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Most NFL players exude bravado on the field, but a small group of elite talents can spook opponents by using unique skill sets.
Coordinators spend the entire week drawing up game plans based on film study, but at times, there’s little they can do to stop versatile playmakers who can impact the action in a variety of ways.
Looking at players who have track records of finding mismatch advantages, we’ll rank the league’s top 10 matchup nightmares—those who possess distinctive capabilities at their positions.
It’s not about whether Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers are the game’s top quarterbacks but about the signal-caller who’s capable of attacking a defense with more than his arm.
We’ll discuss wide receivers who use physical attributes to separate them from the rest of the players at their position, which is important since most wideouts don’t usually take on other offensive roles. The list also includes defensive linemen who’ve done something extraordinary.
You’d think opponents see the boogeyman when they look across the field at the following players. Each entry is ranked based on career production and has an emphasis on this year.
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In 2017, Kansas City Chiefs running back Kareem Hunt didn’t earn the Offensive Rookie of the Year Award, but he won the rushing title with 1,327 yards and averaged 4.9 yards per carry. He logged 100-yard performances on the ground in four of his first five games, which is an impressive start to a pro career. As a receiver, he recorded 53 catches for 455 yards with an 84.1 percent catch rate—making him a weapon in two phases.
Immediately, defensive coordinators had to adjust their game plans to slow the Toledo product.
This season, with quarterback Patrick Mahomes under center, Hunt has become a touchdown machine on the ground and through the air. He’s already surpassed last year’s total scores with 13, which ranks second in the league.
As a receiver, Hunt doesn’t just chip in with short gains. He’s averaging 14.9 yards per catch, which ranks second on the team among players with at least 10 receptions. The agile dual-threat back uses his physical skills to run through, around or hurdle over defenders for big plays.
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When defensive coordinators game-plan against the New Orleans Saints’ Alvin Kamara, they must remember a list of things: contain the edge when he runs the ball, keep a cover linebacker on the field to respect his pass-catching ability and kick away from him on kickoffs and punts.
In any situation where there’s space to run, Kamara causes problems for defenders. He can accumulate chunk yardage in his main responsibility as a ball-carrier. Last year, the 23-year-old led the league in yards-per-carry average at 6.1 as a rookie.
The frustrating part is keeping personnel ready to defend Kamara as a ball-carrier or receiver because the back’s versatility allows quarterback Drew Brees to audible between the run and pass. The Tennessee product racked up 826 receiving yards last year, which led all running backs.
Just when defensive coordinators think they’ve covered him on offense, Kamara can burn opponents on special teams. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers learned that the hard way when he returned a kick 106 yards for a touchdown in Week 17 last season. There’s no escaping this elusive all-purpose threat.
Since entering the league, Kamara is third in all-purpose yards with 1,901. Brees probably loves him—defensive coaches, not so much.
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On the surface, a 5’10”, 185-pound wide receiver doesn’t seem like a nightmare. For an agile defensive back, it’s a reasonable cover assignment, right?
It sounds simple, but Tyreek Hill earned his nickname, the Cheetah, for a few reasons—not just because he ran track in college. He can also scorch the most athletic cover men on the field.
The speedy Kansas City Chiefs wideout will find a hole in zone defenses and complete a deep-ball reception for huge yardage. Hill can also turn a 10-yard catch into a 50-yard gain if a defender isn’t in a position to tackle. Worst of all, defensive backs often look like they’re wearing cement shoes while chasing him downfield. He’s averaging 16.1 yards per reception this season.
While his speed garners a lot of attention, Hill also has reliable hands. Among receivers with 1,000-plus yards, he logged the second-best catch rate with 71.4 percent last year.
Once upon a time, Dante Hall put fear into special teams units as an extraordinary returner in Kansas City, scoring on 11 kick and punt returns in seven seasons with the team. The Chiefs have another star in that department. Since his rookie year (2016), Hill leads the league in punt returns for touchdowns with four.
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Harrison Smith isn’t the best cover safety or the hardest hitter, but he gives the Minnesota Vikings defense a little bit of everything at a high level. Sure, there are defensive backs who can perform multiple functions, but the 29-year-old has been more effective than the vast majority at his position.
Quarterbacks have to know where Smith lines up in the secondary and, more importantly, find out his primary objective each play. The element of surprise is nerve-wracking, making preparation difficult and anticipation nearly impossible.
In six-plus seasons, Smith has 44 pass breakups, 28 tackles for a loss, 20 interceptions, 12 sacks and four defensive touchdowns. That means he’s covering tight ends down the seam, reading quarterbacks’ eyes 10 yards beyond the line of scrimmage, charging into the backfield to thwart the run and dropping signal-callers on safety blitzes.
Typically, when discussing defensive players, sacks and interceptions come up as key impact statistics. Well, through eight weeks, Smith is the only player with three sacks and three interceptions.
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For those still caught up in ideal fits for 3-4 and 4-3 base defenses, Chicago Bears edge-rusher Khalil Mack can impact the game in both alignments as an outside linebacker or defensive end. In fact, he’s the only player who earned All-Pro honors at both positions.
Similar to Watt’s, Mack’s run-stopping ability equals his pass-rushing prowess on the defensive line. But unlike his Texans counterpart, the 27-year-old is in the middle of his prime and only missed two games in five seasons. More likely than not, offensive linemen will have to deal with a supreme physical threat who shows a unique combination of power and speed off the edge.
The two-time All-Pro also puts his speed to use when he secures possession. Mack has intercepted two passes and returned both for touchdowns, and he’s a threat with loose balls after he strip-sacks the quarterback.
