Ranking the NFL's True Franchise Cornerstones Entering 2022

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksFeatured Columnist IVJune 30, 2022

Ranking the NFL's True Franchise Cornerstones Entering 2022

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    The Cambridge Dictionary defines a cornerstone as "a stone in a corner of a building, especially one with the date when the building was made or other writing on it." It's a definition that doesn't exactly translate to the NFL.

    However, it also defines a cornerstone as "something of great importance that everything else depends on."

    Now we're talking.

    Cornerstone players are the foundation of an NFL team. The building blocks for winning. Success or failure depends on them. Have a good game, and it's victory formation. Have a bad one (or get hurt), and it's a long, quiet plane ride home.

    Of course, all cornerstones are not created equally. The best player on a terrible team might not make the top 10 on another. Or maybe it's the very presence of an elite cornerstone that delineates between bad and average, between average and great.

    For the purposes of ranking the league's top cornerstone players in 2022, candidates must meet three requirements.

    First, they must be under 28 years old when Week 1 rolls around. An aging foundation will crumble much more quickly than one that was just poured, and with all due respect to veteran greats such as Aaron Rodgers and Aaron Donald, they are much closer to the end than the beginning.

    Second, a cornerstone player has to play for the team that drafted him. J.C. Jackson is an excellent young cornerback, but if he were truly indispensable, the New England Patriots would have re-signed him.

    And finally (and most importantly), a cornerstone must be really, really good at the whole playing football thing.

    Otherwise, he'd just be a rock with writing in it.

Honorable Mentions

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    Micah Parsons. Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

    Before we get to the NFL's top-10 cornerstone players entering 2022, here's a look at the players who just missed the cut.

    Tristan Wirfs, OT, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

    In just two short seasons, Wirfs has become not only arguably the best right tackle in the NFL but also one of the league's best on either end of the offensive line. A first-team All-Pro in 2021, Wirfs has allowed just three career sacks in over 2,200 snaps.

    Jonathan Taylor, RB, Indianapolis Colts

    In his second professional season, Taylor paced the NFL in rushing yards with 1,811, piled up over 2,100 total yards and scored 20 touchdowns. The only reason the 23-year-old missed the cut is that running backs are one of the more easily replaced positions.

    Marshon Lattimore, CB, New Orleans Saints

    Lattimore only recently turned 26, but he already has five seasons and 73 career starts. Over those five seasons Lattimore has been named to four Pro Bowls, won Defensive Rookie of the Year and intercepted 13 passes while regularly covering the opposing No. 1 receiver.

    Ja'Marr Chase, WR, Cincinnati Bengals

    All Chase did in his first professional campaign was break the single-season rookie receiving record with 1,455 yards while adding 81 catches and 13 scores and playing a major role in the Bengals making the Super Bowl. Other than that, he was just OK.

    Micah Parsons, LB, Dallas Cowboys

    Parsons had one of the more impressive rookie seasons from a defender in recent memory, topping 80 total tackles and racking up 13 sacks on the way to Defensive Rookie of the Year honors. If his second season looks anything like his first, Parsons will crack the top 10 here in 2023.

10. Justin Jefferson, WR, Minnesota Vikings

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    With the 21st pick in the 2020 draft, the Philadelphia Eagles selected TCU wide receiver Jalen Reagor. One pick later, the Minnesota Vikings went to the wideout well, too, drafting LSU's Justin Jefferson.

    Eagles fans have been kicking themselves ever since.

    While Reagor has done next to nothing, Jefferson has been a force from the moment he stepped on the field. In his third professional game, Jefferson torched the Tennessee Titans for 175 yards and a touchdown on seven catches.

    By the end of his first year, Jefferson had hauled in 88 catches for a then-rookie record 1,400 yards and seven scores. He finished second in Offensive Rookie of the Year voting and made the Pro Bowl.

    Last year, he upped the stakes, topping 100 receptions, averaging over 95 receiving yards per game and finding the end zone 10 times. Again, the 6'1", 195-pounder made the Pro Bowl.

    Jefferson told NFL Total Access he's only just getting started.

    "It's an endless list that I want to accomplish. At the end of the day, I want to be a Hall of Famer. So, in order to reach that, that position is so much more that I have to accomplish, so much more that I have to set for myself to better myself and really to learn. I just can't wait to really just see how far I can really go. This is just the start of my career, and there's just so much more I have to learn, so much more I have to do for myself to really get on that platform of being a Hall of Famer."

    If he continues on this pace, Jefferson will achieve that lofty goal.

