The NFL's Most Dominant Position Units Heading into 2017 Season

Sean Tomlinson@@SeanGTomlinsonNFL AnalystAugust 24, 2017

The NFL's Most Dominant Position Units Heading into 2017 Season

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    RICK SCUTERI/Associated Press

    Having a dominant position unit can vault an NFL team into playoff contention.

    Having several can get a team deep into January and closer to hanging a banner.

    Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, for example, led his team en route to his first MVP award in 2016. But the support he received from running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman made Atlanta's offense far more dynamic.

    Being deep at one position can spread around the playmaking burden. Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota knows that feeling well.

    The former No. 2 overall pick has steadily progressed in each of his two NFL seasons, in part due to the stonewalling offensive line in front of him. Mariota feels safe and secure in the pocket, and he's able to watch as the team's O-line opens up gaping holes for Titans running backs to gallop through.

    Being dominant in one area also improves others. The New York Giants might be able to squeeze a few more years out of quarterback Eli Manning's career because of the pass-catchers around him now. The Houston Texans' ferocious defensive line gives cornerbacks license to be more aggressive in coverage, knowing the opposing passer won't have much time.

    In many ways, teams plant their championship seeds by having one standout position unit, let alone several. 

    Let's look more closely at the best position units for 2017, starting with the depth of that Falcons backfield.

Running Backs: Atlanta Falcons

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    Devonta Freeman
    Devonta FreemanBob Leverone/Associated Press

    The measuring stick for a running back depth chart is simple: How many ways can the stable of backs beat a defense? In that sense, quality depth comes down to having a distinctive change of pace and a role for each runner, or trotting out a set of versatile backs.

    The Falcons have gone with the latter option. They have two running backs who are nearly interchangeable in terms of their skill sets and what they do well.

    One is much better than the other, which is why Atlanta just rewarded Devonta Freeman for his two straight seasons with 1,000-plus rushing yards. The team recently signed him to a five-year contract extension worth $41.25 million after he was a central figure in its 2016 season that should have ended with a Super Bowl win.

    The Falcons went 11-5 while Freeman produced 1,541 yards from scrimmage, the league's seventh-highest total. He's also a surprisingly effective goal-line runner at his size (5'8" and 206 pounds), and he packs a compact punch. Freeman has scored 11 rushing touchdowns in each of the past two seasons, though he separates himself as a pass-catcher. His 462 receiving yards in 2016 ranked fifth at his position.

    Tevin Coleman wasn't far behind, which is what sets apart the Falcons' running backs.

    Coleman, a third-round pick heading into his third season, ranked eighth among running backs in 2016 with 421 receiving yards. He's a little larger than Freeman at 6'1" and 210 pounds, and he excels as a downhill runner between the tackles. That's how he averaged 4.4 yards per carry in 2016 and chipped in 941 yards from scrimmage.

    The Falcons don't lose anything around the goal line with Coleman, either. He's scored nine rushing touchdowns over two seasons and added three more through the air.

    Both Freeman and Coleman provide a steady does of slipperiness in space, and each can convert in the area of the field where it matters most. Together, they're two dynamic pieces of a scary offense.

    Honorable mention: Tennessee Titans, New England Patriots

Quarterbacks: New England Patriots

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    Jimmy Garoppolo
    Jimmy GaroppoloJim Rogash/Getty Images

    Any team with solid quarterback depth is lucky enough to employ one of the league's few franchise-altering passers. That narrows the possibilities for the best QB depth chart significantly.

    The real question is this: How screwed are you if that quarterback misses a chunk of the season?

    Generally speaking, if someone like the Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger or the Saints' Drew Brees suffers a season-ending injury early in the year, championship aspirations start circling the drain. But what happens when a quarterback of that caliber suffers a less serious injury, and has to miss three to four games?

    If a second-string quarterback can step in seamlessly and lead his team to a .500 record or better when the starter is out, he's a solid backup. That's why the New England Patriots clearly tout the NFL's best quarterback depth chart.

    Tom Brady began the 2016 season with a four-game suspension, which could have derailed an otherwise promising year. But the Patriots were rightfully confident in Jimmy Garoppolo, who they drafted with a second-round pick in 2014 as Brady's potential successor. 

     Want more Patriots news and analysis? Get the new B/R app and follow New England all season long.

    Garoppolo started the first two games during Brady's 2016 suspension and shined in both, averaging 8.4 yards per pass attempt while throwing four touchdown passes without an interception. Garoppolo also completed 71.2 percent of his throws during two wins. However, he suffered a shoulder injury in Week 2, which reduced the Patriots to their third quarterback.

    Surely the wheels would fall off with third-stringer Jacoby Brissett under center, right? Nope. The third-round rookie did enough to beat a tough Houston Texans defense in Week 3 under the Thursday night spotlight. The highlight of that 27-0 shutout was Brissett's 27-yard touchdown run.

