Ranking the 50 Best Defensive Players in the NFL in 2012
The NFL Network just concluded its always thought-provoking and hotly contested NFL Top 100, in which the league's best 100 players (as voted on by the players) are ranked.
Not surprisingly, the list is a little unbalanced, especially at the top. Three of the top four players are quarterbacks, and the six of the top eight players are on offense. And nearly two-thirds (63) are offensive players.
However, since the old adage says that "defense wins championships," we here at Bleacher Report thought the players who don't regularly have their hands on the ball should get a bit more of the spotlight.
Inside are educated guesses about whom the top 50 defenders in the NFL will be in 2012, with their 2011 performances providing the bulk of the basis, but not all.
No. 50: Paul Posluszny, LB, Jacksonville Jaguars
Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images
2011 Stats: 119 tackles, one forced fumble, two interceptions, two sacks
The list starts out with a player who is routinely overlooked, mainly because he's been tucked away on teams that have really never even come close to the playoffs.
Posluszny shouldn't, however, be faulted for that.
He's a very sure-handed tackler, makes his share of game-changing plays (five sacks/INTs/forced fumbles) and has been versatile and adept enough to play both the mike linebacker position in a 4-3 and inside as a member of the 3-4.
Here's the main reason why Posluszny deserves at least a spot (albeit the lowest) on this list, though.
The Jaguars signed him in 2011. What impact did he have? Well, they went from 27th in points and 28th in yards allowed to 11th in points and sixth in yards allowed in 2012. So since Mel Tucker will be returning for another year at defensive coordinator, you can expect that improvement to continue.
No. 49: Carlos Rogers, CB, San Francisco 49ers
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
2011 Stats: six interceptions, 18 pass break-ups
It's absurd to say Rogers was a bust during his time in Washington, but he probably didn't live up to that ninth overall pick (back in 2005) status, either.
Regardless, his career reached a new level by joining the 49ers in the summer of 2011.
He tripled his career-best with six picks last year and (an overlooked fact) contributed a great deal to the NFL's top rush defense.
Of course, playing on a defense that is loaded with incredible talent (there are still three more 49ers to come on this list) will instantly bolster any player's credibility. Especially at cornerback. However, Rogers certainly backs up that great 49ers front seven by being one of game's best cover corners.
No. 48: Cameron Wake, DE, Miami Dolphins
Jim Rogash/Getty Images
2011 Stats: 42 tackles, 8.5 sacks
Much like Paul Posluszny, this selection is a bit "outside the box." After all, no one thinks of the Dolphins as having one of the league's premier defensive units.
Maybe they should.
Despite a pretty bad offense that often put its counterpart in tough spots, Miami's defense surrendered the sixth fewest points in the NFL, an impressive feat considering it had to play Tom Brady's Patriots twice.
While there are a few very solid players on that unit (especially Karlos Dansby), Wake is the one poised to have the biggest 2012. In Kevin Coyle's new scheme, he's switching back to his natural spot as a 4-3 defensive end.
And since he was able to record 22 sacks over the last two years, while playing a bit out of position, it's not unreasonable to see the 2010 All-Pro contend for the sack title this upcoming season.
No. 47: Michael Griffin, S, Tennessee Titans
Grant Halverson/Getty Images
2011 Stats: 75 tackles, seven pass break-ups, two interceptions
Versatility is so important in today's NFL, and since Griffin is a solid tackler in the running game and has made plenty of plays in the secondary as well, recording 17 picks in his five seasons, it's little wonder why the Titans gave him a five-year, $35 million deal.
He's a very reliable defender all around. Not only does he make routine plays, but he hasn't missed a single game in his five years in Tennessee.
And now that Cortland Finnegan and Chris Hope are both gone, you can expect him to play an even larger role in the Titans' defensive plans.
No. 46: Chris Long, DE, St. Louis Rams
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images
2011 Stats: 13 sacks
It may seem like it has taken him a while to get there (he was the second overall selection back in 2008), but Long has finally become one of the more feared pass-rushers in the NFC.
The raw sack totals from 2011 are a main reason why he earned a second straight Pro Bowl (alternate) spot, but a closer look suggests he's remarkably consistent as well. He recorded sacks in 10 of 16 games. Translation: Opposing offensive line coaches have yet to find a proven approach to continually blocking him in the passing game.
And since he is also one of the most reliable young players in the game (he hasn't missed a game in his four seasons), the Rams' prominent young defenders, such as Robert Quinn and Michael Brockers, have an excellent model to emulate.
No. 45: John Abraham, DE, Atlanta Falcons
Grant Halverson/Getty Images
2011 Stats: 9.5 sacks, four forced fumbles
Abraham isn't quite the same dominant pass-rusher he was a few years ago, when he nabbed 13 (2010) or 16.5 (2008) sacks during a single year, but he's still extremely tough to block off the edge.
And while Abraham really isn't an every-down defensive lineman anymore (the Falcons have already started limiting his snap count in the hopes of keeping him fresh for the end of games and the regular season) that doesn't necessarily mean he shouldn't be considered a great defender anymore.
The fact that he still can rush the passer with such frequency (and collect sacks in the process) in limited use only speaks to just how dangerous he can be to opposing linemen and quarterbacks.
