Who's the NFL's best pass-rusher? Wide receiver? Cornerback? What about the second-best defensive tackle -- after Aaron Donald? To preview the 2021 NFL season, we set out to answer those questions and much more.
We surveyed more than 50 league executives, coaches, scouts and players to help us stack the top 10 players at 11 different positions, from edge rusher to interior offensive linemen and all the way through tight ends. This is the second edition of these rankings, and there are several players who moved up and dropped from last year's lists.
Here's how our process 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, research and film-study help from ESPN NFL analyst Matt Bowen. 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 2021. This is not a five-year projection or an achievement award. Who's the best today? Pretty simple.
We'll roll out a position per day over the next 11 days. Here's the schedule:
Week 1: edge rushers (July 5), interior defensive line (July 6), off-ball linebackers (July 7), cornerbacks (July 8), safeties (July 9), offensive tackles (July 10), interior offensive line (July 11)
Week 2: quarterbacks (July 12), running backs (July 13), wide receivers (July 14), tight ends (July 15)
Execs typically rank interior defensive linemen by one criterion: Which player most often wrecks your game plan with force, length and speed -- over and over?
The first choice is obvious, and is a candidate for best overall player in the NFL. Then, the next few choices were pretty clear-cut. After that? It got incredibly difficult. Players 6 through 15 were in a virtual tie, requiring at least 30 tiebreakers.
Young interior linemen ascended at a rapid pace while the play of top veterans largely hadn't fall off. And at least one legend had to be left off the list.
The NFL's interior defensive line -- defensive tackles in any setup, and defensive ends in a 3-4 defensive alignment -- will have interior offensive linemen and quarterbacks questioning the sanctity of their pockets in 2021.