Building an NFL Franchise: The Ultimate Fantasy Draft

Bryn Swartz@eaglescentralSenior Writer IIIMarch 25, 2013

Building an NFL Franchise: The Ultimate Fantasy Draft

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    Who's the best quarterback in the NFL? Aaron Rodgers? Tom Brady? Peyton Manning?

    Yeah, I'd probably pick one of those three too. But what if you were starting a team for the future and you had to be concerned about the age of a player?

    Then you wouldn't pick Peyton Manning, who just turned 37 years old and only has a few seasons left in his Hall of Fame career. You might not even pick Aaron Rodgers, who will turn 30 years old during the 2013 season. 

    That's what the next 26 slides take into account. I chose the player at each position I would most want if I were starting a team from scratch, a team that would allow me to use the chosen player for the remainder of his career. (I went with 10 offensive players, leaving out a fullback.)

    On defense, I picked 11 players, using a standard 4-3 defense. I also picked a player at each of the four special teams positions, as well as a head coach.

    The majority of these players have played just a year or two in the NFL, hence the reason for choosing them to start a team with. You should be able to benefit from at least another decade of exceptional performance from these players. 

    Interesting note: 19 of the 25 players were selected in the first round, with just two second-round picks, two thirds, a fourth and a sixth. The 19 first-round picks include seven players picked in the top five. 

Quarterback: Andrew Luck

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    During his five seasons as the starting quarterback for the Green Bay Packers, Aaron Rodgers has turned in passing statistics that most quarterbacks could only post in Madden. 

    He holds career marks in passer rating (104.9), adjusted yards per pass attempt (8.63), touchdown-to-interception ratio (3.72) and interception percentage (1.7). He's won a Most Valuable Player award in the regular season and the Super Bowl. 

    The only problem is his age. He'll be 30 this December. That's too old to start a team.

    Last year's No. 1 overall draft pick, Andrew Luck, edges out Rodgers as the top quarterback I'd pick to start a team.

    There's really nothing not to like about Andrew Luck. Nothing. 

    As a rookie, he led the Colts to a nine-game improvement over the 2011 season, winning 11 games, including seven in the fourth quarter. He was asked to throw 627 passes, almost 40 per game, with a receiving corps that led the league with 50 dropped passes. He had a subpar running game, receiving corps and offensive line, yet he finished with the 11th-best QBR in the league.

    He's tough as nails and underrated as a runner (255 yards and five scores in 2012). Oh, and at 23, he's likely going to be dominating this league for the next 10 to 15 seasons. 

    You can take Rodgers, who'll be 30 next season. You can have Robert Griffin III, Russell Wilson or Colin Kaepernick, and spend every season hoping they don't sustain a career-ending injury. 

    But I'll take Luck, and in 15 years when he has multiple MVP awards and Super Bowl trophies, I'll have no regrets. 

Running Back: CJ Spiller

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    Running back was the toughest position to decide which player to choose. 

    Adrian Peterson is obviously the first player to consider. His 2012 season, in which he rushed for 2,097 yards and earned the Most Valuable Player award less than a year removed from a horrific torn ACL, ranks as one of the single most impressive seasons by any running back in history. 

    But he's also 28 years old, with 1,754 carries in his career. How many more years will he play, let alone dominate? Three or four at the most? I can't take that chance.

    I considered a number of younger players. Philly's LeSean McCoy doesn't turn 25 until this offseason. Tampa Bay's Doug Martin and Washington's Alfred Morris both had tremendous rookie seasons and are just 24 years old. Kansas City's Jamaal Charles is 26, with a ridiculous 5.8 yards per carry average in his career. Cleveland's Trent Richardson is 22 and scored 12 touchdowns last year. 

    But I'll go with the most underrated runner in the game: Buffalo's CJ Spiller, who is just 25 years old with only 388 career carries under his belt.

    Spiller thrived on a Buffalo team that had a weak passing attack in 2012, rushing for 1,244 yards and six scores on 6.0 yards per carry. He's also a threat out of the backfield and he can return punts and kicks too.

    You could argue for a half-dozen players and you wouldn't be wrong. The running back position is becoming less important with each passing season. I'll take an explosive runner who's a threat to score every time he touches the ball over a veteran like AP or a consistent workhorse like Martin. 

Wide Receiver 1: AJ Green

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    I chose to pass over Adrian Peterson, the clear-cut best running back in the National Football League, because he's already 28 years old. I'm going to do the same with Calvin Johnson, despite recording a single-season record 1,964 receiving yards last year, because he's already 28 years old.

