News & Analysis

Strongest team positional groups heading into the 2021 NFL Draft

Oct 11, 2020; Cleveland, Ohio, USA; Cleveland Browns offensive tackle Jack Conklin (78) is introduced before the game between the Cleveland Browns and the Indianapolis Colts at FirstEnergy Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Last week, we hit on some of the weakest team positional groups in the NFL heading into the 2021 NFL Draft. The list included Atlanta's secondary, Minnesota’s interior offensive line and Jacksonville’s tight ends — all units that should be addressed at some point over the next month. 

Now, it’s time to look at the other side of the spectrum. In no particular order, here are some of the strongest positional groups in the league entering this month’s draft. 

Cleveland Browns offensive line

The Browns' offensive line went from a definitive weakness following the 2019 season to being ranked as the best offensive line in the league after this past season.

It’s hard to understate the impact of tackles Jedrick Wills Jr. and Jack Conklin on the unit in their first years with the team. Conklin ended the 2020 season as PFF’s second-highest-graded right tackle, behind Tristan Wirfs. And while Wills’ overall grade wasn’t quite as impressive as his counterpart on the right side, the 21-year-old earned a solid 77.6 pass-blocking grade after making the switch from right to left tackle. That grade was nearly 10 points higher than Greg Robinson’s the prior season.

However, the biggest storyline may be right guard Wyatt Teller‘s third-year leap. After two underwhelming seasons to begin his NFL career, Teller became an absolute force in Cleveland’s ground game.

It’s not going to get much better in the running game than having talented backs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt charge through holes created by Teller and Conklin on the right side of that offensive line. 

It’s a starting unit that doesn’t have any true weak link and features some of the top players in the league at their respective positions. Barring injuries, the Browns should once again field one of the best offensive lines in the league in 2021.

Pittsburgh Steelers defensive line

For the purpose of this piece, we're going to include Pittsburgh’s outside linebackers when discussing their defensive line. This is still arguably the most formidable defensive front in the entire league after the loss of Bud Dupree to the Tennessee Titans in free agency.

Alex Highsmith, the second-year man filling Dupree’s shoes, is likely Pittsburgh’s weakest link up front, and that’s not a bad position to be in. The edge position is one where you can sometimes see players take time to develop, but Highsmith finished his rookie season with a 72.9 overall grade. That was a top-25 mark at the position among qualifiers. And it was even significantly higher than Dupree’s 60.2 grade before his injury.

The remainder of Pittsburgh’s starters up front (T.J. Watt, Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt) are in the conversation for being some of the NFL's better players at their respective positions. Even Tyson Alualu can be thrown into that mix after his surprise return to the team. Alualu picked up PFF grades of at least 80.0 in each of the past two seasons.

It’s a group that could use some additional depth, but the starting unit looks to be as formidable as ever heading into 2021.

Denver Broncos secondary

Denver finished 12th in PFF’s end-of-season secondary rankings following the 2020 campaign. That’s not too impressive at face value, but it becomes more so once one factors in the war of attrition that took place at the cornerback position.

Six different Denver cornerbacks played at least 200 defensive snaps, and third-round rookie Michael Ojemudia was the team's only defender to line up for 500-plus snaps at outside cornerback. Bryce Callahan was next on the list, seeing 409 snaps out wide after playing almost exclusively in the slot prior to the 2020 campaign.

Bryce Callahan slot vs. outside cornerback | 2020 season
Alignment Snaps PFF grade
Outside 409 73.7
Slot 188 90.5

As the table shows, Callahan didn’t play poorly outside. However, he graded out nearly 20 points higher in the snaps at his more natural slot alignment. That's relevant because the additions of former teammate Kyle Fuller and Ronald Darby in free agency should allow Callahan to move back inside full-time — a position where he was one of the highest-graded slot cornerbacks in the league under Vic Fangio in Chicago.

Fuller and Darby stand out as sizable upgrades over what Fangio had to work with outside last season, bumping Ojemudia down to providing depth at the position. Then, there’s the safety group. Justin Simmons and Kareem Jackson both finished the 2020 campaign with top-10 grades at the position. At full health, there is no clear weak link in this group.

Washington Football Team defensive line

No team has spent more premium draft picks along its defensive line than Washington over the past four years. Starting with Jonathan Allen in 2017, the Football Team has spent a first-round pick on a defensive lineman in each of the past four seasons. None of them look to be clear misses, resulting in one of the better units in football. All four players also still happen to be on their rookie contracts.

Chase Young (87.1 overall grade) and Montez Sweat (80.0 overall grade) both finished the 2020 season as top-12 graded edge defenders. Allen and Daron Payne also both provided Washington with strong play inside, albeit in slightly different ways. Payne earned a top-20 run-defense grade at the position, and Allen’s 83.7 pass-rushing grade on the interior ranked behind only Aaron Donald, Chris Jones, DeForest Buckner, Vita Vea and Javon Hargrave.

The scary part is that some of these guys should only continue to improve entering next season.

Dallas Cowboys wide receivers

Injuries to Dak Prescott and Dallas’ offensive line put a damper on what was one of the NFL's best receiving corps in 2020. 

There is only so much a team's wide receivers can do when offensive tackles are getting walked back into the quarterback’s lap and he’s unable to provide catchable targets.

Michael Gallup — the receiver being targeted in the clip above — is coming off a disappointing 2020 season, but he was also one of the leaders in “quarterback-fault” incompletions when targeted (22). He remains a talented option for Dallas outside to pair with Amari Cooper and CeeDee Lamb in the slot.

