- Our assignment: Build the ideal team from the NFL’s current talent pool to dominate for the next five years. Who gets the call?
Mike Tyson once famously said that everybody has a plan until they get hit. When John McKay was hired as the first head coach of the Buccaneers in 1976, he claimed to have a five-year plan. (Granted, he had a five-year contract.) Plans can go awry, but it's important to have them if you’re building anything, especially a football team. Here, we’ve taken McKay’s “five-year plan” approach to modern NFL team-building: If you wanted to build a team from the league’s current talent pool that would win the most games over the next five seasons, which players would you choose? Which players are both established enough to show great potential and young enough to be relied upon to produce over the next half-decade? Our offense is below; the defense will be revealed later this week.
Quarterback: This one wasn’t cut and dry—Andrew Luck was my choice before I dug into the numbers, and though Aaron Rodgers is already 32 years old, who wouldn’t take a bet on him performing at an All-Pro level through the age of 37 if he stays healthy? But when all is said and done, it's tough to veer away from Wilson’s combination of mobility, deep ball accuracy, game management and poise under pressure. Rodgers’s regression in 2015 due to the loss of Jordy Nelson to injury and a highly compressed playbook is reason for concern. Wilson has never had a receiver duo as effective as Nelson and Randall Cobb, and if you’re going to counter that Wilson is nothing without Marshawn Lynch, consider that in the second half of the last season (when Lynch was either not playing well, or not playing at all), Wilson went on a serious tear: a 67.0 completion percentage, 2,356 yards, 26 touchdowns and three interceptions. He did it without injured tight end Jimmy Graham, and he did it behind an offensive line that was most likely the worst in the NFL.
As far as the Wilson/Luck comparison? ESPN's Sheil Kapadia compiled some numbers that make the differences evident. Wilson has outpaced Luck in several categories since both players entered the league in 2012: efficiency in the pocket, efficiency when trailing, career completion percentage, yards per attempt, touchdown-to-interception ratio, passer rating and fourth-quarter excellence. With Lynch now retired it will be up to Wilson to put the Seattle offense on his shoulders—he makes this lineup because he’s already shown that he can. A five-year plan should include a quarterback with upside in all directions.
Running backs: For this team, we want two backs with serious skills as pass catchers. After all, it’s a passing league, and we’re going to need backs who can stay on the field for every down. Gurley proved to be every bit the back he was in college during his rookie campaign of 2015, showcasing a mix of toughness, second effort and open-field burst that is rare to the position. He gained 1,106 yards on 229 carries and scored 10 touchdowns on the ground despite the fact that his NFL debut was delayed by the continued recovery from a torn ACL he suffered in his final year at Georgia. Gurley also caught 21 passes for 188 yards in the Rams’ basic passing game; he’s already said that he wants more reps as a receiver now that Jared Goff has arrived as the team’s long-term quarterback. If he’s able to combine an increased receiving workload with his burgeoning résumé as a pure runner, he has the opportunity to become the gold standard at the position.
As for Freeman, he has already established that he can handle a heavy workload as a receiver, with 73 catches for 578 yards and three touchdowns in his second season. He also went over the 1,000-yard mark on the ground for the first time in his young career, with 1,056 yards and 11 touchdowns on 265 carries. He slowed up a bit as the season wore on, but his performances against the Cowboys, Redskins and Titans bode well for his future. Freeman has a slashing, elusive running style that would make him a perfect complement to Gurley’s physical gifts.
Wide receivers: Beckham has already proven that he can catch anything remotely near him; he’s the best highlight receiver in the NFL and has been practically from his first snaps as a pro in 2014. However, he’s underrated as a volume target in a passing game where he’s often the only receiver worthy of double coverage. Beckham has caught 187 passes on 288 targets in his two-year career for 2,755 yards and 25 touchdowns, breaking the NFL record for yards in the first two years of a career despite missing five games. Few receivers of any age do more to threaten defenses over the top, and Beckham is also a sneakily effective receiver in the slot. This is the young receiver you want to build your passing offense around.
Hopkins caught 111 passes on 192 targets for 1,521 yards and 11 touchdowns in his third season of 2015 despite a quarterback situation that could charitably be called disastrous and the Texans’ complete lack of secondary targets. Nate Washington, Houston’s second-most productive receiver last season, brought in 47 catches on 94 targets for 658 yards and four touchdowns. Hopefully for his sake, the addition of quarterback Brock Osweiler and a few new targets will open things up for him. On our team, Hopkins will shine as the ideal “Z” receiver—he makes up for not having a ton of downfield speed with the ability to exploit defenders at the end of routes combined with the toughness to make contested catches and fight for additional yards.
And since NFL teams put three or more receivers on the field 60% of the time these days, we’re going to need a good, young slot receiver who can take maximum advantage of those extra opportunities. Landry is our man. He caught 110 passes on 166 targets in his second NFL season for 1,157 yards and four touchdowns. Of those, 71 catches and 102 targets came from the slot, for 784 yards and two touchdowns. The thing that separates Landry from other high-volume slot receivers is that he’s also a credible threat outside and is clearly his team’s No. 1 receiver.
Tight end: It was extremely tempting to put either Rob Gronkowski or Tyler Eifert here, but the injury history was a bit disconcerting in both cases. Over his three NFL seasons, Reed has amassed a catch rate over 76% and 10.5 yards per catch. He flew under the radar as a young player while the Redskins sorted out their QB situation, but came alive last year during Kirk Cousins’s breakout season, finishing with 87 catches for 952 yards and 11 touchdowns. Reed has his own injury history, but we’ll bank on his health and the ability for his numbers to grow in a more expansive offense.
Offensive tackles: No Joe Thomas? The Browns’ future Hall of Famer has been outstanding and just about indestructible over the first nine years of his career, but he’ll be 32 in December, and at some point, his injury luck has to run out. To bookend a line through 2020, we’ll go with two youngsters in the NFC East who have proven to be the equal of any tackle in the NFL. Smith’s mind-boggling athleticism and growing understanding of the intricacies of the position make him a fitting blind-side protector for the game’s best front five. Williams is also very agile and athletic, but he brings an element of nastiness to the game that every team needs from its blockers. Smith used to play right tackle, so perhaps he would move back there, but this team wouldn’t have a problem with Williams demolishing guys on the right side, either.
Interior line: Both Martin and Turner are right guards, but for our purposes, we’ll move Martin to the left side and let Turner just mash people where he is. There are few drive-blockers in the game better than Turner, which has made him a key element in Carolina’s power running game. He’s improving as a pass protector, and we’ll bank on that continuing. Martin is a bit more obviously agile in short spaces and can pull and hit the second level well, but at his heart, he loves to get as nasty as possible.
Frederick is still learning the nuances of pass-protection, but there is no better run-blocking center in the league. He's a pure zone mauler who has no issue getting to the second level and dealing with linebackers and safeties. It looks to be a safe bet that the 25-year-old, who has never missed an NFL game, will be performing at a very high level for a long time to come.