    I'll go with AJ Green as my No. 1 receiver. At 24, Green is four years younger than Johnson. He may not be as dominant, but I also don't think he's come close to his full potential yet. 

    He caught 97 passes for 1,350 yards and 11 scores in 2012, despite playing with just an average quarterback and without a solid running game or No. 2 receiver. He's the single biggest offensive weapon on the Bengals and he can't be stopped. 

Wide Receiver 2: Julio Jones

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    Last year, Jones caught 79 passes for 1,198 yards and 10 scores, before exploding with 11 catches for 182 yards and two scores against the NFL's best defense in the conference championship game. 

    At barely 24 years old, he's been worth the massive trade the Atlanta Falcons made to move up to the sixth overall pick of the 2011 draft. 

    Why is he below Green? He doesn't block as well and his numbers aren't as dominant, despite having a much better supporting cast (Matt Ryan, Steven Jackson, Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez are significantly better than Andy Dalton, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Andrew Hawkins and Jermaine Gresham). 

    Jones edges out Calvin Johnson and Dez Bryant for the No. 2 spot at receiver. 

Tight End: Rob Gronkowski

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    Choosing a franchise tight end basically came down to two players: Rob Gronkowski or Jimmy Graham. Both are just three years into their career and each has one of the game's best passers to throw him the football. 

    But look at their ages. Gronkowski doesn't turn 24 years old for a couple months. Graham turns 28 during this season. 

    That's a no-brainer. I went with Gronkowski, who's averaged 62 catches for 888 yards and 13 touchdowns during his three seasons in the National Football League. He's been the best offensive weapon on the best offensive team.

    The only weakness with Gronkowski is that he's already suffered three major injuries: a high ankle sprain in the 2011 AFC championship game, a broken left forearm in Week 12 of the 2012 season and a re-broken left forearm in the 2012 AFC divisional round.

    Do I think that Gronk is injury-prone? Yeah, I do. Would I pass him up for any other tight end in the league? Not a chance. 

Offensive Tackle 1: Matt Kalil

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    Matt Kalil is the most attractive long-term option out of any offensive lineman in the National Football League. 

    The fourth overall pick in the 2012 draft, Kalil turned in an impressive rookie season, grading 22nd among the 80 qualifying tackles, according to Pro Football Focus. He's especially effective as a pass-blocker, allowing just two sacks all year. 

    And he's at least solid as a run-blocker. After all, veteran running back Adrian Peterson did rush for 2,097 yards last year, the second-highest single-season total in history. 

    Kalil, 23, is only going to get better with each passing year. If not for the unbelievable rookie seasons by quarterbacks Robert Griffin III, Russell Wilson and Andrew Luck, Kalil may have earned some Offensive Rookie of the Year votes. 

Offensive Tackle 2: Trent Williams

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    Just like Kalil, Trent Williams was the fourth overall selection in the draft (2010). Unlike Kalil, Williams wasn't an immediate star.

    He struggled as a rookie and couldn't stay healthy in his second season. But he turned in his breakout year in 2012, ranking as the league's 19th-best offensive tackle, per Pro Football Focus. He's an exceptional pass-blocker and a very good run-blocker.

    Give Williams a ton of the credit for the dominant rookie seasons by both Robert Griffin III and Alfred Morris. 

Offensive Guard 1: Mike Iupati

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    Choosing Mike Iupati as the top guard in the league was basically a no-brainer. Selected in the first round of the 2010 draft, Iupati has rated as the 13th-, 11th- and fifth-best guard during his three seasons in the league, per Pro Football Focus.

    He's a tremendous run-blocker and an improving pass-blocker. He's also made all 48 starts during his three years. 

Offensive Guard 2: Kevin Zeitler

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    If possible, I'd actually choose Alabama guard Chance Warmack over any current guard in the National Football League other than Iupati. That's because the position generally has a very high success rate and Warmack is considered to be the top prospect since Steve Hutchinson, more than a decade ago.

    But among current players, last year's rookie Kevin Zeitler stands out. He just turned 23 years old and he graded as the 12th-best guard in the league, according to Pro Football Focus. He'll likely only continue to get better. His specialty is pass-blocking, which should help developing quarterback Andy Dalton and stud receiver AJ Green.

Center: Mike Pouncey

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    It came down to the Pouncey twins at the center position. I went with Mike, who has a year less experience than Maurkice. 

    Mike, a first-round draft pick by the Dolphins in 2011, graded as the league's eighth-best center in 2012, per Pro Football Focus. He allowed just three quarterback hurries all season. 

    You can plug him in on your offensive line for the next decade with confidence that he'll play at a high level. 

