Every July, I survey the NFL landscape, comb through game tape, study stat lines, absorb advanced analytics and consider beat scribe speculation to give you, the reader, a pristine and unassailable accounting of every player who has reached the most rarefied of air: superstar status.
These gifted players are granted entry to my entirely fake establishment, The Superstar Club. Only the best and brightest make their way past the velvet ropes, and the bylines of the club include a cruel caveat: The Superstar Club is a zero-sum game.
If one player gains access, another player from the same position must have his privileges revoked. It's a dirty job, but somebody has to play bouncer. Might as well be me, a random blogger who never played the game.
Because it's more fun, I've kept my focus on the QBs and playmakers on the offensive side of the ball. If you personally know any offensive or defensive linemen who might resent this policy and seek physical retribution, please tell them Gregg Rosenthal wrote this piece.
Let's get to it. Ladies and gentlemen, feast your eyes on this year's 27-member Class of 2021: The Superstar Club.
Two years ago in this very space, I puffed out my big stupid chest and proclaimed that Tom Brady was no longer a superstar. This was following what turned out to be his penultimate season with the Patriots, and after Brady followed that year with a truly lackluster 2019, I was feeling pretty good about the limb I'd shimmied off on. That branch snapped last season, as Brady threw 50 touchdowns over the course of 11 regular-season wins and four playoff triumphs with the Bucs, the final earning the G.O.A.T. his unprecedented seventh Super Bowl ring. The lessons to take out of all this? a) I'm an idiot, and b) Never bet against Tom Effin' Brady. A pro football superstar at 43 years old ... the mind boggles.
Like with Andrew Luck last year, these retirements are nice little gimmes in this particular exercise. In truth, I should probably have yanked Brees out of the Club before last season, but I kept the NFL's all-time yardage king around for a final dance out of some ... I don't know, sense of respect and duty toward an all-time great? I really have no clue, but Brees wasn't in the top 20 best quarterbacks in his final season. This will be forgotten when he goes to Canton in five years.
Allen's dynamo 2020 season had to be cathartic for Bills fans who believed in their young quarterback all along. There were plenty of whispers last summer -- people weren't even really speaking at a low volume, to be honest -- from those wondering if Allen was really the answer for Buffalo. The QB took a monster leap forward in his third season, and he probably would have been the first Bill to win league MVP since Thurman Thomas in 1991 had Aaron Rodgers not delivered his own masterpiece. My favorite Allen stat (via Pro Football Focus): He was sixth in the NFL with a 79.1 percent adjusted completion rate, an enormous jump out of the bottom five of the league the previous year. In one offseason, Allen went from a hyper-athletic hoss with a scattershot arm to the complete package. They should probably keep this guy around.
It was a weird year for Big Ben in 2020. We all remember the Steelers' brutal late-season collapse that culminated in the unsightly first-round knockout at the hands of the former laughingstock Browns, but there was something off for the veteran QB, even when Pittsburgh entered December undefeated. The offense became dull and unimaginative, and Roethlisberger's once-impressive Big Football Boy scrambling act was history, replaced by a stone-age pony pocket presence that conjured unkind memories of late-period Dan Marino. Big Ben, now 39, will never inject that escapability back into his game, but a new play-caller and much-needed fresh blood at running back in Najee Harris should put Roethlisberger in a better position. Still, this isn't the same guy anymore, and the Steelers know it.
Last Nov. 15, Murray scrambled toward his own sideline near midfield and heaved up a prayer, answered by DeAndre Hopkins to secure a dramatic 32-30 win over the Bills. The miraculous throw-and-catch -- quickly dubbed the Hail Murray (nailed it) and bestowed with the obligatory Wikipedia entry -- turned out to be highlight of the Cardinals' season, as well as Exhibit A in the case to grant Murray access to the Superstar Club. When Murray is healthy -- and he wasn't during Arizona's subsequent second-half free-fall in 2020 -- he can do things on the field that none of his peers can match. A truly special player who's well worth a leap of faith.
Wentz nearly got bounced out of the club last summer, but I ultimately looked at his age at the time (27) and track record of success and decided to believe in the North Dakota kid. Bad move. Wentz was one of the very worst starting quarterbacks in football before Doug Pederson finally put him on the bench in favor of Jalen Hurts. It was a shocking downturn, and it led to Philadelphia's decision to ship the former No. 2 overall pick to the Colts for draft picks. I'm still a believer in Wentz and think he'll be a Comeback Player of the Year candidate after being reunited with Frank Reich. Then again, as stated earlier, Wentz was one of the worst quarterbacks in football last year. This is not an overstatement for effect. Can't have that guy in the club and expect our establishment to remain in good standing.
CLOSE CALLS: Matt Ryan remains one of the greatest pure pocket passers of his generation, but the former MVP hasn't been truly dominant since Kyle Shanahan left Atlanta in 2017. Still, I can't bail on him in the offseason after Arthur Smith and Kyle Pitts enter the picture. … I love Matthew Stafford and Sean McVay together with the Rams, but the hype train has me a touch wary. … Ryan Tannehill had 40 total touchdowns last season in Tennessee. Why won't we believe?
You can't tackle Nick Chubb. I mean, you can try to tackle Nick Chubb -- but there's a good chance that Nick Chubb makes you look like a little child, and not the big, tough football man you ostensibly are. Per PFF, Chubb leads the NFL with 124 broken tackles on 488 carries over the past two seasons -- the best rate in football over that span. He's a certified trucking machine, but don't mistake him for a lumbering bruiser -- Chubb has breakaway speed, too. If he was more involved in the Browns' passing game, he'd probably be in the conversation about the best running back in football. Even with Chubb sharing the load with Kareem Hunt, there's no question as to who's the most impactful player on Cleveland's offense.
