Mike Tyson once famously said that everybody has a plan until they get hit. When John McKay was hired as the first head coach of the Buccaneers in 1976, he claimed to have a five-year plan. (Granted, he had a five-year contract.) Plans can go awry, but it’s important to have them if you’re building anything, especially a football team. Here, we’ve taken McKay’s “five-year plan” approach to modern NFL team-building: If you wanted to build a team from the league’s current talent pool that would win the most games over the next five seasons, which players would you choose? Which players are both established enough to show great potential and young enough to be relied upon to produce over the next half-decade? Our defensive starters are below; check out our offense here and the full team here.
Defensive ends: Watt would dominate anywhere on the defensive line, but for our purposes, he’s a defensive end with the ability to kick inside on passing downs. Wherever he is—and he played end on about 63% of his snaps last season—Watt combines speed, strength, and knowledge of angles and leverage to take over games at times. He just turned 27 in March, and he's never missed a game in his five seasons, so there's no reason outside of normal injury luck to think he'll regress. He's the best defensive player in the NFL, he has been for the last few seasons, and the arrow should be pointing straight or even up over the next few years.
Vernon, fresh off his breakout season with the Dolphins and subsequent five-year, $85 million contract with the Giants, will hope to expand on a 2015 campaign in which he totaled 57 pressures in the last eight games of the season. He’s not a one-year wonder, though, as he totaled 11.5 sacks for Miami in 2013.
Defensive tackles:Donald is the next great NFL defensive player. Through just two pro seasons, Donald has proven to be just about unblockable. He totaled 11 sacks and 79 total pressures in 2015 despite facing double teams on an inordinate amount of snaps. Few players in the league understand leverage better; he's amazingly good at getting under the pads of enemy blockers and simply forcing them back into the pile. His combination of upper-body strength and lateral quickness allows him to jar and then shed blockers at an alarming rate, and his close to the quarterback is a thing to behold.
Short enjoyed a career year in his third NFL season with 11 sacks of his own, but his game is about more than just sacks. Watch his performance against the Seahawks in the divisional round of the playoffs and you'll see how one guy can completely wreck the intentions of an opposing offense. Short uses root strength at the line to break free of blockers, and his precision in tracking the ballcarrier is singularly impressive.
Linebackers:In his second NFL season, Mack went from a rookie who pressured the quarterback a lot to a real force and a candidate for Defensive Player of the Year. He was voted to the Pro Bowl at two positions (defensive end and outside linebacker), and while his tackling and coverage abilities are impressive, his most notable attribute is his ability to rack up sacks at a very high rate. Mack gets to the quarterback with every technique you'd want to see—bending the edge, dip-and-rip, speed to power, and an inside counter. His 15-sack 2015 season should be the first of many.
Like Mack, Barr can play credibly at both the linebacker and pass-rusher positions, and though his sack totals haven't yet approached Mack's, he may possess the more complete overall game over time.
As for Kuechly, there’s not much to say that hasn’t already been said. He’s the most intelligent linebacker in the game. He'll call opponent plays before they happen, and his instincts for the correct gap and the right coverage are as developed as one could ever hope.
Cornerbacks: Sherman will be in his early 30s at the end of our five-year plan, but he seems to already be preparing for excellence at the tail end of his career. More than ever, Sherman is studying the tendencies of receivers, breaking down route concepts, playing the slot and both sides. Still, there's nobody in the league who plays the boundary better, and you throw a fade route in his area at your peril.
Slay may be the least-known name on our list, but that won’t last very long. Last season, he had just two interceptions, but he also proved that interceptions aren't the ultimate arbiter of pass defense dominance. Watch Slay and you'll see a defender who is especially aware and present in zone coverage; more and more, he understands exactly where he needs to be at any given time to stop a play. According to Pro Football Focus' charting, Slay had five games in 2015 where he allowed fewer than 10 receiving yards, seven games with two or fewer catches allowed, and two games without a catch allowed. He's one to watch in 2016, because if he can eliminate the occasional deep-ball issue, he's got Pro Bowl potential.
Harris is a great outside cornerback, but he's unquestionably the best slot cornerback in the NFL, and has been for the last half-decade. Few defensive backs possess his combination of body control, aggressiveness, and pattern-matching abilities.
Safeties:Though Mathieu is one of the league's best slot cornerbacks, we'll put him at roving safety here, because he's a true difference-maker everywhere on the field—from the box, to center field, to the slot. He'll occasionally gamble a bit too often and give up the big play, but he's got the ability to cover more ground than anyone in the league…except for the guy we paired him with at the safety position.
There is nobody else in the NFL who can do what Thomas does. He has never missed a game in his six-year career, and the few snaps he's taken off produce quite a bit of anxiety in Seattle's great defense. He's the shot-caller for the Legion of Boom, and he can be a force multiplier from anywhere on the field because he's so quick to the target. Reckless with his tackling angles early in his career, Thomas has smoothed the rough edges and now stands as the prototype of the modern free safety. From a pure athletic perspective, there's nobody else in his class.