The Most Dominant Player at Every Position Heading into 2019 NFL Season

Kristopher Knox@@kris_knoxFeatured ColumnistJuly 18, 2019

The Most Dominant Player at Every Position Heading into 2019 NFL Season

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    There are several ways to rate NFL players. Raw statistics are one option, while websites like Pro Football Focus use advanced metrics to determine player grades. The Madden video game franchise has its own ratings system—which has drawn a variety of reactions from players.

    A wide range of information can be used to make a valid argument about the "best" players at each position.

    When determining which players are the most dominant, however, things are more subjective. A player's ability to take over a game doesn't always show up on the stat sheet or in efficiency ratings.

    Instead, it's better to ask the following question: Which players consistently produce even when stopping them is one of the biggest focuses of the opposition?

    Based on factors like proven production, consistency, accolades and the eye test, these are the most dominant players at each position heading into the 2019 NFL season.

           

Quarterback: Tom Brady, New England Patriots

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    There's something special about New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. Though he isn't often the most impressive quarterback in the league—in 2018, that was definitely Patrick Mahomes—Brady's continued dominance over the NFL is unsurpassed.

    Even at 41 years old, Brady was spectacular last season. He passed for 4,355 yards with 29 touchdowns and 11 interceptions, and he once again led the Patriots to a Super Bowl victory. He's 6-3 in the NFL's biggest game, and since becoming a starter in 2001, he has reached the Super Bowl as many times as he's missed it.

    Brady is also a 14-time Pro Bowler and hasn't missed out on an all-star selection since 2008—the year he tore his ACL in Week 1.

    Is Brady the most talented quarterback heading into 2019? No, but there probably isn't a player opposing teams fear more in the fourth quarter of an important game. Until he finally reaches the proverbial cliff and the Patriots miss the playoffs—which they've only done once with a healthy Brady as their starter—he's the most dominant quarterback in the NFL.

Running Back: Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas Cowboys

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    New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley was arguably the most dominant running back in 2018. He topped 2,000 combined rushing and receiving yards as a rookie, an extremely rare feat.

    However, Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott also topped 2,000 yards (1,434 rushing, 567 receiving), and he led the league in rushing for the second time in three seasons.

    Elliott gets the edge heading into 2019, although Barkley could soon take his crown.

    Elliott has been consistently great since entering the league in 2016. He's averaged 101 yards rushing, 30 yards receiving and 0.85 touchdowns per game and is the centerpiece of the Cowboys offense.

    A physical grinder who seems to thrive on a heavy workload, Elliott is hard to stop even when teams gear up to do so. He forces defenders into the box with his physical running style, setting things up for quarterback Dak Prescott and the passing attack. However, Elliott is also able to sneak out of the backfield and produce as a pass-catcher.

    In 2018 alone, he averaged 4.7 yards per carry while also catching 77 passes. No non-quarterback has been more important to an NFL offense than Elliott over the past three seasons, and he continues to dominate.

Wide Receiver: DeAndre Hopkins, Houston Texans

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    Plenty of wide receivers have a legitimate claim to the throne of best in the NFL. Julio Jones, Odell Beckham Jr., Antonio Brown, Michael Thomas and A.J. Green have all looked like unstoppable offensive forces.

    Houston Texans wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins has been just as productive, though, and he's done so largely independent of circumstance.

    Hopkins hasn't had a future Hall of Famer to throw him the ball—Deshaun Watson isn't there yet, folks—like Beckham, Brown and Thomas have. He hasn't enjoyed a reliable No. 2 receiver to help dictate coverage like Jones. And unlike Green, Hopkins has been about as durable as they come, missing one game in six seasons.

    Hopkins has racked up 7,437 yards receiving and 47 touchdowns in six years. He's twice amassed more than 1,500 yards in a season and is a two-time first-team All-Pro. What's scary is that Hopkins is just entering his prime at 27 years old and finally appears to have a franchise quarterback.

Slot Receiver: Julian Edelman, New England Patriots

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    It's hard to write the history of the NFL without mentioning Patriots receiver Julian Edelman. He's responsible for some of the biggest catches in recent Super Bowl history and has a Super Bowl MVP award on his resume. He's also second all-time in postseason receptions behind only Jerry Rice.

    Edelman's dominance isn't just about postseason success, though. He's a reliable pass-catcher—arguably Tom Brady's most trusted target over the past few years—and versatile, capable of winning matchups in a variety of ways.

    "He can block, can break a tackle and pound-for-pound is very strong," one former Patriots employee told The Athletic's Bruce Feldman. "The guy's toughness and competitiveness is in the 1 percent of people in the NFL. He is rare."

