Almost every great player has a “signature” move or ability that they become known for over time. Reggie White had the hump move, Randy Moss had the deep ball, and Barry Sanders had freakish balance. So, with that in mind, let’s count down the signature abilities of today’s elite.
1. J.J. Watt’s swim
It’s been the most devastating force in the NFL for a few years now, and it doesn’t show any signs of slowing down. Watt has the unique ability to pull off the swim so well because of his height (6-foot-6) and elite lateral agility, making it easy for him to get his arm over the top of opposing linemen while crossing their face. The reason it sits at No. 1 on this list is because he deploys it with equal efficiency in both the run game and as a pass-rusher. Offensive linemen know it’s coming, but they still can’t stop it.
2. Antonio Brown’s routes
He’s not the biggest, he’s not the fastest, and he can’t jump the highest, but no one gets open more than the Steelers' Antonio Brown. That’s the reason why the Steelers' wideout has led the NFL in receptions each of the past two seasons, while also catching over 70 percent of his targets each year. It’s also why he made one of the top corners in the league, Chris Harris, Jr., look absolutely silly in their Week 15 matchup.
3. Luke Kuechly reading keys
Last week, I highlighted what exactly makes the Panthers' linebackers so special. It bears repeating, though, that Kuechly is playing at a level we’ve never seen in our nine years of grading. While he’s an athletic freak in his own right, the Panthers' LB separates from the competition in his processing speed. He simply doesn’t make mistakes in his reads. The former Defensive Player of the Year’s +33.0 cumulative season grade last season is the highest we’ve ever given to an off-ball linebacker.
4. Rob Gronkowski’s catch radius
It’s no secret that the Patriots' offense isn’t the Patriots' offense without Gronkowski on the field. The main reason being that, when things go south, Brady knows he can heave it to Gronk and he’ll have a chance. Gronkowski has graded out as a top-five tight end every season of his career.
5. Von Miller’s spin move
When you have the upfield burst that Miller does, you better have a good counter, and the Bronco may well have the best one in the NFL. The inside spin move is deadly if executed correctly, but it takes a rare blend of speed, power, and balance to pull off—a rare blend that Miller has in spades. In fact, 16 of Miller’s pressures a year ago came via the spin move.
6. Richard Sherman’s press
You know you’re signature move is impressive when it triggers a revolution of sorts throughout the entire NFL. Ever since Sherman took the league by storm back in 2011, the Seahawks' version of the cover-3 has spread throughout the league, while length at the cornerback position has been put at a premium. Even with all the added emphasis around the NFL, no one has come along who can press quite like Sherman.
7. Tyron Smith’s cut blocking
Smith is an absolute freak of nature for an offensive tackle. His athleticism suggests he should be lining up on the opposite side of the ball, and the Cowboys use that to their advantage. They frequently run outside zone away from Smith, giving him the task of chasing down backside linebackers and defensive tackles, which he does with ease. Smith’s +26.5 cumulative run-blocking grade was the highest among all tackles last season.
8. Le’Veon Bell’s plant leg
After Bell shed 20 pounds in his first NFL offseason, he came back in year two looking like a completely different player. One of those changes was the ability to stop and start on a dime. Even at 220 pounds, Bell still routinely makes defenders looks silly in the open field when he sticks his foot in the ground. It’s a shame he got hurt when he did, as his 69.6 elusive rating last season was on pace to be the highest of his career.
9. Tom Brady’s quick decisions
When the Patriots' offense was fully healthy last season, no quarterback was playing at a higher level than Brady. He’s aged like a fine wine, with his decision-making only speeding up with time. Through the first five weeks of last season, Brady only took 2.06 seconds to throw on average (the league average is 2.5) and had a quarterback rating of 121.5. Those numbers are nothing short of incredible.
10. Linval Joseph’s power
It took awhile for Joseph to realize his raw potential, but now that he has, no nose tackle can match his proficiency against both the run and pass. Joseph had a ridiculous 39 reps at the combine back in 2010, despite having long, 34.5-inch arms. He now uses that strength to bench press centers and guards. No game of his (or any other nose tackle last season, for that matter) was more impressive than Week 9 against St. Louis, where he collected seven stops and an +11.4 overall grade.