Matt Hasselbeck in a trade with the Green Bay Packers and surrounded him with a dominant running back (Shaun Alexander) and a number of quality pass catchers (Darrell Jackson, Bobby Engram and Joe Jurevicius). In addition, the team put together a talented offensive line that featured a future Hall of Fame inductee (Walter Jones) and a premier offensive tackle (Steve Hutchinson). With an opportunistic defense that created turnovers, the Seahawks rolled to Super Bowl XL.
In Carolina, I watched John Fox build a championship-caliber team around a stingy defense and powerful running game. The defense was fueled by a devastating defensive line (Julius Peppers, Kris Jenkins, Brentson Buckner and Mike Rucker) that pummeled opponents at the point of attack. Peppers was drafted to be the focal point of the unit (selected No. 2 overall in the 2002 NFL Draft) and lived up to the hype as a dominating pass rusher off the edge. On offense, the team leaned on a Pro Bowl runner (Stephen Davis) and an emerging set of role players (Steve Smith and Muhsin Muhammad) to support an unknown commodity at quarterback (Jake Delhomme). After watching the core of that team reach a Super Bowl (XXXVIII) and another NFC Championship Game, I'm convinced there are a few different ways to build a winner.
In today's NFL, the rules have forced teams to make every personnel move with the passing game in mind. Either you build up the offense around a quarterback and the aerial attack or you construct a defense loaded with pass rushers and cornerbacks to disrupt the timing and rhythm of the opposing quarterback.
With that in mind, here is how I would rank the final 10 individuals revealed in the "Top 100 Players of 2016" based on which guys I would want to build my franchise around for the next five years:
10) Luke Kuechly, LB, Carolina Panthers
It's crazy to think a recent Defensive Player of the Year would rank at the bottom of my list, but the evolution of the pro game makes it hard to pick an inside linebacker as a key building block over someone who works at one of the marquee positions (quarterback, pass rusher, wide receiver). That said, Kuechly is certainly a foundational piece on a championship-caliber defense. As a tackling machine with exceptional instincts, awareness and diagnostic skills, Kuechly is an impact player with a knack for making splash plays (11 interceptions, seven sacks and three forced fumbles in four seasons, plus three picks in six playoff games) in critical moments. Most importantly, he's a strong leader with the intelligence and communication skills to act as a player-coach on the field. Although I would prefer to have a pass rusher serve as my building block on the defensive side of the ball, there is no question championship defenses are strong down the middle, and it's hard to find a better option in that area than Kuechly.
9) Julio Jones, WR, Atlanta Falcons
The argument could be waged that Jones deserves a higher spot on this list, based on his spectacular production over the past two seasons (240 receptions for 3,464 yards and 14 touchdowns). The 6-foot-3, 220-pound freak athlete has the kind of speed, quickness and burst that makes him indefensible in one-on-one matchups. In addition, he possesses the size and strength to abuse smallish defenders with his physicality and toughness on jump balls or catch-and-run plays over the middle. Jones' superior physical traits and refined overall game make him an ideal WR1 in any offensive scheme. As the game continues to shift to a pass-centric approach, it would be hard to bypass a big-bodied pass catcher with home-run potential.
8) Adrian Peterson, RB, Minnesota Vikings
The value of a running back seemingly has been diminished in today's pass-happy NFL, but old-school coaches still believe a championship team is built around a strong ground game and stingy defense. Thus, Peterson remains a valuable commodity as a workhorse runner with explosive athletic traits and a rugged running style. Yes, he sets the table for the offense with his tenacious approach, but it is his steady production against eight- and nine-man boxes that makes him the ideal runner to build an offense around. Peterson pops off 100-yard games like a slot machine (50 100-yard games, including playoffs, in nine seasons), which is impressive, considering the amount of attention he commands from defenders. Although he is at the age (31) where most runners lose their juice, he has shown no signs of slowing down. Of course, Peterson could fall off a cliff in 2016 based on the wear and tear a heavy workload (2,636 career touches) has imparted on his body, but I would still choose the perennial Pro Bowler to steady my offense as my feature back.
7) Rob Gronkowski, TE, New England Patriots
It is uncommon for coaches to build a passing game around a tight end, but few big-bodied pass catchers can destroy a defense like Gronkowski. The 6-6, 265-pound tight end is an unstoppable force on the perimeter, as evidenced by his 65 career touchdown catches in six seasons. Gronkowski overwhelms defenders with a combination of size, strength and athleticism that's rarely seen at the position. Not only is he, thanks to his unique set of skills, nearly impossible to cover between the hashes and down in the red zone, but he is an underrated vertical threat (11 receptions of 40-plus yards, including five in 2015) capable of stretching the field from inside or outside. While most teams would prefer to build a passing game around a swift WR1 on the perimeter, the thought of featuring a "box-out" weapon between the hashes would certainly be enticing to anyone looking to alleviate some of the pressure on the quarterback in the pocket.
