With the 2023 NFL Draft in the rearview mirror and free agency done for the most part, this is a good time to assess which team has the best group at every position.
Best Group at Each Position
Quarterback: Kansas City Chiefs
Now a two-time and reigning Super Bowl champion (with two-time Super Bowl MVPs), a two-time league MVP and five-time Pro Bowler, Mahomes is in a tier of his own at the quarterback position. He is a phenomenal player who can throw, run and make off-schedule plays with great success. Since he turns 28 in September, it means Mahomes is just hitting his prime.
If needed, Mahomes has a decent enough backup in Blaine Gabbert, who is a 12-year vet with 48 career starts. But not to worry Chiefs fans — Mahomes has only missed a handful of games in his career and plays through pain with the best of them.
Wide Receiver: Cincinnati Bengals
In today’s pass-oriented NFL, there are plenty of top wide receiver groups including the Dolphins, Eagles, 49ers, Chargers, Seahawks and Raiders. The Minnesota Vikings could also have a strong receiving core if first-round pick Jordan Addison proves to be an able replacement for Adam Thielen and can emerge alongside the league’s best receiver — Justin Jefferson. Another team to watch is the Baltimore Ravens, who added Odell Beckham Jr. and first-rounder Zay Flowers this offseason.
However, I’m going with the Cincinnati Bengals at the top spot. QB Joe Burrow has a terrific trio of wide outs led by Pro Bowler Ja’Marr Chase (87 catches for 1,046 yards and 9 TDs in only 12 games last season). Tee Higgins, a former first-rounder, has had two straight 1,000-yard seasons, and No. 3 receiver Tyler Boyd had 58 receptions for 762 yards and five TDs in 2022. The group brings size, speed and great athleticism.
Running Back: San Francisco 49ers
Those poor, undervalued running backs still have a champion in the league’s highest-paid back — Christian McCaffrey. He’s coming off a Pro Bowl season and remains elite as a runner (1,139 rushing yards and a 4.7 yard average last season for the Panthers and 49ers) and receiving back (85 receptions, 741 yards, 5 touchdowns).
Elijah Mitchell is an excellent No. 2 back with 963 rushing yards in 2021 before injuries limited him to only five games last season. Then there’s star receiver Deebo Samuel who is a huge threat on the jet sweep and on other running plays, as he has 782 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns on the ground in his four-year career.
Keep an eye on the Atlanta Falcons, who were the league’s third-ranked rushing team in 2022. They could push for the top spot in the running back group rankings this season after picking Bijan Robinson No. 8 overall. Robinson joins a group of productive backs in Tyler Allgeier (1,035 yards rushing with a 4.9-yard average) and Cordarrelle Patterson (695 yards on the ground with eight TDs along with 21 receptions in his multi-use role).
Tight End: Kansas City Chiefs
I almost went with the Vikings, who have a Pro Bowl tight end in T.J. Hockenson. Hockenson was dynamic after his trade from the Detroit Lions, recording 60 catches for 519 yards and three TDs in the last 10 regular season games. The Vikings also signed Josh Oliver in free agency, who is one of the best blocking tight ends in the league and could see more opportunities in the passing game this year.
But how can I not go with the Chiefs, who have the league’s best tight end (and one of the best all-time) in Travis Kelce? The 33-year-old eight-time Pro Bowler and four-time First-team All-Pro shows no signs of slowing down. He has seven consecutive 1,000-yard receiving seasons and was again outstanding last season with 110 catches for 1,338 yards and 12 TDs (plus another 27 receptions, 257 yards and four TDs in the three games of K.C.’s Super Bowl run).
The Chiefs have a quality second tight end in Noah Gray (28 catches, 299 yards in 2022), who started alongside Kelce in last year’s Super Bowl and played over half the snaps in the 2022 regular season.
Offensive Line: Philadelphia Eagles
The Philadelphia Eagles have their own elite Kelce in All-Pro center Jason Kelce, who the team convinced to return for his 13th season after their run to the NFC title last season. Kelce anchors a stout group up front that includes NFL First-team All-Pro right tackle Lane Johnson and Pro Bowl guard Landon Dickerson.
The Eagles lost guard Isaac Seumalo in free agency. They couldn’t afford to pay everyone, despite GM Howie Roseman’s best efforts. However, there are two recent high draftees who will battle for the right guard spot — likely starter Cam Jurgens (2022 second-rounder) and rookie Tyler Steen, who was picked in the third round.
An under-the-radar O-line plays in Detroit. The Lions protected Jared Goff well, giving up the second-fewest sacks last season (24). Strong line play helped the team rank fourth in total offense, eighth in passing and 11th in rushing. Pro Bowlers Frank Ragnow at center and Penei Sewell at right tackle lead this excellent group.
Defensive Line/Edge Rusher: Philadelphia Eagles
This was a close call between the defensive fronts that led the NFL’s top two defensive teams last season — the 49ers and Eagles (interestingly, both play the 4-3 as their base defense). I almost went with San Francisco since they signed defensive tackle Javon Hargrave away from Philadelphia (he had 60 tackles and 11 sacks in 2022). The 49ers also have the league’s top sacker from last season (18.5 QB sacks) in First-team All-Pro and reigning Defensive Player of the Year, Nick Bosa.
