Defensive Ends (4-3 or 3-4): Chandler Jones, NE (+10.4) and Bruce Irvin, SEA (-0.4)
Jones and Irvin maintain their spots after making the mid-season team, though they’ve both struggled in recent weeks. Jones has played through injury which has seen his production suffer, while Irvin’s play as a pass rusher had tapered off even before he was forced into every-down action that exposed his inability to stop the run. Still, Jones has been an every-down player from Day 1 for the Patriots, while Irvin has taken well to his role as a situational pass rusher, ranking seventh in the league in Pass Rush Productivity at 10.5.
Honorable Mention: Quinton Coples (NYJ)
Defensive Tackles: Mike Martin, TEN (+12.2) and Fletcher Cox, PHI (+7.3)
Another pair that maintained their mid-year status, Martin and Cox have been key cogs in their respective teams’ defensive line rotations all year. Martin came out on fire as a pass rusher and finished the season at +12.1, good for 10th among all defensive tackles. Cox has been the more well-rounded player, ranking 12th in both Run Stop Percentage (7.6) and PRP (6.7).
Outside Linebackers (4-3 or 3-4): Lavonte David, TB (+10.0) and Dont’a Hightower, NE (+7.5)
Nearly a finalist in our Defensive Rookie of the Year Race, David was all over the field as he led all linebackers in Run Stop Percentage at 14.6. He finished as our fifth-best 4-3 outside linebacker while playing 98% of his team’s snaps. Hightower has proven to be a versatile player for New England and he’s excelled as a pass rusher. He’s picked up 14 pressures on his 65 rushes, good for a PRP of 17.3 that puts him fourth at the position.
Inside Linebacker: Bobby Wagner, SEA (+16.0)
Not only is Wagner the top rookie inside linebacker, but he ranks second at the position in the entire league. His Run Stop Percentage of 14.4 is tops among inside linebackers as he’s shored up the middle of Seattle’s defense. We have to wonder if this race would have been closer had Luke Kuechly started the season in the middle rather than the outside. After struggling early, he really took to the middle linebacker spot where his 13.3 Run Stop Percentage ranked fourth. Wagner gets the nod this year, but Kuechly has already started to close the gap.
Honorable Mention: Luke Kuechly (CAR)
CB: Casey Hayward, GB (+23.1) and Alfonzo Dennard, NE (+5.5)
Our No. 2 rated coverage cornerback and Defensive Rookie of the Year, Hayward has made the most of his 703 snaps in the Packers’ secondary. Quarterbacks have a QB Rating of 31.1 when throwing his way due to his six interceptions and 16 passes defensed. He’s done most of his work in the slot where he’s surrendering only 0.79 Yards/Cover Snap, good for second in the league. Dennard’s emergence, along with the trade for CB Aqib Talib, has allowed New England’s secondary to play more aggressive man coverages that have helped turn the defense around in the second half of the season. He’s graded at +5.0 in coverage with three interceptions and six passes defensed.
S: Harrison Smith, MIN (+6.5) and Mark Barron, TB (-4.9)
The only two safeties chosen in the first round, Smith and Barron have been entrenched as starters since opening day. Smith was a major key to the Vikings improvement in the secondary, as his +10.4 coverage grade ranked sixth among safeties. He was our second runner-up for Defensive Rookie of the Year.
The second safety spot was much more difficult to decide, but Barron makes the team despite some bumps along the way. He found himself out of position at times in coverage, and he certainly could have done a better job of tackling as he missed 13. Barron did show his playmaking ability, however, as he deflected seven passes and came in at ninth in Run Stop Percentage at 8.4.
Honorable Mention: Tavon Wilson (NE), Jerron McMillian (GB)
K: Blair Walsh, MIN (+38.6)
The “Year of the Rookie Kicker” saw Walsh edge out Justin Tucker and Greg Zuerlein on the strength of his remarkable 10 for 10 on field goals of 50 or more yards. Walsh is our top ranked kicker in the league.
Honorable Mention: Justin Tucker, Greg Zuerlein
P: Bryan Anger, JAX (+20.7)
Anger will always battle the stigma of being a third-round draft pick as a punter, but he showed well in his first year, finishing as our 11th ranked punter.
ST: Olivier Vernon, MIA (+4.5)
Vernon has blocked two kicks while picking up seven special teams tackles on the season.
Returner: David Wilson, NYG (+9.5)
Our No. 3 rated return man, Wilson has done all of his work on kickoffs where he’s averaged 26.9 yards/return including one return for a touchdown.
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