The NFL's late-down specialists: Making a team of the best players on third and fourth down

2T0BWYX Chicago Bears wide receiver DJ Moore (2) smiles after stepping out of bounds during the first half of an NFL football game against the Washington Commanders, Thursday, Oct. 5, 2023, in Landover, Md. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Matthew Stafford at QB: Stafford leads all players at the position in passing grade (86.6) on late downs and is the only quarterback with multiple big-time throws and zero turnover-worthy plays on third and fourth downs.

D.J. Moore a game-changer on late downs: Nobody has matched Moore's third- and fourth-down yardage, nor the four late-down touchdowns he has come down with.

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Estimated reading time: 4 minutes


What if football was only played on third and fourth down? What if there were no special teams? Obviously, that will never happen, but if it did, this would be the team every franchise wanted to field.

Here are the NFL's highest-graded players at each position on just third and fourth downs. For more grades and information you can't find anywhere else, Subscribe to PFF+ today!

Offense

QB: Matthew Stafford, Los Angeles Rams (89.7)

Second team: C.J. Stroud, Houston Texans (88.5)

Stafford leads all players at the position in passing grade (86.6) on late downs and is the only quarterback with multiple big-time throws and zero turnover-worthy plays on third and fourth downs.

Stroud is nipping at his heels, though, having put up an 84.8 passing grade and a league-best 558 yards on late-down throws.

RB: David Montgomery, Detroit Lions (80.7)

Second team: Saquon Barkley, New York Giants (81.3)

Barkley has a higher grade by virtue of his stronger work in the receiving game. But Montgomery has a higher volume and the highest rushing grade on these downs. Across 16 attempts, he’s moved the chains nine times and broken six tackles.

WR: D.J. Moore, Chicago Bears (92.3)

Second team: Tyreek Hill, Miami Dolphins (89.3)

Nobody has matched Moore's third- and fourth-down yardage, nor the four late-down touchdowns he has come down with. Hill’s biggest challenge is getting enough third-down opportunities, with the Dolphins offensive juggernaut limiting him to just 37 routes here.

WR: Davante Adams, Las Vegas Raiders (91.3)

Second team: Adam Thielen, Carolina Panthers (89.7)

Thielen made a compelling case for a selection, as he leads the league in conversions on late downs, but Adams is just one behind him there and has a higher grade on fewer routes.

TE: Travis Kelce, Kansas City Chiefs (86.5)

Second team: Mark Andrews, Baltimore Ravens (78.1)

Kelce remains in a class of his own. The Jets Tyler Conklin might have more yards, but Kelce has more touchdowns and first downs. The gap between Kelce and Andrews is pretty large, but Andrews is still making key plays on key downs.

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FLEX O: Nico Collins, Houston Texans (90.1)

Second team: Jordan Addison, Minnesota Vikings (84.6)

What a start to the year for Collins, who is second in yardage to D.J. Moore. Addison is really one to watch, though, and with Justin Jefferson now on the injured reserve, his opportunities here might only go up.

LT: Jake Matthews, Atlanta Falcons (80.7)

Second team: Tyron Smith, Dallas Cowboys (81.6)

This was a philosophical one. Smith has played better — particularly in pass protection — but has also missed time. However, Matthews has been more than decent in pass pro, and he has made some big blocks in short-yardage situations.

LG: Joe Thuney, Kansas City Chiefs (90.3)

Second team: Landon Dickerson, Philadelphia Eagles (70.9)

Thuney was an easy choice. He is the only guard to grade above 80.0 as both a pass-blocker and run-blocker on late downs. Dickerson is coming off his best game of the season, with the former second-rounder proving a kind who can contribute whatever the Eagles do.

C: Ryan Kelly, Indianapolis Colts (73.9)

Second team: Tyler Linderbaum, Baltimore Ravens (71.7)

Our two selections are the only two centers to grade above 70.0 for pass protection and run blocking. Ted Karras and Erik McCoy impressed with their run blocking, but neither could match the balance of Kelly or Linderbaum.

RG: Graham Glasgow, Detroit Lions (79.5)

Second team: Zack Martin, Dallas Cowboys (81.5)

Martin has the highest grade, but it’s powered by his monstrous run grade. He has been let down by his pass protection, which has been less than his usual standard on third downs. Glasgow hasn’t hit the high of Martin in the run game, but he has a better balance to his grades so far.

