Constructing NFL's All-Youth Version of the Oklahoma City Thunder
The 2012 NFL season is less than three months away, with NFL training camps beginning at the end of July, and you have the opportunity to assemble the ultimate NFL fantasy team—only this team is real.
Imagine for a moment that you are the general manager of a brand new NFL franchise, the Los Angeles Earthquakes, and you are tasked with building your football team from scratch.
You are allowed to pick and choose your starters from among the existing 32 NFL teams, and there are no restrictions on free agents or contracted players.
The only stipulation is that none of your players can be older than 25 before training camp begins.
Your goal is to select young and talented players who will develop into a team that will compete for championships for the next decade.
Your goal is to create the NFL's version of the Oklahoma City Thunder, not the Miami Heat.
This is the team you will assemble ahead of training camp for the 2012 NFL season.
Now it is time to get to work.
Sure, you want a veteran quarterback to lead your franchise, but you are restricted to quarterbacks drafted in the past three seasons.
Fortunately, there are a couple of very good ones available.
Cam Newton, Carolina Panthers
Cam Newton was the first overall selection in the 2011 NFL draft and the NFL's Rookie of the Year just a season ago.
As the only quarterback to pass for more than 4,000 yards in his rookie season and the only quarterback in NFL history to rush for 14 touchdowns in a single season, Newton is your opening day quarterback and the foundation of your team.
Fortunately for you, he has a year of experience under his belt, and he does not care about statistics.
All he wants to do is win.
Robert Griffin, III, Washington Redskins (R)
Every team needs a little quarterback competition, and your new team is in Los Angeles, so what better place to stir up a quarterback controversy?
Robert Griffin, III, or RGIII, was the No. 2 overall pick by the Washington Redskins in the 2012 draft, and he plays with a style similar to Newton's, so you will be able to run the same offense with very little drop in production.
Both are insanely athletic drop-back passers who can run as well as or better than most running backs, and RGIII was one of the most accurate passers in college football a season ago.
Some fans may question your decision to not take the top pick in the 2012 draft, Stanford's Andrew Luck, away from the Indianapolis Colts, but you know what you are doing.
Congratulations, you have the past two Heisman Trophy winners playing the most important position on your team.
At the running back position, you want a blend of power, speed and athleticism, so you select a trio that will be the envy of every backfield in the NFL.
Arian Foster, Houston Texans
Arian Foster, the proud owner of consecutive 1,000-yard seasons, moves the chains.
Foster was the top pick in most NFL fantasy drafts in 2011 after piling up 1,616 yards and 16 touchdowns in 2010, just his second season with the Houston Texans, and he responded with 1,224 yards in 13 games in 2011.
Houston is a Super Bowl contender in 2012, as much for Foster's running as Matt Schaub's passing and Andre Johnson's receiving, and he is the young running back every NFL general manager wishes he had drafted.
Trent Richardson, Cleveland Browns (R)
Trent Richardson is the best running back to enter the NFL since the Minnesota Vikings' Adrian Peterson turned pro in 2007, and he will challenge Peterson for the title of league's most physical/elusive back.
Richardson led Alabama to the BCS National Championship in 2011, and he is a sure-fire 1,000-yard running back in his rookie season with the Browns.
Richardson and Foster will combine to form the most physical one-two running back punch in the NFL.
LeSean McCoy, Philadelphia Eagles
LeSean McCoy is as slippery as NFL running backs get, and he has moves that make Barry Sanders cringe.
McCoy was the NFL's fourth-leading rusher in 2011 with 1,309 yards and 17 touchdowns, and he added another 48 catches for 315 yards and three touchdowns.
With a couple of power backs already on your roster, McCoy is an ideal change-of-pace back who gives your quarterback a potent third-down receiver out of the backfield. He will push Foster and Richardson for carries.
The tight end position has been redefined by Tony Gonzalez, Shannon Sharpe and Antonio Gates in the past two decades, but 2011 was truly the "Year of the Tight End" in the NFL.
Of course, you select the NFL's single-season record-holders for most catches and touchdowns at the tight end position.
