Ponder this question for a moment: What if space aliens invaded planet Earth (with intentions of conquest, of course), and somehow, instead of a battle between our respective military, the fate of our world would be determined by some intergalactic, winner-take-all football game?
What would the football team representing planet Earth look like?
With the release of the film Independence Day: Resurgence taking place this weekend, I was inspired the by the idea of “The Martian Premise” by longtime columnist Bob Ryan (as well as Bill Simmons’ clever expansion of it in his “The Book of Basketball“) — which discussed the notion of basketball players who would be on such a team, if the deciding contest was a game of basketball — and wanted to adapt it for the purposes of the NFL.
(And yes, this is like the movie Space Jam, but with football players instead).
Amidst the doldrums of summer (the NBA and NHL season are over, the NFL is on siesta before the season starts, and baseball is heading into All Star break shortly), I wanted to explore the idea of building a hypothetical football that would represent planet Earth in an “Independence Day Bowl” of sorts. I wanted to assemble a football version of The Avengers: a team of guys we’d call on when we need our very best.
In addition to the aforementioned Independence Day sequel — which, by many accounts, looks like it could be a spectacular flop — a lot of this idea also came out of my total disdain for the abject fiasco that is the Pro Bowl. For as dominant the National Football League is over the American sports scene, that’s how irrelevant the Pro Bowl is. It is, far and away, the worst professional all star game of the “big four” sports leagues in this country (the NFL, NBA, NHL, and MLB):
- They’ve fully neutered such an event by eliminating any showcasing of the individual skills — and personalities — of their players, in the form of individual skills competitions (like the home run derby in baseball or the dunk contest in basketball), because teams are terrified of their players getting hurt.
- The selection process is reprehensibly flawed, with one third of the selection process being based on fan votes (always a terrible idea) and the remainder coming from votes by fellow players (you’d be astonished how little NFL players know how their counterparts around the league are performing, or how much name recognition, politics, popularity, and personal vendettas factor into player votes).
- Then, of course, there’s the equally hideous idea of trying to moving it to the weekend before the Super Bowl — thereby guaranteeing that nobody from the two best teams in the NFL will actually participate in the game — so that the NFL can (attempt to) capitalize on the “off weekend” between the conference championship games and the Super Bowl.
So, instead of relying on the baseless and worthless Pro Bowl recognition process to determine the very best players in the league, I’m going to pretend to be Rod Thorn or Jerry Colangelo (the architect of the original Dream Team, and the President of USA Basketball, respectively) and assemble a full 53 man roster — along with a coaching staff — of the best the NFL had to offer in 2015, which would (hypothetically) compete in a game with the highest possible stakes I can think of.
To preempt the hate mail and the social media trolls who will inevitably disagree with some of my selections, here are a few ground rules for how and why I chose the players I did:
1. I’m building this team based on what the player did in 2015, as opposed to their overall body of work. So, if a guy missed an extended period of time during the 2015 (think Le’Veon Bell or Dez Bryant), or he’s a superstar whose play took a dip in 2015 for whatever reason (think Aaron Rodgers), he’s not making the team. It’s not that those guys aren’t the very best at their position. But, in a game like this, I want a team of guys who performed their best on the field this past season.
2. There’s a little bit of “team-building” involved. This isn’t just the usual media-generated All-Pro team. This is me constructing a a complete team that’s going to play in a game with the biggest possible stakes. So yes, you might see a couple of guys who you could legitimately make an argument to replace with someone else. My counter-argument would be that the player I chose brings a skill set that fits the needs of this team, while still being among the very best at his position.
3. I’m eliminating the player’s current medical situation as of this posting. One of the premises of “Independence Day: Resurgence” is that mankind used the alien technology from the 1996 invasion to help safeguard the Earth against future invasions. I’m riffing on that idea, and creating a hypothetical premise that we also discovered some advanced medical technology (alien or not) that will allow the guys on this team to be fully healthy and ready to compete in this “Independence Day Bowl.” A very large portion of NFL players spend the offseason recovering from lingering or major injuries sustained during the most recent season; there’d be a whole bunch of guys I couldn’t use on this team if I had to factor in their current injury situation. With the fate of the world in jeopardy, I can’t afford to not have them.
