Defense wins championships. We’ve all heard that axiom and we’ve all seen it proven. Defensive stars don’t possess the same name recognition as their brethren on the offensive side. You won’t pick them in your fantasy drafts and you won’t see many analysts ranking the best linebackers in football.
All that said, football games are won with defense as much as offense. Here is the most dangerous defensive player on every team.
New England Patriots: Devin McCourty
McCourty ranked fourth among all safeties last season in PFF grading with a 90.5 mark and is a lynchpin of New England’s defense. His 8.7 percent missed tackle rate ranked sixth among defensive backs with at least 50 tackles last season, per Football Outsiders’ Almanac. McCourty allowed only 7.4 adjusted yards per target, ranking 18th, per FOA, and earned his second career Pro Bowl nod last season.
New York Jets: Leonard Williams
Williams was projected as an instant star out of USC and it’s fair to say he’s lived up to that expectation. In 2016, the defensive tackle ranked 17th at the position with an 88 percent run stop rate, per FOA. After a quiet rookie season on the pass-rushing front, Williams became an impact player there as well. He had 7.0 sacks, 14 hits and 29 hurries. And he’s only 23 years old.
Miami Dolphins: Ndamukong Suh
Suh has long been one of the best defensive tackles in football. That hasn’t changed in Miami. His 89.2 PFF grade was fourth among defensive linemen last season. Suh had an insane 64 stops and 24 defeats. He’s one of the league’s best run defenders without a doubt.
Buffalo Bills: Marcell Dareus
After Buffalo lost Ronald Darby and Stephon Gilmore over the offseason, the options here aren’t especially appealing. However, Dareus is a solid player, with health being the main thing that kept him from stardom last season. The installation of new head coach Sean McDermott will serve him well, as Dareus had clashed with former head coach Rex Ryan. Don’t be surprised if we see a resurgence from the defensive tackle this season.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Ryan Shazier
Shazier was quietly one of the best linebackers in the league last season when it came to run defense. His 74 percent stop rate ranked sixth at the position, per FOA. He also averaged 2.7 rushing yards per tackle, which was inside the top 15. While his ability in coverage could use some refinement, Shazier is a playmaker to look out for in the run game.
Cleveland Browns: Myles Garrett
Maybe it’s premature to put a rookie on this list, but Garrett is a generational talent. The first overall pick in the draft, Garrett does it all as a pass rusher. There are no weaknesses in that area of his game on tape. He has great burst and speed — enough that teams may have to account for him on the back side of zone runs. Expect him to be a terror on the edge for a long time in Cleveland.
Baltimore Ravens: C.J. Mosley
Mosley, a Second-Team All-Pro last season, has carved out a niche as one of the best linebackers linebackers in football. His 88.0 PFF run defense grade was third at the position last season and his 85.4 overall grade ranked 11th. Mosley also had 41 stops and 14 defeats. Those are stellar numbers. In three years, he already has two Pro Bowl appearances. Expect many more in the future.
Cincinnati Bengals: Vontaze Burfict
Burfict gets a lot of flak for his off-field antics and on-field attitude, rightly so. However, when none of that is going on, he’s one of the best linebackers in football. His 87.1 PFF grade ranked sixth among linebackers last season. Burfict also had 54 stops and 14 defeats. If he can stay on the field, the 27-year old is an impact player.
Jacksonville Jaguars: A.J. Bouye
There are a lot of options on a Jacksonville defense that has made a point of bringing in stars over the last two offseasons. We’ll give the title to Bouye, who signed a five-year, $67.5 million deal this offseason. The 26-year old was a breakout star in Houston last season, ranking sixth among corners with a 59 percent success rate, per FOA.
He also allowed just 6.4 adjusted yards per target and ranked second among corners with a 90.7 PFF grade. With Bouye and Jalen Ramsey, the Jaguars have one of the league’s best corner tandems.
Houston Texans: J.J. Watt
Watt played just three games last season, but honestly, did you think this was going to anyone else? An All-Pro in four straight seasons prior to 2016, Watt led the league in approximate value in both 2014 and 2015. In those two seasons, he also had 38.0 combined sacks and 116 tackles. His lowest PFF grade from 2012-2015 was 94.9. Watt, simply, is absurd.
