A little thought exercise on a football website in the middle of June ...
Imagine the NFL as a community. A town where the league's players, coaches, general managers, owners, scouts, et. al, live together in harmony. There's a grocery store and a firehouse and a pizza parlor; a church and a drug store and a barbershop. Locals brag about the quality of the school system and a Fourth of July fireworks celebration that's -- according to a recent editorial in the paper of record -- "second to none."
The occasional squabble aside, NFL Town is a nice place to live. Realtors use words like "leafy", "idyllic" and "tony" to describe it. Best of all, everyone gets along. This community is inclusive ... with one notable exception: On the outskirts of town, beyond the railroad tracks, there exists a hyper-exclusive members-only establishment known as The Superstar Club.
In short, The Superstar Club is a gathering place for the hamlet's elite. Locals on the wrong side of the velvet rope grumble that the club is a source of dark energy, a cultural eyesore, a shadowy Illuminati-like lair where aristocrats consolidate power to control NFL Town and its population. Members counter that it's simply a fun place to hang out, talk about life and have a drink. You get the feeling the truth lies in the space between. There's a bad M. Night Shyamalan movie in here somewhere.
Strangely, The Superstar Club has made an NFL.com writer and podcast host (read: me) the gatekeeper of this posh hive. A huge honor, guys. Really. Only I decide who has access to the most exclusive venue in NFL Town. It's a fun gig with a beefy catch: The Superstar Club is a zero-sum game. If one player gains access to the club, another player from the same position must have his privileges revoked.
Yes, with great power comes great responsibility. It is time for me to make some very hard decisions. I'll share them now with you, dear reader. The Superstar Club: Class of 2018.
IN: Carson Wentz, Philadelphia Eagles
This one's a no-brainer: Wentz was having an MVP-caliber season before he tore his ACL and LCL last December, and he'll re-join a loaded Eagles team expected to contend for the Super Bowl once again in 2018. If you could build a team around any player in the league right now, Wentz would be the pick for a lot of people. That's pretty much the textbook definition of a superstar. Wentz is a no-doubter for the club, and it still feels like the Browns probably should have drafted him.
OUT: Andrew Luck, Indianapolis Colts
Sharp-eyed readers might call this hypocrisy after I predicted that Luck would be the Colts' MVP this season, but there is a distinction between being the most valuable producer on your team and a true superstar. Unfortunately, this is where the zero-sum nature of The Superstar Club hurts the most. The good news surrounding Luck is that he's throwing at practice again. Trust the process! Still, this is a man who hasn't competed in an NFL game of consequence in more than 18 months. For now, he has to go, though we do reserve the right to welcome him back (and provide him several complimentary drink vouchers) if he makes us look dumb. Frankly, I hope he does.
IN: Davante Adams, Green Bay Packers
Adams earns induction by checking one very specific box: Did you remain statistically relevant when Brett Hundley was your quarterback? And I don't mean to pick on Hundley, but there's a reason a guy who went 0-15 last season might displace Hundley as the backup. Now Aaron Rodgers is healthy and, just as crucially, Jordy Nelson is in Oakland (more on that in a second). Adams is the clear-cut No. 1 receiver, entering his age-25 season, in the first season after his team made him one of the highest-paid wideouts in football. This is all heading in a very positive direction.
OUT: Jordy Nelson, Oakland Raiders
Nelson was one of the Packers playmakers who dropped off the face of the Earth after Hundley replaced an injured Rodgers last season -- but there's more to it than that. The 33-year-old is going from arguably the best place to catch passes in Green Bay to Oakland, where he will be in a new offense and new surroundings playing second banana to Amari Cooper. Am I saying Nelson is destined for bust status? No, but the days of Jordy as a 90/1,300/12-level monster are likely over.
