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The NFL has a wide range of dominant defensive players. Despite the new rules that make a defender’s job more difficult, five stars stand out among all the others as the best. In no particular order, my list is primarily based on the eye test, standard defensive statistics, and value to their team.
Richard Sherman: Cornerback, Seattle Seahawks
Sherman is undeniably the most difficult defensive match-up in the league. Playing with a permanent chip on his shoulder because of his fifth-round selection in the 2011 draft, Sherman locks down every receiver that crosses his path. He’s had eight picks in each of the last two seasons even though quarterbacks avoid him like the plague. The outspoken trash talker essentially eliminates the opposing team’s best receiver every game. His long frame and physical style make him nearly impossible to shake off. New rules will attempt to alter Sherman’s bump-and-run style, but he’s such a gifted talent that no rule can change his dominance.
J.J. Watt: Defensive End, Houston Texans
In just three NFL seasons, Watt already has 27 pass deflections, an impressive stat that has fans calling him Swat instead of Watt. But he terrorizes quarterbacks in other ways too. He has 31 total sacks in the last two seasons and racks up a shocking amount of tackles for his position. With 80+ tackles the last two years, Watt has shown his ability to defend both the passing and running game. Value to his team is part of why Watt earns top five honors here. The Texans were miserable last year on both sides of the ball. Watt still managed to play in every game and exhausted all of his efforts despite his team’s struggles.
Luke Kuechly: Linebacker, Carolina Panthers
Having no problems adjusting to the NFL level, Kuechly was named the Defensive Player of the Year in only his second season. He racked up 156 tackles, two sacks, and had four picks. He was also the leader of a defensive unit that shutdown opponents regularly. At just 23 years of age, the Boston College product already has incredible line of scrimmage instincts. While solo tackles are a crucial stat, Kuechly’s 63 assisted tackles last season display that he was usually in the right place at the right time. His ability to control the running game from the middle of the field, command a defense, and hold his own in the passing game make Keuchly a clear top five defensive player.
Earl Thomas: Safety, Seattle Seahawks
Thomas has quickly emerged as the best safety in the league. As a ball hawk that’s helped shutdown the likes of Jimmy Graham and Vernon Davis in playoff games, Thomas has a unique skill set of reading a quarterback’s vision. While he rarely pass rushes, he does possess the ability to play near the line of scrimmage and contain the running game. His 105 tackles last year showcase his knack for covering the entire field. Thomas is also durable despite his physical style. He’s played in all 16 games every year of his young career. With two defensive players in my top five list, the Seattle secondary will continue to infuriate opponents and hold the league at their mercy.
Robert Quinn: Defensive End, St. Louis Rams
Quinn’s legendary season last year put him on the national radar. His 19 sacks and seven forced fumbles exemplify his ability as a pass rusher. Forcing a fumble nearly every other game shows that Quinn was frequently disrupting the timing and rhythm of opposing offenses. 50 solo tackles is an impressive number for a primary pass rusher, meaning that he tracks down running backs in addition to quarterbacks. He’s increased his tackle and sack totals each year as a pro. With multiple elite defenders in the stacked NFC West, Quinn holds his own with anybody. He’s the least publicized player on my list but his talent and stat sheet speak for themselves.
An honorable mention goes to NaVorro Bowman: Linebacker, San Francisco 49ers
Bowman is an outstanding linebacker who is productive in all facets of the game. The former Penn State star has quickly ascended into elite status with three straight dominant seasons. Unfortunately, Bowman suffered a gruesome knee injury in last year’s NFC Championship game. He is successfully recovering from his torn ACL/MCL and hopes to return by the middle of the regular season. He’s a top five defensive player when healthy which means San Francisco fans pray he returns to his previous form.