Ranking the Strongest Position Groups in the NFL
What if you could create an NFL team by taking any position group from any team in the league? That's sort of what we're going for here, except we're being careful to consider a combination of strength at the top as well as depth at each position.
So while Aaron Rodgers and Adrian Peterson would almost certainly be on any imaginary team you could start from scratch, they don't qualify here because their teams don't have the complementary weapons or backups to meet the depth requirement.
Here's a breakdown of the league's strongest overall positional units.
Washington Redskins Quarterbacks
Key players: Robert Griffin III, Kirk Cousins, Rex Grossman, Pat White
Coach: Matt LaFleur
The top two quarterbacks on Washington's depth chart have a combined 16 career starts, but RG3 was so good while earning Offensive Rookie of the Year honors in 2012 and Cousins was so steady as his backup that the duo might already be the best 1-2 quarterback punch in the league.
Throw in that veteran third-stringer Rex Grossman has plenty of starting experience and quite a lot of talent and you begin to see why the 'Skins are in such good shape under center.
Stat that matters: Griffin had the highest yards-per-attempt average (8.1) and the third-best passer rating (102.4) in the league, but Cousins was right there with a 9.7 average and a 101.6 rating in three games (one start).
Runner-up: Indianapolis Colts (Andrew Luck, Matt Hasselbeck)
New Orleans Saints Running Backs
Key players: Pierre Thomas, Darren Sproles, Mark Ingram, Jed Collins
Coach: Dan Roushar
Even after trading Chris Ivory last month, there isn't a team in the NFL with a better array of running backs than New Orleans. Thomas possesses the ability to be a No. 1 back, but that's not necessary with the electric Sproles bringing it as a rusher and a receiver out of the backfield.
Ingram has yet to break out, but the 2011 first-round pick is only entering his third season. If he can improve his average in 2013, the Saints will have a three-headed monster despite moving on from Ivory.
Stat that matters: Despite starting only six games, Sproles had 911 yards and eight touchdowns on 123 touches last season. That's 7.4 yards per touch and a touchdown every 15 touches.
Runner-up: Philadelphia Eagles (LeSean McCoy, Bryce Brown, Felix Jones, Chris Polk)
Denver Broncos Wide Receivers
Key players: Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker, Eric Decker
Coach: Tyke Tolbert
Thomas and Decker were already one of the best receiving duos in the league after each finished in the top 20 in catches, yards and touchdowns last season, but now they've added Welker, who also finished in the top 10 in catches and yards. With Peyton Manning at the helm, this trio could be close unstoppable.
Yes, Welker and Thomas finished in the top 10 in dropped passes, but keep in mind that Thomas and Decker are both only three years into their careers and Welker was the fourth-most targeted receiver in the league in New England.
Stat that matters: Thomas and Decker had a combined 23 touchdown grabs in 2012. Only one other receiving duo (James Jones and Randall Cobb in Green Bay, 22) had more than 18.
Runner-up: Atlanta Falcons (Julio Jones, Roddy White, Harry Douglas)
New England Patriots Tight Ends
Key players: Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez
Coach: George Godsey
Gronkowski and Hernandez missed a combined 11 regular-season games due to injury in 2012, but that wasn't enough to knock them from the top. When healthy, there isn't a tight end duo in the league that is as dangerous as this one.
Gronk missed five games, but still led all tight ends with 11 touchdown grabs. Hernandez missed six but still finished in the top 10 with five. Both were in the top 20 in receptions and top 30 in yards. And when they were much healthier in 2011, the two combined for a ridiculous 169 catches, 2,237 yards and 24 touchdowns.
Stat that matters: Since the start of 2010, only one player in football (Houston's Arian Foster, 41) has more touchdowns than Gronkowski (38).
Runner-up: New Orleans Saints (Jimmy Graham, Ben Watson)
San Francisco 49ers Offensive Line
Key players: Joe Staley, Mike Iupati, Jonathan Goodwin, Alex Boone, Anthony Davis, Adam Snyder
Coach: Tim Drevno
They might give up a few too many sacks (although the system doesn't help), but San Francisco's ultra-physical offensive line is so good at dominating the line of scrimmage and opening up holes that it's hard to deny them the top spot here.
