Ranking the NFL's True Franchise Cornerstones
There are different ways to define a franchise cornerstone, although it's easy to identify the NFL players who have earned that designation.
Some do so by playing their position at the highest possible level over a number of years. Others help their teams overcome front office and coaching errors, elevating mediocre rosters single-handedly.
If a player is the deciding factor in multiple great franchise moments through the years, that's yet another way to become a cornerstone.
Some stars fall into that designation even more than others. For example, one player could do more with less than another throughout his career, both from a coaching and a personnel perspective. Another player might be transcendent across multiple decades and roster shakeups, which puts him in a different category than anybody else.
Players at other positions might be just as great, but the quarterback threshold is a different one altogether.
The following 11 players currently meet the definition of franchise cornerstone in one way or another.
10. Tyron Smith, LT, Dallas Cowboys
Since the Dallas Cowboys selected him with the ninth overall pick in 2011, Tyron Smith has developed into the best left tackle in the NFL.
Some may argue left and right tackles are now equally valuable, as the quick-passing game has expanded and right tackles face more elite edge-rushers to the quarterback's front side. But Dallas' 27-7 loss to the Atlanta Falcons in Week 10 last season underscored Smith's importance to the team.
With Smith sidelined due to a groin injury, replacement tackle Byron Bell was no match for defensive end Adrian Clayborn, who racked up six sacks that day. One could blame Bell—or the Cowboys for putting him in that position—but it highlighted how reliant Dallas has become on Smith's outstanding performance.
It's common to take Smith for granted because he makes the game look easy with his upper- and lower-body strength, agility and peerless technique. But even on an offensive line filled with stars, Smith stands apart as the man the Cowboys desperately need to make their offense succeed.
9. Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye, CB, Jacksonville Jaguars
Over the last few seasons, the Jacksonville Jaguars have sought to build the NFL's next truly great defense. While trying to wrest that title from Seattle, the Jags hit big on one draft pick and one free agent to form the best cornerback duo in the league.
Ramsey, who Jacksonville selected fifth overall in 2016, is the more physical of the two. At 6'1" and 208 pounds, he has the size and aggressiveness to clamp down on any receiver he faces. Ramsey allowed an opponent passer rating of 63.9 in 2017, according to Sam Monson of Pro Football Focus, allowing only 51.1 percent of the 92 regular-season targets thrown his way to be caught.
Bouye, who signed a five-year, $67.5 million contract with the Jaguars in March 2017, is more of a technician than Ramsey. While Ramsey is the prototypical press cornerback, Bouye can play press, off and bail coverage. He can cover outside or in the slot, and he does it all at a peerless level. In 2017, he allowed a league-low 31.6 opponent passer rating, per Monson.
The Jaguars made it to the AFC Championship Game last season, and they could be in for even more success down the road. If that happens over the next few years, Ramsey and Bouye are likely to be leading the way.
8. Khalil Mack, OLB/DE, Oakland Raiders
Most edge-rushers aren't great run-stoppers. The forward momentum required to pressure the quarterback precludes most pass-rushers from slamming the brakes quickly enough to change direction and stop a quick, elusive running back.
It appears as though Khalil Mack missed that memo.
Mack had 79 total pressures last season, which was third among edge-defenders, according to Monson. He also led all edge-rushers with 53 defensive stops. That doesn't just include sacks; it also takes into account plays in which Mack stopped a running back from completing a successful play.
Mack can pull double duty because of his directional speed and great strength—his speed-to-power moves are among the league's best—and because he's able to see the entire field so well. Whether he's at the line of scrimmage or at linebacker depth, Mack is a wrecked offensive play waiting to happen.
In 2017, Oakland had only 31 sacks, and Mack was responsible for 10.5 of them. Overall, the Raiders defense finished 29th overall in Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted defensive metrics, and they were 30th against the pass.
Without Mack, it's easy to imagine the Raiders defense finishing as the NFL's worst.
7. Philip Rivers, QB, Los Angeles Chargers
Rivers became the Chargers' full-time starting quarterback in 2006. In the 12 seasons since, he has had a 1,000-yard receiver only seven times.
It hasn't mattered that Rivers' receiver corps has been hit-and-miss throughout his career. Nor did it matter that former Chargers general manager A.J. Smith seemed determined to decapitate one of the league's most talented rosters in the early parts of Rivers' career.
