Ranking the NFL's True Franchise Cornerstones Entering 2021

Kristopher Knox@@kris_knoxFeatured ColumnistJuly 2, 2021

Ranking the NFL's True Franchise Cornerstones Entering 2021

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    Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

    While football is the ultimate team sport, NFL rosters are often built around a handful of key players. The best of them are constants through years and even decades of turnover, and they remain associated with a particular franchise long after their time with the team is done.

    Brett Favre, for example, played for the New York Jets and the Minnesota Vikings late in his career. However, he is best remembered as the cornerstone of the Green Bay Packers. Tom Brady plays for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but through nearly two decades and six championships, he was the face of the New England Patriots.

    Here, we'll examine the top 10 franchise cornerstones who remain with their original teams heading into the 2021 season. Not all of them have achieved the herculean accomplishments of Brady or Favre, but some are legends in their own right, and the rest have the potential to be forever associated with their franchises. 

    Since this is a 2021 list, a little weight was placed on upside, but we also considered these 10 players' resumes, ages and positional values.

Honorable Mentions

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    Before we get into the list proper, let's take a look at who didn't make the cut. We'll start with the quarterback trio from the 2018 draft: Josh Allen, Lamar Jackson and Baker Mayfield.

    Each appears primed to be the long-term faces of their respective franchises. Jackson was a unanimous MVP in 2019, Allen took the Buffalo Bills to the AFC title game last year and Mayfield just helped the Cleveland Browns notch their first playoff win as an expansion team.

    However, these three quarterbacks are still on their rookie deals and have yet to prove themselves over the long haul. Still, there's a good chance at least one of the three will make next year's list.

    We're also limiting our choices to one player per franchise, so a few worthy candidates find themselves honorable mentions.

    Players such as Seattle Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner (six first-team All-Pro appearances), Green Bay Packers wideout Davante Adams (58 touchdown receptions over the last five years) and Pittsburgh Steelers pass-rusher T.J. Watt (120 quarterback pressures over the last two seasons) are worthy but find themselves bumped by franchise signal-callers.

10. Myles Garrett, EDGE, Cleveland Browns

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    Arguably the best player to don a Browns uniform since the franchise returned in 1999, Myles Garrett is both a Cleveland sports superstar and a generational talent. The 6'4", 272-pound edge-defender possesses a skill set that coaches drool over.

    "Generally speaking, pass-rushers with his quickness and ability to bend the edge are 20 to 30 pounds lighter, and guys who can just bull a tackle out of the way aren't as quick to the quarterback as he is," Doug Farrar of Touchdown Wire wrote. "Perhaps no other edge defender comes to the field with such a total package of skills."

    While Garrett has missed 13 games in four seasons and was on the reserve/COVID-19 list last year, he has already amassed 42.5 sacks and 10 forced fumbles. A Pro Bowler in two of the past three seasons, the 25-year-old has 109 quarterback pressures in the last three years.

    He has legitimate Hall of Fame potential, and with a contract that runs through the 2026 season, he's likely to remain the face of the Browns for the foreseeable future.

9. Zack Martin, G, Dallas Cowboys

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    While Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott may hold a higher profile for the Dallas Cowboys, no member of the franchise has been as consistent for as long as guard Zack Martin.

    While a calf strain ended Martin's Pro Bowl streak at six last season—he missed six games—he was still incredibly reliable.

    "Martin was still playing his best football right up until getting injured, even when he kicked out to right tackle," Sam Monson of Pro Football Focus wrote. "Martin earned a PFF overall grade of 91.3 at the time of his injury, allowing just 13 total pressures across 10 games. He has now allowed just one sack in two years for the Cowboys."

    Since entering the league, the 30-year-old has been a first-team All-Pro four times. While interior offensive linemen aren't often superstars, the Cowboys have to be happy with their return on the 16th pick in the 2014 draft.

8. Matt Ryan, QB, Atlanta Falcons

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    Julio Jones would have made this list if he hadn't been traded to the Tennessee Titans earlier in the offseason. With the star receiver out, quarterback Matt Ryan is the unquestioned face of the Atlanta Falcons and one of the few "old guard" quarterbacks still with his original team.

