Welcome to the inaugural NFL Pick 10, in which we asked 55 ESPN writers and analysts to play general manager. The rules are simple: They each picked 10 players to start an NFL team from scratch and win for the next three seasons. Any 10 players. No salary-cap rules, no position restrictions, no trades. It's an exercise in team building for the future, and it requires three crucial clarifications:
Aside from the 10 players, they were told to assume every other player is replacement-level. So consider this question: If you don't take a single O-lineman, will your star QB stay healthy?
Health and age matter. Our voters are trying to win the next three seasons (and the playoffs). Will their roster be intact in 2022? Are players set to peak, or set to decline?
Players are picked in order of importance to the general manager.
So whom did our 55 experts take for their team? Here's what our consensus top 10 looks like -- based on ranked-choice voting -- plus surprise storylines and a full positional breakdown.
1. Patrick Mahomes, QB, Chiefs
No. of ballots: 42 of 55 | No. 1 votes: 37
Mahomes was picked No. 1 overall 37 times on our 55 ballots, as voters put a high emphasis on his positional value and health certainty -- he won't turn 24 until September. He has a 5,000-yard season, a 50-touchdown season, an All-Pro season and an MVP. Again: He's 23. A question mark: Aside from one special fourth quarter, he was pretty average over two playoff games. The voters believe he'll check that box for this team.
Why did you pick Mahomes at No. 1?
"Mahomes is a magician when he breaks the pocket, but there was nothing illusory about his 50-touchdown season; he possesses the physical and mental tools required to become an all-time great and is an easy first pick." -- Mina Kimes, senior writer
"A ridiculously explosive playmaker, Mahomes already has an MVP award on his mantle despite appearing in only 17 games." -- Mike Clay, fantasy writer
"I'll answer this with a question: Have you watched him play?" -- Jason Reid, The Undefeated senior writer
2. Aaron Donald, DT, Rams
No. of ballots: 53 of 55 | No. 1 votes: 8
So why does Donald end up No. 2 when he was on more ballots than Mahomes? It's simple -- Mahomes lapped the field in No. 1 votes (37), while Donald dominated in No. 2 votes (34). He had eight votes for No. 1, as some voters noted that, statistically, he's far more unique than Mahomes. Donald is 28, but voters believe he'll maintain his brilliance for the next three years, and maybe they're on to something; Donald appears to be getting better. He leaped to 20.5 sacks last season, his fourth straight as an All-Pro.
Why did you pick Donald at No. 1?
"No need to overthink this -- Donald is the most dominant defensive force in the league, and he's in his prime." -- Jake Trotter, Browns reporter
"A championship team is built around great defense, and Donald is the most disruptive interior pass-rusher in the NFL." -- Mike Reiss, Patriots reporter
"Count me among those who think Donald stakes a good claim to being the best player in the NFL, considering that in back-to-back seasons, he was the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year." -- Tristan H. Cockroft, fantasy writer
3. Khalil Mack, OLB, Bears
No. of ballots: 42 of 55 | No. 1 votes: 1
Mack, who had 12.5 sacks in his first season in Chicago, was the clear winner for the No. 3 spot, as his 21 votes were 13 more than any player. As the best player on the league's best defense last season, the 28-year-old Mack appears poised for another huge season. What most interested us, though? The 13 voters who left the NFL's top edge rusher completely off their ballot. Among the pass-rushers who were chosen over Mack by those voters: Von Miller, Myles Garrett, Joey Bosa and J.J. Watt.
Why did you leave Mack off your ballot?
"Donald was my starting point defensively, and though Mack is incredible, I felt I was able to build my pass rush around Donald and Von Miller." -- Field Yates, NFL analyst
"Defense isn't as reliable as offense, so I had room for only one pass-rusher on my team ... and Donald is better than Mack." -- Seth Walder, sports analytics writer
4. DeAndre Hopkins, WR, Texans
No. of ballots: 30 of 55
Is the debate about the NFL's best wide receiver over? Our voters overwhelmingly chose Hopkins as their top wideout, as the next-best WR appeared on just 13 ballots (Michael Thomas) to Hopkins' 30. Still just 27, Hopkins is coming off a season in which he led the league in first-down catches (81), ranked second in receiving yards (1,572) and ranked third in receptions (115). He has 24 touchdown catches over the past two seasons and has played in 95 of 96 possible career games. With budding star Deshaun Watson throwing to him, Hopkins could be in line for a monster run.
