The Schein Nine  

 

Khalil Mack, Von Miller top NFL's most indispensable defenders

Print

It's summertime. We're months away from real, live football games. So I'm here to supply something that we need. Well, actually, something NFL teams need.

It's time for my annual rundown of indispensable players.

To jog your memory, let's review the meaning of the word indispensable. According to Dictionary.com, it means "absolutely necessary, essential, or requisite." In NFL terms, it's those players teams simply cannot live without.

Now, let me remind you of a couple things about this particular list of mine:

1) THIS IS NOT A LIST OF THE NFL'S BEST PLAYERS. AGAIN, IT'S THE MOST INDISPENSABLE.

2) AS USUAL, I DIDN'T INCLUDE QUARTERBACKS ON THE OFFENSIVE SIDE OF THINGS. OTHERWISE THAT POSITION WOULD OWN THE ENTIRE LIST.

Please re-read those two caveats before you @ me on Twitter with your complaints. Landon Collins is a star. He's not on this list.

With all that as the backdrop, here's my annual list of indispensable defensive players, Schein Nine style.

1) Khalil Mack, DE, Oakland Raiders

The reigning Defensive Player of the Year has 30-sack potential. That's not my opinion -- that's according to his quarterback, Derek Carr.

Mack, who did indeed earn my AP vote for DPOY last season, is an all-around terror on the gridiron, excelling against the pass and run. And he not only has a knack for sacking the quarterback and forcing fumbles and batting down passes, but he has a knack for doing so at the exact right time in the game. Need proof? Check out the 35-32 win over the Panthers in Week 12. With one minute left in the first half, Mack picked off a Cam Newton screen pass and took it to the house, giving the Raiders a 24-7 lead. Then, with one minute left in the fourth quarter and the Raiders clinging to a three-point lead, Mack put away the game with a strip-sack of Newton.

The Raiders have numerous question marks on defense. Mack is the reason the unit doesn't crumble -- and a major reason why I think Oakland will host a playoff game this season.

2) Von Miller, LB, Denver Broncos

Yes, the Broncos have an outstanding group of cornerbacks. But Miller is a game-wrecking star who keeps quarterbacks up at night. After guiding the Broncos to a Super Bowl championship in 2015 -- racking up five sacks, two forced fumbles and a pick in the last two games of the title run -- Miller loaded up the stat sheet again in 2016, with 78 tackles, 13.5 sacks and three forced fumbles.

The five-time Pro Bowler -- and three-time first-team All-Pro -- has recorded double-digit sacks in five of his six pro seasons (with the lone outlier being the 2013 campaign, when he only played in nine games). And with the Broncos having an up-in-the-air quarterback situation, a shaky offensive line, a new head coach and no more Wade Phillips, Miller is beyond indispensable.

3) Luke Kuechly, LB, Carolina Panthers

Kuechly is the pulse of the Panthers, the leader of the team. Kuechly missed six games due to concussion issues last season. In a related story, the Panthers crashed to last place in the NFC South at 6-10. Carolina sorely missed Kuechly's tackling, coverage, confidence and ability to alter a game with a play.

Luke Kuechly is, quite simply, the best middle linebacker in the NFL. And he's a modern, every-down player. He's a tackling machine, with 100-plus takedowns in each of his five NFL seasons (yes, even in last year's abbreviated campaign). But he's also very capable in coverage. Remember when he logged pick-sixes in back-to-back weeks in the 2015 playoffs?

Kawann Short and Thomas Davis are undoubtedly high-impact players on Carolina's defense, but Kuechly's the straw that stirs the drink.

4) Aaron Donald, DT, Los Angeles Rams

I didn't put Donald on this list last year for all of the right reasons -- I thought the Rams would be terrible, regardless of his contributions -- and the fan base wasn't happy with me. Well, I think with a new head coach in Sean McVay and Wade Phillips in to run the defense, the Rams will be better than people think. And Donald gives them a fighting chance. He's the best defensive tackle in the league. And no one will be surprised if he takes home Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2017.

Donald's disruptive abilities are extraordinary, as evidenced by his 28 sacks in three NFL seasons. Remember: He's an interior defensive lineman. That's not a normal sack total. But Donald's not a normal player. In fact, analytics hub Pro Football Focus just ranked Donald as the No. 1 player ... in the entire league!

5) Vic Beasley, OLB, Atlanta Falcons

Quick quiz: Who led the NFL in sacks last season? Yep, Mr. Beasley, with 15.5. The Atlanta pass rusher made a young defense believe and overachieve all year en route to the Super Bowl. Without Beasley, Atlanta doesn't get to the big game, plain and simple.

While Dan Quinn's D is on the rise -- with the continued develop of young guys like Deion Jones, Keanu Neal and Grady Jarrett, as well as the offseason additions of Dontari Poe and Takkarist McKinley, and the return to health of Desmond Trufant -- the unit lacks proven edge-rushing ability behond Beasley. No. 44 is absolutely crucial in Atlanta's attempt to get back to Super Bowl Sunday.

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

Quite a conundrum ranking Watt, who was the best defensive player in the NFL the last time he was healthy. But Houston won the division and made it to the second round of the playoffs without him (and without getting anything at quarterback). Not to mention, the Texans ranked No. 1 in total defense (though they were 11th in scoring D).

But for Houston to be taken seriously as a Super Bowl contender, this team needs Watt. If J.J. returns to form and sacks the quarterback close to 20 times, the Texans could have the best defense in the NFL -- by whatever measurement you want to employ. Watt's a game changer, a game wrecker. With him back at peak form, this defense could overcome any potential growing pains for the Deshaun Watson-led offense.

7) Tyrann Mathieu, S, Arizona Cardinals

Mathieu hits and covers and breaks up passes. He changes games by creating turnovers. And most importantly, he is the heart and soul of this Cardinals team. With a banged-up Mathieu last year -- the safety missed six games with a shoulder injury -- the Cardinals missed the playoffs. There is a direct correlation. He's that special.

Mathieu is just such a crucial chess piece, with all the mismatch players and formations NFL offenses are rolling out these days. His skill set is extremely hard -- if not impossible -- to replace. And that, folks, is what we mean by indispensable.

8) Bobby Wagner, LB, Seattle Seahawks

It's tough to include any one Seahawks defender -- because you're inherently separating him from the sea of stars. I love Earl Thomas, who made the list last year. Richard Sherman is still great -- as is a healthy Kam Chancellor. And Michael Bennett is such a versatile talent up front.

But there's something special about Wagner, the only member of Seattle's defense to earn first-team All-Pro honors in 2016. He's the glue to this great D. Wagner is a star and a steady presence, something essential in Seattle with the volatility of certain personalities.

9) Fletcher Cox, DT, Philadelphia Eagles

This final slot came down to a pair of game-wrecking defensive tackles: Cox and Tampa Bay's Gerald McCoy. McCoy makes everyone on the Bucs' defense better, stuffing the middle, sacking the quarterback and generally terrorizing offensive lines. But I also think McCoy's Bucs are more talented than Cox's Eagles -- especially on the offensive side of the ball. So I think McCoy is just a bit less indispensable to Tampa Bay than Cox is to Philly. That's the tiebreaker here.

Cox has become a fixture on this annual list because the Eagles couldn't function without him. The 26-year-old defensive lineman never gets enough credit. He does it all. And a lot of what he does -- routinely destroying opposing blockers -- doesn't show up on the stat sheet.

Follow Adam Schein on Twitter @AdamSchein.

Print

Headlines

The previous element was an advertisement.

NFL Shop