Best NFL players at 101 different skills: Top QBs, WRs, CBs

Illustration by eSPN

We've seen some elite performances around the NFL this season. One receiver has more than 1,500 yards, and a running back is closing in on 1,300 on the ground. Twelve quarterbacks have at least 20 passing touchdowns, 16 defenders have double-digit sacks, and a defensive back has a record five pick-sixes.

It got us thinking: Who are the best NFL players in specific areas right now? Who is the most instinctive passer in the NFL, or the QB with the biggest arm? Which receiver runs the best routes, and who is the most explosive running back? Which pass-rusher has the fastest closing speed, and who is the top ball hawk in the secondary?

So I picked out 101 different traits and named the best of the best in each spot based on what I've seen on tape this season and the underlying numbers. We went deep here, picking out everything from most accurate passer right down to the top holder on special teams. Let's get rolling, starting with the quarterbacks.

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QB | RB | WR/TE | OL

Most accurate passer: Tua Tagovailoa, Dolphins

Tagovailoa has completed 71% of his passes this season, the best in the league, and only 13.2% of his throws have been off target. His ability to deliver the ball with both accuracy and precise location is an ideal fit for Mike McDaniel's pass game.

Strongest arm: Josh Allen, Bills

A high-RPM thrower, Allen can hammer the ball to every level of the field. He has 11 throws of at least 25 air yards this season, and his pass velocity is on display when throwing into tight windows (37.3% completion rate on tight-window throws, sixth in the NFL per NFL Next Gen Stats).

Best deep ball: C.J. Stroud, Texans

Stroud has completed 27 passes this season on throws of 20 or more air yards, tied for third in the league. He can drive it vertically to attack the top of the secondary or drop it in the bucket when targeting deep zone windows.

Best touch and timing: Brock Purdy, 49ers

Purdy's ability to throw with pace and touch shows up pretty consistently on second-level throws, where he anticipates windows and delivers the ball with timing. He heads into Week 16 with a league-best Total QBR of 76.7, and his 69.8% completion percentage ranks second.

Best passing mechanics: Joe Burrow, Bengals

He's the prototype for the position when focusing on repetitive mechanics. Burrow does a great job tying the upper and lower body together.

Best pocket footwork: Brock Purdy, 49ers

Refined and detailed, Purdy plays with light and controlled footwork in both the play-action and dropback passing game. His 77.4 QBR from inside the pocket is tops in the NFL.

Quickest release: Tua Tagovailoa, Dolphins

With his quick and compact release, Tua gets the ball out with speed. His average time before pass sits at 2.38 seconds, the fastest in the league.

Best field vision: Kirk Cousins, Vikings

Cousins can read it out quickly, especially on throws to the middle of the field, where he registered a QBR of 89.0 and completed 73.9% of his passes before a season-ending Achilles injury.

Most instinctive passer: Patrick Mahomes, Chiefs

It's the anticipation and second-reaction throwing ability that stands out for me here. Mahomes has a rare feel for finding open receivers late in the play. His 77.0 QBR outside the pocket speaks to his ability to rely on his instincts and make things happen.

Best decision-maker: Dak Prescott, Cowboys

One season after tying for the league-lead in interceptions (15), Prescott has seven through 14 games (tied for sixth-fewest). He also has a Total QBR of 72.7 this season, second-best in the league, and he's being smart with the ball, especially in critical game moments.

Best pocket presence: Joe Burrow, Bengals

It's the poise and mobility here. No one is better at managing a muddy pocket than Burrow. He keeps his eyes up and moves to reset the throwing window.

Best off-platform passer: Lamar Jackson, Ravens

I nearly picked Mahomes here -- he can throw from any platform and make highlight-reel plays -- but it's Jackson this season. His second-reaction skills to extend plays and create outside of structure really pop.

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Top dual-threat: Lamar Jackson, Ravens

Jackson has 741 rushing yards this season, including five TDs. And 372 of them have come on designed carries, at a 5.8 per-attempt clip. He's a sudden mover with elite body control and the straight-line juice to produce on the ground.