No. 44: Cliff Avril, DE, Detroit Lions
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
2011 Stats: 11 sacks, six forced fumbles, one interception
With a lot of the players on this list, there's something of a Catch 22: Is a player truly great, or does he simply benefit because of the loads of talent around him?
That might be one way to look at Avril. Ge does have Ndamukong Suh next to him, making it very difficult for opposing guards and tackles, but give credit where credit is due: Avril makes plays when presented the opportunity.
Not only did he record 11 sacks, but his six forced fumbles led the NFC. And while sacks are great, causing turnovers are better.
No. 43: Brian Orakpo, LB, Washington Redskins
Win McNamee/Getty Images
2011 Stats: 59 tackles, nine sacks, three forced fumbles
Few players (let alone linebackers) are as strong and athletics as Orakpo, so even if he came off something of a down season in 2011 (the only one in his brief career that didn't end with a Pro Bowl selection) and is returning from pectoral surgery, he's poised for an outstanding 2012.
He might not be "elite" in any one of the phases of the game (pass rush, run defense, pass defense), but he's very good at all three.
And as a 3-4 outside linebacker, that's something of a rarity in today's NFL—maybe even rarer than seeing the Geico cavemen in cheerleading uniforms inside the Redskins locker room.
No. 42: Jon Beason, LB, Carolina Panthers
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
2010 Stats: 121 tackles, two forced fumbles, one sack, eight pass break-ups
This list is looking forward to 2012, not necessarily backwards to 2011. So the fact that Beason missed basically all of last season with a torn Achilles isn't enough to completely knock him out of contention for a spot.
He claims to be fully ready to return to his three-time Pro Bowl form, and that should be good enough for all of us, especially if you take a look at the first four seasons of his career.
From 2007 to 2010, he averaged more than 100 solo tackles, picked off a handful of passes and was a surprisingly effective pass-rusher, despite playing outside in a 4-3 scheme.
No. 41: Eric Berry, S, Kansas City Chiefs
Jamie Squire/Getty Images
2010 Stats: 92 tackles, two sacks, four interceptions, nine pass break-ups
Along the same lines of Beason, there is the case of Berry, the Chiefs' star rookie from 2010 who tore his ACL in Week 1 a year ago.
Stepping back a bit, I recognize there is some risk in this entry. Not only do most examples suggest that it takes two years to fully recover from an ACL tear, but since 2010 will really only be Berry's second season in the NFL, it's a tall order to say he is one of the 50 best defenders in the game.
However, he was so effective in 2010, so versatile, defending both the run and the pass and even rushing the quarterback, that he seems to be a very, very special player. And since he's not necessarily at a position where speed ranks above all other attributes (like a running back or cornerback), the recovery to full speed following his ACL injury might not be quite as troublesome as it will be for an Adrian Peterson or Kenny Britt.
No. 40: Mario Williams, DE, Buffalo Bills
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
2011 Stats: one forced fumble, five sacks
Williams isn't quite in the same category as Berry or Beason—he didn't miss the entire 2011 season, just part of it.
However, his injury wasn't lower body (pectoral), and now that he's in Buffalo he's switching back to his familiar 4-3 defensive end position, so it's not a stretch to think he'll be back to double-digit sacks this season. Otherwise, do you think the Bills would have given him that huge contract?
Maybe Williams isn't that transcendent player we all expect to see when a defensive lineman goes first overall (higher than college superstars like Reggie Bush, Vince Young and Matt Leinart), but he is a very productive pass-rusher, and in today's NFL rushing the quarterback is paramount considering the pass-first nature of the league.
No. 39: Richard Seymour, DT, Oakland Raiders
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2011 Stats: 29 tackles, six sacks
Seymour may be nearing the "twilight" of his career at 32 years of age, but he's still more than capable of dominating opposing offensive linemen.
He's so big, yet so quick that he can come off the edge or up the A or B gap and still make plays.
And now that the Raiders are switching to a 3-4, which Seymour played so well in with New England, he should enjoy another excellent year in which he rushes the passer and plays the run with equal tenacity.
No. 38: Justin Tuck, DE, New York Giants
Rob Carr/Getty Images
2011 Stats: five sacks, one forced fumble
He may have lost some of his thunder during his younger teammate's (Jason Pierre-Paul) emergence as a superstar, but that doesn't diminish what Tuck has achieved recently and will continue to achieve in 2012.
Tuck remains one of the NFL's best run-stopping defensive ends because he is so quick and so intelligent.
Still, Tuck's greatest contribution to the Giants comes as a pure pass-rusher, and while his sack totals dipped tremendously in 2011, since he's only 29 years of age and is reportedly healed up from the handful of injuries he endured last season, another excellent season awaits him and that Giants defense in 2012.
No. 37: Patrick Peterson, CB, Arizona Cardinals
Christian Petersen/Getty Images
2011 Stats: 64 tackles, one sack, two interceptions, 13 pass break-ups
Special teams performances don't have a place on this list, so Peterson's incredible season of returning punts (four touchdowns) in 2011 doesn't help his entry. Nevertheless, after only one year at the NFL level he still should be considered one of the game's best young defenders.
