Ranking the NFL's True Franchise Cornerstones

Chris Roling@@Chris_RolingFeatured ColumnistJuly 5, 2019

Ranking the NFL's True Franchise Cornerstones

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    The most recognizable NFL franchise cornerstones have earned the distinction through feats on the field and their importance to the franchises they uplift.

    While the conversation is undoubtedly more nuanced, it's essentially about storied players who are the first to come to mind when asked to think of the face of each team.

    True franchise cornerstones achieve massive heights and may do so despite lacking coaching or sound decisions from the front office. They could be younger players who've shown clear transcendent play (there's one listed here), but the designation is typically reserved for veterans with league-best success whose departures would cripple the franchises they steady and propel to contention.

    Heading into the 2019 season, the following players are franchise cornerstones because of their mixture of production, potential and the obstacles they have overcome to position themselves as foundational centerpieces.

        

10. Ryan Kerrigan, Edge-Rusher, Washington Redskins

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    Ryan Kerrigan isn't the first name to come to mind when thinking about franchise cornerstones. He probably isn't even the first in the non-quarterback column.

    That is a shame. Most outside the Washington area likely couldn't rattle off much about Kerrigan, which goes to show how the franchise instability and the fickle market have done him a disservice.

    Even so, Kerrigan is all of 30 years old after coming off the board in the first round in 2011. Since then, he's missed—wait for it—no games, tallying 84.5 sacks, 25 forced fumbles, three interceptions and 23 passes defended.

    Kerrigan has never had fewer than 7.5 sacks in a season (his rookie total). He's compiled 9.5 or more five seasons in a row and counting. Over the last four, he ranks in the top five in total sacks with players like Khalil Mack.

    While Kerrigan doesn't boast some of the incredible postseason records others on the list do, the Redskins would be an even bigger mess without him. That he's been able to prop up such a turbulent franchise and help it field respectable defenses is a testament to what he does as a cornerstone, even if it flies well under the proverbial radar.

9. DeAndre Hopkins, WR, Houston Texans

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    Among non-quarterbacks who have the proper mixture of production, upside and youth and whose teams would be crippled without their presence, DeAndre Hopkins has to come close to topping the list.

    A first-round pick in 2013, Nuk only scored twice as a rookie while catching 52 of 91 targets. The rough start didn't prove to be a sign of things to come, though—he's since gone for 1,200-plus yards with at least six touchdowns four times in five seasons.

    It didn't take long for the Texans to figure out what they had, which intersected nicely with his developmental path. Over the last four seasons alone, Nuk has 39 touchdowns, and he's broken the 1,500-yard barrier twice.

    A Texans team without Hopkins would be a disaster offensively and also have serious problems developing an impressionable passer like Deshaun Watson. While Hopkins hasn't starred in postseason roles like some of his contemporaries, the fact that he's helped lift the Texans to three of the franchise's five postseason berths is quite the feat.

    Still only 27 years old, Nuk will feature on lists like this for the foreseeable future.

8. Patrick Mahomes, QB, Kansas City Chiefs

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    Indeed, Patrick Mahomes was the transcendent talent hinted at in the intro.

    Mahomes spent one year on the bench behind Alex Smith before the Kansas City Chiefs went all-in around him. From an outsider's perspective, it was time to see if the Chiefs could get a decent return from a top-10 pick.

    Decent doesn't come close to describing it.

    Mahomes started all 16 games as a sophomore, completing 66 percent of his passes with 5,097 yards and 50 touchdowns against 12 interceptions. He added 272 yards and two touchdowns on the ground. Mahomes won the MVP award and propelled the Chiefs to the playoffs and the AFC title game, where he tossed three scores and came within seven points of usurping Tom Brady and New England.

    While Mahomes had talented players to support him on offense, he also had to overcome a shoddy defense that got revamped this offseason. Based on his elite status and potential, it isn't premature to classify him as a franchise cornerstone.

7. Cam Newton, QB, Carolina Panthers

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    Few teams are fortunate enough to build around a superstar like Cam Newton and enjoy the sustained success he can will them to. That's an apt description considering how poorly the Panthers have done at times in this regard.

