Building a championship NFL team is a challenging enterprise. The draft and free agency offer limited opportunities. Great players are scarce, and great quarterbacks scarcer. If you happen to draft first when Peyton Manning or Andrew Luck is available, life can be pretty good. But even then, there are no guarantees -- especially with top QBs ultimately consuming so much salary-cap space.
Perhaps that is why personnel analysts seemed to enjoy an easier theoretical team-building exercise: picking five current NFL players as building blocks for an imaginary expansion franchise. ESPN analyst and six-time NFL executive of the year Bill Polian joined ESPN.com NFL scout Matt Williamson and three current high-ranking NFL personnel evaluators in providing their selections and reasoning for this column. Four of the five built their hypothetical teams around the same quarterback. They selected as many defensive linemen as the combined total for offensive linemen, receivers and cornerbacks.
"It was hard because you are dealing with a universe of maybe a dozen players," Polian said. "What it really comes down to is positional value."
Polian and Williamson spoke for attribution. Our other three analysts included a current general manager, a former GM and a personnel director. Those three were interested in providing honest answers without hurting feelings in their own locker rooms or around the league. We'll refer to them as GM1, GM2 and GM3 for reference here. The choices these five made produced five key takeaways:
Now, the fun part. We'll post the players each analyst selected and a few of their thoughts.
Team-builder: Bill Polian
Top five choices: Andrew Luck, J.J. Watt, Calvin Johnson, Ndamukong Suh, Tamba Hali
Polian's general thinking: "I went with players who would reasonably play another five years, have avoided injuries and have not been in trouble with the law."
Who just missed the cut: "Luke Kuechly andRyan Clady were the next two. They were easy ones. Then I would have gone running back, but really, who is that? Peterson is 28. You start to get a little antsy there. My eighth guy probably would have been Ziggy Ansah when it's all said and done. That would firm up the rush front. With Ansah, it comes down to positional value and he's young and he's under contract for five years. Then I'd take Patrick Peterson. He is injury free, whereas Darrelle Revis has the injury history."
Why Kuechly is so high: "He's the quarterback of the defense. Plus, he is the best diagnose guy in the league and he plays three downs. He sees the play and gets to the ball faster than anybody else. The question was Kuechly or going with a comparable safety. To me, there is no comparable safety. Earl Thomas is closest, but he's a ball hawk. Eric Berry, he has been up and down. Eric Weddle is a little on the older side. Troy Polamalu has been the best and interestingly he's healthy this year, but he is older. It was a tough call because Berry has everything you want, but I'd go with Kuechly because you need a quarterback of the defense and he is that guy."
Why no Von Miller: "If I've got five or 10 picks, do I want to gamble? You could lose a whole year [to suspension if Miller violates NFL policy again]."
His second QB choice: "I'll go with Rodgers on the thinking that he is going to play at least five more years."
Team-builder: Matt Williamson
Top five choices: Andrew Luck, J.J. Watt, Von Miller, Calvin Johnson, Joe Thomas
I asked Williamson which five players he would select if his first five were not available. He went with Russell Wilson, Muhammad Wilkerson, A.J. Green, Jimmy Graham and Richard Sherman. Before this season, Williamson had said he would narrowly favor Colin Kaepernick over Wilson in terms of long-range outlook. The first seven weeks of the 2013 season have swung his thinking toward Wilson, but just barely.
"Choosing Wilson as my second QB was not an easy decision," Williamson said. "I considered Rodgers, as well. He's just such a safe choice, but age was an obvious deterrent when putting together a team for the long term. Wilson is playing amazing football right now, and he is just further along than Kaepernick with the finer points of playing the position. He is the safer choice."
Williamson did not take a cornerback among his top five. Sherman topped his list of corners and made his alternative five.
"I do very much like Patrick Peterson and Darrelle Revis, as well as Joe Haden," Williamson said. "Revis isn't yet 100 percent and he is the oldest of the group, so I put him behind the others. Peterson is the least consistent but also the most talented, while Haden is playing the best right now. Sherman is both young and playing great while coming off the best year of any corner. Plus, he brings attitude, which I love."
Those interested in following up with Williamson can find him on Twitter at @WilliamsonNFL.