Indianapolis Colts: Johnathan Hankins
There aren’t many good options on an Indy defense that ranked 29th in DVOA last season, but the newly acquired Hankins fits the bill. You won’t see him racking up sacks, but Hankins is a great run defender. He had a 79 percent run stop rate last season with the New York Giants despite playing out of position. With the Colts putting him back at one-technique, that number could get even higher.
Tennessee Titans: Jurrell Casey
Casey doesn’t get much national recognition, a side effect of playing home games in Nashville, but he wreaked havoc along the line for the Titans last season. His 87.1 PFF grade was 10th among defensive linemen. Casey also had 5.0 sacks, 16 hits and 23 hurries, per FOA, earning his second straight Pro Bowl nod. With the Titans expected to compete this season, don’t be surprised to hear Casey’s name often.
Los Angeles Chargers: Joey Bosa
Bosa played just 12 games in his rookie season. In those 12 games, he had 10.5 sacks, 11 hits and 26 hurries. Bosa also ranked 10th at his position with 1.1 average rushing yards per tackle and racked up 21 defeats, according to FOA. That was enough to win him the Defensive Rookie of the Year award. He could supplement it with a Defensive Player of the Year Award this season.
Oakland Raiders: Khalil Mack
If Bosa does win that award, he’ll have to beat out last year’s winner. The 26-year old led all edge rushers in PFF grading with a 95.2 mark last season. He was an absolute terror as a pass rusher, racking up 11.0 sacks, 20 hits and 50 hurries. And he’s just now entering his prime.
Kansas City Chiefs: Marcus Peters
Peters, a boom or bust corner as a rookie, took the next step in his sophomore year. He ranked sixth at the position with a 57 percent success rate and allowed just 7.3 adjusted yards per target, according to FOA. That was enough to earn Peters the first of many All-Pro nods. He is one of the league’s true shutdown corners.
Denver Broncos: Von Miller
Miller didn’t slow down much after winning Super Bowl 50 MVP. He had 13.5 sacks, 11 hits and 38 hurries last season along with 62 stops. Miller also made his second straight All-Pro team and ranked fourth among edge rushers in PFF grading. At age 28, he shouldn’t be slowing down anytime soon.
New York Giants: Landon Collins
Collins burst onto the scene in 2016, ranking second among safeties in PFF grading with a 92.5 mark. The 23-year old was perhaps the best run defender at his position with a 61 percent stop rate and 4.3 average rushing yards per target, according to FOA. He also had a 53 percent success rate in coverage, ranking 16th among safeties. Collins is the anchor of a secondary that was one of the best in football last season and could be for a long time.
Dallas Cowboys: Sean Lee
Injuries have always been a problem for Lee, but when healthy, he’s one of the best linebackers in football. Last year was a perfect example as to why. The 31-year old played 15 of 16 games and did what he does best: make plays. Lee had an absurd 77 stops and 28 defeats, per FOA. His 87.3 PFF grade was fifth among linebackers and good enough to earn Lee his first All-Pro selection. If he stays healthy, the 31-year old will undoubtedly keep making plays in the middle of the Cowboys’ defense.
Washington Redskins: Josh Norman
The Redskins brought in Norman as their marquee signing last offseason. Though he wasn’t a superstar a la 2015, Norman was still the best player in Washington’s secondary. He was inside the top-25 among corners in both success rate and adjusted yards per target, according to FOA. Norman also allows the Redskins to feel comfortable facing any receiver in football, something few teams can boast.
Philadelphia Eagles: Brandon Graham
It feels fair to say that Graham doesn’t get the superstar recognition he should. The 29-year old edge rusher had just 5.5 sacks last season, but put up 20 hits and 52 hurries, per FOA. Graham also ranked sixth at his position with 0.8 average rushing yards per tackle, according to FOA. His 93.9 PFF grade ranked second among edge rushers last season. Next time you watch an Eagles game, pay some attention to No. 55.
Green Bay Packers: Mike Daniels
Daniels is quietly one of the best run defenders in football. The 28-year old had an astounding 92 percent run stop rate last season, ranking third at his position. Among defensive linemen, Daniels also ranked ninth with an 87.4 PFF grading. He isn’t a name that comes to mind when most people think of Green Bay’s best defenders, but Daniels is the biggest star on that unit.
