B/R Experts Rank the Top 50 NFL Players Heading into the 2021 Season
Every individual who plays in the NFL is an elite athlete. Those considered the league's top 50 performers are the super-elite since their abilities and production supersede everyone else's.
Something truly special resides in each of these performers. How are the best of the best for the upcoming season determined, though?
Bleacher Report's NFL analysts—Brad Gagnon, Brent Sobleski and Gary Davenport—created their own list of top 50 performers. Each player's ranking was tabulated with the lowest scores corresponding to the highest individual ratings.
In total, 65 players received at least a single vote. Four players from last year's top 10—New Orleans Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas, New England Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore, Tennessee Titans wide receiver Julio Jones and Arizona Cardinals edge defender Chandler Jones—didn't even make this year's edition. On the flip side, Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes and Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald finished first and second for the third straight year. But which one took the No. 1 spot?
50. WR Mike Evans, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Mike Evans is one of the best downfield and red-zone targets in the NFL. His 6'5" frame makes it nearly impossible for smaller defensive backs to handle him when working outside the numbers. But his yardage production decreased in each of the last two seasons. A second season working alongside Tom Brady will likely put a stop to that trend.
49. RB Aaron Jones, Green Bay Packers
If one were to guess the top-graded runners over the last four seasons, the Tennessee Titans' Derrick Henry and Cleveland Browns' Nick Chubb are obvious answers. Aaron Jones ranks third, according to Pro Football Focus. Jones is a big reason the Packers offense is so potent. Sure, Aaron Rodgers plays a significant role. At the same time, the running back is counted among the league's top ball-carriers and doubles as an excellent receiving threat out of the backfield.
48. CB Marlon Humphrey, Baltimore Ravens
Marlon Humphrey doesn't get enough credit for how good he is in coverage. The 25-year-old's length and physicality make him one of the league's top defenders. Humphrey provides versatility, too. He's equally effective working outside the numbers or over the slot as the only corner with a coverage grade of 80 or above in each role since 2017, per PFF.
47. TE Darren Waller, Las Vegas Raiders
The Raiders hit the jackpot when they plucked Darren Waller off the Baltimore Ravens practice squad during the 2018 campaign. In two full seasons with his current squad, Waller caught 197 passes for 2,341 yards and 12 touchdowns. Jon Gruden and his offensive staff surely want more production from their young wide receivers. But Waller is already the team's No. 1 target.
46. OG Zack Martin, Dallas Cowboys
The Cowboys offensive line isn't what it once was but can still be pretty damn good if the starting five remains healthy. That wasn't the case last season when Zack Martin, Tyron Smith and La'el Collins all missed time. They'll be back this fall. Martin didn't make an All-Pro team last season for the first time in his career. Though he'll miss Week 1 after testing positive for COVID-19, Martin should again show he's one of the game's most sound and consistent blockers once he gets on the field.
45. QB Dak Prescott, Dallas Cowboys
A nasty season-ending ankle injury last year ruined what could have been a historic season for quarterback Dak Prescott. The Cowboys signal-caller set an NFL record with 1,690 passing yards through a team's first four contests. He's healthy again playing with a mended offensive line, the game's best wide receiver trio and bulldozing running back Ezekiel Elliott. Prescott could produce a passing performance for the ages.
44. QB Kyler Murray, Arizona Cardinals
Kyler Murray entered the league as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2019 draft. He became the Offensive Rookie on the Year. He built upon his impressive debut by improving his stats across the board as both a passer and runner last year. In total, Murray posted 4,790 total yards and 37 combined touchdowns. Now in his third year, the 24-year-old should be even better with more comfort level in Kliff Kingsbury's scheme.
43. S Minkah Fitzpatrick, Pittsburgh Steelers
Minkah Fitzpatrick is the NFL's most distinctive defender. His nose for the football allows him to make plays all over the field. He set career highs last season with 60 solo tackles and 11 defended passes. He's also snagged nine interceptions during the last two campaigns. The Steelers are smart. Instead of trying to force Fitzpatrick into a specific position, they allow him to roam and create. He's in the ideal scheme to maximize his capabilities as an extremely versatile defender.
