The Strongest NFL Team at Every Position Group for 2016
Who is the best player at each position in the NFL? It’s always a fun discussion, but that’s surely not the objective here.
It certainly plays a factor on the following list, one which offers a closer look at the position groups for all 32 teams and picks the best of the best. Versatility and depth (preferably proven) are a vital part of these selections, as is the quality of the starters. The word “group” is essential when making these choices.
While past performances as a group played a part in the decisions, there was also a look ahead—especially when it came to the numerous honorable mentions.
Quarterback: New England Patriots
If the New England Patriots have any concern with their depth at quarterback, they may be getting ready to test it in a little over three months.
There are no issues when it comes to the play of 38-year-old Tom Brady. He's coming off his 16th NFL season and completed 64.4 percent of his throws for 4,770 yards and a league-best 36 touchdowns—with just seven interceptions. He was named to his 11th Pro Bowl and led his club to a fifth consecutive appearance in the AFC title game.
Speaking of the No. 11, that’s the number of games backup Jimmy Garoppolo has played in two seasons. But that could change quickly if Brady is unsuccessful in the appeal of his impending four-game suspension. Michael McCann of SI.com assessed the chances of seeing the four-time Super Bowl champion early in the 2016 season.
As for Garoppolo, his career stat line reads 20-of-31 passing for 188 yards and one touchdown without an interception. It has the feel of some first halves for Brady, who hasn’t missed a game since 2008. But head coach and Bill Belichick and Co. will be prepared…as usual.
Honorable Mention: Carolina Panthers, Cincinnati Bengals, New Orleans Saints, San Diego Chargers
Running Back: New York Jets
This past season, the New York Jets finished 10th in the NFL in yards per game on the ground. Running back Chris Ivory enjoyed a career year and led the AFC with 1,070 rushing yards.
Ivory is now a member of the Jacksonville Jaguars, but that doesn’t mean the Jets have taken a step backward in this department. Quite the contrary.
General manager Mike Maccagnan used free agency to restock the team’s backfield with the signings of versatile Matt Forte (Chicago Bears) and 26-year-old Khiry Robinson, who totaled 766 yards rushing and eight touchdowns over the past three seasons with the New Orleans Saints.
Of course, Forte’s eight-year career in the Windy City speaks for itself. Despite missing three games in 2015, he led the team with 1,287 yards from scrimmage and scored seven touchdowns. However, the Bears opted to go with 24-year-old Jeremy Langford, leaving Chicago’s two-time Pro Bowler to seek employment elsewhere.
Add in unsung Bilal Powell and experienced Zac Stacy, and the Jets are superstocked in the backfield and even more diverse thanks to the addition of Forte.
Honorable Mention: Buffalo Bills, Carolina Panthers, Dallas Cowboys, Kansas City Chiefs
Wide Receiver: Pittsburgh Steelers
The numbers are mind-boggling. So is the fact that the Pittsburgh Steelers passing attack thrived in 2015 despite numerous quarterback changes. Only the New Orleans Saints and Arizona Cardinals gained more yards through the air than the Black and Gold in 2015.
That’s mainly due to the presence of All-Pro wide receiver Antonio Brown, who was the league leader in receptions for the second straight year. As was discovered when the 27-year-old performer was unavailable for the divisional playoff meeting with the Denver Broncos, the offense could still rack up big numbers against opposing defenses. With Martavis Bryant stepping to the forefront and rookie Sammie Coates seeing significant action, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw for 339 yards in a 23-16 loss.
In 2015, there were 11 performances in which a player totaled at least 175 yards receiving in one game. Six of those belonged to Brown (four), Bryant (one) and Markus Wheaton (one). But there will be no Bryant in 2016, as he was suspended for at least one year for violation of the NFL’s substance abuse policy, per Marc Sessler of NFL.com.
Be it Brown, Wheaton or even Darrius Heyward-Bey, Pittsburgh’s passing attack has continued to thrive due in part to this talented and deep group of wideouts.
Honorable Mention: Arizona Cardinals, Green Bay Packers, Jacksonville Jaguars, New York Giants
Tight End: New England Patriots
Like the quarterback position with Tom Brady, the New England Patriots might have the league’s best player at tight end in Rob Gronkowski.
That might seem like an understatement. We're talking about a performer that has caught 380 passes for 5,555 yards and 65 scores in 80 regular-season contests. The three-time first-team All-Pro has already earned legendary status due to his hard-nosed play, not bad for a performer who just turned 27 years old on May 14.
This offseason, the Pats added 2014 Pro Bowler Martellus Bennett via a trade with the Chicago Bears. New England will be the talented player’s fourth team in nine years, but the 29-year-old target has averaged 10.3 yards per catch on 348 receptions and scored 23 times.
The Patriots also turned to free agency for even more help, landing Clay Harbor from the Jacksonville Jaguars. His 111 career grabs in six seasons pales in comparison to Gronkowski and Bennett, but he’ll prove to be a valuable third option.
Honorable Mention: Philadelphia Eagles, Washington Redskins
Offensive Line: Dallas Cowboys
Hark back to the 2014 season, when the Dallas Cowboys boasted the league’s best offensive line in terms of overall performance. Pro Football Focus ranked the club first in run blocking and second in pass protection. The former is hardly a surprise considering the team was the home of NFL rushing leader and Offensive Player of the Year DeMarco Murray.
Mike Renner of Pro Football Focus tells us that despite the loss of Murray to free agency and the utilization of four different starting quarterbacks, the Cowboys offensive line was impressive once again in 2015. Spearheaded by the Pro Bowl contingent of left tackle Tyron Smith, center Travis Frederick and right guard Zack Martin, it remains the game’s most formidable unit.
