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Mark Zaleski/Associated Press
What defines the very best in sports? It’s often subjective yet readily apparent.
Michael Jordan serves as the standard-bearer for all professional sports. And like with Jordan, no off switch exists for those with the inner drive to be the best.
“You know, I’m not saying he wasn’t a threat,” the five-time NBA MVP said about Hall of Fame shooting guard Clyde Drexler during ESPN’s 10-part documentary, The Last Dance. “But me being compared to him, I took offense to that.”
Every professional athlete should feel the same way. They should believe they’re better than everyone else to gain the mental edge that’s necessary to reach elite status.
Football is a little different, though, because it’s the ultimate team sport. Yes, individuals can dominate, but outstanding units tend to offset great individual performances.
When looking at the best team at every position, the qualifications aren’t solely about having the single best player. Everyone knows what Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson, Derrick Henry, George Kittle, Julio Jones, Aaron Donald and others in that tier can do.
Identifying the best team at a specific position includes overall depth and a projection for the 2020 campaign. A Jordan-like elite performer is nice to have, but the unit isn’t complete without Scottie Pippen, Horace Grant or Dennis Rodman.
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Before the inevitable griping begins, the quarterback position is dominated by the likes of the Kansas City Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes, the Seattle Seahawks’ Russell Wilson and the Baltimore Ravens’ Lamar Jackson. There’s no denying their ability and how their mere presence affects a game.
But only 13 quarterbacks started all 16 contests last season. Quality depth matters at the game’s most important position, and no team has a better combination of an elite starter and depth than the New Orleans Saints.
Drew Brees may be 41 years old and near the end of his career, but he remains the NFL‘s most accurate triggerman. Over the last three seasons, the 13-time Pro Bowl signal-caller has completed an otherwordly 73.5 percent of his passes.
To put that number in context, no other quarterback has ever finished a single qualified season—let alone three in a row—with a completion rate higher than 71.6 percent. In fact, Brees owns six of the 14 most accurate seasons in NFL history. Even if his skills start to diminish slightly this fall, he will still be the league’s best pinpoint passer.
While Teddy Bridgewater left to become the Carolina Panthers’ starter, the Saints still have Taysom Hill as a do-everything offensive weapon while the staff grooms him as Brees’ potential heir apparent. He might not be a traditional pocket passer, but he’ll add plenty as part of multiple offensive packages.
To top it all off, the Saints signed last season’s passing-yardage leader, Jameis Winston, to a team-friendly one-year, $1.1 million deal. He threw for a career-high 5,109 yards in 2019. Ryan Fitzpatrick and Andy Dalton threw for around 1,500 fewer yards and now serve as other franchises’ top backup plans.
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Cleveland Browns running back Nick Chubb led the NFL in rushing until the 4 p.m. ET slate of Week 17 games began and the Tennessee Titans’ Derrick Henry ran wild with a ridiculous 211-yard effort against the rival Houston Texans to capture the 2019 crown.
The Browns were a hair’s breadth away from having two former rushing leaders sharing the same backfield. Instead, Chubb finished his second season with 1,494 yards, which became third-best effort in the last five seasons.
Cleveland didn’t have the best offensive line during the last two campaigns. Instead, the Browns had arguably the league’s worst pair of tackles, hence why new general manager Andrew Berry invested heavily in Jack Conklin and Jedrick Wills this offseason.
Yet Chubb continued to churn and create because he’s the NFL most difficult back to tackle. Last season, the first-time Pro Bowler finished third behind the Dallas Cowboys’ Tony Pollard (a part-time player) and Henry with an average of 3.77 yards after contact per attempt, per Pro Football Focus.
That number is impressive, but Chubb actually took a step back from a rookie campaign in which he averaged 4.47 yards after contact per attempt.
A defense’s first tackler won’t bring Chubb down, and he’s only going to become more effective in Kevin Stefanski’s new scheme. Due to the 2018 second-round pick’s combination of power, patience and explosion, he’s the game’s best zone runner, and Stefanski’s system brings a heavy zone influence.
But Chubb can’t do it by himself. A good backfield needs more than one stellar runner.
Three years ago, Kareem Hunt led the NFL with 1,327 rushing yards, and he re-signed his restricted free-agent contract this offseason to serve as Robin to Chubb’s Batman. He provides a different dynamic due to his versatility. Last season, he played some fullback, lined up on the wing and even played outside as a receiver.
Berry also acquired one of the league’s best young fullbacks, Andy Janovich, in an offseason trade from the Denver Broncos.
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Patrick Mahomes has no shortage of offensive weapons at his disposal, and the setup has allowed an already gifted passer to achieve MVP and Super Bowl-winning status.
If you’re looking for the best wide receiver duo, you need not look any further than the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with Mike Evans and Chris Godwin. But the Chiefs run four deep with receivers who can wreck an opposing defense at a moment’s notice.
Tyreek Hill, Sammy Watkins, Mecole Hardman and Demarcus Robinson contributed 2,520 combined receiving yards last season.
Technically, tight end Travis Kelce is the team’s top target, but Kansas City’s standing as the top wide receiver corps is less about production and more about how each affects coverage.
