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2019 NFL All-Pro teams, eye test vs. Next Gen Stats: Defense

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  • By Chris Wesseling and Nick Shook NFL.com
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Numbers don't lie -- but neither does the well-trained eye. Seasoned football watcher Chris Wesseling and Next Gen Stats maven Nick Shook provide their All-Pro Teams from the 2019 NFL season.

Edge rushers

Chris Wesseling: Za'Darius Smith, Green Bay Packers; T.J. Watt, Pittsburgh Steelers. No wonder offensive-line play is in sharp decline. It's not just that the college game has evolved so differently, leaving blockers unprepared for the fundamentals of NFL line play. We are enjoying a golden age of supremely athletic, relentless edge rushers, with no fewer than eight legitimate candidates for two All-Pro spots. The game film and advanced stats are in alignment on Watt's value as the premier all-around force at the position, impacting each game as a superlative run defender and a game-wrecking backfield presence. It's not just the 14.5 sacks. Among edge defenders, he also ranks near the top in sack yards (104), QB hits (36), forced fumbles (8), fumble recoveries (4), batted passes (5), passes defensed (7) and interceptions (2).

If Watt has been the most consistent playmaking force at the position, then Za'Darius Smith isn't far behind. Smith led the NFL with 84 disruptions (QB hurry, hit or sack), per Next Gen Stats, recording more games (6) with seven or more disruptions than any other player. As NFL Network tape jockey Ben Fennell recently pointed out, Smith has become the every-down monster that we all expected Jadeveon Clowney to be. While Watt is etched in stone as a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidate, the second All-Pro spot has toggled back and forth among Chandler Jones, Shaquil Barrett, Joey Bosa, Nick Bosa, Danielle Hunter or Cameron Jordan throughout the second half of the season. They are all deserving, perhaps none more so than the perennially underrated Jones.

Shook: Za'Darius Smith, Green Bay Packers; Robert Quinn, Dallas Cowboys. This was the most difficult decision to make on the entire roster. Danielle Hunter, Nick Bosa and Brandon Graham each had strong cases, and Myles Garrett likely would've been No. 1 in this group had he not been suspended. But we're going with Smith because of his league-leading 71 quarterback pressures, 13.5 sacks, 60 QB hurries (No. 1 in NFL), turnovers caused by pressure (five, tied for second in the NFL) and his disruption rate of 17.5 percent, second only to Garrett's 18.5 among those who logged 200-plus pass-rush snaps. That combination of stellar production is overwhelming, and it proves the money was well spent on Smith as a key free agent last offseason.

Quinn was a destroyer upon his return from a two-game suspension to start the season, recording a QB pressure rate of 14 percent, third best in the NFL among those with a minimum of 200 pass-rush snaps. His disruption rate was similarly excellent at 17.2 percent, good for No. 3. Quinn also tied for the ninth-fastest sack among all defensive ends when he took down Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz in just 2.67 seconds in Week 16. Add in his 11.5 sacks, and you have quite the production package here.

Interior linemen

Wesseling: Aaron Donald, Los Angeles Rams; Cameron Heyward, Pittsburgh Steelers. Like Bill Belichick in the Coach of the Year race or Michael Jordan in the NBA's MVP polls of the 1990s, voters seem to be reaching a level of been-there, done-that exhaustion with Donald in the Defensive Player of the Year derby. Despite facing more double-teams than any player on the field, he led the NFL with 20 tackles for loss and is the lone interior lineman with double-digit sacks. He's still the most powerful, all-consuming defensive force in football. Although Calais Campbell spent most of the season ticketed for the second spot, Jacksonville's late-season defensive collapse took some of the bloom off the rose and allowed Heyward and Atlanta's Grady Jarrett to enter the picture. Among that trio with similar production in tackles for loss, QB hits and run defense, Heyward finished with the most sacks (nine), the most passes defensed (six) and the fewest penalties (one) for a ferocious defense that survived and thrived despite the early season loss of breakout candidate Stephon Tuitt.

Shook: Aaron Donald, Los Angeles Rams; Grady Jarrett, Atlanta Falcons. With a quick nod to Larry Ogunjobi for finishing near these two, we move forward to acknowledge the premier interior defensive lineman for yet another year. Aaron Donald needs no explaining at this point, but here's a number that shows just how far ahead of the pack he is: Donald led all interior defensive linemen in disruptions -- the combined total of hurries, pressures or sacks (one per play) -- with 80. The next nearest interior defender finished with 52. Donald's disruption rate of 15.7 percent was also predictably the highest among interior linemen with 100-plus defensive snaps, which goes along with a group-best 69 pressures, 14 stuffs (tackles made on runs resulting in no gain or a loss) and 12.5 sacks. Business as usual for Donald.

Jarrett led all interior defensive linemen with 20 stuffs, racked up 30 QB pressures (7.3 percent rate) and logged 28 hurries and 38 disruptions. Add in his three hustle stops, 50 stops and 7.5 sacks, and you have an advanced metrics star.

