Treading On Sacred Ground
By Jeff Tefertiller
May 24th, 2010

The NFL is chocked full of very talented young players. A few of these players are on pace to have Hall of Fame careers. How do they stack up against some of the best players the game has ever known? Can they come close to the sacred ground of the ex-players? There are many variables at work and the way a young player begins his career should not be a guarantee that he can keep up the pace for the rest of his playing career. Injuries or a change in situation is very possible for all players. This is what makes the all time greats so great, their records so sacred. These players were able to put up huge statistics year in and year out over several seasons and were extremely durable. Below are some of the more intriguing comparisons at the same point in their respective careers. It is interesting to look and compare the career paths of the all time greats to the top current players.

1. Charger quarterback Philip Rivers is one of the league's top young passers. After the draft day trade to begin his career, Rivers was allowed to sit and develop behind Drew Brees. Through four seasons as a starting quarterback, Rivers is on track to finish his career in rare company.

Player
Yards
TDs
Philip Rivers (4 yrs)
14,803
105
Dan Fouts (4 yrs)
14,825
108
Peyton Manning (4 yrs)
16,418
111

As you can see from the graph above, Rivers is putting up numbers almost identical to those of Charger great Dan Fouts. In addition, he is not that far behind the pace of Peyton Manning. Making these numbers even more impressive is that the Chargers have not given their young play-caller great weapons to work with at the wide receiver position. Antonio Gates is a stud at tight end and Vincent Jackson is a rising star at the receiver position, but Rivers does not have the weapons of some of the other top passers. It will be interesting to chart the play distribution as the team transitions from LaDainian Tomlinson to Ryan Mathews. If San Diego goes to more of a passing attack, Rivers could see his numbers really take off.

2. Even with both Manning brothers garnering a Super Bowl victory, how do their numbers compare? This past season was the best for Eli and the Giants pass offense in terms of statistics. We all too soon forget how prolific and consistent Peyton Manning has been over his career. His numbers dwarf little brother's digits. The Colt passer has eclipsed the 4,000-yard mark in all but two seasons, in 1998 as a rookie and again in 2005. Interestingly, with all of these elite seasons, the older Manning has only finished as the top ranked fantasy passer once. The younger Manning struggles just to crack the Top 10 at the position. Peyton Manning is the Manning brother to own in fantasyland and the graph below makes that point.

Player
Yards
TDs
INTs
Eli Manning (6 yrs)
18,644
125
88
Peyton Manning (12 yrs)
50,128
366
181

There is no chance for Eli Manning to pass his older brother unless something crazy happens. The Indianapolis quarterback has been amazing in his twelve seasons in Indianapolis, averaging over 4,000 passing yards and 30 touchdowns per year. While the Giant quarterback has performed acceptably, there is no comparison between he and his older brother.

3. Is Tony Romo the next in line of star Cowboy quarterbacks that will lead the team to the Super Bowl? How do Romo's numbers compare to those of Troy Aikman? With Jason Garrett calling plays, Romo should have superior numbers to the former Oklahoma and UCLA collegian. But, what is really important? Aikman has a playoff record of 11-4. Romo's is 1-3. That is a huge difference in the minds of Cowboy fans ... and their meddling owner. The addition of Dez Bryant should only help Romo's cause of accumulating great passing numbers. Romo is expected to have a few more 4,000-yard passing seasons in his future.

Player
Yards
TDs
INTs
Record
Tony Romo (4 yrs)
15,045
107
55
38-17
Troy Aikman (12 yrs)
32,942
165
141
94-71

Romo is on pace to win more games and have a tremendous edge in passing numbers over the retired Cowboy. On Aikman's record, let's remember that the Cowboys were horrible when he took over in his first year. His rookie season was brutal. Dallas was 0-11 in Aikman's eleven starts during the 1989 season. But, in the Cowboy playoff run of 1992-1995, his playoff record was 10-1. What a reversal of fortunes. While it is difficult to compare quarterbacks across decades, Romo has enjoyed a strong start to his professional career. He is a two-time Pro Bowler, compared to Aikman's six Pro Bowl appearances. But, quarterbacks are judged by the playoffs, and Aikman still reins supreme in "Big D".

4. There is another quarterback comparison that should be intriguing to most football fans. How have Aaron Rodgers' first two seasons as a starter compare to the lofty numbers of Brett Favre? Many will be surprised to learn that Rodgers is producing at a clip that will surpass the graybeard's numbers ... if he plays long enough. Only the statistics of seasons as a starter were used, but it is easy to gain an appreciation for how strong Rodgers has played the past two years, earning a Pro Bowl appearance in 2009.

Player
Yards
TDs
INTs
Record
Aaron Rodgers (2 yrs)
8,472
58
20
17-15
Brett Favre (18 yrs)
69,659
497
315
181-104

Even with his gaudy numbers, Rodgers will need to win more games in order to endear himself to the Packer fans. Favre's winning percentage is off the charts, as was his penchant for playing well down the stretch. Rodgers' TD/INT ratio is quite impressive. He has played well while trying to replace the legend.

5. Chris Johnson had a memorable season last year. He set all types of records in route to eclipsing 2,500 combined rushing and receiving yards. This came on the heels of a rookie season where he flashed ability but was used as part of a committee with LenDale White. So, how does Johnson's two-year career stack up against two of the best to ever have played the running back position in the NFL? Emmitt Smith and Barry Sanders had remarkable careers, sparking debate as to which was the best ever to play the running back position. How does the ultra fast Johnson compare?

