The 32 best defenders in the NFL
By Connor Byrne
Of the 32 players on this list, 20 are first-round picks. The latest player chosen was in the sixth round, while one was taken in a past supplemental draft.
The team with the most representatives is New England (four), while eight other organizations have multiple representatives. Twelve teams didn't have a good enough defender to make the list.
1.) Shawne Merriman, LB, San Diego Chargers - Despite a four-game suspension for steroids last season, Merriman still finished with an NFL-best 17 sacks for the 14-2 Chargers. In his first two years, the 6-foot-4, 272-pounder has 27 sacks in as many regular-season games. Merriman, 23, is on his way to becoming the modern-day Lawrence Taylor.
2.) Champ Bailey, CB, Denver Broncos - Bailey entered the NFL in 1999 with the Washington Redskins , and many believed he'd eventually become one of the game's premier defenders. Over the last couple of seasons in Denver, Bailey has truly reached the elite. Not only is the 29-year-old a shutdown corner -- he's also a big-time playmaker (18 interceptions in the last pair of seasons, including 10 in 2006).
3.) Ed Reed, S, Baltimore Ravens - Reed, no doubt the best safety in the league right now, intercepted 21 passes in his first three seasons, then suffered an injury-laden 2005 campaign in which he picked off just one pass. Last year, though, the Ravens' 2002 first-round pick from the University of Miami regained form, hoarding five picks in 16 games. Reed is great in coverage and against the run; furthermore, he can make plays and intimidate the opposition -- he does it all.
4.) Jason Taylor, DE, Miami Dolphins - Like a fine wine, the 32-year-old Taylor seems to only get better with age. The 6-6, 255-pounder took home Defensive Player of the Year honors in '06, piling up 60 tackles, 13½ sacks, nine forced fumbles and two interceptions (both of which were returned for touchdowns). In Year 11, there's no reason to believe the Dolphins' crown jewel will slow down.
5.) Julius Peppers, DE, Carolina Panthers - At 6-7, 283 pounds, few D-linemen are more daunting for an offensive lineman to face. Despite constantly battling double- and triple-teams throughout his five-year career, the 2002 second overall pick has 53½ career sacks, including a career-high 13 last season. Peppers' numbers aren't necessarily at the top of the league, but he's a guy opposing O-coordinators base their entire game plans around while preparing for Carolina.
6.) DeAngelo Hall, CB, Atlanta Falcons - Much like Champ Bailey, the No. 2-ranked defender on this list, Hall possesses the uncommon ability to close off his side of the field to opposing quarterbacks and receivers. Thanks largely to his tremendous athleticism, the 5-10, 197-pounder has 12 picks in three years and has already become one of the game's best players on either side of the ball.
7.) Brian Urlacher, LB, Chicago Bears - Though some believe Urlacher is overrated, his presence in Chicago's defense and career production simply can't be argued with. For the Bears last season, he totaled 141 tackles and three interceptions on one of the league's top defenses, which helped Chicago earn a trip to the Super Bowl.
8.) Tommie Harris, DT, Chicago Bears - It's only taken three short years for Harris to become the best multidimensional tackle in the NFL. Along with being an elite run-stuffing force in the middle of an outstanding defense, Harris also has some pass-rushing prowess (11½ sacks in 44 regular-season games). When Harris, 24, got hurt late in '06, the Bears' defense went from great to good. The 6-3, 295-pounder is the type of player any team would love to build around.
9.) Rashean Mathis, CB, Jacksonville Jaguars - You'd be hard-pressed to find a better playmaker from the corner position than the 26-year-old Mathis, who has 20 career interceptions (eight in '06) in only four seasons. He's also never missed a game and has not finished a season with fewer than 63 tackles. His 46 pass defenses aren't bad, either.
10.) Richard Seymour, DL, New England Patriots - Seymour, 6-6, 310, has been the straw that has stirred the drink known as the Pats' defense for much of his six-year career. Seymour has 29½ career sacks, which isn't a massive number, but he's incredibly athletic for a big man and is excellent in nearly all phases of the game. What Tommie Harris is to the Bears, Seymour is to New England; he's the key ingredient that makes everything go.
