Welcome back to the second installment of my three-part NFL “Independence Day” team. Today, we’ll be introducing the offense who’ll be charged with putting points on the board against our (hypothetical) Earth-invading alien overlords.
For a full explanation of the “Independence Day” team premise, don’t forget to check out Part 1 (published yesterday), where we introduced the defense.
Tom Brady, New England Patriots — If the fate of planet Earth is on the line, I simply cannot leave off one of the most competitive motherf-ckers on the planet, and perhaps the most clutch quarterback alive, off my roster. I just can’t. Watching Tom Brady play the quarterback position is like witnessing Michelangelo sculpt the Pietà. His ability to synthesize real-time information on the field is like the NFL’s version of IBM Watson. His mechanics are flawless. His throws are decisive, accurate, and perfectly-timed. For the first half of the season, Brady was probably the lead dog in the MVP race, before essentially his entire supporting cast — wide receivers, running backs, nearly all of his offensive line, and even Rob Gronkowski — started dropping like flies, due to injury. Even then, he still lead the league in touchdown passes (36), threw the second fewest interceptions (7) among the top 25 quarterbacks, and finished third in passing yards (4,770). He is the galvanizing leader and world class maestro who could orchestrate this collection of talent in a way that perhaps nobody else on the planet could.
Cam Newton, Carolina Panthers — The only real negative thing you can say about Cam Newton’s 2015 campaign was the sulky and petulant way he handled his post-Super Bowl press conference. Outside of that? He became the realization of the nightmare every defensive coordinator has of the true “dual threat quarterback,” especially one that has JJ Watt’s body frame, sub 4.6 speed, and the strongest throwing arm in the NFL. The numbers speak for themselves: 35 rushing touchdowns (tied for second in the NFL) and 10 rushing touchdowns (tied for fifth in the NFL). How do you stop a guy who can single-handedly manufacture 45 touchdowns in a season? He evolved from a streaky (but breathtaking) thrower to a terrifyingly accurate passer who saved his best performances for playing the toughest defenses, or any defense that chose to blitz him. Oh, and he’s still a bulldozer when carrying the football in goal line situations. Last year’s MVP unquestionably makes this team.
Carson Palmer, Arizona Cardinals — This, admittedly, was probably the toughest pick I had to make on the entire roster. Carson Palmer played as well as anyone for the first 13 or 14 weeks of the year — he was neck-and-neck with Tom Brady for NFL MVP at the midway point of the season — and then looked rather pedestrian (perhaps putting it kindly) over the last four-to-six weeks of the season (including the postseason, which included his 235 yard, one touchdown, and four interception stinkbomb against Carolina in the NFC Divisional Playoff game). Still, in 16 regular season games last year, he threw for 4,671 yards (a career high for Palmer and fourth among all quarterbacks in the NFL last year), 35 touchdown passes (another career high, and tied for second among all quarterbacks), and only 11 interceptions (his lowest career total in any season where he played in more than 10 games). He finished the season with a passer rating of 104.6 (third in the NFL), and registered a passer rating of over 98 or more in 13 of the Cardinals 16 regular season games last year. My biggest reservation is that he just seems to be a quarterback who tends to get the “yips” when the stakes are at their highest; considering this game will determine the fate of mankind, that’s more than a little scary. While Palmer certainly deserves to be on the roster based on his stellar play during the 2015 regular season, i’ll be a bit more comfortable with him holding the clipboard in a game of this magnitude.