Yes, he made rookie mistakes in 2011 and was hit with a few penalties, but he was a very active and aggressive tackler, rushed the passer at times, and towards the end of the year he was able to break up passes in bunches.
And since his athleticism is unparalleled, there's really no reason to think a second year on the job (and a full offseason to learn Ray Horton's defense) won't produce an All-Pro in 2012.
No. 36: Johnathan Joseph, CB, Houston Texans
Sam Greenwood/Getty Images
2011 Stats: four interceptions, 15 pass break-ups, one forced fumble
Is it a coincidence the Texans signed Joseph last year and instantly turned an average unit into one of the best in the NFL?
And while the arrival of Wade Phillips, the play of Brian Cushing and the emergence of young players like Connor Barwin, J.J. Watt and Brooks Reeds was a critical part of the defense's overall success, Joseph may very well have been the catalyst.
His presence, as a physical, reliable corner, allowed Phillips to pressure opposing passer with more than just three or four rushers. And as a result, the Texans had the NFL second-rated defense and forced 27 turnovers; they had been tied for the fewest in the NFL the previous year.
No. 35: Lance Briggs, OLB, Chicago Bears
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
2011 Stats: 105 tackles, two forced fumbles, one interception
A Pro Bowler every year since 2005, Briggs is one of the NFL's most voracious tackles—quite a feat considering he doesn't play middle or inside linebacker.
However, being largely limited to one side of the field hasn't prevented him from being a real nuisance for opposing offenses.
Briggs certainly can rush the passer (10.5 career sacks), he has led the Bears in tackles three times since joining the team (pretty impressive considering the presence of Brian Urlacher), and when a quarterback makes a mistake downfield, he capitalizes, nabbing 13 career picks.
No. 34: Brian Cushing, ILB, Houston Texans
Thomas B. Shea/Getty Images
2011 Stats: 114 tackles, two forced fumbles, two interceptions, four sacks
As impressive and instrumental in the team's success as Johnathan Joseph was in 2011, it's really hard to look at the numbers that inside linebacker Cushing posted and not think he was the team's premier defender.
He knocks down passes, occasionally picks them off, is a serious threat for double-digit tackles each week and can rush the passer when necessary.
And since he was in the middle of a unit that did not allow a 100-yard effort to elite backs such as Maurice Jones-Drew (twice), Chris Johnson (twice) and yielded just 60 yards to Ray Rice in the playoff loss to Baltimore, he's probably the best 25-and-under inside linebacker in the game.
No. 33: NaVorro Bowman, ILB, San Francisco 49ers
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2011 Stats: 143 tackles, two sacks, eight pass break-ups
The 49ers seemingly instantaneous emergence as a defensive powerhouse was surprising for a handful of reasons: a rookie head coach, years of mediocrity and a lack of true superstar names on the roster.
Another reason is the fact that a third-round, second-year player, NaVorro Bowman, became one of their most critical players.
Playing alongside Patrick Willis certainly helps, but Bowman attacks the line of scrimmage as well as any defender in the game. That he's hardly dependent on Patrick Willis, Justin Smith, Aldon Smith or any other 49ers front seven players. He'd excel in any 3-4 scheme.
No. 32: London Fletcher, ILB, Washington Redskins
Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images
2011 Stats: 166 tackles, three forced fumbles, two interceptions, 1.5 sacks
Disrespect just seems to naturally go hand in hand with Fletcher. He's almost always overlooked for Pro Bowl spots and was only 87th on the NFL's Top 100.
That's a poor way to treat a man who routinely is in the top 10 of tackles and finished 2011 as the NFL's leader.
However, his pure tackle count isn't necessarily enough to earn high marks on this list. No, the reason why Fletcher is one of the game's best defenders is his ability to adapt.
He's been a 4-3 middle linebacker and a 3-4 inside linebacker and played in a variety of schemes, yet never seems to miss a beat.
No. 31: Champ Bailey, CB, Denver Broncos
Hannah Foslien/Getty Images
2011 Stats: 39 tackles, one forced fumble, two interceptions, 10 pass break-ups
Charles Woodson has recently proved that age really doesn't hamper (and probably helps) cornerbacks in today's NFL. Bailey is on a similar mission to prove old men can still cover. And he's certainly doing just that.
His interception totals the past few years have dipped, but his ability to shutdown an opposing team's No. 1 receiver hasn't. The best example of that? He made the Steelers' Mike Wallace look pretty average (three catches, 26 yards) in January's Wild Card victory.
Given Wallace's famed speed, Bailey clearly hasn't lost a step, so couple that with his knowledge and experience and there aren't many corners around like him.
No. 30: Dwight Freeney, DE/OLB, Indianapolis Colts
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images
2011 Stats: 8.5 sacks, two forced fumbles
Although it may seem like the move from defensive end to outside linebacker (the result of new head coach Chuck Pagano's switch to a 3-4) poses a problem and will lead to growing pains, I expect the transition to really liberate Freeney and rejuvenate his career.
He's still going to be allowed to rush the passer with great frequency, and the 3-4 scheme will probably have more help inside and off the edges than he ever saw in the Tampa 2 system that Tony Dungy and Jim Caldwell installed.
