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If You Could Start an NFL Team With One non-Quarterback, Who Would You Pick?

A pass rusher? An all-purpose back? A head coach? If you can't pick a QB, how would you start building a team from scratch?

Last week, our Friday Roundtable asked writers about NFL expansion: Where would you put a new team and what would you call them? Our writers got a little…ummm…creative. After talking it over all week since, we decided to keep going with this theme. With that in mind, we asked our writers: If you were starting a franchise from scratch, who is the one person you would start with? But everyone wants a quarterback (most of them want Patrick Mahomes), so we excluded QBs.

This week’s roundtable: If you could pick one non-quarterback to start your new franchise with, who would you pick?

Khalil Mack 

Quarterback and pass rusher are typically viewed as the two most important positions for an NFL team. Since I can't have a quarterback, I'm taking Khalil Mack to be the star of the Quad City Tractors (see last week's roundtable) defense. Every team needs a defensive playmaker who has the ability to disrupt the opponent's passing game on every play. Several current players come to mind at this position, but I'm picking Mack simply because of the effect he had on the Bears last season.

While it's impossible to quantify how many more games Chicago won strictly because of Mack, his impact was obvious.  Mack lifted the performance of the entire defense. He didn't practice with the team all spring and summer, and spent only a week in the Bears’ playbook before playing in the season opener. The lack of practice or knowledge of the Bears defense didn't matter: Mack's pressure on Aaron Rodgers allowed teammate Roy Robertson-Harris to finish the sack that took Rodgers out of the game for the second quarter. Mack then strip-sacked backup quarterback Deshone Kizer and picked him off for a 27-yard interception return for a touchdown. That was all in his first game back in action, after being away from football for months. Imagine what he could do with a full offseason in the Quad Cities. —Kalyn Kahler

Christian McCaffrey

I’ll take the guy who had more catches (107) than Antonio Brown in 2018, has not missed a game due to injury in two seasons and managed five yards per carry last season behind a patchwork offensive line with no impact starters. Christian McCaffrey’s ability to get open quicker than anybody else on the field and catch everything thrown his way makes a below average offensive line seem average. He is a running back tailor made for this NFL, and if you can’t start with the quarterback, it would make sense to build an offense around the guy who’s destined to touch the ball more than anyone but the quarterback. —Robert Klemko

Travis Kelce

If I’m starting my franchise with one player, quarterback is clearly the most important building block. But if QBs are excluded form the equation, I’ll look for another spot where I can find value. It’s tempting to find some defensive line terror to rush the passer, but I’d rather take an elite player at a shallower position. So I’m going with Travis Kelce.

Modern teams are built to take advantage of the current league-wide passing environment, so it would be great to have an elite wide receiver—but there are so many of them. DeAndre Hopkins, Antonio Brown, Julio Jones, Odell Beckham, T.Y. Hilton, Michael Thomas, A.J. Green, Mike Evans, Stefon Diggs, Adam Thielen, JuJu Smith-Schuster, etc., etc.  So if I can probably get a great wide receiver later, give me the best tight end in football, still 29 years old until October.

I know that Zach Ertz had 13 more catches last year, and George Kittle has 31 more yards, but Kelce put up a 103 catch, 1,336 yard, 10 TD season, earning himself First Team All-Pro honors for the second time. His consistency the last few years sets him up to lead the position in a post-Gronk world. Patrick Mahomes rightfully deserves every ounce of credit he got last year, but Kelce may have somehow been an underrated part of one of the best offenses we’ve ever seen. He can stretch the field, he can offer a big target in the red zone, he can block. I have no doubt I can build a potent offense around him. —Mitch Goldich

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Derwin James

Safety is not typically viewed as a valuable position, but the teams that have a great one can do a lot more schematically. James was the 17th overall pick in 2018 and was named First Team All-Pro as a rookie. He is long, athletic and explosive. He aligns in multiple positions and can cover any tight end man-to-man. He is best at blitzing (which the Chargers’ scheme doesn’t give him enough opportunity to do, by the way). He is stout enough to play linebacker, feeding the trend of defenses playing three-safety dime packages, with one of those safeties moving down into the box. You can build your defense around James, and his versatility makes the way you build that defense malleable. —Andy Benoit