    Taken third in 2008, Ryan has outlasted franchise signal-callers such as Joe Flacco (Ravens, 2008), Matthew Stafford (Lions, 2009) and Cam Newton (Panthers, 2011) with his drafting franchise.

    While he's only made four Pro Bowls and has never won a championship, Ryan has produced Hall of Fame-caliber numbers. In his 13 seasons, he has accumulated 55,767 passing yards, 347 touchdown passes, 158 interceptions and a starting record of 113-92. He also won the 2016 NFL MVP after he posted 4,944 passing yards and 38 touchdowns with a league-leading 117.1 quarterback rating. 

    If not for the Patriots, some questionable play-calling in Super Bowl LI and the whole 28-3 debacle, Ryan would have a Lombardi Trophy.

    He has also been remarkably durable, missing just three games in his career. He's still a high-level starter (passer rating of 93.3 in 2020) at 36 years old and remains a quarterback Atlanta can build its offense around.

7. Von Miller, EDGE, Denver Broncos

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    Denver Broncos edge-rusher Von Miller is a future Hall of Famer and might rank higher on a cornerstones list if not for a couple of key factors.

    For one, Miller is 32 years old and likely nearing the back end of his career. Secondly, he's coming off a season lost to ankle surgery. However, Miller is determined to prove he's still one of the greats.

    "I'm still running around here beating everybody's ass, so I feel like, 30-what? Until I see otherwise, I'm going to keep doing it and I'm going to keep going," Miller said, per ESPN's Jeff Legwold.

    Miller is one of the league's all-time greats and a player synonymous with Broncos football. The second pick in the 2011 draft, Miller has racked up eight Pro Bowl appearances, three first-team All-Pro selections and 106 career sacks, which is tied for 25th since 1982. He was the MVP of Super Bowl 50 and was still a factor when last healthy.

    In 2019, Miller produced eight sacks and 37 quarterback pressures in 15 games, good for 12th in the NFL.

6. Derrick Henry, RB, Tennessee Titans

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    Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

    While Titans running back Derrick Henry only has three 1,000-yard campaigns, he is the unquestioned cornerstone of the Tennessee attack. He's also arguably the most unstoppable offensive weapon in the game.

    Henry's relative lack of early success was due to a reduced role while sharing a backfield with DeMarco Murray. The Alabama product had just 286 carries over his first two seasons before he broke out with 1,059 rushing yards in 2018. Over the last two years, Henry has amassed 3,567 yards and 33 touchdowns on the ground while leading the league in rushing both seasons. In 2020, he put up just the eighth 2,000-plus-yard rushing campaign in NFL history.

    Nearly impossible to bring down one-on-one, he chews up yards after contact and has produced runs of at least 74 yards in each of the past four seasons.

    "Henry has 2,758 yards after contact since the start of the 2019 season, almost 1,000 more than any other back in that span," Monson wrote.

    At just 27 years old and under contract through 2023, he should remain Tennessee's centerpiece for at least the next few campaigns.

5. Ben Roethlisberger, QB, Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is included because of what he's accomplished, not necessarily what he may have left. At 39 years old and set to play on a one-year deal, Roethlisberger may be approaching his last ride.

    What he has accomplished for the Pittsburgh Steelers, however, has been incredible. Big Ben has been synonymous with the Steelers since they drafted him in 11th in 2004, and the six-time Pro Bowler has been largely responsible for the franchise's long run of relevance.

    Roethlisberger has twice led the league in passing, has 60,348 passing yards and has helped deliver two Lombardi Trophies to Pittsburgh. The Steelers have only missed the playoffs six times during Roethlisberger's 17-year career.

    The last quarterback standing from the 2004 draft, Roethlisberger is the epitome of a franchise cornerstone. If he ever suits up for a different team, it will be an odd sight akin to seeing Joe Montana with the Chiefs.

4. Russell Wilson, QB, Seattle Seahawks

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    Stephen Brashear/Associated Press

    Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson gets an edge over Big Ben because he's younger (32) and still in his prime. While Wilson only has one Super Bowl win, he's remained one of the league's most consistently great quarterbacks since being drafted.