IN: Michael Thomas, New Orleans Saints
Fun fact that may surprise you: Thomas has had a historically great start to his NFL career. His 92/1,137/9 campaign in 2016 set Saints rookie records across the board. Last season, he added 1,245 more yards and another Saints record with 104 receptions. He has more catches in his first two seasons (196) than anyone in NFL history. Thomas can still get better, and Drew Brees is going to make sure the young man eats.
OUT: Dez Bryant, free agent
This isn't easy, because Dez has been a fine patron at The Superstar Club for a long time. (We're going to miss Dez throwing up the "X" in the bottle service section.) But injuries have robbed the former Cowboy of his old explosion, and he hasn't been an elite producer since 2014. Frankly, reputation probably kept Bryant in the club a year longer than he should have been. He's also currently unemployed, which tends to depress expectations.
IN: Alvin Kamara, New Orleans Saints
Kamara was a dynamo as a rookie, piling up 1,554 yards from scrimmage with a dual-threat skill set that took New Orleans' offense to the next level. He would have gained membership even if Mark Ingram didn't get suspended for the first four games of the season. The absence of Kamara's backfield-mate just makes his ceiling higher.
OUT: LeSean McCoy, Buffalo Bills
This is a tough one, because McCoy showed zero signs of decline last season. In fact, he was as good as ever, accounting for a third of the Bills' offense during their surprise run to the playoffs. But McCoy is in a nearly impossible spot this season -- a gifted playmaker trapped on an offense that may not give him the opportunity to make plays. Throw in his age (he turns 30 next month) and injury history, and this all points in the wrong direction. Put it this way: If Shady again finds his way over 1,500 total yards, we will roll out the red carpet when we welcome him back to The Superstar Club in 2019. Hopefully, he doesn't T.O. us.
IN: Saquon Barkley, New York Giants
Running back is a position where a rookie can reach a career peak in an instant; we're banking on Barkley making that kind of impact with Big Blue in Year 1. There will be no easing the rookie in -- a quick glance at the Giants' depth chart tells you everything you need to know. It's fair to have concerns that the suspect state of New York's offensive line paired with the suspect state of, well, Eli Manning could put "SaQuads" in a spot not dissimilar to the one LeSean McCoy could find himself in. But we're willing to take a risk and let the kid into the club. He's 21, right?
OUT: Marshawn Lynch, Oakland Raiders
Lynch came out of retirement and proved himself to be a productive option for the Raiders in 2017, shaking off a slow start to finish with nearly 900 rushing yards and seven scores on 4.3 yards per carry. In other words, he pretty much gave the Raiders exactly what they hoped for, and that's the reason he survived the Silver & Black's offseason purge under new coach Jon Gruden. Beast Mode, now 32, is square in the Bill Walton on the 1985-86 Celtics stage of his career -- an erstwhile superstar who can still flash that old greatness on occasion.
IN: Jalen Ramsey, Jacksonville Jaguars
Every year, NFL teams take cornerbacks at the top of the draft and pray they turn into what Ramsey has become for the Jaguars. In two seasons, Ramsey has established himself as one of the very best cornerbacks in the NFL. You could argue Ramsey earned superstar status on the back of his rookie year alone, but there's no doubt about it after a dominant second year in which the first-team All-Pro allowed a 52.1 passer rating on throws his way. He's also a fun and charismatic personality who talks splendid trash and will undoubtedly spice things up in The Superstar Club. This is especially important considering the man he's set to replace ...
OUT: Richard Sherman, San Francisco 49ers
This decision could absolutely backfire. Sherman is an electric competitor, and he might top the list of players with the most to play for entering 2018. Sherman signed an incentive-laden deal with the 49ers specifically so he could stick it to his old team in Seattle on an atomic scale. It's going to be fun to watch his revenge tour roll out. Still, facts are facts, and Sherman is a cornerback in a new setting and on the wrong side of 30 coming off surgery to repair a ruptured Achilles. Could Sherman deliver a throwback season for the ages? Sure. Should it be assumed? Nope.