Best scrambler: Patrick Mahomes, Chiefs

Mahomes has a great feel for when to pull the ball down and extend plays with his legs. He has rushed for 354 yards on scramble attempts this season and converted a league-best 21 first downs there.

Toughest QB: Matthew Stafford, Rams

This was an easy choice for me, as Stafford will hang in the pocket and play through injury. He's a warrior who has taken 69 hits this season (12th-most among QBs).

Most competitive QB: Jalen Hurts, Eagles

Hurts is a stone-cold competitor, and that shows up in pivotal game moments. He has a 53.5 QBR in the fourth quarter or overtime of one-score games this season, eighth-best in the league.

Fastest rusher: De'Von Achane, Dolphins

With 4.3 speed, Achane is a home run hitter in the Miami backfield. He has two touchdown runs of 65 or more yards this season, and both plays rank among the NFL's six fastest top speeds for ball carriers this season (21.8 and 22 miles per hour, NFL Next Gen Stats).

Most explosive rusher: Raheem Mostert, Dolphins

A rapid accelerator with straight-line acceleration, Mostert has 28 rushes of 10 or more yards this season, third in the league.

Most powerful rusher: Derrick Henry, Titans

Henry has rushed for 460 yards after first contact this season (second in the league), and he's a freight train on the tracks. There are still defenders making business decisions when facing him, too.

Best contact balance: David Montgomery, Lions

With a powerful lower half and the body control to absorb contact, Montgomery can shed tacklers at the point of attack. He has averaged 2.1 yards per carry after first contact, which ranks seventh in the league.

Most sudden rusher: Bijan Robinson, Falcons

An all-purpose playmaker, Robinson has the stop/start ability to slice through pursuit angles. He has 24 rushes of 10 or more yards in his rookie season, the fifth-most in the league.

Most elusive rusher: Christian McCaffrey, 49ers

McCaffrey, who leads the league with 1,292 yards rushing, can make defenders miss in tight quarters, and he's an explosive-play threat in the open field. His 38 runs for 10 or more yards lead the NFL, and he's averaging 3.2 yards before contact per rush (fourth among RBs).

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Best rushing vision/instincts: Alvin Kamara, Saints

An extremely talented and balanced mover, Kamara's ability to find open daylight is still the best in the league.

Best ball security as ball carrier: Latavius Murray, Bills

Murray has yet to put the ball on the ground this season as a rusher. He has only two fumbles on 933 offensive touches since 2018, and neither were lost. That's impressive ball security for a downhill runner.

Best receiving back: Christian McCaffrey, 49ers

McCaffrey's pass-catching traits are maximized in Kyle Shanahan's offense. He has caught 57 of 68 targets for 509 yards and seven touchdowns this season. And he has now gone over 4,000 receiving yards in his career. That's elite dual-threat ability.

Best pass-protecting back: Tony Pollard, Cowboys

I like Pollard here due to his physicality at the point of attack, along with his willingness to take on second- and third-level blitzers in pass protection. He's another key part of the Cowboys' production in the pass game this season.

Best route runner: Justin Jefferson, Vikings

Injuries have limited Jefferson to just 45 receptions this season, but his refinement and detail in the route tree allows him to manipulate coverage. There's a reason Jefferson posted over 1,400 receiving yards in each of his first three pro seasons.

Fastest pass-catcher: Tyreek Hill, Dolphins

The most dynamic offensive player in the league since Randy Moss, Hill is a consistent big-play threat due to his 4.2 speed. Hill has 26 receptions that gained at least 20 yards this season (nine touchdowns), the most in the NFL. And looking at the 12 fastest top speeds for ball-carriers this season, Hill shows up four times, per NFL Next Gen Stats.

Most explosive pass-catcher: DK Metcalf, Seahawks

It's the straight-line power and explosive movement ability with Metcalf, who is averaging 16.8 yards per reception, third-highest among wide receivers. He can stretch defenses vertically or turn a three-step concept into a house call.

Most physical pass-catcher: A.J. Brown, Eagles

Brown uses his 226-pound frame to play through contact at all three levels of the field. There's a true physical element to his game, and he's more than willing to work the middle of the field. His 156 receiving yards after first contact rank sixth.