With all of that in mind, i’ll be unveiling my “Independence Day Team” roster over the course of this week:
Part 1 — Wednesday, June 22nd (today): Defense
Part 2 — Thursday, June 23rd (tomorrow): Offense
Part 3 — Friday, June 24th: Special Teams, Coaching Staff, and Toughest Omissions
Without further adieu, let’s get down to business …
DEFENSE (25 Players)
Defensive End (4)
J.J. Watt, Houston Texans — If instead of a football game, the fate of our planet was determined by the baddest guy on their team fighting the baddest guy on my team in a no-holds-barred, no disqualification, last-man-standing, bare-knuckled street fight, i’m choosing J.J. Watt as the guy I’d want in there on behalf of planet Earth. Although honestly, i’m not even sure he’s from planet Earth to begin with; the only realistic explanation for a man that stands 6’6, weighs 290lbs, squats 700lbs, can clear a 61″ box jump, and consumes 9,000 calories per day is that he’s originally from somewhere like Krypton or Asgard. Watt is the only player in the history of the NFL to have multiple seasons with 20 or more sacks; not even Reggie White or Lawrence Taylor can say that. For the third time in four years (and he finished just his fifth season in the NFL), Watt registered more than 17 sacks; in other words, he averages at least one sack per game. In 2015, he led the NFL with 17.5 sacks, 29 tackles for loss, and 50 QB hits… and that’s not only with teams routinely trying to double or triple team him, but also with his left hand rendered useless for almost a quarter of the season, when he played four games with a huge cast on it. He is, quite simply, the best defensive football player in the world. We might as well start working on his bust for Canton, Ohio right now; he could retire tomorrow, and be a guaranteed first-ballot Hall of Fame inductee (the scary part is that Watt is only 27 years old, meaning he’s got at least another two or three seasons of peak performance ahead of him).
Michael Bennett, Seattle Seahawks — Michael Bennett is the guy whose name you probably hear most often (in a good way) when the Seahawks defense is on the field, yet tends to somehow still get overlooked by the media because of all the “stars” and big personalities across the rest of Seattle’s roster. It’s a damn shame, too, because Bennett might just be the best 4-3 defensive end in the NFL. He is basically the prototype of what you’d want from that position: he’s 6’4 and 274lbs, with the strength and power to hold the point of attack in the run game, and an explosion off the line of scrimmage that’s almost criminal for a man of his size. On top of all of that, his “football IQ” is right up there with any defensive lineman in the NFL. He’s just got that innate feel for reading and understanding what an offense is going to do on a given play, making all the physical gifts he has that much more lethal. He can dig down into his overflowing toolbox of ways to beat the poor soul trying to block him, and blow up plays before they ever materialize. His 10 sacks (a career high) put him in the top 15 in that category in 2015, but there wasn’t a defensive end with more quarterback pressures (91) or hurries (57) than Bennett. In a base 4-3 defense, he’ll be my starting defensive end, and I can keep him on the field for both obvious running or passing situations without missing a beat.
Muhammad Wilkerson, New York Jets — Muhammad Wilkerson basically set up camp in opposing backfields last season, no matter where the Jets put him along the defensive line. It’s a testament to what everyone who watched or played against him last year keeps saying: as a defensive lineman, there’s nothing he can’t do. He’s just really damn good at the game of football. At 6’4 and 315lbs, he’s so athletically gifted that the Jets lined up him at 4-3 defensive end, five-technique defensive end in the 3-4, a three-technique defensive tackle, and even occasionally at nose tackle, and he responded by beating anyone and everyone that lined up in front of him, on his way to having the best year of his career. He was one of the most dominant defensive linemen against the run last year, and an absolute menace as a pass rusher; he had 12 sacks — good for 6th in the NFL — despite other teams routinely trying to double-team him. The speed he shows as an edge defender is unreal, and his relentlessness makes him a premier run defender, even when an offensive lineman is able to initially engage him. His game tape looks like a bunch of regular people trying to hold back a hungry and pissed off velociraptor. I want to unleash his speed and fury against whatever alien lineman tries to block him.
