NFL1000: Ranking the NFL's True Franchise Cornerstones
The true cornerstone player of a franchise may or may not be the franchise’s best player at any given time, but it’s the player who defines that franchise—either through what they’ve done in the past and continue to do, or how they’re developing their talent now and for the future. They’re the first names and faces you might think of when you think of a team, and they’re the beating hearts of the teams they define.
When ranking the NFL’s cornerstones, several factors come into play. Performance in the postseason, the ability to transcend scheme and talent, courage under pressure and through injury, value to the community—it all makes a difference.
Moreover, a franchise cornerstone has to make it clear, year after year, that he’s bringing skills to the field that other players at his position just can’t. Whether it’s Antonio Brown’s route-running, Aaron Rodgers’ freakish accuracy or Aaron Donald’s otherworldly power, the players on this list do things you won’t see from others.
Most of all, franchise cornerstones are the ones who really propel a team’s ascent to the elite. That’s why you see a lot of quarterbacks on this list, but every player here has, at some point in his career, been the engine for a franchise’s jump in effectiveness or clearly has the potential to do so.
These are the players who define their teams—the NFL’s true franchise cornerstones.
10. Antonio Brown, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers
Over the last four seasons, no receiver has more targets (695), catches (481), receiving yards (6,315) and receiving touchdowns (43) than Antonio Brown, who has become one of the most prolific receivers in NFL history. Not bad for a 5'10", 180-pound guy selected in the sixth round of the 2010 draft out of Central Michigan. Some might argue that Ben Roethlisberger or Le’Veon Bell are the cornerstones of the Steelers, but of the three, Brown is the only one in recent years who hasn’t lost any juice due to injury, suspension or baffling ineffectiveness.
In 2016, Brown had another of his typically brilliant seasons, catching 106 passes on 154 targets for 1,284 yards and 12 touchdowns despite Roethlisberger’s game falling apart in the second half of the season. Pittsburgh’s quarterback completed 62 percent of his passes for 17 touchdowns and seven interceptions from Weeks 1-9, but in the second half of the season and into the playoffs, Roethlisberger regressed to 10 interceptions to 15 touchdowns. Meanwhile, Bell missed four games due to suspension and injury.
None of that mattered to Brown, who does what he does regardless of external factors. In 2015, he led the NFL with 136 catches for a career-high 1,834 yards despite the fact that Roethlisberger missed four games, and he was catching balls from Landry Jones and the aged version of Michael Vick. Brown lines up against the opponent’s No. 1 cornerback every week, and he’s able to torch any one of them because he’s the best route-runner in the league, and despite his size, he has absolutely no qualms about going over the middle. And he’s the epicenter of Pittsburgh’s deep passing game—in 2016, per Pro Football Focus, he led the league with eight touchdowns on throws of 20 or more yards.
The Steelers signed Brown to a four-year, $68 million extension in February, making him the highest-paid receiver in the NFL, and that’s entirely appropriate. No other receiver does as much for his team, and that’s what makes Antonio Brown the Steelers’ franchise cornerstone.
9. Matt Ryan, QB, Atlanta Falcons
2016 was the year in which Matt Ryan finally realized the full specter of his athletic potential. In Kyle Shanahan’s diverse and aggressive offense, Ryan finally moved past certain things that had impeded his progress in years before. The famously immobile quarterback aligned his talents with Shanahan’s boot-action playbook and started moving the pocket for optimal results. And though he had been balky under pressure throughout his NFL career, Ryan turned that around in 2016. He completed 52.5 percent of his passes under pressure and threw six touchdowns to no interceptions, per PFF.
In addition, Ryan became one of the deadliest deep passers in the NFL. Only Ben Roethlisberger had more touchdowns than Ryan’s 13 on passes traveling 20 or more yards in the air, and Ryan was the only qualifying player in PFF’s metrics not to throw a single interception on any such passes. He completed 40 of 75 deep passes for 1,334 yards, and his 138.2 quarterback rating on deep passes led the league. And it wasn’t just Julio Jones whom Ryan was connecting with on those deep throws—he hit five different receivers for more than one deep completion in the 2016 season.
The 2016 NFL MVP set career highs in completion percentage (69.9), passing yards (4,944), passing touchdowns (38) and a career low with seven interceptions on 534 attempts. By any measure you choose to use, Ryan has become a franchise quarterback and franchise cornerstone.