    The Patriots went 3-1 while their future first-ballot Hall of Fame quarterback served his suspension. That's the definition of great depth at the most important position in football.

    Honorable mention: Green Bay Packers, Washington Redskins

Offensive Line: Tennessee Titans

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    Taylor Lewan
    Taylor LewanJames Kenney/Associated Press

    Over the past four drafts, the Titans used two first-round picks on offensive tackles, selecting Taylor Lewan 11th overall in 2014 and Jack Conklin eighth overall in 2016. They shoveled cash in Ben Jones' direction, too, signing the center to a four-year, $17.5 million contract.

    After that sort of investment in the O-line, Titans running backs should be able to run wherever they want, whenever they want. That's basically what happened in 2016.

    The Titans finished third in overall rushing yards (2,187) and tied for fourth in yards per carry (4.6). Lead running back DeMarco Murray posted five games with 100-plus rushing yards and finished with the third-most rushing yards (1,287) in the league, trailing only Dallas' Ezekiel Elliott and Chicago's Jordan Howard.

    It didn't matter who touched the ball behind Tennessee's offensive line. Derrick Henry, Murray's backfield running mate and the Titans' 2016 second-round pick, averaged 4.5 yards per carry on his 110 attempts.

    Massive holes opened up weekly. And although run blocking is where Tennessee's muscle up front thrived, the offensive line also kept Mariota well-protected. He was sacked only 23 times, a sharp decline from 38 sacks he endured as a rookie in 2015.

    Continuity only makes an offensive line better. This unit is now set to grow together, with Conklin and Lewan serving as the firm anchors on either side.

    Honorable mention: Dallas Cowboys, Green Bay Packers

Pass-Catchers: New York Giants

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    Seth Wenig/Associated Press

    Odell Beckham Jr. alone can make any wide receiver group terrifying.

    He took the shortest amount of time in league history to record 3,500-plus receiving yards, according to NFL Research. But he didn't stop there. Beckham became one of only two players ever to log 4,000-plus receiving yards over the first three seasons of a career.

    Even a lit fuse like Beckham still needs support, and so does his quarterback, Eli Manning. Pounding one receiver with targets can backfire, especially for an aging passer whose arm strength is declining. That's no longer a concern, however, as the Giants are overflowing with talent and athleticism among their pass-catchers.

    New York's first major addition of the 2017 offseason was Brandon Marshall, a free agent who has made a career out of catching poorly thrown footballs. He knows how to use his 6'4", 229-pound frame and is an inviting red-zone target. He's recorded six seasons with 100-plus receptions, the most recent of which came in 2015. He also grabbed a career-high 14 touchdown receptions that year with the New York Jets.

    That size and his reliable hands aren't going anywhere, even though he's now 33 years old. Marshall isn't heavily reliant on pure speed, which means he should age more gracefully than most.

    Even if he does begin to decline, the Giants have more pass-catching depth. Sterling Shepard dodged a training camp injury scare and came away with only a mild ankle sprain. The 2016 second-round pick is capable of a leap forward in his second year because of his downfield speed and route-running ability, both of which helped him snag eight touchdown receptions as a rookie.

    Manning also now has an athletically gifted tight end after the Giants used their 2017 first-round pick on Evan Engram. He finished his collegiate career in 2016 with 926 yards and eight touchdowns for Ole Miss.

    Manning might be nearing the end of his career at the age of 36. But time and the slow descent toward retirement are the only excuses he has in 2017. 

    Honorable mention: Pittsburgh Steelers, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Defensive Line: Houston Texans

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    Grant Halverson/Getty Images

    Let's assume J.J. Watt is going to return and be nightmare fuel for anyone who tries to block him.

    We've been given no reason to think otherwise throughout the offseason as the Houston Texans defensive end recovers from a back injury. Watt was on the field to get in a few live snaps during the Texans' preseason opener, and prior to training camp, he told Aaron Wilson of the Houston Chronicle that his back feels great.

    If Watt avoids any further injuries, it's fair to wonder whether anyone will get a pass attempt off cleanly against the Texans.

    We're all well-acquainted with Watt's greatness by now. To review: The three-time Defensive Player of the Year was the first in league history to record 20-plus single-season sacks twice, and he's notched 76 sacks in 83 career regular-season games. At the age of 28, he still has plenty of prime years remaining.

    He'll be returning to slide in across from Jadeveon Clowney, who started to demonstrate why Houston took him first overall in 2014 by becoming a game-wrecker late in the 2016 season. After recording three sacks over his final three games, he took over the Texans' playoff win over the Oakland Raiders with two passes defensed and an interception.

    The Texans' pass-rushing force doesn't end there, as they also have outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus flying off the edge. Mercilus has totaled 19.5 sacks over the past two seasons, and he finished seventh among all 3-4 outside linebackers in 2016 with 64 pressures, per Pro Football Focus.

