Being a top five player at any position in the NFL is an incredibly impressive achievement. There is a reason why many people joke that the NFL stands for "Not For Long," as the shelf life of individual or team success can be incredibly short. Football is a hard, unforgiving, violent sport that has little sympathy for the weak or hurt.
The following is a list of the top five defensive players who play a position in the front seven of a 4-3 scheme.
This is not about potential for seasons afterward but only the 2010/2011 NFL season. For each position, I have also included an “Injury Replacement Player,” just in case a top five player suffers a serious injury.
Being a top five player at a position requires more than talent; it also requires durability, leadership, being a good teammate, and performing well in the clutch. To even be considered for this list, a player's health for the upcoming season must be without question.
As a bonus, I have included the top five safeties and cornerbacks, regardless of scheme.
1. Dwight Freeney, Indianapolis Colts
Forces offenses to eliminate passing plays that require a seven-step drop.
2. Mario Williams, Houston Texans
Demands a double-team every play run or pass. His stats would be extraordinary if he had even a little help pass rushing.
3. Jared Allen, Minnesota Vikings
Often blocked one on one due to the presence of Kevin Williams so his stats are a little inflated, but still an elite defender.
4. Julius Peppers, Chicago Bears
Elite run defender and still a lethal pass rusher, but at this point in his career, it is safe to say he will never be a team leader, as his motor runs hot and cold.
5. Trent Cole, Philadelphia Eagles
Explodes off the line of scrimmage like he is shot out of a cannon. One of the best players in the league at making plays behind the line of scrimmage.
Injury Replacement Player: Justin Tuck, New York Giants
Flozell Adam’s cheap shot on Tuck the first game of last season had him playing at 60 percent. Now healthy, I expect him to hit double-digit sacks.
1. Kevin Williams, Minnesota Vikings
Not just No. 1, the clear No. 1. No one else is even close. Jared Allen gets the publicity, but Williams is the Vikings' best defender.
2. Sederick Ellis, New Orleans Saints
Within the Saints 4-3, he plays a variation of the nose-tackle role, occupying double teams so that his linebackers and safeties can blitz freely.
3. Mike Patterson, Philadelphia Eagles
Draws double teams, plays with a high motor and makes plays on the ball. I believe this is as good as he will get, but it's still pretty good.
4. Tommie Harris, Chicago Bears
His knees are rapidly deteriorating, but he still gives you two or three "wow" plays a game. Used to be every play was a "wow" play.
5. Brodrick Bunkley, Philadelphia Eagles
Started his career off slowly, which is why people are so slow to give him love now. Won't be long until he is better than Patterson.
Injury Replacement Player: Ndamukong Suh, Detroit Lions
I hate giving rookies early love like this, but Suh is the best defensive tackle prospect in the last 20 years, at least.
1. Lance Briggs, Chicago Bears
With Urlacher coming back, Briggs should stay on the outside full-time now. Still misses some tackles, but that is the only flaw in a fantastic overall game.
2. Chad Greenway, Minnesota Vikings
He is one of the best coverage linebackers in the NFL right now, along with being a sideline-to-sideline run defender.
3. Daryl Smith, Jacksonville Jaguars
While Smith is a nice player, he is nowhere near elite. This is merely a sign the current crop of 4-3 outside ‘backers is weak overall.
4. David Hawthorne, Seattle Seahawks
Has to hold off LeRoy Hill to even keep a starting job, but I expect him to do just that. He could post a ton of splash plays for Pete Carroll's attacking defense.
5. Geno Hayes, Tampa Bay Bucs
While he had problems shedding blockers last year, he still showed plus coverage ability and sideline-to-sideline skill.
Injury Replacement Player: Aaron Curry, Seattle Seahawks
Horribly coached and used by Jim Mora Jr., but towards the end of last season, he started to figure it out.
1. Jon Beason, Carolina Panthers
Rumor has it he might move to the weak side to replace Thomas Davis. It sounds too dumb to be true.
2. Demeco Ryans, Houston Texans
Gets too much credit as a run defender and not enough for his leadership, coverage ability, and blitzing ability.
3. Barrett Ruud, Tampa Bay Bucs
Gets no love or pub playing for the Bucs, but he is worthy of both.
4. Jonathan Vilma, New Orleans Saints
He doesn’t have the elite speed he used to have, but he is still a sideline-to-sideline defender who is very good in coverage.
5. Curtis Lofton, Atlanta Falcons
Late last season, he seemed to hit a bit of a wall. I expect the experience will leave him wiser and better prepared for the upcoming season.
Injury Replacement Player: Lofa Tatupu, Seattle Seahawks
Missed most of last season with a torn pectoral muscle, but that is something players come back from at full strength.
1. Darrelle Revis, New York Jets
Arguably he is the best defensive player in football, regardless of position.
2. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Arizona Cardinals
Still prone to rare lapses in focus, but last season was an announcement of his arrival. The Cardinals need to surround him or teams will avoid him like the plague.
3. Charles Woodson, Green Bay Packers
He is one of the most impressive athletes that the NFL has seen in the last 20 years. Elite ability at safety makes him more valuable than Cromartie, but strictly as a cornerback, Cromartie is better.
4. Leon Hall, Cincinnati Bengals
A steady and solid player in both run and pass coverage who is capable of holding up on an island for at least three seconds.
5. Nnamdi Asmugha, Oakland Raiders
I am not sure if it is because the Raiders are so awful or because he makes so much money, but his focus is not what it once was.
Injury Replacement Player: Brandon Flowers, K.C. Chiefs
Reminds me of a young Antoine Winfield, vicious in run support and just plain pesky in pass coverage.
1. Brandon Meriweather, New England Patriots
The new age variation of Rodney Harrison. Meriweather is endlessly versatile, a fantastic leader, and incredibly aggressive.
2. Nick Collins, Green Bay Packers
Collins is one of the preeminent turnover machines in the NFL right now.
3. Adrian Wilson, Arizona Cardinals
Has begun to lose a step, but so athletic he has steps to spare. Not as good at the line of scrimmage as he used to be but way better in coverage.
4. Troy Polamalu, Pittsburgh Steelers
When healthy, easily the best safety in the league, but given last year's repeated knee injuries, that is no sure thing.
5. Antrel Rolle, New York Giants
Should have started playing safety the moment he entered the NFL. Just hitting his prime now due to that delay.
Injury Replacement Player: Jairus Byrd, Buffalo Bills
Stats were inflated by the secondary friendly defense run by former defensive coordinator Perry Fewell. Still he was the real Defensive Rookie of the Year and has elite coverage skills.