Ranking Teams with the Best Depth at Each Position

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystNovember 22, 2017

Ranking Teams with the Best Depth at Each Position

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    NFL teams fight a constant internal battle as part of a 100 percent injury league. Due to the limitations of a 53-man roster combined with the inevitability of lost games, depth found within a roster can develop into a massive advantage over opponents. 

    These advantages can be seen at each specific position with certain teams holding an edge. 

    Usually, the squads with the healthiest rosters find themselves competing for a championship. Of course, a little luck is involved in the process, but each organization must first place itself in the position to present solid depth. This occurs through months of evaluations. 

    The best depth found at each position isn't a reflection of elite individual performers. A balance between quality and quantity must be struckwhich is difficult to achieve at this point in the season due to littered injured reserves and injury reports. 

    For example, Tom Brady continues to play at a completely different level compared to the majority of the league's quarterbacks. The Patriots once had the best depth behind center until the franchise traded Jacoby Brissett and Jimmy Garoppolo. Brady is still great, but his presence doesn't speak to New England's overall depth at the position. 

    Specialists aren't included because the majority of teams only carry one kicker, punter and long snapper. Otherwise, the following are the deepest squads at each position. 

Quarterback

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    1. Minnesota Vikings

    The 8-2 Minnesota Vikings own the NFL's best quarterback depth, even though the team's season-opening starter, Sam Bradford, can be found on injured reserve. 

    It's quite amazing when you think about it. No one will mistake the Vikings' quarterback room with those that feature Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger or multiple other Pro Bowl-caliber and even Super Bowl-winning signal-callers. 

    But this is about depth, and no other team can claim it has three starting-caliber quarterbacks. Most wouldn't even be able to handle the loss of their anointed starter. Bradford completed an NFL-record 71.6 percent of his passes last season. Yet the Vikings are even better with Case Keenum behind center. 

    Keenum is an ideal distributor in Pat Shurmur's precision passing attack. The six-year veteran has completed 65.7 percent of his passes with 2,194 yards, 12 touchdowns and five interceptions through nine games. 

    Keenum's ascension overshadows one of the NFL's best storylines: Teddy Bridgewater's return from what appeared to be a career-threatening knee injury. The Vikings' previous starter was cleared to return to practice Oct. 18, per ESPN's Chris Mortensen. The 2014 first-round pick is a career 64.9 percent passer who posted a 14-9 touchdown-to-interception ratio in 2015 with far fewer weapons and a weak offensive front. 

    2. Philadelphia Eagles
    3. Kansas City Chiefs

    The Philadelphia Eagles' Carson Wentz is an MVP candidate. The Kansas City Chiefs' Alex Smith was in the same conversation through the first five weeks. Their play speaks for itself. 

    The backups behind both are intriguing, though. 

    Nick Foles may have flamed out quickly, but he showed he can be a viable starter for a short period of time. His 2013 campaign with 27 touchdown passes compared to only two interceptions is one of the league's great anomalies. He may never reach that level of play again, but a backup with 36 career starts is invaluable. 

    The Chiefs have a top-10 pick sitting on the bench champing at the bit to play. While the Chicago Bears, Houston Texans, Cleveland Browns and Buffalo Bills started their rookie quarterbacks, Patrick Mahomes is biding his time. He's far more physically talented than Smith, but the Chiefs are more comfortable with the veteran at this point.

Running Back

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    1. New Orleans Saints

    To put how talented the New Orleans Saints are at running back into context, the team traded away Adrian Peterson to pave the way for Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram. 

    Think about that for a second. Peterson is one of the game's all-time great backs, whom the team signed to a two-year, $7 million contract during free agency. Peterson already posted a pair of 100-yard rushing games since being traded to the Arizona Cardinals. 

    The reason Peterson couldn't muster much traction in New Orleans is the fact Kamara and Ingram have developed into the league's best one-two punch. 

    The duo has combined for 1,265 rushing yards through 10 weeks, leading all running back tandems. Ingram averages 5.2 yards per attempt and has amassed 806 rushing yards. Both stats rank fourth overall. The seventh-year back is also tied for the league lead (along with the Los Angeles Rams' Todd Gurley) with eight rushing touchdowns. 

    But Kamara is the more explosive option. The rookie runner leads the league with an average of 6.4 yards per attempt. He's also second on the Saints with 48 receptions and seven total touchdowns. 

    2. Philadelphia Eagles
    3. Jacksonville Jaguars

    The Atlanta Falcons, Chicago Bears and New England Patriots can all make an argument they should be considered among the league's best running back stables. However, the depth found in the Philadelphia Eagles and Jacksonville Jaguars' backfield borders on unparalleled.