11.) Adrian Wilson, S, Arizona Cardinals - If you're a casual football fan, you probably don't even know who the 27-year-old Wilson is. Despite the fact that he plays for Arizona, which hasn't exactly been a hotbed for defensive dominance, Wilson has three seasons of over 90 tackles in six years, including two that exceeded 100 takedowns. He also has 13 sacks over the past two seasons, which is almost unheard of for a defensive back, and he pulled in a career-best four interceptions in '06.
12.) Dwight Freeney, DE, Indianapolis Colts - Freeney had a down campaign last year with a career-worst 5½ sacks; however, like the aforementioned Peppers, he's someone opposing offensive play-callers fret over the entire week prior to facing the Colts. Recently, Freeney signed a six-year, $72 million deal, becoming the NFL's all-time highest-paid defensive player. Expect him to regain the dominance of his first four years, when he accrued 51 sacks.
13.) Sean Taylor, S, Washington Redskins - Taylor, 24, is so good that opposing teams do their best to avoid him. Despite only one interception last year, which had more to do with a lack of balls thrown his way than a lack of poor playmaking skills, Taylor piled up a whopping 111 tackles from the free safety position on what was a disappointing Redskin defense. The 6-2, 212-pounder might be the hardest hitter in the league.
14.) Jamal Williams, DT, San Diego Chargers - The 348-pound Williams, one of the best in the league at plugging up the middle, is a two-time Pro Bowler and one-time All-Pro. The 31-year-old finished last season with a career-best 69 tackles as a member of one of the game's top defensive units.
15.) Zach Thomas, LB, Miami Dolphins - Although he'll be 34 years old on Sept. 1, Thomas hasn't yet begun to decline. In fact, he was as good as ever last season (possibly better), accumulating a jaw-dropping 165 tackles and three sacks for one of the NFL's fiercest defenses. The last time the 11-year veteran had fewer than 145 tackles in a regular season was 2000, a campaign in which he missed five games because of injury.
16.) John Henderson, DT, Jacksonville Jaguars - The 6-7, 330-pound Henderson, a five-year veteran, has been an absolute menace for opposing offenses to face. He's never missed a regular-season game (80 in a row), has never finished a year with fewer than 50 tackles (two campaigns of 70-plus) and has 22 career sacks. Before every game, Henderson has the Jags' trainer slap him in the face to get fired up. It obviously works.
17.) Brian Dawkins, S, Philadelphia Eagles - The 11-year veteran's skills have declined a bit with age, but he's still no doubt one of the game's most feared and respected defenders. He tallied a career-best 93 tackles last season and tied an all-time high with four interceptions. Dawkins has played in 47 of Philly's past 48 regular-season games, and the 6-0, 210-pound 33-year-old is essentially the Donovan McNabb of the Eagles' defense.
18.) Kevin Williams, DT, Minnesota Vikings - For a D-tackle, Williams' stats over the first four seasons of his career are about as impressive as possible: 199 tackles, 31 sacks. Thanks largely to the 6-5, 311-pounder, the Vikings' defense in '06 came close to being the best the league has ever seen against the run, surrendering fewer than 1,000 ground yards on a 2.83 per-carry average for enemy ball carriers.
19.) Asante Samuel, CB, New England Patriots - It's a shame Samuel is so bent on receiving a new contract from the Patriots and refuses to play until he gets one. Why, you ask? Because it deprives fans of seeing one of the league's finest DBs. Samuel broke out last year, in his third season, with an eye-popping 10 INTs to go along with 64 tackles and 14 pass defenses. Without the 5-10, 185-pounder, the Pats' pass defense will take a big hit. Then again, when do holdouts ever adversely affect New England?
20.) Luis Castillo, DL, San Diego Chargers - Shawne Merriman is no doubt the most well-known defender on San Diego's roster, but Castillo shouldn't be that far behind. The two-year veteran has some more developing to do, obviously, but he still totaled 37 tackles and seven sacks in only 10 games last season. Like New England's Richard Seymour, the 6-3, 290-pound Castillo has the versatility to rotate between end and tackle, making him that much more valuable.
