Player Rankings

NFL top 5 players by position for midseason: Defense edition

In this second edition of the top five players for each position I take a look at the defensive side of the ball. Once again this list is about what the players have done so far this season. So stats do matter, but it’s about the overall play, availability and what they have done for their team. Here is part two:


4-3 Defensive Ends:

1. DeMarcus Ware, Broncos

2. Cameron Wake, Dolphins

3. Mario Williams, Bills

4. Everson Griffin, Vikings

5. Rob Ninkovich, Patriots

Notable mentions: Jerry Hughes (Bills), Ezekiel Ansah (Lions), Robert Quinn (Rams), Willie Young (Bears)

I still don’t understand the Cowboys for letting Ware go and right now they probably would like to have him back, as he is beating Pro Bowl tackles consistently in pass rush situations while also doing a good job in the run game.

Wake is a huge factor in the rise of the Dolphins defenses, as he has been a mismatch on pretty much everybody he has played against. He’s too fast for big guys and shoves guys back into the quarterback when they stand up too much.

Williams is a crucial piece of the NFL’s best four-man rush. Not a lot of guys have the skill set he does and he knows how to use it. The diverse use of power and speed is key to his success.

Not a lot of people thought the Vikings should give Griffin the kind of contract he has gotten, but he has already earned his paycheck, racking up 35 tackles and eight sacks.

While Ninkovich may not have the sack total of the guys in front of him, he has put pressure on opponents’ quarterback consistently (ten hurries) and made some other big plays, as he has been one of the most underrated players in the NFL for quite a while now.

Hughes is often the forgotten member of Buffalo’s great defensive line, but even though he may not face a lot of double teams in pass protection because of the guys around him, you have to credit him for making a lot of plays rushing the passer and stopping the run.

Ansah has turned out to be a nice compliment to one of the better defensive tackle combos (Suh and Fairley). With basically four years of football experience and his athletic freakishness the sky is the limit for him.

Quinn was clearly the guy last season with 19 sacks, but this year until week seven he didn’t record a single one. Over the last three weeks he has five. Maybe he’s just caught fire and this is a sign of things to come.

Young has been a premiere pass rusher, but hasn’t contributed on early downs. With Lamarr Houston out for the remainder of the season, Young will take his spot in the starting lineup and has a chance to prove he’s a complete player.


3-4 Defensive Ends:

1. J.J. Watt, Texans

2. Justin Smith, 49ers

3. Muhammad Wilkerson, Jets

4. Cory Redding, Colts

5. Cameron Jordan, Saints

Notable mentions: Cameron Heyward, Steelers

Do I really have to make an argument for Watt being the best at his position? Or as the best defensive player? I’d rather make one for him being the league MVP.

Smith is the one guy on the Niners defense you always have to put two guys on because otherwise he will make you pay. He’s too strong to be moved in the run game and even though he hasn’t collected any sacks since week three has helped San Francisco’s outside linebackers to get to the quarterback. He’s the guy who makes this defense go.

Wilkerson has been the best player on the Jets over the last two years and this season is no exception. He plays with great leverage and power. And he wants to take the ball carrier’s head off every play.

Redding is now playing in his 12th season and he might enjoy his best one yet. His three sacks don’t display the kind of pressure he has put on opponents quarterbacks and how stout he has been against the run.

With the Saints defense having a big drop from where they were last, the guy who seems to be responsible for their success is Jordan. When he gets going this defense kicks it up a notch.

So many people said the Steelers needed youth on defense and I agree, but while there is still room for improvement, they certainly have a guy to contribute for them in the future in Cameron Heyward.


Defensive Tackles:

1. Marcell Dareus, Bills

2. Haloti Ngata, Ravens

3. Dontari Poe, Chiefs

4. Gerald McCoy, Buccaneers

5. Ndamokung Suh, Lions

Notable others: Sen’Derrick Marks (Jaguars), Sheldon Richardson (Jets), Kyle Williams (Bills), Jurrell Casey (Titans)

Dareus right now is the best 4-3 defensive tackle in the game and the reason is that he is the most complete one. To me he clearly is the best against the run, taking on everybody trying to move him and fighting off blocks to get the runner down, and he leads all D-tackles in sacks with seven.

Ngata is a rock while still being able to move better than anybody his size. Everybody is talking about J.J. Watt batting down balls, but has anyone else noticed that Ngata has six pass deflections and two interceptions? And that isn’t even his best attribute.

I really thought Poe was last year’s top nose tackle. Obviously his size helps him to be a great run defender, but much like Ngata he can move really well and put pressure on quarterbacks right from the middle.

Some people have compared McCoy to Warren Sapp and while he still has to lead his team to victories McCoy has been doing everything he can, getting five sacks and making the offensively line account for him all the time.

