Although only 12 NFL teams are still alive this season, each franchise can point to at least one bright spot for the year. To help them out, we’ve identified the best defensive player from each team this season.
Arizona Cardinals: Tyrann Mathieu, CB, 91.6
Signature stat: 41 defensive stops (first among CBs)
There were a few players on the Cardinals’ roster who had a case for this spot, with two first team All-Pro corners to choose from. Mathieu’s versatility working out of the slot and at safety, offering impact in multiple phases of the game (positive grade as a run defender, pass rusher and in coverage), gives him the edge over long-time teammate Patrick Peterson this season.
Atlanta Falcons: Desmond Trufant, CB, 83.7
Signature stat: Completion percentage allowed below 60 percent for third straight year
Often overlooked in an increasingly crowded market of top corners, Trufant has been one of the best since he entered the league, and stood out with consistent play once again in 2015. He may not make as many plays on the ball as some would like to see, but few corners give away less than Trufant.
Baltimore Ravens: Brandon Williams, NT, 83.0
Signature stat: 38 defensive stops (third among NTs)
Another exceptional season in run defense for the Ravens’ former third-round pick; Williams has only graded negatively in run defense in six of 34 games over the last two seasons. Williams’ best four games came in the first half of the year.
Buffalo Bills: Ronald Darby, CB, 87.1
Signature stat: 13 pass defenses (tied for fifth-most among CBs)
At the beginning of the season, most would have assumed a defensive lineman would be in this spot for the Bills. A combination of Darby exceeding expectations, along with the Bills’ defensive front underwhelming in the first year under Rex Ryan, sees one of this season’s best rookies lead the Bills’ defense from the secondary.
Carolina Panthers: Luke Kuechly, LB, 99.9
32 linebackers played more snaps than Kuechly during the regular season, but none had a bigger impact than the Panthers’ star. A force against the run and pass, Kuechly continued to provide impact plays and recorded a career-low six missed tackles.
Chicago Bears: Pernell McPhee, ED, 87.6
Signature stat: 16.5 pass rushing productivity (first among 3-4 OLBs)
Rarely does a free agent signing pan out so well in year one as the Bears’ signing of McPhee did. Proving himself not to be a product of playing alongside Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil, McPhee accounted for nearly a quarter of the pressure the Bears’ defense generated in 2015.
Cincinnati Bengals: Geno Atkins, DI, 93.2
Signature stat: 81 QB pressures (first among DTs)
Back near his 2012 best, Atkins was a force in the heart of the Bengals’ defense as their top pass rusher. Atkins squares off against the Steelers for the third time this weekend, and has 10 pressures in his first two meetings with Pittsburgh this season.
Cleveland Browns: Karlos Dansby, LB, 72.0
Signature stat: 87.6 coverage grade (fifth among LBs)
Competition was thin on the ground on this Browns’ defense, and Dansby’s subpar work against the run would see him lose out on most other teams. Focusing on the positives, Dansby’s three interceptions were tied for third-most among linebackers this season.
Dallas Cowboys: Sean Lee, LB, 92.3
Signature stat: 825 snaps played (second-most in career)
Had he not chosen to sit the final game of the season, Lee would have played a career-high in snaps this season, and the Cowboys certainly felt the benefit of his presence on the field. The Cowboys’ defense is geared towards channeling ball carriers to Lee and Barry Church, with that duo accounting for 28 percent of the Dallas’ defensive stops this season.
Denver Broncos: Von Miller, ED, 91.8
Signature stat: 21 QB hits (tied career-high)
Miller continues to be a one-man wrecking crew for the Broncos, recording multiple pressures in every single game this season. It’s a staggering statement of how tremendous Miller is when you can say that this was still short of his career-best season.
Detroit Lions: Darius Slay, CB, 87.7
Signature stat: 10 pass defenses (career high)
Slay engineered a remarkable turnaround after surrendering 123 yards and a touchdown to the Broncos in his worst performance of the season back in Week 3. Thereafter, only two corners earned a higher grade than Slay, and he only allowed 438 yards in the subsequent 13 games.