There’s just more depth to the Eagles’ defensive line and edge rusher group. Pro Bowler Haason Reddick leads the pass rush (16 sacks last season) that generated a league-high 70 sacks in the 2022 season. Philadelphia worked their salary cap magic to keep stalwart vets Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham up front. The Eagles are counting on one of their recent first-round picks from Georgia — either Jordan Davis (in 2022) or the controversial Jalen Carter from this year — to replace Hargrave. They also drafted edge rusher Nolan Smith late in the first round to add talent and depth.
NFC East QBs should be on high alert facing this group.
Another team with a strong defensive line/edge group that could emerge as the best is the Washington Commanders. This is possible if Chase Young can return to top form and join his fellow first round picks at an elite level — Pro Bowl defensive tackles Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne and defensive end Montez Sweat.
Linebackers: San Francisco 49ers
Sensing a trend here? The San Francisco 49ers linebackers played a big role in the defense, ranking first in total yards allowed and second in run defense last season to help the team to the NFC title game. Fred Warner is a First-team All-Pro middle linebacker who made 130 tackles in 2022 while Dre Greenlaw also was impactful with 127 tackles. Both players can run, hit and cover well and neither was a high draft pick (Warner was a third-rounder and Greenlaw a fifth-rounder which shows the good scouting work of the Niners). Azeez Al-Shaair left for Tennessee in free agency and is expected to be adequately replaced by Oren Burks, who played well last year in a limited role (38 tackles while playing only 15 percent of the defensive snaps).
The Ravens — with All-Pro Roquan Smith and Patrick Queen — and the Bengals — led by the fine duo of Logan Wilson and Germaine Pratt — also are in the mix for top linebacker group. And keep an eye on the Chicago Bears. The Bears made significant moves in free agency, signing linebackers Tremaine Edmunds and T.J. Edwards to lucrative deals. Both players led their former teams, the Bills and Eagles respectively, in tackles last season
Cornerbacks: Miami Dolphins
The addition of six-time Pro Bowl corner Jalen Ramsey to join four-time Pro Bowler Xavien Howard vaults the Miami Dolphins to the top of the league at this key position. Ramsey has 19 career interceptions, while Howard has 28 career picks. Ramsey also is a tough run defender (88 tackles for the Rams last season). Kader Kohou went undrafted in 2022 but is a solid third corner. Kohou had 72 tackles, 10 passes defensed and one interception in his rookie season.
The Eagles’ cornerbacks are a close second, led Pro Bowler Darius Slay and James Bradberry (a second-team All-Pro last year). The Buffalo Bills are also in the mix with the return to health of two-time Pro Bowl corner Tre’Davious White (who starts with 2022 first-round pick Kaiir Elam).
I like the potential of the Seattle Seahawks corners, with Tariq Woolen having made the Pro Bowl as a fifth-round rookie last season, and the Seahawks picked Devon Witherspoon fifth overall this
year. And Sauce Gardner is leading a resurgence of the New York Jets’ cornerback group.
Safeties: San Francisco 49ers
There are several teams with a strong case for top safety group. The Bills have Jordan Poyer, Micah Hyde and Damar Hamlin (a great story when he lines up on opening day). The Pittsburgh Steelers are led by All-Pro Minkah Fitzpatrick, and the Los Angeles Chargers boast three-time Pro Bowl safety Derwin James (115 tackles, four sacks and two interceptions in 14 games last season).
But for the best duo of starting safeties, I’m going to a familiar place — the 49ers’ top-ranked defense. Talanoa Hufanga emerged as a First-Team All-Pro in his second season after being a fifth-round pick. Hufanga had four interceptions and 97 tackles last season. His running mate Tashaun Gipson had five interceptions. The 49ers also drafted Ji’Ayir Brown in this year’s third round and have added depth and an All-Pro special teamer in safety George Odum.
Special Teams: Baltimore Ravens
The kicker always is the most important contributor on special teams and the Ravens have Justin Tucker, who is the NFL’s record-holder for career field goal percentage (90.5 percent) and longest field goal (66 yards). Tucker is a six-time Pro Bowl kicker and has made first or second-team All-Pro eight times (including Second-team All-Pro last season when he made 37 of 43 field goals and 31 of 32 PATs).
Punter Jordan Stout was a fourth-round pick in 2022 who averaged 45.9 yards per punt with 26 inside the 20 last season. Devin Duvernay had an impressive 25.9-yard kickoff return average with one TD return in 2022 and averaged 11.9 yards per punt return. He’s made the Pro Bowl the past two seasons and was First-team All-Pro in 2021 as a return man. The Ravens’ coverage units are almost always top-notch under head coach John Harbaugh (who was a special teams coordinator for the Eagles earlier in his coaching career).
Jeff Diamond is a former Vikings GM, former Tennessee Titans President and was selected NFL Executive of the Year after the Vikings’ 15-1 season in 1998. He now works for the NFL agent group IFA based in Minneapolis. Follow him on Twitter at @jeffdiamondnfl