Suh is the most important piece on a very good Lions defensive line, using his aggressive style to shove around offensive linemen rather than being fined for illegal hits.

Marks is a guy nobody really knows about, but I love his attacking style of play. He understand that often times it’s about running into the guy, getting him out of the way and then get to the guy with the football.

Richardson, along with Muhammad Wilkerson, lead a Jets defensive front that is really tough against the run and should get a lot more sacks if the secondary could keep receivers a little better in check.

He may not be able to match his sack total last year, but Williams is playing some good, tough football along with some other great d-linemen.

Casey has been one of Tennessee’s lone bright spots of the season. The fourth year man probably is the Titans best player right now, as he was named second team All-Pro in 2013 and has disrupted offenses once again this year.


3-4 Outside Linebackers:

1: Justin Houston, Chiefs

2. Tamba Hali, Chiefs

3. Ryan Kerrigan, Redskins

4. Terrell Suggs, Ravens

5. Connor Barwin, Eagles

Notable mentions: Whitney Mercilus (Texans), Julius Peppers (Packers)

How come nobody talks about Houston being on pace to break the all-time record for sacks in a season? In eight games he already has 12 and with a couple of other guys they have rushing the passer I don’t see his production go down. And he takes down runningbacks in the backfield a lot as well.

Right behind Houston is his teammate Tamba Hali and while he doesn’t have the same number of sacks, he is very close to that number one spot forcing three fumbles and giving offensive coordinators nightmares on a weekly basis. He never takes any plays off.

With Brian Orakpo in the lineup again, offenses couldn’t focus on Kerrigan as much and it shows on the stat sheet – 7.5 sacks and two forced fumbles. Add the trait of a great edge setter and you get a Pro Bowl outside linebacker.

Sizzle has given a couple of sacks to teammates Elvis Dumervil and Pernell McPhee, but there’s no denying that he has put pressure on quarterbacks, stood up blockers and stayed home on the backside on run plays in a big way.

The Eagles defense has seen a lot of improvement from last year and Barwin’s development to a complete linebacker has been huge for their success. He sets good edges, covers in space and gets after the passer (seven sacks) plus he has a motor that never stops.

Mercilus has not just been his name, but also the way he has played. He is a big attacker off the ball and a lot of blockers haven’t been able to handle his speed and determination to get home.

Converting from defensive end to outside linebacker in your 13th season is certainly not easy, but Peppers has made it look that way and while he is not asked to cover that much, offenses clearly have to account for him in both the passing and running game.


4-3 Outside Linebackers:

1. DeAndre Levy, Lions

2. Von Miller, Broncos

3. Lavonte David, Buccaneers

4. Thomas David, Panthers

5. Khalil Mack, Raiders

People finally start to realize what kind of player Levy is. He is the prototype linebacker for today’s pass happy offenses as he has some of the best coverage skills in the league as well as the ability to stuff the run and to run people down no matter where they are on the football field.

After going down with a serious knee injury at the end of last year’s regular season, Miller’s return has been Adrian Peterson-like. With DeMarcus Ware on the other side they have formed the best edge rushing-duo in the league. I look for Miller to be an even more frequent guest in opponent’s backfield for the second half of the season.

David is a lot like Levy – a guy who is excellent against the run and can drop back in coverage. Comparisons to Hall of Fame linebacker Derrick Brooks may seem a little premature, but David has been one of the best linebackers in the game last year and has continued that trend in 2014.

If you want to know what a physical player Thomas Davis is, just watch last week’s matchup between him and Jimmy Graham. He outhit him without him even touching the ball to some point. Davis does this to tight ends on a weekly basis and is an excellent run defender. His play may not be flashy, but he is a critical piece on the Panther’s defense.

Mack has been an absolute stud against the run and while he hasn’t collected a sack yet, he has put a lot of pressure on opponent’s passers.


Inside Linebackers:

1. Luke Kuechly, Panthers

2. C.J. Mosley, Ravens

3. Karlos Dansby, Browns

4. D’Qwell Jackson, Colts

5. Rolando McClain, Cowboys

Notable mentions: Daryl Smith (Ravens), Paul Posluszny (Jaguars)

Although the Carolina defense clearly is not near as dominant as they were last year, Kuechly continues to set the standard. I thought he and NaVorro Bowman were pretty much even as the league’s best inside linebackers, but with Bowman being out to this point, Kuechly has definitely been number one. He can do it all.

Mosley is the only rookie even mentioned in this article and he is number two at his position. That goes to show you how high I am on this guy. He is a great run stuffer with safety-type coverage skills. His combination of solid play and a knack for producing turnovers have earned him this spot.

I really thought Dansby was a candidate for Defensive Player of the Year last season. And while he might not be as dominant as he was last year he has been a leader of a Browns defense which can compete with the very best.

