The Most Dominant Player at Every Position Heading into the 2021 NFL Season
An NFL player can display his dominance in many ways.
First, he must rank atop major statistical categories and provide a significant impact on the outcome of games.
Take a look at quarterbacks who throw for 40-plus touchdowns and carry their teams to victory, running backs with rushing titles, sacks leaders and go-to wide receivers who constantly face double coverage and win battles against elite cornerbacks.
The biggest household names didn't just become prominent playmakers overnight. They put together strong resumes with Pro Bowl and All-Pro accolades over the years. Some of the most underrated talents just need leaguewide recognition to reach stardom.
Lastly, the most influential players rarely miss games. Teams can count on them to suit up and produce at a high level every week.
Taking all of those factors into consideration, we'll highlight the most dominant players at each position.
Quarterback: Tom Brady, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
We didn't mention youth or prime years as a criterion for dominance because Tom Brady's age-43 season shredded that idea when he made an incredible transition from the New England Patriots to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Before 2020, Tampa Bay hadn't made the playoffs since the 2007 campaign. In his first year with the Buccaneers, Brady led the club to a Super Bowl victory and won MVP of that title game. For the season, he threw 40 touchdowns, his second-best career total.
Since turning 40, Brady has led the league in passing yards and won two Super Bowls with different teams. Among 2020 free-agent acquisitions, he provided the biggest impact. The Buccaneers have gone from an afterthought in the NFC South to defending champion and Super Bowl LVI favorite because of him.
Despite his age, Brady still has a good arm. He never had the ability to beat defenders on foot, but the seven-time Super Bowl champion processes the game pre- and post-snap better than any other quarterback.
Brady gets the nod over Patrick Mahomes, who's arguably the most talented signal-caller in the league with both the arm and mobility to tear defenses apart. Nevertheless, the former instantly changed the outlook of his team and beat the latter's squad in Super Bowl LV.
Honorable Mention: Patrick Mahomes, Kansas City Chiefs
Running Back: Derrick Henry, Tennessee Titans
Derrick Henry isn't the most versatile running back in the league. He's not much of a threat in the short passing game, with fewer than 20 receptions in each of his five seasons. However, right now, he fulfills his primary duty better than any tailback.
Coming off back-to-back rushing titles, Henry is head and shoulders above the players at his position as a ball-carrier. Since 2019, he's logged 681 rush attempts, and the club has reached the playoffs in the past two campaigns with him as the focal point of the offense.
While Henry led the league in carries in 2019 and 2020, the Titans ranked 31st and 30th in pass attempts for those seasons, respectively. Beyond the basic numbers, he's also racked up 2,758 yards after contact in that two-year span, per Pro Football Focus.
Because of his workload and production, Henry wears the crown for most dominant running back. He tops Alvin Kamara, who's a dynamic playmaker with at least 1,330 scrimmage yards in all four of his seasons. However, the Saints running back isn't an unstoppable force on the ground, which best describes Henry over the last two years.
Honorable Mention: Alvin Kamara, New Orleans Saints
Wide Receiver: DeAndre Hopkins, Arizona Cardinals
In one season with the Arizona Cardinals, DeAndre Hopkins captured the single-season franchise record for receptions (115), which is a notable feat when you consider Larry Fitzgerald has been with the team since 2004.
Hopkins doesn't have a high-end No. 2 wideout to take some of the attention away from him, meaning he's going up against the opposing team's best cornerback and sometimes a safety downfield. In 2020, Christian Kirk listed as the Cardinals' second-best wideout in major stat categories with fewer than half of Hopkins' reception and receiving yard totals.
Though Davante Adams made a case for best wide receiver in 2020 by leading the league in touchdowns (18) and receiving yards per game (98.1), he did play with the reigning league MVP in quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
Going into his third term, Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray is still an ascending talent who hasn't quite broken out with a 4,000-yard or 30-touchdown season yet. He should continue to improve in part because of Hopkins' dominance on the perimeter.
Honorable Mention: Davante Adams, Green Bay Packers
Tight End: Travis Kelce, Kansas City Chiefs
Going into the 2021 campaign, Travis Kelce has a stronghold on the title for best pass-catching tight end.
Dating back to Alex Smith's years under center with the Kansas City Chiefs, Kelce has recorded 1,000-plus receiving yards in five consecutive terms. Of course, he saw a moderate boost in his numbers once Patrick Mahomes took over the huddle in 2018.
