Projecting the Best Player at Every Position for the 2021 NFL Season
Now that we're no longer recovering from the Super Bowl or reveling in free agency or the draft, we can finally set our sights on the 2021 NFL season.
We know what the schedule looks like, we know how every depth chart will generally look, and it's almost time to start with the training camp hype.
That being the case, let's set the table broadly with a forward-looking rundown of the top players at each regular position in the league.
We'll take recent production and performances into account, with a particular emphasis on 2020 but some credit for previous accomplishments. But because we're projecting, we'll also consider age, momentum and potential.
Let's jump in with the league's current prince.
Quarterback: Patrick Mahomes, Kansas City Chiefs
Patrick Mahomes might not have been as awesome as Lamar Jackson in 2019 or as outstanding as Aaron Rodgers in 2020, but that doesn't change the fact that he remains the best player at the sport's most critical position.
The 25-year-old is an MVP, a Super Bowl MVP, a three-time Pro Bowler and the highest-rated passer in NFL history by a wide margin. That doesn't account for the unquantifiable magic that we've all witnessed over the last three years, or the factors he's overcome the last two seasons (injuries in 2019, unstable pass protection in 2020).
Rodgers is coming off a better season, Jackson is a factor despite regressing a tad in 2020, and watch out for 2020 MVP runner-up Josh Allen. But when you take the last few seasons together, none of those guys holds a candle to Patrick Lavon Mahomes II.
Honorable mention: Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers
Running Back: Nick Chubb, Cleveland Browns
This one is likely to be more controversial since Tennessee Titans back Derrick Henry rushed for more than 2,000 yards in 2020, but keep in mind that we're projecting.
Henry has compiled a ridiculous 3,567 rushing yards and 35 total touchdowns over the last two seasons, putting himself on a Hall of Fame track. But he's a hard runner with more than 700 touches in that span, and it's fair to wonder if he's already peaked heading into his age-27 campaign.
In 2021, he'll pass the baton to Nick Chubb of the Cleveland Browns, who is the NFL's only other running back with more than 2,500 yards and a yards-per-attempt average of 5.0 or higher over the last two years.
In terms of YPA, Chubb beat out Henry by a margin of 5.25 over 5.24. He also broke tackles more frequently than Henry in 2020.
Henry's been a much more dominant force overall, but the shelf lives of running backs tend to be short. We're rolling with the younger player who has far more tread on his tires in this spot.
Honorable mention: Derrick Henry, Tennessee Titans
Wide Receiver: Davante Adams, Green Bay Packers
Earlier this offseason, I gave an edge to Tyreek Hill of the Kansas City Chiefs over Green Bay Packers wide receiver Davante Adams. But that was an extremely close call, and I've since reconsidered the order at the top of that list.
It's pretty close to a toss-up. Hill is a much more significant deep threat (he scored a league-high nine touchdowns on deep balls in 2020, compared to only three for Adams), he's a year younger than Adams, and his and Adams' receiving yardage and touchdown numbers are almost identical over the last three seasons (3,757 yards and 36 touchdowns for Adams; 3,615 yards and 34 touchdowns for Hill).
It helps that Adams had the MVP throwing him passes in 2020, but Hill had the MVP as his quarterback in 2018 and Mahomes still beat out Rodgers earlier in this exercise.
Plus, that doesn't change the fact Adams dropped only one of the 149 passes thrown his way in 2020 (compared to five drops on 135 targets for Hill), which is unreal. Rodgers posted a wild 136.0 passer rating on Adams' targets last season, and the off-the-charts campaign was far from a complete aberration for the 28-year-old wideout.
Adams caught 111 passes for 1,386 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2018 before a foot injury derailed in 2019 season. He's one of only three receivers (along with Michael Thomas and Julio Jones) averaging more than 90 receiving yards per game since the start of 2018.
In addition to leading the league with 98.1 receiving yards per game in 2020, the four-time Pro Bowler led all wideouts in DYAR (defense-adjusted yards above replacement) at Football Outsiders and earned the top grade among qualified receivers at Pro Football Focus.
Hill might be more of a scoring threat on a play-by-play basis, but he isn't as dynamic as Adams.
Honorable mention: Tyreek Hill, Kansas City Chiefs
Tight End: Travis Kelce, Kansas City Chiefs
There's no doubt about this one after Travis Kelce was a unanimous first-team All-Pro following a historic 2020 season for the Chiefs.
