In this day and age when player and team loyalty aren’t mutually exclusive, many stars end up playing for at least a couple of teams.
Seldom does a franchise draft, develop and then pony up to keep high end homegrown talent — or just trade them outright. On the flip side of that coin, superstar players often have judgement clouded by the first big contract pushed in front of them by an opposing team.
In the most commercially successful of the “Big 4” leagues, the NFL, these type of scenarios unfold regularly.
In the history of the league, there have been exactly three homegrowns who have stuck it out with their original club for 20 years or more. They would be K Jason Hanson (21 with Detroit), CB Darrell Green (20 with Washington) and OT Jackie Slater (20 with the Rams).
Not an overly long list, for sure.
In today’s NFL, taking into account injuries and fears over concussion-related symptoms, remaining with one club very long is a feat. Here are each team’s best homegrown talent (we don’t put a minimum yearly requirement on it) in our estimation.
Arizona Cardinals – WR Larry Fitzgerald
The Cardinals knew what they were getting when they drafted Larry Fitzgerald third overall in 2004. The Minneapolis native was one of the best college football wide receivers at Pitt and finished second in Heisman voting in 2003 to Jason White. In his first year, Fitzgerald caught 58 passes for 780 yards and eight of his career 104 TDs. Since that outstanding debut, Fitz has rung up seasons of 1,000 or more yards eight times and caught 10 or more touchdowns five times. Going into his 14th season in Arizona, Fitzgerald has been to the Pro Bowl 10 times, was an All-Pro selection on three occasions, the touchdown leader twice and receptions leader, also twice. His 14,389 career receiving yards puts him ninth, all-time.
Atlanta Falcons – QB Matt Ryan
There aren’t many better QB/WR tandems than Atlanta’s Matty Ice and Julio Jones. And it was a tough decision for us, selecting between the NFL’s MVP in 2016, Ryan, and two-time First Team All Pro wideout Jones. But, we had to make a choice and Ryan is ours. He got the team to within a sniff of a Super Bowl title (the Falcons blew a 28-3 lead to New England), completing 17 of 23 passes for two touchdowns (and no interceptions). The four-time Pro Bowler had a whale of a season in 2016, completing 373 of 534 passes for 4,944 yards and 38 touchdowns (seven INTs) for a passer rating of 117.1. Not only has he played nine seasons with Atlanta, but he has missed just two starts. Incredible.
Baltimore Ravens – LB Terrell Suggs
Of all the players on this list, Terrell Suggs is no choirboy, but it is a testament to his worth to Baltimore that he enters his 15th season with the Ravens. So, he may not be high on everyone’s list of model citizens (he’s been accused of domestic violence, assault and weapons related stuff) however the durable linebacker has made Baltimore a better team when he’s playing. In 13 seasons (he missed 2015 with an Achilles injury), he has failed to play in just 14 of a possible 208 games. In those 196 games, the six time Pro Bowler and 2011 Defensive Player of the Year has amassed 764 tackles, 114.5 sacks, 30 forced fumbles, seven interceptions and 53 passes defended. He’s no angel, but the Baltimore D would be lost without his leadership.
Buffalo Bills – DE Marcell Dareus
The perennially woeful Bills haven’t had a defensive end like Bruce Smith, until Marcell Dareus came to the Bills out of Alabama at no. 3 in 2011 (the highest a defensive lineman had been selected in Crimson Tide history). Like Terrell Suggs in Baltimore, Dareus has had his run-ins with the league, twice being suspended for substance abuse. He’s missed five games due to suspension, and just five others for other reasons in his six-season career. The Birmingham, AL native has been to the Pro Bowl twice and was a first team All-Pro in 2014, when he logged a career high 10 sacks. In all, he has played 86 games in Buffalo, registering 291 tackles, 34 sacks and 13 pass defences.
