The recent emphasis on the quarterback position has led many to believe the presence of a franchise signal-caller is the only thing that matters when it comes to building a championship team in today's game. While it certainly is easier to make a run at the brass ring with one of the NFL's elite quarterbacks on your roster, the overwhelming majority of championship teams feature lineups that are chock-full of blue-chip players who don't play the game's most important position. These rosters typically include eight to 10 blue-chippers (difference-makers/Pro Bowl-caliber talents) at various positions, with most having at least one within every position group.
During my scouting tenure with the Carolina Panthers from 2003 to '07, we went to Super Bowl XXXVIII and the 2005 NFC Championship Game with an ex-NFL Europe star (Jake Delhomme) spearheading a lineup that featured 10 players considered "blue" prospects: Stephen Davis, Jordan Gross, Kris Jenkins, John Kasay, Mike Minter, Dan Morgan, Muhsin Muhammad (in the Super Bowl run), Julius Peppers, Mike Rucker, Steve Smith. The stellar supporting cast alleviated the burden on Delhomme to carry the team and allowed us to win a number of games with a glorified "game manager" at the helm.
Although we didn't win the Super Bowl during that run, the experience shaped my thinking on how a championship-caliber roster should be constructed if a team doesn't have a superstar quarterback in place. Given the paucity of truly elite quarterbacks in today's game, I thought I would take a little time to assess each of the 32 rosters in the NFL and identify the 10 most talented -- excluding the QB position. After careful consideration, here's what I settled on:
1) Seattle Seahawks
Whenever a team reaches the Super Bowl in back-to-back years, it is a testament to the fabulous collection of talent assembled on the roster. The Seahawks haven't scored high marks on draft day, but the rapid development of their young players has helped the team become a perennial powerhouse in the NFC. Sherman, Thomas and Chancellor have headlined the "Legion of Boom," anchoring a defense that is arguably one of the best in NFL history. Bennett, Mebane and Wagner hold down the front seven to allow the "LOB" to pummel opponents in the back end. Offensively, the combination of Lynch and Graham could help the Seahawks field a top-tier unit with a dynamic playmaker at the helm in Russell Wilson. The ability to attack opponents on the ground or through the air could make Seattle a more imposing team to face in 2015.
2) Buffalo Bills
If the Bills could somehow play without a quarterback, they would be favorites to represent the AFC in Super Bowl 50. That's right -- I'm saying Rex Ryan's bunch would be the odds-on pick to win the conference crown, based on the ultra-talented roster that is at his disposal heading into 2015. Buffalo returns a defense that features the top front line in football with Dareus, Kyle Williams, Mario Williams and Jerry Hughes wreaking havoc on foes at the point of attack. In addition, the Bills boast a solid secondary with a standout cover corner (Gilmore) and an emerging stud at safety (Aaron Williams). Given Ryan's clever scheming and aggressive mentality, this defense should absolutely terrorize opponents. Offensively, the Bills could sport their most explosive unit since the "K-Gun" overwhelmed opponents in the early 1990s. McCoy becomes the centerpiece of an offense that can win with power (run game) or finesse (aerial attack) under the direction of new coordinator Greg Roman. The young receiving corps features a number of playmakers (Watkins, Harvin and Clay) with the potential to ring up big numbers on the perimeter. If the Bills can get anything from the quarterback position, the interminable playoff drought should come to an end in 2015.
3) Denver Broncos
John Elway has done a great job of surrounding Peyton Manning with a championship-caliber roster as the QB attempts to win the second ring of his illustrious career. In recent years, the Broncos have invested heavily on the defensive side of the ball with Talib, Ward and Ware coming over as marquee free agents. The team also plucked a blue-chip talent at the top of the draft (Miller) to fortify the pass rush and preserve leads against opponents forced to play catchup against Denver's fast-paced scoring attack. On offense, the Broncos have a dangerous WR tandem with Thomas and Sanders on the perimeter. Each player is capable of turning short passes into long gains or blowing past defenders on vertical routes. Given Manning's ability to "dink and dunk" with the best of them, the presence of two explosive playmakers in the passing game keeps the Broncos' offense rolling despite the physical limitations of an aging quarterback.
4) New York Jets
Todd Bowles and Mike Maccagnan have engineered quite a roster makeover since taking over the Jets at the beginning of the year. Despite inheriting a star-studded defense, the Jets' brain trust added a pair of shutdown corners in Revis and Cromartie to suffocate opposing passing games. Given the dominant play of Wilkerson and Richardson at the point of attack, Gang Green's defense could single-handedly lead the team into the playoffs. Marshall was acquired in a trade with Chicago, giving the Jets a legitimate WR1 on the perimeter. Eric Decker isn't regarded as a blue-chip player based solely on his talents, but he is capable of playing at an all-star level when flanked by a big-time threat (see: Decker's production in Denver). Mangold's a rock at the pivot, having made six of the last seven Pro Bowls. With a solid supporting cast capable of enhancing the play of the quarterback, the Jets could be a bigger threat to win the AFC East than anyone anticipates at this point.