Defensive Tackle 1: Geno Atkins

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    The lowest drafted player on the All-NFL team, Geno Atkins was the most underappreciated force in the NFL in 2012. In any other year, he would have earned strong Defensive Player of the Year consideration. 

    The Bengals' defensive tackle collected 12.5 sacks, four forced fumbles and 39 tackles. According to Pro Football Focus, he rated as the second-best player in the entire league (behind JJ Watt). 

Defensive Tackle 2: Gerald McCoy

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    Count Gerald McCoy among the many 2010 first-round draft picks who experienced their breakout year in 2012 (Russell Okung, CJ Spiller, Brandon Graham, Derrick Morgan, Demaryius Thomas and Dez Bryant). 

    The former third overall pick by the Buccaneers, McCoy exploded in 2012, recording five sacks, 36 hurries and 17 tackles. 

    You can take Ndamukong Suh on your team. I agree that he has more natural talent. But I'm worried that he'll turn into the next Albert Haynesworth. I'll take Gerald McCoy, who should still be a Pro Bowler many times over. 

Defensive End 1: JJ Watt

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    JJ Watt is the top defensive player in the entire NFL, regardless of position or age. He's a force unlike any player I've seen in my lifetime (no, never got to see Lawrence Taylor).

    Last season, Watt recorded 20.5 sacks. He collected 16 passes defensed. He recorded 57 tackles in 59 attempts. And he turned in the greatest season by any player in the last five years, according to the rankings at Pro Football Focus. 

Defensive End 2: Jason Pierre-Paul

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    Would I be concerned picking Jason Pierre-Paul as a future defensive end, despite his sack totals dropping from 16.5 in 2011 to 6.5 in 2012? 

    No, I wouldn't.

    His sacks really dropped last year, but he recorded 44 hurries, compared to just 26 the previous season. He's also become a force to be reckoned with against the run. He's much more than just a sack machine.

    He'll have a tremendous career. 

Linebacker 1: Von Miller

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    Miller is either the best, second-best or third-best defensive player in the league, depending how you rank the trio of Miller, JJ Watt and Darrelle Revis. But he's clearly the game's best linebacker. 

    Last year, Miller racked up 18.5 sacks. He forced six fumbles and scored on an interception touchdown. Oh, and he's also amazing against the run. 

    The sky is the limit for the former No. 2 overall draft pick. He's just 24 years old and looks like he may be the next Lawrence Taylor. 

Linebacker 2: Luke Kuechly

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    Luke Kuechly is easily one of the most underrated players in the National Football League. I don't care that he's played just one year. He's already one of the game's best linebackers. He just doesn't receive the hype of the big three sack machines from the 2011 draft class (Von Miller, JJ Watt and Aldon Smith). 

    Kuechly is an absolute tackling machine. He led the league as a rookie with 103 tackles. He also recovered two fumbles, intercepted two passes and collected a sack. He's tremendous against the run.

    He doesn't turn 22 until next month, but the former first-round pick has all the makings of a perennial Pro Bowler at middle linebacker. 

Linebacker 3: NaVorro Bowman

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    NaVorro Bowman just edged out Clay Matthews and Patrick Willis for the final spot at linebacker. He's not quite in their league, but he's also two years younger.

    Bowman doesn't receive the hype because he's surrounded by a trio of great linebackers in Willis, Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks. 

    He's not flashy, but he's extremely consistent. He'll get you 100 tackles and a couple of sacks. He's terrific against both the run and the pass. 

Cornerback 1: Richard Sherman

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    Richard Sherman may not have passed Darrelle Revis as the game's best cornerback. Not yet anyway. Revis deserves a chance to prove that he can still play at an elite level.

    But Sherman is knocking on the door. This man was simply incredible in 2012.

    Quarterbacks completed just 47.1 percent of passes they threw in his direction. He surrendered just two touchdowns and intercepted eight passes. His passer rating against, 41.1, was less than half of the league average.

    Against Tom Brady, Colin Kaepernick, Cam Newton and Robert Griffin III, he allowed the following passing statistics: 7-of-22 for 115 yards and two interceptions. That's insane. 

    The trash-talking cornerback is just 25 years old. It'll be fun to watch him challenge the NFC's star young quarterbacks for the next decade. 

Cornerback 2: Darrelle Revis

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    Normally I wouldn't touch a 28-year-old player in a keeper draft. I especially wouldn't invest my future in a player coming off a torn ACL that cost him almost all of his sixth season in the league. 

    After all, we've seen how fast cornerbacks can lose their big-play ability (I'm looking at you, Nnamdi Asomugha). 