Chicago Bears: Jerrell Freeman
For all the shortfalls of the 2016 Chicago Bears (and there were a lot of them), bringing in Jerrell Freeman was a rare success. Freeman led all linebackers with a 93.9 PFF grade last season. He had a 68 percent success rate in coverage, ranking fourth at the position, and allowed just 4.6 adjusted yards per target according to FOA. To boot, Freeman had 70 stops in just 12 games, per FOA. Not bad return on a three-year, $12 million deal.
Minnesota Vikings: Danielle Hunter
Hunter caught the eye of football fans last season when he put up 12.5 sacks, eight hits and 19 hurries in just 598 snaps, per FOA. The 23-year old could become Minnesota’s premier pass rusher this season. If head coach Mike Zimmer puts him on the field more often, it will pay dividends. Hunter is on a fast track to being one of the best edge rushers in football.
Detroit Lions: Darius Slay
Slay headlines a terrible Detroit defense thanks to a solid 83.7 PFF grade that was 15th among corners. He isn’t the same caliber as most players on this list, but Slay did rank 16th at his position with 6.6 adjusted yards per target last season. Given that Detroit was dead last in defensive DVOA last season, it should be pretty happy to have a player of Slay’s caliber in the secondary.
Atlanta Falcons: Vic Beasley
Beasley was a breakout star as a pass rusher last season, putting up 15.5 sacks, five hits and 38 hurries, per FOA. The sack numbers could regress a little, as Beasley’s pressure distribution was uneven in 2016, however, he still looks like a star after leading the league in sacks. Beasley also made his first ever All-Pro team last season and it’s hard to see him getting much worse at age 25.
Carolina Panthers: Luke Kuechly
Kuechly missed the end of last season thanks to a concussion, breaking his streak of three straight All-Pro nods. But the linebacker was well on his way to a fourth before getting hurt. His 93.1 PFF grade ranked second at the position last season. Kuechly also had a 69 percent run stop rate and 56 percent success rate in coverage, a testament to his versatility. A new All-Pro streak could start sooner rather than later.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Gerald McCoy
The 29-year-old McCoy just keeps on trucking. He made his fifth straight Pro Bowl appearance last season, as McCoy put up an 83 percent run stop rate, 7.0 sacks, five hits and 28 hurries. That was simply a ho-hum season for him, yet McCoy was still one of the best defensive linemen in football.
New Orleans Saints: Cameron Jordan
Jordan is in the unfortunate position of being a great defender on a terrible defensive team. In 2016, he ranked third among edge rushers with a 92.4 PFF grade. Jordan put up 7.0 sacks, 19 hits and 50 hurries, per FOA, along with 54 stops and 25 defeats. If the Saints ever pair him with some decent teammates on the defensive line, watch out.
Los Angeles Rams: Aaron Donald
Donald’s 98.5 PFF grade led all players — let alone defensive linemen — last season. He is currently in the middle of a holdout that could extend to the regular season. If so, it would be a huge loss to the Rams. Donald had 8.0 sacks, 24 hits, 44 hurries and 10 disruptions last season, per FOA, while ranking sixth at his position in average rushing yards per tackle. If we don’t consider the importance of position, Donald may be the best player in the NFL, period.
Seattle Seahawks: Earl Thomas
Earl Thomas is what makes Seattle’s defense tick, a fact proven last season by what happened when he went down with an injury. Over the first nine weeks of the season, the Seahawks ranked sixth in pass defense DVOA, per Football Outsiders’ premium database. From Week 10 on — Thomas went down in Week 11 — they ranked 25th in the same stat. Simply put, they fell apart. That’s how important Thomas is to the success of this defense.
Arizona Cardinals: Patrick Peterson
Peterson is one of few shutdown corners. Every week, the Cardinals can go into Sunday with confidence that Peterson can stop the opponents’ No. 1 receiver, a huge advantage. Last season, he was 12th among cornerbacks with a 55 percent success rate, per FOA, and helped the Cardinals to a top-10 mark in DVOA against No. 1 wide receivers. He’s earned at least a Pro Bowl appearance in every year of his career and with good reason.
San Francisco 49ers: Reuben Foster
Foster was the 31st pick in the draft, but if he stays healthy and out of trouble — no small ask — he will be one of the best defensive players in this draft. The linebacker has the speed, ability to move laterally and can fit coverage-wise in any scheme. An Alabama product, Foster is a big hitter who will shoot the gaps with success in the run game. He could be San Francisco’s best playmaker on defense for years to come.