Green Bay Packers: Mike Daniels, DI, 90.9
Signature stat: 10.6 pass rush productivity (seventh among 3-4 DEs)
The only downside in Daniels’ season is that his production dropped off late in the year, failing to record a sack or hit since the Packers’ Week 11 win in Minnesota. Prior to that, Daniels had taken a step up among the league’s elite 3-4 defensive ends, continuing his consistent progression since he entered the NFL.
Houston Texans: J.J. Watt, DI, 95.6
Signature stat: 89 QB pressures (80+ for third straight season)
What more can you say about J.J. Watt? A broken hand made him look like a mortal defensive end for a couple of weeks, but in the last two weeks of the season, he produced devastating displays to help power the Texans to the AFC South title. This is no longer a one-man defense, but Watt is still the unquestioned leader.
Indianapolis Colts: Jerrell Freeman, LB, 90.6
Signature stat: Five missed tackles (career low)
After excelling in coverage last season, Freeman took a massive step forward as a disruptive force in run defense. Freeman earned a grade below -1.0 in run defense only once all season, and finished the year on a streak of eight straight games with a positive overall grade.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Telvin Smith, LB, 64.7
Signature stat: 61 defensive stops (team-high)
Smith offered some of the very few bright moments on a desperately disappointing defense in Jacksonville this season. Smith started slowly with eight missed tackles in the first four weeks of the year, but finished strong—only four other linebackers earned a higher grade after the first six weeks of the season.
Kansas City Chiefs: Derrick Johnson, LB, 88.3
Signature stat: 60 defensive stops (fifth among LBs)
After Johnson played only 32 snaps in 2014, the Chief was back at his best this season in both run defense and pass coverage. Kansas City edge defenders may steal the show sometimes, but Johnson is a star in the heart of the front seven.
Miami Dolphins: Olivier Vernon, ED, 92.2
Signature stat: 57 pressures since Week 10 (most among 4-3 DEs)
Under pressure to perform after Cameron Wake was lost to injury in Week 8, Vernon delivered emphatically. Vernon racked up more than 70 percent of his pressure over the final eight weeks of the season, registering at least four pressures and multiple knockdowns (sacks and hits) in each of his last eight games.
Minnesota Vikings: Harrison Smith, S, 92.7
Signature stat: 11 pressures (second among safeties)
A star-studded Vikings’ defense gave a wealth of options for best defender, with Linval Joseph and Anthony Barr more than deserving of this title as well. Ultimately, Smith gets the nod for a spectacularly well-rounded season, adept in deep or underneath coverage and stepping up in run support.
New York Giants: Robert Ayers, ED, 88.5
Signature stat: 48 QB pressures (team-high)
Finally getting a bigger role in the Giants’ defensive line rotation this season, Ayers delivered in spades after his return from injury against the Cowboys in Week 7. He recorded multiple pressures in every game he played this season, and earned a negative overall game grade only once all year (Week 9 at Tampa Bay).
New York Jets: Muhammad Wilkerson, DI, 89.2
Signature stat: 45 percent of snaps as an edge defender
A broken leg in Week 17 was a cruel way for Wilkerson’s season to end after delivering some of the best football of his career, proving once and for all that he is worthy of a hefty second contract. Wilkerson racked up multiple pressures in every game and multiple stops in 11-of-16 games.
New England Patriots: Jabaal Sheard, ED, 88.2
Signature stat: Graded out positively every game this season
The Browns chose to walk away from Sheard, and he made them rue that decision immediately. Brought in as a complementary piece for Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones, Sheard outperformed them both. Earning a positive grade in every game he played this season, Sheard is proof that being outside the starting lineup doesn’t mean a player can’t provide the impact of a starter.
New Orleans Saints: Cameron Jordan, ED, 89.9
Signature stat: 70 pressures (tied for fifth among 4-3 DEs)
A bad defense doesn’t mean that every player on the unit isn’t pulling their weight; Jordan was a beacon of excellence on a consistently listless Saints’ defense. Jordan topped 70 pressures for the second time in his career, but those playing behind him couldn’t capitalize on his consistently disruptive play.