RT: Morgan Moses, Baltimore Ravens (78.3)

Second team: Zach Tom, Green Bay Packers (76.5)

Moses has done his best work in the run game in short-yardage situations, but he’s still done a more than serviceable job in pass protection. Tom is enjoying a great sophomore year and narrowly edges out George Fant, who has saved his best work for the key downs.

Defense

DI: Aaron Donald, Los Angeles Rams (91.7)

Second team: Chris Jones, Kansas City Chiefs (90.0)

It stands to reason that the most feared defender on third downs would have the highest grade. Donald, in a shock to nobody, has the highest pass-rushing win rate here at 36.4% on late downs. Jones just beats out David Onyemata, who is superior in the run game but couldn’t quite match his work rushing the passer.

DI: Javon Hargrave, San Francisco 49ers (91.2)

Second team: Arik Armstead, San Francisco 49ers (90.6)

Hargrave is the only person to match Aaron Donald in terms of third-down pressures, even if he doesn’t quite have the same win rate. Still, it’s actually Armstead who has the higher pass-rushing grade, so Hargrave can thank his work in the run game here.

EDGE: Nick Bosa, San Francisco 49ers (93.6)

Second team: Maxx Crosby, Las Vegas Raiders (90.5)

We’ve leaned heavily on the best pass-rushers here, and that’s what pushes Bosa to the top. He has the best win rate of any edge defender on third down at 35.2%. Crosby can’t match that number, but his 15 total pressures ranks fourth overall.

EDGE: Aidan Hutchinson, Detroit Lions (91.2)

Second team: Myles Garrett, Cleveland Browns (89.9)

Hutchinson just seems to be getting better and better, and his 16 total pressures on key downs are more than telling. Garrett and his 90.8 pass-rushing grade is the fourth highest at the position.

LB: Cole Holcomb, Pittsburgh Steelers (90.9)

Second team: Kyzir White, Arizona Cardinals (88.1)

We’ve picked our selections chiefly on the back of their work in the passing game, where Holcomb has allowed just one first down and picked up four defensive stops. White can match those stats and adds an interception for good measure but has allowed two extra receptions.

LB: Terrel Bernard, Buffalo Bills (90.6)

Second team: Alex Anzalone, Detroit Lions (87.5)

Bernard has graded above 70.0 in every facet, which will hopefully help the Bills with the loss of Matt Milano. Anzalone beats out the brilliant blitzer Frankie Luvu on the strength of his superior coverage work.

CB: Joey Porter Jr., Pittsburgh Steelers (91.6)

Second team: Darious Williams, Jacksonville Jaguars (80.2)

Porter has the highest coverage grade on third down, forcing two incompletions and picking off a ball across his 42 snaps in coverage. That gets him in over Williams, who may have forced him out but for a dropped pick.

CB: A.J. Terrell, Atlanta Falcons (88.2)

Second team: DaRon Bland, Dallas Cowboys (81.5)

Terrell has looked back to his best and has forced two incompletions while playing predominantly press coverage (35 of his 54 snaps). Bland is the only player with two picks on third or fourth down and has allowed just one first-down conversion here.

S: Grant Delpit, Cleveland Browns (92.2)

Second team: Julian Blackmon, Indianapolis Colts (87.3)

Alohi Gilman almost made the team, but he's not played many snaps on late downs. Instead, Delpit takes a deserved spot, thanks to his league-leading five defensive stops in coverage. Blackmon is just one behind him here, though both have a pick.

S: Antoine Winfield Jr., Tampa Bay Buccaneers (92.0)

Second team: Jevon Holland, Miami Dolphins (90.9)

Winfield is a little different from most safeties in that he’s not quite the coverage defender but far more deadly around the line of scrimmage and boasts a league-leading pass-rush grade on late downs. Holland is more conventional and a key part of the strong start to the year the Dolphins have made.

FLEX D: Brian Branch, Detroit Lions (84.7)

Second team: Nate Hobbs, Las Vegas Raiders (81.8)

The Lions have to be happy with Branch, who has made an immediate contribution to the Lions with his work in the slot, picking up an interception and forcing two other incompletions. Hobbs has forced two incompletions himself while also picking up a defensive stop.

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