NFL 2020 Top 10 Invaluable Defensive Players

I truly love how intricate and versatile NFL defenses have become in the last 10 years. Defenses have needed to adapt not just to rule changes, but offensive changes.

The NFL as a whole has shifted focus to WR heavy offenses out of the shotgun. The number one grouping in the NFL today is 11 Personnel (1 RB / 1 TE). The number of plays operated under it has dramatically increased since 2008 after the Patriots 16-0 season in 2007.

The Patriots were operating 49.4% of their plays from the shotgun compared to the league average of 26%. Under Josh McDaniels, the offense ran three or more *emphasis on or more* 70.2% of the time compared to the league average of 50.6%. I wrote about how ridiculous it was at how often the Patriots would shift their offensive focus. Just a few years later in 2010, they went to using two tight ends (12 personnel) more frequently than anyone. The league had been operating three or more receivers 64% of the time and the Patriots dropped to 50%.

However, this time the Patriots model for success didn’t shift the focus of the league.

Since 2008, teams have been increasing the usage of 11 personnel to the point where it is now the league’s base offense. In 2018, all 32 teams’ number one grouping was 11. In 2019, 31 of 32 operated out of 11 personnel the most (Eagles were the lone wolf).

Percentage of Offensive Snaps in 11 Personnel By Year

  • 2008 – 34%
  • 2009 – 37%
  • 2010 – 39%
  • 2011 – 39%
  • 2012 – 44%
  • 2013 – 51%
  • 2014 – 53%
  • 2015 – 55%
  • 2016 – 59%
  • 2017 – 58%
  • 2018 – 65%
  • 2019 – 60%

Because of that, we are seeing defenses using the nickel far more often. Although if you look up most base defenses, you’ll likely see the normal 4-3, 3-4 and then the select few teams who are listed as multiple fronts. Let’s be honest here. The real base defense is the nickel.

Most teams are using five man secondaries with the nickel being one of the most valuable guys on the field. You need the speed to match the offense. Both in 2018 and 2019, the average NFL defense used the nickel more than 60% of the time.

The reason I am pointing this out is to paint the picture on how this has changed positional grouping for the front 7.

15 years ago, you had your ends, tackles, outside backers and inside backers. Now you see terms like Edge and Interior. Honestly, it can be a confusing mess of who is classified as what because so many guys on the line can and will do both now.

I had posted for Bayou Report my top 10 edge defenders. A friend asked where Calais Campbell was, fair question. I told my buddy that I was using him for the interior. Campbell is technically classified as edge on most sites. However, he plays both and he plays both exceptionally well.

Realistically, he would be in my top 10 for both edge and interior.

  • What is an Edge Defender?

In a nutshell, it is your 4-3 defensive ends and your 3-4 outside linebackers.

  • What is the Interior?

Again in a nutshell, it is your 4-3 defensive tackles, 3-4 defensive ends and 3-4 nose tackles.

  • Why the Complications?

In theory and on paper, it should make sense. Again, with the revolving door of rotating lineman like Campbell plus the great inside pass rushers like Aaron Donald, the terminology gets lost.

  • How I Distinguish Edge v Interior in my Top 10s? 

I essentially operated under the premise of where that lineman would be placed if playing on a team running a 4-3 primarily. I view guys like Campbell as more of a DT given the 6’8 300 lb frame.

My Top 10 Invaluable Defensive Players in the NFL

Upon the conversation, it sparked the idea to write this because of how confusing the blurred lines can be (no pun intended). Because of the current state of the NFL, run stopping ability is obviously great, but no one is talking about Carlos Dunlap like they are talking about TJ Watt.

Generating a pass rush and quality coverage on defense is the money maker. In order to excel in coverage, the average corner needs help up front.

That being said, here are my top 10 most invaluable defensive studs in the league. When talking about value for the defense, it goes beyond just the best at a single position. Scheme dictates the value. How versatile can someone on the defensive side of the ball be? How much can they alter a defense.

*Advanced Stats Only Available for Last Two Seasons*

10. LB Darius Leonard, Indianapolis Colts

Careers Stats: 28 Games (28 Starts), 284 Tackles (182 Solo), 12.0 Sacks, 19 Tackles For Loss, 7 INTs, 15 Pass Break Ups, 6 Forced Fumbles

Advanced Stats: 22 Total QB Pressures, 555 Pass Yards Allowed Per Season, 78.8 QB Rating Allowed, 3 TDs Allowed 

I have a feeling he will be moving up the list sooner rather than later. He is entering his third season and he has been an absolute gem for the Colts. He is a do it all linebacker. He is adequate in run support, pass defense, pass rush and certainly has a habit of putting a helmet on the ball. It is hard to find non pass rushing linebackers that are truly invaluable in terms of wins. I believe he is one of them. He is on his way to becoming one of the league’s best real quick.

9. CB Richard Sherman, San Francisco 49ers 

Careers Stats: 134 Games (128 Starts), 466 Tackles (358 Solo), 35 INTs, 114 Pass Break Ups

Advanced Stats: 356.5 Pass Yards Allowed Per Season, 84.7 QB Rating Allowed, 3 TDs Allowed

I originally had Stephon Gilmore here. But, I removed him for Sherman. The big reason is because Gilmore was a very good corner in Buffalo. He was never great. The last two years, he has taken his game to another level. I give Sherman the nod because he was not only great in Seattle, he has been good to great in San Francisco. Sherman’s biggest strength is his head. Even though he has seen more youthful days, he is still an asset to any team because of how smart he is. Everyone talks about the Super Bowl flop he had, meanwhile that was his only play given up of more than 20 yards in the season.

