We looked at offensive talent yesterday. Now onto the less heralded defensive side of the football, where plenty of candidates could potentially put together All-Pro seasons.
First Team: JJ Watt, Houston Texans; Muhammad Wilkerson, New York Jets
Watt is the most valuable defensive player in football. He can play anywhere on the defensive line, has the best motor of any defensive lineman in the league, and has the unique skill to swat down passes at the line of scrimmage. Watt led the league with 20.5 sacks, but is much more than just a pass rusher. Watt is an elite run stuffer, and with his high motor and intensity he can run down plays from the backside. With his versatility he can attack the run and pass game from inside the tackle or outside. He uses his arms and locks out better than anyone in the game as well.
Wilkerson is the bright spot on a Jets team that has limited talent. With Rex Ryan putting more of his own touches on this defense I look to Wilkerson to have his best season yet. Like Watt, Wilkerson is a great run stuffer, but I project he will have his best season as a pass rusher to date. He uses his hands and arms very well and has sneaky quickness. He works well down the line and has the "nastiness" needed to excel. Rex will be trying to save his job; Wilkerson will have to have his best season to do it.
Second Team: Cameron Wake, Miami Dolphins; Chandler Jones, New England Patriots
Wake is the best pass rushing 4-3 DE in football right now. He has an extremely quick first step, but has the power to engage with tackles and collapse the pocket. With the addition of a speed rusher like Dion Jordan, though he has BUST written all over him, Wake will be slightly more freed up. Strong and slippery, Wake will put together another All-Pro season.
Chandler Jones showed flashes of high promise last year, and in his second year I expect big things. Jones comes from a family of athletic freaks, as Arthur is a solid defensive end himself and Jon is the UFC Light Heavyweight Champion. He has all the physical tools to be an elite defender, and was still working through growing pains last season. he was very raw coming out of Syracuse, and in his second year I think he puts it together. He has the size, speed, and strength to be an elite pass rusher. If he has improved his pad level and pass rushing moves, he will have a breakout year like so many have had in year 2.
First Team: Geno Atkins, Cincinnati Bengals; Gerald McCoy, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Atkins is the best defensive tackle in football. His quick first step and his elite pass rushing ability from inside make him nearly unstoppable. It is rare to see a DT with over 10 sacks and Atkins finished last season with 12.5. he is still young and improving, which is the scary part. With his quickness he has the ability to stop runs behind the line of scrimmage. He is scary good.
McCoy is often overshadowed by the man who was drafted one spot ahead of him, Ndamukong Suh, but he began to put it together last season. McCoy continues to show improvement and has elite quickness at the position. he has the ability to pressure the pocket from the inside and attack in a Tampa defense suited for his skill set. I think McCoy takes another step forward this season by improving his run stopping, finally reaching his potential.
Second Team: Vince Wilfork, New England Patriots; Haloti Ngata, Baltimore Ravens
Wilfork is outstanding against the run. He has a wide, stocky frame and can stuff double teams at the line to disrupt the running game. Wilfork is not going to consistently rush the passer, but has the ability to drive the pocket backwards and create opportunities for his teammates. Though he has an unimpressive frame, he has sneaky quickness and great technique. Wilfork is constantly making plays in the run game, and I have no doubts that his high level of play stops.
Ngata will have to step up for a defense that was gutted by free agency and retirement. Ngata can play both inside and outside and consistently makes plays against the run while collapsing the pocket. Ngata's ability up front consistently helped Ray Lewis and Danell Ellerbee make plays for the Super Bowl Champions. Ngata will become the leader of this defense and raise his game to maintain his All-Pro status.
First Team: DeMarcus Ware, Dallas Cowboys; Clay Matthews, Green Bay Packers
Ware will be motivated to put up better numbers than the 11.5 sacks he had last season. It is a testament to how good a player is when 11.5 sacks is a down year, though he was playing through an injury. Ware has a rare combination of size and speed, as he has the quickness to win on a speed rush and the power to drive tackles deep into the pocket. The loss of Tyrone Crawford will put more pressure on Ware, who will respond, and deliver.
Matthews is a fan favorite, as his He-Man like looks attract the ladies while his ferocious pass rushing ability gets the men standing. Matthews has the strength to bull rush tackles deep into the backfield, the explosive quickness to beat them on the edge, and the hands to work when his initial rush is delayed. He is one of the most consistent tacklers in the game as well, as he hits and wraps up extremely well. He uses his upper body strength as well as his constantly churning legs to drive runners back. I think Matthews is in for his best season, as I project him as the NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
Second Team: Aldon Smith, San Francisco 49ers; Brian Orakpo, Washington Redskins
Smith is a popular pick for the first team due to his 19.5 sacks last season. He has the ability to bully blockers and the speed to dip around them to constantly disrupt the quarterback. Smith consistently pops off the television with his constant disruption of the backfield. A constant knock on Smith is that his play declined with Justin Smith, as many pundits think he is more dependent than others on his elite teammates. I take that into slight consideration, but still believe Smith is among the elite at the position.