Now, Ryan must answer two questions in line with the responsibilities that come with such titles. First, he needs to prove that these sudden improvements are more than a product of Shanahan’s system. Now that Shanahan has moved on to become the head coach of the San Francisco 49ers, Ryan must sync with new offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian to continue that approximate level of success.
And, of course, Ryan must be a leader in proving that the Falcons won’t be upended by their historically disastrous collapse in the second half of the Super Bowl. Other teams have been tormented by such things, and it will be up to Ryan to help lift the franchise past those memories.
8. Earl Thomas, FS, Seattle Seahawks
Seattle’s Legion of Boom secondary has been one of the best in NFL history over the last half-decade. It’s a primary reason the Seahawks led the league in scoring defense four years in a row from 2012 through 2015 (the only team to do so since the Cleveland Browns did it five straight years in the 1950s). And though cornerback Richard Sherman is the mouth of the outfit, and strong safety Kam Chancellor is the on-field brains, getting the calls together, free safety Earl Thomas is the heart of the whole thing. And since the Seahawks are a team led by its defense, and the defense is led by its secondary, it’s easy to conclude that Thomas is the team’s franchise cornerstone.
If there was any question about Thomas’ status as such, his absence late in the 2016 season solidified his value. For the first time in his career, Thomas missed several games upon suffering a broken leg against the Carolina Panthers in early December after missing the Week 12 game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with a hamstring injury. Immediately, a secondary that had locked nearly every opponent down over the last few seasons became all too porous—before Thomas’ injury, the Seahawks ranked fifth in Football Outsiders’ opponent-adjusted metrics against the pass. After Thomas’ injury through the next five games, they dropped to 26th. In fact, right after Thomas’ injury in the Panthers game, Cam Newton completed a 55-yard touchdown pass to Ted Ginn with three Seahawks defenders chasing Ginn.
This likely wouldn’t have happened with Thomas in the game for two reasons. First, Thomas’ backpedaling speed on go and post routes dissuades opposing quarterbacks from even trying those routes. Second, if those routes are attempted, Thomas has the speed, agility and intelligence to either get to the point of target before the receiver does or break on the pass before it can be caught. According to NFL1000 quarterbacks scout Cian Fahey’s charting, the Seahawks gave up just two of 12 passes traveling 16 or more yards in the air over the middle with Thomas on the field and five such catches on 10 targets without him.
When you have a safety that can completely change an opponent’s offensive playbook, that’s impressive enough. But it’s Thomas’ mentality that makes him the Alpha in a locker room full of alphas. I got a taste of this when I watched game tape with Sherman in January 2016. We had planned to watch tape in the Seahawks’ defensive backs room at the team facility, but Thomas was in there alone, eating lunch and watching tape. Sherman joked with Thomas about “bringing some guests,” but with one look and without a word, Thomas changed the plan.
We moved to another room.
So, Earl Thomas is his team’s most important defensive player. That can be easily seen on the field. What makes him a cornerstone of his franchise is the respect he’s earned from his teammates and the intensity that emanates from him and defines that entire defense.
7. Khalil Mack, OLB/EDGE, Oakland Raiders
According to Pro Football Focus’ charting, Khalil Mack was the NFL’s most disruptive defender in 2016. He led all defensive players with 96 total pressures—11 sacks, 11 quarterback hits and 74 quarterback hurries—and unlike a lot of edge-defenders, he brought pressure from both the right and left sides (65 on the left, 31 on the right). Selected fifth overall in the 2014 draft, Mack got off to a relatively slow start in his rookie year with four sacks but blew everything up in his second season with 15 quarterback takedowns, including a five-sack game against the eventual Super Bowl champion Broncos in mid-December of that year.
“I think his understanding of how to finish,” Raiders head coach Jack Del Rio said of Mack after that game, per Bill Williamson of ESPN.com. “His understanding of different leverage points and how he can counter what they’re trying to do. Really, the finish around the quarterback is the biggest thing—instead of being close, to be able to finish with a sack. … He’s developing that awareness on the angles and how to finish on the quarterback that will allow him to continue to have tremendous production.”
Mack combined production and potential in his third season as he continued to sharpen his skill set. He has become a better coverage player as he’s learned to read NFL quarterbacks and receivers in short to intermediate areas, and though he’s usually pinning his ears back to go after the quarterback on most plays, he finished third in the league behind Denver’s Von Miller and Philadelphia’s Brandon Graham among edge-defenders last season with 32 run stops, per PFF.