Fletcher Cox, Philadelphia Eagles — Fletcher Cox makes the team as a defensive end because he played a five technique defensive in the Eagles 3-4 scheme for the past three season, though he’s likely going to move back inside to defensive tackle in new defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz’s 4-3 defense (mark it down now: he’s going to be a force of nature when Schwartz fully unleashes him). Over the past two seasons, Cox graduated from “really talented” to “really hard to stop.” In 2014, he was one of the best defensive linemen in football, even with the fact that the Eagles played him at so many different positions along the defensive line; then head coach Chip Kelly called Cox the team’s MVP. In 2015, Cox finished the season with a career high 9.5 sacks, along with 71 tackles, two passes defensed, three forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. But what’s perhaps more noteworthy is that he was the guy on the Eagles defense that opposing coaches feared. Every offensive staff that played the Eagles spoke in equal parts fear and awe of what they had to deal with in Cox. After watching him ransack the interior of the Patriots offensive line last December, Bill Belichick anointed Cox as one of the best defensive linemen in the league, and compared him to former Eagles legend Jerome Brown. I love the idea of Cox playing defensive end when I when the defense lines up in a 3-4, or kicking inside in passing situations.
Defensive Tackle (4)
Aaron Donald, Los Angeles Rams — When it comes to defensive tackles, there are run-stuffers, there are pass rushers, and there are guys who can do a little bit of both. But no defensive tackle in the NFL sits in the “elite” echelon for both responsibilities the way Aaron Donald does. People around the league are already starting to ask whether we’re seeing one of the best to ever play the position, and by nearly any measure, Donald is one of the three-to-five best players defensive players in the NFL (and many believe he should’ve been the 2015 NFL Defensive Player of the Year, ahead of JJ Watt). He had 11 sacks in 2015 — tied for second among all defensive linemen and eighth among all defensive players — along with an absolutely ridiculous 79 total pressures, and the one of the highest run-stopping grades in the league. From a physical standpoint, the measurables he brings are uncanny: at 6’1 and 285lbs, he can ran the 40 yard dash at 4.68 seconds and crank out 35 reps of 225lbs; in other words: he’s faster than most linebackers, and stronger than most offensive linemen. He uses an other-worldly explosion-off-the-snap to wreak havoc on opposing backfields; there are plenty of times where he makes offensive linemen look like toddlers wrestling with their dad. How are the aliens supposed to create running lanes or a passing pocket when I’ve got this guy running through offensive linemen like wet Kleenex’s?
Ndamukong Suh, Miami Dolphins — After signing an enormously lucrative free agent deal with the Dolphins last offseason, Suh admittedly took a few too many plays off last season for my liking, and basically helped further torpedo the sinking ship that was the Joe Philbin regime. And yet, he’s still so freaking good that I can’t fully justify leaving him off this team. When fully motivated — and you’d hope that playing for the future of humanity would be enough motivation — he’s still one of the two baddest defensive tackles on the planet, right up there with Aaron Donald. Even in a bit of an “off year” for him, he still had six sacks, 13 quarterback hits, and 41 hurries, all of which ranked in the top five at his position. He has the brute strength and power to play more of the “one-technique” defensive tackle alongside Aaron Donald in a base 4-3 defense, or even kick inside as a nose tackle in 3-4 looks. Then there’s also the intimidation factor he brings with him, every time he steps on the field. He doesn’t want to just defeat every player he’s lined up against; he wants to absolutely torment and ruin them. That’s obviously a big factor in his well-documented list of questionable hits and cheap shots over the years. But, in a game of this magnitude, i’m quite fine with a guy who isn’t going to be afraid of looking at someone (or something) from another planet, and stepping on its leg or kicking it right in its nuts (assuming they actually have gonads and/or a leg) right after he sacks their quarterback.
Kawann Short, Carolina Panthers — Kawann Short was absolutely dominant against the run and the pass throughout the 2015 season. He’s the only player in the NFL to be named player of the month twice last year; he was NFC defensive player of the month in October (five sacks, three passes defended, and a forced fumble, in only three games) and December (five sacks and two forced fumbles). He’s got the ridiculous burst off the line of scrimmage and upper body strength that you’d expect for a defensive tackle on this roster — he’s equally effective blowing past slower offensive linemen as he is bull rushing anyone who manages to stay in front of him — but what teammates and opponents really laud about Short is his ability to diagnose plays almost before they even happen, giving him the ability to make the right decision each play, before the blocker even has a chance to fully engage him. While he’s best suited as a three-technique defensive tackle, he moonlighted for stretches of plays at nose tackle, when the Panthers wanted to give fellow defensive tackle Star Lotulelei a breather. That means I could put him on the field with any of the other tackles i’ve got on this roster. How in the world would the aliens run the football with Suh and Short on the field at the same time in a 4-3 look? Could you imagine them trying to throw the football in obvious passing downs, with Short and Donald on the field together? Good luck with that.
