Who's the NFL's best linebacker? 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 us 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)
Versatility is a premium at linebacker.
"Can he do everything? That's what I look for," a Pro Bowl linebacker told me. "What made Ray Lewis different is he was an every-down guy when LBs used to be more for first and second downs."
Today's best linebackers are asked to cause turnovers, play physically against the run, master pass coverages, fly sideline to sideline for acrobatic tackles and, if good enough, line up in the slot against a dangerous pass-catcher.
The league has enough players who can handle those tasks, with this year's top 10 "stack" linebackers -- middle in all alignments and outside in a 4-3 -- featuring established veterans and ascending young stars. Three new players cracked the list this year, starting with a head-turning linebacker who jumped six spots.