Peyton Manning just turned in arguably one of the five greatest seasons by a quarterback in NFL history, throwing for a single-season record 5,477 yards and 55 touchdowns. He earned his fifth league MVP award, cementing his status as the greatest regular-season quarterback ever.
But Manning turned 38 years old this offseason. He has about two years left in his career. Two of the other best quarterbacks in the game, Tom Brady and Drew Brees, are also approaching the final stretch of their career.
So who would you choose if you were building an all-time keeper NFL team from scratch? In this league, you keep the player for the remainder of his career. You can take Manning, but you'd need a new quarterback in two years. You could take Aaron Rodgers and hopefully have eight more years of dominant play. Or you could pick one of the top young quarterbacks and have 12 more great years.
That's what I did here, using this philosophy for every position, 11 on offense and 11 on defense. I chose a standard 4-3 defense but remained flexible, meaning a pass-rusher may line up at either defensive end or outside linebacker. Any player in the NFL was eligible, including rookies.
Who quarterbacks the ultimate NFL team?
Quarterback: Andrew Luck, Indianapolis Colts (24)
There were a couple of options for the top quarterback. Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers is just 30. But I'm slightly concerned about his injury history, and he hasn't been quite as dominant over the last two years. Other options included Seattle's Russell Wilson, San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick, Carolina's Cam Newton and Philadelphia's Nick Foles. But each of the three is a) older and b) not as talented as my number-one choice.
And that would be Andrew Luck, the most physically gifted quarterback prospect in the game. It's not about the stats with Luck. He's not at the point in his career where he posts dominant stats. He's just the most important player on his entire team, and it's not even close. He doesn't have a Marshawn Lynch or LeSean McCoy helping him out. He's surrounded by average offensive talent and a subpar offensive line, but the master of fourth-quarter comebacks seems to always find a way to get it done.
Just 24 years old, Luck is due for a breakout season in 2014. If not in 2014, it'll be in 2015. He's going to be a multiple-time MVP and Super Bowl champion by the time his career is finished.
Running Back: LeSean McCoy, Philadelphia Eagles (25)
Perhaps the hardest position to choose on this team was running back. I'm all about picking young players, and LeSean McCoy definitely has some mileage. The NFL's rushing champion in 2013 just finished his fifth season, and he carried more than 300 times in 2013.
But McCoy is the best young (25 or under) back in the NFL. Eddie Lacy had a great rookie season but he's just 2 years younger than McCoy. I'd rather go with sure greatness in McCoy, even if I only get two to three more years of dominant play.
Should Calvin Johnson (29) make this team?
Wide Receivers: Alshon Jeffery, Chicago Bears (24) and AJ Green, Cincinnati Bengals (25)
No, I did not pick 29-year-old Calvin Johnson, although it was very tempting. I prefer younger talent on my team. Cleveland's Josh Gordon would have been my top choice, but he can't stay out of trouble. I'm not risking anything on him.
That makes Alshon Jeffery, 2013's breakout receiver, the top option. Jeffery is just 24, and he posted 1,421 receiving yards in his sophomore season.
On the other side of the field, I'll go with Cincinnati's AJ Green, the fourth overall pick in the 2011 draft. Green is tremendously talented, and he's increased his production over each of the last two seasons. I'd probably pick him over Jeffery if they were the same age.
Slot Receiver: Cordarrelle Patterson, Minnesota Vikings (23)
I chose a slot receiver over a second tight end. Minnesota's Cordarrelle Patterson is the quintessential slot receiver. His speed makes him a mismatch for any defensive back. He caught 45 passes and scored four touchdowns as a rookie, although he also had Matt Cassel and Christian Ponder throwing him passes. With Patterson, you also have a dynamic return man, a player who averaged a ridiculous 32.4 yards with two touchdowns.
Tight End: Jimmy Graham, New Orleans Saints (27)
No longer is Rob Gronkowski the top tight end on this list. He might not even be second. He just cannot stay healthy.
New Orleans' Jimmy Graham led the entire league with 16 receiving touchdowns in 2013. At 6'7'' with blazing speed, he is the most feared tight end, perhaps ever. He's almost impossible to cover one-on-one. His age, 27, makes him the oldest player on the team, but he probably still has six to eight great seasons left.
Offensive Tackles: Trent Williams, Washington Redskins (25) and Tyron Smith, Dallas Cowboys (23)
It was tempting to consider a player like Luke Joeckel or Jake Matthews, but neither has proven himself at the NFL level. Washington's Trent Williams, a former top-five overall pick, is the safest choice. He's just 25 and graded as the top tackle in the NFL in 2013, per Pro Football Focus.
Dallas' Tyron Smith can play right tackle. He struggled during his first two years but turned in a breakout third year, as many tackles tend to do. He graded as the fifth-best offensive tackle in the NFL, per Pro Football Focus.
Should Greg Robinson be eligible for this team?