42. LB Roquan Smith, Chicago Bears
When the Bears drafted Roquan Smith with the eighth overall pick in the 2018 draft, the idea of an off-ball linebacker holding that much value had shifted. But the Bears saw the closing speed and sideline-to-sideline range to validate the selection. In three seasons, Smith amassed 361 total tackles. More importantly, he became more of a factor in the passing game last year with a career-high two interceptions and seven defended passes.
41. RB Dalvin Cook, Minnesota Vikings
As the Vikings and Cincinnati Bengals prepare to meet in their season opener, Bengals linebacker Logan Wilson best described Vikings running back Dalvin Cook, saying, "He's a problem, seriously."
Last season, Minnesota's lead back finished second with 1,557 rushing yards, 16 rushing touchdowns and 91 first-down runs. Both he and the Tennessee Titans' Derrick Henry averaged 5.0 or more yards per carry, even as the only backs with 300 or more carries. Yeah, he's a problem.
40. S Tyrann Mathieu, Kansas City Chiefs
Tyrann Mathieu is more than a safety and nickel corner. He's an all-purpose defender. As Dov Kleiman noted, Mathieu is the only individual to play 300 or more snaps at the previously mentioned positions in each of the last three seasons. His 11 interceptions are the most among safeties since he joined the Chiefs prior to the 2019 campaign, per Pro Football Focus. The Honey Badger has and will forever play much bigger than his size (5'9", 190 pounds) indicates.
39. S Jamal Adams, Seattle Seahawks
Jamal Adams is a very different safety compared to the previously mentioned Fitzpatrick and Mathieu. While the latter two are Swiss Army knives capable of contributing in several facets, Adams is a heat-seeking missile and tone-setter. The Seahawks defender, who is now the game's highest-paid safety (on an annual basis), is fantastic playing in or around the box. In fact, Adams led Seattle last season with 9.5 sacks. He finished tied for 11th overall in the category.
38. OT Terron Armstead, New Orleans Saints
Quietly, the New Orleans Saints have one of the league's best offensive lines. The Cleveland Browns feature an impregnable front, while the Dallas Cowboys still present the most name recognition. Yet New Orleans is rock solid along its front five, particularly because of its tackles. Terron Armstead may be the most athletic and mobile left tackle in the game. He's a smooth operator, which will only help the Saints transition to new quarterback Jameis Winston.
37. LB Devin White, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
All anyone has to do is turn on Super Bowl LV and see Devin White emerge as the best player on the field to understand his immense potential and how he could eventually become the NFL's best off-ball linebacker. In that contest, White had a game-high 12 total tackles and two tackles for loss. The 23-year-old is coming into his own, and he'll likely leapfrog the 31-year-old Lavonte David this season as Tampa Bay's defensive leader.
36. RB Christian McCaffrey, Carolina Panthers
Christian McCaffrey. Remember him? I'm sure your fantasy football teams do. Ankle and shoulder injuries all but wiped out his 2020 campaign. McCaffrey remains the game's best dual-threat running back. He's only one season removed from setting a running back record with 116 receptions. Sam Darnold may not be the answer at quarterback. But the Panthers can always lean on McCaffrey for instant offense as long as he's healthy.
35. LB Bobby Wagner, Seattle Seahawks
The 31-year-old Bobby Wagner may not quite be the same defender he once was, but he remains among the league's best. His production dipped ever so slightly last season, though his ability to direct the Seahawks defense as its leader is vital. Wagner is also an every-down defender who played in all but two games over the last six seasons. Seattle saw a significant defensive improvement over the second half of last season. Wagner was a big part of the turnaround.
34. Edge Joey Bosa, Los Angeles Chargers
The only thing holding Joey Bosa back is health. In his five seasons, he played a full 16-game slate only twice. Last year, the defensive end suffered a pair of concussions that cost him four games. When healthy, Bosa is one of the game's best edge defenders. He's powerful at the point of attack, a wonderful technician and a relentless pass-rusher. The key is simply keeping him on the field.
33. S Budda Baker, Arizona Cardinals
When Budda Baker reads his keys, identifies the play and loads, the safety appears to be shot out of a cannon on his way to the football. Baker originally established himself as a Pro Bowl-caliber special teams performer before he developed into a standout defensive back. Like Minkah Fitzpatrick and Tyrann Mathieu, Baker is a modern-day safety who lines up in the deep third, in the box, on the edge or over the slot. He became a first-team All-Pro doing so.