6) Odell Beckham Jr., WR, New York Giants
Say what you want about his pretty face and flamboyant game -- there's no denying Beckham's greatness as a playmaker on the perimeter. The 5-11, 198-pound pass catcher has amassed 2,755 receiving yards and 25 touchdowns in his first 27 games in the NFL. Those are record-breaking numbers for a young receiver (he has the most receiving yards by an NFL player in his first two professional seasons, topping Randy Moss' 2,726) still acclimating to the pro game. Now, I know Beckham has become a household name due to "The Catch" and his flashy pre-game routine, but he is a polished receiver with a game that's deeply rooted in fundamentals. He capably runs every route in the book with superb precision. Most importantly, Beckham has the quickness and burst to separate from defenders out of the break. Given his versatility as an inside or outside receiver and his big-play potential, Beckham is built to play as a WR1 in a pass-first offense.
5) Antonio Brown, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers
As the NFL continues to evolve into a passing league, a dynamic WR1 on the perimeter has become a "must-have" for any offense with championship aspirations. Brown certainly fits the bill as an electric playmaker with an exceptional combination of quickness, wiggle and route-running savvy. Not to mention, he is an explosive runner with the stop-start quickness and burst to make multiple defenders miss in a phone booth. Considering his steady growth since stepping into the WR1 role in Pittsburgh (Brown has posted three straight seasons of 100-plus catches, boosting his yardage totals each season, from 1,499 in 2013 to 1,698 in 2014 and 1,834 last season), he is easily my choice as the top receiver in the game.
4) J.J. Watt, DE, Houston Texans
Outside of quarterback, the pass-rusher position is the most important building block on a team. Thus, the two-time Defensive Player of the Year deserves a spot near the top of this list. Watt is the versatile pass rusher that every defensive coordinator covets along the line. He can win with power (bull rush or swipe move) or finesse (quick arm-over or spin move) at the point of attack while also flashing impressive athleticism and closing burst for a 6-5, 289-pound behemoth. Of course, I would need to run my decision past the defensive coordinator to make sure he is willing to grant Watt the freedom and flexibility to freelance a bit at the line of scrimmage to exploit mismatches. This has been a big part of Watt's success as a playmaker, and everyone in the building needs to embrace his style for him to shine as a franchise player. If the coaches can live with his "helter-skelter" game, Watt could be the defensive building block needed to anchor a championship team.
3) Tom Brady, QB, New England Patriots
Before Patriots fans clog up my Twitter timeline with hatred, let me restate the premise of this piece: to select a player to build around for the next five years. At 38, Brady is on the back side of his illustrious career, and it's unlikely that he will continue to play at an MVP level into his 40s. Of course, he's defied the odds before, emerging from relative obscurity as a sixth-round selection in the 2000 NFL Draft to become arguably the best quarterback to ever lace them up in the NFL. As a four-time Super Bowl winner, Brady certainly understands how to lead a team to the winner's circle as a primary playmaker and game manager. He has rarely been surrounded by elite pass catchers on the perimeter, yet he continues to put up big numbers and rack up Ws in New England. Considering how tough it is to find a quarterback with the moxie, toughness and talent to win in spite of his circumstances, Brady would get strong consideration as my QB1 despite concerns about his age.
2) Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay Packers
Despite coming off a subpar season by his lofty standards, Rodgers remains the prototypical franchise quarterback to guide a team in the short or long term. The five-time Pro Bowler is a polished pocket passer with the athleticism, mobility and improvisational skills to devastate opponents working on or off a script. Rodgers not only elevates the play of his receivers with his pinpoint ball placement and uncanny ability to thread the needle in traffic, but he is a wizard with a knack for hitting receivers down the field on scramble tosses. Now, I know his 2015 performance -- without, it must be said, No. 1 receiver Jordy Nelson -- somewhat dinged his reputation as the ultimate franchise quarterback (that is, a quarterback capable of winning at a high level without a star-studded cast on the perimeter). But he has been so good for so long that he is unquestionably the signal caller most coaches would opt to build a team around in today's game.
1) Cam Newton, QB, Carolina Panthers
Traditional franchise builders would likely prefer their cornerstone to be a classic pocket passer, but it's hard to pass on a dual-threat quarterback who complements the kind of arm talent typically reserved for major-league pitchers with the size and athleticism of an NFL tight end. The unique combination of skills helped Newton account for 45 total touchdowns (35 passing, 10 rushing) in 2015 as the director of an offense that creatively blends a power-based option running game with a vertical passing attack to maximize his unique talents. But that's what good coaches do -- they build around the strengths of their best player's game, particularly if he is capable of putting an offense on his back and leading it to a Super Bowl. After watching Newton reach Super Bowl 50 without a legitimate WR1 (Kelvin Benjamin missed the entire 2015 season with a torn ACL) or a 1,000-yard rusher, he is my No. 1 choice off of "The Top 100 Players of 2016" list to build a franchise around.