I love Brian Orakpo's ability. He has great strength at the position and has been consistent over the course of his career. He is coming off a a torn pectoral muscle, a major injury, but I think he comes back with a vengeance. The progress of his quarterback and the positive outlook that exists currently in Washington will only help Orakpo come back strong. With Ryan Kerrigan on the other side, Washington will be able to pressure the quarterback, and Orakpo will be the lead man. I see his best season yet.
First Team: Luke Kuechly, Carolina Panthers; Patrick Willis, San Francisco 49ers
Kuechly is always around the football. He led the league in total tackles as a rookie. He has great speed and athleticism at the position, and like JJ Watt, he plays with an extremely high motor. Kuechly is as smooth as can be in his pass drops, and with one year under his belt, his ability in coverage will only improve. He is active all over the field and will take the next step.
Most fans and analysts believe Willis has been the best inside linebacker in football for a few years now. He has great instincts and vision, while also having the ability to shed blocks to make plays. He is a sure tackler with great strength and lateral quickness. Willis is excellent in coverage against tight ends and can make plays in the passing game. I see another elite season.
Second Team: NaVorro Bowman, San Francisco 49ers; Derrick Johnson, Kansas City Chiefs
Bowman was a first team All-Pro last season alongside Willis. He is quick and smooth at the position, and can make an impact rushing the passer at a position not as well known for it. He is a very sure tackler who doesn't miss the opportunity to make plays. His agility allows him to be a play maker all over the field.
Johnson is a player I think has been under appreciated by most fans. Whenever someone watches the Cheifs you will consistently hear Johnson's name. He is solid against the run, has the ability to rush the passer, and excels in coverage. Johnson was a first team All-Pro in 2011, and his all around game will bring him back to that level this season. With Kansas City sure to improve, he will only give Johnson the credit he deserves.
First Team: Darelle Revis, Tampa Bay Buccaneers; Joe Haden, Cleveland Browns
Revis is coming off of a major knee injury, but at his highest level he is arguably the greatest corner to ever play. He has the ability to cover inside or outside and shut down the number one option by himself. Revis dominates one part of the field and takes so much pressure off the defense as a whole. Quarterbacks rarely ever test Revis because they already know the outcome. He's that special.
Haden is the size and length that not many corners have. He is physical, yet quick enough to play off receivers. His long arms allow him to make plays on the ball that other corners just can't make, as well as help him recover when he is rarely beaten. His physicality allows him to step up in the run game and make plays. The completeness of his game allow him to earn an All-Pro honor.
Second Team: Richard Sherman, Seattle Seahawks; Patrick Peterson, Arizona Cardinals
Sherman has great size, confidence, and ball skills. Sherman had 8 interceptions last season and has rare instincts that allow him to make plays. Most corners do not see the football as well as Sherman, allowing him to consistently attack. For his size he has incredible quickness, allowing him to cover underneath and deep routes. He is willing to step up and help in the run game, with always raises your stock as a defender. He wants to back up all the smack talk he brings as well; I think he will once again.
Peterson was highly touted coming out of LSU, but has yet to truly reach his potential. Peterson has incredible speed for his size. He is known for his ability in the return game, which helps him make big time plays when he is able to intercept the football. Peterson will look to be more consistent in coverage, as he needs to recover too often, but another year will only help him. He is a risk taker, but his big play ability is overwhelming. He'll take another step forward, allowing the media to love his game as much as the fans.
First Team: Earl Thomas, Seattle Seahawks; Jairus Byrd, Buffalo Bills
Thomas has excellent ball skills and can consistently make plays in coverage. He is not a big guy, but he makes big plays and has return skills. He has elite speed and quickness at the position. I expect Thomas to have his best season in coverage yet. If he can get a little better against the run he'll surely be an All-Pro.
Byrd is the best safety in coverage in football. He can play in both man and zone coverage, which not all safeties can do. He has great ball skills, as he has previously led the league in interceptions. Quarterbacks and offensive coordinators do not test the proven Byrd as much anymore, showing the respect he has earned among his peers. He has the confidence to step up in the run game and make plays as well.
Second Team: Kam Chancellor, Seattle Seahawks; Eric Weddle, San Diego Chargers
Chancellor is a guy I love to watch. He is a massive safety and constantly delivers bone crunching hits on opposing receivers. He is intimidating when you come into his space because of his rare size at the position. Chancellor is most known for these hits, but I think he is a bit underrated in coverage. As Seattle progresses this season I expect Chancellor will step up along side this superstar defensive backfield and become more than just a big hit guy.
Weddle has quietly become the most consistent safety in the NFL. He is great in coverage and aggressive against the run. The complete game he shows is what earns him his respect, as he lacks flash and superstar charisma. Weddle is the best player on the San Diego roster, and is consistency is earning him more and more credit among the media and fans, as his peers know how talented he is.