You may have seen our selections for the offensive side of the ball; now we’re bringing you the top defensive players of the first quarter of the season, as judged by our analysts.
That’s right, as the only people to have multiple sets of eyes (four sets, to be precise) on every game, on every play, and on every player, we’re giving credit to those guys on defense who have impressed.
So let’s get to it with two groups of front-seven defenders (depending on scheme), and if you want to look at the offense, click here.
Defensive Front 4-3
Defensive Ends: Cameron Wake, MIA (+27.4) and Jason Pierre-Paul, NYG (+13.3)
Without being smug we’ve been warning everyone about Wake doing some serious damage after his 21 quarterback disruptions through three games. Then it happened and Bobbie Massie got the mother of all beat downs. Simply put, there isn’t a pass rusher out there like Wake at the moment. Joining him is the more rounded JPP who just keeps making plays, with his work in run defense being particularly impressive. Running at him doesn’t normally work out so well. It’s tight at the top with players like Michael Bennett also making a name for themselves.
Honorable Mention: Michael Bennett (TB), Chris Long (STL), and Chris Clemons (SEA)
Defensive Tackle: Geno Atkins, CIN (+15.6) and Brandon Mebane, SEA (+13.7)
While he was playing well before the Bengals went down to Jacksonville, Atkins hit new heights with one of the most destructive defensive tackles performances in many a year. So far in 2012 he’s chalked up 21 quarterback disruptions. Mebane is a different type of player as his nine defensive stops in the run game demonstrate. That equates to a league-leading stop on 14.3% of all running plays he’s been in on. Both men had to be on fine form to keep out Gerald McCoy, in particular, who is showing what he is capable of when healthy.
Honorable Mention: Gerald McCoy (TB), Kyle Williams (BUF), and Randy Starks (MIA)
Linebackers: Von Miller, DEN (+18.7), Karlos Dansby, MIA (+7.9) and K.J. Wright, SEA (+8.9)
With 23 quarterback disruptions, Miller is once again bringing pressure like it’s going out of fashion. We’re also currently seeing more plays in the run game where he has added nine defensive stops. That’s one more than the underrated Wright who has become a key component in the rapidly improving Seattle defense, and is far better on his heels than Miller. Between them, Dansby is another Miami defender who has stepped his game up this year and seems to relish the move back to a 4-3. He already has 20 defensive stops to go with two pass break-ups and five total pressures.
Honorable Mention: Philip Wheeler (OAK), Chad Greenway (MIN), and DeMeco Ryans (PHI)
Defensive Front 3-4
Defensive Line: Aubrayo Franklin, SD (+2.2), J.J. Watt, HST (+28.6) and Calais Campbell, ARZ (+13.3)
While Franklin does look a lot more comfortable in a 3-4, the changing nature of the NFL has the nose tackle position taking something of a hit; in today’s game it’s just not as important as it once was with very few players seeing many snaps. Still, the guys outside him are doing the business on every down, with Watt an early leader for Defensive Player of the Year. To put his grade in perspective, only three players managed a higher grade in 2011 throughout the entire year. That’s a whole new level of dominance. Let’s not forget about Campbell, though, as while he hasn’t been quite as explosive as a pass rusher, he’s really upped his game in run defense.
Honorable Mention: Haloti Ngata (BAL), Muhammad Wilkerson (NYJ), and Justin Smith (SF)
Outside Linebackers: Ryan Kerrigan, WAS (+8.9) and Clay Matthews, GB (+8.6)
The base numbers may not be too dissimilar for Ryan Kerrigan this year, but the speed at which he is generating pressure and his consistency of it is something to behold. He lost Brian Orakpo as his partner, but just imagine the damage he could do with Clay Matthews on the opposite side. These two have been head-and-shoulders above the competition. It would be a lot closer if DeMarcus Ware could cut down on the penalties, and Justin Houston didn’t have his worst game in a long while against, of all people, Jeromey Clary.
Honorable Mention: DeMarcus Ware (DAL) and Justin Houston (KC)
Inside Linebackers: NaVorro Bowman, SF (+9.9) and Sean Lee, DAL (+7.6)
There was a time when Patrick Willis was the unquestioned top linebacker in the league. Now he may not even be the best linebacker on his team. That transition hasn’t quite happened yet, but is there anyone out there playing better than Bowman? Pairing him with his own Penn State partner in crime gives a formidable duo, but neither could rest easy given just how well Willis and Daryl Washington are playing.
Honorable Mention: Daryl Washington (ARZ) and Patrick Willis (SF)
Cornerbacks: Tim Jennings, CHI (+8.8) and Johnathan Joseph, HST (+5.5) with Cortland Finnegan, STL (+6.4) covering slot
This is the toughest selection of any position thus far. Jennings’ quite ridiculous start to the season has seen him thrown at 33 times, allowing just 14 receptions while picking off four balls and deflecting four more. That gives quarterbacks a 15.9 rating when throwing at him. With Darrelle Revis down, it’s fair to say there isn’t a man-to-man corner out there like Joseph right now, while having a feisty player like Finnegan who can move to the slot does so much for a defense. Still, there wouldn’t be much argument if you wanted to go in the direction of a guy like Patrick Peterson or Alterraun Verner who have made plays and really pushed their game on.
Honorable Mention: Patrick Peterson (ARZ), Alterraun Verner (TEN), and Josh Wilson (WAS)
Safeties: T.J. Ward, CLV (+7.7) and Harrison Smith, MIN (+6.7)
One of the big reasons for the Browns’ defense taking a leap forward is Ward getting back on the field after missing a large portion of 2011. He’s already made 11 defensive stops and has done a fantastic job in the box. Smith has done most of his good work in coverage, playing the deep safety, where he’s already recorded four pass break-ups. He’s a big part of an improved Vikings defense.
Honorable Mention: Rashad Jones (MIA) , Jairus Byrd (BUF) , and Kam Chancellor (SEA)
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