Most sudden pass-catcher: Stefon Diggs, Bills

A dynamic mover with electric footspeed, Diggs can set up defenders within the route stem or after the catch.

Most elusive pass-catcher: CeeDee Lamb, Cowboys

Slippery after the catch, Lamb can weave his way through traffic while still playing at top speed. He has 24 receptions of 20 or more yards this season, the second-most in the NFL behind Hill.

Best hands: Amon-Ra St. Brown, Lions

St. Brown, who works the high traffic areas of the field, has a drop rate of 1.5% over 133 targets this season. For his career, he has just five drops on 398 targets.

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Best receiving instincts: Travis Kelce, Chiefs

Kelce's ability to identify coverages -- both pre- and post-snap -- puts him in a position to convert routes and find open grass. The Chiefs' tight end sits at 924 receiving yards on the season, and he appears on track for his eighth straight season with over 1,000.

Best at getting open: Keenan Allen, Chargers

Allen is a nuanced route runner who can make himself available to the quarterback. He has high-level coverage awareness. Allen has 108 catches on the season and has produced over 10,000 receiving yards in his career. He ranks No. 1 in ESPN's receiver tracking metrics' open score (91).

Best on 50-50 balls: George Pickens, Steelers

Pickens has caught five of 13 targets on vertical tight-window throws this season, with 13 of 25 over his two years in the league (NFL Next Gen Stats). He tracks the ball vertically and adjusts to finish plays at the catch point.

Best seam-stretcher: Mark Andrews, Ravens

Andrews has a great feel for finding the seam void against three-deep coverage. He can widen safeties within the stem and use his frame and catch radius to create leverage against man schemes. His 12.1 yards per reception ranks fourth among tight ends with at least 40 catches this season. (Andrews is likely out for the season with a left ankle injury.)

Best body control: Davante Adams, Raiders

An extremely fluid mover with high-end route running skills, Adams has the body control to separate off the release and sink in and out of his cuts. He's on pace for another 1,000-yard receiving season, which would be his fourth straight.

Best toe-tapper: DeVonta Smith, Eagles

Smith is highly skilled both near the boundary and when working the back line of the end zone. He can get the feet down or drag the toe to finish the process of the catch. His four toe-tap catches over the past two seasons are tied for the 11th-most in the NFL.

Best after the catch: Deebo Samuel, 49ers

Samuel has the physical traits to run through contact, as well as the ball carrier vision and instant juice to cut down defensive angles in the open field. He averages 9.1 yards after the catch per reception (960 total), and his 89 YAC score ranks No. 1 in the league in ESPN's receiver tracking metrics.

Best ball security as pass-catcher: Mike Evans, Buccaneers

Evans has 354 receptions since the start of the 2019 season -- and he hasn't fumbled once in that time. He simply doesn't give up the ball.

Top in-motion pass-catcher: Tyreek Hill, Dolphins

Hill is deployed on motion to create leverage and free access off the ball in McDaniel's system in Miami. He has been in motion on 224 routes and 70 catches this season, both tops in the NFL. On plays with Hill in motion, he has scored nine touchdowns.

Best blocking receiver: Brandon Aiyuk, 49ers

Aiyuk will win as a blocker on the perimeter -- you can see his competitive play style there. He gives a lot of effort to help spring explosive plays, working to the third level to block defenders down the field.

Best in-line blocking tight end: George Kittle, 49ers

One of the most complete players in the league, Kittle has notched 55 receptions and six touchdowns this season, but he's nasty as a blocker, too. In the run game and in pass pro, Kittle uses his technique and physical presence to win. He has a 92.5% pass block win rate over his career.

Best anchor: Lane Johnson, Eagles

Johnson has a pass block win rate of 92.6%, sixth among tackles, and his ability to set an anchor on the edge is the best I've seen on tape. That's why Johnson can win against speed-to-power moves at a consistent rate.

Best OL quickness: Tristan Wirfs, Buccaneers

An incredibly easy mover at 6-foot-5 and 320 pounds, Wirfs gets to depth with speed, where he can slide and mirror in pass pro due to his lower-body quickness.

