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2017 NFL All-Pro teams, eye test vs. Next Gen Stats: Defense

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  • By Chris Wesseling and Matt Harmon NFL.com
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As we head into the final game of the 2017 NFL season, Super Bowl LII, Chris Wesseling and Matt Harmon provide their All-Pro teams. Where do Wesseling's seasoned eye and Harmon's Next Gen Stats-based evaluations differ -- and where do they converge?

Edge rushers

Chris Wesseling: Cameron Jordan, New Orleans Saints; Calais Campbell, Jacksonville Jaguars. Jordan posted the rare defensive-line triple-double, reaching double figures in sacks (13), tackles for loss (18) and batted passes (10). The best Cam on the field in New Orleans' Wild Card Round victory, Jordan almost single-handedly thwarted Cam Newton's comeback bid, hitting Carolina's quarterback three times over a four-play sequence in scoring territory. The first player since Justin Houston in 2014 to record at least 10 sacks in the season's first seven games, the well-rounded Campbell excelled as both an end and a tackle in his Jacksonville debut. Both players merit strong Defensive Player of the Year consideration.

Matt Harmon: Calais Campbell, Jacksonville Jaguars; Chandler Jones, Arizona Cardinals. Many raised a skeptical eye at Campbell when he opted to head to Jacksonville over joining the Broncos in free agency. The veteran defensive end had the last laugh, as he proved to be a dominant figure and perfect for the Jags' defense. Campbell recorded 55 pressures this year and was a nightmare to deal with for opposing teams. In a season where so many defenders offered excellent cases for Defensive Player of the Year honors, Jones' dynamic 2017 largely went unnoticed nationally. He led all defenders with 66 total pressures this season and was even a formidable force on a run defense that held opposing rushers to -0.26 yards per carry before Cardinals defenders closed within 1 yard (ranking second).

Interior linemen

Wesseling: Aaron Donald, Los Angeles Rams; Fletcher Cox, Philadelphia Eagles. Asked what surprised him most in his first season with the Rams, venerable defensive boss Wade Phillips raved, "Aaron Donald, because he's better than everybody, and I didn't know he was better than everybody. I thought he was good, but I didn't know he was better than everybody. But he is." He'll get no argument from Russell Wilson. If Donald has overtaken the snakebitten J.J. Watt as football's transcendent defensive lineman, Bill Belichick wants us to know that Cox isn't far behind. Cox is the centerpiece of Jim Schwartz's swarming front four, perhaps the NFL's most dominant position group. Pittsburgh's Cameron Hayward and Chicago's Akiem Hicks deserve special mention for standout seasons of their own.

Harmon: Aaron Donald, Los Angeles Rams; Kawann Short, Carolina Panthers. Donald is the best defensive player in the NFL and proved it once again this season, despite operating in a new scheme under Wade Phillips. Despite missing the first and last game of the season, Donald posted 65 pressures in 2017, trailing only Chandler Jones among all defenders. Short remains the home run pick of Dave Gettleman's GM tenure in Carolina. The 2013 second-round pick is nightmare fuel as a pass rusher, having racked up 47 pressures this season (third among interior defensive linemen). The Panthers held opposing backs to -0.22 yards before defenders closed within 1 yard, ranking fourth in the league.

Linebackers

Wesseling: Bobby Wagner, Seattle Seahawks; Luke Kuechly, Carolina Panthers; Chandler Jones, Arizona Cardinals. It's a shame that the leopard-like Ryan Shazier went down with a career-threatening back injury, as the Steelers' most disruptive defensive star showed All-Pro form for three months. Wagner's Defensive Player of the Year candidacy lost its luster when he went down with a hamstring injury in December. The finest linebacker in football, Kuechly boasts unmatched instincts to match pre-snap wits with the league's savviest quarterbacks. Not only the NFL's sack leader (17), Jones was also a beast against the run, topping the list in tackles for loss (28) while rivaling Jadeveon Clowney as the edge rusher with the most run stuffs. Long-time beat writer Kent Somers touted Jones' 2017 campaign as the finest he has ever witnessed by an Arizona defensive star.

Harmon: Luke Kuechly, Carolina Panthers; Deion Jones, Atlanta Falcons; Lavonte David, Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Kuechly continues to set the standard for middle linebacker play in the NFL today. He ranked fifth among all defenders with 34 run stuffs in 2017. In just two seasons, Jones has already established himself as one of the premier coverage linebackers in the game. Atlanta gave up an 82.8 passer rating on throws when a linebacker was the nearest defender, the lowest in 2017 (NFL average: 99.2). Jones is also one of the NFL's best tacklers, bringing down running backs on 83.8 percent of the instances when he closed within 1 yard of them to lead all 'backers. David was one of the few bright spots on an otherwise-uninspiring Buccaneers defense. He was a strong tackler, allowing running backs to gain just 2.26 yards on average after he'd close within 1 yard, ranking second among linebackers.

