Ryan and Julio both appear on this list. I was shocked Ryan wound up as high as he did. After getting through the 20s, and not seeing his name, I actually expected him not to be ranked at all. So Bill Simmon's reaction (if you go to the linked article, you can read his commentary), was somewhat understandable.
Part 2: http://www.grantland.com/story/_/id/831 ... all-league
The Inaugural NFL Trade Value Rankings, Part 1
Bill Simmons joins Bill Barnwell to rank the NFL's top 50 most valuable assets
By Bill Barnwell on August 31, 2012
Imagine growing up with a Ferrari in the garage that your dad only took out once a year. Wouldn't it drive you nuts? You would become a teenager, start taking driving lessons in a Corolla, occasionally get to drive the family Altima, and eventually, you would buy a 989 Oldsmobile Custom Cruiser station wagon from your boss for $1 to serve as your first car, just like I did. All along, though, you would wait for the day where you would finally wake up to a set of Ferrari keys and a note of caution on your nightstand. After countless hours of showing your dad that you knew how to drive, you'd get a chance to take a legend out onto the street.
I have been trusted with the keys to the Ferrari of Grantland. This is our first NFL Trade Value Column. And just like any proud-but-suspicious father, Simmons is going to be riding along and backseat driving throughout — you can read his thoughts on my rankings in the footnotes, almost like the director's commentary for a DVD. And just like a director's commentary on a DVD, you can mute him whenever you want.
TRADE VALUE RULES
1. Contracts matter. Larry Fitzgerald is a better receiver than Jordy Nelson, but Fitzgerald's in the second year of a contract that will guarantee him about $50 million, while the Packers have Nelson locked up to a four-year deal that guarantees him only $5 million.
2. Contracts don't matter as much as they do in the NBA version of this column. NBA contracts are guaranteed and clearly defined. NFL contracts have unguaranteed base salaries and bonuses that are often paid early in a deal, even as the cap hit stretches across the length of the deal. Those bonuses then accelerate onto the current cap in the event of a trade, but the team can also get out of the contract without having to pay the unguaranteed base salaries if they wa— you're falling asleep. Wake up. For the purposes of this column, we're considering both the specific nature of the current point in the player's contract (e.g., Joe Flacco having just one year left on his contract) as well as the broader terms of the entire contract (e.g., the entirety of Flacco's deal).
3. Age matters. Justin Smith might have been the most valuable defensive player in football last season, but he turns 33 in September. Jason Pierre-Paul's nowhere near as complete of a player, but when he turns 33, your third-grader will be heading off to college.
4. Pretend that every team can fit each player on this list within their cap and that they have a below-average starter at the position in question. The Packers aren't going to deal Jermichael Finley for Matt Ryan because they have Aaron Rodgers, even though that trade would happen in a heartbeat if the Packers had Matt Flynn as their starter.
5. Positional scarcity matters. Quarterbacks are more valuable than pass rushers, who are more valuable than wide receivers, who are more valuable than interior linemen. When in doubt, we looked at how organizations valued top players at each position when re-signing their own or shopping in free agency.
6. It's a question of degree. The Chargers might not deal Philip Rivers for Cam Newton, but they'd have to give the possibility of acquiring a younger, cheaper, healthier guy some thought. The Panthers would never deal Newton for Rivers.
7. This list runs in reverse order. If Rob Gronkowski is 20th on the list, the Patriots would probably at least consider dealing him for one of the first 19 players on the list, but they wouldn't bother having a conversation for players 21-50.
Of course, this is a much more difficult column to put together than the NBA version.1 I've got to weigh the relative merits of four times as many players across more than a dozen different positions while working with the obtuse financial system of a league that rarely ever makes challenge trades. It wasn't easy. When I was struggling, I turned to the official video of the NBA Trade Value Column, the YouTube clip of "Roundball Rock" that has Simmons's head transposed atop that of John Tesh. It gave me the natural energy boost of soft rock's most motivational sports television anthem with the added kick of nightmare fuel, ensuring I'd stay awake for nights to come. After days of tinkering and toying, I had a 50-player list that actually seemed like it might make some sense.
A number of "name" players were excluded from our top 50 because of injury concerns, whether they're out for the season (like Terrell Suggs and Jason Peters) or recovering from serious injuries and haven't officially established their previous level of play (like Adrian Peterson, Jamaal Charles, Eric Berry, and Kenny Britt). From a short list of 150 players, I worked my way down to 70 before consigning 20 more to Honorable Mention. These guys aren't ranked quite as intently as the players who actually made the top 50, but let's discuss them in rough order of distance from the pin:
Steve Smith and Cortland Finnegan: In hindsight, doesn't it seem obvious that Smith would be somebody who would absolutely respond to the motivation of basically being written off by the league because he spent a year with Jimmy Clausen as his quarterback?2 On the other hand, Smith is 33 and undersize; the last time a guy Smith's age and height went for 1,000 yards in a season was Drew Hill in 1990. It's still unclear whether 2011 was a last hurrah or a return to form. Meanwhile, Finnegan is basically Smith's defensive doppelgänger — even if he's five years younger, $27 million guaranteed is high for a cornerback who has made exactly one Pro Bowl in six seasons.