Top five choices: Andrew Luck, Von Miller, Joe Thomas, Calvin Johnson, J.J. Watt
General philosophy: "The three hardest positions to find are quarterback, left tackle and elite pass-rusher. After those three, I would go for the immediate difference-maker regardless of position. How does he affect the game?"
Close call at QB: "If you are not Peyton Manning or Tom Brady and your mind doesn't process information with lightning speed, then I think you need a combination of several attributes. Mobility, foot speed and athleticism become more valuable, in addition to throwing with touch, placement, accuracy and those things. I went back and forth between Rodgers and Luck. I would probably give it to Luck right now. He is the better athlete. Rodgers is better as a pure passer."
Why Von Miller at No. 2: "Flat-out ability. He is young, dominant and can flat-out change a game. He changes field position. He changes it from a turnover standpoint."
Thoughts on final three slots: "Joe Thomas was third because great left tackles are so hard to find. You could probably name 10 double-digit sack guys on defense, but how many great tackles are there? Thomas is an elite player, and he protects the No. 1 guy on our list. At four and five, I would go with the most freakish athletes that are difference-makers. We've never given anyone a higher grade than we gave to Calvin Johnson. He has such rare size, speed, explosiveness, strength, smarts, work ethic -- he's got it all. Five is a tough one. Patrick Peterson is close, but J.J. Watt really has no weaknesses. He can play in multiple fronts, and you have to account for him on every snap."
Top five choices: Andrew Luck, J.J. Watt, Joe Thomas, Richard Sherman, Geno Atkins
This current NFL talent evaluator noted that Watt could play anywhere on the line and dominate against run or pass. He listed no receivers in his top five, but A.J. Green was very close to making the cut as the fifth player on his list. He would favor Green over Megatron for reasons explained below.
On Luck's appeal: "He is like Peyton in that, every 10 years, some guy comes along who is really special. RG III is a stud, I love Russell Wilson and think Ryan Tannehill has a chance to be a stud. But Luck, it's all there. He took a 2-14 team to the playoffs as a rookie. Think about that. That is unheard of. They had lost Peyton, they had no offensive line, the defense was horrible and Luck found a way to get them to the playoffs. Very impressive."
Why Atkins made the cut: "Finding interior pass-rushers is so hard. If you can get that guard mismatch and beat them, you force the pressure up the middle and it messes up everything for the offense."
Green over Megatron: "Calvin is a damn good player, but Green is the whole package with his age and he can do everything. He can be quick, he can be fast, he can be strong and he can take the top end off the defense at any time. I think he is a better route runner than Calvin. He has more quickness out of his breaks. Calvin is tough. They are both phenomenal athletes. I think Green is quicker and he is faster. He has early speed, which means he can hit it and go out of a break, where Calvin is more of a buildup guy."
Top five choices: Adrian Peterson, Aaron Rodgers, Joe Thomas, Ndamukong Suh, Darrelle Revis
The final personnel analyst went against the grain by selecting a running back. He also wasn't quite ready to go with Luck over Rodgers.
On the QBs: "I'm going to wait for Luck to get through the playoffs again and see how he does there before I jump on that bandwagon all the way."
Thinking at RB: "If you have just any running back, you can replace him easily. The special guys at that position, they can score from anywhere on the field. With Adrian Peterson's size, he can be a power back. With his speed, he can run away from you. He can score from his own 2-yard line, or he can power it in from your 2. He's a special back who you can throw dump-offs to and checkdowns to, and he can make things happen after the catch, as well. He's an every-down back, and he's not just good in all the situations -- he is great."
Why Suh went fourth: "I'm taking the nastiest, most athletic, powerful, physical guy. Suh makes people around him better or nastier or whatever he is at the time. When you get a guy like that, an inside rusher who can collapse the pocket at any time, it makes those outside guys better, too."
On the left tackle: "Give me Jason Peters if he's healthy. He can do anything. He can bend, he's athletic. It's just the Achilles and the injuries have slowed him."
The CB decision: "Richard Sherman was also a really strong consideration for me, but Revis will get healthy. I like his style of play and think people would say he's good right now but watch him when he gets healthy. He will be healthy next year, and he's special."