The Most Dominant Player at Every Position in the NFL Today
Prepare your arguing devices!
The NFL is a shifting landscape, but there are a few things you can always depend on.
Jerry Jones will always be the sounding board for ideas the league thinks might be good but also might be met with Molotav cocktails. An NFL player will be arrested/suspended/set on fire for some really dumb thing while the rest of the NFL does charitable work we’ll never read about.
And some players will show up on Sunday and, almost without fail, destroy the competition.
The dominant player at each of the following positions is determined a little differently per position, and we’ll touch on the specific criteria for each.
The bottom line overall, though, is that each of these players shows elite physical prowess at his position consistently throughout the season. We’re looking heavily at last season but also to see if the player has been consistently dominant over recent seasons.
I also referred to Pro Football Focus's individual player rankings as well.
Of course, you have to take a lot of other things into consideration, but we’ll get to those as needed.
Quarterback: Tom Brady
Quarterback is absolutely one of the toughest positions to determine, as there are several guys you can build cases for.
There are a lot of unique factors for quarterbacks. We looked at production but not just numbers. Stats are great, but they only tell part of the story. How did the quarterback involved get his yards? Did they mean anything? Who were his weapons? Those questions are all parts of the puzzle.
The top four elite quarterbacks (in no order)—Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers—are all guys who complete over 65 percent of their passes on a consistent basis, throw for a ton of yards consistently (barring injury) and find their receivers in the end zone a lot more than they find defensive backs by accident.
And it’s hard to choose. Manning is coming off a historic year, Brees has been more productive than anyone, Brady has been consistently great even when he had nobody to throw to and Rodgers has willed his team to wins overcoming middling defense and no offensive line.
If your team happens to have any of those four (and let’s throw Andrew Luck in there as well, though I don’t think he’s quite worthy of this list...yet), you’re a happy fan.
For my money, I remain most impressed with what Brady does with shaky weapons almost every season. The other three quarterbacks have some pretty potent receivers, but Brady is often putting together his numbers with a patchwork offense.
In a close race, I’d say Brady is the most consistently dominant at his position. Nevertheless, he’ll be pushed again this year, and we could have a different guy topping this list in 2015.
Running Back: Adrian Peterson
As with the quarterback position, this is almost a “taster’s choice” selection.
First of all, there are fewer “bell cow” running backs now than there were even just five years ago. So players are not seeing the snaps they used to. You might have a phenomenal running back who isn’t ever going to put up huge numbers because his offense is run by a coordinator who likes rolling out two or three running backs during a game and splitting all the carries.
By the same token, the guys who do get the bulk of the carries are usually very special backs worthy of the term “elite” and are guys anyone would be happy to have on their team.
Guys like Marshawn Lynch, LeSean McCoy, Jamaal Charles and Adrian Peterson are backs who can carry your team when they need to, who keep the defense occupied any time they take the field, who can change the tone of a game with one carry.
All of them have performed well over the last few years, and all of them are coming off very good 2013 seasons.
For my money, though, nobody has performed over the past few years like Peterson.
Now yes, there can be some healthy debate about him, and McCoy had a tremendous 2013. I think you are close to being able to make the argument that McCoy is better, though I don’t think he’s quite as dominant as Peterson has been.
Peterson has had 1,000 yards every season save for 2012, when he blew out his knee and still managed 973 yards in 12 games. His per-carry average has never been below 4.4, and he has never scored fewer than 10 touchdowns. He hasn’t caught nearly as many balls as McCoy the last few years, but he has shown in the past that he can.
And he does all this while facing stacked fronts because he has had some of the worst quarterbacks in the NFL under center for him. The only person who has had quarterbacking as consistently bad in his offense is Charles, who at least had Alex Smith last season.
Peterson is closing in on the end of his career, and as he creeps toward 30, we expect a drop-off in production sometime soon.
But for now, there is nobody who is more effective with as little help as Peterson gets on a weekly basis.
Wide Receiver: Calvin Johnson
The first of two easy ones!
I could actually see an argument for a lot of different players, but it would sound like playing devil’s advocate.