Running Back (3)
Adrian Peterson, Minnesota Vikings — There are few players i’ve seen, in my damn-near-30 years of watching football, who run with the same burst, strength, anger, and glide the way Adrian Peterson does. There are very, very few running backs today — or even over the past few decades — who can match Peterson’s power at the point of attack, ability to explode through the line of scrimmage like he was shot out of a howitzer, and startling open field speed. After missing basically all of the 2014 season, when he was deactivated and suspended after being indicted on child abuse charges, many people questioned how Peterson would play in 2015, given that he missed an entire season prior and he would be 30 years old entering the 2015 season (the age when the majority of running backs start to show a substantial decline). Instead, he responded by playing in all 16 games, carrying the football 327 times (almost 40 more carries than any other running back in the league), and leading the NFL with 1,485 yards and 11 touchdowns. The most impressive part of that feat, outside of putting up those numbers at 30 years old and after a year off, is that he did it despite being surrounded by a second year quarterback who isn’t exactly known for challenging defenses vertically (meaning defenses have no problem stacking their personnel within 10 to 15 yards of the line of scrimmage) and one of the more sub-par offensive line’s in the NFL. He’s also averaged just under 30 receptions per season (he had 30 catches last season), so he’s certainly capable enough as a receiver out of the backfield as well. But, there’s just no other running back I could possibly consider being my starting running back other than Peterson, who’s still the best the league has to offer.
Todd Gurley, Los Angeles Rams — Even after coming off a torn ACL during his final season at the University of Georgia, there’s good reason Todd Gurley shot up draft boards leading up to the 2015 NFL Draft, and ended up becoming the first running back in five years to be taken among the top 10 picks in the NFL Draft. If you want a fast and simple way to describe Gurley’s overall game, the best comparison I can give you is (the now retired) Marshawn Lynch, but with the speed of an Olympic track star (he actually ran the hurdles for Team USA in 2011). His combination of brute power, immensely powerful legs that never stop churning, downhill running style (giving defenders only shoulders and knees to try and grab onto), and explosion through the line of scrimmage is highly “Beast Mode”-esque; during his last season in Athens, almost 62% of his 911 rushing yards came after initial contact. He missed his first three NFL games while recovering from the aforementioned ACL injury, but after getting his first playing time in Week 4, in the subsequent seven weeks he ran for 766 rushing yards and eight touchdowns. Gurley finished the year with 229 carries for 1,106 yards (third in the NFL) and 10 touchdowns (second in the NFL). Again, that was in spite of playing in basically 12-and-a-half games. He’s even got the soft hands and ability to adjust his body to make acrobatic catches, meaning I could make him the most potentially devastating third-down back the universe has ever seen. In other words: there are zero raw tools you could possibly ask for, from a running back standpoint, that Gurley lacks.
Doug Martin, Tampa Bay Buccaneers — Whether you prefer to call him the Muscle Hamster, the Dougernaut, or any other nickname of choice, we finally saw the guy who was a 2012 Pro Bowl selection and rookie of the year finalist. Martin finished the 2015 season with 288 carries for 1,402 yards rushing, ranking him second in the NFL in both categories (only behind Adrian Peterson). More interestingly, those rushing yards weren’t just a result of pure volume of carries; his 4.9 yards per carry was the highest clip for any rusher in the top 35 in the NFL. On top of that, he did it all behind a line with two rookies getting extensive playing time (left tackle Donovan Smith and right guard Ali Marpet). Martin would be an excellent compliment to the other two guys I have on the roster, in that he’s got the combination of being someone who’s more adept to running between the tackles and smashing through a hole, but still has the open-field creativity and footwork to make tacklers miss and take the carry the distance of the field. There were a couple of other guys who I had considered for this roster spot, but I just couldn’t put him on the team ahead of Martin, given the way Martin played this past season.
Patrick DiMarco, Atlanta Falcons — The fullback position might be getting slowly phased out of the NFL, but i’m an old school guy. I love the three-tool fullbacks who can hit and block like an extra offensive lineman, bring some of that “H-back”-style versatility where I can quietly release him into a passing route and rely on him as a receiver, or use him as a running back in short yardage situations. Patrick DiMarco has the best combination of all three among all current NFL fullbacks. His proverbial “bread and butter” is his blocking, which the Falcons took full advantage of in both running situations (he goes and looks for something to hit as a lead blocker) and passing situations (helping seal the edge from pass rushers). As a receiver, he didn’t drop a single pass all year (he also had two touchdown receptions). As a runner, he’s got the size and strength to get the tough yardage if needed. He might not get a ton of snaps, but when it’s time to put someone on the field as a lead blocker for one of my running backs, he’s the guy I’d want more than anyone else.
