By Matt Citak
The time has come. With NFL training camps underway, there will officially be football on every weekend from now until February. 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. We already took a look at the best players on offense and defense in the NFC East, along with the AFC East’s best offensive players. Now it is time to check out the AFC East’s top players on the defensive side of the ball.
DE: Cameron Wake, Miami Dolphins
Wake turned 35 back in January, but you never would have guessed that based on his performance last season. The 6-foot-3 defensive end played in all 16 games, finishing the year with 29 combined tackles, 11.5 sacks, five forced fumbles, and his first career interception. What made his season even more impressive is the fact that it came after his 2015 campaign was cut short due to a torn Achilles. Wake’s play earned him his fifth trip to the Pro Bowl and his fourth time being named an All-Pro (thrice as a second-team, including 2016, and once as a first-team). Wake signed a two-year extension with the Dolphins during the offseason, and has shown absolutely no signs of slowing down anytime soon.
DT: Ndamukong Suh, Miami Dolphins
Suh has been one of the best defensive tackles, if not the best, in the NFL for the last five years. The 30-year-old tackle has generated 118 total pressures and 80 defensive stops in his last two seasons with the Dolphins, while playing more than 1,000 snaps each year. In addition to the pressures and stops, Suh missed only one tackle in 2016 and added six passes defended. He had the second-lowest sack total of his career last season (five), but counteracted that with racking up his highest combined tackle total (72) in his seven NFL seasons. Pro Football Focus recently ranked Suh No. 32 in their list of Top 50 Players of 2017, and with his consistent play over the last few years, there is no reason to think he won’t live up to that ranking this season.
DT: Leonard Williams, New York Jets
Williams took a big step up in his second NFL season, increasing his sack total to seven, forcing the first two fumbles of his career, and making his first trip to the Pro Bowl. Williams has the ability to line up anywhere on the line, evidenced by his seven or more pressures from five different alignment techniques along the defensive front for New York in 2016. He ended the year with 55 total QB pressures, but really showed his worth in the run game. The 6-foot-5 lineman was the only interior defender to come within five total defensive stops of the Giants’ Damon Harrison, who led the league at their position. Williams has already established himself as an elite run defender who can also get after the quarterback, and provides the abysmal Jets with the slightest bit of hope.
DE: Sheldon Richardson, New York Jets
Richardson’s numbers last season were far from flashy. His 1.5 sacks were the fewest of his career, and his 62 combined tackles was the third-lowest of his four seasons. Yet what you don’t see in those numbers is how he performed against the run. Richardson tied for the fifth-highest run-defense grade among all edge defenders in 2016 by PFF. He also finished third among 4-3 defensive ends in run-stop percentage at 11.5 percent, and second among ends in total stops with 31. Entering a contract year, Richardson will be as motivated as ever to return to his old form as one of the league’s top linemen.
LB: Dont’a Hightower, New England Patriots
While he has started almost every game he has played in since entering the league in 2012, Hightower had his true coming-out party in 2016. The 27-year-old linebacker recorded 65 combined tackles, 2.5 sacks, one forced fumble, and two passes defended in 2016, while finishing among the top linebackers in total pressures. Hightower was honored for his play by making his first Pro Bowl appearance, as well as receiving his first All-Pro nomination (second-team). The linebacker also played a significant role in New England’s comeback win during the Super Bowl, as his forced fumble deep in Falcons’ territory resulted in the eventual Patriots’ touchdown that made it a one-possession game. Hightower looks like he’s finally entering his prime, which is not good news for the rest of the AFC East.
LB: Gerald Hodges, Buffalo Bills
The lack of quality linebacker depth in this division is quite incredible, but Hodges gets the spot. Hodges was not good in 2014 or 2015, which made his strong 2016 campaign even more surprising. The fifth-year linebacker played in 15 games for San Francisco last season, picking up 83 combined tackles, three sacks, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery, and two interceptions. Hodges was productive across all areas. He finished the year ranked in the top-16 among inside linebackers in run-stop percentage, tackling efficiency, and coverage snaps per reception, as well as 16th among all off-the-ball linebackers in passer rating allowed (87.3), according to PFF. The Bills signed Hodges this offseason to a one-year deal worth under $1 million, which could prove to be a massive steal.
CB: Malcolm Butler, New England Patriots
When people think of Butler, the first thing that comes to mind is his interception of Russell Wilson in Super Bowl XLIX. But after his performance last season, the 27-year-old corner proved he cannot be defined by one just play. Butler has developed into one of the NFL’s top cornerbacks, making 63 combined tackles, four interceptions, 17 passes defended, a forced fumble and two fumble recoveries in 2016. Butler was named a second-team All-Pro in this breakout season, earning himself the fourth-highest overall grade and the third-highest coverage grade among corners by PFF. He played like a premier talent in pass coverage, and with a big payday coming after the 2017 season, the best may still lie ahead for Butler.
CB: Byron Maxwell, Miami Dolphins
After struggling mightily in his one season in Philadelphia, Maxwell was dealt to the Dolphins last offseason. The change of scenery was just what the veteran corner needed, as Maxwell delivered possibly his strongest season in 2016. Despite missing the final three games of the season due to injuries, Maxwell ended the year with 53 combined tackles, four forced fumbles, two interceptions, and 15 passes defended. Maxwell was actually benched during Week Four, which seemed to motivate the corner more than ever. He responded to the benching by not allowing more than 42 yards in a game for the rest of the season, with the longest catch he allowed being 19 yards. Maxwell wound up allowing the fewest receiving yards per coverage snap of any corner in the AFC East.
CB: Stephon Gilmore, New England Patriots
New England’s signing of Gilmore immediately gave them one of the top corner combinations in the NFL with him and Butler. Gilmore had a very strong year with the Bills, collecting a career-high five interceptions to go with his 12 passes defended, and made his first Pro Bowl appearance. The Patriots rewarded Gilmore with a massive five-year, $65 million contract. If he can repeat his 2016 performance this season, the Patriots will be incredibly happy with their investment. Gilmore ranked eighth out of 117 qualified corners in coverage snaps per target at 7.9, and is only turning 27 next month. New England appears set to have one of the strongest secondaries in the league for the next few years.
FS: Devin McCourty, New England Patriots
Add McCourty to the list of Patriots players that had one of their bests seasons in 2016. While he has been consistently good since entering the league in 2010, McCourty’s coverage skills truly blossomed last season. The soon-to-be 30-year-old ranked fourth among 90 qualified safeties with an 89.6 overall grade from PFF, but his 91.9 coverage grade was the highest. His stats were not spectacular, but that is largely due to the fact that quarterbacks avoided throwing the ball in his direction as much as possible. McCourty made his second trip to the Pro Bowl and his third All-Pro second-team, all while playing the third-highest number of defensive snaps (1,209) among all NFL safeties.
SS: Reshad Jones, Miami Dolphins
Jones was forced to miss the final 10 games of 2016 because of a torn rotator cuff, yet he still earns the final spot on this list. Jones was on pace to have an amazing season, recording 51 combined tackles, an interception, and four passes defended in only six games. PFF recognized the veteran safety for his stellar play, rewarding him with the sixth-highest overall grade, and fifth-highest coverage grade among all the league’s safeties. Jones allowed a passer rating of just 42.8 in his six games in 2016, and was one of the best run-defending safeties in the NFL, picking up 11 run stops. With the Dolphins giving him a five-year, $60 million contract this offseason, Jones has a lot to prove in 2017.
Matt Citak is a producer for CBS Local Sports and a proud Vanderbilt alum. Follow him on Twitter or send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.