    But this is Darrelle Revis we're talking about. He's no ordinary player. He's been the best cornerback in the National Football League for the last half-decade and I have complete confidence that he'll return to elite form once the 2013 season begins. 

    Revis allowed a 45.6 passer rating in 2011, ranking as the best cornerback in the league, according to Pro Football Focus. He surrendered a 77.4 passer rating in 2010. And he allowed a 29.1 passer rating in 2009, the best mark by any corner over the last five years. 

    Revis doesn't just shadow one side of the field, either. He shuts down the other team's best receiver. Consistently. 

    With as much of a passing league as the NFL has become these days, I'll take a 28-year-old Revis over a young stud like Patrick Peterson (seven interceptions in 2012) or Casey Hayward (31.1 passer rating against as a rookie in 2012).

    With Revis, I know exactly what I'm getting. The others haven't done it long enough. 

Safety 1: Earl Thomas

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    A former first-round draft pick, Earl Thomas isn't dominant, but safety might be the weakest position on the all-NFL team. 

    He's been consistent during his three years, earning a pair of Pro Bowl selections. This past season, he was selected as a First-Team All-Pro. 

    At just 23 years old, Thomas will continue to get better with each passing year. Playing in the same secondary as Richard Sherman, Brandon Browner and Kam Chancellor will only help him. 

Safety 2: Jairus Byrd

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    Byrd gets my vote as the best safety in the NFL. The only knock against him is his age. He turns 27 next season, meaning he likely only has five to six years left as a dominant defensive player.

    In 2012, Byrd allowed no touchdowns and intercepted five passes. He's an exceptional tackler and he's solid against the run. 

Kicker: Blair Walsh

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    Blair Walsh had an insane rookie season in 2012. 

    The Vikings rookie connected on 35-of-38 field goals, including a ridiculous 10-of-10 from above 50 yards. He also averaged 70.4 yards per kick, the highest among full-time kickers. 

    Kickers can be streaky and there's no guarantee that Walsh will turn in a successful career. I wouldn't be surprised if he never has a year as dominant as his 2012 season.

    But I'll take my chances and go with the 23-year-old over any other kicker in the league. 

Punter: Bryan Anger

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    It's going to take a lot for Bryan Anger to live up to his billing as a third-round draft pick. He did his part as a rookie, however. 

    In 2012, Anger averaged 47.8 yards per punt, the seventh highest total in the league (and the 26th highest single-season total in NFL history). 

    Just 24 years old, Anger should have 10 to 15 years left in his career, if not more. 

Kick Returner: Percy Harvin

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    Through four years, Percy Harvin has put up numbers as a kick returner that have been surpassed by just a few return specialists in the history of the league. 

    He's averaged 27.9 yards every time he returns a kick, the sixth-best average ever. Over the past two seasons, he's averaged 34.2 yards per return. He's scored a touchdown in all years of his career, including two over 100 yards. 

    This doesn't even take into account his abilities as a receiver (or runner). He's as explosive a return man as Devin Hester in 2006 and 2007, or Dante Hall in 2003. 

Punt Returner: Patrick Peterson

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    There's no denying that the decline in Patrick Peterson's numbers as a punt returner from the 2011 season to the 2012 season was alarming. 

    As a rookie in 2011, he averaged 15.9 yards per punt return, which included a single-season record-tying four touchdowns. One came in overtime to stun the St. Louis Rams. 

    But in 2012, he averaged just 8.4 yards per return, without any touchdowns. 

    I'll take my chances, though. All the great ones have their off years as a returner. Devin Hester's had his (in three of his seven years, actually). 

    Peterson's skills haven't diminished. He'll bounce back. He's probably not ever going to score four touchdowns in a single season, but he's still a threat to score every time he touches the ball. That's exactly what every team looks for in a punt returner. 

Head Coach: Jim Harbaugh

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    I think Bill Belichick is on the short list with Vince Lombardi and Bill Walsh for the title of greatest coach in the history of the National Football League. He's a three-time Super Bowl champion and he's a pair of plays away from five rings. 

    But if I'm looking to the future, I'll take Jim Harbaugh, who is 11 years younger than Belichick. The San Francisco 49ers coach has experienced as much success in his first two years in the league as any coach in history. 

    He's led the 49ers to the NFC championship and the Super Bowl, coming within a single play of winning each game. He's also shown that he can win no matter who he has at quarterback. 

    With more draft picks than any team in the league next month, a completely stacked roster and one of the most talented young quarterbacks in the league, Harbaugh has a team that could potentially turn into a dynasty, as Belichick did with his Patriots a decade ago.