Freeney may be advancing in age (he's 32) but because he will have some, likely limited, instances where he drops into coverage, games won't take such a physical toll on his body, and late in the season he'll have much more in the tank.
No. 29: Earl Thomas, S, Seattle Seahawks
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
2011 Stats: 98 tackles, one forced fumble, two interceptions, seven pass break-ups
Not unlike Eric Berry, Thomas may be young and pretty underrated, but that doesn't hurt his ranking on this list.
He's extremely involved in the Seahawks run defense thanks to a great burst and instincts that are as good as they could possibly be after just two seasons at the NFL.
However, it's what he does in the passing game that is most important. He advances on the ball and receivers so quickly and with such force that often times he either breaks up the pass, picks it off, or delivers a nice hit that can jar the ball loose.
No. 28: LaMarr Woodley, OLB, Pittsburgh Steelers
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
2011 Stats: nine sacks, one interception
Just on his sack totals alone, Woodley had a down season in 2011, but the injury to his hamstring sidelined him for nearly half the year. And when he was on the field during his return in December, he didn't look quite right.
2012 will be another year for him and the Steelers, though, and with plenty of time to have recovered, it's very likely he'll easily hurdle the double-digit sack mark.
After all, despite the injury to his leg as well as many injuries to that Steelers defense last year, he still recorded better than one sack per game.
And with the continued growth of Cameron Heyward and Ziggy Hood at the defensive end positions, Woodley should have plenty of opportunities to get after the quarterback.
No. 27: Jerod Mayo, LB, New England Patriots
2011 Stats: 95 tackles, one forced fumble, two interceptions, one sack
Although I could point to the stats or other areas of his game, perhaps the best way to laud Mayo's abilities and value is his contract. Given how quickly the Patriots and specifically Bill Belichick seem to cut players or simply let them walk in free agency, the fact that they gave Mayo a seven-year, $50 million contract last December speaks volumes.
And if that's not enough to suggest he's one of the game's best linebackers, regardless of how well the overall New England unit performed last season, this might be.
Last year he was able to play both inside and outside linebacker as Belichick toggled between the 3-4 and 4-3 defense. Not many backers could do that (in season) and still play at an exceptionally high level.
No. 26: Eric Weddle, S, San Diego Chargers
Harry How/Getty Images
2011 Stats: 88 tackles, seven interceptions, 11 pass break-ups
The Chargers front seven has earned most of the attention over the past few years. Whether it was Shawne Merriman, or the high draft picks like Larry English, Corey Liuget and Melvin Ingram, or a big-time free-agent signing like Jarret Johnson.
However, the best player on that defense the past few seasons has been their safety, Eric Weddle.
An All-Pro each of the last two years, Weddle has routinely found himself in position to make plays on the ball, either with picks (tied for the NFL lead with seven last year) or breaking up passes, knocking down 21 since 2010.
No. 25: Terrell Suggs, OLB, Baltimore Ravens
Chris Trotman/Getty Images
2011 Stats: 70 tackles, 14 sacks, seven forced fumbles, two interceptions
"How can the reigning NFL's Defensive Player of the Year be ranked 36th?" you might be asking.
Well, the answer, I suppose, is offseason basketball.
Suggs' torn ACL puts his participation in 2012 into jeopardy, so if he doesn't play in 2012, he can't really be one of the top defenders in the NFL.
So why does he even have a spot on the list? Well, I think it's a safe bet he'll play at some point in the year, probably late November or December, and then most likely into the postseason.
And since Suggs is so dominant in so many different phases of the game (he's not just an incredible pass-rusher, he also covers backs and the flats with great skill) that even in a brief cameo of sorts he'll still likely dominate.
No. 24: Von Miller, LB, Denver Broncos
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images
2011 Stats: 64 tackles, 11.5 sacks, two forced fumbles
With all the hype that surrounded him entering the 2011 draft—being dubbed essentially the next Lawrence Taylor, another second overall choice specializing in rushing the quarterback—Miller came into the NFL with incredible expectations.
And he more than lived up to them, winning the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award.
At times in 2011 he did display rookie-like mistakes and was even subbed out of games, but with a full season and offseason under his belt, don't look for them to continue this upcoming year.
And since he did all that with a now-repaired thumb (don't discount that injury considering how often pass-rushers use their hands to attack offensive linemen and backs) Miller should blow well past his rookie season sack totals.
No. 23: Tamba Hali, OLB, Kansas City Chiefs
Jamie Squire/Getty Images
2011 Stats: 66 tackles, four forced fumbles, 12 sacks
Although the Chiefs and their accountants probably disagree—he will make more than $11 million in 2012—Hali is one of the most underrated players in the game.
During the last two years he's collected 26.5 sacks and recorded dozens of hits, hurries and knockdowns on opposing passers. However, because of the great team units and high-profile players in Pittsburgh and Baltimore, he's largely overlooked.
And since he isn't necessarily a "complete" player, in terms of coverage and full-throated supported against the run, that will probably be the case in 2012.
The Chiefs pay him to rush the passer, though, and he does that as well as (almost) any 3-4 backer in the game.