    A third-round pick in 2012, Wilson has been the face of the Seahawks franchise in the post-Legion of Boom era. The seven-time Pro Bowler has produced a passer rating above 100 in six of his nine seasons and has only missed the playoffs once. He has never missed a game because of injury and has an impressive 267-81 touchdown-to-interception ratio.

    While not a run-first quarterback, Wilson remains one of the game's best dual threats. He has amassed 33,946 passing yards, 4,506 rushing yards and 288 combined touchdowns.

    Having shown no signs of slowing down, Wilson should remain a Pro Bowl and postseason mainstay.

3. Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay Packers

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    Jeffrey Phelps/Associated Press

    One could argue that Aaron Rodgers deserves the top spot because of his long list of accolades and recent high level of play, as the 37-year-old is the reigning NFL MVP. However, Rodgers' tenuous situation with the Packers makes it hard to rank him as the No. 1 franchise cornerstone.

    The reality is that his time in Green Bay may be at its end.

    "If, as I suspect, Rodgers feels unappreciated by the Packers, is displeased that [GM Brian] Gutekunst picked his potential heir instead of a receiver last year and doesn't think he's valued by the franchise as much as a three-time MVP should be, it's going to be tough to build a bridge to make him return," NBC Sports' Peter King wrote.

    The chance that Rodgers will return to Green Bay keeps him on the list, and it's hard not to be in awe of his career. He is arguably the best quarterback of his generation and has been remarkably consistent since taking over as the starter in 2008.

    Rodgers has nine Pro Bowl appearances, three MVP awards, 51,245 passing yards, one Lombardi Trophy, 412 passing touchdowns and just 89 interceptions. Green Bay has only missed the playoffs three times with him at the helm, and as last year's MVP proves, Rodgers is still at the top of his game.

    The only real question is whether he suits up for Green Bay—or at all—this season.

2. Aaron Donald, DT, Los Angeles Rams

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    The top two spots on our list could be considered 1A and 1B, with only positional value separating the two. Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald is a worthy candidate for the top spot in part because his career could end today and he'd be a Hall of Famer.

    "No matter how good you think Donald is, you're probably underselling it," Monson wrote. "The Los Angeles Rams star is an outlier the likes of which we haven't seen in 15 years of grading at the NFL level. He is a unicorn in a league full of ... talented superstars."

    Donald has been perhaps the most consistently dominant player in the NFL since he arrived in 2014. In seven seasons, the 29-year-old has seven Pro Bowl appearances, six first-team All-Pro nods and has been named NFL Defensive Player of the Year three times, which is tied for the most ever with J.J. Watt and Lawrence Taylor.

    Despite being an interior defensive lineman, Donald has been one of the game's most disruptive pass-rushers. He has 85.5 sacks to go with 357 total tackles and has racked up 170 quarterback pressures over the last three seasons.

    As defenders go, there isn't a player more valuable than Donald, and his induction into Canton is a mere formality.

1. Patrick Mahomes, QB, Kansas City Chiefs

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    In the NFL, quarterbacks reign supreme as franchise cornerstones. This is why Patrick Mahomes gets the nod over Donald for the top spot despite spending less time in the NFL.

    The unquestioned face of the Kansas City Chiefs, Mahomes appears to be in the early stages of his own Hall of Fame career. In three years as a full-time starter, he has three Pro Bowl nods, three AFC Championship appearances, two Super Bowl berths and both regular-season and Super Bowl MVP awards. He and the Chiefs also won the 2019 title.

    Arguably the top quarterback in the game today, Mahomes doesn't have many physical limitations. In 46 regular-season starts, the Texas Tech product has racked up 14,152 yards, 114 touchdowns and just 24 interceptions through the air, 808 yards and six touchdowns on the ground, and a quarterback rating of 108.7.

    Including the postseason, Mahomes has an impressive 44-10 record as a starter.

    Mahomes represents the present and future of the NFL, and with a contract that runs through the 2031 season, he represents the future of the Chiefs franchise as well. 


    *Contract information via Spotrac. Advanced statistics from Pro Football Reference.