As the NFL season draws nearer and nearer, I've decided to help kick off this new blog of mine by doing top player lists for different positions in the NFL. We start off on defense, a key part of any championship caliber team, with a top 15.
15. Terrell Suggs, OLB, Baltimore - "Sizzle" is only this low on the list because of the achilles injury that has him poised to miss the first eight games of this coming season, if not more. Capable of playing linebacker or lining up on the end, Suggs won the 2011 AFC Defensive Player of the Year award with an astounding 14 sacks, two interceptions, and seven forced fumbles. He is a dominant force and helps set the tone for the always excellent Ravens D.
14. Ray Lewis, ILB, Baltimore - One of the greatest to ever play the game, the one constant on the Ravens' defense has been Lewis, who is now 37. Dynamic in all facets of defensive play, Lewis covers large areas of field very well for someone his age and hits like a house. With Suggs' torn achilles, the argument can be made that no player is more important to his defense than Lewis is to Baltimore's.
13. Clay Matthews, ILB, Green Bay - Matthews was utterly dominant in 2010 during a season that saw him win the 2010 NFC Defensive Player of the Year award, but fell back to earth a little bit last season for the Pack. Regardless, he is one of the premier pass rushers in football at the linebacker position, and is also athletic enough to drop back in coverage and excel in ball hunting on plays out of the backfield. Green Bay is moving him around, but he remains superb.
12. Ndamukong Suh, DT, Detroit - The heart and soul of a potentially top-of-the-line Lions defense, the 2nd overall pick in the 2010 draft controls the attention of the offensive line on every play. Like Matthews, he declined a bit in 2011 after a magnificent 2010, but he can rush the passer, occupy blockers, and move laterally and strip tacklers well enough to make plays in the running game. All he has to do now is get his anger under control.
11. James Harrison, OLB, Pittsburgh - Harrison fell off a bit last year because of injuries, and at age 34, he may find it harder than ever to fully recuperate from them and reach his fearsome old self. Another excellent pass rusher because of his relatively small size, Harrison is explosive and can also make plays outside of his opponent's backfield to deliver the bone-jarring hits that place him near the top of the leaderboard in forced fumbles every year.
10. Ed Reed, FS, Baltimore - Not a dominant statistical player, Reed is still, even at age 34, probably the best free safety in the game. An eight-time Pro Bowler, including six in a row, Reed is a terrifying sight down the field for offensive coordinators, wideouts, and quarterbacks and his mere presence is enough to deter throws downfield. He has 57 career interceptions to his name and always seems to run it back a good chunk when he gets his hands on the ball. He may be nearing the end of the line, however, and wants a new deal.
9. Vince Wilfork, NT/DT, New England - The Pats' defenses have underwhelmed the last two seasons, but they would have been downright terrible had it not been for the Fork. Underrated because he is always occupying blockers in the middle of plays and on the bottom of piles, Wilfork is one of the premier defensive players in the NFL and is very versatile for a man of his size. What's more, there is no part of his game - rushing the passer, making plays on the run, or knocking down passes - that he fails to excel at.
8. Haloti Ngata, DT/DE, Baltimore - The fourth and final Raven on this list, Ngata is an absolute monster of a man and would be the signature star on a defense other than Baltimore or Pittsburgh. Equally effective while getting to the quarterback as other linemen in this class, he can play well on the inside or the outside and occupies blockers during the run, an always valuable attribute. Very quick for a 340 pound man, the 28 year-old Ngata is just as important to Baltimore's excellent play on defense as the other stars on his team.
7. Charles Woodson, CB, Green Bay - Incredibly consistent and an eight-time pro bowler, Woodson is seemingly ageless. He can cover much younger wideouts, pick off passes, rush the passer when needed - and he does it all at age 35. A key piece of Green Bay's defense, he is one of the best playmakers on that side of the ball in the NFL and had seven picks last year to go along with 17 break ups.
6. Troy Polamalu, SS, Pittsburgh - Like Reed on his AFC rivals to the south, Polamalu is one of the engines on a Steelers defense that has been very consistent. Reed and Polamalu are almost identical in terms of credentials, but Polamalu gets the edge on this list because he is younger, a more intimidating physical presence, and is more versatile closer to the line of scrimmage. One of the best to ever play the safety position, Polamalu and his hair help set the tone for the steel curtain.
5. Jason Pierre-Paul, DE, New York Giants - The NFL's fourth-leading sacker in 2011, JPP is only 23 and has a ton of development in front of him. He is a threat on every play not only while rushing the passer but making plays in the run game, blocking kicks, and recovering balls on the ground. Given his young age and dominant 2011, I see little reason why Pierre-Paul can't challenge for the NFC Defensive Player of the Year award this upcoming season.
4. DeMarcus Ware, OLB, Dallas - Arguably the NFL's preeminent pass-rusher, Ware totaled 19.5 sacks last season for the Cowboys, working without anyone on the other side, just as he has his whole career. Ware isn't particularly good in coverage, or reading plays, or stopping the run, but man, can he get to the quarterback. He's also never missed a game in his career, which is remarkable for a player that takes as much of a beating as he does. He is simply dominant at what he does best.
3. Jared Allen, DE, Minnesota - Recording an amazing 22 sacks, four forced fumbles, and a pick from his position last season, Allen is the other player who is arguably the best pass rusher in the NFL. Probably the best overall lineman in the game, Allen plays almost every snap and has a relentless motor. The reigning NFC Defensive Player of the Year, Allen is a symbol of consistent excellence.
2. Darrelle Revis, CB, New York Jets - Revis Island exists, and it sucks. Revis is far and away the best cover corner in the NFL and absolutely shuts down an entire side of the field when he is healthy and at his best. There's really not much more I can say here, but if you've ever watched him cover your favorite team's ace wideout, you know.
1. Patrick Willis, ILB, San Francisco - Willis is the most complete defensive player in the NFL today. At the center of the league's best rush defense (by far) in 2011, Willis is the captain and leader of a dominant San Francisco unit. He's smart, mobile, and agile. He can defend the run, the pass, read offenses, and even rush the passer a tad. There's no denying that he brings a little less flair than some of the other players on this list, but building a defense from the ground up, give me P-Will.