The NFL’s best hybrid players
The NFL's switch from generalization to positional specialization has never been more pronounced, and it seems to be even more so every season. In 2015, teams played in sub-packages on 65% of their downs, which means that what was once known as the base defense for any team (straight 4–3 or 3–4) is no longer the norm. With that change comes a desperate need for players who can do many things very well. Jacks of all trades will find themselves more employable than ever, whether it's a defensive lineman who can wreak havoc in multiple gaps, a slot corner who can also deal with top outside receivers, or a running back good enough with routes to be a major concern in the passing game.
Our top 10 hybrid players reside mostly on the defensive side of the ball, because that's where so many paradigm shifts have happened over the last decade.
Just missed the cut
Patrick Chung, Patriots: Chung plays a linebacker/safety hybrid that has him rolling deep in coverage at times, but his primary role is to help enforce against the run and short pass. Like Tyrann Mathieu, his presence creates an unwelcome variable for enemy offenses.
The next big thing
Allen Hurns, Jaguars: We don’t cover slot receivers who also play outside in this piece because there is a whole list of slot guys upcoming. But Hurns is a specifically interesting case—he ran 37% of his routes in the slot last season, and he's equally strong with the kinds of outside vertical routes the Jaguars prefer. Look for him to perhaps become a new style of hybrid receiver—the guy who moves equally to the slot from outside before he's relegated there by size or age.
The NFL’s best hybrid players, No. 10: Malcolm Jenkins, Eagles
Jenkins has straddled the line between safety and cornerback since he came to the NFL out of Ohio State in 2009. (The Saints utilized him in both roles, especially early in his career.) When he joined the Eagles in 2014, Jenkins started out as a safety, then moved into more of a hybrid slot corner as Brandon Boykin's role was reduced. Now, he's equally adept at taking away slot receivers as he is rolling to the top of a defense as a pure safety, making him an excellent personification of the league's current need for positional versatility.
The NFL’s best hybrid players, No. 9: Randall Cobb, Packers
Green Bay's offense fell off the map a bit last season due to injuries and coaching issues, but Cobb proved once again that he's among the NFL's most dynamic and versatile threats. The Packers ideally have him set as a slot receiver to the side where Jordy Nelson is lined up outside, but with Nelson out in '15, Cobb was asked to take coverage over the top from the outside spot more often. He was able to do this, in part because his route-running has improved so much. Backfield action is also a part of Cobb's game, and he adds a ton of variance to a Green Bay offensive scheme that has become a tad simple in recent years.
The NFL’s best hybrid players, No. 8: Jamie Collins, Patriots
Collins is one of the league's most versatile players, holding several roles in Bill Belichick's defense. In base packages, whether it's 4–3 or 4–2 nickel, he'll blitz from the outside linebacker position and use his sense of open gaps to stop the run. Things get really interesting when the Pats move to their subpackages—there are times when Collins is the only linebacker on the field, and he can blitz or cover depending on the call with equal aplomb. He amassed 5.5 sacks last season, and did so from two positions—delayed blitzes from linebacker depth, and straight speed rushes as a stand-up defender between the guard and the tackle. As a coverage specialist, Collins is able to run back to the deep thirds and credibly defend slot targets all the way up the seam. Belichick has always leaned on players who can do many things, and there are very few players in his long coaching history who have filled multiple roles as well as Collins.
The NFL’s best hybrid players, No. 7: Mike Daniels, Packers
Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers has always required linemen who can play multiple roles along his fronts, and few are more versatile than Daniels. Like Michael Bennett, Daniels can bring pressure from the end and tackle positions equally, and his sack against the Redskins last year was a compelling example of his pure strength. Facing a double-team from a one-tech nose tackle position, Daniels bulled back both blockers and came down with Kirk Cousins as the prize. When he's facing one-on-one matchups, it's generally bad news for undermanned opponents because Daniels has such a great speed/strength combination. The 6'0", 291-pound Daniels is listed as a defensive tackle, but don't be fooled, he's an All-Pro guy wherever his coaches want to put him.
The NFL’s best hybrid players, No. 6: Muhammad Wilkerson, Jets
Wilkerson has been moved around during his Jets career as the franchise bulks up with young linemen like Sheldon Richardson and Leonard Williams, but if you want to know how versatile Wilkerson is, check out the Jets' Week 14 win over the Titans last year. Wilkerson picked up two sacks—one as a base 3–4 end and one as an end outside the tackle in the Jets' sub-package—and he forced a fumble as a one-gap nose tackle. There aren't many players with Wilkerson's speed on the move, and he has a great power base to accentuate it. Wilkerson is especially adept at reading blocking patterns, and knowing where to stunt to an opening—that helped him pick up a career-high 12 sacks and 79 total pressures last season in Todd Bowles's defense.
