NFL's highlight-reel players: The 32 most thrilling talents of today … and tomorrow

Cue a sizzle reel on NFL Network or pop on the RedZone channel during any fall Sunday and it won’t take you long to realize how incredible those who play this game truly are. With the 2021 season right around the corner, we decided to take a step back and put together a list of the league’s greatest highlight makers, those who light up your television sets — and the eyes of those watching America’s most beloved sport.

Quick disclaimer: There’s a pretty good chance your favorite player didn’t make the list below, which could honestly extend deep into the infinite space of the internet. It’s a highlight-driven league, and the supreme athletes who fill the NFL are worthy of recognition. But we decided to try to whittle the field down into two 16-player groups of highlight-makers …

THE PANTHEON: This group’s filled with players who require your attention whenever they’re on the field. Stop what you’re doing and take in their awesomeness, or else live with the regret of missing their latest (and perhaps greatest) feat.

COMING FOR THE THRONE: These guys are in line to one day call a seat in the Pantheon their own. They’ve proven they have what it takes to be considered among the league’s true eye-poppers — they just have to keep doing it to earn a spot in the Pantheon’s hallowed halls.

So, without further ado, let’s take a look at the NFL’s most thrilling playmakers, present and future:

THE PANTHEON

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Lamar is as close as the current NFL gets to a legit human highlight reel. The Ravens quarterback commands a rare type of attention from NFL fans, one that demands viewers stop everything they’re doing to watch Jackson when he receives the snap because he carries the constant potential to make a memory. Jackson has already established himself as a master of the big play, making scores of defenders look hopelessly silly in the process, and the former Heisman Trophy winner doesn’t appear to be slowing down any time soon. He reached 20-plus miles per hour on seven rushes in 2020 (including playoffs), per Next Gen Stats, and he’s almost guaranteed to gain yards in chunks when carrying the ball, averaging 7.8 per rush versus defensive boxes with less than seven defenders last season. That rate was the highest in the entire NFL, and should come as no surprise when considering who has the ball in his hands.

Oddly enough, a player known for completing previously inconceivable pass attempts created one of his signature highlights on an incompletion during a lopsided loss. Under constant duress in Super Bowl LV, Mahomes rolled to his right, was caught from behind and seemed headed for a sack when he released a pass while his body was parallel with the field. Those who watch Mahomes are never surprised by this stuff, of course, as the originator of the no-look pass in the NFL has been doing it for a few years now. And one Super Bowl prior, he was the one launching passes for unlikely completions in a furious comeback effort that ended up crowning the Chiefs as champions for the first time in half a century. The numbers shouldn’t surprise, either: Mahomes threw 13 touchdown passes on the run in 2020 — the most in the league, per NGS — and tied for the second-most deep touchdown passes (20-plus air yards) with 12. Since he began the 2018 season as a full-time starter, Mahomes has tied for the league lead in deep touchdown passes with 37. The Chiefs are required weekly viewing for NFL fans, with Mahomes serving as the main reason why.

One needn’t look further than last year’s “Hail Murray” for proof of Hopkins’ big-play capability, and his potential to create an instant highlight stretches well beyond last-second football miracles. Hopkins rescued the Cardinals with his touchdown catch secured amid a sea of hands, and it was just the latest in a string of highlight-reel grabs that have helped him earn three All-Pro honors and five Pro Bowl selections in his eight NFL seasons. Hopkins is a nightmare for opposing defenses no matter how they approach defending him, tying for the most receiving touchdowns against press coverage since 2016 with 23. And if corners try to back off him at the line, they’re liable to get beat deep anyway, with Hopkins scoring 17 times on deep targets, the fifth most in the league.

Kamara perfectly captures what it means to be a dynamic running back in today’s NFL. He is an ever-present threat in the Saints’ backfield as a ball carrier in the traditional sense, but he’s just as dangerous in the passing game, perhaps more than any other running back currently in the league. Which game would you like to select for proof: His six-touchdown explosion on Christmas? How about his two-touchdown outing as a receiver against Green Bay, including a 52-yard reception in which Kamara turned a casual checkdown into an incredible score? Enjoy some numbers while you’re here: As a rusher, Kamara averaged the most yards per carry inside the tackles (6.6) in the entire league, per Next Gen Stats, and led the NFL in rushing touchdowns scored on runs outside the tackles with 12. And as a receiver, Kamara was as devastating as he was a frequent recipient of attention. Kamara was targeted on 33.1 percent of his routes run, gained 2.3 yards per route run (NGS), and forced 20 — count them, 20 — missed tackles on receptions last season (Pro Football Focus). Those numbers were all good for third or better in league rankings. No matter the down, distance or time, Kamara is a constant threat to create a highlight.

