The Schein Nine  

 

Geno Atkins heads NFL's most indispensable defensive players

On Tuesday, I delivered a Schein Nine highlighting the most indispensable offensive players in the NFL (excluding quarterbacks). Now it's time to shift focus to the other side of the ball.

In compiling this Schein Nine on the most indispensable defensive players, I took into account pure domination, impact on the team, the overall defensive unit and the standings.

Let the debate begin!

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1) Geno Atkins, DT, Cincinnati Bengals: Surprised? Well, you shouldn't be. The Bengals boast a great defense without a bunch of elite talent. I give the credit to coordinator Mike Zimmer and the difference-making Atkins. He is a force, seemingly unstoppable in every single aspect of D-line play. Atkins plugs the middle, commands attention and still puts up sensational numbers, sacking the quarterback 12.5 times last year and forcing four fumbles. Atkins ranked sixth in the NFL in knockdowns and hurries, but tops among defensive tackles.

The guy is an absolute monster. He has a gigantic domino effect on defensive ends Michael Johnson and Carlos Dunlap. Atkins was the No. 1 reason why the Bengals made the playoffs last year and the top reason why they can be back in the tournament this season.

2) Brian Cushing, LB, Houston Texans: This is not a misprint. Yes, I voted for J.J. Watt as Defensive Player of the Year -- didn't even think twice about it. Watt had an amazing, MVP-caliber season. But the heart and soul of Houston's defense is Cushing. To realize this, all you had to do was watch the games last year. When Cushing went down, so did the Texans' Super Bowl chances.

With Cushing, Houston was undefeated at 5-0, ranked fourth in scoring defense, third in total defense, ninth in rushing defense and first in third-down percentage. Sans Cushing, the Texans went 7-4. In those 11 games, the scoring defense ranked 20th, total defense fell to 16th and third-down percentage plummeted eight spots.

Cushing is a star. He's the pulse of Wade Phillips' defense. This is no knock on Watt, one of my favorite players in the league, but Houston can't compete for a title without Cushing.

3) Von Miller, LB, Denver Broncos: Elvis has left the building. Now, if something happens to Miller, Peyton Manning and the Broncos have no chance of making the Super Bowl. Elvis Dumervil was a perfect complement to Miller. But in the wake of an epic fax flub, the onus is on No. 58. I think he's up for it.

Miller is a freak, piling up 18.5 sacks, as well as 31.5 knockdowns and 12 hurries, in just his second NFL season.

4) Justin Smith, DL, San Francisco 49ers: He can play end. He can play tackle. Inherently, San Francisco can line up in the 3-4 or the 4-3. Both NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis, the best linebacker combination in the league, have told me Smith is the most important player on the Niners' defense. He's tough. He's clutch. He takes on blockers and frees up other players.

Smith sets the tone in practice and in games. He's the Energizer Bunny on one of the truly elite defenses in the league. Down the final stretch of last season and in the playoffs, when Justin Smith was hurt, it put more attention on Aldon Smith. Not coincidentally, Aldon's play dropped.

5) Richard Sherman, CB, Seattle Seahawks: Sherman is the best player in the best defensive backfield in the NFL. "The Legion of Boom" has a knack for making plays. The physical Sherman posted a league-high 24 pass breakups for the fourth-best defense in the league.

And of course, if you're not sure how indispensable Sherman is, just ask him. He'll be happy to fill you in.

6) Jason Pierre-Paul, DE, New York Giants: Actually, you can make the case that the Giants witnessed life without JPP in 2012, as he took a step back in Year 3. And this resulted in the reigning Super Bowl champions missing the playoffs altogether.

Perry Fewell's defense is built around a dominant pass rush. The Giants' linebacker corps is suspect. The defensive backfield struggled mightily last year.

In 2011, Pierre-Paul racked up 16.5 sacks and the Giants won the Super Bowl. Last year, he was stuck in the mud, underachieving with 6.5 sacks, and the Giants were done in December. JPP is everything for the Big Blue defense.

7) Vince Wilfork, DT, New England Patriots: At age 31, he's still elite. He got my vote last year for first team All-Pro at defensive tackle (along with Atkins). Wilfork is a pro's pro, consistently fulfilling his duty of clogging the middle. Wilfork is a leader, a true Bill Belichick guy. He can play (and dominate) in multiple fronts.

The Patriots have many issues/questions on defense, and they would be magnified without Wilfork.

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8) Luke Kuechly, LB, Carolina Panthers: I think this cat is a star. I thought he was the best defensive player in the 2012 NFL Draft and voted for him as Defensive Rookie of the Year (an honor he ran away with). The former Boston College icon became the rock of the Panthers defense.

Kuechly is not only a true tackler, he's an indispensable leader. He is on my short list of players I would build by defense around.

9) Daryl Washington, LB, Arizona Cardinals: Washington has received my vote as a first-team All-Pro linebacker in each of the past two seasons. He was the main reason I penned a column detailing why the Cardinals would make the playoffs as a true surprise team this year under new head coach Bruce Arians.

Well, then the news broke that Washington would be suspended for the first four games of 2013.

Without Washington, Arizona will be hard-pressed to succeed in the season's opening month, facing the following slate: at St. Louis Rams, vs. Detroit Lions, at New Orleans Saints, at Tampa Bay Buccaneers. With him, I would've picked Arizona to start 3-1. Washington is a dominant tackling machine with a nose for making plays. Arizona will miss him dearly -- this is a team that must take over games on defense.

NFL Exposure

The Top 100 Players of 2013

See where players rank this time around.

Just missed the cut (The next nine)

» Haloti Ngata, DT, Baltimore Ravens
» Cameron Wake, DE, Miami Dolphins
» Jared Allen, DE, Minnesota Vikings
» DeMarcus Ware, DE/OLB, Dallas Cowboys
» NaVorro Bowman, LB, San Francisco 49ers
» Ndamukong Suh, DT, Detroit Lions
» Clay Matthews, OLB, Green Bay Packers
» Sean Weatherspoon, LB, Atlanta Falcons
» Darrelle Revis, CB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Follow Adam Schein on Twitter @AdamSchein.

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