2011 NFL Kickoff: The Best Defender from All 32 Teams
I decided to write this as a companion to Erik Frenz's article. However, there is one change. Instead of the best play-maker, the best overall defender will be assessed. Some of these picks may not be sexy, but each one of these players represents a bare necessity of their team's defense. The order will be by division, not alphabetized.
Arizona Cardinals: Adrian Wilson, SS
Unlike on offense, where one player carries the rock, defense requires an entire team to execute properly. While an animal comparison to a QB or HB could be an eagle or bear, the defensive side of the ball is comparable to a swarm of hornets. No single player can shut down every option, but Adrian Wilson has more or less been the primal leader of the Cardinals' defense for years. He is stellar in coverage, and packs a hit in run support reminiscent of Ed Reed or Bob Sanders in their primes. He has the tackling ability to stick a fullback in the mouth and still has plenty more to show. What else could you ask for in a safety?
San Francisco 49ers: Patrick Willis, MLB
Patrick Willis is a no-brainer. He is a true stalwart in a defense that succumbs to regular poor field position due to their ineptitude in the passing game. Willis is a hard worker, a perennial pro-bowler on defense that almost makes up for the dreadful passing of Aaron Rodgers for Alex Smith. Willis carried his accolades from Ole Miss into the NFL, never missing a beat. He is now regarded as one of the best, if the not the best, overall ILB in the NFL.
Seattle Seahawks: Earl Thomas, SS
Thomas was a guy I hoped my Dolphins would pick in the 2010 NFL draft, opting instead to trade down for Jared Odrick. While Odrick remains a solid pick, Miami's FS problem would've been solved as Thomas had a monster rookie year. His numbers were excellent as a rookie, and he could challenge for a Defensive MVP in the coming years.
St. Louis Rams: James Laurinaitis, MLB
Wow. When I look at this team, I don't see anybody on the defensive side of the ball making the Pro Bowl. All I see is a team that will struggle to win a single game should Sam Bradford succumb to another season ending shoulder injury. That being said, Laurinaitis is a sure tackler who stuffs in run support and should lead the team in tackles again. He is valuable for the spot where he was picked, and should notch another sack or two to hit a career high next year. Hopefully for the Rams, Robert Quinn can immediately contribute to a defensive line who clearly got the lesser of the "Long" picks in the 2008 NFL draft.
Atlanta Falcons: John Abraham, DE
Abraham is 33-years-old, but shows no signs of slowing down. While he may not be an elite, A+ pass rusher, he can still wreak havoc in the back field and has a body that reeks strength. Only time will tell how many years Abraham has left in the tank but, for now, Abraham maintains himself as a solid, reliable defender who has a motor younger than his birth certificate.
Carolina Panthers: Jon Beason, MLB
I finally get to put a Miami Hurricane on the list! Probably the greatest play of my high school career was leaping for a ball on a skinny post and getting annihilated by Beason while he was at Chaminade. How I held on is beyond my comprehension, but what is obvious is Beason is most definitely the Panthers' best defender. He hits like a tank, has big play ability and once got called for "roughing the passer" in college about 75 yards from the pocket. Anyone that is brutal enough to induce an intellectual aneurysm into the minds of those refs deserves a place on this list.
New Orleans Saints: Jonathan Vilma, MLB
The Saints had a smart draft, should things pan out as planned. Cameron Jordan adds to a pass rush that could have QB's running for their lives and, hopefully, right into the arms of Jonathan Vilma. The University of Miami cranks out linebackers faster than Joey Chestnut can consume hot dogs. Vilma is a similar ball player to Beason, but is a less flashy and more sure-handed linebacker, seeking to wrap up and tackle rather than destroy. Vilma has had a fantastic career so far and should have many great years to come.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Aqib Talib, CB
Right now, Talib is the best player on a vastly improving Bucs defense. He is a rapid runner with the ability to make the exciting pick as well as defend efficiently. He should amass a great number of interceptions in his career as long as he gains control of his off-the-field issues. Sooner rather than later, however, Gerald McCoy could be the guy representing Tampa Bay on this list.