21.) Nnamdi Asomugha, CB, Oakland Raiders - At 6-2, 210, Asomugha has tremendous size for a corner, and that's a big reason why he's become a top-notch defender. After totaling exactly zero interceptions in his first three seasons, the '03 first-round pick from Cal tallied eight last year en route to a Pro Bowl bid in the AFC.
22.) Will Smith, DE, New Orleans Saints - Upon entering the league as a first-round pick from Ohio State, Smith was much maligned in New Orleans for multiple reasons, including his weight. Now, though, the 6-3, 282-pounder is becoming a complete end. His sack totals have gone up in each of his three seasons (7½ to 8½ to 10½), and he's very good versus the run.
23.) Troy Polamalu, S, Pittsburgh Steelers - In 2005, Polamalu was one of the key members of the Steelers' Super Bowl team, with 91 tackles, three sacks and two interceptions. He missed three games last year but still racked up 76 tackles and three picks. However, his performance was overshadowed by the rest of the team, which finished a disappointing 8-8. Make no mistake, though, Polamalu is a high-end defender. One of the league's best DBs, in fact.
24.) Lito Sheppard, CB, Philadelphia Eagles - The 5-10, 194-pound Sheppard has been among the NFC's best corners for the past three years -- 14 picks -- and he was a Pro Bowler for the second time last season (six interceptions) despite missing a trio of games.
25.) Lance Briggs, LB, Chicago Bears - Briggs had the best campaign of his four-season career in '06 (130 tackles, two interceptions), but the disgruntled 26-year-old is threatening to sit out all of 2007 because of a contract dispute. If he decides not to play, Chicago's defense will indeed be shaken.
26.) Kerry Rhodes, S, New York Jets - It's hard to believe the 6-3, 210-pound Rhodes has come such a long way in two seasons. After all, he was an unheralded fourth-round pick in '05. In his first pair of years, though, Rhodes has notched 203 tackles (105 as a rookie, 98 in 2006), and he added five sacks and four picks last season. The 24-year-old was a Pro Bowl snub in '06, but he should make plenty in the future.
27.) Corey Redding, DT, Detroit Lions - Before Monday, when he signed a seven-year, $49 million deal, nine of 10 football fans were probably unaware of Redding because he's been overlooked in Detroit. However, his numbers last year -- 47 tackles, eight sacks -- were stupendous, and he's still only 26 years old.
28.) Vince Wilfork, DT, New England Patriots - The third Pat to make the list, the 325-pound Wilfork is a tackling machine (146 in three seasons) who is absolutely superb against the run. His ability to clog the middle is one of the things that allows much-ballyhooed linebackers like Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel and Rosevelt Colvin to roam free and make high-impact plays. Consider Wilfork "Ted Washington, Part II".
29.) Pat Williams, DT, Minnesota Vikings - In 10 mostly standout seasons, Williams, oddly enough, never made the Pro Bowl until last year. Along with Kevin Williams, though, who's ranked 16th on this list, Pat has guided the Vikings' ground defense to incredible heights over the last two years.
30.) DeMarcus Ware, LB, Dallas Cowboys - Ware entered the league in '05 as a first-round pick, and so did Merriman. For that reason, Ware has been overshadowed. However, he has 20 sacks in two years and 129 tackles. Though Ware won't ever be on the same level as Merriman, he'll still be a dominant force from the outside for a number of years.
31.) Casey Hampton, DT, Pittsburgh Steelers - Hampton, a 6-1, 325-pounder, has been one of the main reasons why Pittsburgh's defense has been so good during the last six years. The 29-year-old has only four career sacks; however, his ability to stop the run is what landed him on this list.
32.) Adalius Thomas, LB, New England Patriots - Once Thomas' playing time began increasing with Baltimore in 2004, the 270-pounder burst out of Ray Lewis' shadow and became his own player. Now a Patriot (he signed a big contract to join them in the offseason), Thomas hopes to keep increasing his sack totals (from seven to eight to 11 since 2004) and chip in one more great element to New England's defense.