NFL News & Analysis

Best NFL players at every position in 2021: Highest-graded veterans, rookies and surprises

Baltimore, Maryland, USA; Los Angeles Rams defensive end Aaron Donald (99) rushes Baltimore Ravens quarterback Tyler Huntley (2) as guard Ben Cleveland (66) attempt to block at M&T Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

As a part of our partnership with ESPN, this is a part of a story that was originally published on ESPN+ and can be viewed in its entirety here with your ESPN+ subscription — Who were the NFL's best players this season? The highest-graded at every position, plus surprises and top rookies

The 2021 NFL regular season ended with some thrilling wins and performances. But before we turn our focus to wild-card weekend and the rest of the playoffs, it's time to pause to analyze the best players of the season using PFF's player grades.

We compiled the highest-graded players at every position in 2021 and named the top rookie and a surprise at each position. Sure, this list features the usual suspects, but there were close calls at several positions, while other position groups had runaway leaders. Two position groups even had rookies grade the highest at their respective position. And if you have watched any football this year, the highest-graded running back is not who you would think it would be.

Tom Brady regained his perch atop the quarterback position from Aaron Rodgers, but sneaking up behind them are two young quarterbacks who are looking to make their mark on the league for decades to come. And while you might think Cooper Kupp will top the receivers list — spoiler — he doesn't.

So, let's dig in, starting with quarterback and working our way through the defense:

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Quarterback

Best overall: TOM BRADY, BUCCANEERS

Regular-season PFF grade: 92.0

Brady, 44, finishes the season barely ahead of young guns Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert, who finished second and third respectively. As the Buccaneers' receiving corps crumbles around him, Brady is the steady hand that could take Tampa Bay back to the Super Bowl. Among quarterbacks who started most of the season, Brady was the least-sacked player, and he led the league in perfectly accurate passes rate at 22.9%.

Top rookie: MAC JONESPATRIOTS

Regular-season PFF grade: 79.3

Jones came on strong to start his NFL career, posting an 84.8 grade until Week 11. He's spiraled a bit since then, recording a 61.5 grade since Week 11, but that shouldn't take away from his solid season overall. He was the only rookie quarterback who graded above 65.0, which puts him far ahead of anyone in this category. He finishes his first campaign ranked 12th among all quarterbacks.

Biggest surprise: JUSTIN HERBERTCHARGERS, and JOE BURROWBENGALS

Regular-season PFF grade: Burrow 91.7; Herbert 90.0

Both quarterbacks flashed big-time talent as rookies in 2020, but they were each excellent in 2021. Herbert has become a machine, as his accuracy and ability to go through reads at a high level took another step forward. Pairing those traits with his elite arm talent should make for a long career. Burrow displays pinpoint accuracy, and late in the season, he started to find the playmaking ability that made him the 2019 Heisman Trophy winner.

Running Back

Best overall: DAMIEN HARRISPATRIOTS

Regular-season PFF grade: 87.5

As a receiver and a runner, Harris was impressive this season. Harris was a first-down machine on the ground, finishing with 55 first-down runs from just 202 carries. He recorded the seventh-highest first-down or touchdown rate on the ground. Taking out the pass-blocking and receiving grades, Indianapolis Colts runner Jonathan Taylor had the highest PFF run grade (88.2) as he led the league in first-down or touchdown rate on the ground.

Top rookie: RHAMONDRE STEVENSONPATRIOTS

Regular-season PFF grade: 79.2

Part of New England's dual threat with Harris, Stevenson finished third among rookies with 0.25 missed tackles forced per rush while leading all rookies in yards per carry as well. Just 3.8% of his runs were stuffed at the line of scrimmage or in the backfield — second-best in the NFL — which displays that Stevenson grinds positive yards at every opportunity.

Biggest surprise: AJ DILLONPACKERS

Regular-season PFF grade: 87.4

Dillon barely missed the grade for best overall running back, but still gets a spot as the biggest surprise. He quietly performed well in 2020 — boasting a 78.3 grade. But with more carries and more responsibility, Dillon flourished in 2021. He was given 134 more carries this season, but his stuff rate fell 3% even though his yards before contact per attempt decreased by 0.6 yards.

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Wide Receiver

Best overall: DAVANTE ADAMSPACKERS

Regular-season PFF grade: 92.7

Adams has now led the league in back-to-back years, as he bested the Rams‘ Cooper Kupp by less than one point. Adams can do everything from any receiver position, as he finished with the highest receiving grade from the slot and from wide alignments. He is an all-around receiver who can get open deep, run quick option routes and locate the ball with incredible body control for those back-shoulder fade routes that Rodgers loves to throw.

