Each NFL team’s best defensive player so far
Through the first six weeks of the NFL season, several popular names still lead the fray when it comes to defensive production. However, key injuries to superstars like J.J. Watt have created a void that has been filled by some surprising players, many of whom are having career years.
Here’s a look at each NFL team’s best defensive player so far in 2017.
Arizona Cardinals — Tyvon Branch, S
There are a lot of talented defenders on Arizona’s roster, but through six weeks, it’s hard to argue that Tyvon Branch — who has been called a “wolverine” complement to the “honey badger” — isn’t the very best. He not only leads the team and is tied for the league lead with 55 tackles, but he’s also defended four passes, forced a fumble and was named to the Pro Football Focus First Quarter All-Pro Team. Branch getting the nod says a lot about his impact this season when you consider Arizona also has Chandler Jones and his six sacks.
Atlanta Falcons — Deion Jones, LB
Deion Jones has filled out the box score this year, leading the Falcons with 38 tackles. He’s also recorded a sack, three passes defended and an interception. Jones is also among Pro Football Focus’ top 15 graded linebackers this season, alongside teammate De’Vondre Campbell, who has also landed very high grades for Atlanta. Jones is blossoming well for Atlanta in his second NFL season.
Baltimore Ravens — C.J. Mosley, LB
C.J. Mosley is tied for the league lead with 55 tackles, which is 25 more than any other Ravens teammate. Four of those tackles have been for a loss. Mosley has also added a pass defensed, interception, forced fumble and fumble recovery. He has been a big part of a defense that is second in the league with 14 forced turnovers this season. Mosley hasn’t exactly been perfect, but the former first-round pick out of Alabama is making obvious strides in year four.
Buffalo Bills — Jordan Poyer, S
Don’t look now, but Jordan Poyer is not only leading the Bills defense, but he’s also among the best overall safeties in football. So far this season, he’s recorded 28 tackles, 2.0 sacks, six passes defenses, two interceptions and a fumble recovery. He has an elite coverage grade (90.0+ courtesy of Pro Football Focus) and an overall grade of 87.2 through six weeks. Teammate Micah Hyde, who has four interceptions this season, also deserves some love, though it’s Poyer who receives the nod here.
Carolina Panthers — Julius Peppers, DE
Julius Peppers may be 37 years old, but his return to Carolina has seen a rejuvenation beyond what many expected. Despite not starting a single game this season, Peppers leads the Panthers with 6.5 sacks, which also puts him inside the top five league-wide. Some may argue that as a rotational player, he doesn’t play enough snaps to be considered the team’s best defender. But it’s the quality of those snaps is what makes the difference.
Chicago Bears — Akiem Hicks, DE
Through six games, Akiem Hicks is on pace to have a career-best season and remains one of the biggest surprises defensively for Chicago. Along with 19 tackles (one for a loss), Hicks has recorded a team-leading 5.0 sacks on the season and recovered one fumble. Hicks’ ability to pressure the quarterback has been key in earning him a PFF grade of 84.7 on the season.
Cincinnati Bengals — Geno Atkins, DT
Geno Atkins may not light up a box score, but he’s one of the most consistently dominant interior defensive linemen in the game. His 4.0 sacks from the inside are solid, but his 20-plus pressures really tell the story. His 88.9 grade from PFF is also among the best for interior defenders league-wide. The eighth-year pro continues to be one of the best defensive linemen in the game.
Cleveland Browns — Jason McCourty, CB
There’s not many positive things going on in Cleveland, but the resurgence of Jason McCourty is something that cannot be ignored. In fact, McCourty is arguably the best cornerback in the NFL through six weeks, and his 92.0 PFF grade proves it. In addition to his 24 tackles, McCourty has recorded nine passes defensed, two forced fumbles and three interceptions — one of which was returned for a touchdown. The Browns may have made several mistakes this offseason, but their pickup of McCourty has paid off.
Dallas Cowboys — DeMarcus Lawrence, DE
If you had DeMarcus Lawrence leading the NFL in sacks six weeks into the season, raise your hand. No? Well, surprise — Lawrence leads the NFL with 8.5 sacks. He’s also been solid against the run for Dallas, who were in desperate need of someone to step up given their plethora of suspensions and injuries. Lawrence’s 88.5 PFF grade is also top 10 among edge rushers.
Denver Broncos — Von Miller, LB
Was there a more obvious answer than Von Miller here? Not only is Miller the best defender on the Broncos, but he’s arguably one of the best defensive players in the entire league, regardless of what the stats say. In addition to his 15 solo tackles and 5.0 sacks. Miller is also top 10 among edge rushers with a 88.4 PFF grade. He may not get up to the 18.5 sacks he tallied in 2012, but Miller is on his way to the second highest regular season sack total of his career.