To preview the 2020 NFL season, we asked more than 50 league executives, coaches, scouts and players to help us stack the top 10 players at 11 different positions (sorry, special-teamers). The results might surprise you. They surprised me.
Here's how it worked: Voters gave their best 10 to 15 players at a position, then we compiled the results and ranked candidates based on number of top-10 votes, composite average, interviews and research. We had several ties, so we broke them by isolating the two-man matchup with additional voting and follow-up calls. Each section is packed with quotes and nuggets from the voters on every guy -- even the honorable mentions.
The objective is to identify the best players right now for 2020. This is not a five-year projection or an achievement award. Who's the best today? Pretty simple.
We're compiling all of the position rankings here, with more to come.
Top 10 quarterbacks
They are still top-10 quarterbacks in their 40s, but the grip is slipping, and you can see it with the results of this list. Mobility, athleticism and throwing on the run are qualities prioritized by all teams now, which explains why four of the league's top five quarterbacks use those traits as a weapon. Aaron Rodgers is the rare late-30s quarterback who can still pull off that routine.
The pass rushes are too good, the secondaries too sophisticated for quarterbacks to drop back and wait five seconds before throwing. Another thing evaluators prioritize when evaluating QB greatness: universal skill sets. Which quarterbacks truly could play for any team, in any system? Many of these players fit that description.
This year's top-10 quarterback list features a few surprises, a few legacies cemented, the Dak vs. Wentz debate settled, and an incredibly tough call at the 10th spot.
Top 10 tight ends
Should Travis Kelce or George Kittle be the NFL's top TE?
Jeremy Fowler examines the tight race between Travis Kelce and George Kittle for the top spot in tight end rankings among league insiders.
After the first round of votes, the two sat at a dead-even split. In a race this close, it comes down to preferences: the pure-form receiver (Kelce) for the AFC champion or the do-it-all catalyst for the NFC champion (Kittle). Really, this is the conversation with every modern tight end. Some teams prioritize pass-catching weapons who line up everywhere to maximize mismatches. Others prefer throwbacks who can get open or block, thus impacting every down.
After the top two, the position is stocked with variety, including Hall of Famers making comebacks in their 30s, oft-injured players trying to become stars and young pass-catchers looking to rise up the board.
Find out who takes the top spot in our rankings here.
Top 10 running backs
Should Saquon Barkley be the top RB over Christian McCaffrey?
Jeremy Fowler says Saquon Barkley got the most No. 1 votes among the league executives he spoke to for running back rankings.
At running back, youth matters perhaps more than any other position. Eight of the game's premier tailbacks are 24 or younger, cutting and slashing their way to a big contract before the legs go.
The game's best running backs can be separated into tiers, each of which has incredibly close arguments for who's better. The top three -- Saquon Barkley, Christian McCaffrey and Ezekiel Elliott -- traded 1-2-3 spots throughout the process.
Here, league execs, coaches and players try to separate fact from fiction, resulting in a few major surprises along the way.
Top 10 wide receivers
The sheer depth and production of the wide receiver position makes creating a top-10 list nearly futile. Twenty-five receivers eclipsed 1,000 yards in 2019 -- and that doesn't include Davante Adams, Tyreek Hill, Adam Thielen and others who missed significant time because of injury.
Second- and third-year players are putting up real numbers but have difficulty cracking this list because the established heads won't give up ground.
For all the receivers who are considered great, the best among them all was surprising in his voting dominance.
Top 10 offensive tackles
Judging good offensive tackles isn't as simple as who gives up sacks or commits penalties. There's playcall context, pre-snap protections, elite quarterbacks who can escape traffic, schemes that mask blocking deficiencies. There's good pressure and bad pressure, five blockers who must work in unison.
The truly good ones stand out. That's why a 38-year-old free agent (Jason Peters) got a No. 1 vote from a veteran pass-rusher out of sheer respect.
Other big-name players at the position haven't lost their fastball just yet, fending off ascending players from taking their spot.
We asked execs, coaches and players from around the league to sort it all out, and here are their picks.
Top 10 interior offensive linemen
Interior offensive line play probably isn't what it used to be. Despite some big-time talent at the top, league evaluators bemoaned the lack of dominance, particularly at center.
As one veteran NFL defensive lineman put it, years ago every team played power football but now they have to mix it up because "you can't just line up and drive players 10 yards off the ball. There will be a stalemate at the line. You have to get creative."
Several players on this list beg to differ with their play, including a two-man faceoff for the No. 1 spot that required a tiebreaker.
Only four centers made the top 10, but the honorable-mentions list features men in the middle.
Top 10 edge rushers
Some of the NFL's most dynamic all-around players are on this list. Pass-rushers make elite money because of their rare skills to rip up game plans and change momentum.
The category of edge rusher -- outside linebackers in a 3-4 defense, defensive ends in a 4-3 -- is so stocked with talent that a 15-sack season in 2019 isn't enough to lock up a spot.
A mix of explosive young players, savvy veterans and close calls -- particularly for the last spot -- makes this one of the NFL's most compelling positions.
Top 10 defensive tackles
The interior defensive line -- which was basically a race for second, thanks to Aaron Donald -- was complicated by age. Several players older than 30 are still performing at a high level, leaving little room for newcomers.
We tried to separate which players are living off rep (not many) and which are properly fending off the rest of the competition (many).
The No. 2 spot required a tiebreaker. The No. 10 spot required one, too. And somewhere in the middle is one of the game's biggest superstars who desperately wants to shake durability issues. This ranking includes all defensive tackles, along with defensive ends in a 3-4 alignment.
Top 10 linebackers
Evaluating some of the top LBs in the NFL
Although Bobby Wagner is ranked among NFL insiders as the top linebacker in the NFL, Lavonte David and Tremaine Edmunds also have high standings at the position. Jeremy Fowler examines their rankings.
Following his retirement this offseason, Luke Kuechly will be missed. But plenty of linebackers are ready to fill the void. Our linebacker rankings feature a clear-cut No. 1, established veterans vying for the next four spots and ascending young players trying to unseat the second- and third-contract guys.
The linebacker position -- all inside linebackers here, along with outside linebackers in a 4-3 alignment and hybrid options -- has at least five first-round picks from the past two years who earned top-10 votes.
But older NFL players have problems with some of the young guys who like to rack up tackles.
"Turnovers and ball disruption," a veteran NFL linebacker said. "That's what it's about. The young guys can get a lot of tackles but it takes a while to learn how to take the ball away."
Top 10 cornerbacks
How do NFL executives feel about Jalen Ramsey?
Jeremy Fowler explains why NFL executives expect Jalen Ramsey to be the No. 1 cornerback in the league a year from now.
Quick passing games, run-pass options and mobile quarterbacks have forced teams to improve their man coverage. Perhaps more than ever, general managers and coaches prioritize players with man-coverage traits, with the ability to shadow when needed.
In the voting for the top-10 cornerbacks, tiebreakers usually went to the players with that ability, which complicates matters because the league has so many good corners in a variety of different systems and roles.
Most of the players in our top 10 can stand alone as true outside guys who bring balance to the back end of a defense.
Top 10 safeties
Playing safety can seem like an eight-man job in today's NFL. Several of the top players can line up at either safety spot, slot corner, outside linebacker, inside linebacker and shoot T-shirt guns into the crowd in between snaps.
Hybrid is a tired term in NFL vernacular, but it absolutely applies to the position.
What complicates voting is style preference: Some execs and coaches prefer the traditional free safety who covers ground, others like the game-plan wrecker who attacks sideline to sideline from the line of scrimmage.