Cameron Wake: Wake drew nearly twice as many holding penalties as anyone else in football last year, but he also finished with just 8.5 sacks. That 14-sack season in 2010 was great, but because he spent a good chunk of his 20s in Canada, Wake's already seven months into his 30th year. He's only three years younger than John Abraham, who debuted when I was in high school. He's not young, I'm saying.3
Jordy Nelson: That contract extension is brilliant, and Nelson was definitely a force last year, but he's also the secondary target in a dominant passing offense, a player archetype that often rates as the most overrated in football. His 2011 performance was reminiscent of Austin Collie's 2010 half-season (albeit with no games missed); you saw what happened to Collie with a lesser quarterback in 2011.
Maurice Jones-Drew: Great player, but you read the same articles I did when MJD hit the trade market a few days ago. It's not like teams were offering up first-round picks for the privilege of giving Jones-Drew a new contract. In fact, the Jags might have gotten less than the Dolphins did for Vontae Davis earlier this week. And Davis isn't exactly sniffing this list.4
Ray Lewis: It's still crazy that the league's players voted him as the league's fourth-best player before last year when he was almost surely the fourth-best player on his own defense. Here's a good example of the difference between a top-players list and a trade-value list, as Lewis has far more value to the Ravens than to any other team. Lewis is still a productive player, but he's 37 and makes $5 million at middle linebacker, a position where teams often scrimp and save their money.5
Wes Welker: Ditto Welker, who has a perfect role carved out for him in an offense with a great quarterback. Of course, that team is also trolling him now, giving out deals to both of their tight ends while basically ignoring Welker's calls. Can you really imagine him split out wide catching passes from Brandon Weeden in Cleveland, though?6
Tamba Hali: Every time I think about what Tamba Hali does while he's not pass rushing, I remember him getting blocked handily by Jason Campbell on a Raiders reverse for a touchdown at the end of the 2010 season.
Andrew Whitworth, Joe Staley, Mike Iupati: Three offensive linemen who deserve more recognition; Whitworth (Bengals) and Staley (49ers) are both excellent tackles who reliably protect the blind sides of two of the league's more limited quarterbacks; Staley would be on this list if he had a better track record of staying on the field. Iupati, who lines up next to Staley at left guard, should have made the Pro Bowl last year. He's also making about one-third of what big-name guards like Carl Nicks are commanding in free agency. With that being said, as talented and cheap as he is, it's just impossible to get interior linemen onto this list.7
J.J. Watt: Watt's always going to be under the radar because he's a 3-4 defensive end and doesn't accrue numbers, but after a tremendous rookie season, Wade Phillips suggested that Watt is going to be a Hall of Fame lineman. A year ago, Phillips compared Watt to Phil Hansen. Maybe we should see where Watt falls in the Hansen–to–Hall of Famer chart after his second year before getting him into the top 50.8
Chris Long: Because he toils in obscurity for the Rams, Long's abilities get noticed solely by people in the St. Louis area and Sunday Ticket subscribers whose remotes suffered an untimely demise while the Rams game was showing on their television. He really is a great defensive end, though, and Long's 13-sack season in 2011 was the first time his numbers matched his level of play. The problem is his contract. The Rams re-signed him this offseason to a five-year deal that guarantees him nearly $37 million, a stunning total for such a short duration. That guarantee happened because Marty Hurney gave Charles Johnson a similar contract after Johnson had one double-digit sack season and Hurney thought locking up the core of a 2-14 team was a good idea. And that's where lockouts come from!
Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu: What are the odds on Reed and Polamalu ever combining again for 32 games in a given season, as they did in 2011? Again, this is the difference between performance and trade value; Reed's about to be 34 and flirts with retiring every year, and Polamalu's 31 but never seems to be anything resembling 100 percent. They're both expensive players at safety, a place where teams cut costs, and play a freelance role that doesn't exist in most schemes.9
More NFL Preview Coverage
Avoiding Football's Poison Pen
The Fantasy Shrink Is In
The NFL's Technology Cornucopia
The NFL's Cloudy Crystal Ball
The Mortality of MLB vs. NFL
The Tight End Revolution Will Be Televised
Buc-ing the System
A (Miami) Dolphin Tale
The Niners Won't Strike Gold in 2012
The Over/Unders: Player by Player
The Over/Unders: Team by Team
Climbing Out of the NFL Abyss
Gang Green Forecast
Who Is the Best Running Back in Football?