Through it all, Rivers has persevered and produced.
Aside from 2012, Rivers has thrown for more than 4,000 yards in every season since 2008. Drew Brees is the only quarterback who has more passing yards since 2006 than Rivers' 50,200. Only Brees and Tom Brady have more touchdowns than Rivers' 341.
Rivers' relative lack of playoff success throughout his career should be seen more as an indictment of his front offices than his own abilities. He's had a Hall of Fame career without the hardware.
6. Antonio Brown, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers
In 2017, Brown set an NFL record with his fifth straight 100-catch season despite missing the final two games of the regular season with a calf injury. He has been targeted 512 times since 2015 and has dropped the ball only seven times, according to Fox Sports. He reached 700 receptions in the fewest games in league history (111), per Fowler. From 2010 through 2017, he ranks first leaguewide in receptions (733) and receiving yards (9,910).
That's not bad for a 5'10", 181-pound guy from Central Michigan who the Steelers selected in the sixth round in 2010.
Brown's skills are transferable to any situation and any quarterback. Though Ben Roethlisberger has been Brown's primary offensive partner, he still comes through whenever Roethlisberger is injured or suspended. His speed off the line, peerless route-running and surprising toughness for his size makes him special.
As Brown goes, so goes Pittsburgh's offense. That's what makes him—not Roethlisberger or Le'Veon Bell—the cornerstone of the Steelers.
5. Aaron Donald, DL, Los Angeles Rams
In 2017, the Los Angeles Rams underwent one of the more remarkable one-year turnarounds in NFL history. Most of the improvement came on offense, where new head coach Sean McVay's creative formations helped second-year quarterback Jared Goff emerge from one of the worst rookie seasons in memory.
But if you were to ask any Rams player who the team's real pace-setter is, you'd hear Aaron Donald's name more than any other.
Throughout his four-year NFL career, Donald has set the standard for pass-rushers. That isn't easy to do for a defensive tackle who draws most of the attention from every offensive line he faces.
Donald had 11 sacks last season and has 39 in his career, which would be impressive enough if that's all he did. But the extent to which Donald creates pressure and wreaks havoc on offenses play after play illustrates his true value.
Donald led all defensive players last season with 91 total pressures, according to PFF's William Moy. It's nearly impossible for an interior defensive lineman to do that. Edge-rushers have the advantage of facing blocking to one side on most of their snaps, while Donald is tied up to either side by virtue of his gap position. If he were an edge-rusher, there's no telling how much damage he could do.
The Rams plan to sign Donald to an extension, and there's little doubt he'll be one of the highest-paid defensive players in NFL history. There's also little doubt that he's earned every bit of that particular honor.
Donald is the best defensive player in the league. Aside from quarterbacks, he has a good argument for being the most impactful overall.
4. Russell Wilson, QB, Seattle Seahawks
Football is the ultimate team game, but Russell Wilson might want to rebut that notion.
Since the Seattle Seahawks selected him in the third round of the 2012 draft, Wilson has grown from a complementary passer in a run-based offense to virtually their only offensive weapon. He plays behind an offensive line that seems to do more for the opposing defense than it does for its own quarterback.
In 2017, Wilson tied a career high with 34 touchdown passes, which led the league. He completed 61.3 percent of his passes for 3,983 yards, and he added 95 rushes for 586 yards and three touchdowns.
Outside of Wilson's efforts, Seattle's formerly formidable run game was pathetic last season. Mike Davis led all Seattle running backs with only 240 yards on the season, and rotational back J.D. McKissic was the lone Seahawk other than Wilson to have scored a rushing touchdown.
Not only did Wilson transcend a limited offense, but he did so with little help from those around him (aside from receiver Doug Baldwin and tight end Jimmy Graham) and under tremendous pressure.
Seattle's switch in offensive coordinators from Darrell Bevell to Brian Schottenheimer may help Wilson in some ways—Schottenheimer seems to want to coach Wilson hard and demand the most out of him—but it's Wilson who's owed a debt by his team. He's extracted the most from personnel and coaching situations that would bring lesser quarterbacks to their knees, and he's still standing.
3. Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans Saints
When the Saints signed Drew Brees before the 2006 season, both were eyeing a rebound. Brees was recovering from a shoulder injury he suffered in the 2006 playoffs with the San Diego Chargers, and the Saints had been a road team throughout the entire 2005 season due to Hurricane Katrina.