Top rookie: JA'MARR CHASEBENGALS

Regular-season PFF grade: 84.0

Chase was immediately impactful this season, as he reunited with his college quarterback (Burrow) with the Bengals. Over the first seven weeks of the season, Chase posted an 83.5 grade. He fell off a bit during the middle of the season, recording only a 64.7 grade between Weeks 8-15, but the rookie came alive again to close out the regular season and helped the Bengals secure a division title while notching a 91.1 grade over the last three weeks. Justin Jefferson was the top-graded rookie last season, so that means an LSU Tiger has sat atop of these receiver rankings for two years in a row.

Biggest surprise: AMON-RA ST. BROWNLIONS

Regular-season PFF grade: 80.0

Brown was the second-highest-graded rookie receiver behind Chase and the 17th-graded receiver overall. The fourth-round pick started to pick up steam and gain some footing as the season went on. From Week 13 until the end of the season, St. Brown posted a 90.3 grade — the third-highest mark in the league. Mostly a slot receiver, the Lions used him in a multitude of ways, including catching passes out of the backfield, as the season wore on.

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Tight End

Best overall: MARK ANDREWSRAVENS

Regular-season PFF grade: 91.5

This season didn't go the Ravens' way, as they didn't make the playoffs. However, on the bright side, Andrews did ascend to the top of the tight end rankings. He was the most targeted tight end (149 targets), caught the most passes (107 receptions) and gained the most yards (1,361 receiving yards) while finishing third in yards per route run (2.18). It was also Andrews' best season as a run-blocker, as he boasted a 75.3 grade.

Top rookie: KYLE PITTSFALCONS

Regular-season PFF grade: 79.7

Pitts posted the highest-graded season for a rookie tight end since 2017. He finished fifth in yards per route run among all tight ends this season (2.02) and caught a whopping 30.8% of his contested catch opportunities. The rookie split his time evenly between three positions, lining up in the slot on 37% of Atlanta's offensive snaps, as an inline tight end on 32% of snaps and as an outside receiver on 30% of snaps.

Biggest surprise: DALTON SCHULTZCOWBOYS

Regular-season PFF grade: 78.1

Schultz's grade improved by almost 15 points from last season because he became a focal point of Dallas' passing attack due to injuries throughout the team's pass-catching core. He was one of six tight ends who finished with triple-digit targets. After his first three seasons in the league, Schultz had 767 receiving yards combined, but he recorded 834 yards in this season alone.

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Offensive Tackle

Best overall: TRENT WILLIAMS49ERS

Regular-season PFF grade: 98.3

Williams had one of the best seasons PFF has ever seen from an offensive player regardless of position. Williams didn't finish with a game grade lower than 72.9 and boasted 10 games above 80.0. After missing Week 18, he heads into the playoffs with zero sacks allowed and just three pressures allowed over his past five starts. He's getting better as the season goes on.

Top rookie: RASHAWN SLATERCHARGERS

Regular-season PFF grade: 83.7

Both Slater and Lions rookie Penei Sewell had outstanding rookie seasons, but Slater's 80.3 pass-blocking grade dwarfs Sewell's 69.4 grade. Slater's 3.7% pressure rate allowed is one of the 10 best among all tackles. He will finish 13th in PFF's pass block efficiency metric as well.

Biggest surprise: Jordan MailataEagles

Regular-season PFF grade: 86.9

Mailata will finish as the league's third-highest-graded tackle in his second season, as his grade jumped from 70.9 last year to 86.9 this season. At 6-foot-8 and 346 pounds, he is one the biggest players in the league. And because of his rugby background coming from his native Australia, Mailata never played a down of American football before being taken in by Eagles offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland and subsequently becoming one of the best at his position in the league.

Dec 21, 2021; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA; Philadelphia Eagles offensive tackle Jordan Mailata (68) in action against the Washington Football Team at Lincoln Financial Field. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Guard

Best overall: ZACK MARTINCOWBOYS

Regular-season PFF grade: 94.2

Martin returned from injury to reclaim his top spot among NFL guards this season. This was Martin's best-graded season to date, and he has only had one season graded below 86.0. He will finish in the top 10 in both pressure rate allowed and PFF's pass block efficiency metric among guards. Bouncing back from the calf injury that forced him to miss a chunk of 2020 to still be one of the best guards in 2021 is more fodder for what should be a Hall of Fame career.

