During the unprecedented offseason of 2011, ESPN.com has ranked the top pass-rushers in the NFL. We've ordered linebackers, rated cornerbacks and chosen the league's top 10 safeties as well. Now it's time to start putting it all together.
This week's challenge: Meld those four ballots into a single list of the NFL's 10 best defensive players. The subtle shift in parameters required us to consider not only a player's individual impact, but the overall importance of his position to the game.
Both in the draft and in the free-agent market, NFL teams place premium value on pass-rushers and interior defensive linemen. Other positions, most notably safeties, are relegated to secondary priorities. So in that sense, it's both remarkable and telling that Pittsburgh Steelers safety Troy Polamalu was the unanimous top choice of our committee.
"Troy has a skill set that I've never seen from the safety position," said AFC North blogger James Walker, who has covered Polamalu for years. "He has the hands, coverage skills and acceleration of a corner, but the instincts and timing on the blitz and against the run like a linebacker. When I've asked coaches to draw a comparison to another safety, they struggle to come up with a name, because there's really no one like him. [Steelers defensive coordinator] Dick LeBeau also deserves credit for building his defense around Troy, because that's really hard to do for a safety."
To what extent do NFL teams typically value safeties? Consider that in last month's draft, the first safety wasn't selected until midway through the second round (UCLA's Rahim Moore, by the Denver Broncos, at No. 45 overall). And in determining franchise tag numbers for a potential 2011 market before the lockout, the league was set to assign safeties the third-lowest figure among all positions, ahead of only tight ends and kickers.
One other safety made our list: Ed Reed of the Baltimore Ravens. But for the most part, the list was dominated by players known for getting to the quarterback. Our top pass-rusher, Dallas Cowboys linebacker DeMarcus Ware, ranked second. Green Bay Packers linebacker Clay Matthews, Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison and Chicago Bears defensive end Julius Peppers were among our top eight.
NFC East blogger Dan Graziano rated Ware No. 7 overall and is braced for the wrath of his new readership, but I thought it was healthy and important to add a fresh view that didn't participate in our individual position rankings.
"Guys like Harrison and [Ravens defensive tackle Haloti] Ngata made more of an impression on me," Graziano said. "I certainly don't think calling someone the seventh-best defensive player in the league is any kind of insult. But from what I watched the past couple of years, I felt guys like that impacted the games in which they played more completely than did Ware. If I made a mistake, I'm certainly happy to own up to it and listen to the reasons why I was wrong."
In this debate, right and wrong mattered less than philosophy. Graziano, for example, rated New York Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis No. 2 overall and also included Oakland Raiders cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha at No. 8. On the other side of the spectrum, I joined NFC West blogger Mike Sando in choosing only one cornerback (Revis) and one safety (Polamalu). Sando, in fact, ranked Revis No. 9.
Neither one of us has any argument with the skills of Asomugha or Reed. But on a ranking of overall defensive players, we found it difficult to include more than two defensive backs.
"I moved down Revis and cornerbacks in general," Sando said, "for the same reason Patrick Peterson went fifth in the draft despite being arguably the best player available. It's just tougher for a cornerback to affect offenses the way a great front-seven player affects them. Quarterbacks can throw away from them."
Along those lines, Sando gave the highest vote for the player who topped our linebacker rankings, Patrick Willis of the San Francisco 49ers, placing him at No. 2. Willis finished No. 4 with votes ranking anywhere from No. 2 to No. 8
"Willis has no weaknesses and there is no avoiding him on the field," Sando said. "I've seen him return an interception 86 yards for a touchdown, knock out wide receivers with crushing hits, punish quarterbacks on blitzes and scrambles, lift a Pro Bowl offensive lineman off the ground in run support and just generally dominate. He was a serious candidate for the No. 1 spot on my ballot."
Matthews also received a wide range of votes, finishing No. 5 despite three ballots that placed him No. 2, including mine. Most of us considered Ware the top pass-rusher a few months ago, but a few believe Matthews is the better all-around player from the 3-4 outside linebacker position.
"Clay Matthews makes as many game-changing plays as any defender in the league," said NFC South blogger Pat Yasinskas, who joined the AFC South's Paul Kuharsky and myself on the Matthews bandwagon. "That makes him one of the league's best defenders in my eyes. And it doesn't hurt that his team has the Lombardi trophy at the moment."
Said Kuharsky: "Matthews is so dynamic and energetic it made it very difficult for me not to constantly circle back to him as I consider the highest-impact defenders in the league. That Seifert and Yasinskas also rate him second just goes to prove that what everyone says about those two is dead wrong."
A backhanded compliment from Paul Kuharsky? I can't think of a better line to close on.