2022 NFL Franchise 100: No. 45-41

The NFL season is right around the corner and while all 32 franchises are trying to make their final roster decisions, I wanted to take a different approach to roster building. Inspired in part by the annual NFL Top 100 players list, voted on by the players in the league, I wanted to know who the top 100 players would be to start a team with in 2022.

There are a variety of factors that went into creating this list. Let me lay out the criteria.

First, age played a major role in determining which players made this list. Only six players over the age of 30 made the list. Positional value was the other big driving force behind these rankings. There is no doubt that Jonathan Taylor is one of the best young players in the game right now, but you wouldn’t pick him first overall to start an NFL franchise from scratch. The positional value of running backs is simply not high enough to warrant that. Neither is the longevity of the position on average. You most likely want to find a player who is going to last a long time to build your franchise around. There are a few notable exceptions to that rule. With that in mind, I prioritized quarterbacks, offensive tackles, cornerbacks, edge rushers and wide receivers. There are plenty of instances where a more talented player slid down the board a little further simply because they played a less valuable position.

There were a few other factors I considered, including years remaining on contract, contract structure and salary commitments. There is a reason why rookie contracts are so valuable, especially when you hit on a star. That player is now on a team friendly deal with several years of team control built in.

If you missed the previous entry, you can find it here.

With all of that in mind, let’s continue our countdown to No. 1. Check back Thursday for players 40 to 36.

45. Quenton Nelson, G, Indianapolis Colts
Age: 26
Years remaining on contract: 1
2022 cap hit: $13.75 million
There are few players who have dominated the league as thoroughly and consistently as Nelson has since the moment he stepped on an NFL field. He is a four-time All-Pro and a four-time Pro Bowler in his first four seasons. He is coming off his worst year as a pro, which still resulted in a second-team All-Pro designation and a Pro Bowl selection. Positional value and contract structure are what holds Nelson back from being higher on this list. I have no doubt that the Colts will re-sign Nelson, but he is in the final year of his rookie deal with no long-term extension in place. He is going to cost a lot to keep, which is saying something because he already carries the largest cap hit for a guard in the entire league by nearly $1.5 million. He is that good, but it is easy to question paying an interior offensive linemen that much money.

44. Mike Evans, WR, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Age: 29
Years remaining on contract: 2
2022 cap hit: $10.32 million
Evans is one of the most consistent receivers in NFL history. He has had at least 1,000 yards receiving every single season he has been in the league. He also has 75 career touchdown receptions, including 27 over the past two years. He is definitely nearing the end of his prime, but he still looks like he could have a few great years left in the tank. He has a very affordable cap hit for this season, but 2023 carries a cap hit north of $23 million. His contract expiring heading into his age 31 season could put teams in a tough spot. However, if Evans is still producing like he has up to this point, it would be easy to justify re-signing him.

43. Evan Neal, OT, New York Giants
Age: 21
Years remaining on contract: 5
2022 cap hit: $4.46 million
I get that not everyone is going to agree with this one, but I am sticking true to my draft board for right now. I had Neal as my highest-rated player entering the 2022 NFL draft. Nothing I have seen or read so far has led me to change my mind on that front. The Giants are going to start him at right tackle for now, but I think he is a future left tackle in this league. He is a great run blocker and has the traits to develop into an asset in pass protection as well. Neal will turn 22 in September. If he hits like I think he will, he could be a franchise tackle in the league for the next decade.

42. Shaquille Leonard, LB, Indianapolis Colts
Age: 27
Years remaining on contract: 5
2022 cap hit: $11.17 million
Where do I even begin with Leonard? He is a four-time All-Pro and three-time Pro Bowler, not to mention the 2018 Defensive Rookie of the Year. He is an elite tackler with a nose for making big plays. His 17 forced fumbles are tied for second most since he entered the league, trailing only T.J. Watt. Don’t discount his ability in pass coverage either. Leonard is a complete player with plenty of years left in his prime. My only knock against him would be his contract situation. He has a cap hit of at least $19.7 million for the final four years of his deal, which is very high for an off-ball linebacker, but when you have elite talent, you have to pay to keep said elite talent.

41. Cooper Kupp, WR, Los Angeles Rams
Age: 29
Years remaining on contract: 5
2022 cap hit: $17.80 million
The triple crown winner has arrived. Kupp became the first receiver since Steve Smith Sr. in 2005 to lead the NFL in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns in a dominant season that nearly saw him eclipse 2,000 yards. He is a perfect fit in Sean McVay’s offense. As much as I love Kupp, I am a little hesitant to put him higher on this list. For as good as he was, he has topped 1,000 yards only one other time in his five-year career. He will also turn 30 next offseason and has a lot of money tied up in his remaining contract. The counter argument to all of this is that we have finally seen Kupp at his best when he has a quality quarterback. I’m hedging my bets a bit putting him here.

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NFL Draft Daily: Should you pay big money to wide receivers or keep drafting them instead?

NFL Draft Daily looks at top stories, historical trends, player performances and more all through the lens of the NFL Draft. After all, there are only 35 days until the 2022 NFL draft. Check back in tomorrow for another entry.

The past few weeks in the NFL are like nothing ever seen before. Massive trades with league-altering implications are occurring on a daily basis. Record deals are being signed at every step. Welcome to the league’s version of March Madness. One of the most interesting trends in all of these moves has to do with the wide receiver position.

Miami gave Hill $72 million in guaranteed money as part of his new deal. (Wikimedia Commons)

Tyreek Hill became the latest NFL superstar to be traded and the deal highlights the growing divide between two schools of thought as it pertains to the value of wide receivers. Let’s take a look at some of the biggest moves we’ve seen this offseason involving receivers.