Top rookie: TREY SMITHCHIEFS

Regular-season PFF grade: 72.1

The Chiefs hit on both their interior offensive line draft picks, as Smith and Creed Humphrey topped their respective positions. Smith proved better as a run-blocker, finishing with a 74.9 run-blocking grade compared to just a 64.8 pass-blocking grade, but there are reasons to be optimistic about his ability in pass protection. He finished seven games with a 70.0-plus grade in pass protection, so the best might be yet to come for the young guard.

Biggest surprise: CHRIS LINDSTROMFALCONS

Regular-season PFF grade: 84.1

Lindstrom continues to improve every season, going from a 66.6 grade as a rookie in 2019 to a 77.1 grade last year and now an 84.1 grade in 2021 under new head coach Arthur Smith. He allowed zero sacks in 2021 — one of only 10 guards who kept his quarterback clean among players with more than 200 pass-blocking snaps. He also recorded the fourth-highest run-blocking grade among guards (88.2).

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Center

Best overall and top rookie: CREED HUMPHREYCHIEFS

Regular-season PFF grade: 91.4

Humphrey was the only rookie who led his position in PFF grade, as he helped solidify the Chiefs' offensive line. The team added Orlando Brown Jr. and Joe Thuney to the fold in the offseason, but it was the two rookies — Humphrey and Smith — who might have made the biggest impact. Humphrey finished first in run-blocking grade and third in pass-blocking grade among all centers. He finished second to the great Rodney Hudson in pressure rate allowed (1.5%).

Biggest surprise: JASON KELCEEAGLES

Regular-season PFF grade: 84.8

The surprise here is that Kelce apparently does not age. He turned 34 during the middle of the season and was one of the best centers in the league. He finished with the third-highest grade among centers, and his 90.0 run-blocking grade helped pave the way for a rushing attack that led the Eagles to the playoffs. Considering Kelce's grade had fallen to 69.6 last season, one could have surmised that his best days were behind him, but he rebounded in a big way in 2021.

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Defensive Tackle

Best overall: AARON DONALDRAMS

Regular-season PFF grade: 93.6

Donald dominated again this season. In PFF's wins above replacement (WAR) statistic, Donald absolutely dwarfs every other defender. His 1.02 WAR this season more than doubled second-place Cameron Heyward's 0.39 WAR. He bested second-place finisher among all defenders and teammate Jalen Ramsey's WAR by .37. By the time we get to the eighth overall defender in PFF WAR, Donald's mark doubles their number. The best defensive player of this generation was once again outstanding this season.

Top rookie: CHRISTIAN BARMOREPATRIOTS

Regular-season PFF grade: 63.8

Rookie interior defenders didn't have a great season overall, but Barmore does stand out especially as a pass-rusher who boasted a 75.4 grade. He recorded 11 more pressures than any other rookie interior defender and finished third among all rookies regardless of position. His 17.1% pass rush win rate was the highest of all rookies not named Micah Parsons. He was not perfect defending the run, but he was drafted to rush the passer, and he can hang his hat on that aspect of his game after a nice rookie season.

Biggest surprise: ZACH SIELERDOLPHINS

Regular-season PFF grade: 84.8

Out of absolutely nowhere, the fourth-year veteran finished with the fourth-highest grade among interior defensive linemen — one spot above his teammate Christian Wilkins. Seiler improved his 2020 grade by 15.5 points, as he played 714 snaps this season compared to just 793 over his first three seasons combined. He produced a 25% positively graded play rate against the run and only had a negatively graded play on 10% of his snaps.

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Edge Defender

Best overall: MYLES GARRETTBROWNS

Regular-season PFF grade: 92.0

Garrett continues to improve and cracks the 90.0 mark for the first time in his career. He was a dominant force off the edge in Cleveland, finishing second in pass rush win rate and fourth in pressure rate among all edge defenders. He also added 13 defensive run stops — six of which were tackles for loss or no gain. He lived in opposing backfields and was an unblockable player for most of the season.

Top rookie: GREG ROUSSEAUBILLS

Regular-season PFF grade: 70.2

The Miami product finished third in pressure rate among rookie edge defenders (12.1%), which was just behind his teammate Boogie Basham. He finished fifth in pass rush win rate among rookie edge defenders as well. Rousseau made his mark against the run, tallying an incredible 32 defensive run stops, which was tied for the most in the league and far more than any other rookie.

