10 best AFC defensive players right now

Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt (99) celebrates after he sacked Tennessee Titans quarterback Zach Mettenberger during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 1, 2015, in Houston. (AP Photo/Eric Christian Smith)

PFF Senior Analyst Sam Monson released his top 101 players heading into the 2016 season last week, and with it, we saw plenty of discussion about who the best players in the league are on both sides of the ball. Here we are going to focus in on the defensive talent in the AFC.

1. J.J. Watt, DE, Texans

There really isn’t too much more that can be said about the generational superstar from Waukesha, Wisc. He had an “off” year in 2015 (partially due to being injured for the last quarter of the season), which would be a phenomenal year by anyone else’s standards—90 total pressures, 19 sacks, 34 QB hits, and eight batted passes. The lofty standards he has set for himself haven’t been reached by anyone since 2007, even though Aaron Donald almost matched Watt’s 2013–2014 astronomical grades last season.

With 85 career sacks in just five seasons, Watt’s destruction as a pass-rusher is obvious. He also racks up QB hits like no one else, and is a dominate force against the run, grading among the top-four interior defenders in that regard each of the past four seasons. Watt has led the league in stops in four straight seasons, and came in third his rookie year. Unless Aaron Donald starts breaking the PFF scale for the next few years, or Khalil Mack makes another big leap in year three, Watt’s reign as the best player in the NFL won’t be relinquished anytime soon.

[More: See Sam Monon's breakdown of why J.J. Watt is the best player in football right now.]

2. Khalil Mack, OLB, Raiders

Khalil Mack's rookie season (2014) was very impressive, with just two games in which he failed to make an overall positive impact on the field.

Khalil Mack 2014

As good as Mack’s rookie season was, though, his sophomore campaign was several levels better. He epitomized this in his absolute dominance against Denver in Week 14, recording five sacks, two hits, and two hurries to go along with a dominant game against the run.

Khalil Mack 2015

Mack came into the league and immediately established himself one of the best edge defenders in the NFL. As a rookie, he was criticized for his lack of an impact as a pass-rusher because he only had four sacks, but he also combined that with 10 QB hits and 40 hurries, very respectable numbers that placed him in the top-10 in total QB pressures in 2014. Fast-forward to 2015, and Mack asserted his dominance in all facets of the game, leading him to cause confusion as to what position he actually plays (voted an All-Pro at two positions). The scary thing about Mack is that he could conceivably be even better in 2016, even though he led all edge defenders in sacks and hurries this past season. Mack’s pass-rushing productivity was 12.3, which bested J.J. Watt by 0.1. The Raider will likely be in the running for Defensive Player of the Year in 2016, and even the coveted Dwight Stephenson Award, given to the best player in the NFL by PFF.

3. Von Miller, OLB, Broncos

Like Mack, Von Miller came into the league and started terrorizing opposing OTs on day one. Miller’s sack numbers took off immediately, recording 13 his rookie year, and have never dipped below that when playing a full season (he was suspended six games and injured in one in 2013). As good as he was in the playoffs, the Bronco arguably had the worst regular season of his career in 2015—which was still top-three among all edge defenders in the NFL. Mack and Miller tied for the most pressures of all OLBs in the regular season, but Miller did so on 86 fewer pass-rushes, leading to the third-best pass-rushing productivity of all 3-4 OLBS.

If Miller and GM John Elway can’t reach an agreement this summer, the Broncos' devastating defense will take a massive hit. As good as the Denver secondary is, its efficiency will suffer without Miller’s disruptive pressure. With 32 sacks and 34 hits, the past two seasons (including the playoffs), the former Texas A&M Aggie has firmly solidified his spot as one of the best defensive players in the AFC.

4. Justin Houston, OLB, Chiefs

While Mack and Miller immediately started dominating as edge defenders, Justin Houston’s rise to superstar status was more gradual and in line with what you’d expect from a third-round draft pick early in his career. If you were to redraft the 2011 class, Houston should go in the top 15 of the first round, despite the enormous amount of talent that was in that class. Houston was on his way to an even better year in 2015 than he put forth in his 23-sack 2014 campaign before suffering a knee injury that sidelined him for all but 14 plays of the last six weeks of the season, and required surgery in the offseason. While he wasn’t on a historic pace in sacks, he was well ahead of getting pressure on the QB, falling just three hits and nine hurries shy of his 2014 levels. Finishing third, first, and second the past three years, respectively, in pass-rushing productivity, Houston gets pressure on the QB on a per-snap basis better than anyone in the NFL. If the former Georgia Bulldog can rebound from his surgery and regain his pre-injury form, he’ll push Miller and Mack for the best defensive player in the AFC.