32. S Justin Simmons, Denver Broncos
Justin Simmons has arguably the best streak in football currently going. The safety has played 3,212 consecutive snaps encompassing the last three seasons, according to Denver News9's Mike Klis. The number is staggering considering the high-impact plays safeties often endure when defending passes over the middle or flying up against the run. Overall, no one has been better than Simmons. He's been the game's highest-graded safety since the start of the 2019 campaign, per Pro Football Focus.
31. TE George Kittle, San Francisco 49ers
Knee and foot injuries limited George Kittle to eight games last season. Not surprisingly, Kittle's production took a massive step back after he was named a first-team All-Pro for his 2019 performance. There's a running argument regarding football's best tight end. The Kansas City Chiefs' Travis Kelce got the nod after last year. But a healthy Kittle is still the game's best combo tight end as an in-line blocker and mismatch in the receiving game.
30. CB Jaire Alexander, Green Bay Packers
Jalen Ramsey, Stephon Gilmore or Tre'Davious White may come up first if someone asked who's the NFL's best cover corner. None of them is the correct answer, though. The Packers' Jaire Alexander has been the league's best in coverage since the start of the 2019 campaign, per Pro Football Focus. Alexander is an emerging superstar at 24 years old. More recognition will come his way as he continues to shut down opposing wide receivers.
29. RB Alvin Kamara, New Orleans Saints
Alvin Kamara's career year somehow got lost amid Drew Brees' injury-plagued final season. The Saints offense fell out of the league's top 10 for the first time since the 2005 campaign (Sean Payton became head coach the following year). Kamara did everything to keep the streak going, though. The running back posted career highs with 932 rushing yards, 16 rushing touchdowns and 83 receptions. Kamara remains as explosive as he's ever been.
28. DT Chris Jones, Kansas City Chiefs
Chris Jones remains one of the game's best interior defenders, though his sack total decreased from 15.5 in 2018 to 9.0 in 2019 to 7.5 last season. Sack production doesn't tell the entire story. Jones finished second in pass-rushing grade among interior defenders last year, according to PFF. The two-time second-team All-Pro is still elite. He just needs a little more help from his surrounding cast.
27. LB Darius Leonard, Indianapolis Colts
Darius Leonard flies to the football unlike anyone else in the NFL. Since entering the league after being a second-round selection in the 2018 draft, Leonard has earned Defensive Rookie of the Year and become a two-time first-team All-Pro. It's all because he's everywhere on the field. He's averaged 139 tackles, seven defended passes and three forced fumbles per season. The Colts signed the franchise building block to a five-year, $98.5 million contract extension this offseason.
26. Edge Khalil Mack, Chicago Bears
The value of Khalil Mack's continued high-level play can be surmised with a single scenario: the Las Vegas Raiders, who originally traded him to the Bears, inquired about Mack's availability this offseason, according to The Athletic's Vic Tafur. Since leaving the Silver and Black, Mack has made the Pro Bowl every year as a member of the Bears. He's still a wrecking ball off the edge that offensive tackles struggle to handle.
25. OT David Bakhtiari, Green Bay Packers
David Bakhtiari is the game's best pass-blocker. Unfortunately, he suffered a torn ACL on Dec. 31. The standout blocker is on the Packers' physically unable to perform list and won't be eligible to play until at least Week 7, according to NFL Network's Ian Rapoport. Once the two-time, first-team All-Pro is back in the lineup, he'll create a ripple effect throughout the entire Packers offensive front, including moving Elgton Jenkins back to guard.
24. WR DK Metcalf, Seattle Seahawks
Physically, the Seahawks' DK Metcalf is now the standard for the wide receiver position. Granted, Julio Jones is still playing, but the 32-year-old veteran is getting older and injuries have caught up to him. At 6'4" and a chiseled 229 pounds, Metcalf is an awesomely imposing figure. More importantly, he continues to get better with each passing season. Metcalf finished seventh overall last season with 1,303 receiving yards and tied for eighth (along with teammate Tyler Lockett) with 10 touchdown receptions.
