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#pounditSunday, May 9, 2021

10 biggest defensive standouts of the 2018 NFL season

Khalil Mack Bears

The 2018 season has seen an infusion of a lot of great young defensive talent, plus several veterans either continuing or reclaiming their feared status among NFL offenses. Even though scoring is the name of the game in this year’s NFL, there are still players on the other side of the ball who are exciting and have a huge impact on the outcome of games.

With that in mind, here are the ten biggest defensive standouts of the 2018 season so far.

10) Derwin James, S, Chargers

James has an excellent case for Defensive Rookie of the Year as a do-it-all safety who has contributed in both the pass rush and coverage. He already has six QB hits and 3.5 sacks on the season, clearly being utilized well by the Chargers in that department, as well as an interception and 44 total tackles. It’s scary how good James already is and how much better he’ll likely get, and it’s showing in the performances he’s already putting together.

9) DeMarcus Lawrence, DE, Cowboys

The man they call Tank continues to put up big numbers despite playing through some pretty significant physical issues. He has 5.5 sacks and 11 tackles for a loss so far this year, and that’s despite not having collected a sack since Week 4, showing what a scorching start he got off to. It seems likely that this is nothing but a blip, and while he may not replicate that 14.5 sack season of 2017, another double-digit tally is in the realm of possibility.

8) Danielle Hunter, DE, Vikings

The Vikings have been able to survive despite Everson Griffen’s absence in large part because of Hunter’s breakout season. Sure, he had tallied 25.5 sacks in his first three NFL season, but he was still flying under the radar. Not anymore. His 7.5 sacks are second in the NFL, and he looks likely to set new career highs in both tackles for loss and quarterback hits. A career-best sack tally may not be far behind, as he’s only five away from matching it, which he’s on pace to do.

7) Geno Atkins, DT, Bengals

One of the NFL’s most consistent defensive tackles has taken his game to a new level this season. After back-to-back nine-sack seasons, Atkins already has six through seven games in 2018. He’s been a deeply disruptive backfield presence, averaging almost two quarterback hits per game. The fact that he’s found another level this far into his career is a big reason the Bengals have been such a surprising success in the AFC North this season.

6) Patrick Peterson, CB, Cardinals

You won’t see elite numbers on Patterson’s line because he just plays his position so well and many quarterbacks simply avoid throwing in his direction. He has two passes defended and one interception this year, but that’s not an indication of a lack of quality. The Pro Bowler has consistently been near the top of the rankings of cornerbacks who allow the lowest passer rating of opposing quarterbacks when the ball comes his way. The star cornerback badly wants out of Arizona, and the Cardinals are rightly demanding a massive return for him.

5) Byron Jones, CB, Cowboys

The Cowboys moved Jones back to cornerback from safety and have been richly rewarded this year. In fact, he’s reached the point where he’s not being thrown at — recent opponents such as the Washington Redskins have barely bothered to test him, such is the respect he’s being afforded. He has seven passes defended and 34 total tackles, and the only thing really missing is his lack of interceptions. As long as he keeps playing like he is, they should come.

4) Fletcher Cox, DT, Eagles

Cox remains a dominant force on the Philadelphia defensive line, following up his outstanding 2017 with a 2018 that’s been just as good. His four sacks put him roughly on track to surpass his total from last season, and with 16 QB hits, he’s already just one shy of matching his 2017 total and five away from a new career high. For Cox to be setting career highs in anything is quite remarkable given his accomplishments, but he’s a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidate.

3) J.J. Watt, DE, Texans

Watt’s perseverance is remarkable, as multiple season-ending injuries haven’t stopped him from coming back and being an elite defensive player. After playing in just eight games over the course of the last two seasons, Watt is healthy and sacking quarterbacks at the same high rate he was before the injuries. He’s picked up seven of them, along with 12 QB hits — it’s not quite the heights he was reaching pre-injury, but the sack total is among the best in the NFL and he’s still a fearsome player who deserves a lot of credit for coming back and playing at this level.

2) Aaron Donald, DT, Rams

Donald continues to demonstrate why the Rams were so set on getting him back and meeting his contract demands. That was demonstrated in Week 7 against San Francisco, when he terrorized the 49ers with four sacks and five QB hits. The sack tally was enough to propel him into the NFL lead with eight on the season. He’s just such a matchup nightmare, particularly on a Ram defensive front that offers so much other talent and ensures that Donald can’t simply be double-teamed. He remains the anchor who puts the most pressure on quarterbacks and the guy that entire offenses gameplan around.

1) Khalil Mack, LB, Bears

It still defies belief that the Raiders would so willingly trade away a game-changing player of Mack’s caliber, but if you want to know what he means to a defense, he’s been rightly credited with essentially transforming the Chicago unit overnight. He has five sacks and 20 total tackles, but the real story is just how disruptive he is to an offensive line and an entire gameplan, as he has the skill to blow up any play even if it doesn’t result in a loss of yardage. Even though he’s been slowed by injury recently, he’s the best defensive player going in the league right now, a force who is a threat to do something big on every play, and the Bears are lucky to have him.


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