9. Quenton Nelson, OG, Indianapolis Colts

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    It's not often that an interior lineman is mentioned among cornerstone players.

    It's also not that often that a guard dominates like Quenton Nelson of the Indianapolis Colts has over his first four seasons.

    At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, Nelson has looked like an all-time great at his position from the moment the Colts made him the sixth pick in 2018. He has the power to blow defensive tackles off the line of scrimmage and the agility to keep edge-rushers from getting around him.

    There is absolutely zero doubt that the 6'5", 330-pounder could play tackle at an All-Pro level. Zero. None. In four seasons, Nelson has allowed four sacks. Pro Bowl tackle Orlando Brown Jr. of the Kansas City Chiefs allowed that many in 2021 alone.

    Nelson has been named to the Pro Bowl following all four of his NFL seasons and a first-team All-Pro three times. And with the NFL's best offensive lineman headed into a contract year, Colts general manager Chris Ballard told reporters Nelson isn't going anywhere.

    “Look, Quenton’s a Colt,’’ Ballard said. “Want him to be a Colt long term. We’re gonna want Quenton to be here. He’s that important.’’

    Keeping Nelson won't come cheaply. Bleacher Report's Maurice Moton estimated that Nelson's new deal will average $19 million per season—and that might be conservative.

    It's only fitting that Nelson should be the highest-paid guard in NFL history.

    Because he may well be the best guard in NFL history.

8. Nick Bosa, Edge, San Francisco 49ers

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    It takes some doing to turn Joey Bosa into the "other" brother.

    And yet, that's exactly what younger brother Nick is doing after three professional seasons.

    It has admittedly been an up-and-down career for Bosa. As a rookie, he notched nine sacks, brought home Defensive Rookie of the Year honors and helped guide the San Francisco 49ers to a berth in Super Bowl LIV. But that breakout was followed by disaster—just two games into the 2020 season, Bosa tore his ACL.

    His return in 2021 was equal parts triumphant and dominant. Playing in all 17 games, he topped 50 total tackles and tallied 15.5 sacks on the way to his second Pro Bowl. He was both stout in setting the edge against the run and a relentless force while rushing the passer.

    Bosa told reporters he expects to have a better 2022—in part because he didn't have to spend this whole offseason rehabbing a major injury.

    “It was kind of normal offseason training that I really didn’t get to do last year as much,” Bosa said. “I was working my way back to being healthy, and this year I was healthy from the start, so (I) took some time off and got after it."

    Joey Bosa is an excellent edge-rusher and a fantastic technician. He wins with hand placement, technique and leverage. Nick has that tactical know-how as well—but he's faster and stronger than his older brother.

    The backyard games on Thanksgiving at the Bosa house must have been something to see.

7. Myles Garrett, Edge, Cleveland Browns

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    It happened without a ton of fanfare, but the Cleveland Browns quietly fielded an excellent defense in 2021. The Browns were fifth in the league in that regard, allowing 311.5 yards per game—significantly less than both of last year's Super Bowl participants.

    And the heart and soul of that defense is edge-rusher Myles Garrett.

    Garrett was the first pick in 2017, and he's done nothing to make the Browns regret that decision. In each of the past four seasons, he has hit double digits in sacks, including a career-high 16 last season. Those 16 sacks marked the second time he has broken the franchise record for sacks in a season, and in each of the past two years Garrett has been named a first-team All Pro.

    The 6'4", 272-pounder looks like he was carved from a block of granite. His ability to "bend" the edge—to get low to the ground while still running full speed to get around a blocker—has to be seen to be believed.

    That can't be taught. Not really. You either have the athleticism to do it, or you don't.

    Per Nate Ulrich of the Akron Beacon Journal, during his rookie season Garrett said that while the Pro Football Hall of Fame was just an hour's drive from Cleveland, there was only one way he wanted to see it.

    "I'd like to be in it. That's going to take a lot of work. It's kind of strange. I don't want to see [the Hall]. I want to see it if I'm able to achieve my goal. It's kind of like a test to me. You don't deserve to go there unless you're good enough to be in it. I want to see the greatness that's come before me, but I also want to be a part of it."

    At the rate Garrett's going, he'll make that visit one day.

6. T.J. Watt, Edge, Pittsburgh Steelers

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    You had to know that we were going to get to Trent Jordan Watt at some point. And while Watt is the grandpa of this list, he doesn't turn 28 until October.

    That means he makes the cut. And not only does he make it, but Watt is the highest-ranked defensive player of the lot.