23. OT Trent Williams, San Francisco 49ers
Trent Williams is the modern-day Walter Jones. Jones regularly sat out training camp, came back to the team right before the start of the regular season and simply dominated like he always did. Williams sat out the entire 2019 campaign due to a falling out with Washington's Football Team's medical staff and how it handled what turned out to be a cancerous growth on his head. As part of the 49ers, Williams returned to form and made the Pro Bowl. He's simply one of the league's most gifted blockers.
22. WR DeAndre Hopkins, Arizona Cardinals
DeAndre Hopkins had to laugh all the way to the desert (and the bank) after the Houston Texans made last year's ill-fate trade with the Cardinals. The deal essentially cost Bill O'Brien his job. In Arizona, Hopkins continued to thrive. His 115 receptions tied a career-high. Hopkins also posted his fourth-straight 1,100-yard campaign.
21. LB Fred Warner, San Francisco 49ers
Fred Warner is now the game's best off-ball linebacker, and his ranking represents this fact. Like all top linebackers, Warner is instinctive and productive. He amassed 367 total tackles in his first three seasons. Pass coverage is where he really excels. According to Pro Football Focus, Warner's coverage grade last season tied for the best among linebackers since the start of the 2017 campaign. The 49ers rewarded their defensive leader by signing him to a five-year, $95.2 million contract extension.
20. CB Xavien Howard, Miami Dolphins
Xavien Howard knew what he was worth. He just wanted the Dolphins organization to reciprocate his feeling. A standoff between the two ended when Miami's front office chose to restructure the first-team All-Pro's existing contract. Howard, who led the league last season with 10 interceptions, was outstanding in coverage. The Dolphins understand the value he brings to the defense and acquiesced despite three remaining years on the deal.
19. Edge Chase Young, Washington Football Team
A top-20 ranking may not be high enough for Chase Young when it's all said and done. The reigning NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year has the potential to become one of the league's top three or four overall defenders. Last season, he graded first among rookie defenders in overall grade and pressures, per Pro Football Focus. He really shined in the red zone, as the league's highest-graded defender. Don't be surprised when Young garners serious Defensive Player of the Year consideration.
18. WR Tyreek Hill, Kansas City Chiefs
Speed is the first thing that comes to mind when Tyreek Hill enters the conversation. After all, the NFL's fastest player led the league last season with a 95.9 grade when targeted deep last season, according to PFF's Jarad Evans. Ironically, Hill's average of 14.7 yards per catch was his lowest output in the last four seasons. The reason is simple: The three-time, first-team All-Pro is a complete receiver. He's dynamic with the ball in his hands or deadly when taking the top off opposing defenses.
17. WR Stefon Diggs, Buffalo Bills
Stefon Diggs exploded in his first season with the Bills. The former Minnesota Vikings malcontent led the NFL with 127 receptions and 1,535 receiving yards. Diggs quickly built a rapport with quarterback Josh Allen and the two flourished. Expectations should be even greater this fall as they enter their second year together. Teammates even named Diggs one of the Bills captains his fall.
16. DT DeForest Buckner, Indianapolis Colts
Too many don't recognize just how good Colts defensive tackle DeForest Buckner really is. How good is he? Buckner told reporters Wednesday he broke the fourth MCP joint in his right hand before last year's season-opener and never regained full strength in the appendage. Despite the limitation, the defensive tackle still earned a first-team All-Pro nod. What will he do now that he has both hands at his disposal? Offensive linemen beware.
15. RB Nick Chubb, Cleveland Browns
Nick Chubb doesn't have the same level of production as Henry, particularly over the last two seasons. However, an argument can be made that Chubb is the game's best pure runner and advanced stats back up the assertion. The Browns back led the NFL last season in rushing yards over expectation per attempt, according to Around The NFL's Nick Shook. Chubb also has the league's highest broken tackle rate over the last two seasons, per Pro Football Focus.
14. QB Lamar Jackson, Baltimore Ravens
Lamar Jackson's level of play took a step back in 2020 after being named the league's MVP a season prior. Even so, the greatest dual-threat in professional football history still produced 33 total touchdowns and kept the team's historic run game humming as it finished first for the second-straight campaign. From this point forward, Jackson has two things to prove. First, he must improve his deep passing. Second, he needs to help the Ravens get further into the postseason.
