The Best Defensive Playmaker on Each NFL Team
Sack specialists and cover corners have become increasingly important as the NFL has become increasingly predicated on potent pass attacks.
These playmakers are counted on to keep an opposing offense at bay. Even though some defenses get shredded by seemingly every offense they face, just about every defense has an impact player, someone who an opposing offense has to account for.
So here it is—a list of one defensive playmaker on every NFL team.
Arizona Cardinals: Adrian Wilson
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One might make a case here for Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, but the length of time over which Adrian Wilson has made big plays really proves something. This is especially true since the Cardinals defense has pretty much always been bad as a unit since his arrival.
He has logged 22.5 career sacks and 25 career interceptions, so at 31 years old, there is still hope for him to enter the elite 30-30 club currently only Rodney Harrison and Ray Lewis belong to.
Just as impressive, though, are his 14 career forced fumbles. He really has a knack for finding the ball and making the play, regardless of the situation or circumstances.
Atlanta Falcons: John Abraham
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No player has made more of an impact on Atlanta's defense over the past four years than John Abraham. In that span, he has recorded 45 sacks and only once has fallen short of double-digit sacks.
In 2007, he accounted for 40 percent of the total sacks for the defense. In 2008, he outdid himself by tallying half of Atlanta's 33 sacks (16.5). After a down year in 2009, he rebounded quickly to tally 13 sacks in 2010, 41.9 percent of Atlanta's total.
He has carried much of the burden of Atlanta's defense since arriving in the Dirty South.
It's rather surprising to me that he only made the All-Pro squad in 2010 by recording 13 sacks, but he's been up against some stiff competition, as the NFC possesses some of the best defensive ends in the league (as we'll explore throughout this piece).
Baltimore Ravens: Ray Lewis
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As one of two career members of the 30-30 club (30 sacks and 30 interceptions, along with Rodney Harrison), it would be a huge oversight to leave Ray Lewis off a list of playmakers.
Lewis brings so much to a defense in emotional leadership and veteran knowledge, but make no mistake about it—he contributes on the field big time. He has five consecutive Pro Bowls to his name, including two All-Pro selections in that span.
With 15.5 sacks and nine interceptions in the past five years, there's still a lot of on-field contribution left in the 36-year-old body of Lewis. Of course, he's led the team in tackles for that entire five-year stretch as well.
Lewis is a lock for Canton, most likely as a first-ballot selection.
Buffalo Bills: Kyle Williams
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There aren't too many interior linemen on this list, but Kyle Williams was one of the few positive things to come out of Buffalo's 2010 season on defense. With 5.5 sacks, Williams led the team.
He will certainly be helped by the addition of Marcell Dareus, as defenses can no longer focus on just Williams. Who knows where he'll be playing on the defensive line, but chances are he'll be able to make an impact.
Carolina Panthers: Charles Johnson
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Charles Johnson burst onto the scene so quickly that one could have almost forgotten that Carolina lost its premier pass rusher in free agency just last year.
Johnson was the lone bright spot in what was a very grim season for Carolina and its fans, a 2-14 season that saw the team clinch the first pick in the draft.
Game after game, though, Johnson brought his best effort. He didn't collect a big chunk of sacks in one game but instead spread his production out over the season and only had five games in which he failed to reach the quarterback.
The Panthers have much work to do in revamping their defense, but with the success Ron Rivera had in San Diego, expect similar production from this pass-rushing monstrosity to what we saw from the likes of Shaun Phillips.
Chicago Bears: Julius Peppers
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When a team gives a player a six-year contract worth $91.5 million, that team certainly hopes that the decision won't come back to bite it in the rear end. Peppers made a big impact on Chicago's defense from his very first year and is proving to be a wise investment thus far.
He's been voted to three straight Pro Bowls, six in his career, and also has three career All-Pro selections to his name, including 2010.
Peppers may have "only" logged eight sacks last year, but he really made an impact and opened things up for the rest of the defense. A relative unknown before Peppers' arrival, Israel Idonije matched Peppers' output, a typical side effect of adding a top-notch pass rusher.
With two interceptions on top of his eight sacks, Peppers proved that he is a key piece of Chicago's defense.
Cincinnati Bengals: Johnathan Joseph
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With both Joseph and Carlos Dunlap to choose from, I was posed with a dilemma, but I ultimately went with the more time-tested of the two.
Joseph has returned an interception for a touchdown in every season in which he has played more than half the games and has posted a total of 14 interceptions in his five-year career.
He had a down year in 2010, but his coverage skills allowed the Bengals to hold opposing No. 1 receivers to just 48.5 yards per game, helping the Bengals rank fifth against such receivers.
Cleveland Browns: Joe Haden
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The first rookie to make the list, Haden was slightly criticized as the seventh overall pick but made sure that Cleveland didn't regret the selection. With a sack, six interceptions and a forced fumble, he gave Cleveland fans a rare glimmer of hope on their defense.