8. S Jamal Adams, New York Jets

Careers Stats: 46 Games (46 Starts), 273 Tackles (210 Solo), 12.0 Sacks, 28 Tackles For Loss, 2 INTs, 25 Pass Break Ups, 6 Forced Fumbles

Advanced Stats: 26 Total QB Pressures, 296 Pass Yards Allowed Per Season, 75.0 QB Rating Allowed, 3 TDs Allowed

Adams’ next contract is the heavy talk right now and for good reason. He has been a force for the Jets defense in 46 games. For a safety to fly around in the backfield and be able to cover deep ground the way he does leaves very little holes in his game.

7. OLB Khalil Mack, Chicago Bears

Careers Stats: 94 Games (93 Starts), 398 Tackles (308 Solo), 61.5 Sacks, 86 Tackles For Loss, 2 INTs, 19 Pass Break Ups, 20 Forced Fumbles 

Advanced Stats: 92 Pressures over the last two years

When Mack first moved to Chicago last season, they finished with historically one of the league’s best defenses based on their DVOA. Mack was a massive part of that. While pass rushers are a dime a dozen in the NFL, there are not many who are as great as Mack.

6. CB Tre’Davious White, Buffalo Bills

Careers Stats: 47 Games (47 Starts), 181 Tackles (145 Solo), 12 INTs, 43 Pass Break Ups 

Advanced Stats: 543.5 Pass Yards Per Season Allowed Per Season, 58.4 QB Rating Allowed, 2 TDs Allowed

He is still blossoming in the NFL. His numbers over the last two seasons are very similar to Sherman in Seattle. But where he impresses is how well he does in nearly any coverage concept both in man and zone. Having that kind of a corner in today’s NFL is an advantage to say the least.

5. DE Calais Campbell, Baltimore Ravens

Careers Stats: 186 Games (168 Starts), 696 Tackles (596 solo), 88.0 Sacks, 151 Tackles For Loss, 14 Forced Fumbles, 48 Pass Break Ups, 201 QB Hits 

Advanced Stats: 61 QB Pressures over the last two years

As I alluded to, he is the entire reason I am writing this. It felt unfair to not give him the credit he was due in either of the top 5 columns. Campbell is one of the most unique defensive lineman in the league. From a stature standpoint alone, he is 6’8 300 lbs and can play just about any spot or technique on defensive front. He’s a fucking unicorn.

4. S Tyrann Mathieu, Kansas City Chiefs

Careers Stats: 98 Games (89 Starts), 472 Tackles (416 Solo), 9.0 Sacks, 36 Tackles For Loss, 17 INTs, 61 Pass Break Ups, 4 Forced Fumbles 

Advanced Stats: 499.5 Pass Yards Per Season Against, 78.2 QB Rating Against, 7 TDs Allowed

I have loved watching Honey Badger play since he was at LSU. I felt awful how it unfolded for him. But, he took that and turned it around. Truly one of the best comeback stories in sports. Seeing him hoist a Lombardi Trophy last season was magical. His transition to the NFL is right where he was at LSU. He is a do it all defensive back. In fact, he does more work in the slot as a starting safety than most. He is truly one of the most versatile because he can play centerfield, in the box, in the slot, on the outside (although he’s not doing that much if at all). What makes him so damn special is his ability to read the offense in real time and react. His instincts are what make him special. His nickname is one of the most fitting in sports because of his ferocity, tenacity and size.

3. DE JJ Watt, Houston Texans

Careers Stats: 112 Games (112 Starts), 479 Tackles (373 Solo), 96.0 Sacks, 158 Tackles For Loss, 23 Forced Fumbles, 54 Pass Break Ups, 265 QB Hits 

Advanced Stats: 84 QB Pressures over the last two years

He would easily be number two if it wasn’t for the injuries as of late. When he plays, he is still on a complete different level than the rest of the league. He is still a notch behind the number one, but still a notch above the number two. He pressured the QB 84 times over the last two seasons and missed a quarter of the games.

2. LB Bobby Wagner, Seattle Seahawks

Careers Stats: 119 Games (118 Starts), 1,075 Tackles (645 Solo), 19.5 Sacks, 58 Tackles For Loss, 10 INTs, 47 Pass Break Ups, 5 Forced Fumbles, 64 QB Hits

Advanced Stats: 566 Pass Yards Per Season Against, 94.3 QB Rating Against, 2 TDs Allowed

Baller and shot caller. No, literally. Wagner is very similar to former Panther stud Luke Kuechly. He is the quarterback of the Seattle defense. Unfortunately, that defense hasn’t had as much help in recent years. But, one thing is a constant…Wagner flying around the field making plays.

1. DL Aaron Donald, Los Angeles Rams

Careers Stats: 94 Games (90 Starts), 312 Tackles (220 Solo), 72.0 Sacks, 117 Tackles For Loss, 11 Pass Break Ups, 15 Forced Fumbles, 173 QB Hits

Advanced Stats: 125 Pressures over the last two seasons 

What he is doing is absolutely unheard of. He plays primarily on the interior of the defensive line. He generates better numbers than EVERY edge rusher in the league. He just blows up the line. As I alluded to in my post about the interior. He faced the most double and triple teams in the NFL by a mile. He was also first in beating those double and triple teams. He is a fucking freak. He is easily the best player in football (non QBs). I would probably still pick him over 95% of the QBs if the league did a total re-draft.

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