Who is the NFL’s best cornerback? Wide receiver? Attack offensive? What about the second best defensive device – after Aaron Donald? To give you a glimpse of the 2021 NFL season, we’ve set out to answer these questions and more.
We surveyed 50+ league executives, coaches, scouts and players to help us stack the top 10 players in 11 different positions, from the edge rusher to the internal offensive linemen to the tight ends . This is the second edition of this leaderboard, and there are several players who have been promoted and relegated to last year’s lists.
This is how our process worked: voters gave us their top 10-15 players in one position, then we compiled the results and candidates based on the number of top 10 votes, composite average, interviews, research and film study help from ESPN NFL rated analyst Matt Bowen. We had multiple connections, so we broke them by isolating the two-man match with additional voting and follow-up calls. Each section is jam-packed with quotes and nuggets from voters about every guy – even the honorable mentions.
The goal is to identify the best players for 2021. This is not a five year forecast or a performance price. Who is the best today? Quite easy.
We’ve put together links to all 11 item groups here, so consider this your home page for the entire series.
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The race for the Pass Rush King was wide open after many of last year’s competitors were derailed from injuries. Every player from the top 4 last year fell in the rankings. Meanwhile, two dominant players from AFC Nord were happy to drop them off.
The edge rusher category – outside linebacker on a 3-4 defense, defensive ends in a 4-3 – is so full of dynamic game design that a double-digit sack pedigree isn’t always enough to crack the list. Edge players get more than any other position besides quarterback because they can destroy a game plan every Sunday.
Two electrifying AFC Nord defenders top the list for 2021.
Inner defensive linemen
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Execs usually classify the inner defensive linemen according to one criterion: Which player is the most likely to destroy your game board with strength, length and speed – over and over again?
The first choice is obvious and is a candidate for the NFL’s best overall player. Then the next couple of decisions were pretty straightforward. After that? It was getting incredibly difficult. Players 6-15 were in a virtual tie that required at least 30 tiebreakers.
Young interior linemen rose at a rapid pace, while the game of the top veterans had largely not fallen away. And at least one legend had to be removed from the list.
The NFL’s inner defensive line – defensive tackles in every setup and defensive ends in a 3-4 defensive alignment – will have inner offensive linemen and quarterbacks in 2021 that question the sanctity of their pockets.
Yes, you guessed it; Aaron Donald was # 1 by a wide margin. But who made the rest of the top 10?
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Versatility is very important to linebacker.
“Can he do anything? That’s what I’m looking for,” one Pro Bowl linebacker told me. “What sets Ray Lewis apart is that he was an all-down guy when LBs were more likely to be first and second downs.”
Today’s best linebackers are asked to cause turnover, physically play against the barrel, master pass covers, fly from sideline to sideline for acrobatic tackles and, if good enough, line up in the slot against a dangerous pass catcher.
The league has enough players to handle these challenges, with this year’s top 10 stack linebackers – in all orientations in the middle and a 4-3 outside – with established veterans and emerging young stars.
Three new players made the list this year, starting with a high-profile linebacker who jumped six places.
The NFL has very good cornerbacks – but not enough really great ones. The evaluators in the league complained about the shortage of game-changing corners, which is a problem in an increasingly well-fitting league.
Execs and coaches want corners that can be No. Covering 1 receiver in the man and being able to easily switch to the zone that can attack in the room and win with instinct and footwork. That’s a big question, but it’s also why Elite Corners get paid. They are rare.
This year’s top 10 cornerbacks list offers its share of size, but. It includes a clear number 1, rising young stars, aging but still competent turns, and a mean tiebreaker from Baltimore to New England.
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Like the tight end on the offensive, security is a position teams don’t overly pay for. The highest-paid security guard, Justin Simmons, ranks 75th in the league for average payout per year ($ 15.25 million).
Splash plays help. Whether Jamal Adams slips past a tackle for the sack or Simmons and Minkah Fitzpatrick subverting routes to intercept, head coaches and general managers want momentum-changing moves from their back-end stars.
These top 10 collateral deliver in this area and much more.
AP Photo / Ross D. Franklin
A 32-year-old makes the worst case in years. Two 22 year olds seem ready to do the same. This year’s list of The NFL’s Top 10 Offensive Tackles has serious reach thanks to a mix of talent – from comeback players to frequently injured stars and aspiring technicians.
The competition was strong enough to drop last year’s number 1 by several places.
Internal offensive line
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A year ago, NFL evaluators lamented the lack of elite games in the ranking of the best guards and centers in the league. This year’s list seems stronger. The top three players only bolstered their cases, and promising young centers replaced aging players.
Other veterans got better — and had to, with an ascending guard from Green Bay ascending in the Pantheon. Defenses across the league are prioritized within quarterback pressure, resulting in an impressive list of defensive tackles and 3-4 defensive ends. Criminal offenses know they have to be ready; the top player is certainly.
The list of characteristics of today’s elite quarterback is long. Cracking the top 10 best in the NFL requires accuracy, anticipation, and timing in the throws. the range to play in multiple schemes; explosive play ability; high arm strength; Pocket awareness; and the ability to create games on the move when something breaks down.
And to be 43 years old because at that age you can somehow still be good if you are Tom Brady.
Or to be mad at your team because two of the four best quarterbacks of this year’s crew went through this offseason with their respective employers.
Elite passers-by come in all styles and personalities, and these 10 players below epitomize that reality. If you’re building a team from scratch, start here.
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Paying running backs is supposed to be a game of chance. We have heard for years about the short shelf life of the position and cautionary stories of fading moves after the payout.
This year’s top 10 running back class contradicts this logic. Derrick Henry, Alvin Kamara and Dalvin Cook signed massive deals totaling more than $ 180 million and rewarded that trust with a stellar production in 2020. They topped 5,700 yards as a trio, along with a total of 55 touchdowns and a collective vault to the top Leaderboards.
Meanwhile, last year’s top 3 struggled with injuries and production slumps while talented backers from Green Bay and Indianapolis voiced their cases.
This is where league managers, coaches and players try to separate fact from fiction. which leads to some surprises along the way.
By far the most difficult position to rank, Wide Receiver is laden with deserving candidates.
More than 20 recipients got at least one vote, and the only easy decision was who would become number 1. From second place onwards, the judges preferred different flavors: the clever route runners, the speed demons, the body-you-up recipients with size and strength, the physical strengths that look like running backs with the ball in hand, or the big names, who are only a healthy season away from regaining greatness.
And of course, rank 10 required a tiebreaker between two young stars.
A truism about the NFL receiver pantheon: you have to put up big numbers to belong. Here are the top 10 receivers for 2021.
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Today’s NFL is well stocked with talented young tight ends challenging the old guard. Three tight ends aged 25 or younger have either cracked the top 10 or are incredibly close.
This list is all about balance – complete with vertical threats, multidimensional blockers, and setbacks. And Travis Kelce looks like he has 10 years left as a senior player after a historic season at the age of 31.
Here’s how our panel of executives, coaches and players rated the best the NFL has to offer for 2021.
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