Every year, ESPN rolls out an offseason position-by-position ranking of the NFL’s best players. But this one isn’t based on the opinion of one of its writers — or even a poll of them. Instead, it’s based on the votes made by a group of more than 80 league executives, coaches, scouts and players.
These lists aren’t intended to be either a projection or a career retrospective. Voters are asked to identify the top players each position right now.
One of these position rankings is being released every day through July 18. On Saturday, the list of the top 10 off-ball linebackers was published. Then on Sunday, the top defensive tackles were revealed. There was a Kansas City Chiefs player on each of the first two lists.
8. Linebacker Nick Bolton, Kansas City Chiefs
Highest ranking: 5
Lowest ranking: Unranked
Last year’s ranking: Unranked
The Chiefs knew Bolton was a catalyst during last year’s Super Bowl run — he had 23 tackles and two fumble recoveries in the postseason. The standout linebacker does a little bit of everything, from tackles for loss (20 in his first two seasons) and splash plays (two sacks, two interceptions).
He tied for second among all NFL players with a 16.9% tackle percentage (180).
“For me it’s the instincts,” an NFC scouting veteran said. “You see the [ability to] diagnose, the trigger and obviously play speed and physicality on contact. I think he’s going to continue his ascension as a stacked playmaker.”
After his second NFL season, Bolton breaks into a top-10 list headed by the San Francisco 49ers’ Fred Warner, the Baltimore Ravens’ Roquan Smith and the Chicago Bears’ Tremaine Edwards. (The Dallas Cowboys Micah Parsons — ranked second in 2022 — is considered an edge rusher for the coming season. Last year’s top-ranked player was The Indianapolis Colts’ Darius Leonard missed most of the season with an injury).
Kansas City fans have been expecting the former second-round pick to emerge as one of the league’s best ever since he collected 112 total tackles as a reserve player in his rookie season. With the green dot on his helmet in 2022, the former Missouri Tiger registered 180 ranking second in the league.
But big players also make big plays in the postseason. With the whole world watching in last season’s playoffs, Bolton’s fumble recoveries came in key moments. One was in the fourth quarter of the team’s 27-20 Divisional round victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars. He returned the other one 36 yards for a touchdown during the Chiefs’ 38-35 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl LVII.
The 23-year-old Bolton is already one of the league’s top players — and his arrow is pointed up.
2. Defensive tackle Chris Jones, Kansas City Chiefs
Highest ranking: 1
Lowest ranking: 3
Last year’s ranking: 3
Jones entered a new stratosphere after a monster 15.5-sack season.
He’s firmly in Tier 1 now, receiving several No. 1 votes.
“One-on-one matchups, he has a natural answer for everything,” said an AFC exec who voted Jones No. 1. “Wrecked our games.”
He led all defensive tackles with a 22% pass rush win rate last season, the first time someone not named Donald has led all tackles since 2017. The PRWR gap between Jones and the No. 2 (Javon Hargrave) was roughly the same as the gap between second and 10th (Grady Jarrett).
Another AFC exec saw things differently, saying others are “more consistent and dominant” than Jones.
“I think a lot of his production is inflated,” the exec said. “And he’s not always consistent against the run.”
One more season, one more ranking where the Los Angeles Rams’ Aaron Donald is ranked ahead of Jones. (The Tennessee Titans’ Jeffery Simmons and the New York Jets’ Quinnen Williams are ranked behind Kansas City’s interior defensive lineman).
But this time, it’s harder to justify Donald at the top. In 2022, he missed the final six games of the season with an ankle injury — and had accumulated just five sacks (along with 49 tackles) in the 11 games he started. Meanwhile, Jones collected the first postseason sacks of his career and was named an All-Pro — while Donald was left off that list for the first time in seven seasons. Perhaps in this case, ESPN’s voters were a little blinded by the Los Angeles defensive lineman’s previous accomplishments.
I don’t know what to say about the AFC executive who believed Jones was inconsistent against the run. Under new defensive line coach Joe Cullen, Jones posted his best Pro Football Focus run defense grade (78.0) since 2019 — which was also the second-highest of his career. In 2022, that grade ranked second among the league’s interior defensive linemen (and ahead of Donald, who ranked third against the run).
The biggest offseason story regarding Jones is whether or not he will have his contract extended before the season gets underway. This list (with Williams ranked fourth) might help to explain the frustrating lack of news on this front. Jones and his camp could first want to see what the Jets’ lineman (who is also entering the final season of his contract) would get in an extension. But its also true that the 26-year-old Williams is seeking his second deal, while Jones (now 29) is looking for his third. Stay tuned.