Geno Atkins, Cincinnati Bengals — After finally being fully healthy again, Geno Atkins was able to rejoin the group of most complete defensive tackles in the NFL. As a run defender, he’s got the coveted combination of power and agility, along with a whole repertoire of counter-moves for when offensive linemen try to lock onto him. He’s also got an amazing intuition for when he needs to eat up blockers and allow teammates to make a play, or when he needs to simply discard anyone trying to block him and make the play himself. And as a pass rusher? He’s an absolute menace. Atkins might be the most gifted pass-rushing defensive tackle in the NFL (this side of Aaron Donald, anyway). He had 11 sacks last season, tying Kawann Short for the lead league in sacks by a defensive tackle, and his 58 quarterback hurries led the NFL exclusively. If the extra-terrestrial offense is facing a third and long situation, I like to imagine a situation where Atkins and Donald are both on the defensive line, racing each other off the snap to see who can hit the quarterback first.
Inside Linebacker (3)
Luke Kuechly, Carolina Panthers — If my team really was the football version of The Avengers, Luke Kuechly would be Captain America. People have compared Luke Kuechly’s leadership of the Panthers defense to that of Mike Singletary with the Chicago Bears of the 1980’s. That’s extremely high praise, and it’s extremely justifiable. He is the proverbial “extension of the coaching staff,” spending more time studying opponents than 99.9% of his peers, to the point where Panthers coaches once had to tell him to turn off the film and go home on Christmas Eve. Now combine that with the facts that he’s as physically gifted as any linebacker in football — he ran a 4.58 at the 2012 NFL scouting combine — and plays the run and the pass better than any of his peers. In 2015, he had 118 tackles in 13 games; project that over 16 games, and he would’ve finished in the top five in the NFL once again. The three seasons before that? He ranked first, fourth, and first in the NFL in tackles. In coverage, he can drop back into the intermediate passing lanes when playing zone, or turn and run with many receivers in man coverage. Last season, he also had 10 passes defended; only five safeties had more than that. As Jon Gruden once said about Kuechly: when you combine his superb instincts, the athleticism to play on any down and in a variety of schemes, and his relentless pursuit of any poor soul on offense with the football, you have have one of the top defensive players in the NFL.
Clay Matthews III, Green Bay Packers — Once Clay Matthews moved to inside linebacker midway through the 2014 season, Green Bay allowed less than 87 yards rushing per game to their opponents over the final 8 games of the season (7th in the NFL over that span of time). He bounced between inside and outside linebacker in 2015 (still primarily playing the former), but the point of the matter is the different ways Matthews could be deployed against the alien offense. His teammates say one simple thing about him: you could put him at any position on the defense, and he’ll find a way to make plays. That’s what I fully intend to hone from him. I could use him at inside linebacker in a 3-4 defense, as a blitzing middle linebacker in a 4-3 defense, a disguised outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense, a SAM (strongside) linebacker in a 4-3 defense, or a dime linebacker on passing downs. He might be a Southern California boy, but he fits in so well with the Packers because he plays with that blue-collar, do-whatever-it-takes mentality. Plus, as much as anyone on this all-world team, he’s the guy whose picture you’d see in the dictionary, next to the phrase “plays with his hair on fire” (although i’m pretty convinced that, like the Biblical figure Samson, he derives much of his power from his flowing, golden tresses that are always protruding out of the back of his helmet). He’s a must-have for my defense.