    Since Newton joined the Panthers in 2011, the team has gone to the playoffs four times and advanced to the Super Bowl once.

    That Super Bowl appearance in 2015 is a good example of the overarching theme. Newton won the MVP award that season, throwing for 3,800-plus yards with 35 touchdowns and running for 636 yards and 10 more scores.

    His leading wideouts after tight end Greg Olsen were Ted Ginn Jr. and Jerricho Cotchery.

    Even last year, when Newton wasn't playing at 100 percent, he threw for 3,395 yards with 24 touchdowns and 13 picks, averaging 7.2 yards per attempt and averaging nearly five yards per carry on the ground. There isn't a player like him in the NFL, and one has to wonder what numbers he'd put up if he wasn't mired in an organization that seems to consistently trip over its feet.

6. Andrew Luck, QB, Indianapolis Colts

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    The terms "Andrew Luck" and "franchise cornerstone" are synonymous, which isn't hard to explain.

    In 2017, Luck missed the entire season, and the Indianapolis Colts went 4-12. He returned to start all 16 games in 2018, and they improved to 10-6.

    Reducing his impact to such basic terms admittedly does a disservice to the superb job by the Colts front office. But at the same time, it should've never taken so long to emphasize the offensive line in front of Luck.

    Few players are capable of eliciting a six-game swing and securing not just a playoff berth, but also a playoff win, in the matter of a year. Yet there was Luck last season, completing a career-high 67.3 percent of his passes with 4,593 yards and 39 touchdowns against 15 picks.

    Since Luck joined the Colts in 2012, the team has made the playoffs four times and notched four postseason wins, even though he missed the 2017 season and sat out nine games in 2015.

    When Luck has time to throw—which isn't a given with some of the units he's had protecting him—he's one of the NFL's best. He's an outlier in his ability to prop up weapons around him, as well as compensate for a poor defensive showing. Keep in mind he's only 29, so health provided, he'll be a mainstay in rankings such as these.

5. Russell Wilson, QB, Seattle Seahawks

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    Russell Wilson didn't need long to morph into one of the NFL's most dangerous all-around weapons and recognizable faces.

    Wilson debuted in 2012 out of the third round with 26 touchdowns and 10 interceptions alongside 489 rushing yards and four more scores. He won the Super Bowl the following season, went back the year after that and has only missed the playoffs once—despite winning nine games that 2017 season.

    The feats are incredible. Wilson hasn't missed a game. He's completed 64.2 percent of his passes with 25,624 yards and 196 touchdowns with 63 picks. He's rushed for 3,651 yards and 16 touchdowns while averaging 5.7 yards per carry.

    The context is important. Seattle has failed him in terms of protection, as he's been sacked 41 or more times every season after his rookie year. He wasn't a stranger to needing to do it all on his own, hence nearly 4,000 passing yards and 34 touchdowns in 2017 while also leading the team in rushing with 586 yards. The non-Doug Baldwin elements of his arsenal have always been ho-hum too.

    Unlike most other players, Wilson spurs his team to win almost regardless of the surrounding noise. He's only 30 years old, so the second half of his career promises to at least match the first considering the way he's served as a trailblazer other teams have tried to emulate.

4. Aaron Donald, DL, Los Angeles Rams

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    Of the non-quarterback cornerstones, only one man has a serious shot at No. 1 overall: Aaron Donald.

    Donald is every possible moniker combined. He's an anomaly. He's a generational talent. Truly, it was clear he was a cornerstone at worst two years into his career.

    The 13th pick in the 2014 draft is a league-reshaping presence. The "small" tag chased him into the league (6'1" and 285 pounds), which he's laughed off since. Donald has never had fewer than eight sacks in a season. He's hit double digits in three of his five seasons. In 2019, he took another step forward when most might have guessed he'd topped out, recording a silly 20.5 sacks.