Odds Are, You're Ready for Some Football
Playing (the Franchise) Tag
Look Before You Leap
The NFL's Holy Grail
The Top Battles to Be QB1
Charles Woodson: Woodson's been healthier than Reed or Polamalu, and been as effective on a per-play basis as either of them, but he's also going to be 36 in October and is moving to safety in Green Bay's base defense this season.10
David Harris: Harris is an anachronism. As a run-stuffing middle linebacker, he really has no equal in football beyond Patrick Willis, but that's a skill set that's a better fit for 1982 than 2012.
Vernon Davis: Davis's average seasonal line as the 49ers' starting tight end is 57-708-6. You can mix and match his 13-touchdown total from 2009 with his playoff performance last year and wishcast some superstar performance from him going forward, but he just doesn't have the production of a top receiver at tight end in this era. Davis is a great blocker, but you can get 90 percent of Davis's ability as a blocker for the veteran minimum.11
Arian Foster: Perhaps Foster makes it onto the list at his old salary, but the combination of his new deal and the possibility that he's Mike Anderson and not Terrell Davis keeps him off.
Vince Wilfork: Chris Brown did a great piece before the Super Bowl on how the Patriots' hybrid defense is built around Wilfork, but it's also worth noting that the aforementioned Patriots hybrid defense is terrible. Wilfork's not the problem, of course, but he also has a big contract and he's on the wrong side of 30. There are younger, cheaper versions of him on the actual list.
Grantland's Top 50 starts with the most difficult player to gauge on the entire list.
Group I: Oh Look, It's Peyton Freaking Manning
50. Peyton Manning
Oh, just the greatest quarterback in league history in a historically unprecedented situation — this should be easy to figure out. There's virtually no chance that Manning is actually the 50th most valuable asset in the league, but when you average out all the possibilities — maybe there's a 30 percent chance he's one of the 10 most valuable guys in the league, a 30 percent chance he's a money pit, and a 40 percent chance he's somewhere in between — 50th feels about right. If he comes back and he's the Peyton Manning from 2010, two years older and with worse receivers, this is probably just a little low. Then again, he's 36 and one positive neck examination away from making a guaranteed $58 million over the next three years.12
Group II: Reasons to Doubt the Scouting-Coaching Complex
49. Victor Cruz
Imagine going back 18 months and telling somebody in February of 2011 that Victor Cruz was a more valuable trade asset than Peyton Manning. I mean, tell them other stuff that's more important first, but get to that eventually before you come forward in time. Once Cruz moved into the rotation at wideout in Week 3 last year, he averaged 108.5 yards per game, a figure that nobody's hit over that many games since 1995. More important, Cruz was an undrafted free agent who made $405,000 last season. He'll make about $500,000 this year before hitting the collusion-friendly waters of restricted free agency, so the Giants could have him for two more years at about $3.5 million total before even having to franchise him. He's the biggest bargain in the entire league, even if his yardage total comes down in 2012. At the very least, he's the most cap-friendly Giants star since the Icebox.13
48. Jimmy Graham
Let's move from the college backup at UMass to Graham, who just caught 99 passes and took over as the star receiver in a dominant passing attack during his third year of organized football. You know Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000 hours theory? Jimmy Graham apparently somehow fits about 204 hours into a normal day. And as a third-round pick, he is making an exorbitant $540,000 this year.14
Group III: Guys Who Know Clay Matthews
47. B.J. Raji
Remember how I said there were cheaper, younger versions of Wilfork? Wilfork might be a better player than Raji, but it's not by much, and Raji's just under five years younger. That's five fewer years of carrying around a 330-pound frame. Raji's entire five-year deal is also for less money ($23 million) than Wilfork's guarantee ($25 million). It's also a shame that Raji, a Boston College product, didn't get to see the rebuilding of BC landmark Eagle's Deli and the ceremonial removal of the Mike Mamula jersey that had been hanging on its walls for a decade.15
46. Brian Cushing
Cushing was incredible as a 4-3 outside linebacker in 2009 and almost as good as a 3-4 inside linebacker in 2011. In between was a 2010 season marred by that weird PED suspension and court case where he blamed his positive drug test on overtrained athlete syndrome. In a year, it will be safe to throw out that 2010 season as the outlier and wonder if Cushing is the best linebacker in football who doesn't rush the passer.16
Group IV: Pile of Defensive Ends
45. Justin Smith
It says a lot about Smith when you consider that he plays as a 3-4 defensive end (or occasionally as a tackle) and still manages to show up on the stat sheet; he has 22 sacks over the past three seasons, more than any other player of a similar vein. As good as the guys behind him are, there's a reason Smith was named team MVP last year; he could easily have been the AP Defensive Player of the Year, too. The only problem? He turns 33 next month.