Wide Receiver (6)
Antonio Brown, Pittsburgh Steelers — I don’t know if we’ve seen a receiver more consistently dominant over a three year span as Antonio Brown, since maybe Randy Moss or Jerry Rice in their respective primes (and they’re only the two best receivers in the history of the NFL). Not coincidentally, Brown has been called a “modern day version of Jerry Rice” because of his off-the-charts football smarts, unbelievably deceptive quickness, and surgical precision when running routes. On top of that, he has an extraordinary ability to “get himself open” when a play breaks down and his quarterback (Ben Roethlisberger) has to improvise and extend the play; a lot of Brown’s demoralizing damage to the opposing defense has come this way. In 2014, he lead the league receptions, receiving yards, and passes caught for a first down. How did he follow that up in 2015? By again leading the league in receptions and receiving yards, exceeding both totals from 2014. His 136 receptions was the second highest total in NFL history, and his 1,834 yards was the 4th highest total in NFL history. The beauty of Brown’s game is that whether you line him up as the X receiver, Z receiver, or even in the slot, his off-the-charts route running ability allows him to excel anywhere he’s lined up; I could motion him along the line of scrimmage, causing havoc in the alien secondary, when they try to figure out who has to cover him. The league has some pretty incredible wide receivers playing the game today, but none of them are more consistently dynamic than Antonio Brown.
Julio Jones, Atlanta Falcons — Julio Jones is the San Antonio Spurs of NFL superstars: he consistently performs at spectacular, history-making levels, but there’s so much hype and hoopla around other players and teams that he gets lost in the shuffle. In my book, there isn’t a single receiver who is as physically breathtaking as Jones. His combination of size, speed, and strength just can’t be matched by any player on any defense the Falcons have played or will play. In 2015, he tied for the league lead with 136 receptions (the second highest total in NFL history) and led the league with 1,871 receiving yards (also the second highest total in NFL history)… and that was with a disappointing second half of the season (by his standards). Plus, he put up those numbers with virtually no help opposite of him at wide receiver; the rapidly aging Roddy White was the Falcons second most productive wide receiver last year, with a meager stat line of 43 catches for 506 yards and one touchdown. No wide receiver faced more double-teams from opposing secondaries than Jones. Imagine what he could do with a supporting cast like this?
Odell Beckham Jr., New York Giants — I previously refused to admit it, because he plays for the much-loathed New York Giants, but i’ve finally come around to the truth: Odell Beckham Jr. is a pass-catching freak of nature. In 27 career games, he has 100+ receiving yards in 15 of them. He has 25 touchdowns catches in those 27 games. He has 90+ yards receiving and/or a touchdown in 21 of his last 27 games. Simply put another way: he’s basically good for seven catches, 100 yards, and a touchdown every time he steps on the field. No matter how long you think you have him in check, he’s going to do something spectacular that breaks the will of the defense. It’s just inevitable. Between his hand-eye coordination and body control, the man’s catch radius has zero limitation. The laws of gravity and human reach seen like they just don’t apply to him. It doesn’t matter if he’s single covered by an elite cornerback, or triple covered by the opposing defense; he finds a way to catch the football and make plays. I can’t stand to root for him, because he plays for the accursed Giants. That being said, I would absolutely love to unleash him against our potential alien overlords.