Why did you pick Hopkins as your top receiver?
"I'd be happy with five or six of the NFL's elite wide receivers, but Hopkins has the best combo of age, size, speed, hands and monster numbers over the past two years." -- Mike Triplett, Saints reporter
"With 22 red zone touchdown receptions over the past four seasons, Hopkins is the ultimate scoring weapon, a prime target with the route-running chops and body control to eat up defenders at the point of attack." -- Matt Bowen, NFL analyst
5. David Bakhtiari, OT, Packers
No. of ballots: 30 of 55
Like wide receiver, there's a clear positional favorite here -- Bakhtiari was on 21 more ballots than the second-ranked tackle (Tyron Smith). Our voters put a major emphasis on youth when picking this position, as the only 30-year-old tackle who was on more than two ballots was Mitchell Schwartz, who landed on six. Bakhtiari, 27, has started 90 of 96 games for the Packers since being taken in the fourth round in 2013. He was Pro Football Focus' top-graded tackle last season.
What makes Bakhtiari the league's top young tackle?
"Other than quarterback play, the most important factor in fielding a good football team is pass protection, and Bakhtiari is the NFL's best blindside protector." -- Kevin Seifert, national NFL writer
"My squad will pass at a higher rate than any team in NFL history, so selecting an elite pass-blocking tackle in the prime of his career is both a necessary and an easy choice." -- Seth Walder, sports analytics writer
6. Saquon Barkley, RB, Giants
No. of ballots: 24 of 55
Running back was a curious position for our voters; 22 didn't take any running backs on their team, while another four voted for two-back teams. The majority chose the dual-threat, 22-year-old Barkley, who just won Offensive Rookie of the Year after rushing for 1,307 yards and catching 91 passes for another 721 yards. He was on 19 more ballots than Ezekiel Elliott, who was the No. 2 back, according to our voters. Barkley stayed healthy in college and in his first NFL season, but what will his body look like after he gets 300-plus touches for the rebuilding Giants in 2019?
What makes Barkley the safest bet to be the league's top running back?
"Barkley finished with the second-most rushing yards in the NFL as a rookie, and the Giants' reliance on him is only likely to grow as they eventually transition from veteran quarterback Eli Manning to Daniel Jones." -- Lindsey Thiry, Rams reporter
"Barkley is just 22 years old with a clean injury history and the ability to beat defenses with the combination of speed, power and elusiveness that make him an otherworldly runner and high-volume receiver." -- Anthony Olivieri, ESPN reporter-researcher
7. Jalen Ramsey, CB, Jaguars
No. of ballots: 23 of 55
Three seasons in the NFL, two Pro Bowls and one first-team All-Pro selection ... and Ramsey is still just 24 years old. The competition for the top corner in our top 10 was tight, but Ramsey edged out Stephon Gilmore, who was Pro Football Focus' top-graded corner last season but is four years older than Ramsey. One prickly issue in Ramsey's future will be sorting out a new contract -- he wants to get paid. Based on how he has played so far, that new deal will come in time.
What makes Ramsey the league's top young cornerback?
"Ramsey has a rare combination of size, length and speed, and you stick him on the opponent's best receiver and worry about the rest of the offense." -- Michael DiRocco, Jaguars reporter
"Ramsey has everything you want in a top corner -- confidence, size, speed, lockdown man and zone coverage ability and a knack for interceptions -- and I'd love to have a player I could trust to lock down his side of the field every Sunday." -- Cameron Wolfe, Dolphins reporter
8. Quenton Nelson, G, Colts
No. of ballots: 21 of 55
What's more important when building a 10-man team: an interior offensive lineman or a tight end? Our voters chose the former, as Nelson landed on 21 ballots, while the top tight end -- Travis Kelce -- made just 10. Though maybe our voters were scared of not putting Nelson on their team? The 23-year-old Nelson started every game as a rookie in 2018 -- going viral for how he manhandled defenders -- and was named first-team All-Pro.
