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Presenting the NFL’s Skill-Set Poster Boys

Who is the league’s best contested-pass catcher, deep-ball tracker, and most instinctive defender? And more importantly: What truly sets these players apart?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

As we’ve already told you, football can be hard to understand. Playbooks weigh as much as physics textbooks, and when you hear a quarterback barking in the huddle, it can sound like you’ve intercepted an alien transmission. For there to be order in the chaos, the game requires people who have mastered its specifics. Welcome to Masterminds Week, where we’ll spotlight those who have shown expertise in various aspects of the sport—from the big and all-encompassing to the random and hyperspecific.

There are no bad players in the NFL. The 2,880 players on the league’s 90-man rosters encompass the miniscule percentage of high school athletes who dream of playing in college, and the even tinier percentage who go on to play the sport professionally. These guys all have exceptional talent. They’re all extraordinarily skilled.

That’s what makes the things that the NFL’s star players do on a regular basis so incredible. Big-name playmakers possess something extra that differentiates them from rank-and-file starters or sub-package specialists: more power, more speed, more quickness, or a more refined facility. And the league’s masterminds widen that gap even further: In some facet of the game, they’re the best of the best.

Whether we’re talking about the NFL’s most precise route runner, smartest pass blocker, most instinctive defender, or most unblockable pass rusher, these players don’t just dominate from a physical perspective; they stand alone thanks to superior technique, strategy, and feel for football’s nuances. Let’s spotlight a few guys who fall into the mastermind category—and behold what real football genius looks like.

Best Sandlot Improviser: Aaron Rodgers, QB, Packers

Rodgers has what most would consider to be a pretty decent skill set. He’s great in the pre-snap phase, showing cunning in his ability to identify opposing coverages, and frequently earns free plays with an incredibly effective hard count. He has a powerful arm, can throw with pinpoint accuracy, and is never afraid to step up in the pocket and deliver a pass in the face of pressure. He’s a Hail Mary specialist, as the Giants learned the hard way last postseason. But Rodgers really stands out when making plays outside the constructs of his offense. He’s at his absolute best when a play breaks down—when his first or second options aren’t open—and he must improvise. In those scenarios, Rodgers’s talents are most acutely actualized.

Part of this expertise stems from his mobility; Rodgers is an underrated athlete, and on broken plays he displays his ability to move around and avoid oncoming pass rushers. Part of it is a byproduct of his arm strength; the Green Bay signal-caller has an almost whip-like release, and can throw the ball with plenty of velocity into tight windows, even from off-balanced positions. Yet most important to this skill is his vision: Rodgers quickly scans the field, absorbing the game’s ever-changing chaos in real time in order to attack a defense’s weakness. When the three of these variables come together simultaneously, it usually ends in a big play or touchdown.

Rodgers threw for a league-high 543 yards with 10 touchdowns outside the pocket last year. He’s great inside the confines of the Packers’ pass offense, but he’s a master outside of them.

Craftiest Route Runner: Antonio Brown, WR, Steelers

There are a few ways to evaluate a good route runner, from the precision of a player’s timing and depth, to the sharpness of his cuts, to the separation that he creates from defenders. No matter which of these qualities you value most, though, Brown unmistakably excels in it.

The Pittsburgh wideout is much more than just a physical talent who leaves opponents in the dust: Brown does an amazing job of lulling defenders to sleep with varied route speeds; he never telegraphs a cut by dropping his shoulders or changing his stride; and he’s the master of the double move, often turning coverage defenders around by getting them to look for a ball that isn’t coming. With quick feet, incredible balance, and shrewd head and shoulder fakes, Brown has mastered the art of getting open.

Best Contested-Pass Catcher: Mike Evans, WR, Buccaneers

Evans isn’t the type to consistently cut and fake his way into generating separation like Brown does. With a 6-foot-4 frame, incredible leaping ability, and a wily pushoff delivered at precisely the right time, the Tampa Bay pass catcher doesn’t need to be. What Evans has is savvy: in positioning to extend at the right moment and in creating just enough space to secure a pass at the exact instant that the ball arrives. According to Matt Harmon’s Fantasy Footballers Ultimate Draft Kit, a three-year study on contested-pass data consistently placed Evans among the league’s best in both catch volume and efficiency: Since 2014, he has been on the target-end of 61 contested-catch attempts, and he’s come down with 48 (79 percent).

