The Schein Nine  

 

J.J. Watt, Khalil Mack lead 2016's most indispensable defenders

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Offense is nice. But as the tried and true cliché says, "Defense wins championships."

On Wednesday, I revealed the nine most indispensable offensive players. Now it's time to identify those "absolutely necessary" guys on the other side of the ball.

Here are the defenders teams simply can't live without, Schein Nine style:

1) J.J. Watt, DE, Houston Texans

This past December, the great Bill Belichick compared No. 99 to No. 56.

"Watt's a major force," the Patriots coach said to Houston media. "There are very few players I would put in same conversation with Lawrence Taylor. I would put J.J. in there."

That's not hyperbole. Just ask L.T. himself.

"That J.J. Watt is a bad SOB," Taylor told the Houston Chronicle.

Indeed.

Despite the fact that the Texans had the single worst quarterback room in the NFL last season, Watt carried Houston to the playoffs. The three-time Defensive Player of the Year was largely responsible for the team's turnaround, following a tumultuous, 2-5 start. Watt sacked the quarterback an NFL-high 17.5 times -- and his value and leadership go well beyond the stat sheet. He's the face of the Texans, and they are ready for prime time as a result.

2) Khalil Mack, DE/OLB, Oakland Raiders

Last month on my SiriusXM Radio show, "Schein on Sports," Raiders quarterback Derek Carr told me he thinks Mack will rack up 30 sacks this season. And he wasn't joking. Honestly, I get where he's coming from.

The Raiders are my pick to win the AFC West, as I wrote earlier this offseason. Mack is the most dominant player on the team. He's a budding superstar, fresh off a 15-sack season in Year 2. (Remember the five-sack master class he put on in the Raiders' road win over the eventual Super Bowl champs last December?) And he's only getting better. Scary thought for the rest of the league.

3) Luke Kuechly, MLB, Carolina Panthers

The tackling machine is the heart and soul of the Panthers' fantastic defense, which has ranked in the top 10 in each of Kuechly's four NFL seasons. A three-time first-team All-Pro -- who also has Defensive Rookie of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year awards on the mantel -- Kuechly is a bona fide star. And his name and game went to another level this past year, in Carolina's 15-1 campaign. Kuechly had a pair of pick-sixes in the playoffs, because that's who he is.

This guy is the ideal three-down middle linebacker in today's game, a true force against the run and pass.

4) Von Miller, LB, Denver Broncos

The Super Bowl 50 MVP showed his value on the biggest possible stage, flummoxing and disrupting Cam Newton and the Panthers. Nice timing for Miller, who hit this offseason as a free agent.

The Broncos, of course, applied the franchise tag and now they're trying to work out a long-term deal. Miller rejected a $114.5 million deal, with the hang-up apparently coming in the amount of guaranteed money. John Elway needs to give Miller some Ndamukong Suh dough in that area. (The Dolphins DT inked a deal with $60 million in guarantees last offseason.)

Wade Phillips' defense was nothing short of spectacular last season, carrying the QB-hindered Broncos to a title. And Miller was the engine of this overpowering unit, the main difference between Denver winning and losing the Super Bowl. Talk about indispensable ...

5) Fletcher Cox, DT, Philadelphia Eagles

The Eagles stud never gets the credit he deserves, but this multi-talented game wrecker shows his worth on every snap. The 9.5 sacks and three forced fumbles are incredible figures for a defensive tackle, but they don't even begin to tell the story of Cox's total domination. The amount of attention this guy commands helps everyone around him.

Cox just showed up to mandatory minicamp, even though he wants a new deal. And he will get one. I talked to Eagles general manager Howie Roseman on SiriusXM in May. He knows how great Cox is -- and the GM was very open about the money that'll eventually go his way.

"It's gonna be a big deal, it's gonna be a huge deal," Roseman told me. "We want him here. He's not going anywhere, and he'll be here for a long time in Philadelphia."

So, yes, while Cox might be underappreciated on the broader NFL spectrum, the Eagles certainly understand his worth.

6) Ndamukong Suh, DT, Miami Dolphins

Suh was No. 1 on this list last year -- and his failure and no-show actually proved my point. Suh appeared disinterested in a troubling first season with the Dolphins. He finger-pointed and wrongly put the blame on former defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle. Suh didn't come anywhere near living up to his massive contract. And what do you know? The 6-10 Dolphins didn't live up to expectations.

So the Lions suffered without him. The Dolphins suffered with a watered-down version of him.

You might have to jog the mental rolodex, but Suh is a beast and a game changer when right. I think new head coach Adam Gase will get through to him -- and the Miami defense (and team) will be in business.

7) Earl Thomas, FS, Seattle Seahawks

He's the best and most important player on the best and most impactful secondary in the NFL. Thomas wrecks games -- picking off passes, deflecting passes and rocking anyone who dare cross his path. He's a star and a leader.

Oh, and he's always there. Since entering the league as the No. 14 overall pick in 2010, Thomas has never missed a start: 108 for 108, including a dozen postseason games. So the Seahawks have no idea what it's like to play without No. 29. And they certainly don't want to find out anytime soon.

8) Tyrann Mathieu, DB, Arizona Cardinals

He's the firepower, the attitude, the game changer for the nasty Cardinals' defense. Mathieu is a true ballhawk. He's a fierce and reliable tackler. He defends passes. Mathieu can line up as a safety or a corner. He's a jack of all trades. And he alters what opposing offenses are trying to accomplish.

You saw last year how the Cardinals' defense was affected when Mathieu went down with a season-ending knee injury. My man Bucky Brooks pointed out the difference -- 12-2 record, 19.2 points allowed per game with Mathieu; 2-2 record (including two playoff games), 28.2 points allowed without him -- in a recent piece on the defensive back.

For the Cardinals to reach their full championship potential in 2016, they need the Honey Badger back in action.

9) Muhammad Wilkerson, DL, New York Jets

Mo deserves to be on this list. The Jets know they can't let the star defensive lineman get away, which is why they franchised him. But they are messing around by not giving Wilkerson the long-term deal he deserves.

He does it all for the Jets on the field, as the motor behind their great defensive line. And unlike teammate Sheldon Richardson, Wilkerson is the epitome of class off the field.

Follow Adam Schein on Twitter @AdamSchein.

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