No. 22: Jason Babin, DE, Philadelphia Eagles
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
2011 Stats: 40 tackles, 18 sacks, three forced fumbles
Despite all the problems with the Eagles last year, and specifically problems with their defense, Babin still had an incredible season in 2011, finishing second in the NFL with 18 sacks.
So considering the major upgrades Philly made this offseason, namely Fletcher Cox and DeMeco Ryans, you can expect those types of numbers again in 2012. In fact, they could actually go up.
Babin's athleticism, skill and experience make for a tremendous package, but what sets him apart is his motor. Few players come as consistently hard as he does, from the beginning of the first quarter to the end of the game.
No. 21: D'Qwell Jackson, MLB, Cleveland Browns
Norm Hall/Getty Images
2011 Stats: 158 tackles, one forced fumbles, one interception, 3.5 sacks
Very quietly the Browns are putting together a pretty impressive defense. Joe Haden could soon be a top corner, Jabaal Sheard had an outstanding rookie year as a pass-rusher, and Phil Taylor is that hole-plugging force every 4-3 team needs.
However, the man in the middle of that scheme, Jackson, is the most complete and solid player, and that is the reason why he earned more than $10 million in guaranteed money from his new contract.
Despite the shoulder and pectoral injuries that cost him half of 2009 and all of 2010, he returned as if he hadn't missed a minute. In fact, in 2011 he actually seemed better than he was prior those two terrible injuries, posting career-highs in tackles, solo tackles, sacks and fumble recoveries.
No. 20: Derrick Johnson, ILB, Kansas City Chiefs
Jamie Squire/Getty Images
2011 Stats: 131 tackles, one forced fumble, two interceptions, two sacks
Much like his teammate Tamba Hali, Johnson is often forgotten in the argument for top-notch defenders, especially since the Ravens and Steelers routinely send multiple linebackers to the Pro Bowl, but he is as complete a linebacker as there is in the NFL.
Johnson is one of the best inside linebackers against the run, he can rush the passer, and he has a great knack for turnovers. What pushes him into the top 20 of this list, though, is his play in man and zone coverage.
He routinely gets a hand on passes coming through his area, which so often can lead to game-changing turnovers.
No. 19: Ray Lewis, ILB, Baltimore Ravens
Rob Carr/Getty Images
2011 Stats: 95 tackles, two forced fumbles, one interception, two sacks
Despite a seemingly endless string of younger, faster, less battered defenders coming through the league during the past decade, Lewis is still one of the game's best and arguably the most respected defensive player in the NFL.
So while he may no longer dominate the way he did in 2000 or even back in 2008, his instincts and motor are enough to overcome any perception that he's lost a step.
Besides, even if he has slowed down in terms of chasing ball-carriers down from the backside or covering a tight end over the middle, he still has the sideline-to-sideline ability and closing speed of a 24-year-old.
No. 18: Adrian Wilson, S, Arizona Cardinals
Christian Petersen/Getty Images
2011 Stats: 65 tackles, one forced fumble, one interception, 14 pass break-ups
Easily one of the game's hardest hitters, Wilson makes going over the middle a nightmare for any wide receiver or tight end. With that tremendous frame (6'3", 230 pounds), he hits with such force that if he doesn't jar the ball loose, at the very least he makes his opponent think twice the next time he does troll into his territory.
Hard hitting doesn't make a great defender, though. Speed, versatility and sure-handed tackling do, and Wilson has each of those attributes, even as he nears his mid-30s.
And now that he has joined forces with Patrick Peterson, who has the ability to shut down one-third of the field, Wilson will continue to make plays against both the run and the pass.
No. 17: Nnamdi Asomugha, CB, Philadelphia Eagles
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2011 Stats: 40 tackles, three interceptions, five pass break-ups
Last year, the most highly coveted free agent on the market was Asomugha. No one cared that he didn't record a single interception in 2010—that category only sometimes reflects a cornerback's dominance.
In 2011, though, as the Eagles defense struggled, Asomugha was sometimes labeled the scapegoat for not necessarily fitting in with the Philadelphia scheme, especially since he missed the Pro Bowl for the first time since 2007.
That was an absurd notion.
Asomugha didn't lose all of his athleticism and instincts overnight, and given all the growing pains with the Wide Nine there was plenty of blame to go around.
This year, however, with that fine pass rush, upgrades inside the front seven and a full offseason and season of experience in Juan Castillo's scheme, Asomugha will have a much better chance to validate his enormous contract.
No. 16: Justin Smith, DE, San Francisco 49ers
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images
2011 Stats: 58 tackles, three forced fumbles, 7.5 sacks
Despite being in a 3-4, where so much of the pressure comes from outside linebackers, Smith rushes the passer with tremendous productivity: 16 sacks the past two seasons. He is so strong he routinely bull rushes much bigger offensive tackles, and even if he isn't the one who gets to the quarterback, the fact that opposing teams often have to keep a back in the backfield for insurance can greatly alter the course of a game.
Still, what makes Smith such a critical piece of the 49ers puzzle are his contributions against the run.
He almost never picks a side and gets washed out or fooled by opposing linemen, and at times, because of his legendary motor, he can be seen making the play all the way from the backside.
