The Schein Nine  

 

NFL's most indispensable defensive players for the 2019 season

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I revealed the nine most indispensable offensive players on Monday. Now it's time for the defensive equivalent. Before we dive into the list, though, a few disclaimers ...

First and foremost, gonna repeat something I said in the offensive file: This is not a simple ranking of the best players in the game today. My aim is to spotlight the guys who are most critical to their teams' success, taking into account surrounding talent, game planning and all of the other factors that are unique to each franchise. Now that I've hammered that home (again), a few quick bullet points on players you won't find in the ranking below:

» I love the Chargers' defense. In fact, I have Gus Bradley's unit as the best D in the league this year. But no, you won't find a Charger on this list. That's due to the overall balance and depth of the group.

» I have the Cowboys' defense carrying them into the playoffs. But when it came to identifying one indispensable piece, I couldn't separate the young linebackers from DeMarcus Lawrence.

» Similarly, I couldn't decide who to pick between Calais Campbell and Jalen Ramsey in Jacksonville. I do love the Jags' defense to bounce back this fall, though.

» Cornerback Patrick Peterson is a star, but he's suspended for the first six games of the season. And honestly, the Cardinals weren't going to make the playoffs anyway.

» CB Stephon Gilmore would've been on the list if my last name rhymed with 10. That said, the most indispensable Patriot on defense is Bill Belichick.

OK, enough preamble. Time to get into the meat of this piece. Here are the nine most indispensable defensive players in 2019:

1) Aaron Donald, DT, Los Angeles Rams

Aaron Donald is the single best football player in the NFL who doesn't play quarterback. He's unstoppable. If you don't double-team him, you die. And even when you do throw multiple blockers in his path, he still generally gets where he wants to go. Donald blows up offensive lines and wrecks plays. He sacked the quarterback 20.5 times last year, and I still don't think that number -- which is insane for an interior D-lineman -- does justice to his domination. The guy's been in the NFL for five years. In that time, he's earned five Pro Bowl nods and four first-team All-Pros. He was named Defensive Rookie of the Year in his debut season and has taken home Defensive Player of the Year honors in each of the past two campaigns. Remember when people worried about the Pitt product being undersized in the pre-draft process? Yeah ... not so much. Aaron Donald makes the Rams' D.

Now, I know what some of you are thinking. And yes, the Rams' defense as a whole has been a middle-of-the-pack group (at best) during Donald's career. But where would that unit rank without the one-man wrecking crew in the No. 99 jersey? And by the way, L.A.'s defense just outperformed Sean McVay's ballyhooed offense during the postseason, particularly in the Super Bowl.

2) Khalil Mack, OLB, Chicago Bears

The entire complexion of the 2018 Chicago Bears changed when Ryan Pace pilfered Mack from the Raiders. Chicago instantly morphed from Cinderella to contender, as Mack delivered right from the jump (remember the strip-sack/recovery and pick-six in his first half as a Bear?) and finished the season with 12.5 sacks and six forced fumbles, nabbing first-team All-Pro honors.

Chicago already had talent on defense, but Mack took everything to a whole other level, striking fear in opposing offenses while raising the play and confidence level of his new teammates. The Bears ranked first in scoring defense and took the division title for the first time since 2010 (after finishing dead last the previous four seasons). Mack's the straw that stirs this drink, and with Vic Fangio now in Denver, his presence is even more crucial.

3) Von Miller, OLB, Denver Broncos

He's the pre-eminent sack artist who keeps defensive coordinators up at night while giving the flawed Broncos a chance in every game they play. Denver's defense could be great this year. That's all Miller and new head coach Vic Fangio.

Miller piled up 14.5 sacks last year, giving him a league-high 98 since entering the NFL in 2011. And he's as consistent as they come -- no wild swings in production from one year to the next. Outside of the suspension/injury-abbreviated 2013 campaign, the ninth-year pro has reached double-digit sacks every season. With Fangio at the helm and Bradley Chubb garnering more and more attention on the other side, anyone going to tell Von Miller he cannot hit 20 sacks in 2019? Not me.