Most explosive OL: Trent Williams, 49ers

With a combination of explosive power and lower-body flex, Williams can erase defenders on the edge and move people off the ball. In his 14th NFL season, he has a pass block win rate of 95.3%, second among offensive tackles.

Best handwork on OL: Jason Kelce, Eagles

Kelce's hand usage shows up both on movement blocks in the run game and in pass protection, where he has a pass block win rate of 96.3%, sixth-best among all offensive linemen. He's an upper-tier technician.

Best finisher: Trent Williams, 49ers

It has to be Williams, given his play demeanor and rare physical tools. He's looking to bury defenders on every snap.

Best at opening running lanes: Penei Sewell, Lions

I'm running the ball behind Sewell if I need to move the sticks. He can reach on zone schemes or block down and climb to create daylight on gap runs. His 74.7% run block win rate is sixth among tackles with at least 250 run-block snaps. Detroit averages 5.2 yards per carry on rushes to the right side, a top-10 number in the league.

Best second-level blocker: Quinn Meinerz, Broncos

I like Meinerz here because of his ability to create positive angles at the second level and the physical strike he can deliver on contact. He's an efficient mover in the Broncos' run game.

Most instinctive OL: Creed Humphrey, Chiefs

Humphrey uses his high-level football awareness to gain edges in both the run and pass game. A strong positional blocker, he is well-schooled in creating leverage against pass-rushers and using his footwork to close the door on interior pressure. I see a technician here with a current pass block win rate of 98.6%, second in the NFL.

Most disciplined OL: Joe Thuney, Chiefs

Thuney owns the NFL's best pass block win rate at 99.2%, and he has been credited with only two penalties on the season.

Best snapper: Tyler Linderbaum, Ravens

Linderbaum's snap mechanics are really quick, and it allows him to gain immediate blocking advantages and create angles on combos.

Quickest first step: Bryce Huff, Jets

Huff gets off the ball in a blink, using that first-step quickness to challenge the edge of offensive tackles. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, his 0.75-second average get-off speed ranks fifth among players with at least 200 pass rushes this season. With eight sacks and 30 pressures, Huff will get paid on the free agent market after the season.

Fastest closing speed to QB: Micah Parsons, Cowboys

Parsons has rare traits, including his elite closing speed. He can cover ground in a hurry. Parsons -- who leads the NFL with a pass rush win rate of 36.7% and 61 pressures -- has 12.5 sacks this season.

Best speed to power: Nick Bosa, 49ers

Bosa plays with low pad level and speed off the ball, using his upper-body power on contact to overwhelm offensive tackles. He currently sits at 10.5 sacks and has 46 pressures.

Most explosive pass-rusher: Myles Garrett, Browns

Garrett combines full-body power and agility to produce high-end numbers off the edge. His pass rush win rate of 28.9% ranks second behind Parsons, and he has 13 sacks and four forced fumbles.

Most physical DL: Dexter Lawrence II, Giants

With a massive 6-foot-4, 342-pound frame, Lawrence uses his physicality and play strength to create havoc on the defensive front. He's a disruptive force who has 46 tackles and 4.5 sacks this season.

Best hand usage: Justin Madubuike, Ravens

Madubuike's 12 sacks lead all interior rushers this season. He uses his quick and active hands to create separation from blockers.

Best bend/flex: Brian Burns, Panthers

Burns has the lower-body flex and body control to dip and bend off the edge. He can slither around offensive tackles, and this season, Burns has notched six sacks and 25 pressures.

Best pass-rush moves: T.J. Watt, Steelers

Watt leads the NFL with 16 sacks, using his diverse set of moves to attack the pocket. He can win with speed, power and/or counters, evidenced by the league's fifth-best pass rush win rate (23.3%). Simply put, Watt is the most advanced pass-rusher in the league.

Best motor: Maxx Crosby, Raiders

In addition to his refined pass-rushing traits, Crosby plays with relentless effort, and he makes a lot of plays late in the play. Crosby has produced 13.5 sacks, and his 59 pressures are the second most in the league.

Best interior pass-rusher: Aaron Donald, Rams

This is still Donald, the league's most dominant interior force. With six sacks and 42 pressures, he continues to impact opposing game plans and pass-protection schemes.