The best anyone can hope to do is limit the damage Calvin Johnson does to you. Sure, he’s been stopped just like every receiver in the history of the NFL, but more often than not, he is going to light your secondary up.
Now that doesn’t mean the Detroit Lions win every game because of him—they don’t, because there has rarely been enough of a team around him to take advantage of the fact that Detroit has the best receiver in the NFL (arguably one of the best ever to play the game).
True though that is, it doesn’t lessen how dominating a presence on the field Johnson is.
You can double- or triple-cover Megatron, and it won’t matter, because he will out-jump, outfight or outmaneuver your defense 99 times out of 100.
Tight End: Jimmy Graham
This was an easy one as well, in part because the other contenders are either unproven (like Cameron Jordan), on the decline (like Antonio Gates) or never on the field (has anyone seen Rob Gronkowski today?).
Of course, maybe he needs to be in the conversation for wide receiver, but as the NFL has designated him as a tight end, Jimmy Graham is our most dominant tight end in the league.
Graham has been a ridiculous weapon for Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints, a matchup nightmare for most defenses and a wide receiver in a tight end’s body.
No tight end has been as consistently awful to deal with for a defense in a long time, and Graham is one of the standard-bearers for what has become a new breed of tight end—physical when they need to be, pass-catchers first and foremost and able to go vertical as well as make plays across the middle.
I can’t think of anyone else who comes close to Graham’s level of domination over the last few years.
Offensive Tackle: Joe Thomas
I had a hard time choosing among Jason Peters, Joe Thomas and Trent Williams, all of whom are fantastic tackles and are excellent choices.
Peters performed exceptionally well, especially for a guy who was out for all of 2012 due to two Achilles ruptures, returning to action last August. It’s hard to deny how good he was before and after that.
Williams has a tough job to do, blocking for Robert Griffin III. The zone-blocking scheme from the previous regime is gone, though, and he could look even better this year. He will occasionally do things that make you cringe, but more often than not, he is exceptional at his job.
Ultimately, though, I lean toward Thomas, who has yet to miss a game for the Cleveland Browns since he was drafted and has been to the Pro Bowl in seven straight years. Of the three, Thomas is the only tackle to be in Pro Football Focus’ top 10 every year since 2007 (subscription link).
I’ll take Thomas any day of the week, especially on Sundays in the fall.
Offensive Guard: Evan Mathis
When it comes to interior linemen, two stand out above the pack: Josh Sitton of the Green Bay Packers and Evan Mathis of the Philadelphia Eagles.
Both have shown themselves able to adjust to their “freelancing” quarterbacks (Aaron Rodgers for Sitton and Michael Vick for Mathis). They do great jobs blocking for both run and pass plays and have played at high levels for several years.
Last year was an interesting one for both guards, as Sitton graded out much better in pass protection, while Mathis dominated more in run blocking, per Pro Football Focus (subscription link).
It’s a close race, but at the end of the day, I lean toward Mathis. Sitton had a more consistent 2013 (he graded out much more evenly, while Mathis was nowhere near as good in pass-blocking as he was blocking for the run), but over the course of the past few seasons, Mathis has been at the top of his game more frequently.
Given Mathis’ age, we should see Sitton overtake him permanently sometime in the near future.
Center: Alex Mack
A lot of folks automatically think the left tackle is the single most important position on the line, but I’ve always felt differently. To me, the center is the guy who’d best be on his game on every snap. Before the play starts, he needs to make sure the rest of the linemen know their roles, adjust to what the defense is doing and are aware of any changes the quarterback is making.
Yes, stopping edge-rushers is critical, but if your center isn’t doing his job, nobody else is going to be able to do his as effectively.
When it comes to centers, there are plenty of good ones and very few exceptional ones. The guy who stands out to me as the most consistently dominating center is the Cleveland Browns’ Alex Mack.
Mack does an exceptional job both before and after the snap. He can get his unit set by calling adjustments when needed, smoothly move to get off the ball and either knock a defender back during a run play or direct a pass-rusher away from his quarterback.
Mack is very balanced as a center, no matter what the situation.