DeAndre Hopkins, Houston Texans — You know the old adage of “playing beyond his measurables?” That’s DeAndre Hopkins. He doesn’t have the borderline NBA-caliber height (he’s 6’1) that many other receivers have. He doesn’t run a blazing 40 yard dash (he ran a 4.57 coming out of Clemson University) or an elite vertical leap (36 inches). And yet, he is an absolute pass-catching savant. Sure, his 2015 stats were off the chart: 111 catches (3rd in the NFL) for 1,521 yards (3rd in the NFL) and 11 touchdowns (6th among all wide receivers) — and that was with one of the lowest “catchable ball” rates in the NFL, thanks to the Texans’ horrific quarterback play last season — but he’s not a one year wonder. Over the past two seasons, he’s ranked ranked fourth in total targets, sixth in total receptions, and fifth in receiving yards. He just plays the position with so much precision and fluidity. He’s got the total route tree, perfectly understanding how to use his speed, agility, balance, foot quickness, and body lean to separate himself from cornerbacks. He knows exactly how to contort his body in a way that only he can get to the football, or to reach up and get footballs that no one else with his size would have any realistic chance of catching. If it’s in his catching radius, he’s a sure bet to get it; on 187 targets last season, he had only seven drops (compared to 111 catches). If my quarterbacks deliver the football at the right time into the right place for Hopkins, he’s money in the bank.
Larry Fitzgerald, Arizona Cardinals — Remember when we thought that Larry Fitzgerald’s best days were behind him, because he was entering his 12th season in the NFL at 32 years old, and didn’t have 1,000 yards receiving in any of the previous three years? Yeah, Fitzgerald probably wants us to take those thoughts and shove them where the sun don’t shine. After a reluctantly adopting the idea of being the slot receiver in Bruce Arians offense, he had a renaissance-type season in 2015: 109 receptions (5th in the NFL), 1215 yards (9th in the NFL), 458 yards after the catch, and 9 TD receptions (the latter two were both in the top 15 in the NFL). So imagine a base offense with a “13” personnel grouping (three wides, one tight end, and one running back) with Julio Jones as the X receiver, Antonio Brown as the Z receiver, and Larry Fitzgerald in the slot; the aliens would have to scour every corner of the universe to find a slot cornerback who could cover a 6’3, 220lb slot receiver. As if that’s not troublesome enough, Fitzgerald happens to be the best run-blocking receiver in the NFL as well. Between the way he can be used at multiple receiving spots, the respect he commands from teammates and opponents alike, his legendary work ethic, his familiarity with my offensive coordinator’s scheme (a teaser for tomorrow’s column), and all the other intangibles he brings, that’s why I’ve got him on the team.
Julian Edelman, New England Patriots — I acknowledge that he’s necessarily one of the five or six or even top 10 “best” wide receivers in the NFL. But here’s what he definitely is: an unstoppably pesky and uncoverable nuisance as a slot receiver. There isn’t a player in the NFL who is more effective at running the underneath option routes, and there might not be a better inside route runner in the NFL overall; he’s as good as anyone in the league at getting in and out of breaks in his routes. His ability, as a slot receiver, to find tiny openings in the defense, and to subtly turn inside or outside depending on the defense’s coverage, creating a window for the quarterback to deliver the football, is almost impossible to stop. Every play, he is a threat to pick up five or six “dirty” underneath yards with every catch, consistently keeping the chains moving. He’s the guy that can single-handedly ensure my offense is never stuck in a third and long situation. And I know I can rely on him, too. With all the catches he makes over the middle, in tight space and in a sea of bodies, he routinely takes a beating. But, he makes like Captain America, getting up after every hit, and telling defenses: “I can do this all day.” Tom Brady’s proverbial “security blanket” gets the last spot at receiver on my team.
Tight End (3)
Rob Gronkowski, New England Patriots — Could there be any other choice, as far as who my starting tight end would be? As a pass catcher, nobody in the NFL has come up with a way to stop Rob Gronkowski. He ranked 11th in receiving yards (1,176), 12th in yards per catch (16.3), and seventh in touchdown receptions (11), in the entire NFL — that includes wide receivers. You could argue that his “value over replacement player” (VORP) — basically, how much better he is than the average person playing his position — exceeds that of any other player in the NFL. He easily led all other tight ends in receiving yards, yards per catch, yards after the catch, AND in overall run blocking (measured by advance analytics researchers). In the AFC Championship game, Denver implemented every idea they had at stopping Gronkowski, and he still caught eight passes for 144 yards and a touchdown; he was almost single-handedly responsible for bringing the Patriots to within inches of forcing overtime. In the history of the NFL, we truly may not have not seen a tight end with who excels as a receiving and a blocker in the way Gronkowski does. Good luck dealing with this guy, aliens.
