Remember your old high school coach? That guy was loud and deeply earnest about the qualities he believed made a champion.
He preached about how team glory could only be achieved through things like teamwork and sacrifice and subjugation of self in service of the greater good. Which is all true (I guess), but it doesn't tell the whole story of how to build a champion.
The truth? Flags fly forever, and it's superstars who raise them. You want to achieve greatness? You want to win the last game of your season? Go find yourself some elite players. Go get you some superstars.
What is a superstar? Well, it's hardly scientific. There's no hard statistical markers one must cross to earn the distinction. Production is obviously a big part of it, but charisma counts, too. It matters how the player carries himself. How he represents his team and the city he plays for. How he is viewed by his contemporaries. When he walks in the door, does he change the temperature of the room? He better.
Since 2015, I have dutifully served as the bouncer of The Superstar Club, a home for the game's most special players. Every summer, I nominate a handful of standouts I predict will ascend to true superstar status in the coming season. Unfortunately, The Superstar Club is a zero-sum game. To add a player to the hallowed ranks, I must cast a former untouchable out amongst the plebeians.
It's a hard job, but someone has to do it. Here were my picks last summer. Let's get going on this year's class:
Before the 2017 NFL Draft, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney warned franchises against passing on Watson, saying they'd be remembered like the NBA teams that passed on Michael Jordan. Two years in, Watson has all the look of the transformative presence the Texans believed they were getting with the 12th overall pick. Watson was a stud in his first full season as starter in 2018, accounting for 31 of Houston's 38 offensive touchdowns and showing no ill-effects from the knee injury that prematurely ended his rookie season. We're not ready to say that the Texans fixed their woeful offensive line in the offseason, but it honestly couldn't get any worse. Add in a healthy Will Fuller and fellow superstar DeAndre Hopkins, and Watson is primed to take his game to an even higher level in Year 3.
Put down your pitchforks, Patriot Nation. Brady could throw 35 interceptions and get benched in Week 9 and he'll still be the best quarterback who ever lived. But winning another Super Bowl in February didn't change the fact that there were some signs of slippage in the soon-to-be 42-year-old's game in 2018. He struggled with downfield accuracy and seemed skittish in the pocket at times. He missed open receivers. He looked ... human. Now factor in the retirement of Rob Gronkowski, the Patriots' meh remaining pass-catchers and New England's run-heavy offensive philosophy. Brady can still get the job done, but do we really expect him to be an elite player at his position forever? That's not possible, right? Right?
My favorite McCaffrey stat of 2018: Throwing out Week 17 (when he was rested in a stakes-free finale), McCaffrey played 97 percent of the Panthers' snaps. Ninety-seven! In an era where more and more teams are relying on a backfield-by-committee approach, McCaffrey is a unicorn. An all-purpose, every-down back who thrives inside and outside the tackles and never takes a play off. In 2018, McCaffrey made a serious run at becoming the third running back in NFL history to finish with 1,000 yards rushing and receiving in one season. He may get there in 2019, to go with continued heavy goal-line usage as the Panthers look to protect Cam Newton after another shoulder surgery. Like Watson, McCaffrey is a Year 3 guy. I love Year 3 guys. Prime time, baby.
If I followed popular opinion this summer, Todd Gurley would be the pick here. The arthritic knee, coupled with the Rams' cryptic commentary and decision to draft Darrell Henderson all point to Gurley taking a step back in 2019 and beyond. But, I don't know, it just didn't feel right to do Gurley like that. So I'll give TGIII the benefit of the doubt and instead tab Johnson, a special talent who's gotten lost in the Arizona desert. Johnson was arguably football's best running back in 2016, but injury wiped out his 2017 and a woeful Cards offense dragged Johnson down in 2018. With Kyler Murray and Kliff Kingsbury in town, it's quite possible Johnson gets his mojo back and renders his removal from the club foolish. But with just one truly elite season to his name, Johnson needs to earn his way back in. I think it's a fair ask.
*IN: JuJu Smith-Schuster, Pittsburgh Steelers *
Like I wrote above, a superstar isn't all about production. Charisma counts, too. And JuJu checks both boxes. Very few wide receivers approach what Smith-Schuster accomplished in his first two seasons, and he now slides into Big Dog status with the Antonio Brown circus setting up shop in Grudenland. Look for JuJu to put up Brown-like production in 2019, minus the headaches. The craziest part? Smith-Schuster doesn't even turn 23 until late November. He is the bridge from the Big Ben era to whatever comes next in Pittsburgh.