Jamie Collins, New England Patriots — I’m bending the rules a bit by putting Jamie Collins at middle linebacker, even though he’s officially at weakside (outside) linebacker in the Patriots 4-3 scheme. But, my counter-arguments would be that 1) he plays a lot of snaps inside in the Patriots hybrid schemes, often when replacing the oft-injured Jerod Mayo, so it’s not exactly much of a stretch to list him here; 2) at 6’3 and 250lbs, he’s got prototype size and speed to play inside linebacker in a 3-4 look; and 3) because he plays more of a “will” (weakside) linebacker in 4-3 schemes, and because a lot of my outside linebackers are more oriented to be strongside guys when we go 4-3 on defense, Collins would provide depth to this roster on the weakside. Casual NFL fans may not realize that Collins and fellow outside linebacker Dont’a Hightower combined to make the linebacker spot the secret strength of a Patriots defense that was in the top 10 against the run and the pass last season. In 2015, Collins had 89 tackles, 5.5 sacks, six passes defended, five forced fumbles, and a blocked kick; in other words, he basically did a little bit of everything for New England’s defense. With my brain trust of defensive coaches (to be unveiled on Friday) working together to put together some crazy-ass defensive schemes, it would be fun to see what they can do with a linebacker that’s 6’3 and 250lbs, plays like a missile on run defense, can cover linebackers in the flat, and scream off the edge on a blitz.
Outside Linebacker (4)
Von Miller, Denver Broncos — Von Miller wasn’t just the Most Valuable Player of Super Bowl 50; he basically single-handedly won the game for the Denver Broncos after piling up 2.5 sacks, two quarterback hits, two strip sacks, and a pass defended. His 2015-2016 postseason — which included his repeated assault on Tom Brady and the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship game — cemented the fact that there isn’t a better pure pass rusher in the NFL than Miller. His burst off the line is a step beyond elite. His bend around the edge is gravity-defying. His spin move when rushing from the interior is unlike anything an interior offensive lineman will ever see. He can also just as capably bulldoze a tackle or guard right into the lap of quarterback, despite the fact he’s only 6’3 and about 255lbs. No linebacker has more sacks than Miller since 2011 (when he entered the league), and the only player in the NFL who has more sacks in that span is JJ Watt. With the staff of defensive minds i’ve assembled, I can line up Miller anywhere along the defensive front — much like the Broncos staff did last season — and let him seek-and-destroy the opposing quarterback. Or, if I get fancy, I can even utilize Miller’s athleticism and use him as a “spy” against the alien quarterback — like the Broncos did against the Panthers in the Super Bowl — if they start some extra terrestrial version of Cam Newton themselves. Regardless of where you line him up, he’s a certified game wrecker.
Khalil Mack, Oakland Raiders — In 2015, Khalil Mack became the first player in NFL history named first-team All Pro at two different positions (defensive end and outside linebacker; the latter is why i’m putting him at outside linebacker on my roster, even though he’s officially listed as a defensive end on his team’s depth chart). Regardless of where he lines up, you can keep him on the field for all three downs, and will terrorize opposing offenses. He’s already seen around the league as a premier run-stopper. And as far as pass rushing? He finished second in the NFL in sacks (15), only behind J.J. Watt, despite the fact that he still isn’t anywhere near fully developing his pass rush arsenal (a very scary thought). Right now, he’s relying on his totally-unfair speed-to-power move, where he basically explodes into the opposing tackle and runs through him like a wrecking ball going through a pile of Styrofoam (like when he basically assassinated the career of Broncos right tackle Michael Schofield, by torching him for five sacks in the Raiders Week 14 win over Denver). There’s a reason that his own teammate, Charles Woodson, compared Mack to a modern day Derrick Thomas. I can play him at outside linebacker in a 3-4, as a SAM ‘backer in a 4-3, or a defensive end in pass rush packages, and I know he can impact the game from any of those positions.
Justin Houston, Kansas City Chiefs — No, he wasn’t the pass rushing monstrosity that he was in 2014, when he put up 22 sacks (the second highest total in NFL history), especially as he was banged up down the stretch run of the 2015 season (he didn’t play a single game in the month of December, and played very limited snaps in the Chiefs two postseason games). But for the first 10 or 11 games of the season, he was one of the best outside linebackers in the NFL yet again, staying on pace for his fourth-straight double-digit sack season (he finished the year with 7.5 sacks in 11 games). Plus, as is with most of the guys on this team, Houston is so versatile that I can leave him in for all three downs and use him in so many different ways. We already know he’s a gifted pass rusher. He’s also one of the premier outside linebackers in the NFL against the run; his “dip and rip” move — where he sets the edge, drops his pads, and rips through the blocker to attack the ball carrier — causes so much havoc for offenses. And if I want to get real fancy, I can keep him on the field in obvious passing situations, but totally confuse the opposing offense by dropping him into pass coverage (over the past two seasons, the Chiefs dropped Houston into coverage almost 20% of the plays Houston was on the field). With my own (hypothetical) technology to fix up the medical ailments that bothered him down the stretch of 2015, i’m confident i’ll be getting one of the best defensive players in the NFL, with the size (6’3 and 258lbs), power, acceleration, flexibility, and refined pass rushing technique when I put him on my team.
