The best ability is availability.
It's football's oldest adage. On defense, the next best would be versatility. The pro game hasn’t just changed body types and personnel packages in the past two decades — the necessary skill set at each position has expanded or evolved entirely.
The only positions on defense that are reminiscent of the archetypes set in the '80s and '90s are cornerbacks and edge rushers — so much so, that many teams can drop or eliminate players on draft boards based primarily on combine and pro day performances.
At lower levels of football, coaches and scouts will tell you that a defense’s best run defender is likely the best pass rusher. The best man coverage player is also the best middle-of-the-field safety. The best linebacker or safety can fit the run and step out with a slot, not missing a beat. Embracing this at the NFL level allows for more depth — not on the roster, but in the game plan.
The players who last in the league, and the ones who make big money, are the ones who can be moved around and maintain their level of productivity. This wasn’t just an examination of the best players in the league — it just so happens that great defensive players are more likely to play multiple roles within a defense today.
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Versatility is not a static concept, either. Sometimes it’s a matter of alignment, sometimes skill set — or both. This is an exercise to build the “middle” of a defense on the basis of versatility, with three interior linemen, three linebackers and three safeties.
Positions on the “edge” of a defense, such as cornerbacks and edge rushers, are paid to be specialists before they are paid to handle dual responsibilities. Before honoring the most versatile middle defenders in the NFL, let's give a nod to cornerbacks Troy Hill, Jalen Ramsey and Marlon Humphrey for being able to take their man coverage abilities in the slot and out on the perimeter. Likewise, edge rushers Khalil Mack and T.J. Watt were the only two to put up pass-rush and run-defense grades above 90.0 in 2020.
Interior Defensive Linemen in 2020
|Player||Defensive Grade||DT/DE % Split|
The mark of an elite interior defender is being moved: to the point of attack to take on the run action, then to the edge or to the weakest interior pass protector to get after a quarterback.
Heyward does the majority of his work from the inside, and with the blitzing nature of the Steelers' 3-4 defense, he’s constantly slanting, picking and twisting to get an advantage on the offense’s pass protection or run scheme. Heyward had a strong 2020 against the run, with 10 tackles for loss and 26 stops. As a pass rusher, he tallied 66 pressures and four sacks, an impressive output in a scheme that looks more to generate unblocked pressure for edge rushers and blitzers.
Donald is the inverse of Heyward. While we rightfully think of him as a 3-technique (defensive tackle, and maybe the greatest one ever), his skill set as a pass rusher is as pure as an edge defender. Then-Rams defensive coordinator Brandon Staley took full advantage of that in 2020, and Donald returned 72 pressures, eight sacks and a 92.8 pass-rush grade when lined up as a defensive end. When aligned inside of guards, he produced a pedestrian eight tackles for loss, 12 stops and a 90.7 run-defense grade.
For Jones, you can take one look at his physical frame and see he’s a player who needs to be moved around. At 6-foot-6 and over 300 pounds with a near-5.0-second 40-yard dash, he has the length, power and explosiveness to affect the game from anywhere. Across the first five years of his career, he’s already logged over 2,000 snaps as a defensive tackle, 1,000 as a defensive end and over 100 as a nose tackle. In Steve Spagnuolo’s defense, which played in dime on over one-third of its 2020 snaps (second in NFL), having an anchor who can set the front and punish interior linemen is key to protecting the smaller defensive backs on the field.
Linebackers in 2020
|Player||Run-Defense Grade||Coverage Grade||Pass-Rush Grade|
The discourse around linebackers can become muddied by a misunderstanding of the position’s role. It’s the only spot on the defense (with safety as a close second) where the primary job of the player changes on a call-by-call basis. A linebacker can be plugging a gap in one instance, carrying a tight end up the seam on the next and blitzing off the edge on third down.
Versatility is simply the calling card of the job. It’s the only position on the field that is truly in the middle of every action from play to play. Versatility in this context is about having a full toolbox, to add to a defensive coordinator's call sheet.
