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NFC East Outlook: The top player at every defensive position

The Kist & Solak Show #102!

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Washington Redskins v Philadelphia Eagles Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

Now that we have our All-Stars of the East on offense, it’s time to select who is starting on our defense. That’s right, it’s the second of three installments of this series that builds a stacked starting unit from pieces selected only from the NFC East.

On offense, the scorecard leaned in favor of the Philadelphia Eagles with five selections. The Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants checked in with three, while Washington is still waiting to get on the board. It’s a real “will they, won’t they” with Washington, but luckily for them they finally get representation fairly early in this process.

We discussed the entire roster on The Kist & Solak Show #102 as Benjamin Solak was kind enough to give me some help sorting out the defense. Here’s how things shook out...

DEFENSIVE TACKLE #1: Fletcher Cox (Eagles)

It’s an obvious choice given Cox’s dominance in recent history. Only one defensive tackle has held a candle to him, and that’s the Los Angeles RamsAaron Donald, which was not lost on the folks at Pro Football Focus. Cox was their fourth best player entering the 2019 season and they had this to say about the comparison with Donald:

“Among the 125 interior defensive linemen with 500 or more pass-rush snaps since 2015, Donald ranks first in pass-rush grade (95.9), total pressures (375) and pass-rush win percentage (22.1%). Cox ranks second behind Donald in all three metrics.

And the trend continues, as Donald led all at his position in pass-rush grade in each of the past four seasons (2015-18). Cox ranked second two of the years (2017 & 2018) and third in another (2015).” - Austin Gayle, Pro Football Focus

DEFENSIVE TACKLE #2: Jonathan Allen (Washington)

Washington has shown a penchant for Alabama prospects by filling their roster with former Tide players. The best of that bunch is Allen, Washington’s first round selection in 2017. Allen gets the nod over the competition because he boasts a complete game and made major strides as a pass rusher on his way to accumulating 8 sacks in 2018.

The other contenders have holes in their game that keep them from surpassing Allen. Dalvin Tomlinson needs to add “pass rusher” to his résumé, Malik Jackson was certified buns in run defense last year, and the dark horse BJ Hill has to take another leap after an impressive rookie campaign. For Washington, Allen, Da’Ron Payne and Matt Ioannidis are as good as it gets for defensive tackle depth.

DEFENSIVE END #1: DeMarcus Lawrence (Cowboys)

With 25 sacks over the last two years, there’s no question that Lawrence is the cream of the crop when it comes to rushing the passer in the East. According to PFF, in that same span Lawrence’s 19.4% pass rush win-rate ranks 5th among edge defenders with over 500 rushes. With concerns of him being a one-hit wonder out the window, the Cowboys were smart to lock up Lawrence on 5-year, $105M deal.

DEFENSIVE END #2: Ryan Kerrigan (Washington)

Let’s say I can guarantee you more than 8 sacks year in, year out? Would that pique your interest? In the last seven of eight years Kerrigan hasn’t dipped below that number. He also has double-digit sacks three years running (11.0 > 13.0 > 13.0). That type of steady production and durability (hasn’t missed a game in 8 years), give Kerrigan the nod here.

Brandon Graham is certainly in the conversation. He ranked 2nd in the NFC East for pressures in 2018 (77) despite still recovering from ankle surgery for a better portion of the season. At the end of the day though, pressures are great and more stable than sacks (unless you’re Kerrigan), but sacks end drives 83% of the time.

LINEBACKER #1: Leighton Vander Esch (Cowboys)

LINEBACKER #2: Jaylon Smith (Cowboys)

I’m grouping these two together because they’re the best linebacker tandem in the league. Perhaps Bobby Wagner and KJ Wright of the Seattle Seahawks might have something to say about that, but for my money it’s the Cowboys’ duo.

Smith is one of the better stories you’ll come across and had a dynamic 2018 campaign after years of doubt concerning his viability. He’s a hard-nosed snot-rocker with sideline-to-sideline range that looks the be the Jaylon many (including myself) fawned over at Notre Dame.

Vander Esch has already cemented himself as one of the best linebackers in the league after an eye-opening rookie year. With 36 stops he ranked 1st in the East for PFF’s run stop metric (10.6%) and was a valuable piece in coverage due to his bonkers athleticism. There’s still room for improvement for the 23-year old Vander Esch, who didn’t start playing ball until well into his teens.

CORNERBACK #1: Byron Jones (Cowboys)

Zero interceptions in 2018 gives me pause, but only briefly, because Jones is head-and-shoulders above the rest of this group. The question for Jones will be his recovery from a hip injury that required surgery in the off-season. The injury bugged him throughout last year, but only slightly slowed down the top-flight corner.

CORNERBACK #2: Janoris Jenkins? (Giants)

This was a tough one. Washington’s Josh Norman has been overrated for a good while now, Ronald Darby is coming off an ACL tear that could stunt his development, and after that... who is there? Any other name is a serious projection, which I guess by default gives Jenkins the nod. That’s even after a year where he was credited with giving up 7 touchdowns in coverage (Normal gave up 8). Regardless, I’ll take his ball skills over the rest of the back, even if his gambling gets him toasted every now and then.

NICKEL CORNERBACK: Avonte Maddox (Eagles)

SAFETY #1: Malcolm Jenkins (Eagles)

SAFETY #2: Landon Collins (Washington)

This is the part where I explain how this secondary is going to work on a philosophical level. The lack of a standout at nickel caused this explanation, so here’s the thinking...

With no clear free safety to select, especially considering Rodney McLeod’s cloudy future, we had to get creative. Solak made the argument that he’d plug in Jenkins and Collins at safety and then throw in another piece to spice it up.

“If only there was another young defensive back in the NFC East who has moved around from safety to corner and showed proficiency at both spots and thereby was able to provide this versatility such that we might call him a nickel but who knows what he really is?”

That versatile defensive back is, of course, Avonte Maddox. All three of those players tallied over 100 snaps each at free safety last year, for a total of 483 snaps. Essentially, it’s a free safety-by-committee approach. Against heavier offensive sets, Jenkins and Collins would drop down with Maddox rotating high. Against more spread out wide receiver heavy sets, Maddox would play nickel with Collins and Jenkins taking either deep or box responsibilities depending on the matchup.

Is it a cop out? Probably. But if you got a better idea how to match the East safeties together, we’d love to know what that looks like.

Overall the Eagles led the pack with eight selections and the Cowboys were a close second with seven. In the bottom half, the Giants check in with four while Washington comes in last with only three selections (all on defense).

We discuss these players and position battles more in-depth on The Kist & Solak Show #102! You can listen on the media player below or click here if the player doesn’t load. New to podcasts? Check out our guide on how to listen to BGN! FLY EAGLES FLY!