Here we are again.
Every summer, I scour the pro football landscape and break down the best of the best. The cream of the crop. The ultimate alphas. My goal? To determine which of the game's top players truly deserve the most coveted title in the sport: NFL Superstar.
I grant these most special of all players entry into my entirely fake establishment, The Superstar Club. Can you feel the energy in the room? I bet you can.
As in years past, the focus here is on playmakers on the offensive side of the ball. If you see Brian Baldinger Zorbing in the Maldives this summer, kindly ask his thoughts about NFL trench superstars entering 2023. I am dead serious: Ask in a respectful manner, and that man will give you a wildly detailed response.
OK, enough flirting. Let's get to it, my friends: The Superstar Club -- Class of 2023.
Has there ever been a better crop of young passers in the league at the same time? With the exception of Aaron Rodgers, every quarterback here will enter the 2023 NFL season at age 27 or younger. The Magnificent Seven have accumulated seven league MVP awards, three Super Bowl wins and five conference titles. The only man here who gave me any level of pause was the wily vet Rodgers, who has four of those MVPs but is also coming off a down season by his standards and will be a few months shy of his 40th birthday when he takes his first snap for the Jets. In truth, it wasn't much of a pause at all. Everyone on this list could end up in the Hall of Fame one day.
Hurts took a massive leap in his third season, becoming a consistent dominator for a loaded Eagles squad. We don't know if he'll match the dizzying heights he reached as a rusher of the football in 2022, when he became just the second QB all-time to log 165-plus carries in a season, logging 4.6 yards per attempt and 13 (!) touchdowns on the ground (second-most by a QB in any NFL season). But he could get even better as a passer playing behind an elite offensive line and with playmakers all around him. This was an easy decision.
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No further autopsy is necessary on Wilson's wretched 2022 campaign, one that will deservedly go down as one of the biggest individual flops in recent NFL history. Wilson was brought to Denver as a savior; one year later, it's unclear the extent to which he'll even stay in the team's long-term plans. Could Wilson -- humbled and determined to restore his professional reputation -- enjoy a bounce-back season under Sean Payton? Certainly. But it's also fair to wonder if a QB who will turn 35 in November has shifted into a permanent, far less dynamic phase of his career.
When Prescott is on, as he was in the win against the Bucs in the Wild Card Round of the playoffs this past January, he can look as good as any quarterback in football. But Prescott is no longer the fresh face on the block in the franchise-quarterback game. He'll begin his eighth season as the Cowboys' QB1 this fall, and he's never made an All-Pro team or helped Dallas advanced out of the Divisional Round. He led the league in interceptions last season (15) despite missing five games to injury and hasn't shown the ability to lift an average supporting cast like the Rodgers and Mahomes of the world. Dak Prescott is a very good quarterback -- we're just done waiting for him to become a truly great one.
We try not to project superstars in this exercise -- you have to earn it with proof, not promise. Still, Trevor Lawrence gave me pause. We watched him make the leap to franchise QB in Year 2 with better coaching and an improved supporting cast. Being the starting quarterback of a Jaguars team that wiped out a 27-0 deficit in a playoff game also showed a flair for the dramatic that all the great ones possess. We believe Lawrence has a very good shot of joining the club in 2024 -- but we need to see him take that next step in consistency. ... We're keeping our eye on Justin Fields, who had some inspired stretches of play in Year 2 and now takes over a much more competitive Bears roster in a pivotal Year 3. ... Deshaun Watson was in the club before ... well ... everything. He's set up for success in a good Browns offense. Given a full offseason in Cleveland and no unresolved league investigations hanging over his head, it would not be surprising to see him once again play at an elite level.
NOTE: For the first time, a player retired while still an active member of The Superstar Club. Just one more honor for you, Tom Brady.
