NFL Cornerstones: Running Back

Cornerstone players will be a recurring theme on Second Look Sports where I look at each position in a certain sport and I choose a cornerstone player to build my franchise around. I have a couple of parameters for this selection though. I will factor in age, potential, injury history, experience, reputation and production. I think this should be a fun and interesting topic to discuss on here. I hope you all agree.

The selection: LeVeon Bell, Pittsburgh Steelers
Honorable Mentions: Jamaal Charles, LeSean McCoy, Eddie Lacy, Jeremy Hill, Matt Forte

Adrian Peterson made some headlines yesterday by finally returning to the Minnesota Vikings and acting like he wants to play football. It got me around to thinking who the best running back to build a team around could be. Peterson is now 30 and likely will start to see some of his wear and tear really bring him down. His off the field issues are definitely not too appealing either. Needless to say, Peterson is not the selection. A couple of other injury prone runners in DeMarco Murray and Arian Foster also find themselves missing from this list.

LeVeon_BellInstead, the selection is the one and only LeVeon Bell from Pittsburgh. He is not perfect but in terms of what he is capable of, this is a no brainer. He only has two seasons under his belt and at 23 years old, Bell looks like he is going to be a bell cow running back in the NFL for quite some time.

He might not always be racking up 100 yards, but when he gets the ball, he consistently produces. Bell ranked in yards per carry this season with 4.7 per attempt. The Steelers’ superstar put up incredible totals as well ranking second in the league with 1,361 rushing yards. Bell is one of the NFL’s best backs when it comes to picking up yards on the ground.

But this is a passing league now, so rushing is no longer as heavily valued. That doesn’t matter for Bell because he is incredible as a receiver. The Michigan State product hauled in 83 receptions last season, second to only Matt Forte among running backs. His 854 yards receiving also ranked first among all backs. These weren’t dink and dunk plays either as his average per reception was 10.3 yards, good for second in the league for running backs. He continue to move after the grab as well, finishing second in the league in yards after catch.

Bell is a dual threat back. He had the second most yards from scrimmage this past season and had an unreal 5.94 yards per touch, which, excluding kick and punt returns, was tops in the NFL. For some reference, DeMarco Murry, who led the league in yard from scrimmage, averaged only 5.03 yards per touch. Bell was the most effective offensive player in the league this season when he had the ball, and I expect that to continue.

On top of all of his success, Bell also continues to show his sure hands. In two seasons, Bell has only one career fumble, including none this past year. On 662 career touches, Bell has lost the ball just once.

There are a couple of downsides with Bell though. He has a poor track record with drugs and has been suspended for three games because of marijuana use. Not having your best player on the field is not something you want to occur regularly. Additionally, he has no playoff experience, having missed Pittsburgh’s only game this season due to injury. Bell is also not much of a scorer, tallying only 19 total touchdowns in his first two years. Only LeSean McCoy has scored fewer touchdowns in that timespan among the players I considered.

Despite that, Bell is likely the best all-around offensive weapon in the NFL right now. He will continue to grow in the coming years and hopefully mature to the point where he is not getting suspended for drug use. There is no doubt in my mind though that Bell is the premier running back going forward and will be for years to come.

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NFL Cornerstones: Cornerback

Cornerstone players will be a recurring theme on Second Look Sports where I look at each position in a certain sport and I choose a cornerstone player to build my franchise around. I have a couple of parameters for this selection though. I will factor in age, potential, injury history, experience, reputation and production. I think this should be a fun and interesting topic to discuss on here. I hope you all agree.

The selection: Joe Haden, Cleveland Browns
Honorable Mentions: Richard Sherman, Patrick Peterson, Chris Harris Jr., Kyle Fuller, Vontae David

Sorry Richard Sherman, you don’t make the cut here. Sherman is a fantastic corner who has a nose for the football and can make some of the most athletic plays by a corner in the last couple of years, but he has some things that hold him back here. First of all, he plays on only one side of the formation. In Seattle’s defense, Sherman does not have to play both sides of the field, which means that he doesn’t always matchup with the best receiver on the field. That drains Sherman of some of his versatility. Don’t get me wrong, Sherman is a fantastic corner, but he is not the guy I want to build around right now.

