As this year’s edition of SI’s position-by-position rankings begins, one thing has become clear: The lines between positions are blurrier than ever. That dominant outside cornerback of a decade ago? That same player now has to split time at outside corner and in the slot, and maybe fill in at safety. The top receiver he used to battle along the sidelines? He may now line up in the slot 40% of the time. How about that tweener defensive lineman who was stuck on special teams in 2005? He has a home in today’s defensive fronts now that teams have developed hybrid roles to take advantage of his strengths. Those adaptations make the NFL far more positionally diverse than ever before.
The first group in the spotlight this year personifies this trend. The league’s best interior defenders would have spent most of their time as defensive tackles just a few years ago, but these days it’s rare that a defensive tackle isn’t tasked to do more than one thing or attack more than one gap. Below, we’ve combined 3–4 ends and 4–3 tackles into one elite tier of NFL interior linemen, and let their versatility take care of the rest. But first, a quick look at two players that didn’t quite make the list, but still deserve recognition.
Just missed the cut
Derek Wolfe, Broncos: It remains to be seen how much Wolfe was helped by Malik Jackson, and the Broncos will find out now that Jackson is in Jacksonville. But Wolfe has rare strength and endurance, and he possesses everything it takes to be the linchpin of Denver’s interior line for years to come.
The next big thing
Leonard Williams, Jets: Williams was taken sixth overall in the 2015 draft by the Jets after showcasing his amazing gap versatility at USC, and he has already made an impact in the NFL. Over time, as he learns how to defeat savvier professional blockers with more technique, he could be the successor to J.J. Watt as a multi-gap force.
And now, onto our rankings.