We're back, baby.
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 rope, and the bylaws 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. You want me on that stool, you need me on that stool.
As in years past, the focus here is on playmakers on the offensive side of the ball. If you see Brian Baldinger parasailing in the Amazon this summer, kindly ask his thoughts about NFL trench superstars entering 2022. I kid you not: Ask nicely and that man will give you a long and thoughtful answer.
OK, let's get to it. Ladies and gentlemen, the 29-member Class of 2022: The Superstar Club.
To say Burrow delivered on his promise in Year 2 would be the understatement of the year. The 2020 No. 1 overall pick stacked huge numbers with Ja'Marr Chase and Tee Higgins, proved he was all the way back after the terrible knee injury that prematurely ended his rookie season, and nearly brought the damn Lombardi Trophy to Cincinnati. Not a bad start to a career. The Bengals -- smart enough to see they have a transformational franchise stalwart on their hands -- put their offseason focus on pouring resources into an offensive line that allowed the golden boy to absorb a staggering 51 sacks in his sophomore season. Concerns about long-term health count as the only red flag, but Burrow has already established himself as a stone-cold superstar as he enters his prime years.
It's been a hell of a run for Matty Ice, who established himself as the greatest passer in Falcons history during a 14-season run in Atlanta. From a career-health standpoint, we love the move to Indianapolis, but that team's run-heavy scheme and lack of impact playmakers in the receiving game make me think the 37-year-old version of Ryan will be put in game manager mode. The MVP gunslinger days of his younger years are gone. In real football terms, that's fine: Ryan can still thrive with the Colts in a more controlled offensive system. It just seems unlikely he'll be the focal point of his own offense. (We'll discuss that individual in just a bit.) Ryan remains a solid starter you can trust; he's just no longer the difference maker he once was. No shame in that.
As a rookie in 2020, Herbert broke a number of records, most notably logging 31 touchdown passes. He was even better in Year 2, crossing 5,000 passing yards with 41 total touchdowns. But Herbert's value goes beyond his gaudy counting stats. The 24-year-old is simply different -- he makes throws the vast majority of NFL passers can only dream of. He's the master of the 35-yard "turkey hole" shot, the king of the scramble and 60-yard heave, the expert of the 10-yard sandwich coverage dart. In a golden age at the position, no quarterback has delivered more "Wow!" plays over the past two seasons. Frankly, I'm annoyed I waited an extra year before inviting him into the club. Big ol' dummy.
After granting Murray access to the club last July, I'm invoking my right to opt-out following the one-year probationary period. It's not an easy call (and frankly, not a great look for The Superstar Club), but another sour end to a Cardinals season -- punctuated by an embarrassing playoff loss and unflattering offseason contract drama -- makes me think I jumped the gun here. Does Murray have the ability to lift his game and take his place among the best five or so players in the sport? Of course! He's got mobility, pocket presence, a big arm and a flair for the dramatic -- he checks many of the most important boxes in this conversation. Questions about his durability and leadership ability need to be answered in 2022, however. I hope Murray lights the world on fire in 2022 and I have to write about him once more next July.
CLOSE CALLS: I really struggled with Matthew Stafford. Like, really struggled. He's always been on that bubble in the superstar conversation, and I totally get it if you think his march to Super Bowl glory should have been enough to crash the gates. I just think there's a slight separation between Stafford and the very best in the sport -- a sentiment that puts me with the majority according to an informal Twitter poll I threw out there. Speaking of informal Twitter polls, the vast majority of voters agree with my decision to boot Murray from the club. Tough offseason for Kyler. I pulled Deshaun Watson from this discussion due to his ongoing legal issues and uncertain playing status.
Taylor has it all. Breakaway speed, elite vision, quick burst, lateral movement -- and at a chiseled 226 pounds, he can run you over, too. Taylor won the league's rushing title in his second season, an especially impressive feat considering the underwhelming state of Indy's passing game and an offensive line that was consistently unsettled due to injuries. He'll enter his age-23 campaign with a better quarterback (Matt Ryan) and a healthier blocking front that can be one the league's best. Given Frank Reich's tendencies, a run at 2,000 yards is well within reach. This was an easy call.
Last year, I wrote that Barkley gave me pause because of his injury history and slow recovery from reconstructive knee surgery. And yet, I granted him another year in The Superstar Club because those dominant stretches in his early years with the Giants still felt recent and attainable. It's hard to say that after a forgettable 2021 season in which the former No. 2 overall pick averaged just 3.7 yards per carry. Yes, Barkley was trapped in a terrible offense run by [checks notes] Joe Judge and Jason Garrett (oof), but he also lacked the explosiveness he showcased before his knee injury. The version of Barkley who came out of Penn State could turn doomed plays into huge gainers. The guy we watched last fall in the Meadowlands rarely got more than what the defense gave him. Still just 25, Barkley gets a fresh start with a great offensive mind in new head coach Brian Daboll. We're hopeful, but Barkley needs to prove himself again.