Kelce has become a matchup nightmare in the passing game. Sure, he can seal a block if that's his responsibility on a run play, but the 6'5", 260-pounder can strike fear in a slot defender, safety or linebacker with his size and reliable hands. In 2020, he logged a 72.4 percent catch rate and set the tight end record for receiving yards (1,416) in a single season.
Kelce earned his third All-Pro nod for his 2020 performance. The league rightfully recognizes his impact on the passing game every year, which elevates him above Las Vegas Raiders tight end Darren Waller, who's still on the come-up with one Pro Bowl campaign and two 1,100-plus-yard seasons.
Honorable Mention: Darren Waller, Las Vegas Raiders
Offensive Tackle: Trent Williams, San Francisco 49ers
Trent Williams missed the entire 2019 campaign due to complications from a cancerous growth on his scalp. He also had some misgivings about the Washington Football Team's physicians and requested a trade, leading to the San Francisco 49ers acquiring him in April 2020.
Williams went on to earn his eighth Pro Bowl nod and then became the league's highest-paid offensive lineman with a six-year extension worth $138.1 million.
Outside of quarterback, teams don't usually give average players record-setting contracts. Williams, with his accolades and high-level blocking on run and pass plays, fits into an elite group. For the 49ers, he's worth every penny of his new deal.
According to The Athletic's David Lombardi, Williams is a perfect fit in head coach Kyle Shanahan's zone-blocking scheme.
"There's little worry about Williams, who showed in 2020 that he still might be the best zone-blocking tackle in football," Lombardi wrote.
If David Bakhtiari hadn't torn his ACL in late December, he would've taken the top spot among the tackles. The 29-year-old earned All-Pro honors in two of the last three seasons, and in 2020, he allowed just one sack through 758 offensive snaps, per Pro Football Focus.
Coming off a significant injury, Bakhtiari has a cloudy 2021 outlook, giving Williams a slight edge.
Honorable Mention: David Bakhtiari, Green Bay Packers
Interior Offensive Lineman: Quenton Nelson, Indianapolis Colts
Consider Quenton Nelson the unquestionable choice here. Since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger, he's one of only five players and the lone offensive lineman to start his career with three All-Pro seasons.
Though Nelson plays guard, which is associated with interior run blocking, he's an exceptional pass protector as well. According to Pro Football Focus, the 25-year-old has allowed just three sacks through 2,073 pass-blocking snaps.
Colts head coach Frank Reich has considered Nelson a possible replacement for now-retired left tackle Anthony Castonzo, which underscores the team's confidence in the left guard's pass-blocking skills.
Indianapolis ranked seventh and 11th in rushing yards in 2019 and 2020, respectively, thanks in part to Nelson's ability to clear rushing lanes.
At some point in the near future, the Colts will sign Nelson to an extension that will reset the guard market. He's the present and future at his position.
Two years ago, Dallas Cowboys guard Zack Martin would've easily won this category, but he's coming off an injury-riddled 2020 season. Having never missed a game in his career, Nelson's third All-Pro campaign sealed the deal for him.
Honorable Mention: Zack Martin, Dallas Cowboys
Interior Defensive Lineman: Aaron Donald, Los Angeles Rams
Aaron Donald could claim the title of most impactful player across all defensive positions.
Donald beats double-teams on a regular basis (h/t ESPN's Seth Walder), and he's a three-time Defensive Player of the Year. That alone illustrates his dominance.
He also has at least 11 sacks in each of the last four seasons. According to Pro Football Focus, he's recorded 209 quarterback pressures in 2.5 seconds or less since 2018. Pittsburgh Steelers edge-rusher T.J. Watt lists a distant second with 152 pressures.
As an interior defensive lineman, Donald's pass-rushing numbers grab headlines, but don't underestimate him as a run-stopper. He's led the league in tackles for loss in two of the last three campaigns.
The Los Angeles Rams have a superstar playmaker who's an unrelenting force near the pocket and a menace in the backfield.
Chris Jones' resume doesn't compare to Donald's, but he'll have a shot to tighten the gap as a versatile playmaker at defensive end in certain packages.
Still, Jones has a long way to go before he challenges the reigning Defensive Player of the Year for the top spot.
Honorable Mention: Chris Jones, Kansas City Chiefs
Off-Ball Linebacker: Darius Leonard, Indianapolis Colts
Off-ball linebackers usually have thankless jobs, chasing down plays sideline to sideline, plugging holes in the run defense and rerouting receivers in the short passing game.