Greg Olsen, Carolina Panthers — When Cam Newton threw the ball in Greg Olsen’s direction, he never had to worry about whether he’d catch it or not (as opposed to Newton’s other receivers, especially in Super Bowl 50). Including the postseason, Olsen was targeted 136 times, caught 93 of them, and dropped only four passes all year. He finished with a career high in targets (123 in the regular season, second among all tight ends); receiving yards (1,104, second among all tight ends and top 20 overall in the NFL); and yards per catch (14.3, second among all tight ends). He also had his second highest career totals in receptions (77, fourth among all tight ends), and receiving touchdowns (seven, tied for fifth among all tight ends). In many ways, he’s one of the recent pioneers of the tight ends who look and play more like big wide receivers, posing nightmare-ish problems for opposing defenses. At 6’5 and 253lbs, he’s got the mass and length to bully defensive backs, but he’s too fast and too agile to put a linebacker on him. As a receiver, he’s got hands that are soft as a cloud and sticky as super glue. And just like the other guys i’ve got at the tight end spot on my roster, he’s an outstanding blocker, too; he was an integral part of the Panthers second-ranked rushing offense, often lining up next to the right tackle and cracking down on defensive ends and linebackers like an extra offensive lineman. His reliability and versatility gives him the nod to make this team over some of the other athletic freaks in the NFL.
Delanie Walker, Tennessee Titans — How integral was Delanie Walker to the Titans offense last year? Take a look at the team’s season-ending stats. 40% of all of Marcus Mariota’s completions last year were made by Walker, and over 38% of all of Mariota’s passing yards came courtesy of Walker. There wasn’t a single player on Tennessee who had half as many targets as Walker. So basically, teams knew that whatever semblance of a passing offense the Titans had, it was almost entirely based on them getting the ball to Walker; yet, Walker still lead the league in catches and finished third in receiving yards (the fact that Walker didn’t make the Pro Bowl in 2015 — though he eventually went as an alternate — just reinforces what a sham the game and the selection process truly is). He’s one of the “new age” tight ends who show the soft hands, route running, and innate feel in space to get open. But Walker gets the nod over some of the other highly productive tight ends in the NFL because he’s also one of the best run-blocking tight ends in the league. He’s got the strength and agility to hold the edge against linebackers, or crack down on a defensive end. In other words, if Walker is on the field, there’s no telling what play my offense can run.
Offensive Tackle (4)
Joe Thomas, Cleveland Browns — The gold standard at the left tackle position. He is a sure-fire Hall of Fame inductee when his career is over, and will be mentioned among the very best offensive linemen in the history of the game. He’s the only offensive lineman in NFL history to be named to nine consecutive Pro Bowls to start his career. He’s started all 144 games in his career, staying on the field for over eight thousand consecutive offensive plays. Over the past two seasons, he’s allowed a grand total of two sacks. My favorite quote about Joe Thomas is that watching his game tape is actually kind of boring, because he’s so fundamentally sound that he literally maintains his perfect technique and stellar level of performance on each and every play. That’s not taking anything away from his abilities; rather, it’s a testament to the old Bruce Lee quote of fearing the man who has practiced one thing ten thousand times. A reporter once described a conversation with Thomas, in regards to offensive line play, as “a personal Ted Talk.” There’s nobody who plays the position better than him, whether it’s pass protection or run blocking. It’s a shame that he plays for such a moribund franchise, because it’s preventing him from getting the accolades and spotlight that he truly deserves. He’ll be my starting left tackle, and I have the utmost confidence that he’ll protect the blind side of whoever I start at quarterback.