Answer this: Is there ever a time when you watch a wildlife documentary and AREN’T impressed by the speed of a cheetah? Well, this guy’s nickname is “Cheetah.” Hill’s big-play speed makes him the perfect complement to Patrick Mahomes’ bazooka arm, giving the Chiefs the chance to create a long, six-point highlight on nearly every down. The numbers back it up, too: Hill led the NFL in receiving touchdowns on deep targets with eight in 2020, per Next Gen Stats. Like an Olympic sprinter, Hill’s greatest asset is his start, going from zero to 10.69 mph within one second on go routes in 2020, the fastest speed in the NFL on such routes last season. Attempting to interrupt his start didn’t work for defenses, either, as Hill scored eight touchdowns against press coverage. And redirecting him inside isn’t the solution, as evidenced by Hill’s 10 receiving touchdowns on crossing routes. All of those statistics were the best in the NFL in their respective categories, meaning defenses must pay attention to where No. 10 is AT ALL TIMES, and fans will only be disappointed if they aren’t paying attention the next time Hill is targeted.

Barkley’s 2020 was over before the NFL reached Week 3, but when he’s healthy, the man with the huge quads — and even larger highlight reel — is always worth watching. Whether it’s handing him the ball and letting him go to work or witnessing him slip out of the backfield, catch a pass and make an assortment of defenders look silly in their vain attempts to bring him down, Barkley is constantly deserving of a fan’s full attention. He’s reliable for ripping off big gains and helping the Giants move the chains, gaining 5.1 yards per carry on rushing inside the tackles in 2019 (the most in the NFL, per NGS), and once he’s through the first and second levels of defense, sit back and enjoy the beauty of Barkley’s top-speed sprints to paydirt. Barkley has yet to make his full return to the field, but when he does, we can resume rolling on the career highlight film. He’s bound to make another mind-bending play soon enough.

The central figure of “The Catch” (2014) is another player attempting to return from a significant knee injury, but before he departed last season, Beckham gave us a handful of highlights. OBJ took a reverse 50 yards for a game-sealing touchdown run against the Cowboys, and that was after he’d already caught two touchdown passes earlier in the game. He also made William Jackson look foolish on a double move down the sideline for a score against Cincinnati, and even flashed his superhuman hands to haul in what CBS Sports’ Spero Dedes called “an impossible catch” vs. Indianapolis. All of this before we’d even reached the midway point of the 2020 season. This is also the guy who’s been known to pull off incredible athletic feats that don’t even pertain to his position, like spinning a football on the ground and kicking it through the uprights during pregame warmups, or ripping a 49-yard touchdown pass down the middle of the field on a trick play. Any football fan knows it’s time to tune in when OBJ takes the field.

McCaffrey is the third player on this list whose 2020 was highly abbreviated, but that doesn’t mean we forgot about his big-play potential. He’s shifty, quick, agile, explosive and incredibly athletic. Just look at his highlight tape from the 2019 season: It’s 11 minutes long and features McCaffrey making memorable play in essentially every way possible. There’s a hurdle, a one-cut explosion through the defense for a long touchdown, a touchdown reception and many defenders left grasping at the air making up his wake (75 in total, per PFF). McCaffrey joined the 1,000-1,000 club (hitting those marks in rushing and receiving yards) in 2019, nearly single-handedly keeping Panthers games interesting. With a retooled roster and new opportunities to make a difference in 2021, McCaffrey returns poised to create some fresh highlights.