13. CB Jalen Ramsey, Los Angeles Rams
Jalen Ramsey reestablished himself as a premier cover corner in 2020. After his falling out with his previous team, the Jacksonville Jaguars, and eventual trade to the Los Angeles Rams, Ramsey could finally settle into his new home. The 26-year-old defensive back rewarded his current squad with a first-team All-Pro performance. A continuation on the same trajectory depends on usage since Raheem Morris took over for Brandon Staley as defensive coordinator.
12. QB Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks
Russell Wilson has reached the Phil Mickelson stage of his career. For years, Mickelson was defined as the world's best golfer without a victory at a major tournament. In Wilson's case, he's the best player in the NFL who has yet to receive an MVP vote. The Seahawks quarterback started the 2020 campaign on fire only to fade down the stretch. He can be the game's best player, but he must do it for an entire season.
11. WR Davante Adams, Green Bay Packers
Over the last five seasons, Packers quarterbacks targeted Davanate Adams 137 times on average. He's Green Bay's passing game and everything flows through the opportunities he creates both for himself and others. Not only is Adams one of the game's slyest route-runners, but he's also nearly impossible to reroute. As PFF noted, the first-team All-Pro was the NFL's highest-graded receiver against press coverage last season.
10. RB Derrick Henry, Tennessee Titans
The Tennessee Titans' Derrick Henry is football's premier workhorse back.
Just when many thought Henry couldn't replicate what he did in 2019 by leading the league rushing while handling a massive usage rate, the 6'3", 247-pound running back didn't suffer from any regression. Instead, he carried the ball 378 times for another league-leading 2,027 rushing yards in 2020.
Basically, Henry broke the mold based on his size and ability to handle so many carries. He's a nightmare for opposing defenses. As Pro Football Focus noted, Henry's 2,758 rushing yards after contact over the last two seasons are more than any other back posted regarding typical yardage.
"He wears your ass out. He's a train," an NFC scout told ESPN's Jeremy Fowler.
The Titans will look a little different this year after previous offensive coordinator Arthur Smith left to become the Atlanta Falcons' head coach and Tennessee traded for wide receiver Julio Jones. Maybe the number of Henry's carries will finally decrease as the Titans open up the playbook a little more under new coordinator Todd Downing.
Even if Tennessee's approach slightly changes, Henry will still remain a focal point and continue to be the league's most difficult back to handle.
9. QB Tom Brady, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
What's left to say about Tom Brady? Simply put, he's the greatest of all time.
Do you still want to argue in favor of another player possibly deserving of the title? OK but Brady went out and showed it's more about him than the previous 20 years of The Patriot Way when he signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last offseason, completely changed the culture within that locker room and led the team to its second-ever Super Bowl victory.
"Knowing that he'd been there and done this, our guys believed it," head coach Bruce Arians told reporters. "It changed our entire football team."
Brady is now 44 years old. He'll be the oldest non-kicker to ever start a season-opener when the Buccaneers face the Dallas Cowboys on Thursday Night Football.
The 22-year veteran never had the natural gifts of a Patrick Mahomes or Lamar Jackson, but his understanding of the game and where to go with the ball based on pre- and post-snap reads can't be replicated. The ball comes out of Brady's hands so quickly that defenses don't have time to adjust. He simply picks opponents apart and then strikes for a big play down the field when the opportunity presents itself.
Some may think age will finally creep in and slow down Brady's processing speed. But the all-time great should be even better this fall after a full season in coordinator Byron Leftwich's scheme, plus a working familiarity with his teammates.
8. OG Quenton Nelson, Indianapolis Colts
Quenton Nelson is a force of nature along the Indianapolis Colts' offensive interior.
Since the team made a guard the fifth overall pick in the 2018 NFL draft, Nelson has been named to three consecutive first-team All-Pro teams. So far, he's allowed only three sacks and received the best overall grade for an interior lineman during the aforementioned stretch, per Pro Football Focus.
This offseason, Nelson suffered a foot injury that required surgery, though he should be back in the lineup at or near the start of the 2021 campaign.
On the field, Nelson can be overly aggressive. He attempts to bury opponents on every snap. Although he played with better overall balance in his third season and continues to grow as the game's most dominant interior blocker.
"He's so driven," offensive line coach Chris Strausser told reporters. "He wants me to critique every little thing with him, and I've heard stories over the years about when Peyton (Manning) was here and what he said to Jim Caldwell when he was the quarterback coach, and he said, 'Hey, coach me like I'm an eighth-grader; assume I know nothing. Coach me every stinkin' play.' And that's really what Quenton's mindset is; he wants to be coached on every little detail and have (a) discussion about it."