Carolina Panthers – LB Luke Kuechly
No, Cam Newton is not the Panthers best player. All the pouting after losing a Super Bowl, followed by a regressive season in 2016 took him out of the running. For our money, superb linebacker Luke Kuechly — when he’s playing — is the straw that stirs the Cats’ drink. After playing every game his first three seasons with the Panthers, the Boston College draftee (9th overall, 2012) has missed nine games due to injury in the last two campaigns. The Cincinnati born Kuechly has been a First Team All-Pro three times and was the Defensive Player of the Year in 2013. He’s a tackling machine who has racked up 693 in five seasons, along with nine sacks, 12 interceptions and 42 passes defended. A keeper.
Chicago Bears – QB Mitch Trubisky
Here us out on this one, as the Bears have absolutely gutted themselves of veteran homegrown talent, such as Alshon Jeffery, who spent five good years in the Windy City. Forced with little to nothing to go on, we’re making Mitch Trubisky a de facto homegrown, in that the Bears desperately need him to step up in the coming years and be a leader. With veteran Mike Glennon in the fold to call plays for a couple of years, Trubisky can hopefully develop slowly. Even though he started just 13 games with North Carolina in 2016 (after seeing action in 18 in the two seasons previous) the Bears thought enough of the young pivot to take him second overall this year. His stats with the Tar Heels were impressive, too, with 3,748 yards passing and 30 TDs, against just six INTs. Time will tell.
Cincinnati Bengals – WR A.J. Green
A.J. Green may not be as flashy as Antonio Brown or Julio Jones, but the Bengals wideout can flat out play. Heading into his seventh season with Cincinnati, the former Georgia Bulldog narrowly missed his sixth straight season of 1,000 or more yards in 2016, mostly because he played only 10 games. Yup, a hamstring injury kept him 36 yards shy of 1,000 and the six contests he missed were the most in any season (he missed just four in his first five campaigns). Green has been as consistent a receiver as anyone, catching 481 passes in 86 career games for 7,135 yards and 49 TDs. That consistency has earned him a Pro Bowl nod each and every season, as well as two second team All-Pro selections.
Cleveland Browns – OT Joe Thomas
Through thick, but mostly thin in Cleveland, Joe Thomas has been a constant. The eminently talented offensive lineman, selected 3rd overall by the Browns in 2007, hasn’t missed a game in 10 years and has been a Pro Bowler for all 10 of them too. And not once has anyone ever heard him gripe about wanting out or the deplorable state the team has been in since he first donned the orange and brown uniform. The Wisconsin native and Badger grad has kept it real since joining Cleveland and has earned the seven first team and two second team All-Pro nods, so far. He is so good at what he does, in fact, that his peers voted him 18th best player overall in the NFL Network’s Top 100 Players of 2014.
Dallas Cowboys – TE Jason Witten
Had he stuck it out for another year, Tony Romo may have gotten this slot, but the longtime QB packed it in after 13 seasons with the Cowboys. However, this is not to say that longtime tight end Jason Witten isn’t deserving. The Knoxville native and Tennessee Vols grad enters his 15th season as one of the best and most consistent at his position. In 14 seasons, Witten has caught 1,089 passes for 11,888 yards (27th all-time) and 63 touchdowns. He’s also grabbed another 45 passes in eight playoff games for 486 yards and a touchdown. The squeaky clean veteran has been to 10 Pro Bowls and has been a first team All-Pro twice, as well as a member of the second team on two separate occasions.
Denver Broncos – LB Von Miller
For our money, Von Miller is the best linebacker in football right now. He might even be the best defensive player in the league, depending on who is consulted. For six seasons, he has been a beast in the Broncos defensive backfield, racking up an incredible 73.5 sacks in just 88 games, including a Denver Broncos record 18.5 in 2012. He finished second in sacks with 13.5 in 2016, earning his third first team All-Pro selection and fifth Pro Bowl nod (he is also a two-time second team All-Pro). Miller’s crowning glory and for which he was our pick here, was his virtuoso performance in Super Bowl 50, won 24-10 by Denver over Carolina. He harassed and badgered Cats QB Cam Newton all game, sacking him twice and halving another. With his six tackles, two forced fumbles, one pass defence and 2.5 sacks, Miller was name Super Bowl 50 MVP.
