After taking a look at the best offensive players in the division last week, I went through and watched the defenses in the NFC East. In the division, the offensive talent greatly outweighs the defensive talent, but that does not mean it is bereft of impact players on the defensive side of the ball. While no one will be blown away by top tier talent or depth in the secondary, the NFC East definitely has some big names in their defensive fronts.
Edge Defenders (3-4 OLB/ 4-3 DE): Ryan Kerrigan, Jason Pierre Paul
Very quietly, Ryan Kerrigan has been one of the most productive pass rushers in the NFL since he got drafted. Only Robert Quinn, Justin Houston and JJ Watt have out produced him since they all came into the league in 2011. Kerrigan is a highly active player on the edge with great athletic ability and an assortment of pass rushing moves. Not only can he rush the passer, he is one of the better coverage rush linebackers in the NFL. He has been improving every year since he came into the NFL and is poised for his best season yet as Washington added more talent to their front seven.
Pierre Paul has had an up and down career to this point, but there is no denying his talent. Everyone remembers him busting onto the scene during the Giants last Super Bowl run as one of the elite Edge Defenders in the league, but his play relatively fell off for a few seasons as he dealt with injury. Pierre Paul, while he is not a top tier pass rusher, does a good job of using his athletic ability to disrupt the backfield and create pressure off the edge. His best asset is his top level run defense. His awareness and motor in the run game make him a one man wrecking ball and he has the ability to anchor against some of the best run games in the league. Pierre Paul is getting further removed from his injured seasons, so it is very possible he regains 2011 form.
Second Team: Brandon Graham, Connor Barwin
Interior Defensive Linemen: Fletcher Cox, Johnathan Hankins
For defensive players, the interior defensive line is the most talented positional group in the NFC East. Even after the top four players at the position, the likes of Vinny Curry, Cedric Thorton, Bennie Logan, Stephen Paea and Jason Hatcher make up a deep collection of talent. At the top of it all, by far, sits Fletcher Cox. If not for the otherworldly JJ Watt, Cox would get the recognition as the best five technique defensive end in the NFL. Cox's athletic ability make him impossible to handle in the running game and he does a great job generating pressure and eating up attention in the passing game. Though his sack numbers are relatively underwhelming, Cox was responsible for a majority of the Eagles' prolific pass rush's production. The pressure that Cox generated allowed Connor Barwin to clean up and have himself a Pro Bowl season. Cox got better as the season went on, so it is not out of this world to think he could have an even better season ahead of him. Despite the fact that he has not reached his ceiling yet, Cox is already the best defensive player in the division.
While he may be on an entirely different tier than Cox, Johnathan Hankins is still one of the better defensive tackles in the league. The big man in the middle of the Giants defense is a tremendous run defender, but also possesses the sheer strength to disrupt a passing game. His disruptive ability at his size is some of the most impressive I have seen in the league and I would not be surprised to see him turn in his best season heading into his third year in the NFL.
Second Team: Tyrone Crawford, Terrance Knighton
Linebackers: Mychal Kendricks, Kiko Alonso, Devon Kennard
There has been a lot of negative spin on Mychal Kendricks and his future in Philadelphia, but what is undeniable is how good he was in 2014. Though he missed a few games due to injury, Kendricks was still one of the best inside linebackers in the NFL. His athletic ability and recognition skills made him a good run defender and a fantastic coverage linebacker. On top of those two baseline skills for an inside linebacker, Kendricks was also an incredibly productive pass rusher and blitzer for Philadelphia. His skill set allows Billy Davis to move him all over the place and make it hard on offenses to guess what he will be doing on any given snap. To paint a picture of how good Kendricks was last season, he ranked Top 10 in run stop percentage, top six in pass rushing productivity and top six in coverage efficiency last year (Per Pro Football Focus). Few other linebackers strung together that type of statistical resume. I have been the biggest defender of Kendricks and it is because he is currently ascending the ranks of linebackers in the NFL.