    The most imposing opponent for Houston's defensive line isn't any offensive line. No, it's busted bones and ripped muscles. Clowney has missed 17 games over three NFL seasons, and Watt played only three in 2016.

    But if Watt and Clowney can stay on the field together, they will be meeting at the quarterback often. 

    Honorable mention: New York Giants, Denver Broncos

Linebackers: Carolina Panthers

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    Luke Kuechly
    Luke KuechlyGrant Halverson/Getty Images

    The Carolina Panthers' linebacker duo is glued to the football on seemingly every play. Although both Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly can inflict plenty of pain as run defenders, what separates them is their ability in coverage.

    Both of them can almost function like an extra safety with the amount of ground they cover while dropping back up the middle. That's especially true with Kuechly, who might only now be entering his prime at the age of 26.

    The four-time Pro Bowler has snatched 12 interceptions over his five NFL seasons. That includes two years with four picks, the most recent of which came in 2015. That year, Kuechly set the standard for what it means to consistently create mismatches in the defense's favor as a linebacker. He allowed a league-low 57.8 passer rating in coverage, per PFF, while the league average for linebackers in 2015 was 102.5.

    Kuechly missed six games due to a concussion in 2016, but he still grabbed an interception and recorded six passes defensed. Even more impressively, he needed just 10 games to finish with 102 tackles.

    Over his 71 career regular-season games, Kuechly has piled up 693 tackles, an average of 9.8 per game. He does more than just tackle and swat away footballs for a living, though. He also breaks spirits alongside a veteran who remains effective at the age of 34.

    Davis has averaged 108.5 tackles per season over the past four years. During that stretch, he also finished with at least 2.5 sacks each season, topping out at 5.5 in 2015. Like Kuechly, his natural instincts and athleticism make him a shutdown presence in coverage. He's tallied seven interceptions over the past two years alone.

    As Davis ages, Shaq Thompson may get more snaps in 2017specifically more passing-down work. That isn't a downgrade by any means, as he finished 2016 with five passes defensed, an interception and 56 tackles while playing a modest 49.9 percent of the Panthers' defensive snaps.

    Honorable mention: Seattle Seahawks, Green Bay Packers

Defensive Backs: Denver Broncos

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    Aqib Talib
    Aqib TalibDon Juan Moore/Getty Images

    Getting a pass off against the Denver Broncos defense can be a challenge with outside linebackers Von Miller and Shane Ray collapsing the pocket. But when quarterback does successfully launch a throw against Denver's secondary, it rarely finds a friendly greeting on the other end.

    In 2016, the Broncos secondary allowed a completion percentage of just 55.4. That led the league by a wide margin, as the Kansas City Chiefs were far back in second with a percentage of 58.5.

    And when the Broncos do allow completions, they're often not for long gains. They gave up a league-low 32 receptions for 20-plus yards in 2016, and their 5.8 yards allowed per attempt also led the league.

    The driving force behind the suffocating secondary are cornerbacks Chris Harris and Aqib Talib, who combined to allow only 750 yards in coverage during the 2016 season, per PFF. Talib was the only full-time starting cornerback in 2016 not to give up a touchdown, according to PFF.

    Those two received plenty of safety support as well, with T.J. Ward making their lives easier by contributing to Denver's lethal pass rush and Darian Stewart covering a lot of ground while patrolling the middle. The latter finished 2016 with a career-high three interceptions, while the former recorded 17 pressures, per PFF, as the league's best blitzing safety. 

    Honorable mentionNew York Giants, New England Patriots

Specialists: Kansas City Chiefs

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    Alex Gallardo/Associated Press

    Kicking even in the general vicinity of Tyreek Hill can end poorly.

    He often gives the gift of great field position to his offense, turning small openings into large gains during his punt returns. As a rookie, Hill was in his own private tier, easily blowing away the rest of the league with his consistent weekly production. The 23-year-old finished with 592 yards on punt returns in 2016, while the Rams' Tavon Austin, who finished second to Hill, was a speck in the rearview mirror with 336 yards.

    Hill also averaged 27.4 yards on his 14 kick returns, and he scored three return touchdowns on punts and kickoffs combined. He's the catalyst for much of what the Chiefs do offensively, which starts before the offense even takes the field.

    Kansas City's quality special teams play extends beyond Hill. The team's coverage unit gave up only 5.2 yards per punt return in 2016, which ranked third. Kicker Cairo Santos is also reliably accurate despite often kicking in less than ideal conditions. He hit 88.6 percent of his attempts in 2016, the seventh-best percentage league-wide, including two kicks from 50-plus yards. He also missed only once in the 40- to 49-yard range. 

    Honorable mention: Baltimore Ravens, New York Giants


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