A pair of one-cut masters enter the Pantheon next, beginning with the Vikings’ zone-running aficionado. The former Florida State star has found a perfect fit in Minnesota thanks to the team’s offensive scheme, which works seamlessly with Cook’s explosive, downhill style. Cook has made the most of this synergy, joining Derrick Henry as the only two players with 10 or more rushing touchdowns on carries inside and outside the tackles since 2019. Like Henry, he’s a bowling ball of a back who’s difficult to stop once he gets going. Need proof? Cook and Henry were the only two players in the entire league to gain 1,000-plus rushing yards after contact last season, per Pro Football Focus. And we didn’t even talk about his threat in the passing game, but this 50-yard screen touchdown (and the other three touchdowns he scored that day) can summarize his candidacy for us.

A notably quiet individual, Chubb introduced himself to the NFL with a rather loud statement at Oakland in 2018, scoring two touchdowns and gaining 105 yards on a grand total of three carries. He’s established himself as a top-five back in the league since then, posting consecutive 1,000-yard seasons, scoring 20 touchdowns and ending multiple games single-handedly in the last two seasons. There was his three-touchdown evisceration of the Ravens in Week 4 of the 2019 season, his 59-yard run — and wise step out of bounds — to ice a win over Houston in 2020, and his dagger-like receiving touchdown on a screen pass against Pittsburgh on Super Wild Card Weekend. No matter the setting, the reserved Chubb can be counted on to detonate opposing defenses and make sure they remember it. (He did so in 2020, finishing as the only player in the NFL with 4-plus yards per rush after contact, per PFF.) He’s a monster when it comes to rush yards gained over expectation, finishing second in the NGS metric in 2020 with +327 RYOE gained, and averaging the most per attempt in the entire NFL by a significant margin at +1.75. He owns the record in that category and it’s unlikely another back will flirt with it any time soon.

As a force of nature at Notre Dame, Nelson earned himself a nickname for how he treated the opposition that related to how he stood over defenders he’d flattened — and he’s only gotten better as a pro. Nelson just posted the highest PFF run-blocking grade in the NFL among guards since 2018 with a 90 in 2020, and owns a 90.4 overall grade in his career, the second-highest mark among guards since 2018 (trailing only Dallas’ Zack Martin). He can do everything: trap, double team, long pull, pass drop and lead the way on screens. There isn’t a more consistent and devastating guard in the league today than Nelson. He makes watching guard play fun for the average fan — no small feat!

There’s an elite group of quarterbacks in today’s NFL who routinely complete absurd passes, and Wilson is among them. Some numbers to back up the tape: In 2020, Wilson led the league in deep TD strike (13) and deep passing touchdowns thrown while on the run (four), per NGS. He either tied for the lead or owned it by himself in passing yards, touchdowns and interceptions on scramble drills, and he gained 460 rushing yards on scrambles, according to PFF. And if the numbers aren’t enough, just turn on a Seahawks game next time they’re playing. You’ll see Wilson routinely extending plays and making the unlikely into highlight-worthy reality.

It’s no surprise that the NFL’s video game partner, EA Sports’ Madden NFL, has placed Donald in its elite “99 Club” for the fifth straight year. Donald is a perennial contender for Defensive Player of the Year, having won the award in three of the past four seasons, not only because of how productive he is, but also how difficult his path to making a difference is. The nature of Donald’s interior defensive line position requires him to constantly fight through double teams and the chaotic traffic of the trenches, yet he consistently finds his way into the backfield to either sack the quarterback or stop a rusher for minimal or no gain. And the way he gets there — shedding a pair of blockers whose combined weight is often double his, if not more — makes for incredible highlights that showcase his feats of strength, explosion and quickness. By the time he makes a tackle, he’s already done enough to end up on a reel, and he’s been doing it for so long, he’ll one day end up in Canton.

King Henry is an obvious Pantheon member. Not only is he a constant threat to rip off a massive run, but he also owns the most devastating stiff arm of his generation. Just ask Josh Norman if you need confirmation. Henry is a bulldozer with a rocket booster attached, routinely turning minimal gains into huge pickups and leaving a collection of flattened defenders in his wake. The reigning Offensive Player of the Year provided some rare production in 2020, leading the league in missed tackles forced (75) and setting the single-season high for rushing yards gained after contact with 1,490, the most in one campaign in the Pro Football Focus era, which dates back to 2006. He also posted the most rushing yards over expectation in a single season since 2018 with +412, per Next Gen Stats. Defenses know they need to load the box to try and stop Henry, leaving room for Ryan Tannehill and Co. to do damage through the air. The reasoning is simple: They’d rather take their chances against the pass than leave themselves vulnerable to a ruthless rumble for a Henry touchdown. That’s saying something in today’s pass-happy game.