Detroit Lions – DE Ezekiel Ansah
This is the make it, or break it, year for Detroit Lions DE Ezekiel Ansah, our pick for best franchise homegrown. He’s on the last year of a back-loaded four year, $18.5 million contract and will be a UFA at the end of his fifth season. An early season ankle injury in 2016 caused him to miss three games and when he got back into the line-up, couldn’t get untracked. In 2015, the BYU grad made his first Pro Bowl on the strength of a season that saw him register a career high 14.5 sacks, as well as 47 tackles and four forced fumbles. Last season, he could only muster 35 tackles in 13 games, along with two sacks. Ansah, who is on the PUP list in training camp, should get back to bigger numbers in 2017 if his ankle isn’t too banged up.
Green Bay Packers – QB Aaron Rodgers
Aaron Rodgers path to the NFL was not paved with gold, even though the guy is all-world. After getting pretty much zilch in offers after a good high school career in his native Chico, California, Rodgers went the community college route and had to be “discovered” by the University of California. After transferring he made good on his promise, throwing for 5,469 yards in his two seasons there, including 43 TD passes (just 13 INTs) and an overall passer rating of 150.27. Even with those God-like numbers, he wasn’t picked in the 2005 draft until way down at 24th by the Packers. Rodgers then had to back up Brett Favre for three seasons before getting his big chance in 2008. And he has been money since, winning a championship and two MVP awards, as well as chucking the pigskin for 36,827 yards, 297 TDs (72 INTs) and a 104.1 passer rating in 142 games.
Houston Texans – DE J.J. Watt
As J.J. Watt goes, so go the Texans. Well, that isn’t entirely true, since the team did go to the divisional playoffs for the third time in franchise history without him last year. But, this team will struggle to score in 2017 and the Texans better hope that their best player and his surgically repaired back are ready to lead one of the NFL’s best defences. He and fellow edge rusher Jadeveon Clowney present one of the scariest tandems on any team. A three-time Defensive Player of the Year, Watt got into just three games in 2016, recording 1.5 sacks. He hadn’t missed a game in his first five seasons and flattened NFL QBs 74.5 times in 80 games. He’s healthy this summer, which bodes well for Houston.
Indianapolis Colts – WR T.Y. Hilton
Hilton is the anti-Megatron, a fairly tiny (5’9″) receiver who has carved out a great career, despite coming out of a lesser college program (Florida International) and getting drafted relatively late (3rd round, 92nd overall in 2012). Hilton gets the nod here over QB Andrew Luck, as he’s used his speed and savvy to be remarkably consistent in five seasons. He’s only failed to reach 1,000 yards plus in five seasons and that was his rookie year, when he caught 50 passes for 861 yards and seven TDs. In the intervening four seasons, Hilton has averaged 81 catches, 1,250 yards and just under six TDs. A three-time Pro Bowler, Hilton was the NFL’s receiving yards leader in 2016 with 1,448.
Jacksonville Jaguars – TE Marcedes Lewis
It is a credit to Marcedes Lewis talent as well as his longevity that he has been around the Jaguars for half the franchise’s 22 seasons. Going into this 12th campaign, the long-time Jags tight end has a bit to proved before he retires. Julius Thomas has gone down-state to Miami, so Lewis should see more targets this season, which dipped to a low (30) only surpassed by his rookie season out of UCLA in 2006 (21). Of those 30 targets last year, he grabbed 20 and had just 169 yards receiving and one TD. Lewis would be no one’s pick for top TE in the NFL, but consider that the Jaguars have never really had an elite QB in his 11 years. Lewis had a career year in 2010, going to the Pro Bowl after recording career highs in catches (58), yards (700) and touchdowns (10).
