NFL Teams That Are Comfortable with Their Core Right Now
It’s extremely difficult for an NFL team to feel comfortable with its core looking forward without a young, talented quarterback.
Peyton Manning and Tom Brady may each want to play until they’re 40, but it would be foolish for their respective teams not to keep the backup QB position as talented and ready as possible.
If one of them gets hurt, their team’s Super Bowl dreams—if not playoff hopes—may be dashed, just like that.
The Green Bay Packers showed us how well a contingency plan and developmental project at quarterback can work with an aging incumbent star. Aaron Rodgers has done pretty well for himself since Brett Favre left in 2008—the time that he actually suited up for another team.
Teams that can consider their respective cores and be comfortable with their outlook are probably seeing the following in-house: a quarterback younger than 30, at least one youthful skill-position player with a track record and at least a couple of young defensive cornerstones to build around.
It doesn’t hurt when the QB is locked up for modest sums for this year and next—how far in the future can we really project in the NFL, anyway?
Most of the teams that fit that description are in the NFC.
The top-heavy AFC will eventually have some competition in the Indianapolis Colts, who didn’t have to wait long at all to find an adequate successor to Peyton Manning. Andrew Luck lived up to the hype in his rookie year, breaking the NFL rookie record for passing yards and attempts.
The 23-year-old chucked it 627 times for 4,374 yards, 23 touchdowns and 18 picks, while most importantly staying active for all 17 Colts games—which means he led them to the playoffs.
His long-term running mate will be sophomore T.Y. Hilton, another 23-year-old who enjoyed a productive rookie campaign marked by big plays. Hilton averaged 17.2 yards per catch en route to 861 receiving yards and seven touchdowns. He also returned a punt to the end zone.
Indianapolis has—surprisingly, given head coach Chuck Pagano’s background in defense—spent 12 of 17 draft picks on offensive players since 2012. Its 2013 first-rounder was used to select pass-rusher Bjoern Werner, who is not yet a starter.
Matt Ryan, 28, is working on a five-year stretch of improving his touchdown count. He threw twice as many (32) in 2012 as he did as a rookie (16) and still has not thrown more than one pick per game in any season of his career.
Julio Jones, 24, is the heir apparent to Roddy White as Ryan’s primary target in the passing game. In 29 career games, the third-year wideout has recorded 2,157 receiving yards and 18 touchdowns. He also broke off 80-yard gains in each of his first two seasons.
Ryan and Julio were both top-10 picks in their respective NFL drafts.
The Atlanta Falcons paid to keep safety William Moore, a former second-round safety who racked up 75 tackles, two forced fumbles and four interceptions in just 12 games last year. He’s 28.
Sean Weatherspoon, 25, is one season away from a contract year. The former University of Missouri star, like Moore, tallied 95 total tackles, three sacks, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and a pick in 13 games. The fourth-year pro missed five appearances as a rookie, but played all 16 in his second year.
Green Bay Packers
The Green Bay Packers continue to build through the NFL draft. Aaron Rodgers is one of the senior remaining examples at 29 years old, and he’s got a lot of good football ahead of him.
In the last two years (31 games), Rodgers has thrown for 8,938 yards, 84 touchdowns and 14 interceptions, in addition to 516 rushing yards and five more scores.
His new favorite target, Randall Cobb, has caught a ridiculous 77.8 percent of his career targets. No wonder Rodgers likes throwing to him. Cobb’s just 23 years old and has 1,329 receiving yards and nine touchdowns on 105 catches on his resume, despite playing very limited time as a rookie.
Green Bay owes him just under $2 million for the next two seasons.
On defense, the Packers added Datone Jones, 23, to play on the D-line in front of Clay Matthews, 27, in a combo that is similar to the 49ers' Smiths (Justin and Aldon). Yes, Clay is older than Aldon, but 19.5 sacks last season says the latter is on the correct side of the analogy.
Matthews notched 13 sacks in 12 games last year. His career high is 13.5 (in 15 games in 2010). The Packers expect more of the same as he enters his prime, as he’s currently on a six-year, $69.77 million deal.
San Francisco 49ers
Colin Kaepernick’s contract looks really, really good for the San Francisco 49ers right now. The guy has a career 97.9 passer rating (223 attempts) and 6.4 yards per rush (65 attempts), but is due just over $3 million for the second half of his rookie deal.
The 49ers’ No. 1 skill guy for this year (which excludes Marcus Lattimore) and going forward (probably takes Frank Gore out of the equation) may be the injured Michael Crabtree. The 25-year-old has been targeted much more often (93 times, including playoffs) than 29-year-old Vernon Davis (38) since Kaepernick earned the starting job against the Chicago Bears on Nov. 19, 2012.