Talent for late-in-the-route separation is a topic that Hall of Fame receiver Michael Irvin spoke about back in 2014, when he was asked how he used to beat the elite corners of his day. “You can’t beat him early. You have to beat him late as possible,” Irvin said. “So it doesn’t require you to be masterful in your feet, [your] ability, and your cuts, it requires you to be masterful [in] your understanding of timing. I need to be open at the last second, when the ball’s arriving, because I’m only going to be open for that second with this kind of a [cornerback].”

You see that kind of thinking over and over with Evans at the catch point. He’s mastered the art of using a quick, subtle arm extension to give himself some room. He’s been known to deploy a light push-off—enough to get a cornerback off balance, but not enough to draw a flag. And Evans will give a small tug on a defender’s jersey to disrupt his balance. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the Buccaneers standout has a few inches on just about everyone who’s tasked with covering him.

Best Deep-Ball Tracker: DeSean Jackson, WR, Buccaneers

Jackson has long been the NFL’s premier deep threat, registering a league-high 579 receiving yards with three touchdowns on deep pass attempts (20-plus air yards) last season. But it’s not just his pure speed that makes him so dangerous downfield. It’s his ability to run that fast, track the ball in the air, and come down with it smoothly that truly sets him apart.

It’s seldom talked about, but it is very difficult to run at full speed, look up in the air, and track an oblong projectile traveling 40- or 50-plus miles an hour—especially with another really fast person right on your tail. Receivers have to learn to maintain their concentration through blurred, jolted vision, ignoring a bouncy facemask, limited peripheral vision, the flailing arms of defenders, and sometimes wind, rain, sleet, or snow. Jackson makes that seem easy. He’s mastered going deep with the smooth explosiveness of a cheetah, and he has an uncanny ability to keep defenders placed right on his heels until the last moment before he catches the ball and pulls away.

Slipperiest Open-Field Runner: Golden Tate, WR, Lions

Over the last two seasons, no receiver has forced more missed tackles than Tate (53). Going back to 2012, no pass catcher has forced a missed tackle on a greater percentage of his catches. The Detroit playmaker is a human gyroscope, a receiver in a running back’s body who possesses extraordinary balance and quick feet, plus a preternatural understanding of physics.

Tate is not the fastest receiver in the league, but he’s among the quickest with his cuts, and the combination of his explosive burst and his ability to always take the correct angle upfield makes him one of the most difficult guys in the league to bring down. He’s an expert at deflecting and avoiding contact in order to spin out of and run around tackle attempts.

Toughest Runner in Contact: Marshawn Lynch, RB, Raiders

Since the 2013 campaign—a four-season stretch that includes a full year in which Lynch was retired and another in which he missed nine games due to injury—Beast Mode has 66 more broken tackles than the next-closest NFL running back. Simply put, no player in this generation comes close to his ability to stay on his feet. And sure, at age 31, the Raiders’ new rusher is a few years removed from his two infamous Beast Quake runs (or his less-famous but nearly as impressive 43-yard run against the Texans in 2013). But until proven otherwise, Lynch remains the gold standard for toughness at the running back position. Even during what was mostly a lost 2015 season, he’d regularly rip off runs like these:

Lynch packs what seems to be the power of two men into one body—which perhaps shouldn’t be surprising given that his mother, Delisa Lynch, was told during pregnancy that her son may turn out to be an “amazingly strong child” because he had absorbed the placenta of an undeveloped twin in utero. Yet it’s more than just superhuman strength that makes Lynch so damn hard to tackle. He’s also an incredibly cerebral runner—deft at keeping defenders off-balance and out of position with subtle jukes and head fakes, and incredibly gifted at selecting the right running lanes.

With his trademark bow-legged running style, Lynch can change direction on a dime, and he has one of the most effective stiff-arms of all time. What makes him a football mastermind goes beyond that: He has an unparalleled ability to anticipate contact and know whether to position himself to deflect it or to lower his shoulder and bulldoze an opponent.