Trent Williams, Washington Redskins — He’s one of the three best left tackles in the NFL, but with his physical gifts, i’m more than comfortable making him my starting right tackle in this “Independence Day Bowl.” There may not be 10 other men on the entire planet who have the combination of Williams’ enormous frame (he’s 6’5 and almost 340lbs), brute power, and agility. How is it possible for someone that large have the strength of a pachyderm, the adroitness to run in open space as a blocker, and the athleticism to dunk a basketball? The idea of adding that raw athleticism to an offensive tackle as polished as any you’ll find in the league is terrifying. In pass protection, he has more than enough strength to stonewall defensive linemen that come right at him, and has the fleet feet to mirror speed rushers. His initial “punch” when setting up to pass block is devastating — it’s like taking a left hook from Mike Tyson — and with his long arms, he can land that pass-protecting haymaker from quite a distance. He had a monster year in 2015, going the first 75% of the season without allowing a single sack. He finished the season allowing 2.5 sacks, only because he was banged up towards the end of the year. Add in the fact that he’s one of the team captains and most respected guys in the Redskins locker room, and it should be a no-brainer in regards to making this team.
Tyron Smith, Dallas Cowboys — The proverbial dancing bear. Smith has the strength to literally hurl pass rushers away from the play, the fluid hips and light feet to tango with with any of the fastest and most agile defenders rushing from his direction, and the precision of a neurosurgeon with his pass-blocking fundamentals. But where Smith really excels is his run-blocking. His strength and power at the point of attack makes it look like he’s throwing around defenders half his size. Opposing players all say it, to a man: once he gets his hands on you, it’s over; just stop trying and concede defeat, because you’re done. Even more astounding is how nimble he is in space. The Cowboys, ironically, often run the play away from Smith’s side, and let him run down the line of scrimmage and blow up defensive linemen and linebackers in pursuit (which he does with devastating efficiency). In spite of my disdain for putting any player on the Dallas Cowboys on any roster of mine, there’s no way I can deny that Smith is among the very best offensive tackles in the league.
Andrew Whitworth, Cincinnati Bengals — Ironically, Andrew Whitworth finally got the recognition he deserved in 2015, despite the fact that his performance last season took a half step back from an absolutely transcendent 2014 season (when he got little notoriety despite not allowing a sack all season and ranking right up there with Joe Thomas in pass blocking efficiency). Until Week 10 of the 2015 season, Whitworth had allowed a total of one sack and one quarterback hit in the prior 32 games he played in. At 6’7″ and 330 pounds, he’s a dancing bear as a pass protector, and an absolute steamroller as a run blocker. For a man of his size, his foot quickness and body control are phenomenal; he can mirror even the fastest edge rushers and either take away the edge or wash them out of the play. As a run blocker, he just takes defenders, lifts them off their base, and drives them wherever he damn well wants, finishing off his blocks with a nasty edge. The only thing stopping Whitworth from continually remaining one of the league’s top offensive linemen is father time; he’ll turn 35 years old before the season is over.
Marshal Yanda, Baltimore Ravens — There really isn’t two ways about it: Marshal Yanda is the best interior offensive lineman in the NFL. He’s a perennial All Pro who’s been the most singularly dominant player at his position, and a staple of any conversation pertaining to both the best pass-blocking or run-blocking interior offensive lineman in the league. Although, frankly, it might not be much of a conversation; the difference between Yanda and any other interior offensive lineman in the NFL is as sizable a gap as any top player among their peers in the league. He’s the perfect combination of your classic “old school,” blue-collar offensive lineman that’s going to happily brawl with you for 60 minutes, and a masterful technician with brute strength and textbook fundamentals who wants to impose his will on you, play after play. Playing over 1,150 snaps last season, he surrendered only one sack. In the last four years, he’s only allowed a total of five sacks. His explosion off the snap, flawless technique, and off-the-charts awareness of where he is in space and what defenders are doing around him, allows him to make damn-near impossible blocks in the running game. He’ll be my starter at right guard.