San Francisco’s 3-4 defense boasts three linebackers aged 23 (Aldon Smith) to 28 (Patrick Willis) who have heard their names mentioned among the best of their respective positions in the league. Smith recorded 19.5 sacks, three forced fumbles and a pick last year.
It was his second season; he notched 14 sacks as a rookie.
Willis and NaVorro Bowman, 25, combined for 268 tackles, 2.5 sacks, three forced fumbles, a fumble recovery and three interceptions in 2012.
The Seahawks are loaded with young talent at running back and wide receiver. Christine Michael (22) and Robert Turbin (23) are potential NFL starters, backing up a stud in Marshawn Lynch (27). On the outside are Sidney Rice (27), Golden Tate (25) and Doug Baldwin (24), with a potential MVP Percy Harvin (25) and potential-laden Jermaine Kearse (23) waiting in the wings.
They’re out there building a squad in the Pacific Northwest.
Seattle’s defense is stocked, too. Richard Sherman (25) is manning the perimeter, looking to state that he’s the NFL’s best cornerback. Bobby Wagner (23) is in the second level, running dudes down to the tune of 140 tackles in his rookie season.
And Bruce Irvin is that speedy pass-rusher every good defense seems to need nowadays. Half of his tackles were sacks in his rookie year. Of course, he had 16 total tackles (eight sacks), but that’s not at all a bad debut for the 6’3”, 248-pound defensive end out of West Virginia.
There are no rumblings coming out of Miami that Ryan Tannehill is not the answer at quarterback for the Miami Dolphins. After the upset pick of taking him at No. 8 overall in 2012, the coaching staff and front office has not been shown the door, which is an endorsement of the decision thus far.
The 25-year-old is now being equipped with targets. The biggest name among them is former unrestricted free-agent wideout Mike Wallace, 27, who has missed one game in his career and averages 17.2 yards per catch.
Wallace has scored six or more touchdowns every year as a pro and eight or more each year since his rookie season. The Dolphins used a five-year, $60-million deal, including $27 million guaranteed, to reward him for that work with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Sophomore defensive lineman Olivier Vernon only tallied 32 tackles as a rookie, but he put together some big plays: 3.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and two blocked kicks.
The Dolphins added some Super Bowl pedigree to the middle of their defense with the signing of Dannell Ellerbe. A Super Bowl winner with the Ravens last year, Ellerbe turned 124 tackles, 4.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and a pick in 17 games (including postseason) into $14 million guaranteed.
He’s never played more than 13 games in a single regular season, but Miami seems comfortable with that.
The Washington Redskins boast a quarterback that was undefeated as a starter in his rookie season, completed 68.8 percent of his passes, averaged 9.71 yards per attempt and finished with a 101.6 passer rating.
He also threw more touchdowns than interceptions and averaged 7.3 yards per carry.
His name is Kirk Cousins.
Robert Griffin III threw for 3,200 yards, 20 touchdowns and just five picks, while accounting for 815 yards and seven more scores in the running game. He rushed for 40 first downs—on 120 total attempts—as a rookie.
Alfred Morris is paired with the duo. Morris was only targeted 16 times in his rookie year, but he converted 335 carries into 1,613 yards and 13 touchdowns. That 4.8 yards-per-carry average is fantastic for a rookie with such high volume.
Kerrigan, 25, has 16 sacks, six forced fumbles, one fumble recovery and two pick-sixes to his credit. He also has yet to miss a game through two seasons.
Andy Dalton doesn’t have the same amount of production as the other young passers on this list, but it may not really matter. The 25-year-old signal-caller has a 47-to-29 touchdown-to-interception ratio in his first 32 career regular-season games, but he’s got one of the game’s brightest young stars on the outside to target: wide receiver A.J. Green.
Green, also 25, is 2-for-2 in bids for 1,000-yard seasons, totaling 2,407 yards and 18 touchdowns on 162 catches in his first two years (31 games).
The Cincinnati Bengals are putting together a young, talented defensive line.
In yet another 25-year-old, they can boast one of the NFL’s best defensive tackles: 6’1”, 303-pound Geno Atkins. After 10.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries in his first pair of NFL seasons, Atkins entered the national consciousness with 12.5 sacks and four forced fumbles in his third year.
He’s also yet to miss a game in his pro career, so the former fourth-rounder got paid this offseason.
Cincinnati also seems to have found a gem in undrafted sophomore linebacker Vontaze Burfict, after he put a 127-tackle rookie season in the books. The Bengals fielded a top-eight defense in terms of yards and points allowed in 2012.
Jamal Collier graduated from Washington University in St. Louis and is now a law student who covers the NFL in his spare time. His work also appears on Yahoo!. Follow him on Twitter: Follow @JCollierD