The Colts signed D’Qwell Jackson to have a strong presence on the inside and they got one. The improvement from number 26 in rushing yards allowed to number nine this year has a lot to do with Jackson, who has also been great on blitzes, where runningbacks could rarely pick them up.

After retiring from the NFL and then coming to fill the place of the injured Sean Lee on the Cowboys defense, McClain has been a key contributor to their success. He has done a good job against the run, but even better in the Cowboys’ Tampa 2-like coverage scheme.

With all the love I have for C.J. Mosley, I have to mention Daryl Smith. Since coming to Baltimore he has certainly been a top ten inside linebacker and was solid for a lot of years in Jacksonville. Not a lot of people appreciate the way he plays enough.

From one underappreciated player to another, Posluszny has been a great player ever since he has come into the league. The average fan might not even know how to pronounce his name, but he plays some of the best football you’ll see on Sundays.


Cornerbacks:

1. Vontae Davis, Colts

2. Darelle Revis, Patriots

3. Brent Grimes, Dolphins

4. Aquib Talib, Broncos

5. Perrish Cox, 49ers

Notable mentions: Keenan Lewis (Saints), Richard Sherman (Seahawks)

There is no Davis Island or League of Boom, but Vontae Davis so far has been the best cornerback this year. He can play zone, he can take out the opponents’ best receiver for an entire game and what I love about him – he can come up and take down whoever has the football.

The only I’ve seen beat out Revis this year has been Dwanye Bowe in week four. When the Patriots played the Bengals after that he took A.J. Green completely out of the game. Being able to play man-coverage in New England has allowed Revis to reclaim his status of a shutdown corner.

Please let’s all start mentioning Brent Grimes in the conversation for top cornerbacks in the NFL. He’s just that good. Most quarterbacks know that and he still already has four picks.

The Broncos made a couple of great pickups in the offseason and Talib is one of them. Since arriving this defensive backfield has changed and he is big reason why. He allows them to put him on an island with any receiver and do a lot of other stuff in coverage.

Cox has been a real difference maker for the 49ers. But not only has he made four interceptions, he has stood up to the challenge of quarterbacks throwing at him most of the time, deflecting another 13.

Lewis is a guy who is not mentioned often when you talk about premiere cornerbacks in the game, but he has made life miserable to the opponents’ best receiver on a weekly basis.

Sherman hasn’t been in the headlines as much as last year, but has played pretty well. The reason he is not talked about as much is the fact that the Seahawks defense and the entire team hasn’t been as dominant as of lately and he simply hasn’t been targeted much.

I didn’t put Patrick Peterson anywhere up there because he just hasn’t been healthy (ankle) and it shows on tape. Last week he completely shut down Dez Bryant and if that’s a sign of things to come and he has overcome the injury he will be there at the end of the year.

As the Browns defense has found new confidence, Joe Haden could easily be in the top five after the regular season.


Safeties:

1. Antoine Bethea, 49ers

2. Eric Weddle, Chargers

3. Harrison Smith, Vikings

4. T.J. Ward, Broncos

5. Antrel Rolle, Giants

Notable mention: Tashaun Gipson (Browns), Malcolm Jenkins (Eagles), Roman Harper (Panthers)

Many questioned the 49er’s decision to let Donte (W)hitner go to Cleveland. The way Bethea has played this season has erased that question. His exceptional all-around game has made him one of the best defenders in the league. Not often do you find a guy you can put in the box and let him play linebacker and have him play deep coverage.

Fear the beard! Weddle has made a ton of tackles and can cover any part of the field, which makes him one of the best two-way-safeties in the game today. Even though the San Diego defense is struggling right now, Weddle (as he has done for a long time) is playing at a very high level and takes on a big leader role.

Smith is one of the toughest, hardest hitting safeties in today’s NFL. As a part of a secondary, which needed someone to step up, he has become the leader. His big plays in coverage have provided a spark for this defense and have earned him this spot.

Another great pickup for the Broncos has been T.J. Ward, who might not have the kind of numbers as some other guys, but has given the Denver defense some intensity and toughness they lacked, especially on that the back end. Besides his good play against the run and in coverage, he is the best blitzing safety.

On a Giants defense which ranks at the bottom of the league in a lot of categories and simply hasn’t made enough plays, Rolle (much like last year) has been the bright spot. He’s the one guy who consistently makes plays everywhere on the field.

When you lead the league in interceptions you have to be mentioned here. Gipson has been a turnover machine and has been a big part of Cleveland’s success. The reason he’s not in the top five is the fact that he isn’t as good against the run as some other guys above.

Both Harper and Jenkins have been huge additions to struggling defensive backfields and have taken away opponents options down the field as well as picking off three balls each.

Both Seahawks safeties have a good shot to end up on this list when the season is over, but the other guys simply have done more for their teams.

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