These are fantasy football questions, or perhaps the province of an NFL writer debating his All-Pro choices. Names and numbers, nothing more.
But what if you actually had Manning and Brees standing in front of you, you had one game to win, and you were tasked with choosing between the two? That's not fantasy football, that's outright fantasy stuff.
And yet those are exactly the sort of choices Hall of Famers Deion Sanders and Jerry Rice will be making next week, in the run-up to a brand new form of what had become an increasingly irrelevant Pro Bowl. To breathe life into an all-star game that even NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell was ready to put to pasture, the NFL and the NFLPA got together to come up with a whole new format. While there are welcome changes to the way the game will actually be played, the most interesting part of the new Pro Bowl is the "schoolyard" style of draft that precedes it.
In December, 86 Pro Bowl players were announced (including Tampa Bay Buccaneers DT Gerald McCoy and CB Darrelle Revis), without regard to AFC/NFC separation. Those players – plus two more defensive backs and a certain number of replacements based on injuries or playoff advancement – will gather as usual in Hawaii for a week of Pro Bowl preparations. On Tuesday and Wednesday, they will find out which side they're playing for – Team Sanders or Team Rice – as the captains conduct a draft to sort out the all-stars. Sanders and Rice will each be assisted by a pair of player captains and a fan who earned a spot in the draft room through NFL.com's fantasy game. No matter how much better the actual game is, the draft should make for very entertaining television.
In fact, it sounded like so much fun that we here at Buccaneers.com decided to get in on the act. Standing in for Sanders and Rice were your author and T.J. Rives of the Buccaneers Radio Network. And while we were removed from the real thing by a degree – unfortunately, Manning and Brees weren't actually standing in front of us, fingers crossed, hoping to be picked first – it was still unlike any fantasy draft either of us has done before. Any time you can get Revis in the fifth round or Charles in the 10th or Marshawn Lynch in the 20th, you know it's a star-studded field.
Here were the rules, which might vary in small ways from the actual draft in Hawaii next week but are still substantively the same:
- As Rice and Sanders will do next Tuesday, in an untelevised affair, we held a preliminary draft consisting of the 22 players that make up these positions: defensive tackle, center, guard, fullback, punter and special-teamer.
- Next, as the real captains will do on live television next Wednesday, we drafted the remaining 64 players. In both cases, the drafts were serpentine, meaning the first pick was followed by two picks for the other captain, then two picks for the first team, and so on.
- The draft had to split each position straight down the middle. That is, each team had to get three of the six quarterbacks, four of the eight receivers, etc. In practical terms, that meant most of the last 10 rounds or so was mostly slotting.
- Since Pittsburgh's Antonio Brown was selected for the game as both a receiver and a punt returner, whichever team took Brown the receiver also got Brown the returner as its last pick. The other punt returner, Dexter McCluster, was automatically given to the other team in the last round.
- The original Pro Bowl list was used, with one exception, as WR Calvin Johnson had already been replaced by WR Alshon Jeffery due to an injury. Some of the players we selected will be replaced next week after the two Super Bowl teams are determined. We purposely did not factor in the likelihood of a player being replaced when we drafted.
- A coin flip determined the draft order. I won the flip to pick first in the preliminary draft, so T.J. picked first in the main draft.
You can watch a video of our draft here, or at the top of this page. Here are some highlights:
McCoy is called first. The first pick of the preliminary draft was Buccaneers defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. While that is sure to spark suspicions of homerism, it is actually an easy choice to defend. Because the defensive tackles were put into the preliminary draft with the positions that likely would have gone later in a full draft, they were obviously the most attractive players on the board. With that in mind, it was simply a matter of deciding which player was the cream of the crop. By many measurements, including this one by Pro Football Focus, that was Gerald McCoy. Detroit's Ndamukong Suh might have had an argument, and indeed Suh was the second player off the board.
Brees before Manning. Rives had the first pick and he made that exact choice, perhaps swayed by the many opportunities to watch Brees in person in the NFC South. In next week's Pro Bowl draft, the safe bet is that Rice and Sanders will start the draft with a pair of players from the game's marquee position (though not Manning if the Broncos make the Super Bowl), but a little more strategy came into play in our mock draft. Assuming Rives would not draft a second quarterback for a little while, I went with some personal favorites at other positions and waited until the seventh round to take Manning. Value!
Cornering the market. Rives came into the draft believing cornerbacks would be particularly valuable – rightfully in my opinion – and loaded up early at the position. Knowing that is particularly hard to stop the opposing passing attack in a typical Pro Bowl, Rives took Revis in the fifth round, Richard Sherman in the eighth and Joe Haden in the ninth.
Graham gets an early call. Tight end is not generally seen as one of the league's marquee position, but Jimmy Graham gave the Saints two players among the first three picks. Convinced that Graham was by far the best player at his position, and as valuable as any receiver in the field in creating potential Pro Bowl mismatches, I took him to start the second round.
Running backs have to wait. It's clear that neither team captain believed that running backs were the key to swinging the balance in a typical Pro Bowl. Despite containing some of the most dynamic players in the NFL, the RB position wasn't touched until the seventh round, when Rives took Philly's LeSean McCoy. My first running back was Charles, in the 10th round. Again, Lynch was still available 20 rounds in, right after Chicago's Matt Forte came off the board.
Creating pressure. If Rives was intent on building the best stable of cornerbacks, I was focused on putting together the best possible pass rush, as an alternate way to try to slow down the passing game. This could be a faulty strategy if the play at the line of scrimmage is as uninspired as it has been in some recent Pro Bowls. However, if the players take the game more seriously this year, then a front seven that includes Robert Quinn (first round), Robert Mathis (fourth), Justin Houston (17th, Cameron Wake (18th) and Terrell Suggs (20th) could be dominant.
On paper, it was hard to go wrong. Again, because each team had to get a certain number of players at each position, the later rounds were largely an exercise in picking the remainders at each position to fill open slots. Still, Rives got the feisty John Abraham in the 26th round, as the last outside linebacker available, and I got last-off-the-board defensive end Greg Hardy in the 29th round. Nobody was complaining about those picks, nor about Philip Rivers in the 27th, Mario Williams in the 25th, Jeffery in the 25th or Vontaze Burfict in the 30th.
Next week, these men will gather together for the real thing, waiting to find out if they are on Team Rice or Team Sanders, and who will be on the other side of the line. The new format could even feature real-life teammates going head to head on Pro Bowl Sunday. That's all up to Deion Sanders and Jerry Rice…but they're welcome to take notes from our own Pro Bowl draft if they wish.