Lavonte David, Tampa Bay — The Swiss army knife of my defense. With the best pass rushers in the world on my team, I have a variety of weapons to get after the quarterback. With this last outside linebacker spot, I want someone who does everything else, and does it a high level. That’s Lavonte David. Look at his stat line from 2015: 147 tackles, nine passes defended, nine quarterback hurries, three sacks, three interceptions, two forced fumbles. Since he entered the league in 2012, only one player (Luke Kuechly) has more tackles than David (Kuechly has 592, David has 577). He had 13 passes defended last year, three more than any other linebacker (Kuechly had 10). He was tied for second among linebackers with three interceptions (again, Kuechly lead the league with four). Whether you want to think of him as a classic weakside linebacker in 4-3 looks, or a “big nickel” safety in 3-4 looks, he just provides so much versatility and athleticism to this group. His Tampa teammate Gerald McCoy calls him “The Flash,” because he’ll get from one side of the field to the opposite side with an alarming quickness. He has the rare fluidity as a linebacker to turn, run with, and cover some of the most athletic players in the NFL. I would love to see all the different ways the defensive brain trust i’ve assembled could use him.
Patrick Peterson, Arizona Cardinals — After his performance throughout the 2015 season, Patrick Peterson re-established himself as the best cornerback in the game. He’s the closest thing we’ve had in recent memory, as far as the old school cornerback mentality of “i’m going to mano-a-mano with their best receiver all game long, and erase him from the game; you other 10 guys (on defense) figure out the rest.” Not one receiver that Peterson covered throughout the course of the year gained more than 56 receiving yards in a single game. At 6’1 and 220lbs, with a sub 4.5 in the 40, he’s got the measurables that you look for in elite wide receivers, but he’s also got that closing speed and fluid hips that allow him to shadow any receiver put in front of him. He’s also one of the smartest and well-studied cornerbacks in the league. He works hard to really break down the receivers he’ll face and the tendencies of the opposing offense (former teammate Antonio Cromartie once called him “a beast in the film room”). With that type of preparation, he can go out on game day and let his instincts and god-given talent take over. I’ll rely on him blanket the top receiver on the other side, and have my star-studded supporting cast take care of the rest.
Richard Sherman, Seattle Seahawks — Admittedly, Richard Sherman’s play took maybe a half step back from his historically transcendent performance in 2014 (when he allowed the lowest passer rating among cornerbacks in over two decades). But here’s the thing: Sherman at a half-step back is still, almost unquestionably, one of two best cornerbacks in the NFL (along with Peterson). That’s why the Seahawks changed up their usual scheme of keeping Sherman on the left side of the field no matter who lines up opposite of him, and instead had Sherman shadow the team’s best receiver. How’d he fare? He held AJ Green to less than 80 yards receiving. He basically erased Dez Bryant (two catches for 12 yards). Antonio Brown? When Sherman was covering Brown, Ben Roethlisberger went 3-for-10 for 24 yards when throwing in that direction. By the majority of any advanced statistical metrics you want to examine, Sherman was right up there with Josh Norman and Patrick Peterson in performance. Everyone knows about Sherman’s yapping and trash talking, but i’m taking the guy who’s one of the brightest and most well-studied players in football. At 6’3, I can lock him up one-on-one with the opponent’s tallest receiver, letting Sherman’s skills — and his mouth — take him out of the game.
