The Best Player at Every Position in the NFL
The definition of "best" may vary from position to position, but one thing is for sure: There are some players who stand above all others as the guys you want on the field when the game is on the line.
Whether it's the league's most successful quarterback, the game's gold standard at receiver, terrific pass-rushers or even a punter (punters are people too), these are the best players at every position.
Quarterback: Tom Brady, New England Patriots
There are some great quarterbacks in the NFL. Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers, Drew Brees of the New Orleans Saints and Ben Roethlisberger of the Pittsburgh Steelers are no-doubt, mortal-lock first-ballot Hall of Famers.
However, annoying though it may be, it's the Golden Boy's world. Everyone else just lives in it.
Tom Brady might not have the biggest arm in the NFL. He's certainly not the fleetest of foot.
But Brady is a winner.
In 18 NFL seasons, he has amassed a 196-55 record. Yes, you read that right. Brady is 141 games over .500.
Never mind the 37 playoff starts, 27 victories, eight Super Bowls and five rings.
Over the last three years, the best sixth-round pick in NFL history has a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 96-to-17.
Again, yes, you read that right. Plus-79.
Brady isn't just the best quarterback in the NFL right now. He's the best there's ever been.
Running Back: Todd Gurley II, Los Angeles Rams
This was the most difficult decision on the list. There are a fistful of worthy candidates.
David Johnson of the Arizona Cardinals was impressively consistent two years ago, setting an NFL record with at least 100 yards in the first 15 games of the season. But Johnson sat out almost all of 2017 with a fractured wrist.
Ezekiel Elliott of the Dallas Cowboys might be the best fourth-quarter grinder in the NFL. But Elliott's passing-game chops aren't as good as some backs', and sometimes "best" means spearheading a comeback.
Le'Veon Bell of the Pittsburgh Steelers is as dangerous as any tailback when he has the ball in his hands. However, he's not the best choice to help milk the clock late to seal a win.
That leaves Todd Gurley II of the Los Angeles Rams.
Yes, Gurley's had only one huge year. But what a year it was—he averaged 4.7 yards per carry, caught 64 passes, scored 19 touchdowns and won the Offensive Player of the Year award.
Wide Receiver: Antonio Brown, Pittsburgh Steelers
Pittsburgh's Antonio Brown isn't just the best wide receiver in the NFL. He's the most well-rounded wide receiver in the NFL.
Is productivity your thing? Brown caught 101 passes (fifth in the league) for a league-leading 1,533 yards and nine scores (tied for fourth) a year ago.
More into consistency? The 2018 season was Brown's fifth straight with over 100 grabs. His average stat line over that span is an eye-popping 116/1,570/10.
Brown's also made his fair share of huge catches, whether it was last year's toe-dragging grab to help set up a game-winning field goal against the Green Bay Packers or his reach across the goal line against the hated Baltimore Ravens to seal the AFC North for the Steelers in 2016.
The NFL is loaded with great wide receivers, whether it's Julio Jones of the Atlanta Falcons, Odell Beckham Jr. of the New York Giants or A.J. Green of the Cincinnati Bengals. The list goes on and on.
But Brown is the best at the position.
Tight End: Travis Kelce, Kansas City Chiefs
This one was a difficult call.
An argument can be made for Rob Gronkowski of the New England Patriots as the league's best tight end. When he's healthy, there isn't a more dominant player in the game at the position.
But that "when healthy" caveat is a big one—Gronkowski hasn't played a full 16-game season since 2011.
Sometimes the best ability is availability.
Those durability issues opened the door for a younger player who is staking his own claim to the title of the NFL's best tight end.
Over the past two seasons, there hasn't been a more productive tight end than the Kansas City Chiefs' Travis Kelce. En route to making 83 catches for 1,038 yards and eight touchdowns last year, Kelce had nine games with at least 90 yards or a touchdown.
Kelce may not have beaten out Gronkowski on the NFL Top 100 list this year, but with the game on the line, there isn't a player at his position in the NFL I'd rather throw it to over the middle.
Offensive Tackle: Andrew Whitworth, Los Angeles Rams
This much can be said for Andrew Whitworth of the Los Angeles Rams: There isn't a more valuable player in the NFL at his position.
Before the 13th-year veteran arrived in La La Land, the Rams offensive line was a hot mess. As a result, young quarterback Jared Goff spent far too much of his rookie season running for his life.
It's rather hard to develop as a passer and flee in terror simultaneously.
The impact of Whitworth's arrival can't be overstated. The Rams jumped a full 20 spots in pass protection, per Football Outsiders, from 2016 to 2017. Todd Gurley II went from looking like a bust to the Offensive Player of the Year. And Goff went from lost as a rookie to second-year sensation.
Plus the Rams won the NFC West, if you're into that sorta thing.
Offensive Guard: Zack Martin, Dallas Cowboys
Zack Martin of the Dallas Cowboys might be a robot.
From the moment Martin took the field in 2014, he's been one of the best guards in the NFL. In all four of his years in the NFL, Martin's earned a trip to the Pro Bowl. He's been named an All-Pro twice.