Jimmy Graham, New Orleans Saints
Jimmy Graham (whose bio I frequently come across while attempting to Google myself) set an NFL record in 2011 with an insanely high 99 catches for 1,310 yards, though it did not hurt to have Drew Brees throwing him the ball during his record-setting season.
Graham is a former college basketball player—a la Antonio Gates—and at 6'6" and 260 pounds, he blends the size of a defensive end with the hands of a wide receiver and the tenacity of a rebound-gobbling power forward.
Rob Gronkowski, New England Patriots
Not to be outdone by his counterpart in Mardi Gras City, Rob Gronkowski outgained Graham by 17 yards on nine fewer catches (90 for 1,327) in 2011 en route to an NFL-record 17 touchdown receptions by a tight end in 2011.
"Gronk" also never met a party he didn't like, so he will fit right in in L.A.
You are in good hands with the G-boys, Gronk and Graham, fortifying your tight end position.
The SEC may be best known for its terrifying defenses and pounding running games, but the best three young wide receivers in the NFL also hail from the nation's best football conference.
A.J. Green (Georgia), Julio Jones (Alabama) and Percy Harvin (Florida) are ready to form the NFL's best wide receiver trio on our fantasy team.
No. 1 Wide Receiver: A.J. Green, Cincinnati Bengals
A.J. Green was the most productive rookie wide receiver in the NFL last season, catching 65 balls for 1,057 yards and seven touchdowns.
Green may not possess Calvin Johnson's physicality or Randy Moss' high-end speed, but he is an excellent route runner, and he is fearless in traffic.
Think more along the lines of a young Larry Fitzgerald.
Green was recently named the 77th-best player in the NFL on ESPN's Top 100 NFL Players of 2012, and he will climb up that list in the next couple of years.
No. 2 Wide Receiver: Julio Jones, Atlanta Falcons
The Atlanta Falcons traded up in the 2011 draft to select Julio Jones with the sixth overall pick in order to add a complementary receiver to their lineup across from Pro Bowl receiver Roddy White.
Jones responded with 54 catches for 959 yards and eight touchdowns in his first professional season.
At 6'3" and possessing a pair of the surest hands in the NFL, Jones is a defensive back's nightmare and the deep threat that every NFL team needs on its roster.
Slot Receiver: Percy Harvin, Minnesota Vikings
I first had the privilege of watching Percy Harvin in the Virginia High School Athletic Association's AAA (Division 6) playoffs when Landstown High School met my alma mater, L.C. Bird, in the state semifinals in Harvin's sophomore and junior seasons.
He was the best player on the field then, he was the best player on the Tim Tebow-led Florida Gators, and he is one of the best young receivers in the NFL today.
Harvin is not afraid to catch passes over the middle, and he has the speed and elusiveness to make a big play out of every catch.
Harvin recently asked to be traded from the Minnesota Vikings, so you should definitely snatch him up.
You've got the best young backfield in the NFL, but your running backs need holes to run through, and your quarterback needs a pocket to stand in.
The offensive line is the foundation of your offense, so you pick the perfect blend of nastiness, intelligence, athleticism and power.
Center: Maurkice Pouncey, Pittsburgh Steelers
Maurkice Pouncey has already been to a pair of Pro Bowls in his first two NFL seasons, and he was named first team All-Pro in 2011 at the age of 22.
Pouncey is carrying on the legacy of great Steelers centers, but you have plans to start a similar legacy in Los Angeles.
Left Guard: Mike Iupati, San Francisco 49ers
Entering his third season with the San Francisco 49ers, Mike Iupati may be the NFL's most versatile and athletic offensive guard.
Iupati ranked second among NFL left guards in Matt Miller's B/R NFL 1,000: Top 32 Left Guards on this very site, and San Francisco 49ers Featured Columnist Dylan DeSimone rated him the most important lineman in the 49ers' ground attack.
Iupati is a nasty run-blocker, and while he may not lead the Quakes in jersey sales, he will be the recipient of the most free steak dinners from his running backs corps.
Right Guard: Jon Asamoah, Kansas City Chiefs
Jon Asamoah is a fixture on the Kansas City Chiefs offensive line, starting 31 out of a possible 32 games in his first two seasons.
