The NFL Players Association (NFLPA) has released their second annual “Rising 50” list, which highlights players “best positioned to rank among top-sellers of all officially licensed merchandise and become future retail stars.”
There is only one member of the Patriots on the list: CB Malcolm Butler at 46th overall, just 4 slots ahead of draft bust and 49ers quarterback Blaine Freaking Gabbert. The Cardinals, Texans, Jaguars, and Seahawks have three players on the list, the Rams have four, and Washington has five.
So how does the NFLPA construct the list?
“The NFLPA Rising 50 rankings take into account on-field performances during the 2015 season, fantasy-league popularity, early demand from current sponsors and licensees, and new faces in strong markets as factors determining potential future sales popularity,” the NFLPA writes in their brief. “To be considered for this ranking, players must not have appeared in previous NFLPA Top 50 Player Sales quarterly lists.”
We should note that WR Julian Edelman was on the Rising 50 last year and ranked 23rd in year end sales. QB Tom Brady ranked 1st and TE Rob Gronkowski ranked 8th. So, right out of the gate, the three most identifiable members of the Patriots are eliminated.
There’s a clear offensive slant in the rankings with just seven of the 50 players coming on defense, with Butler included in that count. There’s also a desire to have players on rookie contracts because they are expected to be under team control for the upcoming years.
And so there’s the problem with the Patriots. While safeties Patrick Chung and Devin McCourty are locked up for the long term (and they should have their jerseys front and center), every other key defender has an unsettled contract status.
No one wants to buy a Jamie Collins jersey only to see him run off to the Titans for a billion dollar contract. There’s always a chance that Dont’a Hightower doesn’t come back. Butler is so far down the list, even though he’s a Pro Bowler, because no one knows if the Patriots will pony up the money to retain him for the long term.
I put a little of this on head coach Bill Belichick, too, because the players on the list are usually featured in the spotlight for each franchise. It’s either the first round pick (don’t have one of those!) or the new quarterback, but the defensive players are standouts like Patrick Peterson, Aaron Donald, and Tyrann Mathieu.
The Patriots don’t have a standout on defense because that’s not how Belichick runs his ship. He has his defensive line eat space to allow the linebackers to make plays. He has his safeties in the middle of the field to deter passes and make it easier on the linebackers. He honestly reached into the Lost-and-Found at cornerback last year and had success.
Belichick is the type to speak “with the team's marketers, reminding them to sell team, because putting just one player's face on a billboard can fracture a locker room.” True story.
Belichick wants his defense to be a machine with replaceable parts and there hasn’t been a real personality since Rodney Harrison and Tedy Bruschi, other than the one-year rental of Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner.
The Patriots entire defense gets no respect on the national stage. Not a single defensive player on the Patriots featured in the NFL Top 100, even though the Patriots defense has inarguably been a top 10, and maybe even top 5, unit over the past five years.
Hopefully Collins and Hightower and Butler (and Jabaal Sheard) receive long extensions with the Patriots to keep them around through 2020 so Belichick and company can pivot and make all four players household names.
Because the idea that Butler is the only rising star on the Patriots is ridiculous and the rest of the league will find out in 2016.