    The Eagles paid pennies on the dollar to acquire Jay Ajayi from the Miami Dolphins at the trade deadline. Ajayi may have some injury concerns, but he's averaged 11.2 yards per carry since the deal. He pairs well with LeGarrette Blount, who leads the team with 561 rushing yards. They're joined by Corey Clement, Wendall Smallwood and Kenjon Barner. Imagine if Darren Sproles wasn't on injured reserve. 

    The Jags present a similar predicament for defenses trying to slow their running game. When healthy, Leonard Fournette is a true workhorse. Chris Ivory is another power runner. T.J. Yeldon is getting more touches in recent weeks. Finally, Corey Grant is a home-run threat every time he touches the ball, albeit in limited opportunities. 

Wide Receiver

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    1. Pittsburgh Steelers

    Antonio Brown is the NFL's best wide receiver. Sorry, not sorry, Julio Jones, A.J. Green or DeAndre Hopkins fans. Brown can't be stopped, but the Pittsburgh Steelers are far from a one-person aerial attack. 

    The NFL's eighth-best passing offense has an emerging star opposite Brown in Juju Smith-Schuster. The 21-year-old target has 16 receptions for 337 yards and a pair of touchdowns over his last three contests. 

    Smith-Schuster's presence changed the wide receiver corps' entire dynamic since expectations were high for Martavis Bryant's return. Bryant sat out the entire 2016 campaign due to a league suspension, but he served as the Steelers' No. 2 target opposite Brown prior to that point. He was good, too. The Clemson product provided a vertical threat and averaged 15.3 yards per catch with six touchdowns in 2015. 

    Now, Bryant is the team's third option. 

    Eli Rogers hasn't been as prevalent this season compared to last, either, but he's still an option out of the slot because he can create after the catch. Also, the Steelers have experienced veterans in Darrius Heyward-Bey and Justin Hunter as their fifth and sixth receivers. 

    When Ben Roethlisberger is dealing, he has no shortage of options.

    2. Green Bay Packers
    3. Los Angeles Chargers

    Both the Green Bay Packers and Los Angeles Chargers are loaded at wide receiver, but unfortunate circumstances have held back both groups to varying degrees. 

    In Green Bay, Aaron Rodgers' season-ending collarbone injury caused the Packers offense to collapse. Even so, the team's receivers are an exciting group. Davante Adams has developed into a No. 1 target with a team-leading 50 receptions for 620 yards and six touchdowns. Neither Jordy Nelson nor Randall Cobb has been as effective this season, but both are reliable options with a propensity for big plays. Geronimo Allison and Trevor Davis are young with bright futures ahead of them.

    The Chargers offense has been hamstrung by offensive line issues the last two seasons. But Los Angeles presents an impressive top four targets. Keenan Allen is healthy once again and ranks seventh overall with 755 receiving yards. Tyrell Williams is unlikely to surpass 1,000 yards for a second straight campaign, but he's still the team's second-leading receiver. Travis Benjamin is an explosive downfield threat, too. Meanwhile, coordinator Ken Whisenhunt is still trying to work this year's seventh overall pick, Mike Williams, into the offensive rhythm.  

Tight End

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    1. New England Patriots

    The rich get richer, and the New England Patriots have an embarrassment of riches at tight end. 

    First, Rob Gronkowski is the game's premier performer. The 6'6", 265-pound target is a nightmare to cover, but he's arguably the best blocking tight end, too. His ability to dominate in both areas makes him a unicorn in modern football. Most tight ends are just an extension of the passing game or serve as an extra offensive lineman. Very few do both. Even fewer do both at a high level. 

    Martellus Bennett excels in both phases. Bennett, who played for the Patriots last season, signed with the Green Bay Packers during free agency. The veteran tight end essentially quit on the Packers, and the organization subsequently released him. New England snatched him back up, and the 6'6", 275-pound option has caught six passes since returning to the lineup. 

    As good as both Gronk and Bennett are, Dwayne Allen may be the league's most talented third tight end. After a rough start with the Pats, the sixth-year veteran finally caught his first pass and touchdown last week against the Denver Broncos. 

    The Patriots have the luxury of the NFL's best tight end trio since all three can be or have been starters for other franchises. 

    2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
    3. Philadelphia Eagles

    The Tampa Bay Buccaneers present a unique tight end tandem in Cameron Brate and rookie O.J. Howard. Howard may have entered the league as a much better blocking prospect, but each is a threat in the passing game and tied for the team lead (along with wide receiver Mike Evans) with four touchdown receptions.

    Zach Ertz is the go-to target in the Philadelphia Eagles offense with a team-leading 45 receptions. His six touchdown receptions also match Alshon Jeffery's production. However, the Eagles use all of their tight ends as much or more than most squads. Ertz, Brent Celek and Trey Burton all have 100 or more receiving yards. 

Offensive Line

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    1. Washington Redskins 

    Offensive lines operate differently than any other position, with all five starters needing to work cohesively every snap to be successful. Individualism is eschewed for the greater task at hand. 