One of the biggest additions to the Philly defense this offseason has been former Buffalo Bill and Oregon Duck, Kiko Alonso. Alonso had a rookie season worthy of Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2013 before he lost his entire sophomore season to a knee injury. If Alonso can regain form, I am confident the Eagles could have the best front seven in the NFL next year. Alonso is a highly active defender with a relentless attitude attacking plays. His best asset is ability in coverage, as he has great movement skills and does a great job breaking down a play. His speed at the position make him a valuable blitzer as well, and he can make impact plays against the run. He is very aggressive and tends to take himself out of plays with missed tackles or poor angles in the run game from time to time, but he is great in coverage and has the ability to make highlight reel plays behind the line of scrimmage. Hopefully, health allowing, we will get to see him and Kendricks manning the inside of the Philly defense. No doubt that healthy duo would be the best in the NFL.
Devon Kennard has had a strange career up to his point. He arrived at USC as a five star prospect and the top defensive end recruit in the country (Per 247 Sports). He suffered a knee injury at USC and was moved in-between linebacker and defensive end his whole career at USC. After his senior year, he was taken in the fifth round of the 2014 draft, a pretty under the radar pick. Despite being picked on day three, he saw action in 12 games in his rookie season and made a big time impact at linebacker. His time as a defensive lineman has advanced his ability to take on blocks and locate the football and thus, he is a very good run defender. The Giants also give him snaps rushing the passer where he is very efficient and effective, disrupting the quarterback on almost 23% of his pass rushing snaps. Kennard should see even more snaps and an expanded role in his second season, so he is poised to break out in a big way.
Second Team: Rolando McClain, Demeco Ryans, Jon Beason
Cornerback: Dominque Rodgers Cromartie, Prince Amukamara
Unfortunately for non-Giants fans, the best cornerback duo in the division resides in New York (New Jersey). Rodgers Cromartie has a bad rep in Philly for his one year underwhelming as a starter in an Eagles jersey. Since that disastrous 2012 season, he has had two very good seasons with Denver and now the Giants. Cromartie is a great athlete and a tremendous man coverage corner, and has the ability to run with the best of them in the NFL. He is still underwhelming in every other part of the game, but he shines in the most important part, coverage. If the last two seasons are any indicator, he should continue to be a very good corner for the Giants.
On the other side of the field is Prince Amukamara, who has flown under the radar since being a first round pick in 2011. Amukamara is a physical cover man, who does a good job at the line of scrimmage and is also a very good run defender. He was having a very strong season in 2014 before tearing his bicep. He has not turned in a full season worthy of calling him a top corner in the NFL, but if he can get healthy and regain the form he had early in 2014, he could work his way into the conversation as a top 12 corner. Hopefully, for the sake of him being in a contact year, he is able to do that.
Second Team: Brandon Boykin, Byron Maxwell
Safeties: Malcolm Jenkins, Barry Church
Safety is by far the worst positional group in the NFC East. Frankly, Jenkins is the only player I would say is a good player by league standards, and that is lucky for Eagles fans. After some underwhelming seasons in New Orleans, Jenkins found new life in Billy Davis' defense, having the best season of his career. He was very constant covering over the top of the defense, and was also able to make an impact dropping into the box to cover the slot or play the run. It is the first time the Eagles have had competent safety play in a while, and it should get better with more comfortability in the system in huge upgrades at corner.
Church has been a tackle machine his last two years in Dallas, accumulating over 200 tackles. He does a good job coming up to make a play, or cleaning up in the passing game, but he is not a very good coverage safety. He is built like a linebacker and that is how he plays, for better or for worse. If Dallas can consistently keep him near the line of scrimmage, he could be a solid player for them next year, but asking him to do too much could minimize his strengths and make him a liability
Second Team: Quintin Demps, Landon Collins
Like I noted earlier, there are not the type of defensive stars in the NFC East like there are on offense, but I do not doubt players can rise to that level going into next season. The depth in the front seven is loaded and it stands out how many impact players Philadelphia has up front. Mychal Kendricks, Kiko Alonso, Brandon Graham, Connor Barwin, Fletcher Cox, Cedric Thorton, and Bennie Logan starting with Vinny Curry, Beau Allen and Taylor Hart rotating in is the best group in the league on paper. The secondaries in the division do not have a ton of established guys, but there are some unproven, but talented players like Philip Thomas, Eric Rowe, Jaylen Watkins and Nat Behre who could end up breaking out in 2015.