Everybody loves offense (except for those who play defense), but finding the “most indispensable” defensive players is highly subjective.
Do you value run defense more than pass defense, pass rushers over run-stoppers, and how much does scheme play a part in accentuating the strengths of individual defenders?
Despite the complexities that go along with naming the top defenders in the NFL right now, NFL Media columnist Adam Schein took his latest shot at it.
1. Houston Texans DL J.J. Watt
Well, yeah! Watt is likely the most feared defender among offensive coordinators, linemen and quarterbacks alike. He can do it all and line up all over the front four (or five), making him difficult to account for on a play-by-play basis. Last year, he led the NFL with 17½ sacks and 117.5 sack yards.
Schein: “He’s the face of the Texans, and they are ready for prime time as a result.”
2. Oakland Raiders DE/OL Khalil Mack
Mack is still young, but he packs a pass-rushing punch, garnering 15 sacks in only his second season in the NFL. His sacks were second-best to Watt, and Mack’s 77 tackles were the most among the top 20 sackers.
Schein: “He’s a budding superstar … and he’s only getting better. Scary thought for the rest of the league.”
3. Carolina Panthers MLB Luke Kuechly
Number three and four on this list represent Super Bowl entrants, and Kuechly is the cog in the middle of the Carolina defense that makes it go. He is the do-it-all linebacker. While he had only one sack and missed three games, he still finished 12th in tackles and was second among the top 20 tacklers with four interceptions.
Schein: “This guy is the ideal three-down middle linebacker in today’s game, a true force against the run and pass.”
4. Denver Broncos LB Von Miller
Current contract squabbles aside, Miller’s timing on blitzes is almost as good as his timing in free agency. Yes, he has the franchise tag applied to him, but he’ll likely work out a deal that gives him close to the most guaranteed money among defenders. He finished eighth with 11 sacks and added four forced fumbles.
Schein: “Wade Phillips’ defense was nothing short of spectacular last season, carrying the QB-hindered Broncos to a title. And Miller was the engine of this overpowering unit, the main difference between Denver winning and losing the Super Bowl. Talk about indispensable …”
Like Miller, Cox wanted a new contract. Unlike Miller, that contract got done this week with Cox signed a six-year extension worth up to $103 million with $63 million in guaranteed money. Cox finished in the top 20 with 9½ sacks and added 71 tackles, showing his sometimes underrated all-around game.
Schein: “The Eagles stud never gets the credit he deserves, but this multi-talented game wrecker shows his worth on every snap. … The amount of attention this guy commands helps everyone around him.”
6. Miami Dolphins DT Ndamukong Suh
Suh got his big deal last year, and then didn’t live up to it in his first season with the Miami Dolphins. He became the NFL’s top-paid defensive player but didn’t even finish in the top 20 in tackles, sacks or forced fumbles.
Schein: “So the Lions suffered without him. The Dolphins suffered with a watered-down version of him. You might have to jog the mental rolodex, but Suh is a beast and a game changer when right.”
7. Seattle Seahawks FS Earl Thomas
Considered by many as the best free safety in the NFL, Thomas has been playing like it. He has the all-around game with savvy that helped him finish tied for sixth with five interceptions, garner 61 tackles and nine passes defensed.
Schein: “Thomas wrecks games – picking off passes, deflecting passes and rocking anyone who dare cross his path. He’s a star and a leader.”
Another NFL.com writer, Bucky Brooks, pointed out the importance of Mathieu to the Seahawks: 12-2 record, 19.2 points allowed per game with Mathieu; 2-2 record (including two playoff games), 28.2 points allowed without him. Like Thomas, Mathieu finished tied for sixth with five interceptions and tied for ninth with 17 passes defensed.
Schein: “He’s the firepower, the attitude, the game changer for the nasty Cardinals’ defense.”
When he isn’t getting to the quarterback with pressures, he’s altering their throwing lanes. Wilkerson was sixth in 2015 with 12 sacks, but among the top 20 sackers he was best with seven passes defensed and added 64 tackles.
Schein: “He does it all for the Jets on the field, as the motor behind their great defensive line. And unlike teammate Sheldon Richardson, Wilkerson is the epitome of class off the field.”