    An injury can throw the entire group into disarray, but the Washington Redskins aren't just any group. 

    Washington dealt with multiple injuries along its offensive front and continue to plug along due to its depth along the interior and at offensive tackle. 

    When both are healthy, Trent Williams and Morgan Moses form the league's best offensive tackle pairing. Moses has been a rock at right tackle, but Williams already missed two games this season. T.J. Clemmings, a two-year starter for the Minnesota Vikings, stepped into Williams' place. Ty Nsekhe is also one of the game's better backups, and he's finally healthy. 

    All of this depth is necessary since Spencer Long and Shawn Lauvao found their way onto injured reserve Tuesday, per Sirius XM Radio's Adam Caplan, and Chase Roullier is still dealing with a broken hand that required surgery. 

    2. Tennessee Titans
    3. New Orleans Saints

    Normally, the Dallas Cowboys or Oakland Raiders would be the first two teams discussed regarding the NFL's top front fives. Dallas proved this year random pieces can't be plugged in between its three All-Pros and succeed, while the Raiders haven't played to expected levels. 

    Instead, the Tennessee Titans and New Orleans Saints fronts established themselves as top units. Beyond the Titans' starting five, Dennis Kelly and Brian Schwenke have 52 games of starting experience. The Saints feature Senio Kelemete and Josh LeRibeus on the bench. Plus, former starting right tackle Zach Strief may be available to the team in December after rehabbing a knee injury, per ESPN.com's Mike Triplett

Defensive Line

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    1. Jacksonville Jaguars

    Sacksonville isn't just a cute nickname. It has become the Jacksonville Jaguars' identity. The Jags lead the NFL with 40 sacks after managing 33 last season.

    Jacksonville's success has come because opposing offenses can't key on a single pass-rusher. Yes, Calais Campbell is tied for the league lead with 11.5 sacks, but four different linemen already have five or more sacks. Yannick Ngakoue ranks sixth overall with nine. 

    Todd Wash's defense comes at quarterbacks in waves—whether it's Campbell, Ngakoue, 2015 third overall pick Dante Fowler Jr. or end-tackle hybrid Malik Jackson. 

    The aforementioned sack artists didn't even include the defensive line's most naturally gifted individual, Marcell Dareus. Jacksonville acquired the 331-pound wrecking ball from the Buffalo Bills prior to the trade deadline. Questions existed about his effort and attitude, but the Jags run defense has improved dramatically with him in the lineup, per Number Fire's Ian Goldsmith

    We've named multiple difference-makers without any mention of the stellar Abry Jones, whom Jacksonville signed to a four-year, $15.5 contract extension this offseason. 

    Most offensive lines can't hold up against the Jaguars front, and that's blatantly obvious in most games. 

    2. Carolina Panthers
    3. Philadelphia Eagles

    Few teams have enough depth along their defensive front to relegate recent first-round picks to backup roles. The Carolina Panthers and Philadelphia Eagles are among those who do.

    The Panthers feature one of the league's best defensive tackle tandems in Kawann Short and Star Lotulelei. The team selected Vernon Butler in the first round of the 2016 draft. But the front really came together upon Julius Peppers' homecoming. The 37-year-old pass-rusher leads the team with 7.5 sacks. He's joined on the edge by Mario Addison, Charles Johnson and Wes Horton. 

    The Eagles' first-round pick, Derek Barnett, is getting better every week working alongside Tim Jernigan, Fletcher Cox, Brandon Graham, Chris Long and Vinny Curry. Barnett had a great showing Sunday with a pair of sacks and four more quarterback hits against a depleted Dallas Cowboys offensive line.

Linebacker

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    1. Pittsburgh Steelers

    The Pittsburgh Steelers faithful don't have to reminisce about the 1970s or '90s when it comes to great linebacker play. All they have to do is watch the team every Sunday. 

    Today's linebackers play the game differently, and they're as athletic as ever. Ryan Shazier is the only player in the league with 60 tackles, nine deflected passes and three interceptions. His speed to shoot gaps against the run or mirror in coverage is special. 

    Shazier may be the catalyst, but multiple Steelers linebackers have contributed to the team's success. Vince Williams developed into a standout next to Shazier. He's the more physical of the two, with six sacks this season.

    On the outside, Bud Dupree continues to realize his immense potential. After a year-and-a-half adjusting to the professional game, he's now the Steelers' most reliable option in the rotation. This year's first-round pick, T.J. Watt, flashed brilliance and made an early argument for NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. Anthony Chickillo started a pair of games and registered three sacks in those contests, too. 

    Plus, the defense isn't leaning heavily on veterans James Harrison or Arthur Moats anymore. Both can still play, but the youth movement has allowed each to become role players. 

    Playing linebacker in Pittsburgh is a special task, and this year's group is living up to those expectations. 