    That's what happens when you tie Michael Strahan's single-season sack record with 22.5.

    Not only did Watt do that while logging 64 total tackles last year, but it also marked the fourth season in a row that the reigning Defensive Player of the Year amassed at least 13 sacks.

    As Jeff Kerr wrote for CBS Sports, it's just one jaw-dropping stat after another with Watt, who is on a historic pace over his first five seasons:

    "Watt's 0.94 sacks-per-game average is the highest in league history, as he and Reggie White are the only players to have 13-plus sacks in four consecutive seasons (has 72 sacks in 77 career games). Only White (nine), Bruce Smith (seven) and Kevin Greene (six) have more 13-plus sack seasons than Watt -- whose four 13-plus sacks in his first five seasons are tied with White for the most in NFL history.

    What Watt has been able to accomplish in his first five seasons has been historic, as his 150 quarterback hits over his first 77 games trail only his brother J.J. Watt for the most in league history. Only White has more sacks (87) over his first 77 games in league history."

    At this rate, Watt will turn older brother J.J. (a three-time DPOY) into the "other" brother.

    That makes what Nick Bosa is doing look like child's play.

5. Justin Herbert, QB, Los Angeles Chargers

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    Here come the quarterbacks.

    Justin Herbert wasn't the first signal-caller drafted in 2020. Or the second. But while the Cincinnati Bengals would probably stand pat if offered a "do-over" on Joe Burrow as their first pick two years ago, the Miami Dolphins, who took Tua Tagovailoa, get drafter's remorse every time they watch Herbert chucking the rock all over the field for the Los Angeles Chargers.

    As a rookie, Herbert broke Baker Mayfield's record for touchdown passes by a first-year player with 31, passing for over 4,300 yards with a completion percentage of 66.6 and a passer rating of 98.3 en route to being named Offensive Rookie of the Year.

    Herbert's completion percentage and passer rating dipped slightly last year, but he led the AFC in both passing yards (5,014) and touchdown passes (38) while leading the Bolts to their first winning record since 2018.

    Per Michael David Smith of ProFootballTalk, Herbert has been champing at the bit ever since the Chargers fell short of the playoffs due to a Week 18 loss to the rival Raiders:

    "I think the great thing about football, for me, is I need football. I love waking up and going to work and lifting, running, throwing and watching film. I think too much off time can kind of be a burden to me sometimes, so I always look forward to having stuff to do, whether that’s watching film or us throwing or being out here for OTAs. I think that’s kind of what I look forward to."

    The next step in Herbert's progression (and a necessity if he's going to climb this list in 2023) is getting the Chargers into the playoffs—and making some noise in the postseason.

4. Lamar Jackson, QB, Baltimore Ravens

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    Remember when former NFL executive Bill Polian suggested that Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson should move to wide receiver?

    Those were fun times.

    Jackson didn't listen to the criticisms that he was too short and too inaccurate to play quarterback in the NFL. The Baltimore Ravens didn't listen either, trading up in the 2018 draft to make him the final pick of Round 1.

    The rest, as they say, has been history.

    It didn't take long for Jackson to start making some. In his second NFL campaign, he set a high-water mark for rushing yards by a quarterback in a season with 1,206. He also silenced many of the critics of his abilities as a passer, leading the NFL in touchdown passes (36) and touchdown percentage (9.0).

    The good times kept rolling the following season. In 2020, Jackson accomplished a feat that no quarterback in NFL history ever has, rushing for 1,000 yards in consecutive campaigns. Just four years into his pro career, he is already seventh all-time among signal-callers in rushing yards.

    As Kerr wrote, Jackson is the first QB to reach 35 victories before age 25. And that's only the tip of the achievement iceberg:

    "Jackson is the fastest quarterback in league history to reach 5,000 passing yards and 2,000 rushing yards (35 games), and his 10 100-yard rushing games are tied with Michael Vick for the most in league history. He also is the only quarterback to rush for 1,000 yards in a season twice. His five games with 200 passing yards and 100 rushing yards are the most in league history."

    That isn't an exhaustive list of his career accolades, but there's one more that certainly bears mentioning. As the starting quarterback for the Ravens, Jackson is 37-12. That's a .755 winning percentage.

    Give the man his money. He's earned it.