That newfound versatility became all too apparent when the Raiders faced off against the Panthers last November. In Oakland’s 35-32 win against the defending NFC champs, Mack had a sack, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and an interception returned for a touchdown—the first player to do all those things in a single game since Charles Woodson did it for the Packers in 2009. The sack and fumble achievements were impressive enough, but the way he read Cam Newton’s eyes to break off his original assignment for his pick-six spoke to the fact that at this point, there isn’t much he can’t do on the field.
“He’s in a class of his own,” Raiders quarterback Derek Carr said after that game, via CSN Bay Area. “I’m not saying he’s better than anybody, though I think he is. I think he is the best football player I’ve ever played with and seen. I think he’s done things that no one has ever seen before. I don’t want to put him in a box. The sky’s the limit for him.”
Some might say that Carr is the Raiders’ franchise cornerstone—it was his late-season injury that dogged Oakland’s offense into the postseason—but Mack is the one who really sets the tone. And as general manager Reggie McKenzie and his staff continue to put the personnel together that make the Raiders a relevant concern for the first time in years, it’s Mack who’s been the team’s signature player.
6. Aaron Donald, DL, Los Angeles Rams
That Aaron Donald can be a franchise cornerstone after just three NFL seasons speaks both to his own excellence and that in the Jeff Fisher era, the Rams didn’t do nearly enough to fill the team’s roster with talent.
But in Donald’s case, Fisher and his staff hit the jackpot. Selected 13th overall in the 2014 draft, Donald was debited by some as too short and too small to dominate at the NFL level at 6'1" and 285 pounds. What the naysayers missed in his college tape (and what the believers identified) was that Donald put up 11 sacks in both 2011 and 2013, and amassed an incredible 28.5 tackles for loss in his final collegiate season with a killer combination of speed, power and leverage—turns out that in a game where the low man wins, being a shorter interior pass-rusher isn’t always a bad thing.
Still, many defensive linemen overwhelm college blockers only to find that against the NFL versions, it’s a lot tougher. Donald never skipped a beat, raising his game to a superhuman level from day one in the pros. He put up nine sacks in his rookie season, taking the 2014 AP Defensive Rookie of the Year award with relative ease. 2015 was his best sack season to date with 11, but if you think he “regressed” in 2016 with just eight sacks, he didn’t.
Per Pro Football Focus, Donald led all interior defenders in 2016 with 82 total pressures (eight sacks, 22 quarterback hits and 52 quarterback hurries), and he did it without switching to end for any real snaps. Donald got all that pressure while facing near-constant double teams, and he did it because no pass-rusher in the league has his combination of gap quickness and strength. If Donald doesn’t rush right by blockers at the snap, he’s more than happy to take a guard who outweighs him by 30 pounds, get leverage under his pads and simply carry him out of the way.
With the Rams’ coaching changes in the 2017 offseason, Donald now has Wade Phillips as his defensive coordinator. Phillips made stars out of Malik Jackson and Derek Wolfe in Denver with his one-gap 3-4 attack defense, and while both Jackson and Wolfe are very good players, they don’t have Donald’s talent.
Which is to say, as disruptive as Aaron Donald may already have been, he could be ready for an entirely new level. The Rams will go as he goes, and that’s why he’s one of the NFL’s true franchise cornerstones.
5. J.J. Watt, DL, Houston Texans
J.J. Watt missed all but three games last season with back problems, and the Texans defense rose from eighth to seventh in Football Outsiders’ opponent-adjusted defensive metrics in his absence. But that’s about other players rising to the occasion as opposed to Watt’s status as anything but a cornerstone player.
With the possible exception of his rookie season in 2011 and a shortened 2016 season, Watt has been the Texans' best player every season in between and in the history of the franchise. It’s a short history, going back to 2002, but it’s still an impressive achievement for a defensive end and tackle who’s played at just about every gap and in both one- and two-gap schemes in his short NFL career.
In his five fully healthy seasons, per Pro Football Focus, Watt amassed an incredible 85 sacks, 151 QB hits and 316 defensive stops. He also led the league in sacks in 2012 and 2015, and matched his career high with 20.5 in 2014, only to lose the sack title that year to Kansas City’s Justin Houston, who racked up 22. In addition, he’s led the entire league in Pro Football Reference’s Approximate Value metric three times, which is one way of saying that in 2012, 2014 and 2015, he brought as much value to his team as any other player.