44. Julius Peppers
43. Trent Cole
42. Jared Allen
41. Mario Williams
Picking between these four guys is mostly a function of what you're looking for as a team. Do you want the best all-around player today? That's Peppers, the best run defender of the four. Cole's the best value, producing an automatic 10 sacks per year for about half of what he'd get if he ever hit the free market. Allen's the best pass rusher, but the guy who's likely to perform the best over the next three to five years is Williams, who is three to five years younger than the rest of the group. Of course, you have to pay the Buffalo Premium that was priced into Williams's deal if you trade for him, too.17
Group V: Those With Sore Backs From Carrying Dismal Units
40. Nnamdi Asomugha
Everyone jumped off the Asomugha bandwagon awful quick, huh? After carrying Oakland's secondary on his back and emerging as one of the top two cornerbacks in football at the end of the decade, embattled Eagles defensive coordinator Juan Castillo (his actual name now, I think) moved Asomugha out of his comfort zone at cornerback and onto some sort of hybrid Charles Woodson s*** that didn't suit Asomugha whatsoever. Sticking a guy who uses the sidelines as an aid like nobody else in the league in the middle of the field makes a ton of sense, right? Maybe that's the sort of move you would make if you didn't have any experience at any level as a defensive coordinator! Asomugha will be back on the outside full-time this year, which means he should be the best cornerback in the NFC.18
39. Ray Rice
The only running back on this list, Rice is the entirety of the Ravens offense and still the early favorite to claim the best running back in football crown. His new contract makes him more expensive, but $24 million in guaranteed money on a five-year deal is still 20 percent less than what Chris Johnson got and two-thirds of Adrian Peterson's guarantee.19
38. Jake Long
Long's the first guy afflicted by a problem you'll see come up a bunch along the rest of the way: Old Draft Pick Syndrome. That's not age I'm referring to, it's salary. When Long was drafted by the Dolphins in 2008, he immediately became the highest-paid offensive lineman in league history. Starting a player off at that level basically warps his salary expectations for his entire career. Long got five years and $57.75 million with $30 million guaranteed in his first contract, and he's turned into a very good left tackle. So what do you give him for his second contract? Joe Thomas saw his guaranteed money basically double between his first deal (as the third overall pick) and his second one, going from about $23 million to $44 million. What do you do with Long, then? Do you bump his guarantee to $60 million? $50 million? If he was an undrafted free agent who played just as well as the real Long did, you'd probably be able to get him for $25 million to $30 million in guarantees on a six-year deal. You can't credibly go to Long's agent and offer to give him the same sort of deal as the one he got out of school, which is partly why the Dolphins still haven't locked Long up to an extension. He could hit unrestricted free agency next year, and while you would assume that a normal front office might lock up their best player or choose to franchise him, this is the Dolphins.20
Part 1: http://www.grantland.com/story/_/id/831 ... all-league
The Inaugural NFL Trade Value Rankings, Part 2
Bill Simmons joins Bill Barnwell to rank the NFL's top 50 most valuable assets
By Bill Barnwell on August 31, 2012
If you missed Part 1 of my first-ever attempt at an NFL Trade Value Column, click here. Here's Part 2. PS: Check the footnotes for Bill Simmons's "director's commentary" on my selections.
Group VI: The Undervalued Defensive Stalwarts
37. NaVorro Bowman
Bowman went from backup to All-Pro in one season, arguably outplaying Patrick Willis while making just under $500,000. Playing alongside Willis helps, of course, but the Niners' run defense didn't miss a beat while Willis was sidelined with a hamstring injury last season. Bowman was basically the defensive equivalent of Victor Cruz last season, just without the dance routines after huge plays.1 If he were on offense, who knows? Maybe he'd turn into Flynt Flossy after touchdowns. Maybe he's more of a Yung Humma guy. No shame in that.
36. Lardarius Webb
Webb doesn't exactly have the first name of a speedy cornerback, you know? It fits him like the name Trackstar Barnwell would fit me.2 He's a phenomenal player, though, who was starting for Baltimore as a rookie before tearing his ACL. After being targeted by opponents during the 2010 season, Webb healed up and turned into a shutdown corner last year. The Ravens gave him a six-year deal worth $52.74 million that only guarantees him $20 million, which is chump change for a guy who hasn't even hit his peak yet.
35. Brandon Flowers
The Chiefs look like geniuses for locking up their star cornerback early, considering inferior players like Finnegan and Brandon Carr got bigger deals in free agency. It would also be nice if Justin Timberlake played him in a crazy dream sequence from a Richard Kelly movie.
