The Brandt Report

2021 NFL season: Ranking the most versatile players in the league

Versatility might sound like a buzzword, but truly versatile players can be bounced around the field in a way that justifies the hype they often generate. It's not a boast for a player like the Panthers' Jeremy Chinn to say he can play "wherever" if it's true.

Inspired by Chinn's accurate assessment of his own versatility, I decided to rank the most versatile players in the NFL in 2021. Below, you'll find 11 individuals who, if they can't quite do it all, come darn close, possessing the wide-ranging talent to wreak mismatch-making havoc.

(Note: Because it seemed to violate the spirit of this ranking to include one position designation for each player, I decided instead to merely list whether they are primarily offensive, defensive or special teams weapons.)

Rank
1
Jeremy Chinn
Carolina Panthers · DEF

Every once in a while, a player with elite pro potential will slip through the cracks at the college level, and it appears this is what happened with Chinn, a second-round pick out of Southern Illinois last year who emerged as a Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate while proving himself to be exactly the kind of player every defensive coordinator should be seeking in the modern NFL. Chinn is a back-seven defender who can match up against basically anyone, whether he's functioning as a linebacker, safety or slot defender. The offseason additions of run-stuffing linebacker Denzel Perryman and pass rusher Haason Reddick should give defensive coordinator Phil Snow even more options when it comes to taking advantage of Chinn's skill set. 

Rank
2
Christian McCaffrey
Carolina Panthers · OFF

McCaffrey's spot could be justified by his 2019 season alone, considering he became one of just three players in NFL history to top 1,000 rushing yards and 1,000 receiving yards in the same season. He basically was the Panthers' offense that year, accumulating a whopping 142 targets and 287 carries while breaking his own record for catches by a running back (with 116, topping his mark of 107 in 2018). It would not be surprising if McCaffrey's workload were to shrink a bit, given that he's coming off a season in which injuries cost him all but three games, but it's tough to conceive of an offensive player who can come close to achieving his status as a do-everything monster. 

Rank
3
Alvin Kamara
New Orleans Saints · OFF

There's no question the Saints' selection of Kamara in the 2017 NFL Draft made the final four years of Drew Brees' career a lot easier than they would have been otherwise. Kamara can run (averaging 835 rushing yards per season), he can catch (81.5 catches and 706 receiving yards per season) -- and he can score. Kamara led the NFL in 2020 with 21 total touchdowns, with a career-high 16 rushing and five through the air. With top receiving threat Michael Thomas injured or slumping for most of 2020, Kamara carried the aerial load, becoming the only Saints player to crack triple digits in receiving targets for the year. He also played 138 of his 637 offensive snaps (21.7%) outside of the backfield, per Next Gen Stats.


Kamara might not be used the same way in 2021, with Thomas returning to full strength and with the QB torch being passed to either Jameis Winston or Taysom Hill, neither of whom has been especially proficient with the screen pass. But that doesn't change the fact we know what kind of production Kamara is capable of.

Rank
4
Taysom Hill
New Orleans Saints · OFF

The term Swiss Army Knife gets tossed around a lot, but it has hardly fit a player better than it fits Hill, who has lined up at not one but four different offensive positions -- quarterback, running back, tight end and receiver -- in his NFL career. The immediate question is, will Hill continue to be used in multiple ways in 2021, or will he be the primary quarterback in the wake of Drew Brees' retirement? Hill says he's focusing his offseason work on prepping to play QB, and he did start games in Brees' absence last season, but if Jameis Winston ends up in the role of QB1, it won't be surprising to see Hill popping up across the stat sheet.

Rank
5
Jamal Adams
Seattle Seahawks · DEF

Pass-rushing ability is what helps separate Adams from the pack at the safety position. Not only did he break Adrian Wilson's single-season sack record for a defensive back by collecting 9.5 for the Seahawks in 2020, but he did it in just 12 games. Adams is also just nine sacks short of topping Rodney Harrison's career record for sacks by a defensive back (30.5, the most since sacks were first tracked in 1982). Adams is about to become the highest-paid safety in NFL history -- and he deserves it.