Chris Harris Jr., Denver Broncos — In today’s pass-happy NFL, teams have actually began utilizing the nickel defense — substituting one guy from the front seven of the defense for a cornerback playing in the slot — to the point where it’s becoming their base defense. That’s where defensive backs have to account for a “two-way go” (inside or outside release) and they have a ton of space to cover, basically all by themselves. Given that, I want Chris Harris Jr. as my “sixth man,” or the first guy off the bench, when my defense goes to the nickel package. Harris’ name often gets lost in the discussions among casual fans for best cornerback in the NFL, but he is firmly in the top five at his position in the NFL. He’s one of the few guys at his position who can effectively play man or zone coverage on the outside, but still be equally effective when moved into the slot. He’s got outstanding feet and lateral quickness that help him match up with the shiftier receivers, and strong hands to help fight the bigger receivers. As an undrafted free agent, he still plays with the tenacity of trying to make a name for himself, and chip on his shoulder from being overlooked. During the Broncos postseason run, he was arguably their best player on defense not named Von Miller. With him, i’m more than comfortable knowing that I have someone to go toe-to-toe if our wannabe overlords trot out any extra-terrestrial slot receiver.
Josh Norman, Washington Redskins — There are some who’ll argue whether or not Josh Norman truly is the best cornerback in the NFL, but regardless of how you feel about that statement, almost everyone believes he deserves to be in the conversation. Norman excelled in the Panthers zone-heavy scheme because he has elite instincts when it comes to knowing how to use his height (he’s six feet tall) and long arms to position himself between the ball and the receiver. But put him in man coverage, and he can use his size, athleticism, quick feet, and shutdown-corner mindset to lock up opposing receivers. Don’t worry about the fact that he only has six interceptions over the past two seasons. Norman started to get the “Richard Sherman treatment”: teams started throwing the football less and less in his direction, especially considering he only allowed 51% of the passes thrown his way to be caught, and a total passer rating of 54.0 to opposing quarterbacks during the regular season (the best among all NFL cornerbacks). And for the record: i’m not the slightest bit worried about Norman resting on last season’s laurels and playing indifferently after signing a huge free agent deal with the Redskins, either. Less than 48 hours after signing the deal in Washington, he was in the building at 8:00am working out with his new teammates. That’s a testament to Norman’s work ethic, passion to be great, and desire to make his teammates around him better. That’s the type of guy I want on this squad.
Desmond Trufant, Atlanta Falcons — The burgeoning superstar that 97% of football fans have probably ever heard of. Desmond Trufant is already among the league’s best cornerbacks, yet he doesn’t get talked about by the national media because he plays in the flaccid football market that is Atlanta, and doesn’t put up the gaudy interception totals that turn heads (he only has six during his three-year career). But here’s how you know Trufant is a stud: during the 2015 regular season, not one single cornerback — including Peterson, Sherman, and Norman — was targeted less often than Trufant was. Quarterbacks threw a grand total of 56 targets in Trufant’s direction all season; that’s less than four attempts per game. As far as shutting down an entire side of the field in Dan Quinn’s Seahawks-esque Cover 3 scheme, Trufant’s 2015 season is reminiscent of Richard Sherman circa 2014. At 6’0, he’s got above-average height for a cornerback, but he’s still not afraid of going toe-to-toe with the bigger and more physical receivers. Against the smaller, speedier receivers, he had the speed to mirror them stride-for-stride, and a short-area explosion to plant his foot and burst towards an oncoming pass. With his short-area quickness, he’s plenty capable of lining up as a slot cornerback, or playing outside coverage. I he can rotate with Chris Harris Jr inside if needed, or just let him do this thing as either a traditional field or boundary corner.
Tyrann Mathieu, Arizona Cardinals — I went with the rather unconventional idea of building a team with five cornerbacks and five safeties almost entirely because I wanted to ensure that Tyrann Mathieu was a member of this secondary. He’s listed at free safety (and might be the very best in the NFL at that position), even though he played over 62% of his snaps at cornerback last season (and he might have been one of the best in the NFL at that position, too). Before tearing his ACL in Week 15, Mathieu was firmly in the conversation for Defensive Player of the Year, alongside JJ Watt and Aaron Donald. The versatility he brings to the Cardinals defense is unprecedented. They can play him as a single-high safety. They play him in the slot against tight ends. They can even line him up outside as a traditional cornerback, and utilize his physicality and ball skills against bigger receivers (even though Mathieu is only 5’9 himself). Oh, and he’s a kamikaze against the run, using his closing speed and low center of gravity to work around blockers and attack ballcarriers. There are simply so many different ways he could be used on this defense. We’ll get his ACL fixed up fast, because I have to have him.
