Defensive Interior – Ends: Calais Campbell, ARZ (+30.3; +11.4) and Kawann Short, CAR (+12.9; +3.5)
After a somewhat slow start, Campbell took off after the bye week, notching positive grades every single week from there on. But for big games against Carolina and Atlanta he was quiet in both the run and pass games before the bye, but a 10-pressure day (2 Ht, 8 Hu) against the Texans sparked a very loud second half. Joining him in the middle of this improving defense is Short; part of a Carolina defense that shares the credit for their improvement this season. The rookie started well with some production as a pass rusher in the first six weeks but then cooled (two pressures in four games) for the next month. To end the season Short notched multiple pressures from his interior spot in seven straight games.
Honorable Mention: Nick Fairley (DET) and Kendall Langford (SL)
Defensive Interior – Nose: Terrance Knighton, DEN (+18.8; +5.3)
With all the focus on Peyton Manning and his record-breaking season it’s easy to forget that the Broncos do have some talented defenders on their sideline too. Knighton flourished as his first season in Denver culminated with a dominant final month — showing the sort of form we haven’t seen from him since 2010 and the sort of consistency that he never showed in his time in Jacksonville. Knighton was one of only four defensive tackles (Randy Starks, Marcell Dareus, and Brandon Mebane) to finish the season with a +10.0 grade in both run defense and as a pass rusher.
Honorable Mention: Cam Thomas (SD)
Edge Rushers: Jason Worlids, PIT (+13.6; -4.1) and Jason Babin, JAX (+3.7; -9.0)
The struggles of first round pick Jarvis Jones (and the Steelers’ philosophy on first rounders) offered Worlids plenty of chances to breakout this season and in the second half he did just that. Even though he missed Week 17, Worlids still notched a scarcely believable 20 hits after the mid-way point, only JJ Watt (21) topped that mark. Across from him, Babin notched 14 more pressures in the second half of the season including an extra four sacks after only notching two prior to the Jaguars’ mid-season bye. Babin got five pressures or more five times in the second half.
Honorable Mention: Daniel Te’o-Nesheim (TB) and Quinton Coples (NYJ)
Linebackers: Mychal Kendricks, PHI (+8.1; -18.1) and Karlos Dansby, ARZ (+15.0; -1.7)
It was all about recovering from a shocking start to the season for Kendricks who solidified with six straight games between -1.0 and +1.0 after earning a -17.6 in the first month. An extremely active player all over the field, if Kendricks could cut down on the missed tackles (23 for the season and they tended to come in bunches) he has the potential to earn a much, much higher grade next season. The second Cardinal in this most-improved defense, Dansby became a playmaker in the passing game for the Cardinals upon his return to the desert only earning one negative game grade after notching four in the first five weeks of the season.
Honorable Mention: Dont’a Hightower (NE) and Vincent Rey (CIN)
Cornerbacks: Lardarius Webb, BAL (+10.6; -3.3) and Dee Milliner, NYJ (+4.0; -6.6)
Coming back from injury is a tough ask and Webb had a string of rough outings in the opening half of the season, but a five-disruption day (1 Int, 4 PD) against the Bengals in Week 10 was an emphatic start to an improved, solid second half. In that late span, Webb showed glimpses of the form that made him one of our highest graded corners in 2011 before his most recent knee injury. Across from him, Milliner had a rough start to his rookie season, benched twice as he struggled to adapt to the NFL. At the third time of asking, though, Milliner showed real strides in facing up to a barrage from the Browns (18 targets) and Giants (13 targets) in the final two weeks to get his hands to seven passes (3 Int, 4 PD) and surrendering completions on less than 50% of 31 targets.
Slot Corner: Brandon Boykin (PHI)
Honorable Mention: Logan Ryan (NE) and Byron Maxwell (SEA)
Safeties: Johnathan Cyprien, JAX (+1.9; -19.4) and Reshad Jones, MIA (+3.0; -9.9)
Making the leap from the Sun Belt to the NFL is a big one to make in a year and Cyprien certainly struggled with that giant step up in competition. The Jags stayed with Cyprien through his learning phase and were rewarded after the bye week with solid displays thereafter and flashes of the potential in both coverage and run support that many observers saw in him during the draft process. Opposite Cyprien in this lineup, Jones was rewarded for his stellar 2012 season (+22.1 overall) with a new contract before the start of the season but then struggled to re-discover that form early in the year, particularly in coverage. Earning positive grades in the final five games, Jones didn’t undo all the poor displays from early on, but gave himself a launch pad to get back to his 2012 best in 2014.
Honorable Mention: Kenny Vaccaro (NO) and Antrel Rolle (NYG)
Kicker: Phil Dawson, SF (+7.7; +0.9)
Only one miss (admittedly a bad one) in the second half of the season for Dawson who went 11-of-11 from beyond 40 yards in the final eight weeks (2-of-5 before the bye).
Honorable Mention: Rob Bironas (TEN)
Punter: Chris Jones, DAL (+10.9; +4.3)
After a shaky start to the season Jones started a strong closing run against the Redskins in Week 6 (+2.2) carrying that through with only one negative grade to end the season.
Honorable Mention: Shane Lechler (HST)
Returner: Keshawn Martin, HST (+7.3; -3.5)
Devoid of opportunities to return kicks late in the season (12 fewer returns in the second half) Martin upped his game as a punt returner gaining an extra 183 yards on only seven more returns which included two 50+ yard runbacks.
Honorable Mention: Jacoby Jones (BLT)
Special Teamer: Johnson Bademosi, CLE (+5.5; -5.0)
A standout last season, Bademosi got off to a rough start this year on punts but found his best form again in the second half of the season. He didn’t miss a tackle after Week 8.
Honorable Mention: Akeem Jordan (KC)
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