He's also started all 64 games of his career.
As Dallas head coach Jason Garrett told ESPN.com's Todd Archer, there just isn't an area of the game in which Martin doesn't excel:
"He is a great technician. He is a really smart guy. He anticipates situations. And when he gets in bad situations he physically can recover because of the athlete that he is and the balance that he has. And the other part of that is the mentality and how he fights. He is one of those guys we use as an example with our team a lot about just how he plays."
There's a reason why the Cowboys just made Martin the highest-paid guard in history.
Center: Travis Frederick, Dallas Cowboys
It's almost as if there's a reason Ezekiel Elliott's picking up all those yards on the ground that doesn't have a ton to do with Elliott himself.
Like Zack Martin, Dallas center Travis Frederick isn't just a great player. He's a machine. In each of the past four seasons, the 6'4", 320-pound mauler has joined Martin as a Pro Bowler.
The NFL1000 crew here at Bleacher Report graded the league's top centers after the season. According to lead scout Doug Farrar, Frederick isn't just the best in the game at what he does.
It ain't close:
"Frederick is the gold standard at center. It is nearly impossible to beat him one-on-one in a strength battle because he's a leverage monster who'll drive his opponent out of the play. He's also great at quickly controlling his body in short spaces to deal with defenders on either shoulder. The 26-year-old has light feet and quickness to reset his body as a pass-blocker, which makes it tough for any defender to push him back or get past him. It's not often you can claim that one player stands head and shoulders above everyone at his position, but that can be said of Frederick—and it's been true for the last few seasons."
In related news, Farrar knows stuff.
4-3 Defensive End: Khalil Mack, Oakland Raiders
There wasn't a tougher call on this list than the defensive end position in four-man fronts. The NFL is stacked to the gills with great players at the position, from Joey Bosa of the Los Angeles Chargers to Calais Campbell of the Jacksonville Jaguars to Chandler Jones of the Arizona Cardinals.
That barely scratches the surface.
However, if your team absolutely, positively has to get a stop or sack the opposing quarterback, Khalil Mack of the Oakland Raiders is the guy you want on the field.
Mack's a three-time Pro Bowler and two-time All-Pro who was named the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year in 2016. He's also the only player in league history to be named an All-Pro at two different positions—in the same season.
That's just sick.
Mack's every bit the edge-setter against the run that he is a walking nightmare for quarterbacks. In each of the past three years, Mack's piled up over 70 tackles and double-digit sacks—all while being double- and even triple-teamed constantly.
3-4 Defensive End: J.J. Watt, Houston Texans
On one hand, it's fair to ask if Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt can really be called "the best" after he missed most of the last two seasons with back and leg injuries.
But as Deepi Sidhu of the team's official website reported, head coach Bill O' Brien told NFL Network he expects Watt to be at full Watt-age by Week 1.
"He's going to be back, he's going to be at full strength, and he's going to help us win a lot of games," O'Brien said.
If that's the case, look out.
Simply put, when Watt is at his best (or even close to it), he's one of the most dominant defenders who has ever played. He's one of just two players (Lawrence Taylor is the other) in league history to be named Defensive Player of the Year on three different occasions.
Over a four-year span from 2012 to 2015, Watt averaged 78.8 tackles and 17.3 sacks per season. Twice in that span, he posted a jaw-dropping 20.5 sacks. He also forced 15 fumbles in that span and pitched in an 80-yard pick-six.
And in 2014, Watt caught three touchdown passes—which was just showing off.
The injuries are a concern, but when he's on his game, Watt is light-years better than any other 3-4 end in the league.
Defensive Tackle: Aaron Donald, Los Angeles Rams
Some calls in this piece were difficult.
This was not one of those calls.
There are some really good defensive tackles in the NFL. And then there's Aaron Donald of the Los Angeles Rams.
From the moment Donald took the field, he's been one of the most disruptive defenders in the league. The 6'1", 280-pounder's first step is the stuff of legend. Sometimes it almost appears as if Donald's waiting in the offensive backfield for the ball to be snapped.
Twice in his four NFL seasons, Donald's recorded 11 sacks. His average stat line is 51 tackles and 9.8 sacks per season—ridiculous numbers for an interior lineman.
He's also faced double-teams all the time, too. With Ndamukong Suh now playing beside him in L.A., it's possible the best is yet to come for Donald.
Don't bet against him to bring home a second consecutive Defensive Player of the Year award in 2018.
He's dominant. He's relentless. He never, ever stops.
3-4 Outside Linebacker: Von Miller, Denver Broncos
It's only fair to split the outside linebackers just like the defensive ends—after all, the outside linebackers in a three-man front are tasked with a much different role than their 4-3 counterparts.
It's a simple role, really: Seek and destroy.
And in that regard, there's no one better in the NFL than the Denver Broncos' Von Miller.
Miller's 57 tackles and 10 sacks a year ago were considered a "down" season, which shows just how high the six-time Pro Bowler and three-time All-Pro has set the bar.
He's never won a sack title despite piling up 83.5 in seven seasons—one of those factoids that's almost unbelievable.