No. 15: Julius Peppers, DE, Chicago Bears
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
2011 Stats: 37 tackles, three forced fumbles, 11 sacks
It's hard to believe, but Peppers was actually overshadowed a bit in 2011 thanks to the play of a few other NFC counterparts. His sack totals weren't monstrous, the Bears failed to make the playoffs, and since he's now 32, he no longer has youth on his side.
However, it would be a grave mistake (especially for opposing quarterbacks) to forget about Peppers.
Of all the defensive ends in the game he still gets off the line of scrimmage quicker than anybody, and when he approaches opposing ball-carriers he's so shrewd about swatting passes or punching the ball out of ball-carriers' hands.
And now that the Bears (perhaps) have found an outstanding bookend pass-rusher in rookie Shea McClellin, Peppers might just see a huge increase in one-on-ones with linemen and backs, thus yielding many more sacks and turnover opportunities.
No. 14. Brian Urlacher, MLB, Chicago Bears
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
2011 Stats: 102 tackles, three interceptions, seven pass break-ups
It's a tough call choosing between Peppers and Urlacher as the Bears' best defender. And while the NFL Network opted for the pass-rushing defensive end (ranking Peppers 26th and Urlacher 51st), I'll go the other way.
As you might notice once this list starts to wind down, I've placed a real emphasis on versatility. Pass rush-specialists or run-stuffing nose tackles or cover-only corners are great, but the most valuable defenders are those who are asked to do everything, and, of course, do everything with tremendous success.
So Urlacher—who defends the run as well as anyone in the game, plays excellent in coverage and even rushes the passer (41.5 career sacks) when asked—earns higher overall marks than Peppers....and nearly every other defender in the NFL.
No. 13: Ndamukong Suh, DT, Detroit Lions
Leon Halip/Getty Images
2011 Stats: 36 tackles, four sacks
His numbers dropped a bit after that incredible 2010 rookie season. He's been saddled with labels like "dirty player" and clearly has some anger issues. And the Lions defense was average at best in 2011.
Still, Suh is one of the game's best players, even at the tender age of 25.
We all know he is a nightmare for guards and centers to try to block in the running game; he's so big and powerful that getting any movement on him is virtually impossible. And since he is capable of occupying two blockers, he's a major force even when he's not necessarily making a big play.
Few interior defensive linemen have the type of presence in the pass rush that he has. He possesses the speed and moves of a defensive end yet the strength and size of a defensive tackle. That combination alone is enough to overwhelm opposing lines. Throw in a great motor and he's one of the most consistently disruptive players around.
No. 12: Clay Matthews III, OLB, Green Bay Packers
Scott Boehm/Getty Images
2011 Stats: 50 tackles, three forced fumbles, three interceptions, six sacks
Matthews' sack totals took a nose dive in 2011 and that may or may not be the reason why the Packers drafted Nick Perry and are in the process of moving Matthews from the left to the right outside linebacker spot.
However, contrary to popular belief, Matthews is much more than just a pass-rushing 3-4 outside linebacker.
He is excellent in coverage of backs and zones and has at times (Super Bowl XLV, against Ben Roethlisberger) been athletic and smart enough to spy opposing quarterbacks.
That's the type of all-around contributor that will shoot up a list regardless of one "down" season—one that still saw Matthews post career-highs in interceptions, forced fumbles and pass break-ups.
No. 11: Vince Wilfork, DT/DE, New England Patriots
Jim Rogash/Getty Images
2011 Stats: 52 tackles, one forced fumble, two interceptions, 3.5 sacks
The Patriots defense has been abused (both in the press and on the field) during the past two seasons, but don't look at No. 75 as the reason. Can you imagine how many more yards the Pats would have surrendered in 2011 without Wilfork?
He'll never get the consideration he truly deserves because he is mostly an interior defensive lineman and is never going to record double-digit sacks or 100 tackles. However, he does whatever the Patriots and Bill Belichick ask of him, whether that is playing a 4-3 defensive tackle, a 3-4 nose tackle, or a 3-4 defensive end.
Yet what makes Wilfork so special and so rare is an athleticism that totally defies his 330-plus-pound frame. He moves with such agility and is so aware in the passing game (knocking down passes, even picking a few off) that the Patriots are as luck to have him as they are Tom Brady—well, almost as lucky.
No. 10: Haloti Ngata, DT/DE, Baltimore Ravens
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2011 Stats: 64 tackles, two forced fumbles, five sacks
Lost in the headlines posted by the Baltimore Ravens' three (yes, three) different winners of the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year award is their incomparable tackle Haloti Ngata.
Like Vince Wilfork, he has a presence on both the inside and outside of his team's defensive line, but wherever John Harbaugh (and now new defensive coordinator Dean Pees) puts him he dominates opposing offensive linemen.
He is just as active (11.5 sacks the past two years) in rushing the quarterback as Ndamukong Suh and routinely takes on two offensive linemen when the opposition tries to run the ball.
And despite being well over 330 pounds, he's often proved to be much more than just a big body, nabbing interceptions, recovering fumbles, even running with the ball.