34. Joe Haden
The scary thing is that Haden, at 23, might be better than either Webb or Flowers. Judging cornerback play is an inexact science, but Haden's reputation is right there alongside that caliber of player. His big rookie contract guaranteed him $26 million off the bat, so he's not exactly a bargain; he's also likely to be subject to a four-game Adderall suspension this season. But Haden just submitted an age-23 season that was better than Darrelle Revis's age-23 season … and Revis broke out as a superstar the following year.3
Group VII: Please Send Money
33. Larry Fitzgerald
As great a player as Larry Fitzgerald is, isn't he at the point where his contract is about to become onerous? His contract extension, signed in 2011, guaranteed him $50 million and doesn't have many outs to keep the total value below the listed maximum of $128.5 million. Fitzgerald has option and roster bonuses due in 2012, 2013, and 2015 that keep him extremely expensive both in terms of the cap and cash on hand. It would be one thing if the Cardinals surrounded him with a great passing attack, but they have no quarterback with which to extract all of Fitzgerald's value.4 He also encouraged the Cardinals to take longtime Fitzgerald protégé Michael Floyd with the 13th pick in this year's draft, costing them a shot at filling dire holes on the offensive line or on defense.
32. Matthew Stafford
Matthew Stafford signed a six-year, $72 million deal with $42 million guaranteed. Andrew Luck just signed a four-year, $22 million deal that had all its money guaranteed. Old Draft Pick Syndrome! Stafford put up impressive statistics last year, but note that his best games came against the Chargers, Broncos, Panthers, Buccaneers, and twice against the Vikings, all of whom had dismal pass defenses. He wasn't the same guy against the Bears, Packers, Cowboys, Falcons, and 49ers. Stafford also needs to complete a second healthy season before his trade value can rise any further.5
31. Rob Gronkowski
On his old deal, Gronkowski would have been somewhere around the top 10 for this list, since the Patriots would have had him for peanuts for the next two years. His new deal isn't awful, but it's a significant raise and a long-term commitment to a player who might have just had the best season of his career. This seems low, but just wait a year for the Gronkowski backlash. If he struggles with some minor injuries and his touchdown total gets cut in half, you don't think every ex-Patriots player within arm's reach of a microphone is going to suggest that Gronkowski doesn't take the game seriously and spends too much time Gronking around at clubs?6
Group VIII: (Most of) The Best Young Linemen in the Game
30. Haloti Ngata
Ngata used to be underrated, but now that every telecast of a Ravens game for the past two seasons has devoted at least one segment to how underrated Ngata is, he's probably just about accurately regarded by the public. Announcers should just start slipping untrue Chuck Norris–y facts about Ngata into those stock segments to see what they can get away with. "Oh, Haloti Ngata, what an athlete. He was a fantastic rugby player in high school, starred at the University of Oregon, and actually won the WWF intercontinental championship from Mr. Perfect at the age of 4 at a show in Tonga!"7
29. Duane Brown
If I'm going to knock Arian Foster's value by talking about how good Houston's zone-blocking system and his offensive line are, shouldn't somebody on his offensive line get the leftover credit? The guy reaping those plaudits is Brown, who's an excellent left tackle in all facets of the game. The Texans also locked him up to an extremely friendly contract this month that will guarantee him just $22 million for the next several years, a bargain for a Pro Bowl–caliber blind-side protector.
28. Ndamukong Suh
Some of Suh's luster disappeared last year, as he fell from 10 sacks to four and was suspended for stomping on a Packers lineman on Thanksgiving Day. You can argue that the mistake was less about Suh and more about the Lions' culture, especially on defense, I guess. If that lineman had sued and Jim Schwartz had ended up on the stand, would he have shouted about having ordered a Code Red? Yeah, probably. The other concern is that Suh's rookie contract is enormous; he's got a $40 million guarantee, making him another subject of Old Draft Pick Syndrome. He's still going to be a perennial candidate for the best interior lineman in football as long as he's healthy, though.8
Group IX: Joe Flacco, I Guess
27. Joe Flacco
Joe Flacco is like the Kwame Brown of the NFL. For all the faults you can remember from watching him play, you can make a pretty great case for him on paper: He's a 27-year-old quarterback who's started 64 NFL games at roughly a league-average level of performance. He hasn't missed a single professional start, he's won five playoff games, and he's making a reasonable $9 million during the final year of his rookie deal. No, he doesn't match up to any of the quarterbacks who are about to show up ahead of him. It only takes one team in desperate need of a quarterback, though, to value a player like Flacco as a superstar. If he hits unrestricted free agency this offseason, you really don't think that a desperate team like the Jaguars or Cardinals won't pony up $40 million in guaranteed money for Flacco? If he's competent this year, it will happen.9
Group X: Wideouts du Jour26. Julio Jones
25. A.J. Green
They're going to be paired together until one of them gets hurt or suffers a significant decline in performance. Green clearly won the battle during their rookie season, but the collective boner that the fantasy football world has for Julio Jones this upcoming season is actually quite impressive.10 I mean, Jones is getting drafted before Larry Fitzgerald, Adrian Peterson, and Maurice Jones-Drew, let alone a full round ahead of Green. Also, more fun with rookie contracts: Green ($19.7 million) and Jones ($16.2 million) have contracts whose total value is less than the guarantee given to Pierre Garcon ($20.5 million) by the Redskins this spring. Garcon doesn't even have a 1,000-yard season on his résumé.11
24. Mike Wallace
With Wallace finally returning to camp and signing his restricted free-agent tender on Tuesday, he sneaks back onto the list. He's obviously a bargain at $2.7 million for one year, but anyone who acquired him would have to give him a new deal that tops Garcon's contract. If Wallace is looking for an agent, Grantland's still free, Mike. The after-the-fact arguments about Wallace that have popped up during the offseason — he isn't a great route runner, he drops too many passes, he's a product of the Steelers system — simply aren't accurate.12
Group XI: Linebacker U (and One Guy Who Could Play Linebacker)
23. Brian Orakpo
Outside of appearing in the worst series of NFL ads to play during the 2011 season, Orakpo hasn't really gotten much better after his impressive rookie campaign in 2009. Washington's addition of Ryan Kerrigan was supposed to free Orakpo from constant double-teams and get him to the next level in 2011, but that didn't really happen. There's nothing wrong with the player Orakpo is, since most teams would kill for a consistent 10-sacks-per-year pass rusher who draws a ton of penalties, but it feels like there's more here waiting to be unleashed.