3. Joe Burrow, QB, Cincinnati Bengals

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    Joe Burrow of the Cincinnati Bengals is only entering the third year of his professional career. But as Bengals head coach Zac Taylor said on Hear That Podcast Growlin' with Paul Dehner Jr. and Jay Morrison (via Chris Roling of Bengals Wire), Burrow already has the attitude and demeanor of a seasoned veteran:

    “He’s always very prepared. So he walks in that day and he’s seeing probably what you’re about to watch. The new stuff you’re going to give him, it usually makes pretty good sense to him. He doesn’t hesitate to ask questions. I think what great quarterbacks do is they make those around them better. They get the full potential out of everyone else.”

    Of course, Burrow has had that "old soul" mentality dating back to his days in college.

    This isn't to say that he doesn't have swagger—his victory cigars have become the stuff of legend. But whether it was while guiding LSU on arguably the greatest single-season ride any team has ever had or leading the Bengals to a berth in Super Bowl LVI, the pressure of the spotlight doesn't appear to faze him even a little.

    Burrow is Joe Cool. All the time.

    Of course, as a quarterback it helps to be able to throw a football, and Burrow most assuredly can. His 2019 season at LSU (5,671 yards, 60 touchdowns, six interceptions) was so ridiculous that video games rolled their eyes. After his rookie year in Cincinnati was cut short by an ACL tear, Burrow rebounded to throw for 4,611 yards and 34 scores while nearly leading the Bengals to the team's first championship.

    With arguably the NFL's best receiving corps around him and an improved line in front of him, Burrow has few limits.

    And he could easily sit atop this list a year or two from now.

2. Josh Allen, Buffalo Bills

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    Last year, Josh Allen of the Buffalo Bills and Patrick Mahomes of the Kansas City Chiefs engaged in one of the all-time great quarterback duels—a 42-36 thriller won on the first drive of overtime by Kansas City.

    Allen told the Bussin' with the Boys podcast (h/t CBS Sports' Tyler Sullivan) he has heard a lot about that game over the offseason—and he's tired of it:

    "People still come up to me and talk about it. That's the game people talk about. To be a part of it is great, but to be on the losing end of it is not so great. It doesn't make me feel any better when someone comes up and says, 'That was the greatest game I've ever seen.' It's like, we lost."

    Allen's 2021 season may have ended in crushing fashion, but it still cemented him as one of the NFL's best quarterbacks.

    For the second year in a row, he topped 4,400 passing yards and threw at least 34 touchdown passes. He also gained a career-high 763 yards on the ground (more than running backs James Conner of the Arizona Cardinals and Saquon Barkley of the New York Giants), scoring six TDs on the ground for the fourth time in as many seasons.

    In his ranking of the top 32 quarterbacks in the NFL, Dalton Miller of Pro Football Network slotted Allen second.

    "The scariest part about Allen," he wrote, "is that he’s not done progressing as a passer yet. He still has days where things aren’t always clicking. That means he hasn’t yet hit his ceiling, which as Michael Jordan would poetically say, 'is the roof.'"

    Allen has a cannon for an arm. Plus athleticism and rushing ability. And he's only just entering his prime. All he needs to lay claim to the title of the NFL's best quarterback is some hardware—be it an MVP award or the Lombardi Trophy.

1. Patrick Mahomes, QB, Kansas City Chiefs

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    Is this an anticlimactic finish to this article? Yes.

    Can you pick any player in the NFL under age 28 who is more important for his franchise than Patrick Mahomes in Kansas City? No.

    It seems inconceivable that some pundits were equal parts surprised and unimpressed when the Chiefs traded up to draft Mahomes 10th in 2017. But there were plenty of draftniks who shook their heads at the selection.

    By the end of Mahomes' second season, there weren't enough crows on Earth to feed all the people who were wrong (this writer included). After sitting during his rookie season, all Mahomes did in his first year as Kansas City's starter was become the second quarterback in NFL history to hit 5,000 passing yards and 50 touchdowns in a season. He was named the NFL's MVP that year.

    The following year, Mahomes won another award—this time the MVP of Super Bowl LIV, leading the Chiefs to their first championship in half a century. He was back in the Super Bowl the year after that. The Chiefs have hosted the AFC Championship Game in all four of Mahomes' seasons as starter.

    Sure, it helps that he has an excellent team around him. But there have been numerous times when he has taken that team and put it on his back. Made a play on the run while throwing the ball from a funky angle that leaves fans and opposing defenses alike in disbelief.

    Just look at these throws!

    It may still be premature to call Mahomes an all-time great.

    But he's an all-time talent throwing a football.

    Offensive line statistics via Pro Football Focus. All other stats via Pro Football Reference.


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