Hill is the game’s premier vertical threat. No other receiver in the game can stack a defensive back and create deep separation better than the four-time Pro Bowl performer. Hill broke the Pro Football Focus record with 754 deep receiving yards during the 2019 campaign. He’s arguably the NFL’s fastest man, and the opposition must account for him at all times.
Watkins looked like an obvious salary-cap casualty this offseason until the 26-year-old receiver agreed to a restructured contract. He may not have developed into the wide receiver many envisioned when he became the fourth overall pick in the 2014 draft, but his value came to light when he beat All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman for a fourth-quarter 38-yard reception that helped turned the tide in the Chiefs’ favor during Super Bowl LIV.
While Hill may be the game’s fastest player, Mecole Hardman brings 4.33-second 40-yard-dash speed, as well. Hardman’s average of 20.7 yards per catch as a rookie led all receivers with 25 or more grabs.
The 6’1″, 203-pound Robinson, who re-signed with the team this offseason, is a slightly bigger target, especially in the red zone.
The entire group should become even more dangerous with the addition of first-round running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire, who will make defenses have to focus more on stopping the Chiefs’ running game.
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Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ standing as football’s best tight end room is contingent on two factors: Rob Gronkowski returning to form after a year-long sabbatical (and becoming Wrestlemania’s host with the most) and the organization retaining O.J. Howard.
No other franchise can come close to matching the Buccaneers’ tight end depth if both of those come to fruition.
Sure, the Kansas City Chiefs, San Francisco 49ers and Philadelphia Eagles can all make an argument, but those are based on a single player. A healthy and reinvigorated Rob Gronkowski set the bar for the position prior to this premature retirement.
As good as those previously mentioned are, Gronkowski is arguably the greatest tight end in NFL history.
Furthermore, the Buccaneers have two starting-caliber tight ends behind the offseason’s second-most compelling addition. O.J. Howard, who the franchise selected with the 19th overall pick in the 2017 draft, was on the trade block, according to former NFL general manager Michael Lombardi (h/t The Athletic’s Greg Auman). But nothing materialized, and Tampa Bay is prepared to utilize its top two tight ends.
“We’re excited about having O.J. Howard play with Rob Gronkowski,” general manager Jason Licht told ESPN’s Adam Schefter. “Why wouldn’t you want to have many weapons at that position? We have an excellent tight end group right now.”
The team’s third tight end, Cameron Brate, has secured 24 touchdown receptions over the last four seasons. Antony Auclair, Tanner Hudson and Jordan Legget are viable options, as well.
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Three of the league’s top four offensive lines experienced significant losses this offseason.
The Dallas Cowboys’ Travis Frederick and Baltimore Ravens’ Marshal Yanda retired. The Philadelphia Eagles, meanwhile, will transition from stalwart left tackle Jason Peters to 2019 first-round pick Andre Dillard, who started four games as a rookie.
The front five is all about working in cohesion. Fantastic blockers at one position have trouble offsetting poor performances elsewhere.
For example, Atlanta Falcons center Alex Mack has been a premier center for a long time. But the organization still had to rebuild the rest of its offensive line over the past year.
On the other hand, the New Orleans Saints have continuity and quality depth while laying claim to the league’s best offensive front.
Ryan Ramczyk and Terron Armstead are professional football’s top offensive tackle pairing. No offensive tackle graded higher than Ramczyk last season, according to Pro Football Focus. Armstead is an exceptional athlete and a silky-smooth pass protector.
But as good as News Orleans’ tackles are, the interior provides better overall depth.
Erik McCoy graded better than any rookie lineman last season, per PFF. The 2019 second-round pick will only improve now that he’s established a comfort level playing against top talent and making line calls.
Right guard Larry Warford has gone to three straight Pro Bowls. He’s a tone-setter up front, though his standing with the team could be challenged by the addition of first-round rookie Cesar Ruiz, who can play center or guard.
Left guard Andrus Peat signed a new five-year, $57.5 million deal this offseason after going to two straight Pro Bowls.
Also, utility lineman Nick Easton has started 23 games over the last three seasons.
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The San Francisco 49ers traded DeForest Buckner to the Indianapolis Colts this offseason and still maintain the NFL’s best defensive line.
That is how talented this group is.
Obviously, the loss of Buckner will hurt. As one of the best interior defenders in the league, the 26-year-old handles the run well and consistently collapses the pocket to make life easier on the team’s top two edge-rushers, Nick Bosa and Arik Armstead.
Two significant factors will help offset Buckner’s loss.
First, Bosa will continue to improve. Only two of his nine sacks came during the final nine games of the 2019 regular season. The reigning NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year can be ultra-disruptive, but he should become more consistent as his career progresses thanks to improved technique and a better understanding of opponents. He’s already fantastic, but he’s yet to reach his peak.
Second, the 49ers made sure to invest in another talented defensive tackle with this year’s 14th overall pick. Javon Kinlaw is raw, but his natural tools (6’5″, 324 lbs) allowed him to be college football’s best interior pass-rusher the past two seasons, per Pro Football Focus.