Best Pass Blocker: Joe Thomas, OT, Browns

Thomas has been one of the best, most consistent left tackles in the game for a decade. The veteran is now in his early 30s, and his game hasn’t lost much. Thomas surrendered just 24 pressures in the 2015 season and 34 pressures last fall. It almost doesn’t matter which game or snaps you watch on Thomas: He’s going to look exactly the same on virtually every play.

A physically gifted 6-foot-6, 312-pounder with the feet of a dancing bear, Thomas is also a master technician who has near-perfect form. It doesn’t matter how much opponents vary their pass rush technique because he’s ready for everything: He quickly gets to the desired depth of his pass set, strikes opposing pass rushers with a forceful punch, and grapples onto them with incredible strength, rarely losing leverage until the pass is away.

Most Instinctive Defender: Luke Kuechly, LB, Panthers

Instinctive can be a divisive term when used in a football context, because it seems to imply that psychic intuition or mystical gut feelings are major factors at play. That’s why I try to avoid using the word in my writing. I’m willing to make an exception in Kuechly’s case, though. He really does look like he has the otherworldly ability to foresee what play is coming or where the ball is going before it’s snapped. He really is always in the right place at the right time, whether he’s playing against the run ...

… or the pass.

And no, Kuechly isn’t a football shaman. (I don’t think he is, anyway.) He just has incredible spacial awareness and an uncommon ability to evaluate all the moving pieces on the field and get himself into the spot toward which all the mayhem is funneling. Oh, and he has the speed and power to do something about it when he gets there.

Most Reliable Tackler: Jerrell Freeman, LB, Bears

No player in the NFL can match Kuechly’s anticipation skills, but Freeman might just surpass his tackling consistency. Per charting from Football Outsiders, the Chicago linebacker missed just five tackles last season (a missed tackle rate of 6.4 percent) after missing four in 2015 (4.3 percent), marks that put him among the elite in both years. And the Bears star isn’t just a run-stuffer, either: According to Pro Football Focus, Freeman racked up 40 tackles in coverage while missing only one tackle attempt. “That ratio is insane, and it’s the best we’ve recorded since 2012,” writes Mike Renner.

Freeman recorded 98 tackles in 2016, which equates to 12.5 percent of the Bears total tackles all season, and he missed four games to a suspension for violating the league’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs. As Chase Stuart points out, if you prorate Freeman’s numbers for missed time, the linebacker would have been responsible for 16.6 percent of all Chicago tackles, second only to Kuechly’s prorated number.

For Freeman, tackling is about more than just being big and fast. He is both of those things, of course, but he’s also terrific at seeing the field and taking the proper angles, and he has the discipline to avoid overpursuing or biting on jukes. He is the master of fundamental tackling technique: He stays low, knows which parts of the ball carrier to attack, and understands when to go for the big hit and when to chop his feet, wrap up, and roll.

Most Unblockable Pass Rusher: Aaron Donald, DT, Rams

Houston’s J.J. Watt is preparing to return at full health after missing nearly all of the 2016 season with a back injury, but Donald has spent the last year taking up his mantle as the most terrifying pass rusher on the planet. The Rams defensive tackle might be the most explosive and powerful athlete in the league, but it’s not just his physical prowess that makes him dominant. He plays games with his opponents, mixing and matching his speed rushes with power moves—at times going straight ahead, at others gap-shooting, club-moving, or simply standing up to run around a pass blocker.

Donald has a Michael Jordan–esque “you can’t stop him, you can only hope to contain him” element to his game. Opposing offenses can come up with a customized plan to limit his effectiveness—deploying double-teams at the point of attack, using a healthy dose of bootlegs to get quarterbacks out of the pocket, and calling for a bevy or runs in the opposite direction—but not even that is usually enough. Donald blows up runs in every direction with his penetration, and quarterbacks aren’t safe from anywhere they try to throw. Watt may ultimately reclaim his title as the most unblockable player in the world, but until then Donald is the mastermind who wears the belt.