Toss-ups: Which great players would you rather have going forward?
Have you ever played the "You can only have one" game with NFL players? Wondered, perhaps, what your favorite team would look like with this elite player instead of that one, or how a rival star would elevate your favorite team's schemes? Today, we're sizing up two of the NFL's best at four skill positions (along with two of the game's best team defenses) and making the case for which one we would prefer to have going forward.
Quarterback: Aaron Rodgers or Andrew Luck?
The pick: Luck. There's no question that Rodgers is the NFL's best quarterback as things stand today. He's marvelously accurate in and out of the pocket, nobody's better under pressure, and he just keeps getting better as time goes on. He'll go down as one of the league's all-time best at his position, and he'll probably be a first-ballot Hall of Famer when all is said and done.
But if I'm building a franchise over the next five years or so, I'm taking the 25-year-old Luck over the 31-year-old Rodgers. Age plays a role, although Rodgers could play at this amazing level for another half-decade. But the primary reason I'm taking Luck is that, amazingly enough, he may have an even higher upside. Consider that when the Colts selected Luck with the No. 1 pick in the 2012 draft, they threw him into the deep end of the pool right away with a team that had been severely depleted by five straight awful drafts under former president and general manager Bill Polian. Luck threw 627 passes in that rookie campaign under the watch of an offensive coordinator in Bruce Arians who didn't hold any of his playbook back, and over the three years of his NFL career, Luck has improved in every possible way. He's stronger, more accurate, and more mobile than he was in his rookie year. He is the best and most prolific play-action and deep-ball passer in the league, and to be both of those things so soon in his career is fairly amazing. That he's done so with an iffy-at-best offensive line, one elite receiver in T.Y. Hilton and absolutely no running game puts Luck on an entirely different level.
I'll enjoy watching Rodgers play as long as he does, but in this early part of Luck's career, I'll wonder if I'm watching the player who will eventually become the best quarterback in NFL history.
Running back: DeMarco Murray or LeSean McCoy?
The pick: McCoy. The NFL's last two rushing champions switched homes in the off-season, with McCoy going from Philly to Buffalo in a trade and Murray signing on to replace him with the Eagles after the Cowboys let him reach free agency. Both backs are more elusive than your garden-variety north-south power runner. They need gaps to operate effectively, and while neither is going to create at the line, both are complete players within the confines of that relative limitation. The common perception is that Murray was helped to a disproportionate degree by the Dallas offensive line, the best run-blocking fivesome in the business in 2014. Meanwhile, McCoy saw his total yardage drop from 1,607 to 1,319 and his yards per carry average drop almost a full yard last season, as the Eagles' line was beset by injuries and inconsistency.
I'll take McCoy in this equation for a few reasons. Pro Football Focus has a metric called “Breakaway Percentage,” which takes into account the number and frequency of runs of 15 yards or more. In 2014, Murray— again, with a far better offensive line—gained 33.6% of his total yardage on those plays. McCoy gained 32.1%. Murray caused 67 missed tackles as a runner in '14, far more than McCoy's 40, but it could be argued quite convincingly that Murray was eluding opponents in far more favorable situations because of his blocking. With a better line in '13, McCoy caused 57 missed tackles on just 314 carries. When you're deciding between two similar backs and career workload is not yet an issue, better to go with the back you know will make things happen with a line on the decline. McCoy has proven he can do it; Murray will have to do so in '15.
Wide receiver: Dez Bryant or Odell Beckham, Jr.?
The pick: Beckham. This is a tough one. Not only are Bryant and Beckham the two best receivers in the NFC East; you could make a convincing argument that they're the two best in the NFL. Bryant has been amazing for a number of years, of course, and Beckham stormed into the NFL as a rookie last season with 91 catches for 1,305 yards and 12 touchdowns in just 13 games. Beckham showed the ability he flashed at LSU and at the '14 scouting combine: He has unusual route awareness for a young player, his field speed is spectacular, and his ability to contort his body to make catches is pretty special.
Why would I take Beckham over Bryant? For the same reason I'd take Luck over Rodgers, I'd want the player with the higher potential for greatness over the player who has already established himself as great. Bryant is a truly outstanding receiver, but Beckham has already displayed the kind of skills rarely seen even in this era of game-breaking wideouts.
Tight end: Rob Gronkowski or Jimmy Graham?
The pick: Graham. While Gronkowski remains in the New England offense that has made him the NFL's best tight end, Graham is moving from New Orleans's high-target, high-opportunity passing offense to Seattle's more balanced scheme. We know what Gronk is every season: a totally dominant target who is always open no matter how many defenders are covering him, not to mention by far the best blocking tight end in the game. The only problem is the injury history. Gronk hasn't played a full season since 2011, though he saw action in 15 regular-season games in 2014 and in all three games of New England's Super Bowl run.
Graham has stayed on the field more, but his game has more flaws. His blocking has been an afterthought at best, and he's not always physical when going over the middle. He was an exciting athletic target and a volume receiver in the Saints' system, but I would stop short of saying that he was a complete tight end.
The reason I'm picking him over Gronk, though, is that with his new team, he'll have to be that complete tight end, and I believe that he's willing to do whatever it takes to make that happen. In minicamps, he was already making blocking a focus, and though contact was not permitted, he was making the league's best defense look somewhat silly at times when practicing against them—especially in the red zone. It's not that the Saints weren't a physical team, but there is a different kind of premium on intensity in Seattle, and the impression I have is that Graham is ready to meet that standard. If so, he's going to be very, very tough to stop in a system with a truly mobile quarterback and the toughest running back to tackle in the league. This pick is based a bit on potential, and you always risk looking foolish when picking anyone but Gronk at the tight end position, but I just have a feeling that Graham is on the verge of a bust-out season.
Team defense: Bills or Jets?
The pick: Jets. Let's get this out of the way quickly: The Bills have the best front four in the NFL with Mario Williams, Marcel Dareus, Kyle Williams and Jerry Hughes, and the mind reels at what new coach Rex Ryan will do with those guys in his base packages and hybrid fronts. Rex is fond of using his father's 46 Defense on occasion, and the personnel he inherited could be even more effective in that scheme than his stout Jets defenses.
That said, the Jets have a fairly formidable front with Sheldon Richardson, Muhammad Wilkerson, Damon Harrison and newest addition Leonard Williams. And from the linebackers back, Rex's replacement Todd Bowles (a pretty fair defensive mind himself) has it all over the Bills. Bowles might have the league's most complete secondary at his disposal with Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie as the starting cornerbacks, Buster Skrine in the nickel (moving around to different roles as Bowles did with Tyrann Mathieu in Arizona), and Calvin Pryor and Marcus Gilchrist as the safeties. And in the current NFL, which as you may have heard is a passing league, that's the key to defensive improvement.