Earl Thomas, Seattle Seahawks — The rock on which Seattle’s vaunted “Legion of Boom” is built upon. It’s not about gaudy statistics with Earl Thomas; his five interceptions, 64 tackles, nine passes defended, and one forced fumble aren’t exactly eye-popping numbers. It’s more about everything Thomas is and has that doesn’t show up in the stat sheet. Imagine you took the cerebral approach and football intelligence of Ed Reed (in his prime) and combined it with the pure destructive force of Troy Polamalu (in his prime); that’s basically what Earl Thomas is. From Monday through Saturday, he’s a guy who devotes himself, from 8 o’clock in the morning ’til 9:30 at night each day, to studying his opponents, working his ass off in practice, and doing every extra thing that he possibly can to make sure he’s prepared for the opponent on Sunday. On game day? He’s a Patriot missile: designed to lock on and intercept the opposing attacker, completely blowing it up before it causes any damage to his own forces. He has the most unreal combination of on-field IQ and closing speed as you’ll see in the NFL. There’s no way I’m building this team without him.
Harrison Smith, Minnesota Vikings — Forget the fact that Harrison Smith’s stats took a slight dip in 2015, after his phenomenal all-around season in 2014 (clearly the Vikings didn’t have any problem with how he played in 2015, considering they just re-signed him to a five year, $51.25 million contract, making him the highest paid safety in the NFL). The Vikings asked “Harry the Hitman” — seriously, how can you not love that nickname? He sounds like a villain from a Guy Ritchie film — to play more of a classic “centerfield” free safety role last season, given some of the struggles they had opposite Smith. He’s a very good coverage safety — he has all the tools to drop back and play the deep middle of the field in Cover 3 or even Cover 1 looks — but he’s absolutely savage as an in-the-box safety. He has the complete trust of his coaching staff, who calls him “an assistant coach on the field.” He also happens to be one of those “always in the right place at the right time” guys, who just finds ways to make the lives of opposing offenses miserable. I’ll use Smith closer to the scrimmage, in the new and en vogue “dime linebacker” position, where he can hunt down ball carriers with extreme malice and violence, run with tight ends on seam routes, or scream off the edge on blitzes.
Malcolm Jenkins, Philadelphia Eagles — It’s gratifying to see Malcolm Jenkins flourish as a player, after spending his first few years in the defensive wasteland that is New Orleans (though, as a Redskins fan, I hate the fact that he flourished while playing for an NFC East rival). After moving over to safety full time (he was originally drafted as a cornerback), he’s become on the very best in the league at the position. The move allowed him to best utilize his strengths as a football player: to play off receivers, flip and run with them in coverage, make a break on the ball when it’s in front of him, break up passes in jump-ball scenarios, and/or running downhill to attack ball carriers. Look at his stat line from last season: 109 tackles (eight among all safeties in the NFL), 10 passes defended (fourth among all safeties), three forced fumbles (second among all safeties), and two interceptions (one of which was returned 99 yards for a touchdown, during the Eagles major upset win over the Patriots). He basically had to do everything himself for an otherwise awful Eagles defense (ranked 30th in the NFL). I can use him as more of a traditional free safety, move him down onto the line of scrimmage as a slot cornerback covering receivers or tight ends, or even as a strong safety in a pinch (he’s very good at using angles to attack runners, and he brings the lumber when tackling).
Devin McCourty, New England Patriots — There’s a reason the New England Patriots, who often show no hesitancy in letting free agents depart Foxborough, re-signed Devin McCourty after the 2014 season to an unusually lucrative (by their standards) contract worth $47.5 million over five years. For a team that relies on so much from the safety position, McCourty is the “glue” that make sure everyone on that defense is aligned correctly, helping guide the rotating cast of young players the Patriots have had around McCourty (he played in over 90% of New England’s defensive plays last season). Even as a converted cornerback, he’s actually more of a true “do it all well” safety. His ability to cover so much range as a deep centerfield safety, and his instincts for where the ball is going, is right up there with anyone in the NFL. As a run defender, he’s not the slightest bit shy in run support, consistently attacking runners from the right angles. He might’ve been a Pro Bowl snub, being passed on because he didn’t have sexy statistics, but I know better than to employ a group of safeties that doesn’t include his services.