Best edge-setter: Montez Sweat, Bears

With a long 6-foot-6 frame and great strength at the point of attack, Sweat can set a hard edge for the Bears' front. He fights through reach blocks and hammers offensive linemen trying to pull.

Best pass-lane swatter: Christian Barmore, Patriots

Barmore's ability to play with effort through the down and create an interior push puts him in a position to get his hands up on the throw. His six batted passes are tied for most in the league.

Best fumble forcer: Danielle Hunter, Vikings

Hunter has forced four fumbles this season (tied for fifth), and he uses his long reach when rushing quarterbacks to force them get the ball out.

Best disengage: Derrick Brown, Panthers

I really like the tape on Brown. He's an ascending player with good power and hand usage to shed or displace blockers. Brown has 79 tackles this season and the league's top run stop win rate (48%).

Best run-stopper: Quinnen Williams, Jets

Williams has the juice off the ball to create instant disruption, and he can press blockers to work laterally and pursue across the front. Williams has 54 tackles and eight tackles for loss on the season.

Most rangy on second level: Roquan Smith, Ravens

Smith has the second-level range and pursuit speed to clean up as a run-defender while also closing windows in the pass game. Smith has 142 tackles (fourth) and six pass breakups in '23.

Best second-level blitzer: Patrick Queen, Ravens

Queen has the downhill power to run through backs in pass protection, and he can attack edges and close with speed in the Ravens' pressure schemes. He has 3.5 sacks and 11 pressures on blitzes, both top-15 numbers in the NFL. His 17.6% pressure rate in 2023 is a career high, as well.

Fastest closing speed to ball carrier: Quincy Williams, Jets

Watch Williams' tape, and you'll see him running clean lines from the second level -- he's an absolute missile to the ball with no hesitation. It's all track it and go, and Williams has 116 tackles.

Most instinctive at second level: Fred Warner, 49ers

With a great feel as a zone defender, Warner gets to depth and finds intermediate routes. He can also key and diagnose quickly in the run game. The play speed jumps on the tape with Warner, and he has 116 tackles on the season.

Best tackler: C.J. Mosley, Jets

I really like stack linebackers who can drop the hammer on contact while also wrapping up and driving their legs to secure the tackle. That's Mosley, a veteran who does it right. His 131 tackles rank eighth in the league.

Fastest in-phase runner: Riq Woolen, Seahawks

When playing with discipline, Woolen can stick on the hip of receivers down the field. He's a long strider with 4.2 speed. Per NFL Next Gen Stats, Woolen hit 22.3 mph in Week 4 against the Giants.

Best DB closing speed: Denzel Ward, Browns

With the rapid footwork to eat up grass, Ward closes quickly to attack the upfield shoulder of wide receivers. He has eight pass breakups on the year (tied for 13th).

Best pedal transition: Darius Slay, Eagles

It's the pad level, controlled footwork and quickness coming out of the break that pop on Slay's tape. He can pedal, weave and transition on the throw. He has 10 pass breakups (tied for fifth) and two interceptions.

Most physical in coverage: A.J. Terrell, Falcons

Terrell is a competitive cover corner who will use his length to physically challenge wide receivers. He has eight pass breakups and 37 tackles.

Best DB technique: Pat Surtain II, Broncos

The footwork, eyes and hand usage are all really, really good. Surtain is the prototype at the position, combining high-level technique with his physical tools.

Top ball hawk: DaRon Bland, Cowboys

Bland leads the league with eight interceptions, and his five pick-sixes are an NFL record. He's a gambler in coverage with the ball skills to cash in.

Best coverage instincts: Jalen Ramsey, Dolphins

Ramsey is still a blue-chip defender with the coverage awareness to bait the quarterback or jump into throwing lanes. Despite playing only seven games this season, he has three picks and a pass breakup.

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Best backfield vision: Jaylon Johnson, Bears

When playing off coverage or lying in the weeds as a Cover 2 defender, Johnson plays with excellent backfield vision, which allows him to get a jump on the throw. As a result, he has four interceptions this season.