I wrestled with this one, because you never want to be a slave to recency bias. Yes, Elliott was exceedingly average for large swaths of 2020, and his battle with fumble-itis was a Big Issue for a middling Cowboys team that needed Zeke at his very best. Then again, Elliott has youth (he's still just 25), a proven track record, a better offensive line and -- this one is most important -- a healthy Dak Prescott all on his side. Could Zeke's best years already be behind him? Sure. Could he deliver a vintage bounceback season in Dallas' loaded offense? Well ... sure. That's why I took the coward's way out and let you guys decide:
The people have spoken. Prove 'em wrong, Zeke.
CLOSE CALLS: I'll admit Barkley's knee injury from last year (and somewhat murky return timetable) has me concerned -- just not enough to do something rash. ... I bet my dilemma over Aaron Jones is similar to the one faced by the Packers before they gave the man his well-earned bag. "He's really, really good, but is he ... ya know ... great?" ... The Bengals' Joe Mixon is my long shot for Superstar Club gate-crasher in 2022.
Brown's emergence is a massive victory for the Tennessee braintrust that selected him in the second round of the 2019 NLF Draft. He was an immediate difference-maker as a rookie, and he used his second season to fully establish himself as a YAC monster and one of the game's most fearless playmakers in the middle of the field. Now lining up opposite a future Hall of Famer with much to prove in Julio Jones, Brown is set up to produce at a level that few of his peers can match.
OBJ continues to be a buzzy summertime pick to deliver a monster statistical season that recalls his early days with the Giants, but the truth is, Beckham's game hasn't matched his name for a few years now. Beckham's production was trending downward before he tore his ACL last October, and he hasn't really produced like a true superstar since 2016, his third season in New York. Could a healthy OBJ rebound and discover chemistry with Baker Mayfield on a loaded Browns offense? Sure ... but it feels more likely Beckham's best days are behind him.
Diggs was an absolute stud in his debut season with the Bills, smashing a host of franchise records and running wild through secondaries as Josh Allen's top target. Buffalo returns almost its entire offensive core in 2021, and Diggs will continue to gobble up targets in one of the league's most pass-heavy offenses under returning coordinator Brian Daboll. The only thing that could hold Diggs back from another huge year would be poor health. Along with Davante Adams, he's as safe a bet as there is at the position right now.
This was a tough one, but the zero-sum conceit of this silly little project demanded I make room. So Evans gets the boot; tough luck for a receiver who has crossed 1,000 yards receiving in each of his first seven seasons. Evans is out because his skill set isn't quite as flashy as those of the other guys on the right side of the velvet ropes. He remains one of the best red-zone targets in the league, but his production will be somewhat depressed by the abundance of options Tom Brady gets to choose from every Sunday. Evans is a great player, a champion, but I see him just a tick below the greatest at his position.
I kind of hate when people write this, but now I'm going to write it because it's just so damn true: D.K. Metcalf is a human cheat code. Combining imposing size and blazing speed, Metcalf is a damn-near-impossible cover, whether it's over the middle or deep down the sideline. Like A.J. Brown, Metcalf was a 2019 second-round pick who became an immediate contributor as a rookie before turning into an absolute force in his second season. Metcalf went over 1,300 yards in 16 games last season, and he's totaled 17 touchdowns in his two years. There will be many, many more before this guy -- who's still just 23 -- is through.
Metcalf passes the eye test as a superstar. Cooper, by comparison, seems almost pedestrian -- even if his production tells you he is one of the best at what he does. Cooper is a tough omission for two reasons: a) I just added Cooper to the club last July (dammit), and b) he was on a 125-catch, 1,300-yard pace in 2020 before Dak Prescott suffered his devastating ankle injury in Week 5. Cooper still delivered an 1,100-yard campaign while working with Dallas backup quarterbacks, but he's never cleared 1,200 in any of his first six seasons. With CeeDee Lamb and Michael Gallup jockeying for targets, it's hard to envision Cooper truly separating himself from his talented cohorts. That matters in this conversation.
UPDATED WR MEMBERSHIP: Davante Adams, Packers; A.J. Brown, Titans; Stefon Diggs, Bills; Tyreek Hill, Chiefs; DeAndre Hopkins, Cardinals; Julio Jones, Titans; D.K. Metcalf, Seahawks; Michael Thomas, Saints.
CLOSE CALLS: Man, we're enjoying an incredible boom at this position. You could make a strong superstar case for a host of other players, including the Vikings' Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen, the Falcons' Calvin Ridley and the Bears' Allen Robinson. There's a decent chance at least one of these guys makes me look real dumb this season. If that happens, I'll make sure to note that in next year's edition.
One of football's great comeback stories, Waller took his game to the next level in his third season, setting career highs in targets, catches, yards and touchdowns. He may not be a savage blocker on the level of George Kittle or as well-rounded as Travis Kelce, but Waller's ability to line up anywhere on the field -- Waller was regularly toasting cornerbacks on the outside during the scorching close to his 2020 season -- makes him a unicorn who makes everyone better in Vegas, especially Derek Carr.
This is no disrespect to Gronk, a future Hall of Famer who came out of retirement last season and produced at an impressive level for a Super Bowl champion. Now 32 and with roughly 300 surgeries in the rearview, he remains a well-rounded starting tight end in the NFL -- he's just not the game-plan-shredding force of nature he was during his heyday in New England. No shame in that.
CLOSE CALL: With all the hyper-athletic players coming out of the college ranks every year, it's somewhat surprising we're not seeing more difference-making tight ends reaching the pro ranks. Speaking of university dynamos, I did briefly consider taking a leap of faith on Kyle Pitts, the Falcons super rookie currently getting more hype than The Strokes in 2001.Ultimately, I decided admission to The Superstar Club must be earned. Go fill up the water cooler, kid.