The fearsome foursome. Chubb is the best pure running back in the league and is coming off a season in which he set career-best marks in carries, rushing yards and total touchdowns. If Watson can regain his footing as a true franchise QB for the Browns, Chubb will have his best setup for success yet. ... Henry didn't get as much pub in 2022, but his "pop the hood" stats remained elite, and he led the league in carries for the third time in four years. In other words, he was as good as ever for a Titans team that was mayonnaise-on-white-bread in all other departments. ... McCaffrey reinforced his status as the best all-purpose back after his midseason trade from the Panthers to the loaded Niners. He needs to stay healthy, but all systems remain go for another huge season of production. ... As for Taylor, I thought long and hard about revoking his membership on the grounds of the one-year probationary period for all new superstars in the club. But, like a forgiving mob capo, I ultimately opted to give Taylor a pass. Playing on a dreadful Colts team that was in constant tumult, Taylor still managed over 1,000 yards from scrimmage and 4.5 yards per carry on one good ankle. This is still the same guy who stacked nearly 2,200 total yards and 20 TDs in 2021. Treat him right, Shane Steichen.
The books are closed in 2023.
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This was a tough one. Cook remained a very productive running back in 2022, tallying nearly 1,500 total yards and 10 touchdowns, including one of the most memorable scores of the 2022 regular season (look away, Colts fans). The fact that he remains unemployed following his release from the Vikings in early June tells you everything you need to know about how the modern NFL values veteran running backs, especially veteran running backs that make any kind of dent in a team's salary cap. It's a cold business out there -- and, ultimately, here in the Superstar Club, as well. If you don't have a job, how can we -- in good faith -- refer to you as a superstar? The answer is, we cannot.
Kamara is a fun running back. He's been a great one, too. The man will always have a special place in my heart for his six-touchdown Christmas Day bonanza against the Vikings that secured thousands of fantasy championships, including my own. (Eternal respect, AK.) But the post-Drew Brees landscape hasn't been fruitful for Kamara. After two years of middling production comes the arrival of substantial in-house competition: Lions touchdown-king Jamaal Williams as a goal-line vulture and third-round pick Kendre Miller, who looms as the heir apparent. And that's before you even get into a possible league suspension for Kamara's alleged role in the 2022 assault of a man in Las Vegas (Kamara has pleaded not guilty to battery charges). Kamara remains an important piece of the puzzle in New Orleans -- I just don't know if he's still the same dynamo he once was.
I really want Austin Ekeler to make me pay. I want that man to have another monster season, then see me at radio row at next year's Super Bowl, take a printed copy of this article and performatively stuff it in my front pocket like Bill Cowher did to that poor ref once upon a time. I would deserve such public humiliation. After all, how can a man with 38 total touchdowns the past two seasons alone (12 more than any other player in football) not qualify as a superstar? Is the stink of the Bolts' 27-0 playoff collapse rubbing off on my analysis here? I sure hope not, but I can't be certain. Ekeler is a wonderful two-way player, the best all-purpose back in the world not named CMC. But a true superstar? I'm not there. It brings me some peace that a slice of the general public agrees.
Saquon Barkley was another very tough call. A former member of the Superstar Club asked to vacate the premises after the magic appeared absent from his powerful legs in 2021, Barkley looked revitalized in coach Brian Daboll's offense last season, surpassing 1,600 scrimmage yards with 10 touchdowns. The overall numbers were great, but his production waned in the second half of the season; from Week 11 on, he failed to eclipse 100 yards on the ground in any one game while averaging less than 4.0 yards per carry in that span. Maybe that's part of the reason the Giants haven't rushed to give the franchise-tagged back a new deal?
Then there's Josh Jacobs, the NFL's reigning rushing champion and an absolute stud for the Raiders last season. Does one season of superstar production make you a superstar? I suppose it could (hi, Jonathan Taylor). Color me a touch wary, with Jacobs coming off a season in which he ranked second in the NFL in carries (340) and first in touches (393). We've seen in the past how the bill can come due for that kind of workload.
Now that is a group of superstars! We've previously established that we're in a golden age for QBs, but you can say the same thing about wide receivers. These are game-changing talents who command double-teams and rip your heart out in the game's crucible moments. Adams and Hill are probably already Hall of Famers -- they won't be alone when this collective is through.