Chicago Bears: Julius Peppers, DE
This one was tough! When one thinks about it, however, would you put Urlacher or Lance Briggs in your top 3 at their position? Julius Peppers is the only guy here that is a top notch defender at his position. Despite approaching age thirty, Peppers still has plenty of time left to strike fear into QB's, whereas Urlacher enters the ending stages of a storied career. The 2002 draft was an intriguing one, producing two of the league's best pass rushers. Peppers is worth every dollar the Bears gave him, and will continue to bring the heat in 2011.
Detroit Lions: Ndamukong Suh, DT
"The House of Spears" is definitely the biggest athletic freak that offensive lines have faced in recent memory. He could go down as the greatest DT of all time, so long as he doesn't get banned by Goodell for decapitating a quarterback this year. Attention NFC North QB's, Suh has it out for you! The Cameroon native will likely leave a mile long trail of broken lineman along his way to the Hall of Fame.
Green Bay Packers: Charles Woodson, DB
Woodson was as electrifying as any player during his decade at Michigan and, despite less freedoms at the pro level, has excelled as a ball hawk and a tackler, grabbing interceptions, fumbles, and scoring quite a few touchdowns along the way. Woodson is the key to an elite defense.
Minnesota Vikings: Jared Allen, DE
Allen is a top-5 caliber DE on a line void of a few key cogs that had made it almost the second coming of the Purple People Eaters. Pat Williams remains in free agency and Kevin Williams suspension for doping is likely to come sooner than later. This makes Allen all the more important, as he commands double teams and still finds a way to get double digit sacks year after year.
Dallas Cowboys: DeMarcus Ware, OLB
As a proponent of the 3-4 scheme, DeMarcus Ware fits nicely here as one of the best OLB pass rushers in the league. The 3-4 eliminates lineman from dominating the field and provides adequate run support through the ILBs. Better yet, its recent developments have given birth to the "hybrid rusher." Players like Cameron Wake, Ware, Brian Orakpo, and for the past few years, Jason Taylor, have taken steps toward creating an entirely new position. Ware states his case each year as the best of these hybrids, excelling from either the three-point stance or upright position. All quarterbacks know this guy's name.
New York Giants: Justin Tuck, DE
Three reasons why Osi is not the Giant's defensive representative: 1) He is hurt, 2) He wants a trade, and 3) He and Tuck are more or less interchangeable, with both posting great numbers throughout the years. Each are below thirty years of age, and both are fully capable of knocking the lights out of a quarterback. Save for the heroics of David Tyree, the Giants D-Line is singled out as the biggest reason my '72 Dolphins season was preserved. Crush Brady and you crush the Pats. Tuck will do much more crushing in 2011.
Philadelphia Eagles: Nnamdi Asomugha, CB
It could be that the three best players on the Eagle's defense will all be offseason acquisitions. Besides his obvious and immense talent as a nearly untouchable corner, displaying blanket coverage and excellent hands, what a lot of fans are missing here is that with the additions of Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Asante Samuel, who commands a lot of cap space, becomes an excellent trade asset. The Eagles will live and die by Michael Vick, but both sides of the ball are stacked to the brim with talent.
Washington Redskins: Brian Orakpo, OLB
Orakpo is one of the aforementioned "hybrid" pass-rushing types who excelled under Mack Brown at Texas. Out of Sergio Kindle, Sam Acho and Orakpo, this guy should have the best career. Washington has a less than illustrious team and quite possibly could be the front-runners for Andrew Luck, who could turn around the franchise. Orakpo is a big guy who is effective as a pass rusher but also has enough quickness to accelerate in coverage and charge around the fringes.