But the Saints made a triumphant return to the Superdome, and Brees became the best quarterback—and perhaps the most important player—in franchise history.
The Saints went from 3-13 to 10-6 in Brees' first season with the Saints, which was also head coach Sean Payton's first season. The two have been joined at the hip ever since.
Payton and Brees presided over the franchise's lone Super Bowl win at the end of the 2009 season. Within Payton's multidimensional offenses, Brees has become one of the most efficient and prolific quarterbacks in NFL history.
From 2006 through 2017, he holds the league marks for passing attempts, completions, completion percentage, passing yards and touchdown passes. Tom Brady is the only quarterback who has a higher passer rating than Brees' 99.6 among those who have played for that entire span of time.
Moreover, Brees has been involved in the community for years through his Brees Dream Foundation. Both on and off the field, he's tied himself to his team and his town in ways few other players have.
2. Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay Packers
Since taking over for Brett Favre in 2008, Aaron Rodgers has a 94-48 regular-season mark as the Green Bay Packers' starting quarterback. His only losing record came in his first season as Favre's replacement, when the Packers went 6-10 despite Rodgers throwing for 4,038 yards, 28 touchdowns and 13 interceptions.
When Rodgers has missed time due to injury, the Packers have fallen apart without him. He missed seven games in the 2013 season, and Green Bay went 2-4-1 without him. Last season, he missed nine games and the Packers went 3-6 without him.
Since 2008, Rodgers has the NFL's best touchdown percentage, the third-lowest interception percentage behind Tyrod Taylor and Tom Brady, the second-highest Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt behind Brady and the second-highest passer rating behind Drew Brees.
Not only has Rodgers done this with a revolving door of receivers and running backs, but he also has a head coach and play-designer in Mike McCarthy who steadfastly refuses to put together a playbook featuring standard route concepts that give receivers adequate separation.
Rodgers has to throw with greater accuracy more often than other great quarterbacks because his offense isn't designed for success if he doesn't. If Rodgers had the benefit of a creative play-caller like Kyle Shanahan or Sean McVay, he'd likely be breaking records every season.
Rodgers is discussing an extension with the Packers, and he'll eventually get a new deal that will break all precedents for his position. He deserves it.
Without Rodgers over the last decade, who knows where this Packers team would be?
1. Tom Brady, QB, New England Patriots
In Super Bowl LI, the New England Patriots came back from a famed 28-3 deficit to beat the Atlanta Falcons. Tom Brady was named the Super Bowl MVP for the fourth time in his career, as he finished 43-of-62 for 466 yards, two touchdowns and one interception.
Brady got his team to the Super Bowl that year with Julian Edelman, running back James White and tight end Martellus Bennett as his primary targets. The next season, White was the only one of that trio to provide any offensive firepower. Edelman missed the entire 2017 season with a knee injury, while Bennett caught only six passes for 53 yards.
Brady took the Patriots back to the Super Bowl last season, where a schematically superior Philadelphia Eagles team upended them.
Since he became New England's starting quarterback in 2001, it hasn't mattered who was blocking for Brady, who he handed off to or who he was throwing the ball to. The Patriots have always been Super Bowl contenders with him under center.
New England has won at least 10 regular-season games every year since 2002, when it went 9-7 the season after Brady's first Super Bowl win. Since then, Brady has worked with a few Hall of Famers and far more ordinary role players who he helped to overcome their limitations.
Brady has accomplished this through several schematic changes: the run-heavy and more balanced offenses of the early Belichick era from 2001 through 2006; the spread-style offenses featuring Randy Moss and Wes Welker; the two-tight end offenses featuring Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez; and the quarterback-based, pass-heavy offenses of the last few seasons.
Throughout his career, he's benefited from a 1,000-yard rusher only five times, and they've all been different backs. He's had Moss, Gronkowski and Wes Welker in the prime of their careers, but though Moss and Welker were productive elsewhere, they didn't have the same impact as they did with Brady.
More than any other player in the NFL, Brady's legacy is tied to his team in ways that make the Patriots' future without him unimaginable. At age 40, he still has a few great years in the tank should he go that route. When he's done, the Patriots will have a roster hole to fill like no other.
As much as any player in NFL history, Tom Brady is an undeniable franchise cornerstone.