- List measures potential value of players to sponsors
- Predictions have been uncannily accurate
- Ranking produced by NFLPA
Sometimes, it's not all about who will score the most touchdowns or make the most tackles.
In the NFL, a player's popularity certainly is helped by those factors. His notability also can be based on a handful of other criteria that have nothing to do with throwing, catching, running or kicking a football.
Things like his social media following. His marketability in his team's locale. His personality. His following from college ball. And his standing among fantasy players.
Recognising the need to measure a player's value or, more specifically, his potential value to endorsers, sponsors, media and charities, the NFL Players Association through NFL Players Inc., its marketing arm, began compiling its RISING 50 list in 2015.
That list not only has been uncannily accurate – with one glaring exception – but it has also served as a valuable tool throughout the football business industry.
"The beauty of the list is it gives us a pulse of what others are projecting for stars in the league," says Brett Williamson, co-founder of 500 LEVEL, which manufacturers a variety of custom sports apparel and finds the RISING 50 essential in evaluating the marketplace.
"We are able to compare our projections with this list and home in on where we align. We have over 800 artists from around the world that contribute to our apparel line and the list helps them study players prior to creating their designs.
"The list helps us build a solid foundation covering the players prior to the season and then quickly adapt and adjust as the weeks unfold."
In the mix
The exception few accounted for was Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott, a fourth-round draft pick who wound up leading Dallas to the playoffs and won the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year award. He wasn't anywhere on the RISING 50 last year.
"There will always be misses, always be players who have circumstances available to them and they run with it and shoot up the sales chart," says Steven Scebelo, the NFLPA vice president of business and licensing.
"Dak Prescott is probably the best example; we didn't expect him to break out the way he did. He was in the mix (for the list), but Dak was not someone we thought would break through so quickly.
Image: Dak Prescott of the Dallas Cowboys reacts after losing to the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Divisional Playoff game (Getty Images)
"You have to realise the whole timing of it, with the RISING 50 coming out after the draft. A big piece is what market you wind up in, and what opportunities you get coming out of the gates.
"People may purport this to be science, but it is not."
Indeed, Prescott wound up with ‘America's Team’, and when veteran quarterback Tony Romo went down in the pre-season with an injury, the kid from Mississippi State stepped in, stepped up, and, voila, became an instant star.
“I think we are only at the beginning of what we are going to see from Dak," says Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who knows a bit about marketing and is headed to the Pro-Football Hall of Fame this summer in great part because of his business acumen. "He has all of the qualities you would want.”
Even if the union missed on its projections for Prescott, generally its choices for the list resonate. The players' association strives to provide partners with a depth of player knowledge they can't get anywhere else.
Through resources like RISING 50, they can encourage partners to create even more products and sponsorship opportunities that represent an even wider variety of players who can show off their unique characteristics.
From the beginning, the NFLPA's list has been on-target.
In 2015, all but one choice in the top 12 (running back Jeremy Hill of the Cincinnati Bengals) went on to stardom on and off the field.
That group was led by Giants receiver Odell Beckham Jr., the league's best offensive rookie in 2014 and now a megastar who is arguably New York’s most popular athlete.
Beckham has already signed deals with Nike, Buick, Burberry, Head and Shoulders, Steiner Sports collectibles, Foot Locker and Lenovo. He finished sixth in merchandise sales in his first pro season, and has become even more recognisable and prominent in succeeding years.
Nike, Subway, First Hawaiian Bank and Island Insurance climbed on board with Tennessee Titans QB Marcus Mariota. who was No.3 on that list.
At No.4, Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Antonio Brown, the best in the league at his position, is connected with Facebook and BioRhythm. Brown even turned a gaffe on Facebook into a large and profitable affiliation with the social media outlet.
Green Bay Packers receiver Randall Cobb, No.5 in 2014, is tied in with Under Armour and Clorox.
None plays in a major market. All were helped at least in part by the RISING 50.
"Prior to the RISING 50 list we really focused on the Top 50 and took occasional chances on the up-and-coming players in our eyes," Williamson says.
"But it was always a best guess from a member of our company or a TV analyst.
"The RISING 50 allows companies such as ours to try and minimise as much risk as possible. It has also become very valuable for understanding other markets.