Only once in those seven years has Miller failed to record 10 sacks, and that was in 2013 when he missed seven games. Miller's extraordinary speed and burst off the edge have to be seen to be believed.
Miller also had one of the best games of his career in the biggest game of his career, notching six tackles, 2.5 sacks and two forced fumbles to win MVP honors in Super Bowl 50.
4-3 Outside Linebacker: Lavonte David, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Here's another one where injuries altered the call. Sean Lee of the Dallas Cowboys, when on the field, has been a consistent stalwart. But Lee also has a lengthy injury history that includes five missed games in 2017.
Lavonte David, to be fair, missed three games in his own right last year. But that's the most he's missed over his six seasons in the NFL. Of 96 possible games, David has started 91—and played at a high level in all of them.
His numbers have been down the past few seasons, but that's not a reflection of a drop-off in his play. Quite the opposite. While Kwon Alexander is almost always headed in one direction—straight ahead—David is often tasked with covering backs and tight ends.
He does that just as well as he stuffs the run. And rushes the passer.
It's that versatility that makes David so good. No matter what you ask the 28-year-old to do, he's going to do it at a Pro Bowl level.
Inside Linebacker: Bobby Wagner, Seattle Seahawks
It was painful not to include Luke Kuechly of the Carolina Panthers. He's a generational talent who led the NFL in tackles in his first season and won Defensive Player of the Year in his second.
But concussion concerns have dogged Kuechly in recent years, and, great though he may be, he can't help if he isn't on the field.
So the pick is a player who has been more durable and is every bit as talented.
Seattle Seahawks middle linebacker Bobby Wagner may be the most underrated defensive player in the NFL. He's a linchpin for a defense that was overshadowed for years by the Legion of Boom secondary.
Last year, that secondary was banged up, and Wagner kept the unit on the tracks. After pacing the NFL with 167 tackles in 2016, Wagner posted a career-high 97 solos a year ago, chipping in 1.5 sacks and a pair of interceptions.
Wagner has never failed to tally over 110 tackles in a season. His eight career interceptions are a testament to his quickness and range in coverage. And his 15.5 sacks are a testament to the havoc he can wreak with an A-gap blitz.
Plus, he's 27 and squarely in the prime of his career.
Cornerback: Patrick Peterson
There are plenty of cornerbacks in the NFL who had better statistical seasons in 2017 than the Arizona Cardinals' Patrick Peterson, who recorded just 34 tackles and a single interception.
There were also eight cornerbacks who ranked higher than Peterson in B/R's NFL1000.
So why did Peterson get the nod?
The shadow knows.
As Ian Wharton pointed out, Peterson is something of a rarity in today's NFL. Most teams have moved to a left cornerback/right cornerback setup. Corners defend a side and stick to that side.
Not Peterson. He spends his Sundays following the opponent's No. 1 receiver all over the field.
In other words, there's a reason why Peterson's numbers aren't as good as some corners'. He played arguably the most difficult role of any cornerback in the league—and made his seventh straight Pro Bowl.
Safety: Harrison Smith, Minnesota Vikings
Another difficult call—so much so that I considered splitting the safeties into "free" and "strong." However, in today's NFL, those designations are more label than reality. Versatility is key. The days of having a thumper in the box and a rangy safety in center field are going the way of the dinosaur. The best safeties can be both, making big stops against the run and notching interceptions against the pass.
In that regard, Harrison Smith is as good as it gets.
Three times in his six NFL seasons, Smith has eclipsed 90 tackles. He's also averaged 1.5 sacks per year and forced three fumbles.
Smith was the highest-graded strong safety in the NFL last year, according to B/R's NFL1000, receiving a coverage score of 23/25.
He also tied a career-high with five interceptions in 2017 and has amassed 17 picks in his career, earning Pro Bowl trips in each of the last three years.
He was an All-Pro in 2017 for a reason.
Kicker: Justin Tucker, Baltimore Ravens
Tucker is as close to automatic as kickers get in the NFL. Over the last two seasons, he has missed only four of his 76 field-goal attempts. In each of those seasons, the 28-year-old booted a 57-yarder. And the next time Tucker misses an extra point will be the first.
If he takes the field with the game on the line, turn out the lights.
Punter: Marquette King, Denver Broncos
Yes, King is something of a chucklehead who antic-ed his way right out of Oakland.
But he's also an excellent young punter who has averaged over 47 yards a kick in three separate seasons. Per PurplePTSD.com, King was also effective on "short field" kicks.
On punts from his own 40-yard line or closer to the opponent's goal line, King's kicks covered 77.8 percent of the available yards.
In other words, he's really good at pinning opponents deep.
Return Man: Tyreek Hill, Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefs pulled Hill off kick return duties last year, but just because he wasn't doing it doesn't mean he can't. As a rookie, Hill averaged 27.4 yards per kick return and took one back 86 yards for a score.
The 24-year-old is every bit as dangerous when it comes to returning punts. In just two seasons, Hill has three punt return touchdowns, including a 95-yarder back in 2016.
Why anyone kicks to him is a mystery.