Kansas City Chiefs – LB Justin Houston
Like a couple of players on this list, when he’s healthy, Chiefs linebacker Justin Houston can hardly be contained in the defensive backfield. It was a bit of a lost year in 2016 for Kansas City’s top defender. He underwent ACL surgery in February and didn’t see action until week 11. He took it fairly easy that game, but in week 12 he unleashed all the pent up aggression against Denver, recording 10 tackles and three sacks, one resulting in a forced fumble and ensuing safety. This is the kind of performance Chiefs fans have come to expect from the four-time Pro Bowler. A late pick (3rd round, 70th overall in 2011), Houston won the Deacon Jones award in 2014 being the NFL sack leader with an amazing 22.
Los Angeles Chargers – TE Antonio Gates
It was really a toss up here, however we didn’t want to appear milquetoast and gave Antonio Gates the nod over superb QB Philip Rivers. But not by much. Now entering his 15th season, the undrafted Gates, in our opinion, is the best tight end in the NFL. With one more TD reception this season, he will be alone in first, all-time for tight ends. He currently has 111 TD catches, tying him with Hall of Fame great Tony Gonzalez. Otherwise, Gates has 897 total receptions (22nd all-time) and 11,192 receiving yards (33rd all-time) in 204 career games. Individually, he has been to eight Pro Bowls, is a three-time First Team All-Pro and two-time Second Team All-Pro.
Los Angeles Rams – LB Robert Quinn
Overcoming adversity can be a real cliche for some athletes. In Robert Quinn’s case, it was really nearly life or death. In his senior year of high school he had to undergo brain surgery for what turned out to be a benign tumor. He did make a full recovery and has been a football dynamo since. The Rams’ best homegrown talent, selected 14th overall in 2011, has been a two-time Pro Bowl participant in his six seasons, as well as a First Team All-Pro. Injuries (including a concussion) have limited Quinn to just 17 games in the last two seasons, after playing in 63 games his first four seasons. The gifted edge rusher has 54 career sacks in 80 games, with a high of 19 in 2013, when he was All-Pro.
Miami Dolphins – DE Cameron Wake
A stint in the Canadian Football League did Cameron Wake’s career wonders. Typically, older NFLers go to the CFL in their waning years, not the other way around. However, when Wake went undrafted in 2005 out of Penn State, he got a tryout with the New York Giants, was cut, and found himself in the CFL with the B.C. Lions in 2007. In short order, he switched from linebacker to defensive end and became the league’s most outstanding defensive player two years running. At the end of the 2008 CFL season, Wake garnered interest from several NFL teams and ended up signing with Miami, where he has been a force since 2009. It really was a shame that he was already 27 when he started his NFL career, however, he has shown no signs of slowing down. The five-time Pro Bowler and four-time All-Pro recorded 11.5 of his 81.5 career sacks last season and also picked off his first pass ever.
Minnesota Vikings – S Harrison Smith
Adrian Peterson, warts and all, would have easily been the Vikes best homegrown. But after parts of 10 tumultuous seasons, the franchise cut ties with him and he is now a member of the New Orleans Saints. Which surely doesn’t take the lustre off five-year vet, safety Harrison Smith’s accomplishments. A late first round pick (29th overall) out of Notre Dame in 2012, Smith has gotten better year over year since an outstanding rookie season where he had 104 tackles, a sack, three interceptions and two TDs. He has been to the Pro Bowl the last two seasons and has shown remarkable consistency. His peers had a hand in ranking him 74th among the top 100 players in the NFL for 2017.
New England Patriots – QB Tom Brady
Like there would be any other selection here. It was Tom’s birthday, too, on Thursday and the ageless wonder turned 40. Tom Terrific is one of the longest-serving members in the NFL, going into his 18th season with the Patriots. His accolades are nearly too numerous to mention, but we will anyway. He has won five Super Bowls, four Super Bowl MVP awards, two MVP awards, two Offensive Player of the Year awards, has been to 12 Pro Bowls and is a four-time All-Pro. Brady is currently fourth all-time in passing yards with 61,852, pass completions with 5,244 and TD passes at 456. His post-season accomplishments bear repeating too, as he has, among many records, the following: most games (34), most wins (25), most TD passes (63) and most yards (9,094). He also holds Super Bowl records like most TD passes (15), yards (2,071) and appearances (7).
