Last offseason, we unveiled our first NFL Survivor Squad, trying to build the best possible roster using one representative and only one representative from each of the 32 NFL teams. Well, we're here to do that again -- but with a twist this time around.
To make things more challenging on myself and avoid just reprinting the same article we ran this time last year, I unilaterally declared every player and coach that made last year's roster ineligible for this year's exercise. That means none of Bill Belichick, Greg Roman, Robert Saleh, Patrick Mahomes, Christian McCaffrey, DeAndre Hopkins, Mike Evans, Michael Thomas, Zach Ertz, Darren Waller, Kenny Golladay, Jake Matthews, Quenton Nelson, Brandon Linder, Zack Martin, Jack Conklin, Von Miller, Khalil Mack, Aaron Donald, J.J. Watt, Kenny Clark, Kyle Van Noy, Bobby Wagner, Eric Kendricks, Tre'Davious White, James Bradberry, Chris Harris Jr., Minkah Fitzpatrick, Jamal Adams, Tress Way, Randy Bullock, or Adoree' Jackson were considered for the team.
Obviously, that opened things up considerably. Eliminating the best quarterback (Mahomes) and best defensive player (Donald) forced us to get much more creative in our roster-building, and doing so led to many more players than there were last year in consideration at almost every position. It also led to a lot of different roster configurations, which was fun as part of the exercise but probably not so good for my sanity.
In an exercise like this, it's important to know exactly how you want to build your team. To compete in the modern NFL, you have to recognize that the passing game is king, and build the roster accordingly. So, in all toss-up decisions, the tiebreaker was whichever would help our offense throw the ball and our defense stop the opposing offense from doing the same.
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Once again, we wanted our team to be as flexible as possible -- especially on defense, where the ability to disguise what you're doing and have players fill multiple roles depending on the snap is paramount. So, pass-catching running backs, receivers who could play on the perimeter or in the slot, defensive linemen who could flex to the edge or inside, linebackers that excel against the run and the pass, and safeties who could drop down into the box, play up high, or slide to the slot were all things that we looked for in building the roster.
All that said, a few quick notes before you get to the reveal of the full roster:
- The players selected at each position are not necessarily the best players at that particular position, but those that made the most sense on a roster where you can only (and have to) take one representative from each team. Laremy Tunsil isn't the NFL's best left tackle, but he's the only Texans player even remotely worthy of consideration for this exercise so he made the team.
- The same is true of the players listed in the "also-considered" section.
- Tunsil was the only "must-have" player this year. All 31 other teams had players or coaches in consideration at multiple positions.
Without further ado, let's walk through our squad.
Head coach: Andy Reid (Chiefs)
Last year (ineligible): Bill Belichick (Patriots)
If your team can't be coached by the best coach in NFL history, you might as well get yourself arguably the coach doing the best job right now. Reid has routinely raised the efficiency of his passers throughout his career. He's aggressive in all the right ways you want a modern NFL coach to be. He knows what wins offensively in the NFL and is unafraid to commit fully to just putting his best players in position to succeed and keeping the game on their shoulders. That's exactly the kind of coach we want here.
Also considered: Brian Flores, John Harbaugh, Kyle Shanahan, Sean McVay, Sean McDermott
Offensive coordinator: Brian Daboll (Bills)
Last year (ineligible): Greg Roman (Ravens)
The work Daboll did with Josh Allen last season was Reid-esque. The Bills ran the pass-heaviest offense in the NFL relative to their expected drop-back rate given down, distance, time, and score, and that fits quite well with the type of team we want to build. He'll spread the field to get as many threats as possible in the game, affording his quarterback a wide view of possible targets and the throwing lanes through which he can find them. Buffalo's running game was not particularly efficient last season (22nd in Football Outsiders' DVOA) but Daboll worked around that by juicing pass efficiency and using Allen as a threat in short yardage. He knows what he's doing.