In Bleacher Report's rankings, offensive linemen receive the recognition they deserve.
7. TE Travis Kelce, Kansas City Chiefs
Travis Kelce's slash lines over the last three seasons are as follows:
Those numbers should represent three quality performances by a wide receiver, not a tight end.
The Kansas City Chiefs' top target finished second in receiving yardage last season and fifth in both receptions and touchdown catches. He's more than tight end; he's an offensive weapon and has been for quite some time.
Kelce's ability to create in the passing game is what gives him the edge over the San Francisco 49ers' George Kittle as pro football's best tight end, though Kittle is clearly the better blocker.
"I'd still take him over Kittle because there's nobody better at getting open and making tough catches look easy," an NFC executive told ESPN's Jeremy Fowler.
Even at 31 years old—Kelce turns 32 in October—the tight end's production isn't expected to dip anytime soon, because the position will continue to be featured in the Chiefs offense.
"This offense has been growing and growing and growing since I've been here," Kelce told reporters Monday. "I don't see us stopping any time soon."
6. Edge Myles Garrett, Cleveland Browns
If a coach were to design the perfect pass-rusher, the prototype would look an awful lot like Cleveland Browns defensive end Myles Garrett.
At 6'4" and 272 pounds with a rippling physique plus unnatural athleticism and flexibility for a man his size, Garrett is already viewed as the game's best pure edge defender.
"Built out of a lab," an AFC scout told ESPN's Jeremy Fowler. "Zero weaknesses. Power, bend, speed."
The 25-year-old was well on his way to capturing the NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2020 until he tested positive for COVID-19, which significantly affected his late-season performance. Despite the obstacle, the first-team All-Pro finished with 10 tackles for loss and 12 sacks. In fact, he could already move into second in Browns' history with 9.5 or more sacks this fall.
The blessing of superior genetics is one thing. An athlete must still be driven to become the best. Garrett is.
"I never stop thinking about it," Garrett told reporters. "Nonstop. I want to be the best. Even when I'm sitting in the offseason and I'm not doing anything, it's how can I get ahead?
"I watch film, try to eat right, try to make sure that I'm taking care of what I need to so I don't fall far behind. I don't want to fall so far behind that I feel like I'm trying to catch up all offseason to where I was before. Stay at a weight and a physical fitness that I feel like is good to maintain and then build from there."
5. QB Josh Allen, Buffalo Bills
Josh Allen's growth between his second and third campaigns was nothing short of astounding.
The Buffalo Bills quarterback went from a passer unable to complete 60 percent of his passes through his first two seasons to become a legitimate MVP candidate by setting career-highs in 2020 with a 69.2 competition percentage, 4,544 passing yards, 37 passing touchdowns, 81.7 QBR and 107.2 quarterback training.
The quarterback's improvement is a testament to his dedication to improving his overall mechanics, particularly his footwork. Familiarity certainly plays a significant factor as well.
"Trust in the guys on the field with me, trust in the playcalls, and not try to do too much and I think that's something that I kind of had in my rookie year was trying to play hero-ball and it's something I've been working on," Allen admitted to NBC's Peter King. "I've got an extreme amount of trust in the guys on the field with me, with coach Dabs [offensive coordinator Brian Daboll] and the relationship we have with calling plays and us going out and executing."
Expectations in Buffalo have now reached a different stratosphere, though the continuity found within the organization and around Allen should keep the quarterback playing better than ever.
"I'll be shocked if Josh Allen doesn't do it again," an NFL executive told The Athletic's Mike Sando. "He still has the best receiver in the NFL [Stefon Diggs], a good defense, great head coach, same offensive coordinator. There is no reason they should not do it again. The line has settled down. Just the maturity."
4. Edge T.J. Watt, Pittsburgh Steelers
Pittsburgh Steelers edge defender T.J. Watt wants and deserves a contract extension. While the team and its top defender continue to negotiate, Watt remains a holdout. He may or may not be on the field for the start of the regular season.
The current standoff between the two parties doesn't diminish how talented Watt is.