Defensive End: J. J. Watt
You can have a spirited debate in the comments if you want about who else deserves the title here, but I won’t take part, because the whole argument begins and ends with J.J. Watt.
Granted, we’ve only got a pair of great seasons (and one mediocre one) to work with, but what we’ve seen has been so consistently beyond the level of the rest of the pack that there is no real comparison.
We’ll see if he can keep it up—we saw a drop-off in sacks last season, though from a slightly inflated level—but as far as I can see, he is and will continue to be the dominant defensive end in the NFL.
Defensive Tackle: Geno Atkins
I went back and forth on this one for a while, as all three players I feel play at a high level. All three have lost portions of a season due to injury or suspension but have continued to play at high levels.
Ndamukong Suh, Gerald McCoy and Geno Atkins are all fantastic players. All three of them are a pain for any offensive line to deal with. All of them will hold up well at the point of attack and can also get after the quarterback.
We’re talking about a difference of inches here, and that knocks Suh down just a little bit. While he’s got all sorts of pass-rush tools, he doesn’t stand up against the run quite as well as the other two.
Atkins was injured last season, which of course knocked his overall stats down, but if you look at what he did in the time he had, Atkins is just working at a higher level. I really like McCoy, but ultimately when healthy, I believe Atkins is a more dominant player at this point.
McCoy (and Suh) may yet catch him, but when healthy, Atkins is the top dog.
Outside Linebacker: Von Miller
Despite having half the snaps of the next guy up (Lavonte David) among 4-3 outside linebackers and 200-300 fewer than the next guys up among 3-4 outside linebackers (subscription links), and despite missing the first six games of the season, Von Miller was still graded out as the top outside linebacker by Pro Football Focus.
I actually think David is on the cusp of not only taking this over but running away and hiding, but Miller plays a bit better, even if he doesn’t quite have the edge in stats.
For now, Miller is the best all-around outside linebacker in the NFL. He can rush the passer (his chief role in the Denver Broncos defense), he can drop into zone coverage if need be and proved last year that he can anchor the edge against the run.
There are plenty of great outside linebackers, but Miller is a cut above the rest.
Inside Linebacker: NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis
Well, it’s hard to choose between two teammates, as both NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis are exceptional inside linebackers.
So why bother? I have decided (for the first of two instances) to split the top prize and call them both dominating.
Bowman tore both his MCL and ACL during the NFC Championship Game last January, but before that he had his best season of production yet. Next to him, Willis had a tremendous season as well.
Of course, it’s not just about this past season, but the last several. Over the past three seasons, both Bowman and Willis have been ranked at the top of Pro Football Focus’ inside linebacker rankings—in 2013 and 2011 both were ranked in the top three (subscription links).
Cornerback: Richard Sherman and Darrelle Revis
And here is the second selection where I gutlessly bail on choosing just one guy.
The truth is, though, that Richard Sherman and Darrelle Revis do completely different jobs—is one truly better than the other?
Revis is a cover corner without par who is asked to follow the top wide receiving threat wherever he goes on the field. Sherman normally is asked to stay on just one side, which means sometimes he sees the best receiver the opposition has to offer and sometimes he doesn’t.
I don’t think we should knock Sherman for what he isn’t asked to do. Could he do what Revis does? It’s hard to say, as we’ve not seen it other than in small bursts.
Both are tremendous corners who have very different jobs and perform them at the highest level possible. They both dominate their competition unlike anyone else in the league.
Safety: Jairus Byrd
If we were just looking at last season, we’d have a lot of contenders. Earl Thomas, Devin McCourty and T.J. Ward all had great seasons.
But over the last several seasons, only one safety has repeatedly played at a consistently high level—Jairus Byrd. Byrd has been ranked in the top 10 safeties by Pro Football Focus (subscription required) over the past three years, including rating as No. 2 in 2012 and No. 3 in 2011.
Byrd does everything you want a safety to do. He shows excellent range and instincts in pass coverage and is a solid contributor in run defense.
Not many safeties are as effective against the run as they are against passes, but Byrd is one of them and has been at the top of the safety heap for the last few years.