New Orleans Saints – DE Cameron Jordan
Cameron Jordan comes by his football pedigree and team longevity honestly, as his father Steve played 13 seasons in the league, all with Minnesota. The younger Jordan still has seven seasons to go to catch his old man, but the way he has played for the defensively inept Saints — don’t blame him — he will be around for a long, long time. We say that assuredly, too, since Jordan hasn’t missed a game in six seasons. Drafted 24th overall out of Cal in 2011, Jordan is a superb edge rusher who has compiled 299 tackles, 46.5 sacks, seven forced fumbles and 27 pass defences in 96 games. Jordan has played in four career playoff games and has 17 tackles and 2.5 sacks and is also a two-time Pro Bowl participant.
New York Giants – QB Eli Manning
Eli Manning won’t win any dance contests, if the caught-on-video middle school shuffle he did the other day during training camp is any indication. Dad dance moves aside, Eli Manning is hands down the Giants best homegrown player. Eli is also one of their most durable too, having not missed a start in 12 seasons. He is only surpassed on the QB side of homegrowns only by Tom Brady and has forged a pretty darned good career in the monstrous shadow of his retired brother Peyton. He has won two Super Bowls, including being named MVP both times, and was the Walter Payton Man of the Year honoree in 2016. Among his individual accomplishments, Manning owns the NFL record for most fourth-quarter TD passes in a season with 15 and most passing yards in a single post-season (1,219 yards in 2011).
New York Jets – DE Muhammad Wilkerson
Overall, the Jets have been a hot mess since last making the playoffs in 2010. Pity, then, poor DE Muhammad Wilkerson, who has put in outstanding work on the defensive line since joining the team out of Temple in 2011. He hasn’t been a bad boy, but has at least shown some rare fire on this squad, getting a fine and the heave-ho for his involvement in a brawl with several Green Bay Packers in a game during the 2014 season. He’s missed just four games in six years and has recorded healthy stats, such as 358 tackles, 40.5 sacks (12 during his 2015 Pro Bowl season), 10 forced fumbles (one for a touchdown) and 24 pass defences.
Oakland Raiders – K Sebastian Janikowski
Of all the players selected in the 2000 draft, Oakland Raiders kicker Sebastian Janikowski is but one of two still employed in the league — Tom Brady being the other. The Raiders may be relevant now with guys like Derek Carr and Khalil Mack, but when they were lousy, Janikowski at least gave the team a reliable scoring presence. The “Polish Cannon” was taken 17th overall by the Raiders in Y2K and enters his 18th season as one of the NFL all-time great kickers. He is ninth all-time in total field goals made with 414 and of kicks 50 yards or longer, he has made an astounding 55 of 100. In his only Pro Bowl season (2011, which we find curious) Janikowski was 31 out of 35, including 10-of-11 from 40-49 yards and 7-of-10 from 50-plus. He is also a sterling 557 out of 563 in extra point attempts.
Philadelphia Eagles – DT Fletcher Cox
Some day, QB Carson Wentz may be on this list as the Eagles best homegrown. But for now, he’ll have to wait and admire the work that five-year veteran defensive lineman Fletcher Cox puts in, game in and game out. Philadelphia picked him 12th overall out of Mississippi State in 2012 and since then he’s missed but one game in 80. Cox, along with fellow homegrown DL Brandon Graham, present a fearsome twosome for opposing offensive linemen to contain before they crush their quarterbacks and running backs. Selected for the Pro Bowl the last two years and a two-time Second Team All-Pro, Cox has improved measurably over his first three seasons. He has recorded 16 total sacks in 2015-16, 3.5 more than his first three seasons combined. He has also recorded 114 tackles, close to the 141 between 2012-14.