*OUT: A.J. Green, Cincinnati Bengals *
I hate including Green here. He's been a consummate professional during his eight seasons with the Bengals, a quiet warrior who carries the Cincinnati offense when healthy. Problem is the "healthy" part has officially become an issue for Green, who missed seven games last year, six in 2016 and three more in 2013. His last healthy season -- a 16-game campaign in 2017 -- resulted in good but not elite production (75/1,078/8). Entering Green's age-31 season, is it fair to wonder if we've already seen the best of the franchise great? The glass-half-full spin: Offensive-minded new head coach Zac Taylor could goose a team and offense that had grown stagnant in the late period of the interminable Marvin Lewis era. If Taylor sparks the Bengals, Green will undoubtedly surge. But his body must be along for the ride.
*IN: George Kittle, San Francisco 49ers *
John Lynch has a spotty track record as 49ers GM, but his selection of Kittle in the fifth round of the 2017 draft was an unquestioned masterstroke. Kittle set an NFL record with 1,377 receiving yards at the tight end position. Now he enters glorious Year 3 with more reason for optimism. Kittle enjoyed that 88/1,377/5 breakout campaign in a season where he caught passes from three different quarterbacks. Football Gods willing, Jimmy Garoppolo will stay healthy and able in 2019, giving Kittle a potentially elite passer for 16 games. Add in Kittle's personality -- he's essentially a WWE babyface -- and the man is an easy addition to The Superstar Club.
*OUT: Rob Gronkowski, New England Patriots *
Is it kind of a cheat to make room for Kittle by removing a retired guy? Yeah, pretty much. My original plan was to boot Jimmy Graham, but it turns out I already did that way back in 2015. Prescient. But let's be real here: We all know Gronk will be playing for the Patriots by December anyway. I believe in Gronk walking away like I believe in a Rolling Stones retirement tour. Like Mick Jagger, Gronk will never be able to say goodbye to performing for 70,000 screaming fans. The fiesta must go on.
*IN: Myles Garrett, Cleveland Browns *
In my nine seasons covering football for NFL.com, Jadeveon Clowney remains the most hyped defensive player to enter the league in that span. Garrett is No. 2. But whereas Clowney has carved out an extremely-solid-but-not-quite-transcendent NFL career to date, Garrett appears primed to match his massive expectations as he reaches, oh yes, ever-glorious Year 3. Garrett finished his second season with 44 tackles, 29 quarterback hits, 13.5 sacks, three forced fumbles and three pass deflections. That's All-Pro-level production, and now Cleveland's defensive line has been fortified by the additions of Sheldon Richardson and Olivier Vernon. Oh, and the Browns have a potentially dominant offense that could pile up and points and force opposing offenses to abandon game plans and pass, pass, pass. The denizens of Cleveland were all witnesses for LeBron. Now it's Myles' turn.
*OUT: Justin Houston, Indianapolis Colts *
Let's give the man the love he deserves: When putting together a list of the greatest pass rushers of the decade, Justin Houston is one of the first names that comes to mind. This is a guy who once had 22 sacks in a season. He has a real shot to crack the vaunted 100-sack marker before he's done. Houston's ability to get to the quarterback explains why the Colts gave him a generous two-year contract despite his advanced age (30) and increasing durability concerns. Houston remains a candidate to crack double-digit sacks, but he may be entering the situational pass rusher phase of his career. Still an asset with game-wrecking ability, just no longer a franchise rock to build upon.
*IN: Jamal Adams, New York Jets *
Here's another Year 3 gem. The Jets picked Adams sixth overall in a loaded 2017 draft, and he's rewarded Gang Green by becoming their best defensive player since peak Darrelle Revis. "I want to be one of the best to ever play, if not the best, and that's my goal any time out there," Adams told NFL Network's Brian Baldinger during an illuminating film study this offseason. Adams is a heady player who combines great instincts, elite physical tools and innate leadership qualities. He's a playmaker who will cover up a lot of warts in a shaky New York secondary. Adams and Sam Darnold represent the great hope for long-suffering Jets fans.
*OUT: Tyrann Mathieu, Kansas City Chiefs *
Honey Badger came back from another serious knee injury and reestablished his value with the Texans before cashing in with a massive free-agent deal. The Chiefs are paying him like a superstar, but is Mathieu the same dominant player who burst on the scene with the Cardinals? That's up for debate, but the Badger is still just 27 and could improve his game as he gains further distance from his latest knee surgery. Of all the players I've picked to exit The Superstar Club, it's Mathieu who has the greatest potential to make me look bad. Well, there's also that Brady guy ...