Also considered: Kellen Moore, Eric Bieniemy, Mike LaFleur, Joe Lombardi, Byron Leftwich, Josh McDaniels
Defensive coordinator: Patrick Graham (Giants)
Last year (ineligible): Robert Saleh (49ers)
Graham was one of the breakout defensive minds of last season, and he made for the best choice here after former Rams defensive coordinator Brandon Staley got the head coaching job with the Chargers. With both last year's Giants representative (James Bradberry) and their biggest free agent addition (Kenny Golladay) ineligible for the roster this year, Graham jumped to the top of the list of G-Men to grab in this exercise. He showed commendable flexibility last year, adjusting his preferred coverages to account for the fact that he didn't necessarily have the type of defensive back talent to play man coverage as aggressively as he might have liked to. There were other good DC options (and not just the ones listed below) but the relative paucity of Giants we wanted for this team made Graham a more obvious choice than he might have appeared on the surface.
Also considered: Todd Bowles, Don Martindale, Matt Eberflus, Dean Pees
Offensive skill players
Last year (ineligible): Patrick Mahomes (Chiefs)
If you can't have the league's best quarterback, you might as well go with the reigning MVP, right? We toyed with different roster constructions that had either Davante Adams or Jaire Alexander as the Packers' representative, but this feels right. As you'll see below, Rodgers finally gets the first-round wide receiver he's always wanted (two of them, actually), but unfortunately we also saddled him with two piddly second-round picks who are obviously not good players because they were not drafted in the first round. Let's just hope he finds a way to succeed with Reid and Daboll coaching him as he enters his "get revenge on the Packers (again) even though I am still on the Packers" season.
Running back: Dalvin Cook (Vikings)
Last year (ineligible): Christian McCaffrey (Panthers)
There were A LOT of running backs from which to choose here. You can make really good arguments for a bunch of guys. Ultimately, we felt it was best to go with the player with the best chance of replicating McCaffrey's dual-threat ability. Derrick Henry and Nick Chubb might be better pure runners, but that's not what we're looking for on this roster. The closest threat to Cook's roster spot was probably Austin Ekeler, in a version of this team where we just went all in on throwing the ball, all the time. Cook lets us split the difference.
So, these are the two second-rounders that poor Rodgers has to throw to. Tough life, right? Metcalf (fourth) and Brown (seventh) both made our list of the top 10 wide receivers for the 2021 season, and they are ascending players with skill sets that should make a good match for what we want to do offensively.
Metcalf is just a monster-sized human with the ability to win at the catch point in contested spaces and down the field, and he's diversifying his route which each passing season. Brown somehow looks small compared to his former college teammate, but he is a Terrell Owens-style physical receiver who does his best work with the ball in his hands. Rodgers loves to fire the ball in on slants and smoke screens, and Brown makes for an excellent target on those types of routes.
Slot receiver: CeeDee Lamb (Cowboys)
Last year (ineligible): Michael Thomas (Saints)
He's been overshadowed a bit by Justin Jefferson (who set the rookie record for receiving yards, so he deserves the attention), but Lamb had an excellent rookie year despite playing less than a third of the season with his starting quarterback. He finished the year with a 74-935-5 receiving line, making him one of only eight players in NFL history to hit each of those marks during his debut season. And again, this was with Dak Prescott playing less than five full games. With Dak under center, he was on pace for 93-1386-6, which would have put him right on par with Jefferson and Odell Beckham for the best rookie wideout season in recent memory. Lamb did all that while playing almost exclusively in the slot -- where he rarely played in college. He's capable of working inside and on the perimeter, and that's exactly what we want on this roster.
We gave serious consideration to putting Kittle and Travis Kelce on this roster. In that construction, we would have gone with Frank Ragnow at center, John Harbaugh as head coach, and Derwin James as our flex defensive back. This version of the roster seems better, though. Hockenson is a solid fit as the second tight end, and we'd rather an offensive head coach at the helm than a CEO type like Harbaugh. Kittle is going to be on the field at all times anyway, given his facility as a blocker and pass-catcher, and Reid doesn't even have to change much about the way his offense works to incorporate a star with his talents.
