By Jared Dubin
(CBS Sports) — Back in the summer of 2016, the Golden State Warriors were reeling, coming off an embarrassing seven-game defeat at the hands of the Cleveland Cavaliers — the result of a blown 3-1 series lead. We all know what happened next: spurred by a parking-lot text message from Draymond Green and then a Hamptons meeting with Green, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, and Warriors brass, Kevin Durant — the second-best player in the world — elected to sign on with the core of a team that had just won 73 games during the previous regular season. It’s been nearly two years since Durant made that decision; and the Warriors have already won one title and — assuming you’re reading this on Friday — will likely close out a second later tonight.
The way this scenario played out got us here at CBS thinking about who might be the football version of Durant, and which team he might help put back over the top. Of course, the NFL is considerably more complicated than the NBA. One player is not necessarily capable of single-handedly making a team as dominant as the Warriors. That said, it’s still fun to think about which players, were they to join one of the NFL’s top contenders, would take them to another level and vault them even higher in the Super Bowl discussion.
To that end, we identified what we think are the 10 likeliest Super Bowl contenders in 2018, and picked a player who would really raise that team’s ceiling in the same way Durant did for the reigning champs. The only rules I gave myself to follow were these: because Durant was the second-best player in the world (behind LeBron James) at the time he left Oklahoma City for Golden State, that meant I couldn’t give any of these 10 teams the NFL’s best player on offense (Tom Brady) or defense (Aaron Donald); and any given player could only be used once. Anything else was fair game.
Without further ado (in no particular order other than the way I wrote them down)…
New England Patriots: Calais Campbell
Aside from the great Larry Fitzgerald, Campbell is perhaps the most Patriot-like player who has never been on the Patriots. He absolutely embodies the team’s “do your job” ethos, whether that job is penetrating gaps to rush the passer, occupying blockers to free linebackers to make plays, or stuffing the run himself. Campbell is enormous (6-foot-8, 300 pounds) and impossible to deal with on the interior, but he also has the quickness to play on the outside. His versatility would be a great fit for a New England defense that likes to change its fronts and strategies based on the next opponent. When you consider that the Pats have never really been a team that employs the star outside rushman-type of player that so many think they need at this time, it becomes clear that Campbell is really the type of player they should target if they could get anyone they wanted.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Jalen Ramsey
The Steelers have one of the most explosive offenses in football, and assuming Le’Veon Bell reports on time for the season, they should again dent the scoreboard with crooked numbers fairly consistently. Apart from giving them a Ben Roethlisberger-esque backup quarterback to fill in for the few games Ben misses seemingly ever year, the best idea we could come up with was to give them maybe the league’s premier shutdown corner. Ramsey is a flat-out star who erases nearly every receiver that comes into his path, and if the Steelers put him across from Joe Haden with Mike Hilton in the slot, they would be extraordinarily tough to throw against. Sure, that might marginalize Artie Burns a bit; but A) I think you’re OK marginalizing Burns if it means employing Ramsey; B) teams are using nickel and dime packages more and more often these days, so Burns would get plenty of time on the field; and C) you still need someone available to fill in when Haden inevitably misses time with one injury or another.
Philadelphia Eagles: Casey Hayward
Finding the right player for the Eagles was incredibly difficult. They’re the most well-rounded team in the NFL right now. They have one of the league’s best offensive lines, with no obvious hole. They have a strong group of running backs and pass-catchers, and part of what makes it great is the unpredictability of where the ball will go and when. So adding a true workhorse at either spot seems like it might throw off the team’s balanced attack. They have not one, but two quarterbacks who seem capable of winning a Super Bowl. They have what might be the NFL’s best and deepest defensive line. They have a strong and versatile corps of linebackers. And they have a good defensive backfield. In the end, I went with one of the league’s best players at what seems like the team’s weakest position group. Hayward has been arguably the NFL’s best cornerback since landing with the Chargers, and his ability to move all over the field would help him fit in with a young and relatively untested group of cornerbacks in Philly. His excellence in the slot, in particular would help make up for the offseason loss of Patrick Robinson in free agency.
Minnesota Vikings: Zack Martin
The Vikings have one of the NFL’s best defenses, maybe its top wide receiver duo, two strong options at running back, and, after adding Kirk Cousins this offseason, an above-average option at quarterback as well. The one area where they’re still relatively weak is along the offensive line, so in this exercise, we gave them Martin, who at this point is likely the best overall offensive lineman in football. Martin has been in the NFL for four years and has made the Pro Bowl four times and an All-Pro team four teams. He is basically a perfect run-blocker and his pass-blocking, after four years of refinement, is now nearly as good. He’s been a guard since joining the Cowboys out of Notre Dame, but he played tackle in college. And I don’t think anyone would put the transition past him, were he asked to make it. Still, the Vikes plopping Martin into the middle of their O-line would represent a massive upgrade at either guard spot, and help them give Cousins the kind of protection he needs to find Adam Thielen, Stefon Diggs, Kyle Rudolph and company wherever they are on the field.