Bill Belichick

What? The prompt didn't specify to pick a player. I have no idea how long Belichick, who turned 67 in April, plans to coach, but even one year of him leading the Portland Pinots (see last week's roundtable) would help establish the standards for practicing, game-planning and roster-building that would help lead our new franchise toward a world championship. Belichick would have to find a new school other than Foxborough High to use to prod his QB after missed passes, but, "I can get Johnny from Lake Oswego High to make a better throw than this," has a decent ring to it. He'd also need to replicate the hills adjacent to the practice field on which his Patriots players have performed those infamous conditioning runs, but as a multi-billion dollar sports franchise, that will be no problem for the Pinots to construct.

What has been difficult to replicate, of course, is Belichick's program (Nick Saban at Alabama being the one exception) despite the past and present efforts of several other NFL clubs to do so. So, for our new franchise, we will start not by hiring a Belichick disciple, but Belichick himself. If we’re moving on to a traditional draft from there, we’d then proceed to use our first few picks on running backs, defensive tackles and punters before turning to the position of QB later in the day on Saturday. —Jenny Vrentas

Chip Kelly

Laugh now, point to his mediocre season in San Francisco and his three-win season to begin his UCLA tenure. I’ve always thought that if Kelly had a similar ownership situation to that of Bill Belichick (meaning, someone largely unconcerned with perception, someone who rarely meddles, someone who doesn’t expect the person in charge to also be part of his marketing team and public relations strategy) he’d be able to recreate what Oregon was at its best during his tenure.

If I’m starting a franchise from scratch and I get one singular person, I’m taking a swing on someone who thinks big, someone who takes in a lot of outside perspectives and information. Someone who is simultaneously looking at where things are going, and not just where they are. Kelly probably wasn’t long for the NFL because he can’t tapdance around the piles of minutiae like other CEO-types can (and, one might argue, because he let his offense get a little stale in Philadelphia). But I would guess that a second, legitimate chance at the NFL, when paired with an aligned personnel man, would yield results. In my mind, it’s better than taking another swing at the next coordinator du jour. —Conor Orr

Sean McVay

There’s no mention of age here, but there should be. Sean McVay, with two years and a Super Bowl appearance under his belt as an NFL head coach, is still younger than nine of the league’s 32 starting quarterbacks. He’s already proven he can weather the loss of assistants (see: Matt LaFleur, Greg Olson last year), manage a wide-range of personalities (i.e. Ndamukong Suh, Marcus Peters, Aqib Talib), and deal with outsized expectations (delivering on last year’s promise). He’s squeezed massive improvement out of both quarterbacks he’s worked with since he began coaching the position in 2014. And he’s humble enough to keep evolving as a coach, which is vital in today’s NFL. The bottom line is in the NFL, it’s your coach and your quarterback, and then everyone else. If you get either right, you’re going to be competitive. If you have both, you’re going to compete at a championship level, and probably consistently for a long time to come. By hiring McVay, you’ll get one-half of that equation, and more than likely the other half will come as part of the deal. And while I’d still take Bill Belichick for one game or season, if we’re talking about someone to build around for the next 20 years, and I can’t start with a quarterback, it’s the Rams coach all the way.

MacKenzie Bezos

Some of my colleagues will surely pick elite defensive players and elite coaches here. I opt for the smart, wealthy, philanthropic owner. If I’m starting a new franchise, I’m going to build it from the top-down. MacKenzie Bezos has a net worth of nearly $36 billion, and when she takes over as owner of the team, she immediately becomes the wealthiest owner in the NFL. She’d be three times as wealthy as Panthers owner David Tepper.

Here’s my thinking: She would be able to fund the best facilities without shaking down the local city council for money. Of course there’d be a team charter where players travel in the lap of luxury before and after games. Much like opponents of the 1980s San Francisco 49ers would ask Niners how they could play for player-friendly owner Eddie DeBartolo, soon-to-be free agents would flock to Bezos’s team. The Princeton-educated novelist has also committed to giving away half of her fortune in her lifetime, and having a vehicle like an NFL team to magnify those efforts and find new avenues via her players would be an excellent pairing. —Jonathan Jones

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