CLOSE CALLS: Last year, I pumped up Joe Mixon as "my long shot for Superstar Club gate-crasher in 2022." Mixon is now knocking furiously on the door after an excellent season for the conference champion Bengals. Christian McCaffrey's second straight season ruined by injuries has us on high alert, as does Derrick Henry having 1,400 career carries and a surgically repaired foot. These are very real and obvious injury concerns -- but both guys are simply too special to remove from the club without more evidence of decline.
Kupp won the NFL's triple crown at wide receiver in 2022, leading the league in catches, yards and touchdowns. He punctuated that stellar regular season with an epic playoff run capped by an iconic performance on the Rams' game-winning drive in Super Bowl LVI: five touches, 46 yards, a touchdown and forever franchise immortality. Kupp, who will be flanked by free-agent acquisition Allen Robinson in the upcoming season, should continue to dominate with Matthew Stafford.
Thomas injured his ankle in the 2020 season opener and his career hasn't been the same since. In the two seasons before the injury, Thomas compiled an astounding 274 catches for 3,130 yards and 18 touchdowns. He was limited to just seven games in 2020, missed the entirety of the 2021 campaign, and his playing status remains murky after being held out of practices during the Saints' offseason training program. Throw in the exit of Sean Payton and the uncertainty that surrounds Jameis Winston, and I don't see Thomas reaching the dizzying heights of his early-career success. I hope I'm wrong.
A Day 1 superstar, Chase continued the recent league trend of highly touted college wide receivers entering the pros and immediately establishing themselves as elite playmakers. Chase's quick-twitch ability and penchant for turning 8-yard slants into 80-yard scores added a game-changing dimension to the Bengals' offense. And there's no reason to believe he'll be anything less than dominant once again in 2022. Chase and Burrow: Tied together at LSU, the Bengals and now ... The Superstar Club Class of 2022.
Perhaps there's nothing more damning to Julio's Superstar Club prospect than the very obvious fact that he doesn't currently have a team to play for in 2022. He remains on the free agent wire, coming off a season in which he underwhelmed for a Titans team that expected more when it sent a second-round pick to the Falcons to acquire the seven-time Pro Bowler. Jones dealt with the now-customary nagging injury issues that kept him off the field for stretches, but his 2021 season also featured spells when Jones was in the lineup but was largely invisible in the Tennessee attack. Jones can still be a solid contributor in the right setup, but his days of terrorizing opposing secondaries appear to be over. Hell of a run.
((((( NOTE: OK, this is where we need to break with tradition. There are simply too many great wide receivers in the league right now to keep the membership at eight players. We're bumping up to an even 10 ... and you have no legal recourse to stop me! Let's carry on. )))))
I absolutely should have put Jefferson in this club after his fantastic rookie season. Lesson learned (as you see above with Ja'Marr Chase). When a young wideout enters the league and immediately eviscerates the competition, it ain't gonna be a one-hit wonder situation. Jefferson was once again transcendent last season with Kirk Cousins, setting career highs in catches, yards and touchdowns en route to his second Pro Bowl selection. Like everyone else in Minneapolis, Jefferson is excited to be part of a modern Kevin O'Connell-run offense that should lean more heavily on the passing game than what we saw during the dying days of the Mike Zimmer regime. Yep, Jefferson could get even better in Year 3.
UNICORN ALERT. Samuel was a dominant player as a wide receiver and running back in 2021 -- a unique deployment by Kyle Shanahan that maximized Samuel's playmaking ability while also seemingly leaving the young star deeply annoyed (his trade request from San Francisco still stands, according to a recent report.) Per Pro Football Focus, Samuel was one of just four wideouts to earn an "elite" PFF grade above 90.0. He averaged nearly 11 yards after the catch per reception (best in the NFL) and broke 14 runs of 10-plus yards in a season that delivered 14 touchdowns for a Niners offense that would be lost without him. That is called leverage, my friends.
CLOSE CALLS: Mike Evans is to wide receivers what Matthew Stafford is to quarterbacks in this exercise: a star with big numbers and Super Bowl bona fides ... who exists just beneath the invisible line that separates the game's truly elite. I thought CeeDee Lamb would be on the list this year, but his sophomore season -- while still incredibly productive -- keeps him just a tick below the best of the best. That could change with Amari Cooper gobbling up his targets in Cleveland this year. Tee Higgins gets dinged for his second-banana status in Cincy, but he's a damn fine banana. Terry McLaurin just got paid and is knocking on the door. You still the same guy, Nuk Hopkins? The Superstar Club will be watching closely once your suspension is up.
Yeah, I'm doing it. Tucker is 1-of-1, an automatic All-Pro and indispensable piece of a legit AFC contender in Baltimore. His unmatched résumé, mastering the sport's most pressure-filled and relentlessly scrutinized position, should make him a first-ballot Hall of Famer one day. Now ... I understand there's a philosophical aspect to this conversation that touches on what it means to be a "superstar"; how it's about elite production, sure, but also presence, charisma, a certain je ne sais quoi that -- to this point in football history -- no kicker had ever possessed. Well, I'm here to tell you that Justin Tucker possesses that je ne sais quoi. And if you ever try to take it from him, that man will kick you 66 yards ... straight down the middle ... off the crossbar and over, of course.
P.S. The people agree!