    2. Cincinnati Bengals
    3. Kansas City Chiefs

    The Cincinnati Bengals' and Kansas City Chiefs' linebacker depth can't be questioned. 

    Cincinnati operates out of a base 4-3 look. Vontaze Burfict is arguably the best of the bunch even if he isn't beloved—hell, many believe he's downright dirty. He's not the team's first-, second- or third-leading tackler, though. Nick Vigil, a first-time starter this season, tops the team with 76 tackles. Vincent Rey is third with 55 stops. What makes this group impressive is its versatility. Rey can play all three positions. Kevin Minter is a starting-caliber middle linebacker when healthy. Also, rookie Carl Lawson is a linebacker hybrid who plays the strong side and also puts his hand in the dirt to rush quarterbacks. 

    Kansas City prefers a 3-4 base. Justin Houston remains a terror off the edge with 7.5 sacks. Dee Ford and Frank Zombo have split time opposite Houston, while Tamba Hali continues to get healthy. Along the inside, the 35-year-old Derrick Johnson is still producing, and Reggie Ragland seized control of the other starting spot over Ramik Wilson, who opened the year in the lineup. 

Cornerback

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    1. Jacksonville Jaguars

    Three starting corners are needed in today's game because of pass-heavy offenses. The Jacksonville Jaguars feature the NFL's best pair of outside corners in Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye, and they have a more-than-capable nickel corner in Aaron Colvin. 

    Ramsey can make a case—and he's no stranger to talking a good game—he's the NFL's best cornerback in his second season. According to Pro Football Focus, the 23-year-old defensive back only allowed a 42.0 quarterback rating through the first half of the season. He's also tied for second overall with 14 defended passes. Ramsey gets under his opponents' skin with his chatter even though his play speaks for itself. 

    Bouye signed with Jacksonville as a top free-agent cornerback, and he hasn't disappointed. He has 12 defended passes, so this talented duo is the NFL's best at swatting away the ball. The $67.5 million corner is also tied for third overall with four interceptions. 

    Ball skills are more important than ever, and the Jaguars have a dominant group to ground passing attacks. The key is making all three players comfortable in their specific roles. 

    "I feel like they do a good job of just letting us be who we are," Colvin said of the coaching staff, per First Coast News' Mike Kaye. "They allow us to play the way we are comfortable playing."

    2. Denver Broncos
    3. Philadelphia Eagles

    The Denver Broncos and Philadelphia Eagles may be trending in the different directions, but each of their secondaries is deep. 

    The Broncos feature one of the league's better tandems in Aqib Talib and Chris Harris Jr. Then, the team's 2014 first-round pick, Bradley Roby, comes in to play opposite Talib and pushes Harris inside, where he really excels. This group hasn't played as well this year, but its ability is undeniable. 

    The Eagles are receiving a boost in the middle of the season. Jalen Mills, Patrick Robinson and Rasul Douglas played much better than expected before the team's top corner, Ronald Darby, returned to the lineup this past weekend. Plus, this year's second-round draft pick, Sidney Jones, is now eligible to return from injured reserve. 

Safety

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    1. New Orleans Saints

    Not too long ago, the New Orleans Saints entertained the possibility of trading Kenny Vaccaro. Once nothing came to fruition, the 27-year-old started playing much better and served as a positive among the improving unit instead of a negative. 

    Vaccaro has a groin injury and has missed the last two games. Good thing the Saints have three more starting-caliber safeties on the roster. 

    Vonn Bell leads the team with 48 tackles. Like Vaccaro, Bell is a versatile piece to Dennis Allen's defensive puzzle because he can play near the line of scrimmage, defend the alley, cover the slot or drop deep.

    But when those two are playing in the box, rookie Marcus Williams has them covered as the last line of defense. Williams is a free safety with tremendous sideline-to-sideline range, and he gets to showcase his ability as a full-time defender. 

    These three first- or second-round draft picks work well together. There's also room for veteran Rafael Bush, who started 14 games over three seasons during his previous stint in the Bayou. Now, he serves as the team's fourth safety.

    2. Baltimore Ravens
    3. New York Giants

    The Baltimore Ravens and New York Giants took different approaches to building their safety groups, but they're both effective. 

    Eric Weddle and Lardarius Webb are grizzled veterans who are rarely fooled or found out of position. Their presence and overall reliability allow this year's prize offseason addition, Tony Jefferson, to be a jackhammer near the line of scrimmage. Jefferson is third on the team with 47 tackles, and he's secured a pair of sacks as well. 

    Last season, undrafted free agent Andrew Adams was a breakout performer for the Giants, becoming one of the NFL's best coverage safeties. But he took a back seat when last year's third-round pick, Darian Thompson, returned from injured reserve. Landon Collins, meanwhile, is a Pro Bowl-caliber player. New York's 29th-ranked pass defense belies the talent in its back line.