Flex player: Ja'Marr Chase (Bengals)
This is the only rookie to make the roster either this year or last. Honestly, it was kind of tough to pick a Bengals representative. Joe Burrow isn't ready for the QB spot. I'd rather several other running backs than Joe Mixon. Carl Lawson and William Jackson III left in free agency. You could make an argument for Tee Higgins or Tyler Boyd, but Chase is just more talented than both of them. Why not just take him? He's our fourth wideout here and, uh, that's pretty dangerous.
Left tackle: Laremy Tunsil (Texans)
As explained, Tunsil is pretty much the only player worthy of consideration for this exercise. He's one of the league's better left tackles, finishing 16th, third, and sixth in Pro Football Focus' pass-blocking grades over the last three seasons, and his contract is irrelevant to our team construction.
Also considered: None
Left guard: Ali Marpet (Buccaneers)
Marpet is one of the great "bet on athleticism" success stories in the draft in recent years. He was an absolute mauler at Hobart College (and is the first NFL player from that school since 1937), and has continued absolutely blowing defensive linemen off the ball in the run game in his six years as a pro. His development as a pass blocker is why he's on this roster, though. He's ranked 14th, 10th, and 10th among all guards (not just left guards) in PFF's pass-block grading over the last three years. Combine that with his facility in the run game and he's an elite player at his position.
Center: Corey Linsley (Chargers)
Linsley has been Rodgers' center since 2014, and he gets to continue in that role on this team. They already have chemistry and connection, and there's a reason the Chargers identified him as the player they needed to target to help Justin Herbert take the next step in his development. He's damn good.
Right guard: Brandon Scherff (Football Team)
Scherff is an excellent all-around guard and it's hard to believe the Football Team has yet to find a way to come to an agreement with him on a contract extension. Like Martin, he is a success story for the "take a college tackle and kick him inside to guard" development path. In addition to being a really solid run and pass blocker, he's had only 23 penalties accepted across his six NFL seasons. Nice work.
Right tackle: Lane Johnson (Eagles)
Johnson was injured last season but when healthy he has been one of the league's best right tackles. (He made the Pro Bowl in each of 2017, 2018, and 2019, and was an All-Pro in 2017.) He's a better run blocker than he is in pass protection, but that's more acceptable on the right side of the line, and he's still an above-average pass blocker anyway.
Burns hasn't had his true breakout sack season yet, but it's coming. He finished seventh among edge rushers with 57 pressures last season, per Pro Football Focus, and 13th among 99 qualifiers in Weighted Overall Win Rating, which measures how much more often a player makes plays in the backfield (sacks, hits, hurries, tackles for loss, run stops) than the average player at the same position. He has arguably the fastest pass rush get-off in the league, and that's not just an opinion. He was actually No. 1 in that statistic during his rookie season at NFL.com's Next Gen Stats. Garrett, meanwhile, was No. 1 in our edge rusher rankings this offseason. He racked up 56 pressures and 12 sacks in 14 games last season, earning himself an All-Pro nod. He doesn't turn 26 until late December, and it feels like he still has a heck of a lot of room to improve.
Also considered: Chandler Jones, Za'Darius Smith, Calais Campbell, T.J. Watt, Nick Bosa, Joey Bosa, Danielle Hunter, Josh Allen, Chase Young, Brandon Graham, Demarcus Lawrence, Cameron Jordan, Shaquil Barrett, Carl Lawson, Sam Hubbard
Interior defensive linemen: DeForest Buckner (Colts) and Stephon Tuitt (Steelers)
Last year (ineligible): Aaron Donald (Rams) and J.J. Watt (Texans)
If Aaron Donald didn't exist, there would be so many arguments on Football Twitter about which of Buckner and Chris Jones is the better player, and therefore the NFL's best interior defensive lineman. It's basically splitting hairs considering each player's level of production and the similarity in their combination of size and quickness. Buckner makes for a better fit on this team, though, because with Quenton Nelson out there were not a lot of good options to take from the Colts. Tuitt, meanwhile, is the most underrated player on a loaded Steelers defensive front. He finished second behind only Donald in Weighted Overall Win Rating last season, notching a career-high 11 sacks in his age-27 campaign. You can do a lot worse than this duo on the inside of the defensive line.