Cornerbacks

Wesseling: Jalen Ramsey, Jacksonville Jaguars; Xavier Rhodes, Minnesota Vikings. While Campbell has hogged the Defensive Player of the Year spotlight in Jacksonville, it was Ramsey's emergence as a playmaking shutdown corner late last season that transformed the Jaguars' pass defense into a shutdown force. As Patriots special teams ace Matthew Slater recently marveled, "The good Lord made that guy, and he said, 'Let there be corner.' And there he is." An in-your-face corner, Rhodes has demonstrated the ability to erase No. 1 receivers, limiting the otherwise-unguardable tandem of Antonio Brown and Julio Jones to a combined seven catches for 86 yards.

Harmon: A.J. Bouye, Jacksonville Jaguars; Jalen Ramsey, Jacksonville Jaguars. Boasting a pair of lockdown cornerbacks made the Jaguars' defense an impossible chore to go against. Among corners who took at least 400 pass-play snaps, Bouye (36.1) and Ramsey (52.1) ranked first and second, respectively, in lowest passer rating yielded. Neither player allowed more than 47 percent of the passes thrown his way to be completed. In addition to their coverage work, Bouye was a ballhawk, snagging six interceptions, while Ramsey proved a fearsome tackler and tone-setter.

Safeties

Wesseling: Harrison Smith, Minnesota Vikings; Glover Quin, Detroit Lions. The quarterback of a defense that posted the stingiest third-down conversion rate (25.2) since the league began tracking the stat in 1991, Smith excels at all levels of Mike Zimmer's scheme. He combines ballhawking coverage skills with timely blitzing and staunch run support. NFL Network analyst Brian Baldinger and Pro Football Focus have made strong cases for Smith as Defensive Player of the Year. I was shocked that Quin didn't receive a single All-Pro vote. As impressive as Earl Thomas, Micah Hyde and Kevin Byard were in 2017, I thought Quin jumped off the tape with a well-rounded performance almost every week in Detroit.

Harmon: Harrison Smith, Minnesota Vikings; Keanu Neal, Atlanta Falcons. Despite Minnesota's defense being littered with playmakers at every level, it was impossible to watch the Vikings this season and not notice Smith. The safety was highly responsible for the Vikes owning a 10.4 passer rating allowed on deep-middle throws. Smith would absolutely fly upfield in run defense, as well. Running backs gained -0.15 yards before he'd close within 1 yard of them, a wild number for a safety. Neal worked out exactly to plan as Dan Quinn's Atlanta version of Kam Chancellor. The former first-round pick racked up 16 run stuffs on the year.

Defensive back

Wesseling: Casey Hayward, Los Angeles Chargers. Hayward is not yet a household name, but he's been the stickiest cover man in the league over the past two seasons, allowing a 51.1 completion rate and 55.7 passer rating. How good was Hayward at his 2017 peak? From Week 6 through Week 12, quarterbacks targeted him 24 times for seven catches, 81 yards, zero touchdowns and a minuscule 1.6 passer rating, per Pro Football Focus. It's hard to begrudge him for his refusal to bow down to Ramsey as the cornerback king.

Harmon: Casey Hayward, Los Angeles Chargers. Since signing with the Chargers in free agency two offseasons ago, Hayward has become a true shutdown cornerback. After leading the NFL in interceptions in 2016, Hayward offered up a strong encore in his second season with the team. Just 45 percent of the passes thrown when he was the nearest defender ended up as completions. He's routinely tracked No. 1 receivers around the field -- and eliminated them -- over the last two seasons.

Punter

Wesseling: Johnny Hekker, Los Angeles Rams. The rare punting Goliath at 6-foot-5 and 241 pounds, Hekker might be regarded as the greatest to ever do it by the time he hangs up his spikes. He's mastered the nuances of the position, confounding opponents with an arsenal of trick kicks that enable him to limit touchbacks, pin returners inside the 10-yard line and leave precious little space to run. "I mean, this guy's as good a player as I've ever seen at that position," Bill Belichick once raved.

Harmon: Brett Kern, Tennessee Titans. The Titans punter led all players at the position with a 49.7 yards-per-punt average. His longest boot traveled 74 yards, tying him for second-best behind only the Chiefs' Dustin Colquitt. Additionally, 41.3 percent of his punts resulted in opposing offenses starting a drive inside their own 20-yard line, per Pro Football Focus.

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