Whoever coined the phrase "Defense wins championships"—depending on who you ask, it was either Bear Bryant or the dude from Radio—was actually making an understatement.
Defense turns losing football teams into winning teams, wild-card fodder into legit contenders and teams stuck on the wrong side of the hump into Super Bowl material.
But that doesn't mean defensive players get the attention they deserve. Just by looking at this summer's NFL trade rumor mill, you see how the guys who put points on the board still rule the kingdom.
All anybody wants to talk about are the quarterbacks (Carson Palmer, Donovan McNabb) and running backs (Chris Johnson, Reggie Bush) and receivers (Steve Smith, Larry Fitzgerald). Defensive players constantly get overlooked, even though it's likely they will be the ones involved in any trade that swings the League's power structure.
And yet for all its importance, defense remains fundamentally simple. NFL scouts love to over-analyze 40 times and agility drills and testicle diameter at the pre-draft combine, but at the end of the day, it comes down to getting the ball carrier on the ground as efficiently as possible.
Here are the 10 best tacklers who should available via trade this offseason:
To be fair, anybody who shares a defensive line with Mario Williams could be mistaken for an underachiever. Still, the time has come where Okoye has used up his "potential" leeway and needs to show production.
Okoye is the NFL's version of Andrew Bynum. He entered the League at 19 years old and became the youngest man to player in an NFL game since 1967. Since then, however, he hasn't performed up to expectations.
In four seasons, Okoye has accumulated just 11 sacks, a low number for a player who was drafted with the promise of being a great pass-rusher. The Texans used their first two 2011 draft picks on D-linemen, signaling that Okoye's tenure in Houston may be up. Plus the team is switching to a 3-4 defensive alignment, and many observers believe Okoye doesn't fit.
Whoever does take a chance on Okoye will get somebody who—for all the talk of his vast potential and raw skills—can actually play a little football. Still just 24 years old, he is a solid run stopper who racked up 44 tackles last season, far more than Williams (28) and tops among Houston's defensive linemen.
Say what you want about Haynesworth, but when he gets one or two of those meat-rack arms around a ball carrier, the play is over.
There are a few reasons why the Redskins decided to drop $100 million on him a couple years ago, why they weren't the only team willing to open up the safe and why the Titans complained to the NFL about tampering by the Redskins. The man is that good.
Haynesworth, when he isn't miserable and unmotivated, eats up multiple blockers and alters offensive game plans. And he can get to the quarterback. In very limited duty last season, Haynesworth added three sacks to his career total of 31, impressive for a D-tackle who is utilized primarily to stop the run.
Having lived in New York City once upon a time, I can testify that Osi loves the big-city lifestyle and everything that comes with being a star in the Big Apple. But if the Giants don't restructure his contract to pay him more money, he's willing to demand a trade.
The two-time All-Pro defensive end set an NFL record last season by forcing 10 fumbles and tied for seventh in the league with 12 sacks.
Umenyiora already ranks fifth on the Giants' all-time sack list and first in forced fumbles. And this is for the franchise that employed Lawrence Taylor, the godfather of forcing fumbles. (Although no one knows exactly how many fumbles LT forced, since the stat wasn't always recorded during his career.)
Two years ago, Barnett recorded 106 tackles to go with four sacks. Then last year, he was limited to four games by a wrist injury, he lost his starting job, and the Packers won the Super Bowl without him. Now, Barnett is a $6 million-a-year backup who is expendable to Green Bay.
Barnett is a sure tackler with sideline-to-sideline range, plus he's versatile enough to play either the inside 'backer in a 3-4 alignment or play the middle in a 4-3. That makes the list of teams that could want him even longer.
Quietly, James has carved out his place as one of the Cowboys' most productive linebackers ever, ranking seventh in franchise history in tackles (489) and sixth in forced fumbles (nine) over an eight-year career. James totaled 118 tackles last season—the fifth straight year he's cracked the century mark.
So why would he get traded?
James is 30 years old, and while he hasn't missed a start in seven years, he had surgery a couple months ago on a sprained knee that he played through for most of last season. James is also going into the final year of his contract, and the Cowboys just used their second-round draft pick on North Carolina's Bruce Carter—a good inside linebacker.
Porter is aging (34) and allegedly overrated, but remember, the only receiver who's been willing to talk crap about the notorious crap-talker has been Brandon Marshall. And there's a decent chance Marshall is actually a cyborg disguised as an NFL player.
Three times in his career, Porter has recorded double-digit sacks in a season, most recently in '08 when he brought down 17 quarterbacks. But since then, he's lost a step or two, he makes a lot of money and the Cardinals used two of their 2011 draft picks on outside linebackers.
If Porter isn't simply cut by Arizona, he'll at least be traded this year.
Connor is one of the newest graduates of the Penn State Academy For Beast Linebackers, but he simply may not be able to find his rightful place in Carolina.
As talented as Connor is at defending the run, the third-year pro is stuck below Pro Bowl middle 'backer Jon Beason on the Panthers' depth chart. Conner, who made 47 tackles last season, isn't really suited to play on the outside either.
So the Panthers may want to trade him while his value is high to a team that needs help inside.
Considering that the Cowboys are on the short list of teams with a realistic shot at free-agent cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, that they already have another Pro Bowl corner in Mike Jenkins and that Newman is a 32-year-old slated to make $8 million next season, it's not a stretch to see why Newman would be expendable.
If the team doesn't just release him, Newman still has good trade value because he is a great cover corner and tackler. Last season, he had five interceptions and 79 tackles. Unlike your stereotypical CB, Newman is just as eager to get the ball in his hands as he is to tattoo a receiver in his area or run up on a halfback who's built a head of steam.
The Patriots don't really play around with "character issues"—you saw how quickly they dumped Randy Moss, the best receiver they've ever had—so Meriweather could find himself traded if a recent shooting incident continues hanging over his head.
Also working against Meriweather is the fact that his contract runs out next season and the perception that his play has been too inconsistent. Following back-to-back Pro Bowl seasons in '08 and '09, last year Meriweather was benched twice, and his production dropped off from 84 tackles to 68.
Meriweather's talent can't be denied, though. At his best, he's a ballhawk and a fierce hitter who isn't adverse to going helmet-to-helmet.
Another All-Pro DB who is dealing with legal problems, Talib is probably looking at an NFL suspension once the lockout is over, if not a trade out of Tampa Bay. And just like Meriweather, Talib is too good not to have a lot of teams vying for his talents.
Talib's 40 tackles (in 11 games) last season doesn't look too impressive on paper but keep in mind that he doesn't get a lot of action on his side of the field because QB's rarely throw in his direction.
When he does get the chance, though, Talib will lay somebody out. Between Talib and Ronde Barber, the Bucs have perhaps the hardest-hitting corner tandem in the League—that is, if they decide to keep No. 25.