Instead, I head over to Cleveland, where perennial Pro Bowler Joe Haden plays his football. The 26-year old has good size at 5’11” and excellent awareness on the field. The thing that many will focus on from the very beginning here is the number of interceptions has in his career. Sherman more picks, despite playing one less season. Haden does have a solid 0.22 interception per game ratio, which is on par with both Patrick Peterson and Vontae Davis. However, at corner, it is not always about interceptions. A true lock down corner does not allow his matchup to catch the ball. No one does that quite as well as Haden.

Over the past five seasons, the Browns’ cover man has ranked in the top six for passes defended, with the exception of 2012 where Haden was injured. Haden is also averaging an absurd 17.4 pass break-ups per seasons, despite only playing 11 games in 2012. If we exclude break the number down to knock downs per game, his number of 1.21 ranks better than everyone else considered. In fact, Sherman is the only other corner with an average above one. Haden is test early and often and he clearly holds up well under the constant bombardment.

Haden is a talented tackler as well. He records roughly 4.25 tackles per contest, best of any of the corners considered and the only player with an average over 4. The one knock here is that Haden often get help on his tackles. He has been assisted on roughly 18 percent of his tackles throughout his career, which is essentially identical to Sherman. Meanwhile, Peterson dominants as an open field tackler as he has been assisted on only 9 percent of his takedowns. Haden obviously has a nose for the ball, but he is not the only one in on the play.

What makes Haden the ideal corner is his consistency. He has tallied at least three interceptions per year over the past three seasons. He has registered at least 18 passes defended when he has played at least 15 games. Haden is a force to be reckoned with at the cornerback position. There few players who manage with the same amount of poise and skill at the position. He still has four strong years left of him playing at the highest level. If I needed to pick a corner to build a defense around, Joe Haden is my guy. No other corner gives me the combination of intangibles, talent and versatility that Haden possesses. Without a doubt, he is one of the best corners to take the field in the past 20 years.

NFL Cornerstones: Free Safety

Cornerstone players will be a recurring theme on Second Look Sports where I look at each position in a certain sport and I choose a cornerstone player to build my franchise around. I have a couple of parameters for this selection though. I will factor in age, potential, injury history, experience, reputation and production. I think this should be a fun and interesting topic to discuss on here. I hope you all agree.

The selection: Earl Thomas, Seattle Seahawks
Honorable mentions: Rahim Moore, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Harrison Smith, Devin McCourty, Tashaun Gipson

If speed kills, strength intimidates and Earl Thomas has both. The Seattle free safety is a bullet flying around in the secondary, simply wreaking havoc. Thomas is a dominant defender on one of the best defenses in NFL history. That right there should speak volumes about his play. There are several other talented players at the free safety position but comparatively, none of them bring the incredible cumulative skill set that Thomas does.

Thomas has some of the most important attributes to playing safety in the NFL, but he has some other traits that set him apart. Thomas is still young, at just 25-years old and 5 years played in the league. His youth spells years of elite production to come. And he can be counted on to stay on the field. Since joining the Seahawks in 2010, Thomas has yet to miss a game, starting every single one of them. He has dependability and consistency, something many of the other players considered do not. Thomas’ biggest competition came from a fellow member of the 2010 draft class.

Devin McCourty burst onto the scene in his rookie season with 7 interceptions and 17 passes defended. He has yet to ever match that kind of productivity. Not that anyone every really expected him to based on the absurd level at which he played. Over their careers, McCourty and Thomas have posted very similar stats in their respective five-year span. It makes the decision between the two very difficult.

As a pass defender, McCourty does have a slight advantage. He has recorded 17 interceptions in his career to Thomas’ 16. That is very close but McCourty blows Thomas out of the water when it comes to disrupted passes with the split standing 58 to 38. However, that could also mean that McCourty is thrown at more. Either way, McCourty has topped Thomas in two of the most important categories for free safeties. The question remains how does Thomas get selected? Well…

Thomas is a far superior tackler than McCourty. Thomas has racked up 442 tackles or 88 per season. His Patriot counterpart has only 388 or roughly 77 a year. Thomas is all over the field, getting involved in as many plays as he can. Not that McCourty doesn’t but Thomas certainly does it better. In terms of making things happen when they make the tackle, the two once again are inseparable. Both have forced eight fumbles in their career. Thomas has a slight advantage here though with his four fumble recoveries to McCourty’s one. Both have almost identical run stopping numbers as well with 13 run stuffs for McCourty and 11 for Thomas.