Why did you pick Nelson as your only offensive lineman?
"With quarterbacks getting rid of the ball so quick, the fastest way for a defender to get home is up the middle, and in just his second season, Nelson has shown he's one of the best interior blockers in the NFL." -- Eric D. Williams, Chargers reporter
"He's young, strong, nasty and athletic enough to handle the growing legion of quick, interior pass-rushers." -- Rich Cimini, Jets reporter
9. Derwin James, S, Chargers
No. of ballots: 20 of 55
Is the 22-year-old James a rangy safety, a downhill linebacker who can make plays in the backfield, or a big, physical corner? Depending on the play, yes, yes and yes. Behold, the NFL's reigning Monsterback! Voters loved the versatility (three interceptions and 3.5 sacks as a rookie) and that this Swiss Army knife defender makes any defense better. Did we mention he's 22?
Why did you pick James as your top defensive back?
"In today's pass-happy league, you simply can't play defense without an edge presence, a high-end nickel corner and a safety who can function in the deep middle of the field, as well as down in the box as the personnel groupings change out down to down. James is that safety." -- Jeff Legwold, Broncos reporter
"It feels like James was built in a lab to stop the passing explosion in the NFL; the versatile Chargers safety can play just about every position behind the defensive line and affects the game in ways that don't always show up on the stat sheet." -- Mina Kimes, Senior writer
"Because with everything James can do -- play on the line of scrimmage and in space, cover, tackle and blitz -- he's going to impact a defense much more than a cornerback or a safety whose games are more one-dimensional." -- Brady Henderson, Seahawks reporter
10. Von Miller, OLB, Broncos
No. of ballots: 16 of 55
Surprised to see a 30-year-old on our list? Don't be. Miller, who has at least 10 sacks in seven of his eight NFL seasons, hasn't showed signs of slowing down. His 98 career sacks rank 33rd all time, but our voters think he's going to continue his run. One of the reasons for optimism? New Broncos coach Vic Fangio is a guru of 3-4 defenses, and he'll get a chance to mold a D led by Miller (and second-year stud Bradley Chubb) back into one of the league's premier units.
Why did you pick Miller as your top edge rusher?
"Of the NFL's top-tier pass rushers, Miller is the most consistently healthy and productive defender of the bunch." -- Bill Barnwell, NFL analyst
"The quarterback must go down, and Miller, still dominating with one double-digit-sack season after another, remains in his prime at 30." -- Eric Karabell, fantasy writer
A FEW TAKEAWAYS FROM THE VOTING
Patrick Mahomes runs away with the first pick
The Chiefs quarterback was picked No. 1 overall 37 times on our 55 ballots. Here are the other four players who got votes at No. 1:
Aaron Donald, DT, Rams: 8 votes
Aaron Rodgers, QB, Packers: 6 votes
Russell Wilson, QB, Seahawks: 3 votes
Khalil Mack, OLB, Bears: 1 vote
What was the thinking behind choosing another quarterback over Mahomes? We asked our panel:
Why did you take Rodgers as your quarterback?
"The game's best throwing talent of the past decade has a promising, three-year window, the chance to reimagine his skill set in a new offense, a front office finally eager to put offensive weapons around him and the ability to strip a team's soul with one late-game throw." -- Jeremy Fowler, Steelers reporter
"Rodgers will enter the next phase of his career with a fresh perspective and newfound energy under new head coach Matt LaFleur -- that, coupled with Rodgers' undeniable natural skill set, makes him a can't-miss quarterback to build a team around for the next three seasons." -- Lindsey Thiry, Rams reporter
Why did you take Wilson as your quarterback?