Josh Sitton, Green Bay Packers — Josh Sitton’s game tape is like a doctoral thesis in pass protection by an interior offensive lineman. The folks over at Pro Football Focus scored Josh Sitton has having the highest pass blocking efficiency analytics of any guard in the NFL in 2015, marking the third straight season he’s lead the league in that measure. His footwork is so mechanically sound, allowing him to have the base and balance to maintain position against the guy in front of him. Once he’s set, he uses his hands like a kung fu master, knowing exactly how, when, and where to place his blocks to counter the movement of the guy in front of him (he also uses that footwork and hand placement as a run blocker, where he excels at literally lifting and driving defenders back off the point of attack). From an intangibles standpoint, his own linemates have called him the brain of the Packers offensive line, further evidenced by him becoming one of Aaron Rodgers’ most trusted counsels, as far as what the Packers offense and the opposing defense is doing on game day (his offensive linemen also joked that if they were the boy band ‘N Sync, Sitton would be Justin Timberlake… which i’m not 100% sure is a compliment). He’ll be my starting left guard on game day.
Zach Martin, Dallas Cowboys — It’s an unsexy way to describe him, but Zach Martin is basically a do-everything-well interior offensive lineman. The film guys say Martin is the best pass-blocking guard in the NFL behind Josh Sitton, and the most dominant run-blocking guard in the NFL, this side of Marshall Yanda (although the advanced analytics guys actually gave Martin the highest pass blocking grade in the NFL, ahead of both Sitton and Yanda). He’s played in 32 of a possible 32 games in his career, allowed only two sacks in two seasons, and earned Pro Bowl selections in both seasons he’s been in the NFL. If the aliens have some cosmic, all-universe three technique defensive tackle on their team, I can use Martin’s flexibility, footwork, fundamentals, and raw strength to neutralize it. Or, I could just pull him on run plays and let him charge into the second line of defense like a bat out of hell, paving the way for my running backs. Either way, he’s my swing guard behind Sitton and Yanda.
Travis Frederick, Dallas Cowboys — Tyron Smith might the the most physically gifted player on the Cowboys offensive line, and Zach Martin might be its most ornery player, but Travis Frederick has become the cornerstone of that formidable unit. The Cowboys staff asks Frederick to assume more responsibility in both pass protection and run blocking, in comparison to other players at his same position, and Frederick executes all of it as well as anyone in the NFL. He has the strength, balance, body control, and footwork to anchor himself in one-on-one pass protection; having faced some of the very best interior linemen in the NFL in 2015, including Ndamukong Suh, Kawann Short, Gerald McCoy, Muhammad Wilkerson, and Marcel Dareus, Frederick allowed a grand total of only 10 pressures all season long, and has only allowed one sack in his entire NFL career. In the running game, he can execute a myriad of blocks because of his athleticism, footwork, and football intelligence. Add in the awareness and savvy he shows in identifying blitzes and communicating protection adjustments across the line, despite having finished only his third season in the NFL, and you see why I don’t have any choice but to put him as the starting center on this offensive line (Dallas Cowboys player be damned).
Ryan Kalil, Carolina Panthers — Ryan Kalil is more than just one of the very best centers in the NFL. The five-time Pro Bowl selection is a team captain, and the driving force behind developing an offensive line that got Cam Newton batterized in 2014, but subsequently helped power the Carolina offense to unprecedented heights in 2015. He’s the savvy veteran who they ask a myriad of responsibilities from, and he performs them all. If I need to go power, he’s more than capable. If I need to pull him around the edge, he’s more than capable. If I need him to hold off defensive tackles and make sure my quarterback has a clean pocket in front of him, he’s more than capable. He has the gift of being able to anticipate how and when to make the right move to hold off blockers at the point of attack.