“He just embodies what we do as a D-line,” Bosa said of Kinlaw, per ESPN’s Nick Wagoner. “Just the way he plays the run, he’s just a beast. He plays the run like we play it. He gets off the ball really fast and he’s just a giant human, perfect to replace Buckner, and I’m really excited.”
What makes the 49ers’ pass-rush so special is the fact it comes in waves. Numerous individuals can win one-on-one matchups to create pressure.
Yes, Buckner is gone, but Armstead, Bosa, Dee Ford, Solomon Thomas, Ronald Blair, D.J. Jones and now Kinlaw still make San Francisco’s defensive front more difficult to block than any other around the league.
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Keith Srakocic/Associated Press
Some things just feel…familiar.
The Pittsburgh Steelers have routinely fielded one of the NFL’s best linebacker corps since the 1970s. Today’s roster is no different, and it starts with the team’s outside linebackers.
Technically, the position could be differentiated between true off-ball linebackers and edge-rushers, but we’ll lump them all together as one group, which provides Pittsburgh with a significant advantage.
Both T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree are coming off career seasons.
Watt tied for fourth with 14.5 sacks and first with eight forced fumbles during the 2019 campaign. The 25-year-old also intercepted a pair of passes and defended eight more. The 2017 first-round pick isn’t just one of the league’s best young players; he’s developing into a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidate.
Opposite Watt, Dupree broke through the malaise of his first four seasons. His 11.5 sacks in 2019 tied the combined amount from the previous two campaigns. As a result, the Steelers placed the franchise tag on the 27-year-old linebacker this offseason.
“We have a very dynamic [edge-rushing] duo with Bud and T.J. and would like to see them end their careers together,” general manager Kevin Colbert said last month, per TribLive.com’s Chris Adamski.
Pittsburgh’s inside linebackers help put this group over the top after last year’s addition of Devin Bush Jr. The Steelers lost a rather large piece of the puzzle when Ryan Shazier suffered his spinal injury three years ago. Bush now brings a similar skill set because he’s athletic enough to legitimately cover in space, which prevents mismatches. Vince Williams adds a physical downhill presence and is adept at blitzing the quarterback.
The team has always invested in the position and did so again this year with the third-round selection of Charlotte’s Alex Highsmith.
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The secondaries from last season’s top five pass defenses remain relatively intact, but one should get significantly better thanks to a particular offseason addition and a fully healed superstar.
The Los Angeles Chargers ranked fifth overall. Two massive differences in this year’s roster could take the group from being one of the best secondaries to being the very best because of the skill sets those individuals bring to the lineup.
General manager Tom Telesco signed four-time Pro Bowl cornerback Chris Harris Jr. in free agency. At one time, Harris was the game’s best all-around cornerback with the ability to dominate outside or from the slot. At 30 years old, he’ll now get an opportunity to primarily play nickel corner.
“That was the main thing that they brought to me,” he said of the Chargers’ plans, per The Athletic’s Daniel Popper.
Versatility within the Chargers’ secondary makes this group special, and Derwin James spearheads the approach as the game’s best multipurpose defensive weapon.
James played in five games last season after he required foot surgery to repair a stress fracture. But the 2018 first-team All-Pro believes Harris’ addition will allow him to do more than he already does.
“To be able to move around, just adding Chris, it lets me be more free,” he said, per Sports Illustrated‘s Jason B. Hirschhorn.
Harris’ addition, plus having James in the lineup for a full season, adds to a unit that already features one of the league’s best cover corners in Casey Hayward Jr. Michael Davis is also back after starting 12 games last season.
Plus, Desmond King II should expect an expanded role. Defensive coordinator Gus Bradley told reporters the squad’s former nickel corner could move outside and play safety in the defense’s dime package.
Nasir Adderley, who the team selected in last year’s second round, should see an expanded role. Rayshawn Jenkins is projected to start at free safety but could play some nickel linebacker, as well. Plus, Telesco drafted Notre Dame safety Alohi Gilman with this year’s sixth-round pick.
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Gregory Payan/Associated Press
The Kansas City Chiefs don’t have an established punter, yet the franchise still features the league’s best group of specialists.
Last season, Harrison Butker led the NFL in scoring. In three seasons with the Chiefs, the 24-year-old kicker has converted 89.7 percent of his field goals and 95.2 percent of his extra-point attempts. He missed only one field-goal attempt within 50 yards in 2019.
A high-flying offense better have a kicker who can convert, and the Chiefs do.
Kansas City also features two Pro Bowl-level returners.
Tyreek Hill is the league’s most dangerous man with the ball in his hands, but the coaching staff decided to pare down his return responsibilities last season and let Mecole Hardman take over those duties. He averaged 26.1 yards per kick return and 9.3 yards per punt return during his initial campaign.
Punter is the only glaring issue for the Kansas City specialists after the organization released Dustin Colquitt, who served the team for 15 seasons.
However, Colquitt ranked 27th and 23rd in average punt and net punt last season, respectively. Those numbers shouldn’t be hard to eclipse for whoever takes over the position, whether it’s Tyler Newsome or undrafted rookie Tommy Townsend.
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