To build a championship team in the NFL, coaches and executives must surround a franchise quarterback with blue-chip players at the other marquee positions.
During my time in the league as a player and scout in the mid-1990s through 2010s, the premium spots were considered quarterback, left tackle, pass rusher, middle linebacker and cornerback. Despite the "3 yards and a cloud of dust" mentality that often dominated the league then, astute team-builders were stockpiling their rosters with impact playmakers who directly affected the passing game.
As a member of the Green Bay Packers in the mid-1990s, I watched Hall of Fame executive Ron Wolf put together a Super Bowl roster following a new-school premise with impact passing-game playmakers dotting the roster. The wily general manager acquired a future three-time MVP (Brett Favre) via trade and surrounded him with gold-jacket guys like Reggie White (pass rusher) and LeRoy Butler (safety), adding a few blue-chip players who earned all-star recognition. With Antonio Freeman (wide receiver), Keith Jackson (tight end), and Mark Chmura (tight end) thriving around Favre, the Packers made back-to-back Super Bowl appearances, winning it all in Super Bowl XXXI.
Fast-forward to 2023, when the seismic shift to a more pass-centric league has made Wolf's team-building approach look like a championship blueprint for the ages. In a recent edition of the Move The Sticks podcast, Daniel Jeremiah and I discussed the new team-building philosophy of putting together a roster that features "PPUs" (pass rushers, playmakers and unicorns) around a franchise quarterback.
Although the premise does not differ much from the philosophy Wolf followed to build a champion, the emphasis on pass rushers, playmakers (wideouts and tight ends) and unicorns (hybrid second-level defenders with unique skills) appears to be the new way of the NFL world in 2023.
With that in mind, this was the perfect time to look at the non-quarterback franchise players I would love to build around for the next five years if I was in charge of a team. Given the five-year window that I am proposing, I decided to narrow my focus to players who are 26 and younger heading into the season.
This age cut-off eliminated players like Myles Garrett (27 years old), T.J. Watt (28), Chris Jones (28), Laremy Tunsil (28), Budda Baker (27), Terry McLaurin (27), Deebo Samuel (27) and others. Still, the league is loaded with young talent capable of carrying a franchise. After spending some time studying film and taking a few notes, here are my top 10 non-quarterback franchise players to build around:
If defense wins championships, the first piece of a championship puzzle should be a dominant edge defender with take-over-the-game potential. In his two NFL seasons so far, Parsons has accumulated 26.5 sacks, 33 tackles for loss, 56 quarterback hits and six forced fumbles as a hybrid defensive end/linebacker, establishing himself as the most disruptive defender in the game. The 2021 Defensive Rookie of the Year is a unicorn, a premier pass rusher who moonlights as a spectacular off-ball linebacker on early downs. Defensive coordinator Dan Quinn is showing the football world how to deploy Parsons like the queen on the chessboard. The third-year pro is the perfect playmaker to build a franchise around.
The younger brother of Joey Bosa has taken the family business to another level since entering the league as the second overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft. The All-Pro pass rusher has notched 43 sacks in 51 career games, including 34 sacks since 2021. As a polished technician with violent hands and a relentless motor, Bosa whips opponents with various maneuvers that keep blockers guessing at the line of scrimmage. Given his consistency and effectiveness as a disruptive defender on edge, the 2022 Defensive Player of the Year is the cornerstone defender that every NFL executive is looking to add to the lineup.
The 2022 Offensive Player of the Year has become the NFL's ultimate WR1 due to his extraordinary route-running skills and versatility. Jefferson is a rare find as a big-play pass catcher with the capacity to produce explosive gains from the slot or out wide. In addition, the fourth-year pro is a nifty catch-and-run specialist with the potential to turn short passes into big gains on the perimeter. He's a scheme-friendly playmaker with the skills to thrive as a No. 1 receiver in any system -- and an easy choice as a franchise pass catcher.
The second-year pro quickly seized the crown last season as the premier lockdown corner in the league. Gardner's length, athleticism and cover skills stymie wideouts at the line of scrimmage while also shrinking the strike zone for quarterbacks attempting to chalk up completions on downfield throws in his area. With the 2022 Defensive Rookie of the Year throwing a blanket on half of the field as the NFL's new CB1, coaches and executives should view the sophomore playmaker as an essential piece of a championship puzzle.
The ultra-physical pass catcher is the new prototypical WR1 that creative offensive minds covet on the perimeter. Chase overwhelms and overpowers defenders with his strength, but he also plays with enough finesse to win with speed and quickness in space. The third-year pro has posted back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons with 22 receiving touchdowns while flashing unstoppable skills in one-on-one matchups. As the NFL continues to evolve into a passing league, the 6-foot, 201-pounder would be a foundational piece for any team-builder seeking a franchise player.
The All-Pro safety is a super-sized unicorn with unique skills that enable him to shine as a multi-faceted playmaker in the defensive backfield. James' ability to blanket slot receivers and tight ends while controlling the box as a run-stopper and flashing dynamic pass-rush skills sets him apart from his peers. According to Pro Football Focus, James has allowed a 77.1 passer rating in primary coverage since 2018, tied for fourth-best in the NFL (min. 150 targets). Considering how Brandon Staley seemingly deploys the sixth-year pro at a different position each week based on matchups and his disruptive potential, the three-time Pro Bowler is the versatile defender that every defense needs in the NFL's pass-happy era.
The monstrous defensive tackle has become one of the elite defenders in the game as the centerpiece of the Jets' defense and is due for a new contract before the season begins. Williams has collected 25 sacks since 2020, flashing heavy hands and elite first-step quickness. The 6-3 303-pounder is a rare athlete with an emerging set of skills as a destructive force at the line of scrimmage. As the focal point of a Jets defense that is trending upward, Williams has given the football world a sneak peek of his impact potential.
The evolution of the NFL into a passing league has made it essential for teams to feature high-end blockers on each side of the offensive line. Wirfs checks the box as an elite edge blocker with the size (6-5, 320 pounds), strength and length to stymie pass rushers in space while also pummeling defenders in the running game. Although the 2021 All-Pro tackle has earned honors and accolades for his work at right tackle, he possesses the athleticism and agility to make a move to the quarterback's blind side. Whether the Bucs need him there -- general manager Jason Licht said after the draft that Wirfs' move to the left side isn't "etched in stone yet" -- and whether it's Baker Mayfield or Kyle Trask under center are yet to be determined. Given his versatility, adaptability and elite skill at a marquee position, Wirfs could be essential to a championship puzzle.
Despite playing as a traditional center fielder in the Steelers' scheme, Fitzpatrick is the versatile safety most defensive coaches covet in the secondary. The All-Pro displays cornerback-like agility and cover skills while possessing the high IQ and positional flexibility to play as a slot corner or hybrid linebacker if needed. In a league trending toward positionless football on each side of the ball, Fitzpatrick's versatility and ball skills (19 career interceptions, including a season-high six picks in 2022) make him an intriguing building block for defensive coordinator Teryl Austin.
Though he's not a household name, this Lions standout is the gold standard at right tackle. Measuring 6-5, 331 pounds with dancing bear-like agility, Sewell is an athletic people-mover with the balance and body control to dominate opponents on the edges. Whether paving the way for runners as a lead blocker on pin-and-pull plays or stalemating pass rushers on the edge, the third-year pro is a blue-chip player with the dominant skills and nasty temperament that coaches and scouts demand in a franchise tackle. As the league continues to evolve into an offensive showcase, the presence of a dynamic edge blocker is critical to the team-building process -- and to the offense on the rise in Detroit.