Denver Broncos: Elvis Dumervil DE
The victim of the Marcus Vick stomping incident, Dumervil flew under the radar in the 2006 draft, finally going in the 4th round to the Broncos. I was witness to Dumervil's talent and motor while at Louisville, and was surprised he did not go in the top two rounds. Dumervil plays until the whistle with unbridled ferocity, and will likely notch double digit sacks in 2011 in a division full of immobile quarterbacks. Having Von Miller to flank him will make things scary good for Dumervil, as it is often about who is around the player, not just the player himself.
Kansas City Chiefs: Tamba Hali, OLB
He was a feel good story in the 2006 draft and, as a History major, I am well aware of the horrors of his native Liberia. He was selected in the first round and soon became the best player on the Kansas City defense and its first true standout since they traded Jared Allen. He ranked as the No. 2 DE behind Mario Williams, playing at Penn State in a conference loaded with offensive line talent and bulky blockers. I always viewed any accomplished pass rusher in the Big 10 as a good call on draft day, simply because a large number of first round OL are selected from there. Hali will have the same luxury as Dumervil, unless Tim Tebow is given his calling, which is doubtful because Kyle Orton is one of the most underrated players in the NFL in a less than perfect offense. Hali is one of the leaders of a growing number of African born players in the ranks of American Football.
Oakland Raiders: Rolando McClain, MLB
Rolando McClain is a fundamentally sound MLB with a lot of talent and serious potential to break out in a division totally up for grabs. For me, it never was about picks, fumbles and sacks, but about stuffing the run and making slanting receivers pay. Leave the flashy stuff to the pass rushers and DB's. MLB is a fundamental and athletic position, where leading the team in tackles is more important than a pick or two. McClain has the essential skills to stuff backs in their place. Jamaal Charles is bound to play a major role in the rival Chiefs' fate, and many feel Knowshon Moreno will break out. McClain could become the best MLB in this division, and not a moment too soon.
San Diego Chargers: Eric Weddle, FS
Eric Weddle rounds out a defense that lacks star power but is another fundamental unit that will do just enough to keep the Chargers in each game. The Chargers suffered a big loss in Kevin Burnett, if his preseason play is any indication as to how much he meant to his previous team. With decent quarterback play throughout the division and a few breakout receivers and backs on the rise, Weddle will need to be the anchor on a pass defense that will face quite a few good teams. Weddle and his Chargers D will do enough to keep Rivers, Gates, Jackson and company from having to score 40 points a game to win.
Houston Texans: Mario Williams, OLB
No, you didn't read that wrong. At 290 lbs, Williams is the NFL's biggest and meanest OLB. First round pick J.J. Watt will take his place on the defensive line, as the Texans become a real favorite for the division for the first time. Matt Schaub to Andre Johnson will become a top connection this year and the Texans intend to use their draft picks, along with Williams, to form a tough front 7. Let us hope that by the time my 'Fins meet the Texans, Jake Long is healthy and the right side of the line can hold up. Williams should have a monster year.
Indianapolis Colts: Dwight Freeney, DE
Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis pair up every year to inspire nightmare's in quarterbacks, using sheer pace to edge around and bear down on the offenses of their opposition. Add who I feel is an underrated Drake Nevis to the fray and the Colts now have a solid front line. Freeney should continue to notch double digit sacks even while approaching age 32. However, we all know that the Colts live and die by Peyton Manning, and should fail miserably against quality teams without their visceral and vocal leader. Something about Collins to Wayne just doesn't roll off the tongue. Freeney will still anchor a defense that will desperately try to pick up a Manning-less offense.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Paul Posluszny, MLB
Paul Posluszny is not as quick as most linebackers but he is a good run stuffer and hard tackler that will surely be an upgrade to a Jaguars defense that is likely going to be depended on to help carry this team. Many people are saying Posluszny may decline, but he still grades out as a B- to B+ player will indeed help Jacksonville in any way he can.