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

After two years leveled by injuries, Watt bounced back in a major way this past fall. With an AFC-best 16 sacks and an NFL-best seven forced fumbles, Watt returned to the form that had many talking about him as one of the best defensive players ever. And that, quite simply, is what Watt is: One of the greats. When J.J. Watt is right, he can raise the Houston D to contender status. When he's not, Houston's middle of the pack. The Texans are top-heavy on both sides of the ball.

Watt turned 30 in March, but he's in a much better place than he was last offseason: "Last year was a lot of wondering, hoping, having a good idea that I was on the right path, but you never know for sure when you're coming off of what I was coming off of. This year, you're not coming off of as much, you're just working and growing and getting better," Watt said, via the Houston Chronicle. "You have more of a confident stance, and I think that's where I'm at this year. I'm very confident, whereas last year I was confident but kind of hesitant. So this year that hesitancy is gone."

Quarterbacks beware.

5) Bobby Wagner, LB, Seattle Seahawks

Wagner is the best pound-for-pound player on the Seahawks. He is en route to the Hall of Fame. With the "Legion of Boom" and big-name linemen all gone now, Wagner is the link to the epic era of Seahawks domination on defense. And even when you consider all the high-wattage stars from that era, never get fooled: Other guys talked while playing great, but Bobby Wagner -- always and forever -- is the pulse of the Seahawks.

Thinking ahead to the coming season, you can go ahead and chalk up another Pro Bowl campaign with 130-plus tackles. He'll be equally elite against the run and pass, and won't allow ball carriers to escape his grasp. No, seriously: According to Pro Football Focus, Wagner has missed just 13 tackles combined over the past three seasons. That's a crazy figure. The guy's a machine.

6) Luke Kuechly, LB, Carolina Panthers

Kuechly is the epitome of toughness in the middle of Carolina's defense. Without him, the Panthers' defense dramatically dips. And so does the Panthers' leadership. Kuechly is an absolute gem -- just like Wagner, he's the ideal three-down linebacker for today's NFL.

Considering that longtime Carolina stalwart Thomas Davis is now a Charger and the Panthers are transitioning their base defense from a 4-3 to a 3-4, Kuechly's steady presence will be as important as ever. And he, for one, isn't worried about the new-look D: "It's just football," Kuechly said, via The Athletic. "There's been certain looks that we've run in the past that mimic what we do now. So it's not completely foreign."

7) Fletcher Cox, DT, Philadelphia Eagles

Eternally underrated. Well, not here. This marks the fifth straight year that Cox has held a spot on this list. And for good reason. He wrecks games in so many different ways along that Eagles' defensive line. He's a winner and a true champion who is tough and clutch and makes everyone around him better.

The player sitting atop this list, Aaron Donald, gets all the shine when people discuss DT disruption. Understandable, but unfortunate. Cox is a monster in the middle of Philly's defensive front, fresh off a first-team All-Pro season that saw him log a career-high 10.5 tackles.

8) Darius Leonard, LB, Indianapolis Colts

Talk about a stat-stuffer ... Last year, Leonard piled up 163 tackles, seven sacks, four forced fumbles and two picks -- as a rookie. Good grief. He's the ultimate playmaker and young leader for a Colts defense that flipped the script last season. Indy ranked 30th in points and yards allowed in 2017. Then last year, with the rookie linebacker as the defensive centerpiece, the Colts vaulted to 10th in points and 11th in yards.

Leonard loves playing for Matt Eberflus and Frank Reich. And he's the kind of high-character, highly productive star who changes the culture of a team.

9) Jamal Adams, S, New York Jets

While Adams didn't make first-team All-Pro at safety last year, he got my AP vote. Racking up 115 tackles, 12 passes defensed, 3.5 sacks, three forced fumbles and a pick, the second-year pro did earn his first Pro Bowl nod. He is a sensational young player who'll only get better. Plus, he's the glue and the heart of the Jets.

I'm getting ahead on this before Adams becomes a widely recognized superstar under Gregg Williams this season.

Follow Adam Schein on Twitter @AdamSchein.

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