The miserable COVID-19 has ground so much of the world to a halt, but not even the virus' insidious grip can shudder The Superstar Club.
Step behind our velvet ropes, pass through the fog machine and traverse the dance floor to a luxuriously felted safe space; a bastion for pro football's most elite talent. Yes, The Superstar Club is a meeting ground for the best of the best. It's also a place of exclusivity, an establishment that studies its membership each year -- welcoming in fresh new game changers while politely saying to stars in decline, "Sir, we think you should be leaving now."
Only I decide who has access to the most exclusive venue in NFL Town. It's a cushy gig with a notable catch: The Superstar Club is a zero-sum game. If one player gains access to the club, another player from the same position must have his privileges revoked. And one other thing: With fantasy season (hopefully) around the corner, we're going to keep our focus on the offensive side of the ball in this dispatch.
So with the ground rules stated, it's time to put on my black suit, pick up my guest list, slip in my inner-ear piece for communication with ... um, someone ... and take my place at the front door of the most swank venue in the game. It's time to welcome in The Superstar Club: Class of 2020.
IN: Lamar Jackson, Baltimore Ravens
OK, I'll take the self-immolating blowtorch for not having Jackson in The Club before he won the damn MVP award, but the quarterback's Year 2 leap from "promising young starter" to "multi-hyphenate vaporizer of defensive game plans" took plenty by surprise. It was, to put it simply, one of the great individual seasons we've seen this century. Jackson may be hard-pressed to get back to the dizzying heights of his 2019: His touchdown rate percentage (9.0) oozes regression and the Ravens opted against making a splash to add another veteran playmaker. (Eric DeCosta is one of about 30 GMs who wishes they kicked the tires a bit harder on DeAndre Hopkins this spring.) That said, Jackson is a monster talent whose absence from The Superstar Club would serve to instantly delegitimize it. Can't have that. Won't have that. He's in.
OUT: Cam Newton, New England Patriots
Calm down, Cam Hive. We are fully aware of Newton's bona fides. The man is a former MVP who, at just 31 years old, could have years of high-level play still in front of him. But this is The Superstar Club -- and Newton hasn't performed like a superstar in some time now. The 2019 season was a wipeout. The 2018 season started well, but stalled out halfway through after a shoulder injury that eventually required surgery. In 2017 and '16 he finished with a passer rating south of 81. You have to go back to that MVP season of 2015 to see Newton in full superstar form, and frankly, that's just too far in our rearview mirror. Landing with the Patriots puts him with exemplar coaching and a much-improved offensive line, but at this stage, is Cam more Clark Kent or Superman? We need to see Cam be a superhero again.
IN: Dak Prescott, Dallas Cowboys
Dak's been lingering near the velvet ropes for a couple years now. This summer, he gets the head nod. To be honest, my decision to welcome Prescott has been spurred, at least in part, by the army of talking head drones who continually seek to discredit Prescott when discussing the Cowboys' prolific offense. Yes, Prescott has been aided by a consistently solid offensive line and an embarrassment of riches at the skill positions. But did Troy Aikman get excluded from conversations of the league's best QBs when he had similar advantages over his contemporaries? "YEAH BUT TROY WON RINGS." Build a better defense in Dallas and Prescott will have one of those, too. Bottom line: Prescott is coming off his best season, he turns 27 at the end of the month, he's potentially playing for a contract and is set up better than any QB in the league outside of Kansas City. He's already great ... and he's about to get better.
OUT: Andrew Luck, retired
In almost all cases, erstwhile superstars need to be dragged out of The Club. It can be messy. It can be awkward. Property is damaged and credit cards are charged. Mr. Luck is the guy who made nice conversation at the bar, drank a couple of ginger ales then exited the premises on his own accord long before last call. Respect.
UPDATED QB MEMBERSHIP: Drew Brees, Lamar Jackson, Patrick Mahomes, Dak Prescott, Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger, Matt Ryan, Deshaun Watson, Carson Wentz, Russell Wilson.
IN: Dalvin Cook, Minnesota Vikings
Cook put it all together in his third season with the Vikings, setting career highs in rushing yards, receiving yards and total touchdowns. He averaged 118.1 scrimmage yards per game, a number that would have been even higher if not for the shoulder injury that cost him time and sapped some of his effectiveness in the final weeks of the season. Yes, injuries continue to be a concern with Cook, but his ability is undeniable, and now we have a season of tangible proof that he can produce at a McCaffrey-like level when in top gear. Now factor in Gary Kubiak's promotion to offensive coordinator (always good news for running backs) and Stefon Diggs' trade to the Buffalo -- two developments that could put Cook in position for even more opportunities in 2020. Kirk Cousins is the prominent Viking who got the bag this offseason, but Cook is the engine that drives the offense. You'd want a raise, too.
OUT: Le'Veon Bell, New York Jets
How bad was Le'Veon Bell's debut season with the Jets? The former All-Pro averaged 3.22 yards per carry, the worst single-season mark by a running back in the history of the franchise (min. 150 carries). You know things went sideways when the most impressive statistical performance of his season was the 251 he rolled at the bowling alley the night before he missed a December game with the flu. Bell's lost season wasn't all on the running back -- the Jets had an atrocious offensive line and Bell played behind three starting quarterbacks due to sickness and injury -- but he lacked the explosiveness at the point of attack and rarely sniffed the second level of a defense. Have we already seen the best of Bell as he heads into his age-28 season? And will Adam Gase give Bell close to the opportunities he expected when he signed his fat contract last March? There are now more questions than answers for a former superstar.