It is near impossible to separate these two based on statistics alone. However, based on their skills there is a bit of a gap. McCourty and Thomas have very similar body types, both measuring in at 5 foot 10 inches. Thomas does weigh slightly more at 202 pounds compared to McCourty’s 195. However, Thomas’ blazing speed, impeccable awareness and superior strength set him apart. You can argue that Thomas has better running mates than McCourty but McCourty’s surrounding talent is Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner. Not to mention that McCourty benefits from playing under one of the best defensive coaches of all-time.

Simply stated, this is a very close call. However, I like Thomas’ tenacity and speed. Those two things make him a dynamic player, not to mention that they are traits that you cannot coach. On top of that, Thomas is two years younger than McCourty, giving him hopefully a little bit larger window to play at an elite level. Either one would be great to build at defense around, but Thomas’ physical tools make him the better selection.

For more Cornerstone selections, click here.

NFL Cornerstones: Middle Linebacker

Cornerstone players will be a recurring theme on Second Look Sports where I look at each position in a certain sport and I choose a cornerstone player to build my franchise around. I have a couple of parameters for this selection though. I will factor in age, potential, injury history, experience, reputation and production. I think this should be a fun and interesting topic to discuss on here. I hope you all agree.

The selection: Luke Kuechley, Carolina Panthers Honorable mentions: Paul Worrilow, C.J. Mosley, Chris Borland, Curtis Lofton, Bobby Wagner

Hard to argue with probably the most productive linebacker over the last three years. Luke Kuechley since entering the NFL in 2012 has been a stalwart on a very good Carolina defense. He began his blossoming career with a Defensive Rookie of the Year Award and he continues to impress. Kuechley has set himself apart from his peers by simply dominating the position. The most talented middle linebacker the league has seen since Ray Lewis is rolling through his career. There are a number of young up and coming linebackers in the NFL but Kuechley is the cream of the crop.

For starters, the Panthers defensive mainstay has never missed a game in his three years; he also started every single one of them. He has youth, at the ripe age of 23, potential, as a former first round draft pick, and talent, based on his incredible production. Kuechley is also an all-around stud. He has the ability to play the run or the pass better than just about any linebacker does in the league. It all starts with his tackling. Kuechley has led the league in tackling in two of his three seasons; he finished fourth in 2013. He has registered at least 150 tackles in every season. He also demonstrates an ability to make both open field and gang tackles on the field. He is one of the best tacklers in the league and at middle linebacker, fundamental tackling is the backbone of success.

To his ability as a run stuffer, Kuechley has proven to be an asset over a liability. Kuechley has 29 run stuffs in his career, with some solid consistency in recording them. He has tallied at least eight in each of his three seasons. For a comparison, Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner only has 16 in his three-year career. Kuechley’s totals have marginally declined each year, which is mildly concerning but assuming her continues to produces with consistency, he will be a piece of a great rush defense.

Kuechley is even more prolific as a cover man. His numbers in pass coverage are impressive in general. The former Boston College All-American has 26 pass deflections since 2012. Again, Kuechley has never tallied any fewer than 8 in a season. His 26 total disrupted throws is only one less than Curtis Lofton has in his entire 7-year career. Wagner only 14 pass deflections over the same span as Kuechley. The Panthers’ defensive quarterback was only one of three linebackers to record 10 or more pass deflections in 2014, and the only middle linebacker. That coupled with his tackling ability makes him ideal to drag down players down in open space as is usually required of coverage linebackers.

Linebackers often thrive on big plays and Kuechley has also been an elite source of turnovers and impact plays in career. In his 3 years, Kuechley has accounted for four forced fumbles, seven interceptions and a forced fumble as well. He has proven that he can force turnovers in multiple ways. He is a dynamic player that makes plays all over the field. Winning the turnover battle is the most crucial part a football game. Having a game changer like Kuechley makes a huge difference.