Flex LB: Nicholas Morrow (Raiders)
Morrow is a former undrafted free agent who has slowly but surely worked his way into becoming an integral player for the Raiders defense. The Raiders re-signing him for one year and only $4.5 million this offseason might be the best transaction of the Jon Gruden era. He's turned himself into an above-average tackler and coverage player, and in a league where more and more teams are trying to create mismatches against linebackers, that's really important. He made for a good pick as the Raiders' representative.
Smith bounced back from a down sophomore season and again looked like an excellent cover linebacker last year. He's an absurd athlete (one of his top comparisons at Mockdraftable is former Lions linebacker DeAndre Levy, who made his name as an ace pass defender), and his speed allows him to chase plays down from the back side even when his teammates get beat. Davis, meanwhile, has just been terrific ever since arriving in New Orleans. He's kind of breaking the age curve still being this good while heading into his mid-30s, but he's shown no signs of drop-off. His versatility -- including an ability to rush the passer -- is a key trait NFL teams are looking for in linebackers these days.
Howard might not want to be on the Dolphins anymore, but that won't stop us from making him the team's representative on our roster. He is one of the best man coverage corners in the NFL, and makes more plays on the ball than almost any other player at the position. You can hardly do better when looking for a No. 1 perimeter corner. Fuller is no longer at his peak but he is still damn good corner, and he's going back to play for Vic Fangio, who helped him have the best years of his career. Even last year, he allowed only an 87.1 passer rating on throws in his direction, per PFF.
Slot corner: Marlon Humphrey (Ravens)
Humphrey is a fantastic slot corner, but he also isn't just a slot corner. He splits his time between the slot and out wide, and he is incredibly tough to shake no matter where he's lined up. He's given up a 77 passer rating across his four NFL seasons, per PFF, and in case you're wondering, that is a rather significantly below-average mark. He's going into his age-26 season and should be headed into his physical prime over the next few years. Great, great player.
Free safety: Marcus Maye (Jets)
Jamal Adams was always the safety that got the lion's share of the attention in New York. Maye might be a more valuable player archetype, though. Safeties who can cover the back half of the field just kind of bring more to the table than those who largely operate in the area within 10 or so yards of the line of scrimmage, unless the latter type of player has a truly special skill set. Maye showed last season that he is a top-notch coverage player, and he's gotten better in that area with each passing season. He also has the flexibility to bump down into the box when needed (and early in the season was basically splitting his time equally between the two roles), which is essential when building a modern NFL defense.
Box safety: Budda Baker (Cardinals)
Baker slipped to the second round of the draft because he's small, and because teams didn't learn their lesson well enough from what happened with Tyrann Mathieu. Their loss has been the Cardinals' gain. He is such a fun, versatile, dynamic player, capable of making plays in the box, in the slot, behind the line of scrimmage, down the field -- everywhere. I don't care that he's 5-10, 195 pounds. Stick him wherever you want and let him make plays.
Flex DB: Jalen Ramsey (Rams)
Last year (ineligible): Kenny Clark (NT, Packers)
The best overall defensive back in the league, Ramsey can do just about everything -- as we saw last year in Los Angeles. He'd basically been strictly a perimeter corner earlier in his career, but the Rams moved him around much more often last year than ever before and he was more than up to the task. (He played 10-plus snaps in the slot in five different games last season, more than he had in the previous three years combined.) He is big, physical, and extremely tough to shake at the line of scrimmage, at the top of the stem, and at the catch point.
Returner: Gunner Olszewski (Patriots)
Olszewski was an All-Pro as a return man last season, leading the NFL in punt-return yardage while also averaging 23.2 yards per kickoff return. We'll take it.
Also considered: Cordarrelle Patterson
Punter: Logan Cooke (Jaguars)
Last year (ineligible): Tress Way (Washington)
Kicker: Younghoe Koo (Falcons)
The Jaguars and Falcons were the last two teams who did not yet have representatives on the roster.
Also considered: None