Oakland Raiders: Khalil Mack, ED, 95.8
Signature stat: 54 defensive stops (career-high)
Mack’s performance against the Broncos in Week 14 will live long in the memory of Denver fans; regardless of who was trying to block him, that was a truly special performance. Last year, Mack was arguably the league’s best run defender, and he followed it up in his second season by being arguably the league’s best pass rusher. The Raiders have themselves one of the league’s truly elite defenders in Mack.
Philadelphia Eagles: Malcolm Jenkins, S, 89.8
Signature stat: 47.0 percent of snaps played in slot
A versatile weapon for the Eagles’ defense, Jenkins was at home in the box, deep, and covering the slot. More than just a versatile defender, Jenkins offered genuine quality at a variety of positions, vindicating the Eagles’ decision to sign him in 2014 after an underwhelming start to his career in New Orleans.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Cameron Heyward, DI, 85.5
Signature stat: 58 QB pressures (team-high)
A year in transition for the Steelers’ defense led to some inconsistency across the unit, and Heyward didn’t escape that. However, true lows were rare for Heyward, and when he was at his best early in the season, he produced games to match any 3-4 defensive end in the NFL. The Steelers will want Heyward at his destructive best to help support a Super Bowl-caliber offense.
San Diego Chargers: Jason Verrett, CB, 86.8
Signature stat: 11 straight positive game grades
The only disappointment in Jason Verrett’s career so far is that he hasn’t proven that he can stay healthy and on the field. When he has played, Verrett has been a match for most corners in the NFL, but his 965 snaps over the last two seasons combined were topped by 26 corners this season alone.
San Francisco 49ers: Ian Williams, NT, 85.6
Signature stat: 38 defensive stops (second-most on team)
Only the returning NaVorro Bowman was more productive for the 49ers this season, but even Bowman couldn’t match Williams’ performance level. Finally entrenched as the 49ers’ starting nose tackle after injuries curtailed each of his last two seasons, Williams finished the season on a tear with 19 stops over the final six weeks—as many as J.J. Watt.
Seattle Seahawks: Richard Sherman, CB, 86.5
Signature stat: 433 yards allowed in coverage (third straight year under 500)
After a couple of bumps early in the season (four negative coverage grades in the first six weeks), Sherman continued to be, well, Richard Sherman, and enters the season potentially a little under the radar for just how well he is playing. After the Seahawks’ home defeat to Carolina, no corner earned a higher grade than Sherman, who allowed only 218 yards on 43 targets in that 11-week spell.
St. Louis Rams: Aaron Donald, DI, 99.9
Signature stat: 12.4 pass rushing productivity (first among DTs)
There is no greater compliment to pay a defender than to say that he is matching the best performances of J.J. Watt, and that is just what Donald did for the Rams this season. He started the year by demolishing the Seahawks in Week 1, and ended it in a similar vein against the Seahawks once again, as well as the 49ers. Firmly in the running for our Defensive Player of the Year award.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Gerald McCoy, DI, 73.0
Signature stat: 41 QB pressures (Most on team for third straight year)
In spite of playing through injury and being the focus of every opponent’s pass protection schemes this season, McCoy was still the Buccaneers’ most productive defensive lineman in 2015. A lack of a supporting cast around McCoy, and a down year for Lavonte David, makes this McCoy’s accolade again, even when he struggled through injuries.
Tennessee Titans: Jurrell Casey, DI, 88.4
Signature stat: 51 QB pressures (team-high)
Stranded on a perennial struggler, Casey continues to be starved of the attention and accolades his performances deserve. That Casey was still the Titans’ most productive pass rusher, in spite of their investment in Derrick Morgan and Brian Orakpo, is a remarkable endorsement of his importance to this Tennessee defense.
Washington Redskins: Bashaud Breeland, CB, 82.1
Signature stat: 11 pass defenses (tied for ninth among CBs)
After a difficult rookie season, Bashaud Breeland blossomed in his second year, though a difficult end to the season took some of the gloss off of his performance. Breeland let up 31 percent of his yardage total for the season (238-of-752 yards) over the final three weeks, but prior to that, was our eighth-highest graded cornerback in coverage.