"If I'm building a dominant team, the position where I need certainty is at QB -- so I'll take Wilson's high floor over Mahomes' incredibly high ceiling, thanks to a sample size of 112 out of 112 starts made in his NFL career, versus one incredible 16 for Mahomes, and his having been a Pro Bowl player in multiple offenses versus one brilliant year under (the brilliant) Andy Reid, and relative youth (Wilson is still just 30)." -- Chris Sprow, NFL editor
"Wilson's ability to make any throw and his Houdini-like escapability puts a different level of stress on defenses even if he doesn't have a viable offensive line." -- Turron Davenport, Titans reporter
Defend your pick: No Aaron Donald?
The Rams' superstar defensive tackle was left off only two of our 55 ballots. We asked those two voters to explain their choice:
"The three-year window was at the foundation of the decisions. Age matters. I was torn between Miller and Donald for my one selection at an over-27 player, but I believe in three years the chances of Miller playing closer to his peak are slightly better than Donald's, in large part because of where they line up and do most of their work." -- Jeff Legwold, Broncos reporter
"To build my team out for the next three years, I wanted to focus on players I believed were still on the way to their peaks over the next three seasons instead of at their high point right now. My decision was between Mack and Donald, and since I had Kenny Clark as an interior defender, I wanted two dynamic edge rushers -- and that led me to Mack over Donald to complement Joey Bosa." -- Michael Rothstein, Lions reporter
Defend your pick: No running back?
There were 22 ballots that didn't include a running back, as our voters prioritized other positions, assuming they could get league-average running back play from the rest of their roster. What was the thinking behind devaluing backs? We asked two voters:
"I put the least priority on running back of all the offensive positions because you can find players at that spot throughout the draft. I wanted to address premium positions first (QB, CB, pass-rushers) and then give the QB weapons in the pass game. Having two Pro Bowl OTs to protect the QB was also a higher priority." -- Michael DiRocco, Jaguars reporter
"With running backs having such a short professional shelf life, and in a pass-happy league, it's hardly worth building around one. It's a fungible position, and most teams employ some type of timeshare, so for this project, it's fine to go year by year." -- Eric Karabell, fantasy writer
Defend your pick: Tell us why you were so high on ...
Our voters detail a few of their outlier picks:
Why did you take David Bakhtiari at No. 2? "The most important position in football is the quarterback, so with my second pick, I'd take the player who protects that position better than anyone else in the NFL." -- Sarah Barshop, Texans reporter
Why did you take Christian McCaffrey at No. 2? "This is a no-brainer because McCaffrey not only is elite as a running back, but he can play any receiver position at an elite level and run the route tree as well or better than most pure receivers." -- David Newton, Panthers reporter
Why did you take Julian Edelman at No. 5? "Even at 33 years old, Edelman remains one of the best receivers in the NFL at creating separation early in the route, and he plays his best in critical moments of the game." -- Eric D. Williams, Chargers reporter
Why did you take Byron Jones at No. 5? "Jones' first full year at corner ended in a Pro Bowl bid; his length, speed, athleticism and physical style -- plus a team-friendly deal this season -- make him desirable to help form the cornerstone of a good pass defense." -- John Keim, Redskins reporter
Why did you take Tre'Davious White at No. 6? "He's a young (24), ascending player at a value position who can lock down his side of the field, limiting quarterbacks to a 51.9 completion rate and a 69.1 passer rating since coming into the league, per Pro Football Focus." -- Tim McManus, Eagles reporter
Full positional voting
Here are the top vote-getters for every position and how many ballots they landed on out of 55. This list includes every player who got at least two votes:
Interior offensive line
Khalil Mack, Bears: 42 ballots
Von Miller, Broncos: 16
Myles Garrett, Browns: 11
J.J. Watt, Texans: 5
Joey Bosa, Chargers: 3
Danielle Hunter, Vikings: 3
DeMarcus Lawrence, Cowboys: 2
Bradley Chubb, Broncos: 2