Over the past couple weeks, our team here at CBS Sports has been working its way across the field, running through the list of the top 10 players at each position.
First up, we had the offensive side of the ball. Cody Benjamin looked at the quarterbacks, headlined by Tom Brady of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Patrick Walker handled the running backs, led by Tennessee Titans star Derrick Henry. Cody was up again with the wide receivers, led by Davante Adams, newly of the Las Vegas Raiders. Jordan Dajani looked at the tight ends, led by Travis Kelce of the Kansas City Chiefs. And Jeff Kerr looked at the offensive linemenled by San Francisco 49ers tackle Trent Williams at tackle and Dallas Cowboys guard Zack Martin.
Then, we went over to the defensive side of the ball. Kerr dug back into the trenches with the defensive linemen, led by Aaron Donald of the Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Rams on the interior and TJ Watt of the Pittsburgh Steelers on the edge. Dajani had Cowboys star Micah Parsons atop the list of best linebackers. Walker tabbed Rams All-Pro Jalen Ramsey as the league’s best cornerback. And Tyler Sullivan identified Kevin Byard of the Titans as the best of the best at safety. Oh, and our resident kicking expert John Breech had Justin Tucker of the Baltimore Ravens as the league’s best kicker and Michael Dickson of the Seattle Seahawks as the top punter.
Now that we’ve worked our way through the individuals, it’s time for a wider focus on the league’s best units. Today, we’re giving out awards for the NFL’s best offensive line, skill-position group, defensive front, and defensive backfield.
Best Offensive Line: Eagles
Honorable Mention: Browns, Buccaneers, Ravens, Chiefs
Philadelphia was one of only two NFL teams to rank inside the top five in Pro Football Focus ’grading for both run-blocking and pass-blocking last season. The other was the division rival Dallas Cowboys, who jettisoned two of five starters and have age and injury issues to deal with up front. The Eagles will return all five starters from last season and have also secured their eventual replacement for longtime center Jason Kelce after drafting Cam Jurgens in the second round. This is a big, mean group – Jordan Mailata, Landon Dickerson, Isaac Seumalo, Lane Johnson and Kelce – that can really move opposing fronts in the run game, and also ranked among the best pass-protection units in the league. The philosophical shift in the team’s offense midway through last season put a lot of pressure on this unit to dominate, and it did just that while leading the Eagles to the playoffs. There shouldn’t be much drop-off (if any) in 2022.
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Best (Non-QB) Offensive Skill Players: Bengals
Honorable Mention: Raiders, Chargers, Broncos, Dolphins, 49ers, Rams, Buccaneers, Vikings
We could have gone a bunch of different directions with this one. The Raiders might have the most versatile group thanks to their owning perhaps the league’s premier outside receiver, one of its best slot men, and an elite tight end. The Chargers have arguably the NFL’s best pass-catching running back outside of Christian McCaffrey, and two premier wide receivers. The Broncos have three wideouts who are somewhere between good and very good, and a high-level running back duo. The Dolphins have one of the fastest skill groups in league history, and a ton of depth at each spot. The Niners have two otherworldly playmakers unlike anybody else at their respective positions. The Rams have Cooper Kupp and a bunch of fun complimentary players. The Vikings are top-heavy but electric. The Bucs might be the team to beat in this area when they’re healthy … but they’re not healthy at the moment.
So, we’re left with the Bengals. Ja’Marr Chase took the league by storm as a rookie, making the Pro Bowl, winning Offensive Rookie of the Year and getting named a second-team All-Pro. Tee Higgins was nearly as good as Chase last year. Tyler Boyd is a highly over-qualified third option in the passing game. Joe Mixon has been consistently good since he entered the league, and even if his contributions in the passing game have been more muted in recent seasons, Cincy has gotten good work out of Semaje Perine and Chris Evans in those situations. Plus, the Bengals rebounded from losing CJ Uzomah by signing Hayden Hurst, who is more than capable of working the intermediate areas of the field while defenses are worried about everybody else.
Best Defensive Front: Steelers
Honorable Mention: Bills, Chargers, 49ers, Ravens, Rams, Saints, Buccaneers, Cowboys
Want an elite edge rusher? OK, here’s TJ Watt. Want an elite interior rusher? OK, there’s Cameron Heyward. Want a great nose tackle? OK, there’s Tyson Alualu. Want depth? Well, let’s roll out Chris Wormley, newly signed Larry Ogunjobi, Montravius Adams, and DeMarvin Leal, along with Alex Highsmith coming off the opposite edge Watt. Devin Bush hasn’t lived up to his promise but still has a ton of athleticism at linebacker, and pairing him with Myles Jack gives Pittsburgh one of the freakiest linebacker duos in the league. There are arguments for other teams, of course, like quality edge depth (Bills), top-end talent (Chargers, Rams, Cowboys), versatility (Ravens), and the lack of clear weak points (49ers, Saints), but the Steelers still stand out.
Best Defensive Backfield: Packers
Honorable Mention: Ravens, Chargers, Bills, Saints, Browns, Broncos, Dolphins
If I had confidence in the Ravens ‘(or Bills’) health, they would have gotten this spot. But with Marcus Peters and Tre’Davious White each coming off a torn ACL and Marlon Humphrey working back from a torn pectoral muscle, that tipped the scales over to Green Bay. The Packers have one of the league’s true shutdown corners in Jaire Alexander. Eric Stokes put together a fantastic rookie season, including playing at a high level while Alexander was out with an injury of his own last year. Rasul Douglas came off the street and blossomed into an outright star. And Green Bay has one of the league’s best, most versatile, and most interchangeable safety duos with Adrian Amos and Darnell Savage patrolling the back end. While Green Bay doesn’t have the depth some other units boast, the top-line talent here is too much to ignore.