If Watt were just a single-gap pass-rusher, his achievements would be impressive enough. But at 6'5" and 290 pounds, he has the speed to rush around offensive tackles and crash the pocket just as much as he has the raw strength to move through guards and centers. And when he’s on the field, he’s the point of focus for every offensive line he faces—which is to say, he’s done all this with a steady diet of double-teams.
He’s also an outstanding run defender, and when he lines up at tight end in Houston’s goal-line formations, he’s caught three passes on four targets for three touchdowns.
There isn’t much Watt can’t do when he’s healthy, and if he’s healthy in 2017, the Texans have a decent shot at fielding the NFL’s best defense. Regardless of whether that happens, there’s no question he’s the best player in the franchise’s history—and if you want a cornerstone player, that’s a good place to start.
4. Joe Thomas, LT, Cleveland Browns
Since Joe Thomas was selected third overall out of Wisconsin in the 2007 draft, the Browns have enjoyed just one winning season—they went 10-6 in Thomas’ rookie year—and they have a ghastly 38-106 record from 2008 through 2016, including last season’s 1-15 mark. There’s hope for improvement under head coach Hue Jackson and a front office that embraces sabermetrics and had three first-round draft picks in 2017, but the Browns have been the NFL’s doormat for the last decade.
Which makes Thomas’ dedication to his team, and his craft, all the more remarkable.
Thomas currently has one of the most amazing stats in recent NFL history going—not only has he not missed a game in his 10-year career; he hasn’t missed a single snap. Not one, in 9,934 consecutive plays.
It’s an astonishing achievement for any offensive lineman, especially when you factor in the quality of Thomas’ play over the decade. He’s made the Pro Bowl in every one of his NFL seasons, and he’s been a first-team All-Pro six times. Last season, per Pro Football Focus, he allowed just four sacks, four quarterback hits and 26 quarterback hurries despite Cleveland’s quarterback situation being an abject disaster.
It doesn’t matter who’s lined up next to him, or who’s coaching him, or how miserable the team is—Joe Thomas shows up every day, for every snap, and plays as well as any left tackle in the league. This despite three torn MCLs and two high ankle sprains.
That makes him an all-time Cleveland Brown. What makes him a franchise cornerstone is his insistence that he wants to play out his career for a team that has steadfastly refused to meet him anywhere near halfway in the talent department.
"It's a blue-collar city, and for a blue-collar guy like myself, it's easy to fall in love with the people and kind of the chip on the shoulder that a lot of people have because they feel like they've been slighted for so long,” Thomas told ESPN.com’s Elizabeth Merrill last December. “It's so important for me to be here for the turnaround. I don't want to just get a Super Bowl ring [by] being traded to a dream team. It would feel unsatisfying. Unfulfilling."
No matter which team you root for, it’s hard not to hope that Thomas’ undeniable dedication is rewarded with more consistent winning at some point in his career.
3. Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay Packers
Selected in the first round of the 2005 draft by the Packers, Aaron Rodgers had to wait three full seasons before he started a single game because Brett Favre was in the way. When Favre finally moved on in 2008, the Packers went 6-10, and Rodgers threw 28 touchdown passes and 13 interceptions. But that was the last time the Packers would have a losing season under Rodgers, and certainly the last time Rodgers would be anything but ruthlessly productive and efficient.
Since 2008, only Drew Brees has more passing touchdowns than Rodgers’ 296, and in that time, Rodgers has thrown just 71 interceptions to Brees’ 138. And it’s certainly not because Rodgers is afraid to take chances with the deep ball—in 2016, per Pro Football Focus, he threw six touchdowns and just two interceptions on passes 20 yards or more in the air despite an offensive game plan that does little to nothing to help him with route concepts. Over the last few years, Rodgers has had Pro Bowl season after Pro Bowl season despite an offense that often looks as if it’s stuck in 1973—a point I have made over and over and over again.
His best season was 2011, when head coach Mike McCarthy’s playbook was more steeped in West Coast offense concepts and Rodgers had more help in the passing game. The Packers had beaten the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XLV the year before, but 2011 was the season in which Rodgers really took the league by storm. He completed 68.3 percent of his passes for 4,643 yards, 45 touchdowns and just six interceptions. His passer rating of 122.5 that season is the best in NFL history, and his career passer rating of 104.1 is also the best in league annals.
Rodgers combines field smarts, mobility and freakish accuracy in a package the league’s never seen before, and one wonders just how much more successful he’ll be in the last years of his career if his coaches were to open up the playbook and rush back into the 21st century.