IN: Derrick Henry, Tennessee Titans
No non-quarterback in football is more important to his offense than Derrick Henry. In order to make it all work in Nashville, Mike Vrabel needs his powerhouse running back to pile-drive the enemy. Henry did just that en route to the rushing title in 2019, and the Titans finished one game shy of the Super Bowl as a result. Henry's absolute dominance since the mid-point of the 2018 season makes him a no-brainer for The Club, but he also exists as something of an anomaly when stacked alongside his superstar RB brethren, who are all proven playmakers in both the running and passing games. Then again, Henry has shown he can do damage in the realm of the aerial attack -- as long as he's the guy throwing the oblong sphere.
OUT: Todd Gurley, Atlanta Falcons
Don't trust our opinion that Gurley has past his expiration date as a top-flight running back? Then ask the Rams, who saw the former Offensive Player of the Year on a daily basis last season, then decided to take a financial bath rather than have Gurley open up their $5 billion stadium. The Falcons were happy to take Gurley on as a reclamation project, and his 14 scores in 2019 tell you he's still pretty much peerless when it comes to a nose for the end zone. But we also saw enough last year to fairly wonder if he now lacks the elite athleticism that made him one of football's greatest offensive talents as recently as two years ago. Gurley could crank back the clock and make me (and the Rams) look like idiots this fall. We'll believe it when we see it.
UPDATED RB MEMBERSHIP: Saquon Barkley, Dalvin Cook, Ezekiel Elliott, Derrick Henry, Alvin Kamara, Christian McCaffrey.
IN: Tyreek Hill, Kansas City Chiefs
Concerning off-the-field issues put Hill's NFL career in limbo last summer, keeping him out of the conversation in this exercise. But there's no denying his talent. He joins The Club in 2020 as a Super Bowl champion and pro football's greatest deep threat. Combining Hill's insane speed and ball-tracking abilities with Patrick Mahomes' otherworldly skill set is pretty much unfair. But Hill isn't merely the product of his QB: He averaged nearly 16 yards per reception in 2017, when Alex Smith was behind center operating at peak Game Manager mode. Dez Bryant recently proclaimed Hill one of his favorite players of all time: "I'm not being biased but nobody covering that man one on one ... I think he's the best player in the league outside of [Mahomes]." Who could argue with Dez, he himself a former member of The Superstar Club?
OUT: Antonio Brown, free agent
Another player with undeniable talent and troubling off-the-field issues, Brown is currently unemployed and has now played in exactly one game since Dec. 23, 2018. The Brown soap opera has been all-consuming and, frankly, so exhausting that you can forget how dominant he was as player. Let me remind you: In his last six seasons before 2019, Brown averaged a 114/1,524/11 stat line. Only Jerry Rice, the G.O.A.T. himself, rivaled Mr. Big Chest in terms of pure production over an extended stretch. And now, at 32 years old, Brown is out of football. Think how much of a headache Brown had to be for it to get to this place? We expect him to find his way back onto a roster this summer, but he'll have to earn his way back into The Club.
IN: Amari Cooper, Dallas Cowboys
There might be wide receivers not in The Club who have a better pure skill set than Cooper (whose skill set is excellent, by the way), but no one has a better setup for success than the Cowboys' No. 1 receiver. His quarterback? Freshly minted Superstar Dak Prescott. His running back? Superstar Ezekiel Elliott. His offensive line? Still among the league's best. His fellow wideouts? An emerging star in Michael Gallup and a hugely talented first-round rookie in CeeDee Lamb. Dallas offensive coordinator Kellen Moore has an embarrassment of riches in the playmaker department, and the only concern for Cooper is that all those options could serve to depress his counting stats somewhat. Then again, all that talent should force opposing defenses to move double-teams away from Cooper, leading to inevitable mayhem. The Cowboys should flirt with 30 points per game, and Cooper is set up for his best season yet.
OUT: JuJu Smith-Schuster, Pittsburgh Steelers
We still love JuJu here at The Superstar Club -- we really do. Don't be surprised if the 23-year-old (yup, he's really still that young) delivers a strong bounce-back season in Pittsburgh with Ben Roethlisberger healthy. But we probably jumped the gun on the Superstar designation. His 2019 was a lost cause, as he dealt with both a lingering toe injury and the creative stylings of Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges, but JuJu also struggled to separate against top corners and had some issues with drops. He didn't look comfortable in The Big Chair of the wide receiver room. It's also fair to wonder if he'll see an immense target volume with Diontae Johnson, James Washington and Eric Ebron in the mix for the Steelers in 2020. When we add someone to The Club, it is always done on a one-year probationary period, and JuJu's 42/552/3 stat line could not be ignored. Here's to rooting that he makes us look foolish for booting him out so quickly.
UPDATED WR MEMBERSHIP: Davante Adams, Odell Beckham Jr., Amari Cooper, Mike Evans, Tyreek Hill, DeAndre Hopkins, Julio Jones, Michael Thomas.