Pittsburgh Steelers – WR Antonio Brown
This was our most difficult decision, considering the Steelers employ superstar quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. However, we give Brown the mantle because of his body of work and accolades in a shorter period of time (seven seasons to Big Ben’s 13). Brown has been to as many Pro Bowl’s as his QB, five and is a four-time All-Pro, while Roethlisberger has not been so honored. The only thing Brown lacks is a Super Bowl ring, of which Ben has two. In the last four seasons, Brown has been an offensive dynamo, leading the NFL in receptions twice and yards once in 2014, while being top 5 in the three others. In those four campaigns, he has caught 481 passes for 6,315 yards and 43 touchdowns.
San Francisco 49ers – LB NaVorro Bowman
Hard luck NaVorro Bowman has had to overcome a lot on the injury front since being drafted 91st overall by San Fran in 2010 out of Penn State. Yet, he has persevered, despite missing all of 2014 with a torn ACL and MCL and 12 games last season after tearing an Achilles tendon. He is set to get going this season and build on the tremendous work he put in between 2011 and 2015. During that span, minus 2014, he was a First Team All-Pro four times. He started every game of 64 and recorded 590 tackles, 11.5 sacks, six forced fumbles, three interceptions including one pick-six and 24 pass defences. He won the Butkus award in 2013 and has been to the Pro Bowl three times, too.
Seattle Seahawks – CB Richard Sherman
The Seahawks have so many candidates, it was hard to pare them down to just one. S Earl Thomas (seven great seasons), S Kam Chancellor (also seven) and QB Russell Wilson (five) all had to take a back seat though, to quote machine and noted trash talker Richard Sherman. The Seahawks got one of the steals of this decade in the 2011 draft, taking Sherman in the fifth round, 154th overall out of Stanford. He made an immediate impression and by his second season he was a First Team All-Pro and would be three years in a row from 2012 to 2014. He has played every game six years running and has 332 tackles, five forced fumbles, 30 interceptions (two pick-sixes) and 92 passes defended. He’s also very, very good at getting under the skin of his opponents, an All-Pro in that category for sure.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers – WR Mike Evans
There are a few players on the Bucs with more years of experience with that franchise, but we believe Evans could be a Buccaneer for life. He’s been their best pass-catcher since being chosen seventh overall by Tampa in 2014 out of Texas A&M and will continue to be for the foreseeable future. He had a career year in 2016, getting his first Pro Bowl nod and Second Team All-Pro nomination after catching 96 passes for 1,321 yards and 12 touchdowns. Overall, the Dallas native has 238 catches in 46 games, amassing 3,578 yards and 27 total TDs. The Bucs were so impressed, they picked up the fifth-year option on his contract earlier this year.
Tennessee Titans – DT Jurrell Casey
Hidden gems in NFL drafts aren’t a dime a dozen. Jurrell Casey, though, was one of them, despite coming out of high profile school USC as the 77th overall pick by the Titans in 2011. The squat (6’1″, 305 lbs.) defensive lineman has been a mainstay and just recently signed a four-year, $60.4 million contract which could push his service with Tennessee to 10 years if he stays as consistent as he has. In six seasons, the two-time Pro Bowler and 2013 Second Team All-Pro has never had less than 44 tackles and no more than 68, along with 33 sacks and 12 pass defences. And he’s done all this in spite of the churn of coaches and defensive coordinators in his time with the Titans.
Washington Redskins – OT Trent Williams
One of only two offensive linemen on this list, Trent Williams earned his nickname “Silverback” honestly. He is an absolute gorilla of a man at 6’5″, 320 lbs. and has commemorated his alias with a tattoo of a gorilla on his back. He came to D.C. out of Bob Stoop’s football factory at Oklahoma, going fourth overall to the Redskins in 2010. In just his second season in the NFL, he was named co-captain of the offence and has played through injuries and has been honored by his peers as the 45th best player n the Top 100 Players of 2016. He has a string of five straight Pro Bowl selections going and was a Second Team All-Pro in 2015 and a First Team All-Pro in 2016.