"An example would be that it is sometimes tough to know every team in the league and all the upcoming players. This list definitely helps point out some players in markets that we may have unintentionally overlooked."
The players certainly understand the power such a list can have, especially if you rank high on it.
Philadelphia chose Carson Wentz with the second overall pick in the 2016 draft. Even though he plays the premier position in American football and was headed to one of the States' biggest markets, the quarterback only made it to No.10 on the Players Inc. list. Why? Because he came out of North Dakota State, a school with championship pedigree, but not on the major college level.
Someone with similar credentials at a school such as Florida State or Stanford would have been a slam dunk for a top-three spot.
Yet Wentz was a solid third behind Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott and Prescott in rookie sales for last season.
"To be on that list shows [I’m] just beginning to make that platform for myself," Wentz acknowledges. "I want to keep it rolling."
No one rolled like Elliott last year. In addition to leading the NFL in rushing yards and making the All-Pro squad, he topped everyone – veterans, too – in sales.
He came into the league ranked fifth on the RISING 50.
"If you look at Zeke, he went to Dallas, a showpiece franchise, and he's from Ohio State, which has the biggest social media following," Scebelo says. "Then he went into hyperspace."
A strong social media presence is a critical element in the RISING 50's compilation. Players who interact with fans or display a winning personality on Facebook, Twitter and the like gain a following – and a higher placing on the list because of their firm base for solid sales.
Another positive is fantasy football. Tom Brady, who will never lack for pedigree in the sports business realm, says he has come to realise that many fans now become loyal to players on their fantasy teams, regardless of their real clubs.
The RISING 50 compilers take that into account, as well.
Scebelo points out that many of the players on the current list, such as Evans, will be early choices for fantasy teams.
"It's a very helpful gauge for us," he notes.
As Williamson concludes, the NFLPA compilation takes away much of the guesswork heading into a season that rarely is predictable.
"Our company has always taken the approach of being nimble and adapting to the market," he says.
"We do our best to compare previous data and try to stay ahead of the curve, but the beauty of sports is you never know what can happen from one season to the next – let alone one week to the next.
"The RISING 50 list gives us a head start on the players that we should be looking into for the season."
EXTRA: RISING 50'S RECORD
Projecting who will become a star on the field and a profitable asset off it is difficult work. Injuries, poor performances, coaching changes – just about anything can skew the predictions.
Yet the NFLPA's RISING 50 generally has been as on the mark as a Tom Brady pass. Here's a look at the top five players for each of the three years the survey has been done.
Todd Gurley: The NFL's top rookie in 2015 made lots of sense as his Rams moved from St. Louis to megamarket Los Angeles.
Kirk Cousins: Rarely is a quarterback found outside the spotlight. This Washington Redskin was there when he made the list, but while he's among the highest-paid players, his endorsement resume is thin.
Thomas Rawls: Judgment must be reserved here because the Seattle running back was hurt for much of 2016 after a breakout 2015 season. If you're not on the field, marketers have little interest.
Jared Goff: Ditto for Goff in most respects. The Rams made the quarterback the first player chosen in the '16 draft, and he barely played as a rookie. He did, however, immediately get a deal with Nike.
Ezekiel Elliott: Not only was he an All-Pro, the Dallas running back led sales in overall merchandising in fiscal 2016-17, according to the players' union.
Image: Devonta Freeman (Getty Images)
David Johnson: The most versatile offensive player in the league, Johnson's spectacular performances have made him a regular in NFL highlight shows. Soon, he could be a regular in a slew of commercials
Devonta Freeman: It's easy to see why the Atlanta Falcons running back was chosen. He's a budding star with the team that was just pipped in the Super Bowl, and he has a dynamic personality.
Jay Ajayi: Another player coming off his first strong pro season, the Miami Dolphins running back's ever-present smile, cool dreadlocks and outgoing persona should lift him into the marketing mainstream.
Jordan Howard: The Bears were awful last season, except for the rookie running back who might be the lone football player in Chicago who can draw major interest from sponsors.
Mike Evans: The Tampa Bay Buccaneers receiver has been on all three lists, with this year different because he's become a go-to player on fantasy teams, which usually leads to enhanced popularity everywhere.