There’s one signal-caller who can personally attest to Mack’s nightmare status: Osweiler.
While playing for the Oakland Raiders in 2015, Mack sacked Osweiler five times and became the 15th player in NFL history with at least that many sacks in a game. Since 2015, he’s third in the category with 41.5.
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Tight end Rob Gronkowski is arguably the game’s best receiver. At 6’6″, 268 pounds, when isn’t he open?
New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady has looked to Gronkowski to finish drives. Since he entered the league in 2010, the big-bodied tight end has the most touchdown receptions (77).
To put Gronkowski’s consistency as a red-zone target into context: The 29-year-old has had the most seasons with 10-plus touchdowns between 2010 and 2017. Inside the 20-yard line, he’s likely to see targets and score.
Beyond his receiving abilities, Gronkowski doesn’t garner enough credit for sealing the edge as a pass protector and downfield blocker. Outsiders may not take special notice of this gritty aspect to his game, but a former teammate sure did.
“Rob does things that wide receivers do, Rob does things that tight ends do and Rob does things that offensive linemen do,” Former Patriots defensive end Chandler Jones said in an NFL Network interview (via Patriots Wire). “Rob is a man of many talents. Sometimes you’ll see Rob on film and he’s in a tackle stance pass blocking on the team’s best pass-rusher.”
It’s difficult to prepare for a player who could neutralize your top defender in the front seven or dominate defensive backs in the passing game. Hide your pass-rushers and safeties—Gronkowski can’t be stopped.
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Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt established himself as an anomaly years ago. From the 2012 to 2015 campaigns, he finished as the sack leader in two of those seasons and had the most tackles for a loss in three. The three-time Defensive Player of the Year is also arguably one of the best run defenders, as he has 335 solo tackles in 97 career games.
Watt returned to DPOY form after back and knee issues ruined his last two seasons. He’s recorded nine sacks in as many weeks and is one of four players with four forced fumbles.
Beyond his pass-rushing responsibility, Watt uses his long arms to disrupt the passing game at or near the line of scrimmage. Through eight seasons, he’s broken up 49 passes—the second-most among primary, active defensive linemen and linebackers since 2011.
Offensive linemen can double-team him and running backs could chip as a thin layer of pass protection, but it’s hard to stop Watt from raising his arms and swatting a pass like an NBA rim-protector. His impeccable timing is an unusual trait for defenders closer to the line of scrimmage.
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Meet the game’s best dual-threat running back and the linchpin of the Los Angeles Rams’ No. 3 scoring offense.
Head coach Sean McVay arrived in Los Angeles in 2017 with a strong offensive reputation. He immediately turned running back Todd Gurley into a star and never-ending headache for opponents.
The reigning Offensive Player of the Year led the league in yards (2,093) and touchdowns (19) from scrimmage last season, which made him a no-brainer to win the award. He ranks No. 1 in both categories this season as well.
While Kamara poses a comparable threat, Gurley has been more impactful. He’s scored the most touchdowns on the ground (25) and through the air (10) among running backs since the start of 2017. The All-Pro ball-carrier averages 96.4 rushing yards per contest, which leads the NFL.
Whether Gurley lines up behind quarterback Jared Goff or splits out as a wide receiver, his vision, quickness and receiving ability may embarrass a linebacker. He soundly beat three-time Pro Bowler Anthony Barr in coverage during their Week 4 meeting, showcasing his elite skill set as a pass-catcher.
Kamara is on the come-up, and Le’Veon Bell will have to remind spectators what he’s capable of when he returns from his holdout. Right now, Gurley should rank atop the list of offensive playmakers at running back and one of the most frustrating players to game plan for during the week.
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What’s scarier than a fast dinosaur? That’s how Eric Weddle described Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton. “Runs people over in the open field and can make guys miss. He’s a very unique quarterback in this league,” the Baltimore Ravens safety told reporters.
Enough said. How does a defense stop that type of player in motion? Among quarterbacks, Newton has the most rushing yards since he entered the league in 2011 with 4,662. The Panthers’ slogan, “Keep Pounding,” doesn’t only apply to the defense or running backs; the 2015 league MVP also applies himself with the same style.
But that’s not all. Newton has evolved into a more accurate passer under new offensive coordinator Norv Turner. He’s completing a career-high 67.3 percent of his passes.
Now, defenders have to brace for contact from a 6’5″, 245-pound quarterback or worry about his ability to beat pass coverage over the top with a strong, accurate arm. Good luck with that game plan.
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Aaron Donald practices his hand work with knives. Though they’re plastic, it’s an innovative approach that helps elevate the defensive tackle to the top of this list.
There’s no disputing that he’s No. 1 among matchup nightmares.
According to Next Gen Stats (via J.B. Long of ESPN Los Angeles), Donald was double-teamed 70 percent of the time through eight weeks; Watt placed second at 46 percent.
Yet, Donald ranks second in sacks with 10. He’s logged a sack in four of the last five games and leads the league in tackles for a loss. Purely unstoppable. The Rams don’t need top-notch edge-rushers at linebacker when they have a defensive tackle who can impose his will in the trenches against two 300-pound men at the line of scrimmage.
The reigning Defensive Player of the Year has recorded at least eight sacks in each of his five seasons, and he’s shown no signs of slowing.
What’s an offensive coordinator and position coach supposed to do when multiple players can’t stop one man—hope he has some sympathy? Opposing quarterbacks beware. Donald will wreak havoc on the offensive line. There’s a bullseye on your jersey.