22. Patrick Willis
21. Aldon Smith
Arguably the best linebacker in football when he's healthy, Willis isn't higher on this list because he plays the relatively unvalued position of middle linebacker. As much as teams pay lip service to the leadership and steadiness provided by their "defensive captains," they just don't shell out for the likes of Willis, Curtis Lofton, and Stephen Tulloch in free agency the way they go after pass rushers and cornerbacks. Willis's deal with San Francisco, signed two years ago, pays him $7 million less than Chris Long. Great baseball teams build up the middle, but in the NFL, great defenses apparently get built on the edges.
Is Willis a better player than Smith? Of course. Now, would you rather have Willis with his mammoth seven-year, $53 million deal at a position where talent is relatively cheap, or would you rather have Smith on a four-year, $14 million contract that's all guaranteed? A few teams would go for Willis, but more would go for the 22-year-old who had 14 sacks in his rookie year and hope that they've found the next DeMarcus Ware, an asset worthy of a $100 million deal.13
20. Von Miller
I put Miller ahead of Smith — even though Miller has a slightly larger contract and had fewer sacks last year — because Miller's a more complete player. Smith spent last year serving as a situational pass rusher. He was great at it, and he's moving into a bigger role in 2012, but Miller, on the other hand, spent last year serving as a three-down linebacker. Smith never had a game like Miller's ridiculously clutch performance against the Jets. That puts Miller slightly ahead across their respective developmental curves.
19. Jason Pierre-Paul
And I think JPP is slightly ahead of Miller and Smith because he plays for the Giants, the league's best finishing school for athletic-freak pass rushers. It's the nature-vs.-nurture argument extended to football. Guys like Pierre-Paul and LaMarr Woodley are undoubtedly talented players capable of making a pro impact, but putting them in New York and Pittsburgh, respectively, ensures they end up getting the most out of their skills. And while Pierre-Paul is already in his third year at this level, he's just two months older than Miller and eight months older than Smith. I think he'll end up being the best pro of the three.14
Group XII: Second-Tier Quarterbacks Run
18. Jay Cutler
17. Michael Vick
16. Robert Griffin III
15. Philip Rivers
14. Ben Roethlisberger
Whoa. Whoa. Hold on one second, right? What's the rookie doing amid a group of Pro Bowlers?
Remember: This is a Trade Value piece, not a power rankings or a performance list. The Redskins just gave up three first-round picks and a second-rounder for the specific purpose of acquiring RG3, and other teams who were in the running weren't far off from that proposal. It's impossible to define the trade market for a player like Rivers or Roethlisberger, but you may remember that Cutler was traded in 2009 for a pair of first-rounders, a third-rounder, and Kyle Orton. Unless you think Kyle Orton and a third-rounder are worth more than a high first-round pick and a second-rounder, the Redskins valued RG3 higher than the Bears and Broncos valued Cutler. And that was after Cutler had already established himself as a Pro Bowl–caliber starter.
Now, start applying that same offer to the rest of the league. Would that have been enough to pry Vick away from the Eagles? In light of a somewhat disappointing 2011 season and Vick's seemingly endless streak of injuries, three first-rounders and a second-round pick looks like a pretty good haul. I don't know that the same offer would work for Rivers and Roethlisberger, each of whom are more solidly entrenched as the long-term franchise quarterback in their respective cities. I would personally rather have Rivers than Roethlisberger because Rivers gets hit far less frequently, but I think most NFL teams would choose Roethlisberger by virtue of his playoff success.