It also made a big change this past year at left guard. Undrafted La’el Collins, a first-round talent that unexpectedly and unfairly fell out of the 2015 draft due to an off-the-field issue, supplanted Ronald Leary and started a total of 11 games at the position. The 27-year-old former starter is now hoping to find an opportunity elsewhere.
Last Thursday, Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones spoke on the subject, per Kate Hairopoulos of the Dallas Morning News:
We told Ron that he could certainly look around, but we're not in the business of letting go of good football players for little or nothing. We got calls during the draft asking to trade for some of our running backs. We just don't have that interest. Ron's a big part of this football team. We know it's disappointing when you've been starting and you're not. We'd hoped that he would look at it as 'let's come in here and compete.’
It’s a nice problem to have. Leary now provides experienced depth for this unit, and if the Cowboys can find the right suitor at the right price, he could be worth even more. It adds up to a win-win for the team in this vital area.
Honorable Mention: Arizona Cardinals, Cincinnati Bengals, Green Bay Packers, Oakland Raiders
Defensive Line: Minnesota Vikings
Great defensive line play has been a tradition in the Twin Cities for more than four decades.
That means little has changed when it comes to the Minnesota Vikings.
It wasn’t long ago that the likes of Jared Allen and Kevin Williams were mainstays on this unit. Now 33-year-old Brian Robison is the wily veteran on a starting front four that includes defensive tackles Sharrif Floyd and Linval Joseph, as well as defensive end Everson Griffen. That quintet combined for a modest 18.5 of the team’s 43 sacks, and more than half of those came from Griffen (10.5).
And that’s the beauty and depth of this group. Reserve Tom Johnson (5.5 sacks) and rookie Danielle Hunter (6.0) added 11.5 sacks of their own. The latter could be the heir apparent to Robison sooner than later. All told, Mike Zimmer’s defensive front accounted for 30 quarterback traps.
Vikings general manager Rick Spielman added defensive end Stephen Weatherly in April and has also used the draft in recent years to bolster the depth of this group. It’s hard to find a club that is both better and deeper on the defensive line.
Honorable Mention: Carolina Panthers, Cincinnati Bengals, Los Angeles Rams, Miami Dolphins
Linebacker: Carolina Panthers
Early in the 2015 season, we found out that the Carolina Panthers defense—minus middle linebacker Luke Kuechly for three games—was damn good. Led by Thomas Davis, this was a club that found other players to step up.
With Kuechly back in the lineup, the team reminded many that it has the best group of starting linebackers in the league. The three-time first-team All-Pro totaled a team-best 118 tackles while Davis finished second on the club with 105 stops. The latter added 5.5 sacks and four forced fumbles, and both Kuechly and Davis each picked off four passes.
Rookie Shaq Thompson also made his presence felt with 50 tackles and a sack in 14 games, making 10 starts in his debut campaign, and 2013 fifth-round draft choice A.J. Klein added 55 stops, one sack, an interception and a forced fumble.
The playmaking ability of this unit can’t be underestimated. Kuechly, Davis and Thompson, all former first-round picks, set the tempo for the team’s defense while the underrated Klein provides proven depth.
Honorable Mention: Chicago Bears, Cincinnati Bengals, Denver Broncos, Houston Texans
Secondary: Seattle Seahawks
A reunion with a former player means that opponents won’t be feeling good (as usual) when facing the Seattle Seahawks’ extremely talented secondary.
One-time Pro Bowler and Super Bowl XLIX champion Brandon Browner is now back with the club after one-year stints with both the Patriots (2014) and Saints (2015). He's coming off a rough year in New Orleans, but will now embrace a new role with his former employer.
The 31-year-old defender explained to Bob Condotta of the Seattle Times:
I love it. It’s kind of similar to some of the things I did in New England. I’ll be matched up on guys that fit my size, be in there on the run a little bit. It’ll show my skill set a little bit…Playing corner, it’s more of a one-on-one thing—we’re playing basketball out there on that island. When you’re in that box, that’s football, I think.
Led by cornerback Richard Sherman and safeties Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas, the Seahawks still own the league’s best secondary. The club allowed a mere 14 scores through the air in 2015 and were the only team in the league to surrender less than one touchdown pass per game. Seattle defenders also picked off 14 passes, all but one by a member of the secondary.
There’s experience in reserve cornerbacks Jeremy Lane and DeShawn Shead, as well as oft-injured Tharold Simon. It’s a unit with an old-school mindset that continues to impress in this modern era.
Honorable Mention: Cincinnati Bengals, Denver Broncos, Green Bay Packers, Oakland Raiders
Special Teams: Baltimore Ravens
Rick Gosselin of the Dallas Morning News annually evaluates the special teams units for all 32 NFL teams and does a masterful job.
Given the fact that the Baltimore Ravens still employ kicker Justin Tucker and punter Sam Koch, it’s hard to argue that head coach John Harbaugh (a former special teams coach) and Co. own the best corps in the league.
Tucker did miss seven field-goal attempts this past season, all from 45-plus yards, but finished seventh in the NFL in with 128 points—accounting for 39 percent of the team’s scoring output. Koch was a top-10 performer at his craft, averaging an impressive 46.7 gross yards per punt while finishing second in the NFL in net average (42.9).
Wide receiver Kaelin Clay was the team’s main threat on returns, and Baltimore’s kick coverage units were outstanding.
Honorable Mention: Los Angeles Rams, Philadelphia Eagles
Unless otherwise noted, all player and team statistics come from Pro-Football-Reference.com and ESPN.com. All player ratings courtesy of Pro Football Focus. All 2016 free-agent and salary-cap information, contract terms and 2016 transactions are courtesy of Spotrac. Depth charts via Ourlads.