By Matt Citak
The time has come. With NFL training camps underway, it feels great to think that from now until February, there will be football on every weekend. With the most glorious time of the year finally here, we are going to take a look at each division around the NFL and break down the best player at each position, on both offense and defense. We already took a look at the best offensive players in the NFC East. Now it is time to dive in to the other side of the ball, and analyze the best defensive players within the division.
DE: Jason Pierre-Paul, New York Giants
After missing half of the 2015 season due to injuries suffered from his infamous fireworks accident, Pierre-Paul looked like a man on a mission last year. The defensive end finished the season with seven sacks in only 12 games. Pierre-Paul was just starting to go on a tear, racking up 5.5 sacks and two forced fumbles in Weeks 11 and 12, when he suffered a groin injury in Week 13 that forced him to miss the remainder of the season. Pierre-Paul was a significant piece of the Giants’ defense, finishing the year second on the team with 24 hurries. His play earned him a shiny new four-year contract after he proved that even with two and a half fingers missing, he can still be a dominant force on the defensive line.
DT: Fletcher Cox, Philadelphia Eagles
Cox signed a massive six-year, $102.6 million contract prior to last season, officially putting him on the radar of opposing offenses around the league. Even with the extra attention, the defensive tackle was able to pick up 43 combined tackles, 6.5 sacks, one forced fumble, and one fumble recovery in 2016. It’s important to note that new defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz had just brought an entirely new defensive scheme to Philadelphia last season, one that Cox was not familiar with. The 26-year-old tackle has also had picture perfect health throughout his first five seasons in the NFL, missing only one game back in his rookie year.
DT: Damon Harrison, New York Giants
Harrison was all the Giants could have dreamed of and more in 2016. “Snacks” had his strongest season in the NFL with career-highs in tackles (86) and sacks (2.5), and was also awarded the honor of the NFL’s Best Run Defender by Pro Football Focus for the second consecutive year. The undrafted free agent was a run-stuffing monster, clogging up lanes and helping to transform the Giants’ defense into one of the strongest against the run in the league. Harrison not only has the ability to disrupt running lanes, but he also actively finishes the play better than any other defensive tackle. Harrison has been a beast on the inside for the last few years, and 2017 should be no different.
DE: Olivier Vernon, New York Giants
As you can see, the Giants defensive line is a very significant reason why the defense was so successful in 2016. Vernon added to the group’s dominance with 8.5 sacks, 63 tackles, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery, and was well-worth the five-year, $85 million contract he received last offseason. The 26-year-old ranked number one overall in Pass Rush Productivity from the Right Side, an advanced statistic that represents a calculation of a player’s impact on the field, by Pro Football Focus, earning a grade of 11.6. Vernon and Pierre-Paul combine to create the most dangerous defensive end combination in the NFL. With both entering the season healthy, New York’s pass rush could be scary good in 2017.
LB: Ryan Kerrigan, Washington Redskins
Kerrigan is hardly a linebacker, but with the Redskins running a 3-4 defense, he gets the nod here. Through six seasons in the NFL, Kerrigan has accomplished the rare and impressive feat of never missing a game. The 6-foot-4, 260-pound Indiana native has had at least 9.5 sacks in each of the last three seasons, including 11 last year, and has forced at least two fumbles each year during that span. Kerrigan is incredibly versatile and athletic, with the ability to play all three downs from either the outside linebacker or defensive end position. With his relentless motor, Kerrigan also tends to attract extra attention from opposing offensive lines, thus making it easier for his teammates to get pressure on the quarterback.
LB: Jordan Hicks, Philadelphia Eagles
Hicks followed up his solid rookie campaign with an even better sophomore season. In his first full year as Philadelphia’s starting middle linebacker, the former third-round pick had 85 tackles, one sack, one fumble recovery, and five interceptions. The definition of a playmaker is someone that makes big plays that impact and change the flow and momentum of a game. You would be hard-pressed to find someone that fits the bill more than Hicks. As noted with Cox, the Eagles were playing in a new defensive scheme in 2016, which makes Hicks’ performance even more noteworthy. 2017 could be the year that the rest of the NFL finally takes notice of the young linebacker.
LB: Sean Lee, Dallas Cowboys
If he could stay healthy, Lee would arguably be one of the league’s best linebackers. His ability to cover opposing team’s offensive weapons is a thing of beauty, and his instinct in finding a way to get to the ball is phenomenal. Even with all of the injuries he has suffered throughout his career, Lee has still caught 12 interceptions, along with his four fumble recoveries. Lee looked like a different linebacker last season, picking up a career-high 145 tackles but with no interceptions. With Lee coming off a strong and healthy 2016 season, the Cowboys hope he and Jaylon Smith will bring some new life to the Dallas linebacker corps.
CB: Josh Norman, Washington Redskins
In his first season with the Redskins, Norman made sure everyone else in the NFC East knew he had arrived. The 29-year-old corner continued his beef with Odell Beckham Jr., while also causing some new controversy with Dez Bryant. However Norman lived up to the massive contract he signed with Washington with his solid 2016 campaign, recording 67 tackles, three interceptions, and a career-high 19 passes defended. Norman certainly still has some room to grow, as he finished last season with a 74.3 passer rating when targeted, which ranked 20th in the league. With more defensive talent on the roster than last season, Washington is hopeful that Norman can revert back to his 2015-form.
CB: Janoris Jenkins, New York Giants
Many questioned the Giants for handing out such a big contract to Jenkins last offseason. Well, after his first season with New York, that is no longer a concern. Jenkins developed into one of the leaders of the Giants’ defense, and served as one of the unit’s most important pieces. Jenkins spent most of 2016 matched up against opposing team’s No. 1 receivers and thrived in the role, completely locking down his side of the field. The sixth-year corner made 49 tackles, caught three interceptions, and set a new career-high with 18 passes defended. It got to the point last season where opposing quarterbacks would hardly throw the ball in Jenkins’ direction. Jenkins proved himself to be one of the league’s top corners last season, and you can bet the Giants are thrilled with their big investment in him.
FS: Malcolm Jenkins, Philadelphia Eagles
While the Eagles’ secondary is among the worst in the league, Jenkins provides a slight glimmer of hope to fans in Philadelphia. The former corner tied his career-best with three interceptions and one forced fumble in 2016, and was able to return two of those turnovers for touchdowns. Jenkins is a fierce and competitive player, one who seemed to greatly benefit from switching teams prior to the 2014 season. His effort and work off the field is probably more impactful than his play on the field, but Jenkins showed last season that he still has plenty of gas left in the tank. If the veteran can continue to get his hands on the ball, Philadelphia will be happy to keep on paying him.
SS: Landon Collins, New York Giants
Talk about bursting onto the scene. After an under-achieving rookie season, Collins emerged as one of the best defensive players in the NFL in 2016. In his second year out of Alabama, Collins became the first player in NFL history to record at least 100 solo tackles, two sacks, five interceptions, and 12 passes defended in a season. His breakout year earned him a spot on the All-Pro team, a spot in the Pro Bowl, Pro Football Focus’ Breakout Player of the Year award, and a third place finish in the NFL Defensive Player of the Year voting. Collins’ ascension to superstar status was a significant reason the Giants defense allowed the second-fewest points per game in the NFL last season. Now considered one of the league’s top safeties, Collins has his sights set on the DPOY award he barely missed in 2016. With another year of experience now on his resume, that seems to be a very achievable goal.