Though he is not a road-grading run-blocker in the mold of Iupati, Asamoah excels in pass protection.
At 6'4" and 305 pounds, Asamoah has the ideal build for an NFL offensive guard, and he will develop into one of the league's top players at his position over the next few seasons.
Left Tackle: Matt Kalil, Minnesota Vikings (R)
The University of Southern California's Matt Kalil was hands-down the top offensive line prospect coming out of college this season, and his older brother, Ryan Kalil, is an established Pro Bowl center for the Carolina Panthers.
Kalil was picked No. 4 overall by the Minnesota Vikings in the 2012 draft, and his quarterback, Christian Ponder, could not be happier to have this guy protecting his blind side for the next 10 years.
Too bad for Ponder that you are plucking him away to protect Newton and Griffin.
Right Tackle: Tyron Smith, Dallas Cowboys
If the University of Southern California was once dubbed "Tailback U," it may be time to change its moniker to "Offensive Tackle U."
So it should be a no-brainer for you to reunite Tyron Smith, the No. 9 overall selection by the Dallas Cowboys in the 2011 NFL draft, with his former Trojans teammate, Matt Kalil, to form the L.A. tackle connection.
Smith started all 16 games at right tackle for the Cowboys in his rookie season, and Jason Garrett had plans to move him to left tackle for the 2012 NFL season.
It gets mean in the trenches, and the Earthquakes need an interior line that can make the earth move.
Apologies to the NFC North, but you now employ the biggest, nastiest and most athletic bunch of 20-something interior linemen in the NFL.
Defensive Tackle: Ndamukong Suh, Detroit Lions
Ndamukong Suh is the most intimidating interior defensive lineman in the NFL since John Randle patrolled the Minnesota Vikings' trenches with his Ultimate Warrior face paint in the 1990s.
Though he needs to cut back on unnecessary penalties, personal fouls and two-game suspensions, Suh gets your emphatic stomp, er, stamp of approval.
Defensive Tackle: Nick Fairley, Detroit Lions
Nick Fairley has his issues, but he also has elite ability at the defensive tackle position.
The Detroit Lions will have the most talented young interior line in the NFL in 2012—that is, unless you snatch up Suh and Fairley in a package deal.
Nose Tackle: B.J. Raji, Green Bay Packers
Officially listed as 6'2" and 337 pounds, B.J. "The Freezer" Raji occupies frozen tundra the way young 99-percenters occupy Wall Street.
Raji is an immovable force and a fantastic run-stopper from the nose tackle position, giving the Quakes the flexibility to switch between 3-4 and 4-3 defensive alignments.
The passing game is king in the NFL, and you cannot stop an elite passer without an even better pass rush.
Fortunately, you have two of the best in the game bookending your defensive line.
Jason Pierre-Paul, New York Giants
Pierre-Paul has the body of Jason Taylor on steroids and the motor of a young Jevon Kearse. Talent-wise, the sky is the limit.
12 starts, 16.5 sacks and first-team All-Pro in just his second NFL season in 2011?
Yes, you are most definitely down with JPP.
J.J. Watt, Houston Texans
J.J. Watt is so good that the Houston Texans were comfortable parting ways with former No. 1 overall draft pick Mario Williams, who signed with the Buffalo Bills this offseason.
Though Watt had a respectable rookie season with 5.5 sacks in his first 16 NFL games, he really turned his game up a notch and proved his worth as the 11th overall pick in the 2011 draft once the playoffs arrived.
In a 31-10 wild-card victory over the Cincinnati Bengals and a 20-13 loss to the Baltimore Ravens in the divisional round, Watt racked up 3.5 sacks and he returned an interception for a touchdown.
Watt and Pierre-Paul will combine for one of the most lethal pass rushes in the NFL.
No defense is complete without at least one shutdown cornerback.
You now have two, thanks to the Louisiana State Tigers.
Patrick Peterson, Arizona Cardinals
Patrick Peterson made the Pro Bowl in his rookie season, but he did it as a punt returner.