Tennessee Titans: Cortland Finnegan, CB
Cortland Finnegan is a weasel. He talks too much and plays too dirty, but is still a solid option at CB, as Tennessee has had some bad recent luck with its defenders. They drafted Adam Jones, who could never get his act together and lost Albert Haynesworth and Jason Babin to free agency after breakout years. Finnegan is a good defender in what could likely be a rebuilding season in Tennessee.
Baltimore Ravens: Ray Lewis, MLB
This is the biggest no-brainer in the slideshow. Lewis is the third former Hurricanes LB to make the list and could possibly end his career as the greatest defensive force in the history of football. His sheer energy and gratuitous brutality are so well known that he stars in deodorant commercials ripping out his own soul, talking to animals and sprouting six extra heads. He has the big play potential, the fire, the fuel, and the body to crush anything coming out of the backfield. He is getting old, along with safety Ed Reed, which could pose major problems in the future for the Ravens, who may find themselves declining after a sub-par season by major 2010 acquisition Anquan Boldin. That said, Lewis will still destroy everything in his path so long as he steps foot on that field.
Cincinnati Bengals: Rey Maualuga, MLB
I thought for sure that Maualuga would be the best of that trio of linebackers coming out of USC in the 2009 draft. Clay Matthews is phenomenal, and Cushing is good but was doping, making his Rookie of the Year award rather illegitimate. All three wound up having great rookie campaigns. Maualuga will start again and for a long time in a Bengals' franchise that has a lot of work to do. He will bring the pain, and jar even more balls loose this year.
Cleveland Browns: Joe Haden, CB
Joe Haden was a great draft pick for the Browns and certainly proved himself early on. He picked off passes in four straight games, ending the 2010 season with six. He will be the best Browns' DB they have had in a while.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Troy Polamalu, SS
Troy Polamalu is the best DB in the league. He has explosive ability, makes acrobatic interceptions, and returns them for miles. He can hurt an offense at any point, whether he forces a fumble, picks a ball off, or blitzes on a whim. His timing, positioning, and awareness are unparalleled.
Buffalo Bills: Nick Barnett, ILB
Sure he's 30, but Barnett has been a decent player throughout his career. He will spend his first year in Buffalo, where hyper talented Jets and Patriots teams rule the division, and the Dolphins can beat anyone on any given Sunday. Even on a cellar dwelling team that is going to be just that for a number of years, Barnett can invigorate and leave a lasting impact on a young defense. Let it be known that by the end of the year, Marcell Dareus will more than likely be the guy on next year's slideshow.
Miami Dolphins: Karlos Dansby, ILB
There are three or four other guys that could be on this list, and three or four 'Fins that may make the Pro Bowl this year. The popular pick is Cameron Wake, but Dansby is far too proficient not to top this list. Wake may have 15 sacks this year, but God strike me down if Dansby misses a single tackle. I hate to beat a dead horse, but ILB is all about fundamentals and simply finding a way to get the job done. Dansby will go down as one of the best FA pickups the 'Fins have ever had. This defense will win Miami a Wild Card spot if the offense can find a way to move the ball.
New England Patriots: Vince Wilfork, NT
Nose tackle might be defensive equivalent of offensive guard in that it is the least attractive pick on a given team. Vince Wilfork has been and will be essential to the Patriot's defense. His hulking frame has plugged up running lanes, even after the losses of Ty Warren and Richard Seymour. The Pats have been overhauling their secondary and bringing in youth at the linebacker position, leaving Wilfork as the lone standout in a young defense full of potential.
New York Jets: Darrelle Revis, CB
The Jets have been good the past few years, but have come up short of glory despite Rex Ryan's affluent predictions. 'Fins fans revel in the Jets failure, but Revis may have been onto something when he raised his ire over Vontae Davis' proclamation that he and Sean Smith were the best DB duo in the NFL. Well, as both 'Fins corners prepare to take that next step, Revis and Cromartie have a lot to fight for. Darrelle Revis is quite possibly still the best CB in the NFL, and will continue to make plays for a solid Jets' defense that is getting no younger up front.