Offensive Guards: Greg Robinson, St. Louis Rams (21) and Chance Warmack, Tennessee Titans (22)
There are no clear-cut young offensive guards that would be a slam dunk to make this team. I considered Larry Warford, the rookie for the Detroit Lions who dominated last year. But he was just a third-round pick, and I am concerned that he's hit his ceiling already.
I'm going to go with Greg Robinson, who was just drafted second overall by the St. Louis Rams. Robinson is a physical freak who can play tackle or guard. He's a tremendous run blocker who should be able to play at a high level immediately. He's also 21 years old.
My other guard will be Chance Warmack, the first-round pick by the Titans a year ago. Even though he didn't play well as a rookie, I have complete confidence that he will become an elite player within two or three seasons.
Center: Travis Frederick, Dallas Cowboys (23)
Just edging out Philly's Jason Kelce, Travis Frederick drew a lot of scrutiny when he was drafted in the first round by the Dallas Cowboys in 2013. But he played extremely well as a rookie, grading out as the seventh-best center in the NFL, per Pro Football Focus. He finished first in run-blocking. At 23, Frederick will only continue to improve.
Defensive Tackles: Gerald McCoy, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (26) and Geno Atkins, Cincinnati Bengals (26)
The best and most underappreciated defensive tackle in the NFL, Gerald McCoy has been a model of consistency since he was selected third overall in the 2010 draft. He enjoyed his best season in 2013 and should continue to play at a dominant level for another half-decade or more.
With Geno Atkins, I'm banking on a once-dominant player to successfully return from an ACL tear, an injury that has now become almost routine in the NFL world. Atkins is the most feared pass-rushing defensive tackle in the NFL.
Will Jadeveon Clowney make this team next year?
Defensive Ends: JJ Watt, Houston Texans (24) and Robert Quinn, St. Louis Rams (24)
The strength of this defense will be the defensive ends. JJ Watt is probably the best defensive player in the NFL. He's played three years, and the last two were among the greatest by a defensive lineman in league history. He's virtually unblockable and on this dream team, he will be single-teamed every play.
Robert Quinn, just 24, was the breakout defensive player of the year in 2013. He collected 19 sacks and forced seven fumbles. On the Rams current defensive line, he has a chance to compete for the league lead in sacks every year for the next half decade.
Linebackers: Luke Kuechly, Carolina Panthers (23), Lavonte David, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (24) and Von Miller, Denver Broncos (25)
An absolute tackling machine, Kuechly is the best linebacker in the National Football League. He earned Defensive Rookie of the Year honors in 2012 and Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2013. He's going to be the next Ray Lewis.
Lavonte Davis is one of the most underrated defensive players in the league, but he's just 24 and dominated the stat sheet in 2013. David collected six sacks, five interceptions and 145 tackles.
I'm taking a leap of faith with Von Miller as my third linebacker. He tore his ACL in 2013, but I am expecting him to be able to continue his career at an elite level.
Cornerbacks: Richard Sherman, Seattle Seahawks (26) and Joe Haden, Cleveland Browns (25)
Obviously, Richard Sherman is the top choice at cornerback. He surpassed Darrelle Revis as the league's best cornerback in 2013. He intercepted eight passes and allowed just a 47.3 passer rating in the regular season before making the play of the postseason to send the Seahawks to the Super Bowl against division rival 49ers.
On the other side of the field, Cleveland's Joe Haden gets the nod. Although he's played four years, Haden is just 25. He's immensely talented and underrated, good enough to cover, and shut down, any number one receiving threat in the league.
Safeties: Earl Thomas, Seattle Seahawks (24) and Kenny Vaccaro, New Orleans Saints (22)
The best safety in the NFL, Earl Thomas is still just 24 years old. He's tremendous in coverage and can lay the big hit when needed.
Kenny Vaccaro was the best rookie safety in the league in 2013 until he broke his leg in December. He's a movable chess piece on the defensive side of the ball, able to play the run and the pass as called upon. He's just 22.
Who should coach the ultimate NFL team?
Head Coach: Chip Kelly, Philadelphia Eagles (50)
Bill Belichick is probably nearing the end of his career as a head coach. I think he's the greatest in league history, but I'm not selecting him over a significantly younger coach.
Jim and John Harbaugh would be terrific options as would Sean Payton or Pete Carroll. But no coach exceeded expectations as much as Chip Kelly did during his first year in Philadelphia.
Kelly took a 4-12 last-place team and led the Eagles to a 10-6 record and a division title. The Eagles scored 280 points in 2012 and 442, a franchise record, in 2013. Nick Foles went from a mediocre boring backup quarterback in 2012 to a player who threw 27 touchdowns and just two interceptions in 2013.
Kelly has built the Eagles the way he wants them. He's turned that roster around so quickly nobody remembers the pitiful end of the Andy Reid era. He's a future Super Bowl-winning head coach.