Kuechley is playing at a Pro Bowl level already as a 23-year old. If that is indication of how talented he is, he will likely be a Hall of Famer one day. He is the unparalleled best middle linebacker in the NFL, at any age. He is an elite tackler, top pass defender and excellent run defender. No one is capable of putting up the same numbers with any form of consistency. The one thing that would likely put Kuechley into the category as one of the best defensive players of all-time would be if he was a more prolific pass rusher. However, Kuechley is still an iconic player who will dominant the league for the next dozen years. He is easily the best to make as a cornerstone linebacker in the NFL.

NFL Cornerstones: 3-4 Outside Linebacker

Cornerstone players will be a recurring theme on Second Look Sports where I look at each position in a certain sport and I choose a cornerstone player to build my franchise around. I have a couple of parameters for this selection though. I will factor in age, potential, injury history, experience, reputation and production. I think this should be a fun and interesting topic to discuss on here. I hope you all agree.

The selection: Justin Houston, Kansas City Chiefs
Honorable mentions: Clay Matthews, Ryan Kerrigan, Connor Barwin, Jason Worilds, Aldon Smith

After looking at all of the run stoppers and pass defenders at the linebacker position, it is not time to focus on the pass-rushing specialists. It is difficult to find an elite pass rusher in the NFL, so when you find one, you better keep him. That is exactly what Kansas City should do this offseason with its budding starlet Justin Houston. Houston is coming off a year where he racked up 22 sacks and finished second in the voting for Defensive Player of the Year, only behind J.J. Watt. At the age of 26, Houston is entering his prime and showing the league why he is truly an elite player.

Plenty of players have big seasons after having no production the year before. Houston has racked up at least ten sacks in each of the last three seasons. His 22-sack performance this past year was beyond impressive, but consistency over the past three seasons is even more so. Houston has played 43 games over the past 3 years. Over the course of those 43 games, he has recorded 43 sacks. Houston did not drag down the quarterback in every game in that span but to have an average of one sack per game is pretty impressive. For some reference, Ryan Kerrigan has averaged 0.64 sacks per game over the past three seasons and Clay Matthews has averaged 0.81.

Houston’s tackling abilities are off the charts as well. In his four-year career, Houston has tallied 234 tackles. That total is nothing too impressive for an edge rusher but of the 234 tackles, Houston was assisted on only 36 of them. Again, for some reference, Connor Barwin was assisted on 59 of his 232 tackles in his career and Kerrigan was assisted on 66 of his 247 tackles. Houston’s ability to wrap up the ball carrier on his own is a huge asset as more often than not, these linebackers are responsible for making crucial open field tackles. Being able to take the ball carrier down without assistance saves coaches a lot of worrying.

Pass rushers in addition to simply bringing the quarterback down are often relied on to generate impact plays. Houston has shown some improvement in that department this year. He has forced at least one turnover in every year he has been in the NFL. This past season though, Houston knocked four fumbles loose, tied for second most in the league. If Houston continues to be a source of turnovers as an elite pass rusher, he could become one of the most valuable defensive players in the league.

Outside of his pass rushing skills, Houston’s talents as a run stopper and coverage linebacker are more than passable. Over the past four seasons, he has averaged 4.75 pass deflections and 4.5 run stuffs. Those are more solid numbers for a player who is usually sent after the quarterback rather than dropped in coverage or relies on shutting down the ground game. Houston definitely could improve as a run defender, which would mold him into a more complete player.

The injury history that Houston carries is of little concern. He has only missed five games in entire career. The only major concerns will be centered on him being able to maintain his level of production in the coming seasons. After putting together such a stellar campaign, it is difficult to turn around and put up those same kinds of numbers again. Watt just became the first player in NFL history to ever record 20 sacks in multiple seasons. Odds are we will never see Houston his the 20 sack mark again but if he is consistently piling on 15 quarterback takedowns per year, he will be one of the greatest pass rushers in recent league history.