No. 9: Charles Woodson, CB, Green Bay Packers
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2011 Stats: 74 tackles, seven interceptions, one forced fumble, two sacks, 17 pass break-ups
Earlier in this slideshow, I spoke of the incredible ("old man") performances that Champ Bailey has turned in over the last few years, but as great as Bailey has been in Denver, Woodson is older and more productive. And while that may lead to parallels to the Redskins' great (and seemingly ageless) cornerback Darrell Green, Woodson has to be placed in a class of his own.
Not only is he an incredible cover corner—staying stride-for-stride with receivers 10 years younger than him, breaking up passes, picking off passes—but he is a fantastic tackler and a real hindrance to opposing teams' running games.
And then there is that extra element that earns him a spot inside the top 10: rushing the quarterback.
Dom Capers and his staff have so much faith in his speed, strength and knowledge of the game to routinely blitz him off the edge (seven sacks since 2009 and plenty more close calls).
In the NFL versatility is absolutely key, and Woodson has it.
No. 8: Jason Pierre-Paul, DE, New York Giants
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2011 Stats: 86 tackles, two forced fumbles, one interception, 16.5 sacks
I think we all should be leery of defensive players (more specifically pass-rushers) who burst on the scene, seemingly out of nowhere.
After all, one year doesn't make a a Hall of Famer, let alone a great player.
Still, based on what we saw in 2011 (barring injury of course), JPP is headed for one of those truly remarkable careers that sees a handful of All-Pro selections and maybe even a spot in Canton.
He showcases so much athleticism on every snap. Furthermore, since he plays as a defensive end in the Giants 4-3, and not a 3-4 outside backer, he has to be more than just a pass-rusher. And he is, routinely making tackles in the running game.
What is so amazing about Pierre-Paul, though, and his seemingly limitless potential, is just how raw he still is. With only two NFL seasons under his belt, a pretty brief collegiate career and only one season at the high school level, it's mind-boggling he was so dominant in 2011.
With another year of coaching and experience behind him, he could challenge the single-season sack record of another Giants defensive end, Michael Strahan.
No. 7: James Harrison, OLB, Pittsburgh Steelers
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2011 Stats: 59 tackles, nine sacks, two forced fumbles
Like his bookend pass-rusher LaMarr Woodley, Harrison did not have the best statistical season of his career in 2011. However, the injuries he dealt with all year as well as his one-game suspension were a major reason why. It's a good bet that had he played all 16 games, he would have challenged rival Terrell Suggs for the AFC lead in sacks.
That would have made for an interesting race considering Suggs, the 2011 NFL Defensive Player of the Year, and Harrison (the 2008 winner of the same award) play similar roles on the league's two premier defenses.
Harrison's pass-rushing skills are among the best in the game—maybe the best considering how unique they are. He is so small and compact that he rushes the quarterback much lower to the ground than a 6'3" Tamba Hali or 6'7" Julius Peppers.
However, like so many great linebackers, he makes just as many plays outside of the opponent's backfield.
Harrison has great instincts and closing speed while playing the run and is routinely a part of the Steelers' zone scheme in the flats and intermediate parts of the field. Remember Super Bowl XLIII and that 100-yard interception return? That came from reading and dropping, not a tipped ball.
And even if you discount the hits that have been deemed questionably illegal, his ability to jar the ball out of opposing player's hands—an incredible 27 forced fumbles since 2007—is an invaluable part of his game and the Steelers' championship game plan.
No. 6: Jared Allen, DE, Minnesota Vikings
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2011 Stats: 66 tackles, 22 sacks, four forced fumbles, one interception
With all due respect to Jason Pierre-Paul, Vince Wilfork, Julius Peppers, Justin Smith and all the other names on this list, Jared Allen is the NFL's best defensive lineman.
Now, a good deal of that statement is grounded purely in the simple sack numbers (22) he posted in 2011 as well as the numbers he's posted during his entire career (105 in just eight years). And make no mistake about it, he is an incredible force in stopping the passing game.
However, often lost in the shuffle of his fantastic sack stats is the fact that he is as complete a defensive lineman as there is in the game.
He has a huge role in slowing down the running game, never gives up on a play, has practically never missed a snap while with the Vikings and at times even covers receivers out of the backfield, rather than simply chasing after quarterbacks.
No. 5: Ed Reed, S, Baltimore Ravens
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2011 Stats: 52 tackles, one forced fumble, three interceptions, one pass break-up, one sack
I'm well aware of the concerns with this slide, especially since I've pushed Reed's teammate, Ray Lewis, well behind him.
Sure, Reed will be 34 the week after the Ravens' season opener.
Sure, he's been saddled with multiple, fairly serious, injuries over the last few years.
And sure, he's even talked about not being terribly committed to the game.
However, when he's out on the field, patrolling the Ravens secondary, there might not be a more frightening sight for opposing quarterbacks and head coaches. And that includes blitzing linebackers and defensive ends charging in off the edge.
Not only is he arguably the finest ball hawk in the NFL's modern history NFL (57 interceptions in 144 games), but more often than not he turns those interceptions into huge chunks of yards and even scores (six since joining the league in 2002). This may be a list of greatest defenders, but a truly great defender capitalizes on the offense's mistakes.
So say what you will about Reed and the "declining nature" of his game, but when he's out there, the mere possibility of a pick six, or at least a turnover, is always hovering above.