In 2012, and for many more years to follow, Peterson expects to make the Pro Bowl at his main position: cornerback.
Peterson has the size to play safety, the speed to play wide receiver and the athleticism to play All-Pro cornerback.
Think of a younger Darrelle Revis.
Morris Claiborne, Dallas Cowboys (R)
It is hard to believe that Patrick Peterson and Morris Claiborne shared the same college defensive backfield at LSU just two seasons ago, but it is true.
Claiborne was far and away the best cornerback in the 2012 draft.
Congrats on picking up the next Champ Bailey.
An effective NFL linebacker must be able to defend equally well against the run and the pass, and a great linebacker corps forms the heart and soul every great NFL defense.
Your unit rushes plays with its collective head on a swivel, rushing quarterbacks with ferocity, hitting everything that comes in its path and racking up tackles like Charlie Sheen racks up tabs in Vegas.
"Will" Linebacker: Von Miller, Denver Broncos
Von Miller was the NFL's second overall draft pick and defensive Rookie of the Year in 2011, and he plays with a combination of intelligence, aggression and physical talent that can not be taught.
Miller was the NFLPA's rookie representative during the lockout, and he led all NFL rookies with 11.5 sacks, so if you are looking for a young Lawrence Taylor with a good head on his shoulders, Von Miller is your man.
"Mike" Linebacker: Luke Kuechly, Carolina Panthers (R)
Luke Kuechly is the ACC's all-time leading tackler, and he would have broken the NCAA's all-time tackling record had he stayed for his senior season at Boston College.
Kuechly is excellent against the run, and his drop-back coverage skills are exceptional for a rookie linebacker.
The Carolina Panthers' first-round pick in the 2012 draft has a rare combination of high-end speed, intelligence and a nose for the football that has only been seen from the likes of Patrick Willis, Brian Urlacher and Ray Lewis in the past decade.
"Sam" Linebacker: Rolando McClain, Oakland Raiders
Rolando McClain is a scary dude in the way that the Baltimore Ravens' Ray Lewis is a scary dude.
At 6'3" and pushing 260 pounds, McClain is a running back's nightmare, and he plays with a nastiness that will make him your team's enforcer on the defensive side of the ball.
The safety position was initially created to be the last line of defense when all else failed, but today's NFL safety is often one of the most physical and aggressive players on the field.
These guys are not waiting for their teammates to fail; they are ball hawks who make plays from the line of scrimmage to the deep secondary.
Strong Safety: Eric Berry, Kansas City Chiefs
Eric Berry, aka "The Fifth Dimension," excels against both the run and the pass, and he is the closest thing the NFL has seen to Steve Atwater in a long time.
Berry's season-ending injury early in 2011 contributed to the downfall of the Kansas City Chiefs, who won the AFC West in 2010, and he is a true game-changer who can quarterback your defense from the secondary.
The Kansas City Chiefs' third-year defensive back was a rookie Pro Bowler in 2010, and he is the heir apparent to the title of "NFL's Best Safety" as long as he can stay healthy.
Free Safety: Louis Delmas, Detroit Lions
You need a player with dreadlocks on your team, and free safety Louis Delmas is your guy.
The fourth-year player out of Western Michigan provides your team with veteran leadership and a controlled aggression reminiscent of another undersized, dreads-toting NFL safety, Bob Sanders.
Fortunately, Delmas, who teammates compare to a "heat-seaking missile," has been more durable than Sanders in his first three seasons. He only missed one game in both the 2010 and 2011 seasons.
Special teams win and lose ballgames, and you are in it to win it.
Your kicker is accurate, your punter knows how to reach the coffin corner in his sleep, and your return men are the fastest and most elusive in the league this side of Devin Hester.
Punt Returner: Joe Adams, Carolina Panthers (R)
Patrick Peterson was first-team All-Pro at punt returner in his rookie season, but you would rather not have your starting cornerback pull double duty.
Joe Adams led the NCAA (Division I, FBS) with four touchdown-scoring punt returns at Arkansas in 2011. He has the makings of the NFL's next Devin Hester.
Adams' primary position is wide receiver, but much like Hester, he has a chance to make a bigger impact on special teams, at least in his first couple of seasons.
