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NFC East Outlook: The Top Player at Each Defensive Position

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Which Eagles make the cut?

Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

With the 2018 NFL season fast approaching, it’s time to take stock at how the Super Bowl Champion Philadelphia Eagles stack up against the rest of the division. To do that, I’ve already gone through the top players at each position on the offensive side of the ball. Now we turn our attention to the defense, plus the all-important special teams.

INTERIOR DEFENSIVE LINE: Fletcher Cox (Eagles)

Huge, long, and powerful with polished hands and a nuanced approach to pass rushing, Fletcher Cox does it all from multiple alignments. While his sack totals have declined over the last three years (9.5 > 6.5 > 5.5), that’s more of a reflection of the help he’s received as part of a dominant rotation that has steadily reduced his snaps (983 > 772 > 607). Digging further, his 2017 campaign looked closer to his 9.5 sack 2015 season, with a pass rush productivity of 10.2 that ranked 2nd among defensive tackles.

Cox remained a force in the playoffs, aided by his fresh legs, and he recorded a league high 16 pressures from the interior throughout the Eagles run. He may need to take more snaps in 2018 if running mate Timmy Jernigan can’t recover in time from his back injury, but more Cox isn’t necessarily a terrible thing.

EDGE: DeMarcus Lawrence (Cowboys)

This is going to look like a shot at Brandon Graham and Ryan Kerrigan, both of whom have earned a spot at the table, but DeMarcus Lawrence’s 2017 campaign was far too dominant to ignore. Graham and Kerrigan have both done it longer, but neither possesses the high-end ability of Lawrence. If he avoids back injuries that have plagued him in the past, he is a good bet for double-digit sacks every season.

Leading the league with 79 pressures and a 14.8 pass rush productivity launched him above all the other premier pass rushers in the league and his production wasn’t just a product of clean-up and effort sacks. He boasts a full toolbox of moves, taking a huge leap with his technique from 2016 to 2017 and all of this leads me to believe his elite production is at sustainable.

Yes, Graham stripped Tom Brady in the Super Bowl with a high ankle sprain and a pulled hamstring, an accomplishment that will live on forever in Eagles lore, but Lawrence put together a more complete season and possesses elite traits.

OFF BALL LINEBACKER: Sean Lee (Cowboys)

There’s a reason the Cowboys defense struggles mightily when Lee is on the scratch list, it’s because, and hear me out, he’s really darn good at his job. You could make the argument that having to use the qualifier “when healthy” with Lee should disqualify him, but his 8 games missed over the last 3 seasons isn’t egregious enough for me to pass on him here.

When he isn’t available, the Cowboys linebackers are a mess and not capable of playing assignment sound football. Bringing value both as a play-maker and a cerebral “rising tide lifts all boats” play-caller, not many linebackers are as steady and valuable as Lee. He also gave us this great moment that highlighted the competency, or incompetency, of the Cowboys coaching staff.

CORNERBACK: Janoris Jenkins (Giants)

I seriously considered making a homer pick here with Ronald Darby, but considering all the factors, Janoris Jenkins brings enough boom with his bust despite a down 2017 year to bring this one home. Statistically and on film Darby had a better year, allowing a 57.2 QB rating when targeted, but he had games where he sieved yardage, including the Super Bowl. Jenkins has allowed a 64.8 and 81.8 QB Rating in 2016 and 2017 respectively, while hauling in 3 interceptions for 3 consecutive years. This doesn’t change my belief that the 24-year old Darby has more potential and will benefit in a full, healthy offseason in the Eagles system. Josh Norman is overrated.

NICKEL: Malcolm Jenkins (Eagles)

This honor would have gone to Kendall Fuller, Patrick Robinson or Dominique-Rodgers Cromartie, likely in that order, if any of them remained in the NFC East. Thus, Jenkins wins this by default. He’s the only returning defensive back in the division that logged more than 200 snaps in the slot in 2017, and it’s not like he’s been bad at it either.