The other factor that pushes RG3 so high is his team-friendly contract. The Redskins owe him only a little over $21 million for his four-year deal; Rivers and Cutler each had a cap figure above that $21 million total in 2009 alone. If the Redskins get even above-average play from Griffin over his first three seasons in the league, RG3 automatically becomes one of the biggest bargains in football.15
Group XIII: Non-Quarterbacks Who Would Not Keep You Up at Night If They Were Your Team's Best Player
13. Joe Thomas
Thomas is actually the best player on the Browns and they stink, but the problem is that the Browns have two great players — Thomas and Haden — and haven't gone out of their way to get Barry Church from the Cowboys yet. (Sorry.)16 Thomas is the league's best left tackle and, by acclamation, the league's best offensive lineman. You think Peyton Hillis got close to 1,200 yards by himself?17
12. Calvin Johnson
Why is Megatron so relatively far from the top of the list? Old Draft Pick Syndrome. Johnson's rookie deal eventually created an untenable cap hold on the Lions for 2012 — $22 million — and pushed them to give Johnson a seven-year, $132 million extensionl in March that guarantees him $60 million. As good as Johnson is, an $16.5 million-plus average for a non-quarterback is really difficult to stomach. The Lions basically priced themselves in for a five-year run from Johnson that repeats his 96-1,681-16 season from 2011; over the previous three years, his average seasonal line was 74-1,145-10, which is roughly equivalent to what Greg Jennings (75-1,223-8) did over the same time frame. I'm not saying that Johnson's season was a fluke, just that it might have been a career year. If he can repeat that performance for another year or two, the contract will have been worth it; if he falls back to his previous level of performance, he'll be overpaid.18
11. Patrick Peterson
Pro-Football-Reference.com has a stat called Approximate Value that the site uses as an (admittedly vague and imperfect) measure of overall player performance. Last year, do you know who led all non-quarterbacks in Approximate Value? If you don't know that I'm about to say Patrick Peterson, you're probably not paying very close attention!
That seems wrong on its surface, but if you think about it for a second, isn't Peterson a viable candidate for best non-quarterback in football? He dramatically grew as a defensive player during the season, starting off as a liability and finishing as a guy who followed the opposing team's no. 1 receiver around the field. He won two games with punt returns and nearly sealed a third. He now has as many punt-return touchdowns in his career as any other active player besides Devin Hester — pretty impressive for a 22-year-old. At the very least, considering he makes a relative pittance and has his entire career ahead of him, Peterson has to be in the discussion for most valuable non-quarterback property in the league.19
10. Clay Matthews
Yep, Matthews had a down season last year. Which do you believe is the real Clay Matthews, though: the guy who had 22.5 sacks in 28 starts over 2009-10, or the one who had six sacks in 15 starts last year? Matthews's sack total declined, but according to Football Outsiders, he still led the league in non-sack hits that knocked down the quarterback (23), suggesting that he was a half-step away from many more sacks. The Packers drafted fellow USC linebacker Nick Perry in the first round and shifted Matthews to the opposite side of the field, moves that should create more breathing room for Matthews. And while he will eventually get a new deal, Matthews is still on a rookie deal with a total value of under $10 million, one that will pay him $2.3 million combined over the next two seasons. If one of the Smith/JPP/Miller group have a second consecutive season like their 2011 campaign and don't get a new deal, they move up to this spot. Until then, Matthews is the best low-cost defender in football.
Group XIV: Two Quarterbacks, One Step Away9. Matt Ryan
After last year's playoff debacle, it's a make-or-break season for Ryan. If the Falcons really do move to a pass-heavy scheme under new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, we'll all finally get a definitive opinion on just how good Ryan really is. Right now, he still has that weird "proven winner"/"can't win in the playoffs" dichotomy thing going on, but it's unclear whether he can advance past the above-average four-year run of his career to a new level of performance. If he takes that leap this year, Ryan becomes one of the four best quarterbacks in football. If he remains the same guy it seems like he's always been, the Falcons are stuck guaranteeing the eighth-best quarterback in the game $60 million.20
8. Cam Newton
Newton ahead of Ryan? For now, yeah. Ryan's a better passer than Newton, but he also gets to play with Julio Jones, Roddy White, and Tony Gonzalez; Newton plays with Steve Smith and the Rules and Regulations, Smith's backing band of ragtag misfits. Newton's running value also serves to make up much of the difference in passing performance between the two. Newton's four years younger, but more notably, his contract is an absolute pittance. He's getting $22 million fully guaranteed over four years; that's going to be a sliver of Ryan's signing bonus in his next deal. And with a full camp and preseason under his belt for the first time, shouldn't Newton be even better in 2012?