"Incredibly productive player in every phase," an NFC executive told ESPN's Jeremy Fowler. "Probably has the best combination of motor and smarts in the league. He wins with intelligence, effort, technique, positioning."
To the executive's point, Watt managed 15 sacks, 23 tackles for loss, 41 quarterback hits, two forced fumbles and seven defended passes during the 2020 campaign.
How he affects opposing offenses and makes game-changing plays already has the 26-year-old placed on the right trajectory.
"He's not the most explosive guy," an NFC defensive coach said. "But he's so damn relentless and smart and technically perfect that he just wins. He'll probably have a Hall of Fame career for all those reasons."
Maybe the last point is a tad much at this juncture, but Watt should very much be in the NFL Defensive Player of the Year conversation on a yearly basis.
3. QB Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers
Aaron Rodgers is back. Not that he actually went anywhere despite the Green Bay Packers' insistence on building a divide between their quarterback and the front office. Anyhow, Rodgers is back as a top-three performer after tumbling to No. 50 a year ago.
Rodgers only went on to become the league's MVP after posting the finest season of his career at 37 years old.
To be fair, the Packers certainly didn't expect Rodgers to play as he did. Otherwise, the organization wouldn't have traded up in the first round of the 2020 draft to select the quarterback's heir apparent in Jordan Love. Rodgers saw the light at end of the tunnel.
"Last year at this time, I was looking at the season as my last year in Green Bay," he told reporters.
The quarterback added, "Last year, I need to look at the year that way for perspective…just to enjoy all the little things that I've been able to be a part of over the last 15-plus years at the time. Helped me have a great season, mentally, quality-of-life-wise, happiness-wise. And I had so much fun."
As long as Rodgers stays in the right frame of mind and continues to get the same type of play from his offensive line, wide receiver Davante Adams, tight end Robert Tonyan and running back Aaron Jones, the long-term Packer can go out, as in leave Green Bay, with a blaze of glory.
2. DT Aaron Donald, Los Angeles Rams
The NFL is a quarterback-driven league. Otherwise, Aaron Donald would be considered the league's top performer year after year because he's professional football's most dominant player.
"He gets schemed by every team every week and he still dominates," Chicago Bears head coach Matt Nagy told reporters this week before his team faces Donald and the Rams this Sunday. "When you put on the tape, it doesn't matter, you can scheme two and three guys, that dude is just unbelievable. He's really, really special.
"He breaks double teams. He's a game-changer. He sacks the football, and he's like a running back out there, just flying around on the edge. He's all over the place."
Nagy succinctly stated exactly why the reigning (and three-time) NFL Defensive Player of the Year is so great. Opponents know they must stop Donald, but none of them even slow him down.
Donald's pass-rush win-rate despite a massive double-team rate is otherworldly, as ESPN's Seth Walder noted. Over the last three seasons, the six-time first-team All-Pro registered 46.5 sacks and 119 combined quarterback hurries and knockdowns, per Pro Football Reference.
If NFL players were represented by Marvel characters, Donald would be Thanos because he is inevitable.
1. QB Patrick Mahomes, Kansas City Chiefs
The lasting impression left by Patrick Mahomes during Super Bowl LI is one of a superstar quarterback scratching and fighting to do everything in his power and carrying his team despite obvious deficiencies against a superior opponent.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers finally discovered Mahomes' kryptonite after the quarterback ran roughshod over the league for three seasons. But the issues stemmed from consistent pressure created by a porous offensive line, not Mahomes' play. Those around the NFL fully understand how dangerous Mahomes remains.
"Still causes more problems than just about anyone," an AFC executive told ESPN's Jeremy Fowler. "You've got to keep him in the pocket and make him go through his progressions, but that's so hard to do. Once he gets on the move, you're done."
This offseason, the Chiefs made sure to fortify their crumbling offensive front with the additions of Joe Thuney, Orlando Brown Jr., Creed Humphrey and Trey Smith. Lucas Niang's return after opting out of the 2020 campaign will help as well. With Kansas City's front five rectified, Mahomes can operate at his very best.
Scarily, Mahomes has yet to hit his peak at 25 years old. According to Pro Football Focus, the fifth-year veteran's accuracy rate over expected improved in each of his years as a starter. Thus, Mahomes isn't just the best player in professional football; he's still an ascending performer.