5) Dallas Cowboys
Credit Jerry and Stephen Jones for retooling the roster and putting the Cowboys in a position to seriously contend for the title. They wisely committed resources to building a powerful offensive line that anchors a run-first attack and allows the Cowboys to compete against all comers. Smith, Martin and Frederick are all among the best players at their respective positions. Bryant might be the top receiver in the NFL, based on his extraordinary skills and dominant production as the Cowboys' WR1. Bailey is one of the best kickers in the game today. Hardy and Rolando McClain are wild cards with character concerns, but it is hard to ignore their impact when they are on the field. And Sean Lee flashes blue-chip talents, but he just can't seem to stay on the field.
6) Kansas City Chiefs
Andy Reid inherited a talented roster when he took over the Chiefs in 2013, but he and John Dorsey definitely have added pieces to help the team become a viable contender in the AFC. Maclin jumps in as the WR1 to help alleviate the pressure on Charles to carry the offense. With Kelce showing potential as a true TE1, the Chiefs have a supporting cast that could help Alex Smith fully showcase his skills as an efficient game manager. On defense, the Chiefs are loaded up front, with Houston, Poe and Johnson anchoring a dominant front seven. Tamba Hali's no longer the blue-chip player he once was, but opponents still have to account for the 31-year-old. If Eric Berry, who is battling Hodgkin's lymphoma, eventually makes a return to the lineup, the Chiefs could have one of the scariest defenses in football.
7) Miami Dolphins
It's now or never for fourth-year coach Joe Philbin, given the impressive work done by Miami's front office to fill out this roster. The Dolphins have assembled a championship-caliber defense with one of the top front sevens in football. Wake, Suh and Vernon will overwhelm opponents at the point of attack, allowing Grimes to snag wayward tosses from quarterbacks attempting to flee the pressure. Miami's offensive line features a pair of studs in Albert and Pouncey. The athletic duo is not only ideally suited for Bill Lazor's zone-based scheme, but both guys possess the strength to move defenders off the ball on downhill runs. They are part of a revamped O-line that could emerge as one of the strengths of the squad. If Cameron can just stay on the field, he gives Miami a big, athletic pass catcher between the hashes. The tight end could anchor a passing game that is dramatically improved in 2015.
8) Green Bay Packers
Ted Thompson and Mike McCarthy have done a brilliant job putting together the jigsaw puzzle in Green Bay. Although the team lacks a ton of star power, the top players on the roster complement each other and work well within the system. Thus, they offer more value to the Packers than others -- but that shouldn't take away from the roster evaluation. Nelson and Cobb form an impressive 1-2 punch in the passing game. Their route-running ability and running skills are showcased in Green Bay's catch-and-run passing game. Matthews remains one of the most explosive edge rushers in football. He teams with Julius Peppers to give the Packers an imposing combination off the edge. Shields flies under the radar, but has developed into one of the top cover corners in football.
9) Philadelphia Eagles
Chip Kelly has ruffled some feathers with his bold personnel moves, but skeptics can't question the depth of talent on the Eagles' roster. The offense will place the NFL's reigning rushing king (Murray) behind one of the most talented O-lines in football. The melding of a one-cut runner and a group of blue-chip blockers (Peters, Mathis, Kelce and Johnson -- who's still a bit raw, but I'm willing to bet on his athleticism and potential) should produce fireworks in the Eagles' zone-read system. On defense, Cox and Barwin are disruptive playmakers capable of wreaking havoc at the point of attack. Their ability to create pressure could allow Maxwell to flourish as a CB1 in a new defense. And if Alonso can get back to his rookie form after a season lost to injury, Philly fans will quickly learn to love the athletic linebacker. Parkey led the NFC in scoring as a rookie.
10) Minnesota Vikings
I'm sure the Vikings' placement on this list will be met with some criticism, but a closer look at the roster reveals a number of big-time playmakers on both sides of the ball. The offense returns one of the top runners in NFL history (Peterson) -- and added a lethal deep threat in Wallace. Additionally, the presence of Rudolph as an "MOF" (middle of the field) threat gives Minnesota an impressive collection of offensive firepower. Defensively, Griffen's emergence as a dominant pass rusher has not only elevated the play of the unit, but it has allowed the team's underrated ballhawks (like Smith) to feast on hurried throws between the hashes. With young players like Barr, Rhodes and Floyd on the verge of becoming household names, the Vikings suddenly look like emerging contenders in the NFC.