Group XV: The Franchise Defenders
7. DeMarcus Ware
Year after year, Ware just seems to truck on as the league's most impressive front-seven defender. He still hasn't missed a game as a pro, and with a 19.5-sack season in 2011, he became the second player in league history to post two seasons with 20 sacks or more, following Mark Gastineau. Ware now has 66 sacks over the past four years, a feat that only Reggie White's topped, and he does all this without shirking his responsibilities against the run. His contract, a seven-year, $79 million deal that set the market in 2009, locks him up through 2016 for $37 million (should the Cowboys choose to let it play out). Ware was part of the 2005 draft class, which was widely regarded as one of the weakest crops in league history in advance of the Reggie Bush/Vince Young/Matt Leinart crop in 2006; that 2005 draft sure looks a lot better with Ware and Aaron Rodgers coming off the board in the middle of the first round.
6. Darrelle Revis
Sure, he was a step away from holding out for the second time in three years, but what else can you ask of the league's best defender? Schematically, he turns a defense of over-the-hill veterans, journeymen, and inexperienced youngsters into a surprisingly dominant unit, thanks to Revis's ability to cover half the field. Unlike Asomugha, Revis's predecessor as the best cornerback in football, Revis is comfortable playing both inside and outside. And if you don't believe that the Jets get results, consider that they had the best defense in the league against no. 1 receivers last year, per Football Outsiders. Oh, and he just turned 27. This isn't just a Hall of Famer in the prime of his career. There's a distinct possibility that we're witnessing the best cornerback in the history of football at his athletic peak.21
Group XVI: The Untouchable Signal Callers
5. Eli Manning
Well, here goes nothing …
4. Andrew Luck
It's aggressive to list Luck this high before he's even taken a professional snap, but it's also correct. By all accounts, Luck is the best quarterback prospect since Peyton Manning. He was a significantly better prospect than Robert Griffin, and the Redskins gave up three first-round picks and a second-rounder to acquire RG3. If that's the going rate for Griffin, how much would it have cost to pry the first overall pick away from the Colts? The Herschel Walker bounty — three first- and second-rounders, a third-rounder, and five players — would not have been enough to get Luck. Would it have taken five first-rounders? Two whole drafts? An existing franchise quarterback and then some?
And would a team make that same offer for Eli Manning? I can't imagine that they would. As great as Eli was during the 2011 season, he's made the Pro Bowl twice and never sniffed a regular-season MVP award. Although it looks like he hasn't aged a single day since he arrived in New York, Eli's already 31 years old and in the middle of a $106.9 million deal that's got him locked in for four more years at a total of about $56 million, a deal that will likely be supplanted by a new contract over the next 18 months. The Giants would never trade Manning, but if Eli suddenly wanted out of New York and refused to play again until he departed, the Giants would get less for him than the Colts would have gotten for Luck.22
Last time beating this dead horse: If the league were still under the old salary structure for rookies, this wouldn't be anywhere near as clear-cut of a case. Luck would be sitting on a $40 million guarantee that would surpass the figure Eli got in his second contract, and while Luck appears to be the real deal, the slim chance that he gets shellshocked by hits and turns into David Carr would be too much of a salary-cap burden for some teams to bear. Luck's first contract, though, is a four-year deal that guarantees him only $22.1 million. That has virtually no downside, and the upside — that the Colts will have one of the league's five best quarterbacks for a base salary of $2.4 million in 2014 — is astounding.23
3. Drew Brees
How often does a team change its offensive style in midstream without missing a beat? The Patriots did it when their tight ends replaced Randy Moss and took some of the load off Wes Welker, but what the Saints did last year was even more impressive. After years of running their offense through Marques Colston and a bevy of inconsistent deep receivers, they shifted courses and built it around a castoff running back (Darren Sproles) and a tight end with limited football experience (Graham). Brees used the transitional year to set NFL records for completions, completion percentage, and passing yardage, throwing in a league-leading 46 touchdown passes and 3.5 percent sack rate for good measure. Remember that he also went 40-of-63 for 462 yards with four touchdowns in the playoffs against the mighty 49ers pass defense in San Francisco, the same one that held Eli Manning to 316 yards on 58 attempts and seven third-down conversions amid 21 chances. It's not his fault that the defense allowed 36 points and a career game from Alex Smith.
2. Tom Brady
Maybe both sides would at least think about a Brady-for-Luck trade, but neither the Patriots nor the Colts would end up consummating it.24 The only player for whom the Patriots would clearly move Brady is the no. 1 player on the list …
Group XVII: The King
1. Aaron Rodgers
Six years, $65 million, just $20 million guaranteed. The Cardinals have already spent close to $20 million on Kevin Kolb, as have the Raiders on Carson Palmer. It's not just that Rodgers is the best player at the most important position in football; it's that he's getting paid like one of the worst starters in football at that spot to do so. There is a chasm of value between Rodgers and anybody else in football. And with that, Grantland's first annual NFL Trade Value column is in the books.25