He will be much better off when Cleveland gets some consistency around him. Frequent alternations between a 3-4 and 4-3 front certainly aren't helping the Brownies find that consistency, but drafting two stout defensive linemen in Phil Taylor and Jabaal Sheard could mean some measure of production along the defensive line.
Dallas Cowboys: DeMarcus Ware
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The Dallas Cowboys were one of the worst defensive units in the league last year, allowing the second-most points and the second-most passing touchdowns of any defense in the NFL. That, though, was not due to a lack of effort from their premier pass rusher.
Indeed, DeMarcus Ware had another sterling season as a pass rusher, racking up big play after big play with 15.5 sacks and leading the league in that category for the second time in the past three years.
What one has to admire most about Ware's production is that it comes over the span of the season, showing that he doesn't just prey on weak opponents. In the past four seasons, he has only failed to reach the quarterback in 13 games, just 22 percent of games he's played.
Denver Broncos: Champ Bailey
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The fact that opposing quarterbacks consistently throw away from Bailey is testament to his playmaking ability. They would rather throw to their second-best option than risk Bailey nabbing an interception.
It's with good reason, too, as Bailey has tallied 48 regular season interceptions in his career, returning four of them for touchdowns, and two in the postseason. Perhaps the most famous interception came against New England, one of the rare red zone interceptions in Tom Brady's career.
Bailey is one of the consensus best cornerbacks in the league and has been voted to 10 Pro Bowls and three All-Pro teams in his 12-year NFL career.
Detroit Lions: Ndamukong Suh
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Ndamukong Suh was one of only two rookies to make the NFL Network Top 100 Players list, and he nearly cracked the top 50. That should tell you something about the kind of impact he made in just one year, and that kind of impact is particularly rare for a defensive tackle.
He wreaked havoc on the interior of the line as a pass-rushing force, tallying 10 sacks and becoming only the third player in NFL history to record double-digit sacks in his rookie year.
His playmaking ability has led him to get caught rushing the passer on a run play a few times, but experience in the NFL and additional talent around him (hello, Nick Fairley) should allow him to play more soundly rather than worrying about making the big play all the time.
Green Bay Packers: Charles Woodson
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No matter where he lines up, Charles Woodson can find a way to make a big play. He plays both on the outside and in the slot, blitzes and covers, and does anything and everything defensive coordinator Dom Capers asks him to do.
He was Defensive Player of the Year in 2009, tallying two sacks while raking in nine interceptions and returning three of them for touchdowns, the latter two numbers leading the league.
The fact that he has consistently been near the top of his team in tackles is a testament to his versatility and his impact on the defense as one of its biggest playmaking threats.
Houston Texans: Mario Williams
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Williams is the most recent example of a heavily scrutinized first overall pick that actually turned out to be a wise selection (at least wiser than the two players picked after him).
His combination of size, speed and athleticism makes him a force off the edge and makes him a mismatch for nearly any offensive tackle he faces. New defensive coordinator Wade Phillips hopes that he can take those assets and make a smooth transition to outside linebacker.
There's little doubt that Mario Williams can and will make an impact as a pass rusher.
Indianapolis Colts: Dwight Freeney
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As a Patriots writer, it's easy for me to say that no singular defensive player for the Indianapolis Colts has had as much of an impact on the Patriots-Colts rivalry as Freeney. He seems to feast off Matt Light with that signature spin move and constantly disrupts Tom Brady in the pocket.
Obviously, his impact stretches far beyond that rivalry. He seems to always come up in the big spots and has tallied 44.5 of his 94 career sacks in games with a final margin of a touchdown or less.
Freeney has 40 forced fumbles in his career and has mastered the art of the strip sack. Chances are fairly high that Freeney will spin move his way into the Hall of Fame by the time all is said and done.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Derek Cox
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It's hard to judge the impact of a player in just two years in the league, but Derek Cox has certainly come on strong in his first two seasons in Jacksonville.
He has grabbed four interceptions in each of his first two seasons in the league, and though he may not be an elite playmaker just yet, he could be on his way if he continues to improve on his early success.
There's reason to believe he could; after all, he grabbed his four interceptions last year in just 13 games. He might have grabbed more had he not been forced to miss time.
Kansas City Chiefs: Tamba Hali
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Only under the tutelage of new defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel did Tamba Hali finally begin to realize his full potential. He had always been a good player, but only when Crennel arrived did Hali begin to come into that land of great.
He has always had big play ability, having forced 18 fumbles in his career and recovering four. He came into his own as a pass rusher last year, though, tallying 14.5 sacks and helping to improve a Chiefs defense that was once a laughingstock.
