Despite some low ranking units last season, the NFC East has a lot of talent on the defensive side of the ball. Much of the division spent a great deal of money over the offseason upgrading their units with big name free agents, so the collective players are even more talented now. The biggest strength of the division is the defensive line, where plenty of players who won't make this list are still major contributors. The weakest part of the division is easily the linebackers, but let us take a look at who makes up the best of the best defenders in the NFC East.
Ryan Kerrigan: Since entering the league in 2011, Ryan Kerrigan has posted the 10th most sacks in the league and no one seems to talk about him. The Washington outside linebacker is an absolute terror of a pass rusher, contributes as a run defender and can also drop into coverage. Kerrigan is not just one of the best edge defenders in the league, he is among the most complete. Washington continues to add more talent to their defense to assist Kerrigan, so it wouldn't be a surprise to see his sixth year in the league be his most productive.
Olivier Vernon: The Giants awarded Olivier Vernon with a massive contract in free agency this offseason and that money has gone to the heads of many when trying to assign his worth in a vacuum. Vernon is not among the elite pass rushers like he is paid to be, but that doe not disqualify him from still being a very good player. Vernon strut together three straight seasons of very consistent and disruptive play, contributing as a run defenders and a great complimentary rusher. His sack numbers never were able to near the amount of disruption he created, but the Giants have other talent on their defensive line that helps maximize Vernon. If there is going to be a defensive line renaissance in New York after years of middling play, Vernon will be a big part of that.
Second Team: Brandon Graham, Preston Smith
Fletcher Cox: Not only is Fletcher Cox the best, most disruptive and most valuable defensive player in the NFC East, he is also among the top players in the NFL. The Eagles awarded Cox with one of the most lucrative defensive contracts in NFL history, and rightfully so: Cox produced nearly 10 sacks as a primarily two gapping defensive lineman last season which is an incredibly hard feat to accomplish and the arrow is still pointing up. With Jim Schwartz coming to Philadelphia, Cox gets to move to his more natural position as a gap shooting defensive tackle and with his athletic ability crashing through as a three technique, Cox will somehow be able to ascend even higher than he already has in the NFL ranks.
Tyrone Crawford: The Cowboys made a questionable move a few months ago when they handed Tyrone Crawford a wealthy contract extension when the 25 year old player only had 3 career sacks to his name. Crawford turned around and rewarded the Cowboys with his best season yet. He is a penetrating defensive tackle who does a very good job making noise in the passing game and he was able to be relatively productive despite Dallas' defense being up and down all of last season. Crawford still looks like his best football is ahead of him and Dallas will definitely need him to elevate his game even more.
Second Team: Chris Baker, Damon Harrison
Sean Lee: The story of Sean Lee's career has always been one of bad health, but this year Lee was able to hold himself together for 14 games and turned in the best season of his career. Lee is a rock in the middle of the Dallas defense and his coverage and run defending ability is among the best in the league. The only thing holding Lee back going forward is the injury bug hovering over him and a healthy Sean Lee is the best linebacker in the division.
Jordan Hicks: Jordan Hicks set the world alight as a rookie after coming into the league without much fanfare. He was reliable as a run defender and was outstanding as a coverage linebacker, especially for a rookie. He suffered a torn pectoral muscle after heroically returning an interception for a touchdown against the Cowboys last season, so a lot hinges on his ability to recover. In Jim Schwartz's defense, Hicks will be able to cover a lot of ground as a middle linebacker in a 4-3 defense, so expect the second year linebacker to put up big time tackle numbers and be a big part of the Eagles bringing great defense back to Philadelphia.
Nigel Bradham: An underrated signing in the offseason was Philadelphia's acquisition of former Buffalo Bill, Nigel Bradham. Bradham had a down season under Rex Ryan, but his one season with Jim Schwartz in Buffalo gives me a lot hope for his upside in Philadelphia. Bradham is a smart, sound run defender and a massive intimidator as a tackler. Bradham will likely man the strong side of the defense and have a nice rebound season now that he's back under Jim Schwartz's tutelage.
Second Team: Devon Kennard, Mychael Kendricks, Rolando McClain
Janoris Jenkins: Much like Olivier Vernon, the Giants handed Janoris Jenkins a huge chunk of change this offseason and, much like Olivier Vernon, it completely rocked the narrative about Jenkins about a player. Jenkins is not the best cornerback in the league like he is paid to be, but he is one of the better ones. Jenkins isn't a great tackler, nor is he a lockdown player, but he is a serious playmaker at the position. He has 10 interceptions in his four years to go along with five touchdowns and 48 passes defended. Jenkins is a great athlete with serious ball skills and he will likely help an abysmal Giants secondary take a step forward.
Josh Norman: In one of the strangest moments of the offseason, the Carolina Panthers let their star cornerback go from his franchise tag after a tremendous season. Washington swooped in and signed Norman to a rich contract. Though Norman is older (28), his game is not predicated on athletic ability, rather perfect technique and mentality, meaning his game has a while before it really diminishes. Norman was assisted by playing on a talented Carolina team, but he is still an outstanding defender on his own. Washington is building a very physical football team and Norman's presence will proliferate that even further.
Second Team: Bashaud Breeland, Dominique Rodgers Cromartie
Malcolm Jenkins: I'm old enough to remember when the Eagles were idiots for signing Malcolm Jenkins over Jarius Byrd back in 2013. Two years later and Jenkins is the best safety in the NFL. His ball skills, athletic ability and versatility makes him a defensive chess piece that can play free safety, strong safety or slot cornerback. While Bill Davis loved to move him around the last two seasons, Jim Schwartz may carve out a more specific role for Jenkins and Jenkins should be able to continue his streak of incredible safety play.
Rodney McLeod: The Eagles made their splash in free agency by signing the former Ram safety, Rodney Mcleod. McLeod is not a household name right now, but he will be. The hard hitting, rangy safety is going to be a star at the back end of the Philadelphia secondary and should be a big part of the Eagles trying to reestablish themselves as a gritty, hard hitting defense.
Second Team: Byron Jones, Barry Church