Fans of sharp route-running rejoice when they watch this wideout take the field. Adams has a strong case for being the best technician in the entire league, frequently winning against press coverage — he faced the second-highest rate of press coverage in the NFL last season (NGS) — to create an average of 3.2 yards of separation when targeted and finish with a catch rate above expectation of +10 percent. Adams is highly dangerous because he can strike from just about any location on the field, toying with defenses by running routes from the slot and out wide — and consistently producing, no matter the alignment. And when it comes time to haul in a pass and make sure he stays in bounds, well, that’s the cherry on top of Adams’ highlight sundae. No matter how they attempt to stop him, most defenses can only hope to contain the leading pass catcher in Green Bay. It’s no wonder the Packers consistently field one of the most productive offenses in the league.

Each generation of NFL players produces a premier return man, and after we were treated to the excellence of both Devin Hester and Josh Cribbs in the first decade of this century, Patterson arrived to take the crown. The man known as “Flash” has scored a kick-return touchdown in all but two of his eight NFL seasons, doing so twice in a campaign in two separate years (2013 and ’15). He’s taken a kick back for a touchdown once in each of the last three seasons, and though he’s become a bit of a journeyman at this stage of his career, he’s one of maybe three returners currently in the NFL (Deonte Harris and Jakeem Grant being the other two) who certainly command your attention as soon as the ball is launched from the kicking tee. It’s only fitting that a Patterson kickoff return produced one of the most beautiful moments in SkyCam history. (Surprise: He’s done this twice.)

COMING FOR THE THRONE

Minkah’s move to Pittsburgh paid off for both him and the Steelers almost immediately, and he’s only gotten better during his time in the Steel City. Fitzpatrick can always be counted on for a key interception, and his presence alone makes attempting to target the middle of the field a dangerous endeavor for opposing quarterbacks. Just ask Baker Mayfield how that went for him in Week 6 last season.

Adams proved the Jets correct in selecting him in the first round out of LSU, but don’t let their decision to trade him influence your opinion of him, because he’s frequently making highlight plays. Seattle increased his chances to end up on a reel by making him an effective blitzer, leading to Adams setting a single-season record for defensive backs with 9.5 sacks in just 12 games last season. His hard-hitting style has forced seven fumbles in his career, making him a threat any time an opponent attempts to traverse the middle of the field. And though he hasn’t recorded a ton of interceptions, Adams’ 28 passes defensed prove he’s more than capable of interrupting an opposing offense’s attempt to gain ground through the air. The conclusion is clear: Always keep an eye on No. 33.

One statistical total tells you all you need to know about Peters’ play: 31 career interceptions. Peters took three of those back for scores in 2019, including two with his new team in Baltimore, and he’s an ever-present threat to turn a pass into six for the Ravens. It’s not as if one needs any more reason to watch Baltimore on a weekly basis beyond the Lamar-led offense, but if you’re still searching for one, Peters has an answer for you.

Last season was the coming-out party for Metcalf, who assembled a collection of highlights that spanned the spectrum. In one instance, he was sprinting past defensive backs for a long score. In another, he was making an unlikely contested catch for a touchdown. In a third, he was making a diving catch to win a game for Seattle. And in yet another instance, he was shedding defenders after the catch for a huge gain. Oh, you thought we forgot about him hawking Budda Baker? Nope. That counts in here, too. Metcalf has the speed, size, strength and hands to appear on highlight shows on a weekly basis. Get used to hearing his name.

Murray won the Heisman Trophy in his final season at Oklahoma, then took home the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year with his highlight-worthy play, so it’s no surprise to see him on this list of contenders ready to unseat one of the quarterbacks currently positioned in the Pantheon. Murray is obviously a threat to run, especially within Arizona’s spread attack that opens up the field for him to work, but he’s just as effective (if not more so) through the air. Kyler’s dual-threat nature makes him a nightmare to game plan for, and as long as he can stay healthy, he’ll continue to rack up highlights that wow fans on a weekly basis.

