There’s no argument whether or not NFL athletes are among the world’s best, and even though it’s frequently said that offense wins games, defense wins championships. With professional athletes becoming bigger, faster and stronger, defensive coaches are forced to try and find similar elite athletes to counter them. There was a time when the best athletes were unquestioningly placed on offense, but that’s no longer the case.
Although currently sidelined with an injured hamstring, Green Bay’s Clay Matthews is among the league’s top defensive players. Extremely athletic, the 6’3 255-lb. LB entered the league in 2009 out of Southern Cal, and his impact on the Packers was not only immediate, but he became a star from his first game. Seemingly without any concern for his physical well-being, Matthews personifies the term “active,” flying around the field, delivering bone-jarring hits and showing an innate sense for the football. His sack total of 38.5 in just over 3 and-a-half seasons puts him on track to join the game’s greatest before he hangs up his shoulder pads.
Although his best days (at least physically) are behind him, Chicago’s Brian Urlacher continues to be the focus of offensive coordinators league-wide. Now 34, the former college wide receiver has been named All-Pro five times and has been selected to eight Pro Bowls during his 13-year career, and remains the face of the Bears. He follows seamlessly in the Chicago tradition of disruptive, take-no-prisoners linebacking standouts such as Hall of Famers Bill George, Dick Butkus and Mike Singletary.
Two of Urlacher’s teammates also merit consideration among the NFL’s elite defenders: DE Julius Peppers and CB Charles Tillman. Peppers, like Urlacher, is probably past his physical prime, but his freakish athleticism for his size (6’7 287-lbs.) makes him one of the game’s most feared pass rushers. Chicago native Tillman has developed a reputation as perhaps one of the greatest ballhawks in NFL history. Unmatched at stripping ballcarriers, Tillman set an NFL record during a November, 2012 game against Tennessee when he forced an unheard-of four fumbles.
One of the youngest elite NFL defenders is DE J.J. Watt of the Houston Texans. The 6’6 295-lb. 23-year old has taken a huge step in just his second season, becoming the unquestioned leader of Houston’s tough-as-nails defense. Watt’s forte has been the batted pass, and with his height, it’s the rare QB who can easily avoid his speedy rushes.
Now in his ninth NFL season, Minnesota’s whirling dervish of a DE, Jared Allen, aka The Rhinestone Cowboy, has already amassed 114 sacks. The reigning NFC Defensive Player of the Year, the 6’6 270-lb. Allen combines elite quickness with bull-like strength to either overpower or run right by would-be blockers.
Another young budding defensive superstar is 23-year old LB-DE Aldon Smith of the San Francisco 49ers. The former Missouri All-American is the league’s current sack leader (19.5 in 14 games) and according to his coaches, is just beginning to approach his enormous potential. He’s frequently compared to another current defensive standout, LB DeMarcus Ware of the Dallas Cowboys. Ware, now in his eighth NFL season, has racked up 111 sacks and has few peers at getting in opposing QBs faces.
Although most of the buzz in Denver is focused on Peyton Manning, the 2011 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, LB Von Miller is already considered one of the league’s most versatile and disruptive defenders. The second overall selection in the 2011 Draft, Miller quickly established himself in the Mile High City and has already accumulated 27.5 sacks in just 28 games. Miller let it be known he had arrived on his very first play as a Bronco rookie by forcing a fumble.
Aldon Smith of the 49ers has benefitted greatly from the play of two of his LB colleagues, Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman. All three players command attention from blockers, leaving at least one of them free to wreak havoc. Willis has set an enviable benchmark by being named both All-Pro and to the Pro Bowl in each of his five NFL seasons, while Bowman is regularly among the league leaders in tackles.
A tackling machine in college (Boston College), rookie LB Luke Kuechly has not missed a beat now that he’s playing on Sundays. The versatile Kuechly has played both middle and outside LB for the Carolina Panthers, and his non-stop motor and intelligence has drawn favorable comparisons to Brian Urlacher.
Another standout 2012 rookie is Green Bay’s ballhawking CB Casey Hayward. The 23-year old Vanderbilt grad stepped immediately into a starting role for the Packers and his five INTs and 45 tackles have coaches eagerly awaiting his future development.
Lavonte David is yet another standout rookie from the 2012 crop. The Nebraska product has proven to be a adept run-stuffer for Tampa Bay, and his 117 tackles through Week 14 rank third among all rookies, trailing another first-year standout LB, Jerrell Freeman of the resurgent Indianapolis Colts.