FREE SAFETY: Montae Nicholson (Redskins)

This might be controversial and antithetical to how I’ve reasoned other selections, but even with a small sample size of only 8 games played, Montae Nicholson made enough of an impact to vault in front of a thin group. The 4th round selection out of Michigan State was rock solid in coverage for the Redskins; on 190 passing plays he was targeted 7 times, allowing 3 receptions for 22 yards, and 1 touchdown while also collecting 1 interception for a NFC East low 0.12 yards per coverage snap. That number puts him top 5 in the NFL among safeties that played at least 25% of their teams defensive passing snaps.

Rodney McLeod will likely get some love in the comments, and he should. McLeod is overall a solid starter with good coverage skills and knack for creating turnovers, but as I’ve noted before his uber-aggressiveness leads to far too many missed tackles and bad angles as the last line of defense. Ultimately, taking Nicholson over McLeod won’t stop me from reminding everybody what happened to Montae in San Francisco.

STRONG SAFETY: Landon Collins (Giants)

When I put this poll on Twitter, there were a lot of votes for Malcolm Jenkins at free safety and even more for Landon Collins at strong safety. This, along with the Jenkins nod at nickel, shows just how much confusion there is about Jenkins’ role and just how versatile he is as a defender. Whether lined up as a nickel, safety or linebacker, Jenkins is a key contributor for the Eagles defense and brings more consistency than another strong safety in the division. That includes Landon Collins, who has the potential to be a top 5 safety in the league.

That said Collins still brings enough to the table to take the top spot, although it’s my belief that Jenkins and Byron Jones played better than Collins in 2017. Jones is moving back to cornerback where he will challenge Janoris Jenkins for the top slot. Collins popped on film getting burned in coverage or missing tackles on a surprising number of the busted plays from the 2017 Giants dam bursting extravaganza.

Regardless, Collins has plenty going for him to justify this choice. He’s a force against the run, totaling more tackles when aligning within 8 yards of the line of scrimmage than any other NFC East safety. He’s dynamic as a blitzer, totaling 4 sacks in 2016 and while he didn’t notch any in 2017, he came away with 10 pressures on just 37 blitzes. While the help around him sans Jenkins is abysmal, Collins has a complete skill set for new defensive coordinator James Bettcher to utilize and should be the brightest spot on a bleak defensive depth chart in 2018.

PUNTER: Chris Jones (Cowboys)

Punters are people too... is what people say. Strict criteria for this one; any blocks is a disqualification and I’m basically just going off of “inside the 20” numbers. The Giants Brad Wing led the league in blocked punts with 2 because the Giants couldn’t do much of anything right, so he’s out. Donnie Jones retired and there’s an open competition for punter with the Eagles so that’s a no go. That leaves Chris Jones and the Redskins’ Tress Way. Jones has the advantage with punts inside the 20 (36 vs 34) with less punts and Way has a sky high return percentage so the nod goes to Jones.

It is perfectly acceptable to ask “do you even watch film bro” in regard to this topic, because I do not.

RETURNER: Darren Sproles (Eagles)

This would have been Cowboys’ wide receiver Ryan Switzer, but they traded him away because why have a better Cole Beasley when you actually have Cole Beasley? Kenjon Barner would’ve been the next choice, who was simultaneously solid and unspectacular, but he’s out for now. With nobody else standing out or worth mentioning, I’ll place my bet on the returning Darren Sproles to be the top returner of the bunch.

SPECIAL TEAMS ACE: Kamu Grugier-Hill

Not only was Kamu Grugier-Hill 6th in the league for special teams tackles, but he filled in on kickoff duty in Week 11 in the Eagles 37-9 throttling of the Dallas Cowboys and did an admirable job. He did so well in fact, he earned high praise from former Indianapolis Colts punter Pat McAfee.

Looking at all the position groups, the Eagles had either top dogs or legitimate competitors at every non-special teams position. It’s an important note, one that signifies that their defense is greater than the sum of its parts and capable of dealing with injuries, even if those injuries happen to star linebackers that in turn alter Dak Prescott’s level of play.