2020 was Allen’s breakout season, one that was impressive enough to give him an outside shot at league MVP. With the mistakes significantly curtailed, the sky seems to be Allen’s new limit. We all knew of his cannon arm coming out of Wyoming, but Allen has proven himself as a runner whose thrilling (and occasionally treacherous) gallops send the excitement levels of onlookers into the stratosphere. After proving he’s more than capable of being a quality starter last season, Allen’s poised to make even more highlights — and might just do so in a Super Bowl before long.

A catch-and-run master, Brown is quickly becoming known for making the big plays downfield and also out-muscling defenders to create a different type of highlight. He carries with him the potential to make defenses look silly on every play, and with Derrick Henry on the field at the same time, Brown only makes the Titans that much more worth watching.

Lamb made his name in college by doing the unlikely (if not impossible), and he flashed this ability as a rookie in Dallas. He has a penchant for the highlight grab and developed into a big-gain receiver as the season progressed in 2020. We should count on much more of this with Dak Prescott back in the fold.

Jefferson is on the fast track to the Pantheon after a 1,400-yard rookie season that exceeded every expectation set for him as Stefon Diggs’ replacement in Minnesota. He’s also responsible for the popularization of the “Griddy” touchdown dance.

Kittle is a superb athlete whose premier hands have produced some of the most incredible catches we’ve seen from a tight end in the modern game, but he’s also a force in the run game. Kittle takes pride and joy in owning an opponent when the 49ers are handing the ball off. (Remember his laughing pancake block against Atlanta?) Combining that with his pass-catching ability, he’s worth stopping what you’re doing to watch on a weekly basis.

Howard led the league in interceptions last season with 10, and he snagged them in nearly every way imaginable. Howard slipped underneath targeted receivers to steal passes, caught overthrown attempts, extended to interrupt previously open passing windows and leaped to snag picks with a single hand. He’s essentially a vacuum when the ball is within his reach, and can be counted on to make a highlight or 10.

Humphrey lands on this list because of his blanket coverage, but more so because of his ability to swing the momentum in a game with the way he tackles ball carriers. Nobody in the NFL forced more fumbles than Humphrey last season, leading the league with eight of them and helping Baltimore quickly flip the direction of multiple games. His 11 passes defensed only added to the impact he made on the field in 2020, and if the opposition learned anything from last season, it’s to take extra care of the ball when Humphrey is nearby.

Young earned Defensive Rookie of the Year honors with his sack total — 7.5, which led all first-year players — but what lands him on this list is his potential to make you remember his presence on a football field. After bursting onto the scene at Ohio State with his forceful, explosive form of edge rushing, Young has carried that into the pro game and already made experienced tackles look foolish on more than one occasion. He’ll only get better as he gets older, which means he’s likely to land on highlight reels for years to come.

James has been forced to fight the injury bug early in his career, but when healthy, he’s a dynamic playmaker capable of using his innate nose for the ball to ruin dreams of opposing offenses. James’ closing speed and instincts make for a dynamite combination that allows him to affect a game in a variety of ways. He can drop off his assigned coverage to intercept a pass, lay the wood to a ball carrier or erase a window to break up what most everyone would expect to be a completion. He’s constantly around the ball, which makes him pretty easy to watch.

The NFL’s Swiss Army Knife has made his name by doing any and everything that’s asked of him. Need him to play special teams? No problem. Start at quarterback? Sure, let’s throw some touchdowns. Serve as an H-back who is a threat to throw or run? That’s his specialty. No matter the situation, Hill can make a difference.

Minneapolis Miracle, anyone? Diggs has made the impossible into reality throughout the course of his career, but 2020 showed us he can back up his highlight-creating with statistical excellence, too. As Buffalo’s newly acquired No. 1 receiver, Diggs teamed with Josh Allen to lead the league in receiving, taking advantage of the quarterback’s arm strength to beat defenders out of cuts and snag 50 receptions on hitch routes for 490 yards — both tops in the NFL for any pass catcher on any route last season, per Next Gen Stats. He was an ever-present threat to opposing defenses and a huge reason why Buffalo won 13 games and reached the AFC title game. And he’s back for more in 2021.

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