The state of Utah is becoming more influential in the NFL, as 89 players with ties to the state are currently on rosters as preseason camps approach.
But how many of those players are elite? That question can surely be answered in different ways, but perhaps one measure is how many of them are among the best at their respective positions.
This month, ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler spearheaded a project in which he identified the top 10 players at 11 positions according to a survey of more than 50 league personnel, including executives, coaches, scouts and players.
As Fowler explains, survey subjects were asked for their best 10 to 15 players at each position, and candidates were ranked based on number of top-10 votes, composite average, interviews, research and film study.
“The objective is to identify the best players right now for 2021,” Fowler wrote. “This is not a five-year projection or an achievement award. Who’s the best today? Pretty simple.”
As it turns out, just two players with local ties made the list, and they both did it at the same position, linebacker. Perhaps it should come as little surprise that those two players are San Francisco’s Fred Warner (BYU) and Seattle’s Bobby Wagner (Utah State).
They are right next to each other, too, as Warner is No. 2 and Wagner is No. 3. The top-ranked linebacker is Tampa Bay’s Devin White.
“Warner has made a sizable jump in each of his three NFL seasons,” Fowler wrote of Warner. “He started 16 games as a rookie third-round pick in 2018, then became a top-10 player at the position on the way to the Super Bowl in 2019 and All-Pro status last season.”
Fowler quoted an AFC executive who said, “He totally runs the show for that defense. Everything they do goes through him,” and quoted an AFC coach who said, “Elite instincts and awareness against the pass. Got a little bit of that Luke Kuechly in him. He knows exactly what’s coming. Long, can feel his range.”
As for Wagner, Fowler wrote, “Last year’s No. 1 was a do-it-all linebacker for the Seahawks in 2020, finishing with 138 tackles, three sacks, seven tackles for loss and eight pass deflections, the second most in his nine-year career.”
Additionally, Fowler quoted an NFL official who said, “My favorite linebacker of the last 10 years. Not a drop-off yet. He’s always kind of been the standard for me. He’s maybe slowed down a little bit, but he knows the geometry now. Knows all the angles so he’s just as effective.”
While Warner and Wagner were the only ones who got ranked, Fowler added an “also receiving votes” section to a couple of position groups, and two former Utah Utes made those lists. New Orleans’ Marcus Williams made it at safety, and Denver’s Garett Bolles did at offensive tackle.
“Super talented, range, instincts, shows flashes but inconsistent, has all the tools,” an NFC coach said of Williams, while an offensive line coach said of Bolles, “He’s a guy that struggled early. He was already matured body-wise, so he just needed to mature football-wise, mentally. Now the mentals are catching up with the physical.”