Best third-level range: Jessie Bates III, Falcons

Bates has the post and split-field range to track the deep ball, plus he can drive downhill to take away intermediate concepts. He has grabbed five interceptions this season and returned one for a score.

Most sudden DB: Trent McDuffie, Chiefs

McDuffie has the lateral quicks to mirror releases along with the sudden burst to transition. He's a rising talent in the league with the versatility to play in the slot and on the perimeter.

Best press coverage: Sauce Gardner, Jets

With his long 6-foot-3 frame, Gardner is physical and tactical on the punch, and he has the footwork to slide and cut off the release. His seven pass breakups are tied for 20th in the NFL, but he led the league in that category as a rookie last season with 14.

Best zone coverage: Devon Witherspoon, Seahawks

An urgent defender with downhill juice, Witherspoon sees it fast as a flat defender or when playing off coverage in Cover 3 and Quarters. He has totaled 12 pass breakups this season (tied for third) and returned his only interception for a touchdown.

Best open-field tackler: Reed Blankenship, Eagles

Blankenship is the gatekeeper of the Eagles' defense when a run breaks. He can quickly eliminate the distance to the ball carrier, creep the feet and shoot/wrap to finish. Blankenship has 85 tackles this season.

Best top-down impact: Jordan Whitehead, Jets

In the Jets' defined split-safety coverage schemes, Whitehead explodes downhill to fill the alley in run support, and he can make plays on the ball as a top-down defender against the pass game.

Most coverage discipline: Geno Stone, Ravens

Stone has six interceptions this season, the second most in the league, and he makes a lot of plays because of his alignment/assignment discipline in the secondary. He gets to his landmark, identifies the concept and plays within the structure of the defense.

Best secondary blitzer: Antoine Winfield Jr., Buccaneers

On plays when he blitzes this season, Winfield has four sacks (tied for fifth) and 13 pressures (tied for ninth). He has 13 career sacks over four pro seasons, and he times up his blitzes and has the ability to set up running backs in protection. You see it consistently with Winfield, and he's going to get paid this offseason.

Best leg: AJ Cole, Raiders

Cole averages 51.5 yards per punt (second in the NFL), and he also hit one that traveled 83 yards. He can boom it.

Best kicking accuracy: Brandon Aubrey, Cowboys

Aubrey is a perfect 31-for-31 on field goal attempts this season, and he has hit eight from 50-plus yards -- including one from 60 in the Week 14 win over the Eagles.

Most clutch kicker: Dustin Hopkins, Browns

Hopkins has hit 33 of 36 field goals this season, with four game winners in the final two minutes. One of those came Sunday on a 34-yarder with 32 seconds left for a 20-17 win over the Bears.

Best kickoff: Tyler Bass, Bills

Bass has the leg to drive the ball out of the end zone, but this is really about his ability to put the ball wherever he wants as a directional kicker.

Best onside kicker: Matt Prater, Cardinals

There has been only one successful onside kick recovery in the league this season, compared to 16 during my rookie season in 2000, and it was delivered by Prater. He's a veteran who can execute the drive kick, creating that high bounce on the ball.

Best holder: Tress Way, Commanders

Way puts it down on the spot every time with no added pressure on the ball. Pluck, slide and place.

Best kick blocker: Myles Garrett, Browns

Garett can use his power and length to disrupt the kick -- or simply jump over a blocker, like he did against the Colts earlier this season.

Best punter: Ryan Stonehouse, Titans

Stonehouse's 53.1 yards per punt is the highest in the league, and he has also dropped 28 kicks inside the 20-yard line (51.9%, No. 1 in the NFL).

Top kick cover man: George Odum, 49ers

A daredevil on coverage units, Odum can evade blockers, create angles and tackle at top speed. He has logged 10 special teams tackles this season.

Best kick returner: Keisean Nixon, Packers

Nixon is averaging 26 yards per return this season. He gets on a vertical track and builds up to top speed, with good vision and the ability to make coverage guys miss. Nixon also took a return to the house in 2022.

Best punt returner: Britain Covey, Eagles

Fearless and hard to tackle, Covey catches it clean and gets vertical with the ball. He's averaging 13.7 yards per return this season.