Though Lamb was seemingly preordained to be a member of this club when he entered the league in 2020, it took until Year 3 for the former Oklahoma standout to blossom into an outright star. Lamb set career highs in nearly every relevant statistical category, doing it all with a suspect supporting cast (a reality he spoke openly about on the Around The NFL Podcast) and despite the fact that Cooper Rush was his QB for five weeks when Dak Prescott was lost to an early-season thumb injury. The arrival of veteran wideout Brandin Cooks and Michael Gallup's return to full health should give Lamb more space to work with, setting up the 24-year-old for his best season yet. Throw in extra motivation for his QB after being dropped from the very club his No. 1 WR's has just been inducted into (see above), and Lamb checks every superstar box -- even if not everyone agrees.
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If the NFL world still saw DeAndre Hopkins as a superstar, he wouldn't still be on the free-agent market. There was a time when Hopkins was arguably football's best wideout, but the 31-year-old has missed 15 games the past two seasons and has a recent PED suspension on his ledger. He remained a highly productive receiver upon his return from suspension in his final season in Arizona, but he might be more of a No. 2 or No. 1A receiver than The Man at this stage of the game. Hopkins will eventually find a new team, of course, but potential partnerships in New England or Tennessee don't do much for the imagination.
I am incredibly bullish on Garrett Wilson, the reigning Offensive Rookie of the Year who was a consistent playmaking force despite dealing with one of the worst quarterback setups in football in 2022. With Aaron Rodgers now flicking spirals for the Jets, Wilson has everything in place to make the leap into the rarefied air of the Superstar Club.
Terry McLaurin is another gifted playmaker who has had to make do with a motley crew of quarterbacks in his four seasons in the league with the Commanders. Barring a storybook arrival for Sam Howell, we suspect the circumstances facing McLaurin will keep him on the fringes of the discussion in this particular exercise. ... I previously made it a personal goal to be part of the solution and not the problem when it comes to championing Mike Evans and his consistent brand of stardom, but a bad QB situation in Tampa, combined with miles creeping up on the odometer, keep Evans out of the discussion of the league's true elite.
He doesn't play the game's glory position of QB, but the Chiefs pass catcher might be the most perfectly distilled version of a superstar in the league today. A monster producer, durable and consistent, who raises his game when it matters most and possesses charisma for miles (he was legitimately excellent as a guest host on Saturday Night Live!). Kelce has it all. The only problem? He's all alone in the tight end game. Feels like the perfect time for that long-gestating Season 2 of Catching Kelce.
Nobody. Come on, guys.
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We remained patient after Waller followed his breakout 2020 with an injury-plagued dud in 2021. We can't look the other way after another injury-plagued campaign for Waller, who enters his age-31 season having missed 14 games in the past two years. The Raiders decided to move on from Waller less than a year after giving him a fat new contract (hmmm), dealing him to the Giants for the modest return of a Day 2 draft pick (odd). Waller now joins an offense that recorded just 17 touchdowns through the air last season. Could Waller be the missing piece for Daniel Jones in Brian Daboll's attack? Sure ... I just need to see it.
Kittle remains the best all-around tight end in football, equally adept as a playmaker or a road-grading blocker, but durability issues (he's missed multiple games in every season but one) and a very crowded room of playmakers in San Francisco combine to depress his value just enough to take him out of this particular conversation. That's not to say Kittle doesn't remain a wildly useful asset for Kyle Shanahan, it's just hard to pound the superstar table for a guy who averaged a touch over four targets per game when he shared the field with Christian McCaffrey, Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk last season.
Not really. Mark Andrews is great in Baltimore, as is Dallas Goedert in Philadelphia, but they are not knocking on the door as transcendent playmakers worthy of superstar consideration. At this time last summer, we were almost certain we would be adding Kyle Pitts to the club in 2023, but things just didn't click for the Falcons tight end. We still love Pitts' potential, but we also still don't love his setup on a run-heavy team (hi, Bijan Robinson) with Desmond Ridder at QB. I'm already planning Free Kyle! demonstrations for next spring.