The NFL’s best hybrid players, No. 5: Fletcher Cox, Eagles
The public often slams players who lose their overall excellence after their teams undergo schematic changes, while the respect earned by players who are indeed able to transcend major playbook shifts isn't equally distributed. If it was, you'd be hearing a lot more about Cox and his ability to transition from a three-tech/nose tackle role in his rookie season of 2012 in a 4–3 base defense to Philly's multi-front 3–4 over the last three years. Early on, Cox was asked to penetrate as a one-gap tackle, and he could do that very well with his power and speed. But under Chip Kelly and defensive coordinator Bill Davis, the Eagles moved to a two-gap 3–4 base front with some one-gap variables, testing Cox's mettle. A lot of aggressive one-gap players find it difficult to play the waiting game as a two-gap tackle, but Cox excelled last season with a career-high 9.5 sacks and 77 total pressures. He was flexed in everywhere from end to straight-up nose tackle, and he disrupted consistently. With the hiring of new defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, Cox should flourish in a 4–3 more similar to his rookie campaign.
The NFL’s best hybrid players, No. 4: Tyrann Mathieu, Cardinals
There's a lot of discussion as to whether Mathieu is a better safety or slot cornerback, but the point is moot, because he covers both positions so well. More than that, though, he's a force multiplier in James Bettcher's defense because he's a rover in the truest sense of the word. From tracking receivers in man coverage across the formation, to pattern reading slot receivers up the seam, to blitzing off the edge, to converging in zone coverage and helping over the top as a center-field defender who has the raw speed to keep up with any receiver in the league, there isn’t much he can’t do. What Mathieu may do best (and what the Cardinals allow him to do that other teams might not) is to guess right in the open field. He'll bait receivers and then close to pick off passes. He'll play off-coverage and move in for a tackle with very bad intentions. And if you're taking a slant across the field with free space in front of you, then you better keep your head on a swivel, because the Honey Badger is coming fast, and he don't care. That bold style leads to the occasional coverage lapse (he gave up five touchdowns last season, per Pro Football Focus), but his team will gladly deal with the occasional negative effects of his playing style because he's utterly unique in his positional versatility and complete commitment to whatever it is he's doing on the field.
The NFL’s best hybrid players, No. 3: Michael Bennett, Seahawks
Bennett has been amidst the league leaders in total pressures among 4–3 ends over the last few years, and 2015 may have been his best season. If Bennett were to stand on his credentials as an end alone, he'd be worthy of Pro Bowl status. But Bennett is special and high on this list because he kicks inside to pass-rushing tackle on 30 to 40% of his plays per season. So, he's leading the league in quarterback sacks, hits, and hurries combined at one of his positions while adding superior value at another. Not only that, but Bennett is a superior run defender who uses his strength and gap understanding to shoot past guards who outweigh him by 30-40 pounds—and he can move inside to nose tackle on a spot basis to disrupt from there. Not bad for a guy who tops out at 270 pounds. The Seahawks will also push Bennett outside the end position at times in combination with fellow pass-rusher Cliff Avril, lining both up on one side and making life singularly difficult for opposing guards and tackles. Bennett reached 10 sacks for the first time in his career last season, but if there's one NFL player who proves that the sack statistic doesn't tell the whole story, it's him.
The NFL’s best hybrid players, No. 2: Chris Harris, Broncos
Harris has unquestionably been the NFL's best slot cornerback over the last four years, but the way he's transitioned to an outside role opposite Aqib Talib in recent seasons ensures his value as the best hybrid pass defender in the NFL. Playing both slot and outside in today's NFL is not at all easy, because they are in effect, two different positions. Slot corners have to be concerned with far more route space, and must be able to deal with everything from shifty speed receivers to massive tight ends. Harris proved long ago that he could handle whatever needed to be done in the slot, but he’s developed into a top-level talent at outside corner as well, as he can press the boundary, work the seam and deep middle, and crash down from off-coverage. No other defensive back plays two roles at Harris's level.
The NFL’s best hybrid players, No. 1: J.J. Watt, Texans
Watt ranked third on our list of interior defensive linemen, which seems odd for a guy who's probably the best defensive player in the NFL, never mind the best tackle when he's lined up there. But Watt's real value is tied to the fact that he isn't restricted to any one line position—he's a sheer terror no matter where he lines up. Last season, per Pro Football Focus, he lined up at end on 63.2% of his snaps, which is the only reason he wasn't the best interior guy by a country mile. But among hybrid players, there's nobody else who could be the top man. As a pass rusher, Watt succeeds no matter where he is because he has a special positional understanding of his responsibilities and how to physically maximize the results. As a nose, three-tech or 4i rusher, he can drive blockers back with his upper-body strength and ability to peel off to a shoulder and drive his opponent back. On the edge—everywhere from 5-tech end to wide-nine sack artist—that's where Watt shows his rare speed to power and precise understanding of angular leverage. If you were to take the great Bruce Smith and turn him into an every-gap monster (and in this day and age, Smith might have been asked to do exactly that), you'd have what Watt is now.