Speaking of laughingstock defenses, maybe Crennel wouldn't have been run out of Cleveland so quickly if he had a player like Tamba Hali.
Miami Dolphins: Cameron Wake
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Rarely does a player come from the CFL and make as big an impact as Cameron Wake has, but with 14 sacks in 2010, Wake was a force as a pass rusher. He racked up three forced fumbles on those sacks as well, an even surer way to turn the game around.
He was such a force, in fact, that he earned the 63rd spot on the NFL Network Top 100 on just last season's performance alone.
We'll have to see if he is able to sustain that production over a long period of time, but for now, it's safe to say he's the premier playmaker for Miami.
Minnesota Vikings: Jared Allen
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Jared Allen is certainly one of the game's premier pass rushers. He has been a big reason for the defensive dominance of the Vikings, who ranked first in the league in sacks in '09 with 48 and fourth in '08 with 45.
Some may try to argue that he has benefited greatly from the presence of the Williams Wall, but he was racking up double-digit sacks with Kansas City before ever setting foot in the Metrodome. In fact, he led the league in sacks in '07. If anything, I would say Ray Edwards has benefited from the presence of Allen.
Like Freeney, Allen has also mastered the strip sack. He has 23 forced fumbles and 83 career sacks, all in just seven seasons in the league. He has a long time yet to solidify his legacy, but if he keeps pace, it will be hard to keep him out of Canton.
New England Patriots: Devin McCourty
Talk about bursting onto the scene. Devin McCourty quieted his doubters as quickly as he changed games in 2010. With a sack, seven interceptions, 17 defensed passes and two forced fumbles, there were no shortage of big plays coming from McCourty's side of the field.
His big play ability comes from his rare ability to cover even elite receivers man-to-man. This was never more evident than when he stayed with Detroit Lions receiver Calvin Johnson stride for stride and won a jump ball with the Pro Bowl receiver.
His impact on the defense is clear. Now, if only the Patriots' front seven could get consistent pressure, perhaps they could have an impact on his play as well.
New Orleans Saints: Jonathan Vilma
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After a slow start to his career with the New York Jets, Jonathan Vilma has hit the ground running in New Orleans. He is a big part of what allows defensive coordinator Gregg Williams to remain creative and exotic with his blitz schemes.
Vilma has tallied over 100 tackles in each of his first three seasons with New Orleans but has made big plays all over the field. That's evident in his seven sacks and five interceptions over that span.
The Saints continue to add pieces to their defense, but middle linebacker is one position they won't have to worry about for a while as long as Vilma is around.
New York Giants: Justin Tuck
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This was another down-to-the-wire decision between Tuck and Osi Umenyiora, but it came down to a couple of major factors. Tuck had the best season of his career when Umenyiora went down with an injury in the 2008 preseason and went on injured reserve. The fact that he did so without an elite pass rusher on the opposite end really sets him apart.
Don't take any credit away from Umenyiora for factors out of his control, but that brings me to my next point. Tuck is a dominant force no matter where he lines up, and his versatility has made him a favorite weapon of both Steve Spagnuolo and Perry Fewell. Tuck can line up at defensive end or defensive tackle and remains an effective player at either spot.
Finally, it's hard not to notice that Tuck's production is more evenly spread out over the course of a season, whereas Umenyiora sometimes preys on weak competition. These factors led me to naming Tuck the bigger playmaking threat than Umenyiora.
New York Jets: Darrelle Revis
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This is a no-brainer. Revis is admittedly the engine that keeps the New York Jets defense moving. There are no airborne departures off Revis Island. In fact, according to Pro Football Focus, Revis was thrown at for the fourth-lowest percentage of any cornerback in the NFL in 2011.
Perhaps that helps explain why he failed to tally a single interception for the first time in his career.
Despite playing a shortened season due to a holdout and an injury, Revis made the All-Pro squad for a second consecutive season and the Pro Bowl for his third consecutive season.
Oakland Raiders: Nnamdi Asomugha
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Much like Darrelle Revis, it's hard to ask Nnamdi Asomugha to make big plays when teams aren't throwing his way. Still, the fact that teams avoid throwing in his direction is a testament to his big play ability.
The fact that he made the All-Pro squad in '08 while grabbing only one interception and in '10 while grabbing none should tell you all you need to know.
His breakout season in '06, in which he grabbed eight interceptions, told opposing quarterbacks all they needed to know about throwing his direction—namely, not to do so.
Philadelphia Eagles: Asante Samuel
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One could make an argument for Trent Cole in this spot, but Asante Samuel has a game-breaking factor that not many cornerbacks possess. He has made 42 career regular season interceptions and seven in the postseason. He has also led the league in interceptions twice in his career.
It's not just his ability to get those key turnovers. Every time he makes a pick, he's a threat to bring it the distance for a touchdown. He has done so four times in the regular season and four additional times in the postseason.