Rank
6
Travis Kelce
Kansas City Chiefs · OFF

Let's not kid ourselves: Kelce is functionally a wide receiver who happens to have "TE" next to his name. Consider that, according to Pro Football Focus, Kelce actually logged more snaps in the slot or out wide last season (455) then he did at tight end (376); to put this in perspective, the similarly versatile Darren Waller played 618 snaps at tight end for the Raiders in 2020, compared to 322 in the slot or out wide. The effect of the mismatches Kelce forces was on full display in the second half of last season; from Week 8 on, he caught at least seven passes per game and topped 100 yards five times. He also became the first tight end in NFL history to post 1,400-plus receiving yards in a single season despite resting during the Week 17 finale. 

Rank
7
Budda Baker
Arizona Cardinals · DEF

Baker is, as he said, "blessed to be versatile" -- making him a perfect match for a Cardinals organization that prizes that trait in defensive players. And Arizona has taken full advantage of Baker's capabilities. He usually plays close to the line of scrimmage before either A) dropping back in coverage, B) blitzing or C) zeroing in to make a tackle. After signing a four-year, $59 million extension last August, Baker gave the Cards their money's worth, reaching triple digits in tackles for the third straight season while also recording the first two interceptions of his four-year career. Baker also earned his third Pro Bowl and second first-team All-Pro nods.

Rank
8
Kenyan Drake
Las Vegas Raiders · OFF

Drake's spot here is largely driven by a projection of what I think he'll accomplish in Las Vegas, where he said he signed because Jon Gruden was "head and shoulders above" any other suitor in free agency in terms of interest in Drake's playmaking ability. Though he's mostly been used as a running back, Drake does have receiving production on his résumé, logging 103 catches combined with Miami and Arizona in 2018 and '19. His reception total plummeted (25) in his final season with the Cardinals, who did not feature him in the passing game as much, but I'd expect the Raiders to use Drake in the role that was originally forecast for 2020 third-rounder Lynn Bowden: aligning often as an X or Z receiver, like former Raider Charlie Garner, who racked up 211 catches between 2001 and '03. 

Rank
9
Tyrann Mathieu
Kansas City Chiefs · DEF

We've talked a lot about versatility here, but Mathieu simply personifies the word. Here is a breakdown of his 929 snaps, per Pro Football Focus, in 2020: 345 at slot corner, 301 in the box, 224 at free safety, 44 on the defensive line and 15 at outside cornerback. Brought in to power up the Chiefs' pass defense, that is exactly what he did, pushing Kansas City to rank eighth in passing yards allowed in 2019 and 14th last season. In that span, Mathieu picked off 10 passes combined and earned consecutive first-team All-Pro honors. Even at age 29 and carrying a notable injury history, Mathieu is worthy of a significant contract extension heading into the final year of his current deal. 

Rank
10
Isaiah Simmons
Arizona Cardinals · DEF

The No. 8 overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft got off to a slow start, reaching the 30-snap mark just one time through Week 6. But once on the field, Simmons displayed the kind of versatility that allowed him to star at Clemson. Between Week 7 and the end of the regular season, Simmons tallied two sacks, 43 tackles, one pick, one fumble forced and one fumble recovered. Arizona defensive coordinator Vance Joseph told NFL Network's Jim Trotter that he wants Simmons to spend more time at inside linebacker this season, helping in run support while taking on an expanded role in the dime package, doing everything from rushing the passer to covering. How quickly 2021 first-rounder Zaven Collins develops at the other inside linebacker spot will help dictate what the Cardinals can do with Simmons.

Rank
11
Cordarrelle Patterson
Atlanta Falcons · OFF/ST

Patterson might never have hit the heights expected of him when he was selected 29th overall by Minnesota in 2013, but he still deserves credit for being a significant contributor at receiver, running back and kick returner wherever he's played. (Patterson has spent time with the Vikings, Raiders, Patriots and Bears, and he signed with the Falcons this offseason.) He earned All-Pro honors in 2020 as a returner for the third time in the last five seasons and the fourth time in his career; he's also tied for the longest touchdown return in NFL history (109 yards) and the most scores on kickoff returns (eight, matching Josh Cribbs). And he still has the ability to chip in to the game plan as a receiver (21 catches in 2020) and runner (a career-high 64 carries for 232 yards last season).

Follow Gil Brandt on Twitter.

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