No. 4: Troy Polamalu, S, Pittsburgh Steelers
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2011 Stats: 91 tackles, one sack, two interceptions, 14 pass break-ups
As is often the case, Troy Polamalu and Ed Reed are neck and neck on a list hailing defensive excellence.
And while the difference between their overall greatness is probably as negligible as it gets (both should be first-ballot Hall of Famers), Polamalu deserves to be, ever-so-slightly, higher ranked on this list.
Reed is slightly better than Polamalu when it comes to a presence standing in the middle of the field and picking off or at least breaking up passes, but Polamalu hits with greater intensity, is better in straight man-coverage and is a more aggressive tackler, whether it's in the open field or at the line of scrimmage. Furthermore, his instincts and "hunches" in the pre-snap reads might be the best the NFL has ever seen.
In another parallel with Reed, people are keen on talking about Polamalu's decline and how "maybe he's past his prime," but at this point I just don't see that being the case.
Although the interception totals were down from 2010, the number of passes he broke up was on the rise, and since the hamstring and concussion issues that hampered him last year should be gone, he will be as active and acrobatic as ever.
No. 3: DeMarcus Ware, OLB, Dallas Cowboys
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2011 Stats: 58 tackles, 19.5 sacks, two forced fumbles
There is a bit of apples-to-oranges when comparing 4-3 pass-rushing defensive ends, such as Jared Allen or Jason Pierre-Paul, to 3-4 pass-rushing outside linebackers like James Harrison or Clay Matthews, so it's with some trepidation that I make the inherent statement that DeMarcus Ware is the NFL's best pass-rusher.
Nevertheless, it's true.
He's not really the type of "complete" player I've been hailing throughout this slideshow. He doesn't have an overwhelming impact in the running game and doesn't defend zones and the flats like Harrison, Matthews, or even Allen.
However, he is just so efficient and consistent at the one thing the Cowboys do ask of him: rushing the quarterback.
In his seven years (he's also never missed a game) Ware has racked up 99.5 sacks. And if you notice, he's the only Cowboy on this list. Many of the names on this Top 50 are joined by teammates—Woodson and Matthews in Green Bay; Berry, Hali, Johnson in Kansas City; Briggs, Peppers, Urlacher in Chicago; Woodley, Harrison, Polamalu in Pittsburgh; Suggs, Lewis, Reed in Baltimore, etc.
That speaks to the overall dominance of Ware. He has never had a truly great fellow defender on the roster with him, let alone in the front seven, thus drawing attention away and opening windows to rush through. So for him to average better than one sack per game during the last four years is an incredible feat.
No. 2: Darrelle Revis, CB, New York Jets
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2011 Stats: 52 tackles, four interceptions, 21 pass break-ups
I've been preaching the value of versatility, and players who contribute equally against both the run and the pass are going to get special treatment.
So how can a cover corner who isn't necessarily much of a force defending the run earn the runner-up spot on this Top 50?
Well, the same way DeMarcus Ware earned the bronze medal: by being absolutely dominant, nearly perfect, at the one thing asked of him, which shutting down—not just covering—top receivers.
And by the way, while he might not play the run with the intensity of a Charles Woodson, don't assume Revis is immune to tackling or a "finesse" corner, like Deion Sanders was criticized for being. Revis is ferocious in bump and run and with his strength he is excellent at jamming receivers off the line of scrimmage.
So while he isn't the "total package" in terms of being a defender—rushing the quarterback, making big plays in the running game—he is definitely the total package in terms of playing corner. And in today's NFL, where the quarterback is king, and even 4,000 yards passing has become borderline pedestrian, Revis is a true game-changer that no other team has.
No. 1: Patrick Willis, ILB, San Francisco 49ers
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2011 Stats: 97 tackles, four forced fumbles, one interception, two sacks, 12 pass break-ups
Again, stop me if you've heard this already, but I think genuinely great defenders are genuinely great at all facets of the game.
And if that is the criteria for a list such as this, I think only linebackers really qualify. They have equal parts run and pass responsibility. Furthermore, they are often charged with being "the quarterback of the defense," calling out plays, schemes, blitzes, adjustments and/or coverages.
Under that specific set of guidelines, Patrick Willis earns the top spot for this specific list.
He was the anchor of a run defense that surrendered the fewest rushing yards (by far) in the NFL last season.
Despite missing three starts, he forced five turnovers all on his own and contributed an additional pair by recovering two fumbles.
And even though he doesn't post DeMarcus Ware-like numbers, Willis is still a very, very capable pass-rusher; besides, with Justin Smith, Ahmad Brooks and rookie Aldon Smith (28.5 combined sacks), defensive coordinator Vic Fangio doesn't really have to blitz his star inside 'backer.
That's especially true considering how productive he is in zone and man coverage. The 12 passes Willis batted down (again in a 13-game season) were more than excellent defensive backs like Tampa Bay's Aqib Talib, Denver's Champ Bailey and San Diego's All-Pro Eric Weddle.
If the fate of a game or a season rides on your defense making one stop of either a run or a pass, I'd want Willis on the field and in the middle of that unit, above any other player in today's game.