With his keen instincts and his ability to break an interception for a touchdown, Samuel will continue to be a key piece of Philadelphia's defense for years to come.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Troy Polamalu
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The Steelers defense just isn't the same without Polamalu. He is definitely the most versatile player on the defense in his ability to both play the run and the pass. That versatility allows Mike Tomlin and Dick LeBeau to really mix up their coverages and fronts, maximizing the confusion and chaos the long-haired Samoan can cause.
He has racked up 27 interceptions, eight sacks and eight forced fumbles in his career. His big play ability goes far beyond those numbers, though, as he makes many plays that don't show up on a stat sheet. His big hits knock balls loose and cause incomplete passes frequently, and he is known for leaping over linemen to make a play in the backfield.
The only knock on Polamalu would be that he is injured often, meaning he's on the field far less to make those plays.
San Diego Chargers: Shaun Phillips
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Shaun Phillips has been a high-voltage San Diego pass rusher since before the days of "Lights Out" Shawne Merriman and long after him as well. With 11 sacks last year, Phillips proved he is a solid pass rusher with or without an elite complement to his game.
Only last year did Phillips get the recognition he deserves with a Pro Bowl selection. Who knows what sort of impact the departure of Ron Rivera will have on him, but San Diego's new defensive coordinator will have a high-impact pass rusher as a cornerstone for his new scheme.
San Francisco 49ers: Patrick Willis
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There aren't too many playmaking interior linebackers, as they mostly rack up tackles and hold that territory. Patrick Willis is a rare breed of player that makes a big impact in the middle of the defense.
In his four-year career, Willis has already racked up 15 sacks and four interceptions. Tackles aren't normally considered big plays, but he is an absolute machine and has tallied over 125 stops in each of his four seasons.
With four Pro Bowl selections and three first-team All-Pro selections, his impact is clear. Willis has a long career of playmaking ahead of him.
Seattle Seahawks: Earl Thomas
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Safeties haven't gotten a whole lot of love on this list, and neither have rookies from 2010. Earl Thomas breaks both molds and is easily the biggest playmaker on the Seahawks defense.
With five interceptions and seven passes defensed, Thomas proved that his small stature won't stop him from coming up short in the NFL. He is a heatseeking missile in the passing game and is able to track down the ball and make the play.
Imagine how big of an impact he could have if there were any noteworthy defensive players around him.
St. Louis Rams: James Laurinaitis
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What Laurinaitis brings as a playmaker comes from multiple facets of his game. His ability to diagnose a play before the snap of the ball allows him to get into position to make the play, be it a sack, interception or even just a tackle.
He has registered five sacks and three interceptions already in his two-year career. He has also registered over 100 tackles both years, and he hasn't done it all just by being in the right place at the right time. He finds himself in the right place by making the right read, using his instincts to help make the play rather than relying on any physical attributes.
A slow 40-yard dash hurt his draft stock, but his high football IQ helps him make up for it. Now, he's proving it to opposing offenses.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Aqib Talib
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Hey, this was never meant to be a list of people who stay out of trouble. Aqib Talib has become a bigger playmaking threat in each of his three years in the NFL, logging one more pick each year than the year before for a total of 15.
His impact as a playmaker can't be denied, but who knows how his career will end up? We've seen playmakers lead a troubled life in the past and wind up wasting most of their talent behind bars or doing community service (hello, Pacman Jones).
If Talib can walk the straight and narrow, he could be a big-time playmaker for the Bucs defense for years to come.
Tennessee Titans: Cortland Finnegan
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Love him or hate him, Cortland Finnegan is one of the best cornerbacks in the league right now. He is known for an aggressive style of play, which has earned him a bad reputation, but he is undoubtedly a playmaker for Tennessee.
He has tallied 13 career interceptions, including back-to-back seasons with five interceptions, and has taken three of them the distance, one in each of three consecutive seasons ('08-'10).
He can line up at multiple spots in the secondary and plays in the slot at times. He is even a solid blitzer from inside, as evidenced by his five career sacks. That versatility makes him a valuable playmaker for Tennessee's defense.
Washington Redskins: Brian Orakpo
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Defensive end or outside linebacker—it doesn't really matter for Brian Orakpo. He can get after the quarterback. In his rookie year as a 4-3 linebacker, Orakpo racked up 11 sacks. His numbers fell last year, as he logged just 8.5, but a lot of that could be due to a lack of familiarity with that scheme.
He has almost the perfect size for a 3-4 outside linebacker in Mike Shanahan's scheme and should be aided by a year in the system, as well as the presence of another pass-rushing presence in Ryan Kerrigan. Perhaps the playmaking presence of Orakpo will allow Kerrigan to make a smooth transition to the NFL. Either way, it looks like a win-win-win for Washington, Orakpo and Kerrigan.