Biggest surprise: MARCUS DAVENPORTSAINTS

Regular-season PFF grade: 89.3

Even while missing some time due to injury, Davenport seems to have finally developed into the player the Saints envisioned when they traded up to take him in the 2018 NFL draft. He's a big-bodied edge defender who is starting to make an impact like his teammate Cameron Jordan. He finished with a pass rush grade above 80.0 for the first time in his career, as he generated 47 total pressures and a lofty 21.3% pass rush win rate.

New Orleans Saints defensive end Marcus Davenport (92) in the second quarter against the Carolina Panthers at the Caesars Superdome. Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

Linebacker

Best overall & Top rookie: MICAH PARSONSCOWBOYS

Regular-season PFF grade: 88.5

Parsons, listed as a linebacker, split time between edge defender and off-ball linebacker in Dan Quinn's defense — and he excelled at both positions. He was better as a defensive lineman as he got his feet wet diagnosing plays from the off-ball linebacker position, but when he rushed the passer, there might not have been a better player in the league. He finished fourth in pass rush win rate in the league (24.8%).

Biggest surprise: DE'VONDRE CAMPBELLPACKERS

Regular-season PFF grade: 84.3

A below-average player throughout his career, Campbell exploded in his first season with the Packers. Never topping a higher grade than 69.1 (2017 in Atlanta), Campbell improved upon his 49.0 mark last season in Arizona by 35.3 points. He allowed a high completion rate into his coverage as a pass-defender, but most of those were short. He finished with 34 “stops” against the pass this year and added two interceptions with 19 stops against the run.

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Cornerback

Best overall: JALEN RAMSEYRAMS

Regular-season PFF grade: 84.3

In terms of PFF grade, Ramsey finally returned to the form of his magical 2017 season in Jacksonville. He didn't quite hit his 91.3 grade from that season, but this year's 84.3 grade was better than anything in between. Ramsey recorded four interceptions and also added 16 forced incompletions — tied for fourth most in the league. Ramsey posted an 85.9 run defense grade — the fourth highest in the league among cornerbacks.

Top rookie: NATE HOBBSRAIDERS

Regular-season PFF grade: 78.4

Hobbs finished 10th in PFF WAR (0.44) among cornerbacks as a rookie. The Packers' Eric Stokes finished second among rookies (0.30), so Hobbs is well ahead of any rookie in this category. In addition, Hobbs posted well-rounded grades in every aspect of the position, as he boasted a 78.8 run defense grade, a 78.0 pass-rush grade and a 75.8 coverage grade. He finished second among rookies with a paltry 0.69 yards per coverage snap given up this season as well.

Biggest surprise: CHIDOBE AWUZIEBENGALS

Regular-season PFF grade: 83.4

There was a reason Dallas allowed Awuzie to walk after four years with the team. His best season was his rookie year, where he notched a 78.4 PFF grade but played only 368 snaps. He never reach that mark again in Dallas, but he bested it this season in Cincinnati. He snagged two interceptions and forced 10 incompletions.

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Safety

Best overall: KEVIN BYARDTITANS

Regular-season PFF grade: 90.5

Byard has been one of the better safeties in the league for a while but fell off a bit in 2020 with a 65.8 grade, which was down from 85.3 in 2017, 87.9 in 2018 and 78.3 in 2019. However, Byard was the highest-graded coverage safety and also the fifth-highest-graded run defender at the safety position this season. Byard tallied eight run stops and one tackle for loss or no gain on the season.
Top rookie: JEVON HOLLANDDOLPHINS

Regular-season PFF grade: 84.6

Not only was he the highest-graded rookie safety, but he also finished as the third-highest-graded safety overall. He broke up nine passes and allowed just 12 completions in coverage. He and teammate Brandon Jones led all safeties in pressures, as Jones boasted 20 while Holland finished with 16. Holland also added seven run stops.

Biggest surprise: ADRIAN PHILLIPSPATRIOTS

Regular-season PFF grade: 80.5

In his second season in New England, Phillips was impressive. A semi-breakout 2019 season with the Chargers saw Phillips post an 87.6 grade from only 382 snaps. The Patriots picked him up and hoped he was closer to that than the player who didn't top 66.0 in any other season where he played at least 100 snaps for the Chargers. He wasn't great in 2020, posting just a 66.2 grade, but at 80.5 this season, it seems he has figured out Bill Belichick's defense.

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