Nonetheless, Aaron Rodgers has succeeded where most quarterbacks fail—he took over for a legend, and he exceeded that legend’s accomplishments. It’s a feat we might not fully recognize until he’s retired for a few seasons, and the Hall of Fame discussion begins. Rodgers should be a first-ballot Hall of Famer, just like Favre was, and he’s just as much a franchise cornerstone.
2. Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans Saints
When Drew Brees signed with the New Orleans Saints in 2006, both the player and the city were recovering from recent damage. Brees had injured his throwing shoulder in the last game of the 2005 season, and the San Diego Chargers had already decided to move forward with Philip Rivers. He faced an uncertain future in the NFL.
New Orleans, of course, was recovering from a far deeper tragedy—the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, which flooded the city in August 2005 and turned the franchise (and most of the city) homeless—the Saints played their “home” games that season at Giants Stadium, LSU’s stadium and in San Antonio. There was talk of moving the franchise, but the Saints stayed, and the city started the process of recovery.
Brees signed a six-year, $60 million deal with the Saints on March 14, 2006, and started to define the franchise from the start. He and first-year head coach Sean Payton found immediate success, going 10-6 in 2006 after a 3-13 season in 2005 and winning Super Bowl XLIV at the end of the 2009 season.
Recent seasons have not been so successful—the Saints have finished 7-9 in four of their last five seasons—but that’s far more about a defense that has played far below average than anything having to do with Brees. Though his deep ball has faded a bit, Brees is still one of the league’s best and most prolific quarterbacks. He threw for 5,208 yards in 2016, the third straight season (and seventh overall) in which he’s led the NFL in that category. And since 2006, no NFL quarterback has more passing attempts, completions, passing yards and touchdowns.
Moreover, Brees has done a lot to help his adopted city recover through his Brees Dream Foundation charity—and that’s worked both ways.
"We knew this was about an overall recovery; an overall resurrection of this city, of this community, of a spirit," Brees told ABC’s Robin Roberts in 2015 (h/t NOLA.com). "I needed somebody to believe in me just as much as New Orleans needed someone to believe in them. In so many ways, New Orleans not only saved my football career, but for me as a person."
It’s why, if the history of the Saints were to be told today, no one player’s name would be mentioned more than Brees—because he bought in completely.
1. Tom Brady, QB, New England Patriots
It should come as no surprise that Tom Brady is the No. 1 player on this list. He’s done more in his career than any other player at the game’s most important position, and he’s done it through every kind of offensive scheme—something for which he doesn't get nearly enough credit. Whether it was the balanced attack of the Patriots Super Bowl teams of the early 2000s or the spread-style offenses of the Randy Moss/Wes Welker era or the two-tight end games with Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, Brady has torched the league with any combination of skill players, blockers and assistants.
Bill Belichick and Brady are the only constants throughout the Patriots’ current dynasty—a dynasty that has now lasted from Super Bowls XXXVI in 2002 to LI in 2017. No coach and quarterback have enjoyed such a sustained run of excellence, and Brady’s five Super Bowl rings and seven total appearances tell the tale.
Yes, the Patriots have been good enough to succeed to an extent in Brady’s stead—they went 11-5 in 2008 when he was out most of the season with a knee injury—but it’s Brady who sets the tone for the entire team. He’s the one who motivates his teammates on the sidelines. He’s the one who has to keep all the Patriots’ option routes—and the Patriots run more of them than any other team—in his head.
Moreover, it’s Brady as much as Belichick who has been responsible for establishing New England’s culture of victory in the most important games possible. New England’s first three Super Bowl wins were each by three points. Its Super Bowl XLIX win over the Seahawks saw Brady overcoming a 10-point deficit starting late in the third quarter.
Of course, the most impressive comeback in Super Bowl history—and in NFL history—happened in February, when the Pats overcame a 28-3 deficit to win the first overtime Super Bowl. So, in New England's last two Super Bowl wins, the Pats overcame a total third-quarter deficit of 52-17 to take both Lombardi Trophies.
And if you doubt Brady’s status as the ultimate franchise cornerstone, ask yourself this: When you were watching the game, and the Falcons were running away with it into the second half, didn’t you know that it wasn’t over because Tom Brady was part of the story?
So it has gone throughout Brady’s career. He’s the best and most important player of his era, and in the end, he may be the ultimate franchise cornerstone. Certainly, he’s earned his place on this list.