Player
RshYds
RshTDs
RecYds
RecTDs
Chris Johnson (2 yrs)
3,234
23
763
3
Emmitt Smith (15 yrs)
18,355
164
3,224
11
Barry Sanders (10 yrs)
15,269
99
2,921
10

It is easy to see that Johnson can easily break most every record held by these two greats if he can stay injury-free over his career. What makes Smith and Sanders so great was the high level of production over so many seasons. Johnson can obliterate the stats if he can do the same. Coming off a 408-touch season, it may be difficult for Johnson to duplicate the workload ... and the production. How does Adrian Peterson compare to the table above?

Player
RshYds
RshTDs
RecYds
RecTDs
Chris Johnson (2 yrs)
3,234
23
763
3
Adrian Peterson (3 yrs)
4,484
40
829
1
Emmitt Smith (15 yrs)
18,355
164
3,224
11
Barry Sanders (10 yrs)
15,269
99
2,921
10

Both Peterson and Johnson have supreme ability and perform in offenses that allow for production running the football. The key for both will be durability. It does help that both Tennessee and Minnesota have strong offensive lines.

6. Ray Rice is a player that is on the rise. He is still very young and is a dynamic runner with the ball in his hands. Rice turned 23 years old earlier in the year. The former Rutgers star is also adept in catching the football. His receiving ability lends to a comparison to Marshall Faulk. How does he compare to the former Colt and Ram, one of the most prolific multi-talented threats ever?

Player
RshYds
RshTDs
RecYds
RecTDs
Marshall Faulk (12 yrs)
12,279
100
6,875
36
Ray Rice
1,793
7
975
1

Rice finally broke out and exceeded expectations in 2009. He is now close to being on pace with Faulk. The biggest discrepancy is in the touchdown department. Baltimore uses Willis McGahee in short yardage, limiting the scoring opportunities for the young ball carrier. With another strong season, Rice should be on pace with Faulk in the yardage categories.

7. Priest Holmes had one of the best three-season stretches in NFL history. While it may not be enough to propel him into the Hall of Fame, it is very noteworthy for fantasy football owners who rode Holmes to championships. How did the strong season of Jamaal Charles stack up against Holmes' three-year streak? Both are former University of Texas Longhorns who enjoyed success in Kansas City.

Player
RshYds
RshTDs
RecYds
RecTDs
Priest Holmes (3 top yrs)
4,590
56
1,976
5
Jamaal Charles
1,120
7
297
1

Charles finally flashed the talent that Carl Peterson and Herm Edwards recognized in order to draft the speedster from Texas. It is amazing to see those numbers pale in comparison to those of Holmes. Holmes averaged over 2,000 combined yards and 20 touchdowns over that time. What an amazing streak. While Charles does have some upside, there is no possible way he comes close to the Holmes numbers, especially with the state of the Chief offensive line. Holmes had a tremendous line to run behind while the Chiefs are a year or two from having their line issues solved. It is difficult to believe Holmes was a backup at Texas and went undrafted. What a talented ball carrier.

8. How do the current top young receivers stack up against the gold standard, Jerry Rice? Larry Fitzgerald and Brandon Marshall are two of the best young receivers to come along since Rice's career ended and he became a reality show star. Can these two youngsters catch the ultra-productive Rice? Looking at the numbers below, they have a shot if they can play long enough. That is a huge "if". Rice enjoyed a 20-year playing career.

Player
Recs
Yards
TDs
Jerry Rice (4 yrs starting)
297
5,437
63
Brandon Marshall (4 yrs)
327
4,019
25
Jerry Rice (6 yrs starting)
477
8,145
90
Larry Fitzgerald (6 yrs)
523
7,067
59
Jerry Rice (20-yr career)
1,549
22,895
197

Marshall has more receptions, but fewer yards and touchdowns compared to the first four seasons Rice was a starter. He still can catch up, but Rice's longevity makes it very unlikely. Also, Marshall's move to Miami could reduce his chances of putting up the types of seasons needed to stay close to Rice's pace. Fitzgerald has been impressive throughout his short career. He has a real chance to eclipse Rice in receptions and yardage as long as he, too, plays long enough. The change at the quarterback position in Arizona will only hurt Fitzgerald's chances of consistently putting up monster stats from year to year. Matt Leinart does little to inspire confidence.

9. Can Miles Austin catch the numbers put up by Michael Irvin? Austin has been a starter for only one season but is on pace to pass Troy Aikman's favorite wideout. One thing that might hurt Austin is the addition of Dez Bryant in Dallas. This might mean sharing targets for Austin. Because Austin emerged later in his career than most, he will need to play well into his mid-thirties to rival Irvin. For a humorous comparison, the statistics of fellow Dallas receiver, Roy Williams are listed below, including the year and a half in a Cowboy uniform.

Player
Recs
Yards
TDs
Miles Austin (1 yr starting)
81
1,320
11
Roy Williams (6 yrs)
319
4,678
37
Roy Williams (1.5 yrs in Dallas)
57
794
8
Michael Irvin (12 yrs)
750
11,904
65

It is now apparent that Roy Williams is a bust of epic proportions. With Dez Bryant now playing for his hometown Cowboys, Williams is not expected to even put up numbers relative to what Patrick Crayton has produced in the past. He may soon be irrelevant.

So, which of these youngsters has the best chance to outperform the elite veteran of the past and tread on sacred ground? Only time, and the injury bug, will know for sure. The two top running backs, Johnson and Peterson, have a great shot if they can remain healthy.

Questions, suggestions and comments are always welcome to tefertiller@footballguys.com.