Defense. That’s a side of the ball in the NFL that isn’t for the weak-hearted. From hard hits, to textbook tackles, good coverage, and high IQ, the ingredients to being an exceptional defender go on for days.
Jalen Ramsey, Luke Kuechly, Von Miller, and Landon Collins might be a few names you think of when one references the defensive side of the ball. However, there are some special talents around the league that go unnoticed at times because of the talent around them.
Here are the league’s most overlooked defenders:
Harrison Smith, S, Minnesota Vikings
Let’s not waste any time here. Smith is arguably the best safety in the NFL if not the best. Comparing his defensive totals to the likes of Tyrann Mathieu, Devin McCourty, Eric Weddle, and Earl Thomas since 2013, Smith has intercepted more passes (17), scored more touchdowns (4), made more tackles (366), and sacked the quarterback more (9) than his contemporaries.
The Notre Dame product is underrated because the Vikings’ defense is recognized collectively rather than the individual talent being mentioned. In other words, it’s very easy for Smith to get lost in the shuffle on a loaded defense with Xavier Rhodes, Anthony Barr, and Everson Griffen.
Jurrell Casey, DT, Tennessee Titans
According to Pro Football Focus, Casey finished with a grade of 76.2 and 47th on their list of the top 101 (very odd number) players from last season. He finished ahead of the likes of Minnesota’s Everson Griffen and Linval Joseph.
Casey was the forgotten man on a Titans team that snuck into the playoffs. He helped the defense limit opposing rushing attacks to 88.8 yards per game while generating some pressure on the interior with six sacks. He went to his third straight Pro Bowl and that’s not all.
In the playoffs, Casey set the tone wreaking havoc in the trenches against the Chiefs as the Titans held Kareem Hunt (the NFL’s 2017 leading rusher) to 42 yards in their epic comeback win. The former USC Trojan routinely bullies guards and centers while maintaining that slippery ability to nail passers.
Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer, DBs, Buffalo Bills
Kyle Williams mans the trenches for Buffalo with Tremaine Edmunds at the next level morphing into a star. At corner, Tre’Davious White is every bit as special as Marshon Lattimore, but the two undersized yet versatile safeties on the back end make the Bills a problem.
Hyde and Poyer are both six-foot safeties that have the bodies of a cornerback. In fact, you’ll see them come play on the line of scrimmage as the slot corners. Quarterbacks hardly catch them out of position in zone or man because they have a great feel for the game. Heck, they will even mix it up in the running game as tacklers.
The thing that makes Hyde and Poyer special is their nose for the pigskin. They combined for 10 picks and 26 pass deflections a year ago. Opposing quarterbacks have to be careful otherwise these two will make them look silly.
Joe Schobert, LB, Cleveland Browns
Schobert wins the award for “Most 1920s-Esque Name”, but his game translates well to today’s NFL. He is another one of those Wisconsin Badgers that flew under-the-radar in college, but has figured it out in the pros.
The three things an every-down-backer needs to know how to do is sniff out the run, cover, and create some magic. Schobert improved mightily against the run and the overall physicality in the trenches last season in comparison to 2016 as he led all middle linebackers in run stops. His next step is to grow as a defender of the pass both in man and zone, but his four pass deflections a season ago is worth noting. Lastly, he can create some magic as he intercepted a pass, forced three fumbles, and accrued three sacks a year ago. Its not surprise he made the Pro Bowl in 2017.
William Jackson III, CB, Cincinnati Bengals
Jackson frustrated a lot of receivers, but more importantly he irritated quarterbacks. He held opposing passers to a completion percentage of 34.9, which was the lowest percentage allowed by a corner in 2017 according to PFF.
The Bengals young corner plays with good speed and poise on the outside. The key, in most situations, to having good secondary play is having good pass rushers. On the contrary, Jackson blanketing pass catchers allows guys like Geno Atkins to wreak havoc and have parties in the opponent’s backfield.
Leonard Williams, DL, New York Jets
Williams has one of the best nicknames in football to match his unparalleled skills in the trenches. Since his days at USC, he has been known as Big Cat because of his size at 6’5”, 302 pounds and how light he is on his feet.
The Jets interior defensive lineman can line up at nose tackle or defensive end and provide pressure. He finds ways to avoid being blocked by constantly dipping and contorting his body in awkward ways. In addition, Williams is physical in violently shoving guys to the side.
Williams was a Pro Bowler in 2016 after generating seven sacks, but struggled to get it going a year ago. Make no mistake that opposing offensive coordinators are weary of where he is at all times.
Akiem Hicks, DL, Chicago Bears
Another one of those interior game-wreckers is Hicks. He started his career in New Orleans, but couldn’t stick there. Next, he ended up in New England where, seemingly, all misfits go and end up finding their niche. Wrong. Finally, with his NFL dream probably on the line, Hicks went to Chicago and has molded himself into a diamond in the rough for the Bears.
Whether the Bears need a pass rush, a tackle for loss, or a just a key stop, Hicks seems to always be in the mix. The addition of Khalil Mack is perfect as they will work together to free one another up. Look out Aaron Rodgers, Kirk Cousins, and Matthew Stafford.