Darius Leonard isn't a typical off-ball linebacker. He handles the unappreciated tasks and provides so much more to the Indianapolis Colts defense.
Through three seasons, Leonard has recorded 416 tackles, 26 for loss, 15 sacks, 22 pass breakups, nine forced fumbles and seven interceptions. That shows he's all over the field and is capable of making a play on any given down.
According to Pro Football Focus, Leonard has the most sacks and forced fumbles among linebackers since the 2018 term; he's second in interceptions.
Like his teammate Quenton Nelson, Leonard will likely become the highest-paid player at his position once he signs an extension.
Because of Leonard's sack production and his ability to force turnovers at a high rate, he's a more dominant off-ball linebacker than Bobby Wagner of the Seattle Seahawks. The former has more interceptions and forced fumbles combined than the latter (16 to 15) with six fewer seasons played in the league.
Honorable Mention: Bobby Wagner, Seattle Seahawks
Edge-Rusher: T.J. Watt, Pittsburgh Steelers
T.J. Watt finished second in 2020 Defensive Player of the Year voting, but he put the league on notice with his best campaign yet.
Last season, Watt led the league in quarterback pressures (61), sacks (15) and tackles for loss (23).
In Week 12, the Pittsburgh Steelers took a hit, losing Bud Dupree (ACL) for the remainder of the campaign. Though Watt may have seen more attention without his pass-rushing partner on the opposite side, he continued to wreak havoc on the edge, logging four sacks between Weeks 13 and 16. The coaching staff rested him for the season finale.
Still only 26 years old, Watt may have more room to grow, but he's already a dominant playmaker coming off back-to-back All-Pro campaigns.
Khalil Mack's sack numbers have slightly dipped over the past couple of seasons, but he's commanded a lot of attention without a viable pass-rushing presence on the opposite side of the Chicago Bears front seven. Mack could move into the top slot with a monster 2021 season, but Watt's recent production elevates his status going into the upcoming term.
Honorable Mention: Khalil Mack, Chicago Bears
Cornerback: Jalen Ramsey, Los Angeles Rams
You have to look beyond basic box score numbers to appreciate Jalen Ramsey's dominance. Over the last two seasons, he's logged two interceptions and 14 pass breakups, which looks average on paper.
However, Ramsey has allowed fewer than 30 receiving yards in 37 of his 74 starts, per Pro Football Focus, which leads the league between 2016 (his draft year) and 2020. During the 2020 regular season, he allowed more than 50 receiving yards just once, per PFF, and that's in a division with star wideout DeAndre Hopkins and a budding lead receiver in DK Metcalf.
Last year, Ramsey essentially turned targets into 50-50 propositions, allowing a 50.7 percent completion rate in coverage. Even though the two-time All-Pro didn't rack up interceptions and pass breakups, he locked down his area of the field.
In 2020, Miami Dolphins cornerback Xavien Howard had the flashy numbers, leading the league in interceptions (10) and pass breakups (20), but he's missed 24 games over five seasons. The 28-year-old has played a full season just twice.
Meanwhile, Ramsey has only missed five outings in the same span. In terms of availability, he's significantly more reliable than Howard.
Honorable Mention: Xavien Howard, Miami Dolphins
Safety: Tyrann Mathieu, Kansas City Chiefs
The most dominant safeties force takeaways, make stops and occasionally apply pressure on blitzes. Tyrann Mathieu checks all of those boxes, and on most plays, he's near the football.
The Kansas City Chiefs utilize Mathieu's coverage skills in a variety of ways. He can match up against receivers in the slot, patrol shallow zones and play center field as a deep safety.
In two All-Pro seasons with the Chiefs, Mathieu has become a ball magnet, recording 10 interceptions and 21 pass breakups.
Though Mathieu plays at 5'9", 190 pounds, he's one of the most cerebral safeties in the league. Opposing quarterbacks must know his whereabouts post-snap, or else he'll create an opportunity to make a play.
Mathieu's versatility makes him a more impactful safety than Minkah Fitzpatrick, who also handled multiple roles with the Miami Dolphins in 2018. Since joining the Pittsburgh Steelers in September 2019, the latter has primarily served as a free safety. Mathieu's ability to play at a high level with multiple responsibilities elevates him above his peers at the position.
Honorable Mention: Minkah Fitzpatrick, Pittsburgh Steelers