Only two teams averaged more yards per carry on the ground last year, with Pro Football Focus (subscription required) ranking the Niners as the best run-blocking team in the league by a wide margin. Only six teams allowed less pressure on the quarterback.
But the key might be that there isn't a weak link. Staley, Davis, Goodwin, Boone and Davis were all ranked in the top 10 at their respective positions by PFF.
Stat that matters: The 49ers were one of only two teams to average more than five yards per carry while surrendering 130 of fewer pressures on the quarterback (Minnesota).
Runner-up: New England Patriots (Nate Solder, Logan Mankins, Ryan Wendell, Dan Connolly, Sebastian Vollmer, Will Svitek)
Cincinnati Bengals Defensive Line
Key players: Geno Atkins, Domata Peko, Michael Johnson, Carlos Dunlap, Robert Geathers, Margus Hunt
Coach: Jay Hayes
There are defensive lines with more star power, but nobody has the combination of size, strength, speed and depth that the Bengals possess.
Atkins is the best defensive tackle in football by a wide margin, and Peko is a solid secondary weapon inside. And on the outside, Dunlap and Johnson were both ranked in the top 13 in the league among 4-3 defensive ends by Pro Football Focus (subscription required). Throw in the veteran Geathers and potential stud in the making Hunt as backups and you've got something special.
Stat that matters: The Bengals finished third in the league with 51 sacks while surrendering just 4.1 yards per carry last season.
Runner-up: Buffalo Bills (Mario Williams, Marcell Dareus, Kyle Williams, Mark Anderson)
San Francisco 49ers Linebackers
Key players: Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman, Aldon Smith, Ahmad Brooks
Coach: Jim Leavitt
Not one, not two, but three San Francisco linebackers were AP first-team All-Pros in 2012, with only Brooks left out. He was merely a second-team All-Pro.
Smith finished second in football with 19.5 sacks and is the fastest player in NFL history to hit the 30-sack plateau. Willis is the most dominant inside linebacker in the game, and the versatile, speedy Bowman has already become a star at the age of 25.
Stat that matters: Opposing running backs averaged fewer yards per carry between five and 10 yards past the line of scrimmage against San Francisco than against any other team in the NFL, according to Football Outsiders. Beyond 10 yards, the Niners ranked second.
Runner-up: New England Patriots (Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes, Dont'a Hightower)
Seattle Seahawks Defensive Backs
Key players: Richard Sherman, Brandon Browner, Kam Chancellor, Earl Thomas, Antoine Winfield
Coach: Kris Richard
Big, young, fierce and extremely talented. That's the best way to describe Seattle's world-class secondary, which contained two first-team All-Pros in 2012 (Sherman and Thomas).
Sherman is a scrappy shutdown corner, while Browner and Winfield are two of the most versatile and tough corners in the league. Thomas is a 24-year-old playmaker and Chancellor is stellar in coverage.
Browner (28), is the only starter over the age of 25 for a secondary that was better in pass coverage than any other unit in the league last season, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Stat that matters: Sherman was ranked by PFF as the second-best cornerback in football last season. The only corner ahead of him was Winfield, whom the Seahawks signed in the offseason.
Runner-up: Chicago Bears (Charles Tillman, Tim Jennings, Major Wright, Chris Conte, Zack Bowman, Kelvin Hayden)
Baltimore Ravens Special Teams
Key players: Jacoby Jones, Justin Tucker, Sam Koch, Albert McClellan
Coach: Jerry Rosburg
We all saw what Jones did in the Super Bowl, but he also had three return touchdowns during the regular season while putting up the best kick return average in the league among players with at least 30 returns.
Tucker missed just three of 33 attempts and was 4-for-4 beyond 50 yards during his rookie season, while Koch was above-average in all of the major punting categories.
Stat that matters: The Ravens were the only team in the NFL to score three or more special teams touchdowns while surrendering zero.
Runner-up: Buffalo Bills (Leodis McKelvin, Brad Smith, Rian Lindell, Alex Carrington)