Lamb wasted no time in becoming one of the more productive slot receivers in the league as a rookie. His 877 receiving yards from that alignment ranked second among all receivers in 2020, behind only Cole Beasley (948). Lamb's versatility, along with a player of Cooper's caliber, to play both inside and outside also provides Dallas flexibility at the position.

With some better health luck, this receiving corps should help Dallas on its way to having one of the better offenses in the NFL in 2021.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers front seven

The Buccaneers may very well have the NFL’s best roster from top to bottom. Thus, it’s no surprise that they show up on this list multiple times. Their front seven is the first area that jumps out.

By bringing back Shaquil Barrett, Lavonte David and Ndamukong Suh, Tampa Bay keeps its 2020 starting group intact. It’s a unit that finished fifth in the NFL in team pressure rate (37%) despite missing Vita Vea for much of the year due to injury. The Buccaneers also allowed fewer yards per run play (3.4) than any other defense in the league. It bears repeating that was with Vea — one of the best interior defensive linemen in the NFL — taking the field in just five regular-season games.

More playing time from Vea and continued improvement from Devin White gives this group room to improve next season over what was already a stellar effort a year ago.

Baltimore Ravens cornerbacks

Baltimore’s cornerbacks combined for a 76.7 coverage grade during the 2020 season (third in the NFL) and a league-low 10.7 yards per reception allowed. That’s even more impressive when you look at the coverages Baltimore runs. The Ravens ranked second in the NFL in Cover 0 usage, behind only the Miami Dolphins, and they used Cover 1 at the sixth-highest rate in the league. In other words, their cornerbacks are asked to play a lot of man coverage.

Marlon Humphrey’s ability to play both outside and in the slot at a high level brings so much value to the defense. The high-end talent between him and Marcus Peters is impressive, but so is the depth — headlined by Jimmy Smith and Tavon Young.

Young's NFL career has been riddled by injuries, but his talent from the slot is unquestionable. Outside of one appearance in 2020, Young has played just two seasons since the team took him in the fourth round of the 2016 draft. He impressed in that rookie season with a 75.6 coverage grade but simply hasn’t been able to get into a rhythm since, playing just 39 defensive snaps since signing a three-year, $25.8 million contract extension with the team following the 2018 season.

Indianapolis Colts running backs

It’s hard to say there is another team in the NFL that can match Indianapolis' three-deep running back depth entering the 2021 season.

Jonathan Taylor made it clear with his performance down the stretch in his rookie season that he will be the lead back moving forward. From Week 11 through the end of the regular season, his 90.9 overall grade ranked second at the running back, behind only Derrick Henry. His 446 rushing yards after contact and 33 missed tackles forced on the ground ranked second and third, respectively, at the position over that stretch, as well. 

Runs like this one became a relatively frequent occurrence. The reason that the Colts' running backs find themselves on this list isn’t just because of Taylor, though. The depth and complementary elements that Nyheim Hines and a returning Marlon Mack bring to the table push the group as a whole toward the top of the league.

Hines, in particular, was excellent as a receiver out of the backfield in 2020. His 91.7 receiving grade was easily the highest mark at the running back position, and he averaged 1.83 receiving yards per route run (fourth among running backs with at least 100 routes).

Cycling in Hines and Mack behind Taylor should keep all three fresh and give Indianapolis one of the better rushing attacks in the league behind what is (mostly) a strong offensive line.

New Orleans Saints offensive tackles

Neither Andrus Peat nor Cesar Ruiz played particularly well at guard for the Saints last season, but the elite tackle duo of Terron Armstead and Ryan Ramczyk proved to be one of the league’s best once again in 2020.

Lowest pressure rate allowed at tackle since 2017 (min. 1,000 pass-blocking snaps)
Player Pressure Rate Allowed
Terron Armstead 3.7%
David Bakhtiari 3.7%
Ronnie Stanley 3.7%
Mitchell Schwartz 3.9%
Taylor Moton 3.9%
Joe Staley 4.0%
Ryan Ramczyk 4.0%
Taylor Lewan 4.2%

Drew Brees‘ quick release has something to do with those pressure numbers, but it doesn’t change the fact that Armstead and Ramczyk would be highly productive tackles within any offense in the league. That’s not just true for pass protection. Both players rank among the top-20 players at the position in PFF run-blocking grade over the past four years, and no tackle tops Ramczyk’s 90.6 mark over that four-year span.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers receiving corps

The Buccaneers may lose Antonio Brown from the group they fielded in 2020, but Tampa Bay is so deep at the wide receiver and tight end positions that it would remain one of the best receiving corps in the league without any additions.

Chris Godwin and Mike Evans are both fully capable of being primary targets within a good passing offense. Scotty Miller and 2020 fifth-round selection Tyler Johnson could both realistically take steps forward in larger roles, as well. Johnson was considered one of the better values in the 2020 NFL Draft by PFF after putting up 90.0-plus receiving grades in each of his final two seasons at Minnesota.

Then you get to the tight ends, where the Buccaneers are able to go three deep with Rob Gronkowski, Cameron Brate and O.J. Howard. Howard was off to an impressive start in 2020 (80.1 overall grade) before an injury knocked him out after just four appearances. Tampa Bay certainly isn’t lacking in viable receiving options for Tom Brady as the team looks to win back-to-back Lombardi Trophies. 

Know tomorrow, today. Western Southern Financial Group.
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