Los Angeles made the move to keep Mike Williams in house. The Chargers offered him a three-year, $60-million deal to do so. That contract makes him the sixth highest paid receiver by annual average, tied with Chris Godwin and Amari Cooper. Los Angeles now has two of the top six highest paid receivers in the NFL. Keenan Allen makes just a shade over $20 million per year himself. Jacksonville shocked everyone the following week by splashing out $84 million to sign Christian Kirk. The deal included $37 million in guaranteed money and made Kirk the 10th-highest paid receiver in the league on average. He has yet to reach 1,000 yards receiving in one season in his career.

Shortly after Kirk signed with Jacksonville, Dallas shipped Amari Cooper to Cleveland in what mostly amounted to a salary dump. The Cowboys received a fifth-round pick and swapped sixth-round picks with the Browns to complete the deal. Say what you want about Cooper, but he is a four-time Pro Bowl with five 1,000-yard seasons in his career. He will carry a pretty sizable cap hit in 2023 and 2024, but teams typically have a way of restructuring those to minimize that cap hit.

Since entering the league in 2014, Adams has the second-most touchdown catches, trailing only Mike Evans. (Wikimedia Commons)

Then, a week ago, the Raiders reunited Davante Adams with his college quarterback Derek Carr. They sent a first- and second-round pick to Green Bay in order to land him. They promptly made him the highest-paid receiver in the league with a five-year $140-million pact. That benchmarked lasted less than a week.

Wednesday saw the Dolphins acquire Hill for five draft picks, including their first and second rounder for this year. Hill wanted to be the highest paid receiver in the league. He got the same amount of money as Adams, but he earns it in one year less. Hill’s new annual average is $30 million.

What I find really interesting is the two competing schools of thought on the wide receiver position right now. On one hand, you have a handful of teams that are willing to pay big money and premium draft capital to bring in proven veterans. On the other, you have teams willing to move on from proven receivers in an effort to save cap space and recoup draft picks. ESPN NFL draft analyst Jordan Reid recently said he could see the wide receiver position treated much like running backs are in the NFL: It is important to have a good one, but you don’t need to overpay to keep them. I think I might be coming around to this line of thinking.

We have seen some phenomenal receiver classes come out in the past few years. 2019 was thought to be a weaker group, but D.K. Metcalf, A.J. Brown, Terry McLaurin, Deebo Samuel, Diontae Johnson and Hunter Renfrow all went in the middle rounds. 2020 produced Jerry Jeudy, CeeDee Lamb, Henry Ruggs, Justin Jefferson, Tee Higgins, Michael Pittman Jr., Chase Claypool and Darnell Mooney. 2021 was not quite as prolific, but was headlined by Ja’Marr Chase, Jaylen Waddle and DeVonta Smith. If Amon-Ra St. Brown, Elijah Moore and Rashod Bateman take the next step this upcoming season, it could be another special draft class.

2022 is shaping up to be another impressive class. Garrett Wilson, Drake London, Chris Olave, Jameson Williams and Treylon Burks are all widely considered first-round prospects. Christian Watson and George Pickens could crash the first-round party as well. There is depth beyond that top group as well, as has been the case with each of the previous three draft classes.

Chase accounted for 1,455 yards and 13 touchdowns in his rookie season. (Wikimedia Commons)

The point is, it seems like we are entering the golden age of young receivers. Jefferson, Chase, Metcalf, and Samuel are unquestionably among the top 10 in the game. Brown, Lamb, Waddle, Smith, McLaurin, Higgins and Johnson are all in the top 25 at the position. Every one of those guys is currently on their rookie contract.

You don’t necessarily have to spend big to have elite talent at the position. Look at Stefon Diggs and Cooper Kupp. They’ve been two of the best receivers in the NFL over the past two years. They make about half what Hill and Adams are set to make on an annual basis. They could also be due for big raises if this is how much elite receivers are making on the open market.

Let’s be clear, having and paying an elite receiver can be a winning strategy. The Chiefs won a Super Bowl with Hill. The Buccaneers won a Super Bowl with Mike Evans and Chris Godwin. That being said, if we are going to start seeing teams paying quarterback-level money to wide receivers, it is hard to see that trend continuing.

It might work in Miami and Los Angeles, where they have quarterbacks on their rookie contracts. But for the Raiders, there is a good chance that having to pay both Derek Carr and Davante Adams is going to put a pretty big squeeze on where they can build the rest of their roster. Especially without a first or second-round pick this season.

There are exceptions to every rule though. Adams, Hill, Kupp, Diggs and DeAndre Hopkins are all game-changing players and likely worth the investment. The same is true for running backs with Derrick Henry, Alvin Kamara, Christian McCaffrey (when healthy), Nick Chubb and Dalvin Cook.

What I think we are going to see is a decline in interest in the middle class of receivers. Paying for elite talent makes sense. Paying guys like Kenny Golladay, Christian Kirk, Robby Anderson, Corey Davis and Michael Gallup likely won’t be worth the investment when you can find replacement level players or better in the draft. That sentiment is true of every position, I just think we are going to start to see it applied more with receivers. It will be a very interesting trend to watch and one that will be greatly impacted by how well the Raiders, Dolphins, Packers, Chiefs and Chargers do in 2022.

Follow the Aftermath via email to get every article delivered right to your inbox. Enter your email in the text box to subscribe. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter. You can also check out our weekly podcast Draft Season Never Ends with new episodes every Friday, available on Spotify, Apple Podcasts and YouTube.