    The breadth of what Donald does is hard to explain. He's an interior-pressure creator, which isn't as simple as using quickness to beat guys around the edge. But the jump to the pros, where he was confronted by stronger, more violent interior offensive linemen, didn't faze Donald—rather, it seemed to bring out the best in him.

    Admittedly, Donald alone isn't propelling the Rams to wins. He hadn't enjoyed more than seven wins in a season until 2017. But the Rams, even with their current construction, would get rolled without Donald. He makes life easy on the rest of his unit in a way no other defender can. Incredibly, at the age of 28, he's still climbing toward his peak.

3. Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay Packers

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    Things have been on the downswing for Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers for a few years now. That doesn't change the impressiveness of his feats, nor does it plant seeds of doubt about whether both can get back to elite form.

    Rodgers seemed to have the deck stacked against him considering he had to sit for three years while Brett Favre's career faded. His debut season as starter said it all, though: A whopping 4,038 yards and 28 touchdowns with 13 interceptions was a sign of things to come.

    Rodgers has gunned his way to 42,000-plus yards with 338 touchdowns against just 80 interceptions while sitting on a 64.8 completion percentage. That's despite a revolving cast of weapons and a flat game plan from head coach Mike McCarthy, who finally got the boot this offseason in favor of the offensive-minded Matt LaFleur.

    Interestingly, Rodgers was at one point way, way ahead of the curve. After winning a Super Bowl in 2010, Rodgers capitalized on an innovative playbook to the tune of 4,643 yards and 45 touchdowns with just six interceptions in 2011.

    The hope in Green Bay now is that a new set of eyes on the situation and scheme can get Rodgers back out in front of the curve. He's only 35 and tossed just two picks over 16 games last year, so he's primed to sit No. 1 on this list once older guys in front of him step aside.

2. Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans Saints

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    It doesn't get much more obvious than Drew Brees.

    Brees landed with the New Orleans Saints in 2006 as the city was trying to recover from the devastating impact of Hurricane Katrina. The team was in search of a cornerstone and coming out of a season where it had to play home games elsewhere.

    At the time, Brees had been cast out of San Diego and had a questionable injury outlook. But since he landed with the Saints, the franchise has missed the playoffs just six times and won a Super Bowl, while Brees has hoisted plenty of individual awards, including a Super Bowl MVP.

    Granted, Brees' teams hit 7-9 three years in a row starting in 2014, but the blame falls on the shoulders of a horrific defense. Last year saw Brees surrounded by a competent all-around roster, and the end result was a career-high 74.4 completion percentage with 3,992 yards and 32 touchdowns against just five interceptions, a career low.

    Given his on-field play and what he was able to overcome individually and within the team, as well as the city storylines, few players will ever be so intimately connected to a franchise.

1. Tom Brady, QB, New England Patriots

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    When a player is in "best of all time" conversations, he's obviously a franchise cornerstone.

    So goes the story of Tom Brady, the fabled sixth-round pick who to this day has some NFL front offices hoarding late-round picks and crossing their fingers.

    Since 2000, Brady, now 41, has completed 64 percent of his passes with 70,514 yards and 517 touchdowns against 171 interceptions. He's won six Super Bowls, four Super Bowl MVPs and three MVPs, made 14 Pro Bowls and earned three first-team All-Pro honors. Predictably, his lost 2008 season even produced a Comeback Player of the Year Award in 2009.

    That's just a sampling, as we'd be here all day jotting down accomplishments for Brady if asked.

    The cornerstone tag does have some nuance to it, though. If there were ever a perfect fit for Bill Belichick's culture, it's Brady. He has worked his way through various offensive systems over the years, from spread schemes to two-tight end looks and beyond. He's flawlessly adapted with the times while getting the best out of what have oftentimes not been optimal surroundings.

    A player like Brady may not grace the NFL again in many viewers' lifetimes. He doesn't seem to be slowing down either with 4,000-plus yards, 29 touchdowns and another Super Bowl win in 2018. He transcends a list like this. Where mentioning a team might inspire thoughts of one of these guys, the phrase "franchise cornerstone" calls the image of Brady to mind.