2022 NFL Franchise 100: No. 55-51

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 Monday for players 50 to 46.

55. Ikem Ekwonu, OT, Carolina Panthers
Age: 21
Years remaining on contract: 5
2022 cap hit: $5.01 million
I love building in the trenches, especially along the offensive line. My team building philosophy has long been to put together an elite offensive line and figure out the rest of the offense around that. Ekwonu is a road grader with immense upside. He has a ways to go in pass protection, but I am willing to bet on his physical gifts and great size, much like the Panthers did. Those traits give him the chance to be a franchise left tackle and a perennial Pro Bowler. Finding quality tackles in the NFL is difficult. If I could grab Ekwonu and hang onto him for the next decade, I would be thrilled.

54. Stefon Diggs, WR, Buffalo Bills
Age: 28
Years remaining on contract: 6
2022 cap hit: $11.74 million
I have been a fan of Stefon Diggs for a long time. He was a star in Minnesota, but he has morphed into a superstar in Buffalo. Diggs has posted four straight 1,000-yard seasons, attended the past two Pro Bowls and earned a spot on the AP All-Pro First Team in 2020. That was the year he led the league in receptions and yards. He has become Josh Allen’s go-to target. Diggs is a technician who breaks down opposing corners with his route running. As long as he can create separation, he will be valuable. However, I am a bit concerned about the length of his contract. There are a lot of players I would love to have locked down for the next six years, but Diggs will be 35 by the time his deal expires. Very few receivers are able to produce at a high level into their mid 30s. Each of the final five years on his deal carry a cap hit north of $20 million. He can be released heading into 2027 for a minimal dead cap hit, but it will be hard to move on from him before then.

53. A.J. Terrell, CB, Atlanta Falcons
Age: 23
Years remaining on contract: 2
2022 cap hit: $3.90 million
Terrell has very quickly become one of the league’s elite cover corners. Don’t believe me? He was named an All-Pro in 2021 after posting a PFF grade of 82.6, allowing just 4.8 yards per target and forcing incompletions on half the balls thrown his way. His size and speed make him an ideal fit to guard just about any receiver in the league. At just 23, he has the prime of his career still ahead of him. Not to mention that paying a No. 1 lockdown corner less than $4 million is a bargain. His payday will come down the line, but I will take the value that comes with his rookie deal for now and hope he can replicate this form.

52. DeVonta Smith, WR, Philadelphia Eagles
Age: 23
Years remaining on contract: 4
2022 cap hit: $4.58 million
The first receiver since Desmond Howard in 1991 to win the Heisman fared well in his first NFL season. He racked up 916 yards and five touchdowns in his rookie campaign. Those numbers might not jump off the page, but it is important to remember that no one threw the ball less this past year than the Philadelphia Eagles. In a run-heavy offense, those are some solid stats to put up. Smith is shifty and crafty. His skill set makes him an asset in just about any system. He is definitely a bit undersized, but he has not let that stop him so far. Getting a solid No. 1 receiver or elite No. 2 receiver at this price is incredible value when you see how much money the NFL is giving wideouts right now. If I can save in that department and spend elsewhere, I think that puts me in a good position to succeed.

51. Kayvon Thibodeaux, EDGE, New York Giants
Age: 21
Years remaining on contract: 5
2022 cap hit: $5.70 million
Another rookie shows up here. I am very high on Thibodeaux’s traits and upside. His production was a bit inconsistent during his college career, but he looked sharp in the preseason before suffering a knee injury. I know a lot of the feedback I have gotten so far is that I am too high on these rookies. Perhaps, I am. This is my first time doing these rankings and I want to learn from them. However, rookie contracts are invaluable, especially for players at high-value positions like quarterback, edge rusher and offensive tackle. I will take Thibodeaux’s deal and bank on him paying huge dividends at a fraction of the cost.

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.


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.