    While Edelman isn't widely viewed as a prolific receiver, he's been more productive than you might realize. He missed all of 2017 with a torn ACL, but over the past three healthy seasons, he has averaged 71.6 yards receiving and 0.43 touchdowns per game.

    If Edelman maintains these averages in 2019—and remains healthy—he'll be on pace for 1,146 yards and seven touchdowns. Those are tremendous numbers for a guy who plays primarily out of the slot.

Tight End: Travis Kelce, Kansas City Chiefs

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    The emergence of Patrick Mahomes brought new energy and a new dynamic to the Kansas City Chiefs offense in 2018. Yet one key member of that offense has been dominating since Mahomes was a freshman in college.

    In 2014, tight end Travis Kelce finished the season with 862 yards receiving and five touchdowns. Those are terrific numbers for a second-year tight end and a first-year starter, but they were only a sign of things to come.

    Kelce had 875 yards receiving in 2015 and has topped the 1,000-yard mark in each season since. He's a four-time Pro Bowler, a two-time first-team All-Pro and arguably the most important player on Kansas City's offense outside of Mahomes.

    Mahomes does make the Chiefs offense more explosive, but Kelce's dominance is independent of that. With "game manager" Alex Smith under center in 2017, the tight end still managed to rack up 1,038 yards and eight touchdowns in 15 appearances.

    While young tight ends like George Kittle of the San Francisco 49ers may soon push him for the title of most dominant, Kelce currently wears the crown.

Offensive Tackle: David Bakhtiari, Green Bay Packers

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    Green Bay Packers offensive tackle David Bakhtiari is the highest-rated tackle in this year's version of the Madden video game. That's great news for Bakhtiari and for Packers fans who have watched him shine for the past six seasons—but that's not why he makes this list.

    The reality is that Bakhtiari has quietly developed into the league's best tackle. He doesn't get as much media attention as he probably deserves. In fact, he's been named to just one Pro Bowl during his career, in 2016.

    Yet Bakhtiari was a first-team All-Pro this past season and has twice been named to the All-Pro second team. Pro Football Focus also named Bakhtiari its 2018 Pass Blocker of the Year.

    "Bakhtiari is currently the gold standard for pass protection in the NFL," Michael Renner of Pro Football Focus wrote. "There are better run blockers and more impressive athletes playing tackle today, but no one is stingier in pass protection than the Packers left tackle."

Interior Offensive Lineman: Jason Kelce, Philadelphia Eagles

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    Though guards and centers obviously do not play the same position, their responsibilities are largely the same: Protect against the interior pass rush and help spring the inside running game. No one has been better at this over the past few seasons than Philadelphia Eagles center Jason Kelce.

    "Jason Kelce may very well be the best all-around offensive linemen in the NFL," Mike Johnson of Pro Football Focus wrote.

    Kelce, a two-time Pro Bowler, has been named a first-team All-Pro each of the past two years. He's reliable—he hasn't missed a game since 2014—and he played a huge role in the Eagles' winning their first Super Bowl in franchise history in 2017.

    Though Kelce will turn 32 this season, he's showing no signs of slowing down. He recently won Philadelphia's offseason strength and conditioning competition.

    "He won it two years ago, and he won it again this spring," head coach Doug Pederson said, via the team's official website. "That guy is unbelievable."

    Eagles fans may note that two years ago, Philadelphia also won a Lombardi Trophy.

Defensive Lineman: Aaron Donald, Los Angeles Rams

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    Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald isn't just the most dominant defensive lineman in the NFL. He's the most dominant player, period.

    "The things he does on film, it looks like a cheat code," Chicago Bears quarterback Mitchell Trubisky said of Donald on NFL Network.

    Donald has won back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year awards, is a four-time first-team All-Pro and has led the league in sacks once. In five pro seasons, he's amassed 264 tackles, 13 forced fumbles and 59.5 sacks from the defensive interior. Those are ridiculous numbers for a down lineman.

    Donald's dominance goes beyond the numbers. He racks up stats despite regularly facing double- and triple-team situations. He's disruptive against both the run and the pass, and he completely alters what opposing teams are able to do offensively.

    Donald is also just 28 years old, which means he's likely to remain the NFL's most dominant defensive tackle for the foreseeable future.

Edge-Rusher: Von Miller, Denver Broncos

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    From Khalil Mack and Demarcus Lawrence to T.J. Watt and Myles Garrett, several talented edge-rushers play in the NFL today. However, Denver Broncos linebacker Von Miller is as dangerous as any of them and has been dominating longer than most.