Sure, Henry was equally dominant at running back, but tight ends don't hit walls as quickly as backs. To wit, Kelce has put up at least 1,000 yards in five consecutive Pro Bowl campaigns.
In 2020, the 31-year-old became the first tight end ever to compile more than 1,400 yards in a single season, and he now owns three of the nine most prolific seasons in NFL history for a tight end. He ranked third in the league behind only Adams and Stefon Diggs with 94.4 yards per game, which is astonishing for a tight end.
George Kittle of the San Francisco 49ers deserves to be part of this conversation as well after putting up 2,430 receiving yards across the 2018 and 2019 seasons. However, injuries crushed his 2020 campaign, and Kelce scored nearly as many touchdowns in 2020 (11) as Kittle has in his NFL career (14).
Instead, Kelce beats out emerging runner-up Darren Waller, who exploded for a career-high 1,196 receiving yards and nine touchdowns in a breakout season for the Las Vegas Raiders in 2020.
Honorable mention: Darren Waller, Las Vegas Raiders
Offensive Tackle: Tristan Wirfs, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The trajectory is impossible to ignore for Tampa Bay Buccaneers offensive tackle Tristan Wirfs, who was 21 for almost his entire dominant rookie season protecting Tom Brady for the Super Bowl champions.
David Bakhtiari might have been better on the left side for the Packers, but he's approaching 30 and is recovering from a major knee injury. Ditto for Ronnie Stanley, who was arguably the NFL's best young left tackle before he suffered a significant ankle injury in 2020. Andrew Whitworth, Duane Brown and Trent Williams are stalwarts and standouts, but they're 39, 35 and 32, respectively.
Taking pure talent and momentum into account, that leaves Wirfs, Denver Broncos late-bloomer Garett Bolles and veterans Terron Armstead, Jack Conklin and Laremy Tunsil. However, none of them possess close to as much raw talent and upside as Wirfs.
Honorable mention: Garett Bolles, Denver Broncos
Guard: Quenton Nelson, Indianapolis Colts
What more can you ask for from Indianapolis Colts guard Quenton Nelson, who has been a first-team All-Pro and a Pro Bowler in all three of his NFL seasons and should only get better in his age-25 campaign?
The 2018 No. 6 overall pick has missed only a handful of snaps in his career, and he's given up a paltry three sacks on 1,822 career pass-blocking snaps, according to PFF. His 90.8 PFF grade since coming into the league leads all qualified guards.
He's good enough to make a massive impact at tackle if the Colts eventually choose to kick him outside in light of Anthony Castonzo's retirement, although it looks as though that won't be necessary right now with Sam Tevi and Eric Fisher joining the fray.
Regardless, he towers over fellow distinguished guards Joel Bitonio and Brandon Scherff, both of whom are several years older and haven't been as consistently awesome.
Honorable mention: Joel Bitonio, Cleveland Browns
Center: Frank Ragnow, Detroit Lions
As PFF's second-ranked center in 2020, Frank Ragnow of the Detroit Lions surrendered zero sacks, was responsible for only one quarterback hit and took only one holding penalty. His PFF grades have shot up in each of his three pro seasons, and there's little reason to believe that trend won't continue in his age-25 campaign.
That's why he gets the edge over reigning first-team All-Pro Corey Linsley, who has seven seasons under his belt and might have peaked in his final season with the Packers.
It's also possible Linsley's first All-Pro season was an anomaly, while Ragnow's trajectory indicates he's only on the verge of his prime. He beats out Linsley, the less durable Ryan Kelly and the 33-year-old Jason Kelce.
Honorable mention: Corey Linsley, Los Angeles Chargers
Edge Defender: T.J. Watt, Pittsburgh Steelers
Not only did Pittsburgh Steelers All-Pro edge defender T.J. Watt lead the NFL with 15 sacks in 2020, but the still-blossoming 26-year-old also led the league in quarterback hits and pressures by massive margins. He racked up 41 quarterback hits (nobody else in the NFL had more than 32) and 61 pressures (nobody else had more than 45).
What more need I say?
We also know he isn't a one-year wonder, as the 2017 first-round pick has put up 13-plus sacks in three consecutive Pro Bowl campaigns. He also led the NFL with eight forced fumbles and 59 pressures in 2019.
Myles Garrett of the Browns, who was the top pick in the same draft as Watt, is coming off yet another incredible season. And while he can be as dominant and intimidating as any pass-rusher in the league, his numbers just don't hold a candle to what Watt posted over the last few years.