Wagner has played like an All-Pro from what feels like the very first snap of his NFL career. The Cover 3 scheme of the Legion of Boom era asked its players to just be better than the offense — no position more so than linebacker. Wagner has had more seasons with run-defense grades higher than 90.0 than he’s had below 80.0. In coverage, he’s regularly asked to match up with slots and tight ends running up the seam in trips formations, and he produced 19 pressures and two sacks as a blitzer or additional rusher on 105 pass-rush snaps last season.
Davis and the rest of the Saints defense, for whatever reason, has missed out on deserved public celebration for how it performed in 2020. Davis stands as the head of the snake in New Orleans. His 80.5 run-defense grade was earned with nine tackles for loss and 24 stops, and he leads this trio of players as a pass rusher with 29 pressures and four sacks.
Following his extension, Warner is rightfully recognized as the best coverage linebacker in the NFL. His game is much more than just playing in space, however. He converted just 80 pass-rushing opportunities into 16 pressures and a sack. He and Davis effectively mirrored each other’s production in the run game, as Warner forced 10 tackles for loss and 25 stops. He separates himself when the ball is in the air, allowing the lowest completion percentage of the three (72%) and the lowest passer rating (81.7) on 60 targets in 2020.
Safeties in 2020
|Player||Safety Snap %||“Box” Snaps %||“Slot” Snaps %|
|John Johnson III||38%||40%||22%|
The safety position is continuing to evolve. As I’ve discussed with dime defenses, defensive backs who can play multiple roles and match up with potential receiving threats are invaluable for shutting down offenses and protecting against mismatches.
What that means, though, is that performance in these different spots is key. You can have everyone on earth covered, but if you don’t stop the run with those coverage bodies, you end up with the 2019 NFC Championship Game. A safety in the box has to stop the run just as one in the slot has to be able to play in coverage, and a deep safety has to find the ability to both roll down in run support and give help to his underneath players in coverage.
Harrison Smith is as big as a star gets at the safety position. Just like Bobby Wagner, Smith has performed like an All-Pro from the day he put on an NFL uniform. 2020 was about as pedestrian as it gets for the veteran safety, with him earning just a 74.3 defensive grade, but here’s what the data says about last year, and the rest of his NFL career: His five interceptions (on 26 targets, no less) in 2020 tied a career-high, his 74.1 passer rating allowed is the third-highest he’s ever conceded (with six seasons below 60.0), he picked up four tackles for loss and 12 stops as a run defender and his 73 pressures and 12.5 career sacks rank second to only Jamal Adams. Offensive coordinators are trying to take the hint and put the ball wherever he isn’t, but Smith is always sure to be in the neighborhood.
Justin Simmons was seemingly waiting on a coach like Vic Fangio to unlock his abilities. He’d always been a good run defender, posting grades higher than 80.0 in three of his five seasons, but the multiplicity of Fangio’s coverage schemes and pressures puts Simmons in position to succeed.
He followed up an elite 2019 with six interceptions on 52 targets last season. As is customary in his career now, Simmons gave Denver three tackles for loss and 10 stops in the run game while also converted three of his eight pass-rush opportunities into pressures. Fangio’s commitment to playing tight coverage on third down fits Simmons’ abilities to be a playmaker, with four of his interceptions coming on third down, including two in Cover 1.
John Johnson III’s 86.1 overall grade in 2020 led this group, and the Cleveland Browns have to be ecstatic to have him play as the same skeleton key defensively that he was for Brandon Staley last season. He spent more time in the box and slot than his two colleagues on the list, and he played as the prototypical hybrid safety you’d need in a dime package.
He notched just one interception but dropped three others and forced seven incompletions. Johnson allowed just six completions of more than 15 yards on 66 targets. He had nine stops and 23 total tackles against the run and missed only two tackles in 360 run snaps. Expect him to be used as the tight end eraser against Pittsburgh and Cincinnati and a quarterback spy against Lamar Jackson behind the pass rush of Myles Garrett.