    Miller was named NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year back in 2011 and has made the Pro Bowl in seven of his eight pro seasons. The three-time first-team All-Pro has also won a Super Bowl MVP award. He's reached double-digit sacks in all but one season and has 98 for his career to go with 443 tackles, 19 passes defended, two interceptions and 25 forced fumbles.

    Miller's dominance isn't just about longevity and consistency, though. He's still as elite a defender as you'll find in the NFL, and he remains one of the league's biggest playmakers. Miller finished the 2018 season tied for fourth in sacks with 14.5.

    Behind Donald, Miller may be the defender that opposing offenses game-plan around most.

Linebacker: Bobby Wagner, Seattle Seahawks

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    While young players like Leighton Vander Esch and Darius Leonard are making names for themselves at linebacker, don't forget about Seattle Seahawks veteran Bobby Wagner. The 29-year-old has been a model of consistency and dominance.

    A five-time Pro Bowler, Wagner has also been a regular fixture on the All-Pro team. He's been a first-team All-Pro each of the past three seasons and in 2014, and he made the second team in 2015.

    Wagner has produced more than 100 tackles in each of his seven NFL seasons. He's averaged 140 tackles per season, more than 80 of which are solo stops. He's a smart, fast and physical sideline-to-sideline defender with an uncanny ability to react mid-play and flow to the football.

    Last season alone, Wagner racked up 138 tackles, 84 solo tackles, a career-high 11 passes defended, an interception returned for a score, a sack and two forced fumbles.

    Oh, and for those keeping track, Wagner was one of only four players to receive a perfect 99 rating in Madden this year.

Cornerback: Stephon Gilmore, New England Patriots

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    When the Patriots signed cornerback Stephon Gilmore to a five-year, $65 million deal a couple of offseasons ago, it seemed like a bold and perhaps risky move. However, Gilmore has proved to be a perfect fit in New England's defense and a dominant defender.

    Over the past two seasons, Gilmore has amassed 95 tackles, four interceptions, two forced fumbles and a ridiculous 29 passes defended. He has 91 passes defended and 18 interceptions in his seven-year career. He also has two Pro Bowl nods and one first-team All-Pro selection.

    What's most impressive about Gilmore is his ability to perform in big games. As Henry McKenna of Patriots Wire recently pointed out, the South Carolina product was the anchor of the Patriots defense during their latest Super Bowl run.

    'Targeting Gilmore 19 times during the playoffs, opposing quarterbacks posted a 38.2 passer rating, a figure which is worse than if every ball landed out of bounds," McKenna wrote.

    Gilmore is generally tasked with locking down the opposing team's best receiver, and he tends to win far more often than he doesn't.

Slot Defender: Chris Harris Jr., Denver Broncos

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    Going into his ninth NFL season, Denver Broncos cornerback Chris Harris Jr. is still one of the league's most reliable pass defenders. Though capable of holding his own on the outside, he's at his best playing against slot receivers in sub-packages.

    "In 2018, 58 percent of Harris' snaps were spent covering the slot, and he was dominant for most of them, finishing with a league-high 12.7 coverage snaps per reception allowed, all while not allowing a single touchdown," Cameron Pezet of Pro Football Focus wrote.

    Far from a one-year wonder, Harris has been dominant in the slot for multiple seasons. He is a four-time Pro Bowler, a first-team All-Pro in 2016 and a Super Bowl champion. Since going undrafted in 2011, Harris has amassed 462 tackles, 83 passes defended, five forced fumbles, four touchdowns and 19 interceptions.

    "Chris Harris Jr. is arguably the league's top slot corner over the past eight years," Pro Football Focus tweeted in April.

    Harris should remain one of the league's top slot corners for the foreseeable future.

Safety: Harrison Smith, Minnesota Vikings

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    One can certainly make an argument that Baltimore Ravens safety Earl Thomas is the most dominant safety in the league today. However, injuries have robbed him of the ability to dominate the competition recently—he missed 12 games last season and has missed 19 over the past three.

    Minnesota Vikings safety Harrison Smith, on the other hand, has missed just two games over the past three years and has been one of the league's best defenders. He's racked up 253 tackles, 20 passes defended, eight interceptions and 6.5 sacks since 2016. He was a first-team All-Pro in 2017 and has been to the Pro Bowl each of the last four seasons.

    In addition, Smith has been an absolute nightmare for the rival Packers. Pro Football Focus' Ben Linsey recently listed Smith as Green Bay's team-killer.

    Smith's dominance over a hated division rival helps earn him a spot on this list, but his consistency, production and relative durability make him the league's most dominant safety heading into 2019.