Honorable mention: Myles Garrett, Cleveland Browns
Interior Defensive Lineman: Aaron Donald, Los Angeles Rams
There's no denying the reigning (and three-time) Defensive Player of the Year here.
Los Angeles Rams defensive lineman Aaron Donald has been PFF's highest-graded interior defensive lineman in each of his seven professional seasons. He's a six-time first-team All-Pro despite still being in his 20s, which has him on track to walk away as perhaps the most accomplished defensive player in NFL history.
He's already a lock for the Hall of Fame, and he's coming off his best season yet when it comes to approximate value at Pro Football Reference.
It feels weird even mentioning runner-up DeForest Buckner of the Colts.
Honorable mention: DeForest Buckner, Indianapolis Colts
Off-Ball Linebacker: Devin White, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Devin White has yet to become the best off-ball linebacker even on his own team. But the 2019 No. 5 overall pick was such an awesome force as a 22-year-old sophomore down the stretch in 2020 that he's likely to make the leap above veterans Lavonte David, Bobby Wagner, Fred Warner and Darius Leonard in 2021.
An egregious Pro Bowl snub, White led the league in tackles for a loss or no gain, according to PFF. He still has to refine his game to make sure he doesn't find himself in poor positions as a result of overcommitting, but he made major progress in that area in 2020 and will likely continue along that path moving forward.
Two seasons into his career, the strong, do-everything LSU product is special. How else does an off-ball linebacker go off the board in the top five these days? And two seasons into his career, he's delivered with 11.5 sacks, 21 quarterback hits, four forced fumbles, five fumble recoveries, 231 tackles, two touchdowns, seven passes defensed and an interception.
And that excludes his 27 tackles, two picks and two fumble recoveries in three 2020 playoff games.
Wagner is still phenomenal, but he's north of 30. The 31-year-old David's prime is likely behind him as well. Warner was a first-team All-Pro in 2020 but doesn't have a White-level ceiling. And while Leonard is one of the league's top defensive playmakers, he hasn't been durable or consistent enough to take this crown.
Honorable mention: Darius Leonard, Indianapolis Colts
Cornerback: Jaire Alexander, Green Bay Packers
It feels as though the "top corner in the NFL" title has moved around a lot lately. Stephon Gilmore, Jalen Ramsey, Patrick Peterson and Richard Sherman have all made strong claims in the last half-decade or so, and Xavien Howard deserves to be in the conversation after a 10-interception campaign in 2020 during which he earned first-team All-Pro honors alongside Ramsey.
But as a 23-year-old with the Packers in 2020, Jaire Alexander surrendered fewer yards per target (4.7) than Howard (7.1), Ramsey (4.9) and every other regular outside cornerback in the NFL.
He might not have the same resume as Ramsey and he isn't a turnover machine like Howard, but the 2018 first-round pick is several years younger than both of them. He surrendered only two touchdowns into his coverage during his breakout season, and his 90.5 PFF grade ranked first among all qualified cornerbacks.
And again, watch that trajectory. Alexander gave up a 100.0 passer rating in coverage as a rookie, a 85.5 rating in his sophomore season and a 67.4 mark in 2020. He's already on the same level as Howard and Ramsey, but those guys are more likely to have hit their peaks.
Honorable mention: Jalen Ramsey, Los Angeles Rams
Safety: Tyrann Mathieu, Kansas City Chiefs
Tyrann Mathieu is such a jack of all trades that it feels weird calling him the NFL's best safety. More accurately, he's the league's best defensive back. That's because he might be the most versatile player in football.
The Honey Badger can do practically anything asked of him in the Kansas City defensive backfield. Since joining the Chiefs in 2019, he's earned two first-team All-Pro nods thanks to lockdown coverage in the slot (he's surrendered passer ratings in the 60.0 range in both campaigns) and superb playmaking ability inside and outside of the box (he also had 10 interceptions and six tackles for loss during that stretch).
Jamal Adams of the Seattle Seahawks is a star, but he can be vulnerable in pass defense and he's lacked durability and consistency. And while Minkah Fitzpatrick and Budda Baker joined Mathieu on the All-Pro team in 2020, the former hasn't brought quite as much to the table and the latter doesn't have the same level of talent.
This wasn't much of a debate.
Honorable mention: Minkah Fitzpatrick, Pittsburgh Steelers