The Schein Nine  

 

NFL's most indispensable defenders: Aaron Donald sits at No. 1

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We had fun naming the offensive players you can't live without on Tuesday. But you know what they say about defense and, uh, winning championships ...

Without further ado, here's our annual list of the nine most indispensable defensive players in the NFL:

1) Aaron Donald, DT, Los Angeles Rams

Aaron Donald is the single best defensive player in the NFL. Aaron Donald is the single best non-quarterback in the NFL. Aaron Donald is the reason why the Rams have a legit chance to go to the Super Bowl.

I could spit out a bunch of fancy numbers and stats -- both traditional and new agey -- but I watch this guy play the game. And you do, too. So you already know.

2) Von Miller, LB, Denver Broncos

The Broncos' sack master is a gem and the ultimate competitor. Yes, I know the sack total was depressed last year -- 10 was the lowest number Miller had posted since his highly abbreviated 2013 campaign -- but let's not forget the breadth of this guy's game-wrecking career and the fact that everything changed in terms of the coaching staff for the Broncos following 2016. Not to mention, Pro Football Focus credited Miller with the most total QB pressures (sacks, hits, hurries) of any edge defender last season. So, yeah, cool it with any "down season" chatter.

Denver's defense as a whole definitely took a step back last year, plummeting from fourth in scoring D in both 2015 and '16 all the way down to 22nd. But can you imagine how much worse the unit would be without No. 58 flying off the edge?

3) Fletcher Cox, DT, Philadelphia Eagles

To some, this is a new name on the superstar scene. Not to me. I'm proud to say Cox has been on this list every single year since the 2015 edition.

The 6-foot-4, 310-pounder is a monster. And a leader. During Philadelphia's march to the Super Bowl championship, this disruptive force of nature truly showed his value. With Carson Wentz hurt, Fletcher Cox was the single best -- and most dominant -- player on the first Eagles Super Bowl winner. Think about the weight of that.

4) Khalil Mack, DE, Oakland Raiders

Don't tell me about his sack total (10.5) being underwhelming last year. Or the Raiders' win total plummeting. As Derek Carr has said many times on my SiriusXM Radio show, Mack is capable of sacking the QB 30 times. Carr really believes that. And I have a difficult time wet-blanketing his confidence in Oakland's edge dynamo.

Let's be honest: Mack's constantly double-teamed and often held. But he still does plenty to destroy the opponent's best-laid plans. He still gives offensive coordinators nightmares. Where would the Raiders' defense be without No. 52? (Think about that secondary for a second ...) Mack is everything.

5) Everson Griffen, DE, Minnesota Vikings

The Vikings possess a fantastic defense, with three dynamite players in Griffen, CB Xavier Rhodes and S Harrison Smith. But I felt compelled to get Griffen on this list for the first time. This 30-year-old makes Minnesota's elite defense go. He's an unblockable and unstoppable defensive lineman who doesn't get enough credit. And he's the leader of the pack. Griffen, on my SiriusXM Radio show last week, refused to call the Vikings' defense the best in the game -- and stressed how much better the unit has to be with every detail. Somewhere, Mike Zimmer smiles.

Griffen sacked the quarterback 13 times last year -- he actually had 10 sacks in the first eight games, but then a torn plantar fascia really slowed him down -- and truly became entrenched as an indispensable star.

6) Joey Bosa, DE, Los Angeles Chargers

While some might say it's impossible to separate Bosa from Melvin Ingram, the former is simply better. He has 23 sacks in just 28 NFL games. And Year 1 was compromised by a holdout.

Bosa is a pass-rushing star. He's the Energizer Bunny of a defense that is excellent, and a Chargers team that I think can be Super Bowl-bound this season.

7) Calais Campbell, DE, Jacksonville Jaguars

When you look up "indispensable" in the dictionary, Campbell is smiling back at you. Or he should be. The guy does it all for this stifling defense. He's a tackle. He's an end. He sacks the quarterback (14.5 sacks in 2017). He stops the run (67 total tackles).

Campbell is the leader of this young and starry Jags defense. And with Blake Bortles at quarterback, it's Campbell and his defensive cohorts who put this team in the Super Bowl mix.

8) Luke Kuechly, LB, Carolina Panthers

He's the Panthers' best player and team leader. When Kuechly misses time due to injury, Carolina isn't the same. Plain and simple. The defense comes apart.

Kuechly is a tackling machine (only the underrated Lavonte David has more tackles since Kuechly entered the league in 2012) and the pulse of Ron Rivera's Panthers.

9) Cam Jordan, DE, New Orleans Saints

This cat doesn't get enough credit for being great and absolutely invaluable. With all due respect to Marshon Lattimore, I give Jordan the most props for the Saints' defensive turnaround last year. What else did New Orleans have on its defensive front? Jordan, who lines up all over the place, piled up 62 tackles, 13 sacks, 11 passes defensed, two forced fumbles and even a pick. He's a one-man wrecking crew.

If anything, I regret not having Jordan higher on this list.

ADDITIONAL NOTES

» I voted Jalen Ramsey first-team All-Pro, but Campbell gets the nod for the reasons I named. And Jacksonville's other starting CB, A.J. Bouye, is pretty darn stout himself.

» I love Bobby Wagner. He was No. 11 on my list (Ramsey was 10). But Seattle is headed south.

» I couldn't separate Patrick Peterson from Chandler Jones in Arizona.

» DeMarcus Lawrence is a star. But Sean Lee is more "indispensable." Just look at what happens to Dallas' D every time Lee goes down.

» I love J.J. Watt. But we haven't seen the real J.J. Watt in a few years.

» If you took Geno Atkins off the Bengals, they would still miss the playoffs.

» I wanted to find a way to put Kevin Byard on the list, but couldn't. Maybe next year. Don't sleep on Tennessee's roaming center fielder.

» Gerald McCoy is great, but I just couldn't knock any of the other guys off in favor of him. Especially after the Bucs (finally) spruced up the defensive front around him.

Follow Adam Schein on Twitter @AdamSchein.

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