Los Angeles Rams: Von Miller
Have fun trying to block Aaron Donald, Ndamukong Suh, Michael Brockers, and Von Miller. And have fun getting open against Marcus Peters, Aqib Talib, Nickell Robey-Coleman, and LaMarcus Joyner. And have fun trying to figure out which of those players Wade Phillips is going to use to wreck your offense on any given play. Even thinking about this one gives me the chills.
Green Bay Packers: Luke Kuechly
Aside from Aaron Rodgers getting injured, Green Bay’s biggest issues last season came in pass coverage. The team’s cornerbacks did not hold up very well, but their linebackers were beat over the middle even more often. Green Bay had the NFL’s 27th-ranked pass defense by Football Outsiders’ DVOA, with particular weaknesses against tight ends, running backs, and short throws within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. The Packers spent their first two picks in the 2018 draft on cornerbacks Jaire Alexander and Josh Jackson, so we decided that giving them a coverage linebacker here was the best way to go. Seattle’s Bobby Wagner and/or Atlanta’s Deion Jones might be slightly stronger in the passing game than Kuechly; but Luke is still the league’s best overall inside linebacker, and he is capable of transforming the identity of a defense just by stepping on the field. Imagine if the Packers had the defensive version of Rodgers on their team, also. That’s what this would be like.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Aaron Rodgers
Speaking of Rodgers… what if I told you the NFL’s best defense had one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time calling the signals, rather than Blake Bortles? It’s clear that the Jags would benefit from a quarterback upgrade, and there is no one better who is available for this exercise than Rodgers. We’ve seen him turn pretty much anybody who catches passes from him into a passable receiver or better, so guys like Marqise Lee, Dede Westbrook, Donte Moncrief, D.J. Chark, Keelan Cole, Austin Seferian-Jenkins and Corey Grant would work just fine. If this team was quarterbacked by Rodgers, it might be the Super Bowl favorite.
Los Angeles Chargers: Damon Harrison
The Chargers have a near-perfect group of defensive personnel. They have Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram to rush the passer. They have Denzel Perryman and Kyle Emmanuel and Jatavis Brown to make plays on the second level. They have Casey Hayward and Trevor Williams and Desmond King and Jason Verrett in the defensive backfield. They just drafted Derwin James to add to a versatile group of safeties that includes Adrian Phillips, Jahleel Addae, Rayshaun Jenkins, and Kyzir White. The even have Brandon Mebane and Corey Liuget up the middle. But what they don’t have is the single best run defender in the NFL, a player who, if you plopped him in the middle of the defense, would turn a weakness into a strength, overnight. Enter Harrison, who would do just that for what looks like the best team in the AFC West.
New Orleans Saints: Geno Atkins
The New Orleans offense is just fine. They don’t need any help there. The defense took major strides last season, and appears to have a couple blue-chip players in Cameron Jordan and Marcus Lattimore, as well as strong contributors elsewhere like Sheldon Rankins, Ken Crawley, Marcus Williams, Demario Davis, David Onyemata, Kurt Coleman, and Vonn Bell. The team identified one of its major issues this offseason as the pass rush, and moved up in the draft to nab twitchy UTSA rushman Marcus Davenport. That should help, but so would generating a whole lot more pressure on the interior. That was the idea behind the Nick Fairley signing a couple years back, remember? Fairley’s career came to an end due to a heart issue, but if the Saints added Atkins to their defensive front, it would accomplish a lot of the same things — with the added benefit of a stronger player against the run, more consistency, and better health.
Atlanta Falcons: DeMarcus Lawrence
The Falcons will benefit from moving Vic Beasley back to defensive end, but they could still use someone to rush across from him. Takkarist McKinley could develop into a high-level rusher eventually, but why wait? Instead, let’s just give the Falcons Lawrence, who was an absolute monster last season on a Cowboys defensive line that didn’t have as much talent as the one in Atlanta. When you consider that he’s primarily a left-side rusher and Beasley mostly works from the right side of the line, the fit works out even better. Those two coming off the edge while Grady Jarrett and former Cowboys Jack Crawford and Terrell McClain work up the middle would be a force to be reckoned with. Considering all the Falcons have to work with offensively and the athletes they have elsewhere on defense, it’s difficult to think of a better fit than this.