Kick Returner: Joe McKnight, New York Jets
Joe McKnight is the NFL's best young kick returner, averaging 31.6 yards on 34 kick returns in 2011, and he showed he can take it to the house from anywhere on the field with a 107-yard touchdown return in Week 4 against the Baltimore Ravens.
Reggie Bush's successor at USC, McKnight may not make his mark as an NFL running back, but he is a special teams game-changer.
Kicker: Dan Bailey, Dallas Cowboys
Dan Bailey was perfect on extra points and made 20 of 21 field goals inside of 40 yards last season, though he only went 2-of-4 beyond 50 yards with a season-long kick of 51 yards in 2011.
The Quakes will have such a high-powered offense that you are more concerned with XPs and chippies than 55-yard bombs.
Punter: Bryan Anger, Jacksonville Jaguars (R)
I have to admit, I needed to do a bit of research to find an NFL punter worthy of the L.A. Earthquakes jersey, so I consulted Matt Miller's B/R NFL 1000: Top 32 Punters, and I could not find one in the top 10 not in his late 20s or 30s.
So instead, I turned to the 2012 draft, where I found Bryan Anger, a third-round pick out of Cal, and the highest-drafted punter since 1995.
The funny part is, Anger may end up punting in Los Angeles one day if the Jags ever leave Florida.
Los Angeles Earthquakes: Lineup Recap
|Position||Player Name||Current Team||DOB|
|Quarterback||Cam Newton||Carolina Panthers||5/11/89|
|Quarterback||Robert Griffin, III (R)||Washington Redskins||2/12/90|
|Running Back||Arian Foster||Houston Texans||8/23/86|
|Running Back||Trent Richardson (R)||Cleveland Browns||7/10/91|
|Running Back||LeSean McCoy||Philadelphia Eagles||7/12/88|
|Tight End||Jimmy Graham||New Orleans Saints||11/24/86|
|Tight End||Rob Gronkowski||New England Patriots||5/14/89|
|Wide Receiver||Julio Jones||Atlanta Falcons||2/3/89|
|Wide Receiver||Percy Harvin||Minnesota Vikings||5/28/88|
|Wide Receiver||A.J. Green||Cincinnatti Bengals||7/31/88|
|Center||Maurkice Pouncey||Pittsburgh Steelers||7/24/89|
|Left Guard||Mike Iupati||San Francisco 49ers||5/12/87|
|Right Guard||Jon Asamoah||Kansas City Chiefs||7/21/88|
|Left Tackle||Matt Kalil||Minnesota Vikings||7/6/89|
|Right Tackle||Tyron Smith||Dallas Cowboys||12/12/90|
|Defensive Tackle||Ndamukong Suh||Detroit Lions||1/6/87|
|Defensive Tackle||Nick Fairley||Detroit Lions||1/23/88|
|Nose Tackle||B.J. Raji||Green Bay Packers||7/11/86|
|Defensive End||Jason Pierre-Paul||New York Giants||1/1/89|
|Defensive End||J.J. Watt||Houston Texans||3/22/89|
|Cornerback||Patrick Peterson||Arizona Cardinals||7/11/90|
|Cornerback||Morris Claiborne (R)||Dallas Cowboys||2/7/90|
|Linebacker (Will)||Von Miller||Denver Broncos||3/26/89|
|Linebacker (Mike)||Luke Kuechly (R)||Carolina Panthers||4/20/91|
|Linebacker (Sam)||Rolando McClain||Oakland Raiders||7/14/89|
|Strong Safety||Eric Berry||Kansas City Chiefs||12/29/88|
|Free Safety||Louis Delmas||Detroit Lions||4/12/87|
|Punter||Bryan Anger||Jacksonville Jaguars||10/6/88|
|Kicker||Dan Bailey||Dallas Cowboys||1/26/88|
|Punt Returner||Joe Adams (R)||Carolina Panthers||11/22/89|
|Kick Returner||Joe McKnight||New York Jets||4/16/88|
Jimmy Grappone is a Featured Columnist covering the NFL and the Carolina Panthers.
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