5. Geno Atkins, DT, Bengals

Geno Atkins was close to J.J. Watt-levels in 2012 before injuring his knee in 2013. As Monson stated in 101 list, it took Atkins almost two years to get back to that pre-injury level of play. If he can build on his tremendous 2015 season, the Bengal will have a very good case for moving towards the top of this list next year.

Geno Atkins season

One of the most impressive stats Atkins has is his penalty tally, earning just 11 in the past six seasons—Ndamukong Suh earned 18 in 2015 alone.

The Bengals landed an absolute steal in DT Andrew Billings—PFF’s No. 23 overall player in the 2016 draft class—with the 123rd pick. The addition of Billings will only eat up double-teams to allow Atkins to face single-blocks more often, and thus become even more disruptive. Quick, explosive, and tremendous with his hands, Atkins is a complete package on the defensive line from the 3-tech position.

6. Chris Harris Jr., CB, Broncos

The former Kansas Jayhawk has been the best cornerback in the AFC the past three seasons, despite all 32 teams passing on him in all seven rounds of the 2011 draft. The other Jayhawk, Aqib Talib, got most of the hype and praise, but Harris has played at an entirely different level since 2012. The only blip in Harris’s game is when he faces Antonio Brown. The Bronco is a three-time PFF All-Pro (the last three consecutive seasons), allowing just 0.80 yards per coverage snap during that time frame—a mark only bested by Richard Sherman. Watch his game against Green Bay, and you'll notice his ability to completely shut down Randall Cobb. Harris uses his hands well and has the agility and smarts to cover any WR in the NFL not named Antonio Brown.

7. Ndamukong Suh, DT, Dolphins

Unless Ndamukong Suh reaches J.J. Watt-type levels for the next three seasons, he’ll be forever deemed overrated and a bust by the masses because of his massive contract. The truth is that he had a career-year in 2015, despite recording just six sacks. If it weren’t for his obscene number of penalties, Suh would have graded higher than Atkins in 2015. The Dolphin ranked fourth in pass-rushing productivity among his positional peers, and led all defensive tackles in batted passes (five). With a new coaching staff in Miami, the distractions that held back the Dolphins' defense won’t be there. If Mario Williams decides to show up in 2016 and Cameron Wake can return from a torn Achilles, it’ll allow Suh to continue to disrupt from the interior and “prove” his worth.

8. Jamie Collins, LB, Patriots

Jamie Collins is a jack-of-all-trades at the linebacker position. He doesn’t dominate in any one role like Luke Kuechly does in pass coverage and run defense, but he is very good at all facets of the game. Collins has the athleticism to cover TEs and HBs effectively, the explosiveness to rush the passer, and the size and strength to defend the run. The former Southern Mississippi linebacker is arguably the most versatile player in the NFL, and allows Bill Belichick to employ a defense that confuses opposing quarterbacks. With the only knock against Collins being his 34 missed tackles the past two seasons, the Patriot is the best linebacker in the AFC.

9. Jason Verrett, CB, Chargers

Jason Verrett has yet to receive the praise that cornerbacks of his ability and production are often adorned, despite being a first-round pick. Verrett missed 10 games his rookie season, and has just four interceptions and five pass defenses in his first two pro years, but his ability to shut down opposing wide receivers on a consistent basis is what lands him on this list. The former TCU Horned Frog tied Tyrann Mathieu graded with the highest coverage grade in 2015, at 91.5. Verrett struggles against the run (earning a paltry 35.6 run-defense grade in 2015), but that can be forgiven considering his elite coverage. With the addition of Casey Hayward to the Chargers' secondary, San Diego could very well field the best trio of cornerbacks in the NFL in 2016. Verrett’s play in coverage has been so impressive that colleague Nathan Jahnke made the case that the Charger could become the next great NFL CB. He’ll need to stay healthy and start making plays on the ball more often, but Verrett should start getting national recognition for his play.

10. Sheldon Richardson, DE, Jets

Sheldon Richardson was played a bit out of position in 2015, as head coach Todd Bowles tried to field all of their best interior players on the field at the same time.

In 2014, Richardson played his more natural position as an interior defender at almost 70 percent of his snaps. In 2015, he played on the edge, out of his comfort zone at almost 60 percent of his snaps. The fact that he was able to adjust to this transition and still play at a high level after missing the first four games shows his athleticism and ability. The former Missouri Tiger disrupted the passer at a higher level (one more pressure in 2015 than 2014, despite 61 fewer pass-rush snaps) and has proven that he can penetrate at an elite level from any position on the defensive front. While he struggled in run defense in 2015 with the changes, expect to see the Jet bounce back to his 2013–2014 levels, where he graded among the top-three interior defenders.

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