Linebackers

Wesseling: Lavonte David, Tampa Bay Buccaneers; Demario Davis, New Orleans Saints; Eric Kendricks, Minnesota Vikings. Perennial All-Pro Luke Kuechly continues to play at a high level, but his Panthers defense ranked dead last in Football Outsiders' run defense efficiency metrics. Seattle's Bobby Wagner was similarly just a tick below his typically superlative form. It's time to reward Davis, a well-rounded linebacker who played at a Pro Bowl level in his 2018 New Orleans debut season and raised his game again in 2019. Davis has no weakness at this point, excelling versus the run, in coverage and even as an occasional pass rusher, overpowering the likes of Titans left tackle Taylor Lewan en route to the quarterback. Kendricks was a mainstay at the line of scrimmage, stuffing the run, deflecting a dozen passes, forcing a pair of fumbles and even recovering two more fumbles -- both of the latter coming in a doomed Week 16 effort versus the Packers. One of my few all-decade selections to make this list, David recorded more tackles for loss (10), QB hits (seven) and forced fumbles (three) than other worthy candidates, such as Kuechly, Wagner, San Francisco's Fred Warner, Houston's Zach Cunningham and Denver's A.J. Johnson. With David, edge rusher Shaquil Barrett and interior force Vita Vea as the foundation, Tampa Bay's front seven was among the NFL's most active down the stretch, ranking fifth in Football Outsiders' weighted defense after finishing 32nd in 2018.

Shook: Zach Cunningham, Houston Texans; Anthony Walker, Indianapolis Colts; Lavonte David, Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Prepare your pitchforks and torches and bring me your rage over the lack of star power here. We're using stops, stuffs, tackle percentage and QB pressures to judge this group, and Cunningham finds himself atop (or near the top of) almost every category listed. He led all players with 400-plus defensive snaps with 75 stops (tackles that result in a successful play for the defense based on yards to go by down), tied for fourth (with Walker, David and Rashaan Evans) among those who played at least 60 percent of their snaps aligned at the linebacker position with 16 stuffs, ranked fourth among qualifying linebackers in time to tackle (4.64 seconds) and was sixth in the NFL in tackle percentage (15.4) among those with at least 400 defensive snaps played. He even had six hustle stops and two sacks. No matter which way you sort the data, Cunningham consistently lands at or near the top.

Walker is a bit of a surprise in that he's better than teammate Darius Leonard in most Next Gen metrics, including stops (63), stop percentage (8.1 percent) and stuffs (16). Walker's 123 tackles -- and the data that show how effective they were -- speak for themselves.

David might feel like a legacy pick, but he has one of the most balanced Next Gen lines that doesn't quite fall in the same group as Cunningham. David ranked fifth among defenders with 400-plus snaps in stops (52) and, as mentioned above, tied for fourth among linebackers in stuffs (16). He also registered 10 disruptions and, perhaps most importantly, 19 hustle stops (stops in which a defender covers 20-plus yards of distance from snap to tackle). Not bad for 29 years old.

Special mentions are due to Cory Littleton and Matt Milano, hustle-stop studs with 13 and 20.

Cornerbacks

Wesseling: Stephon Gilmore, New England Patriots; Tre'Davious White, Buffalo Bills. Gilmore finally allowed a touchdown in coverage on John Brown's 53-yard bomb in Week 16, leaving White as the cornerback with the most targets (83) without surrendering a score, per NFL Research. It's not every year that the interception leaderboard is headlined by the stingiest cover corners, but Gilmore and White sit atop the charts with six apiece while also ranking first (26) and second (23) in passes defensed, respectively. Gilmore ranked among the top three corners with an opposing passer rating of 47.4. Those numbers are all the more impressive considering New England's secondary lines up in man-to-man coverage as frequently as any team in the league. Gilmore is the key chess piece on a defense that is only the third since 2002 to amass 25 or more interceptions while holding opposing passers to a rating under 63.0. Capable of taking over games by erasing No. 1 wideouts and forcing timely turnovers, White is perhaps the lone week-to-week difference-maker on a Bills squad that reached double-digit victories for the first time this century.

Shook: Stephon Gilmore, New England Patriots; Tre'Davious White, Buffalo Bills. Stephon Gilmore has owned the throne as the league's best corner for most of the season, and the advanced metrics back that up. Among those who were targeted 50-plus times, Gilmore was second in catch rate below expectation at -11.8 percent, second in ball-hawk rate (20.8 percent; this is the percentage of targets where the nearest defender made a play on the football), first in passes defended with 20 and tied for the lead in interceptions with six. He also ranked seventh in coverage success rate (60.4 percent) and allowed opposing passers to log just a 38.0 passer rating when targeted, second-best among that group. Only teammate J.C. Jackson, who faced nearly half as many targets (58) as Gilmore (96), was better in that department (allowing a passer rating of 21.8 when targeted). Gilmore's numbers and the tape don't lie: He's a premier cornerback.

White's opposing catch rate below expectation is a bit less substantial, but at -8.4 percent, he still ranks sixth among those who were targeted at least 50 times. His hawk rate (20.2 percent) ranks third among that group, and his opposing passer rating allowed is just barely below Gilmore's, at 38.9. White is also tied atop the interception leaderboard with Gilmore at six, isn't far off in passes defended with 17, forces passes into tight windows on 28.6 percent of targets and allows just 4.0 yards after the catch on average. He's right up there with the best in the league.

Safeties

Wesseling: Jamal Adams, New York Jets; Minkah Fitzpatrick, Pittsburgh Steelers. Before Fitzpatrick arrived in a much-criticized Week 3 trade, Pittsburgh's beleaguered secondary was getting dive-bombed with deep passes. After he arrived on the scene, the Steelers became one of the most effective big-play defenses, removing the bomb from opposing quarterbacks' arsenals. One of just five players with at least 60 tackles and five interceptions this season, Fitzpatrick has shown the instincts of a born ballhawk, patrolling center field for a defense that pulled off the ultra-rare feat of leading the league in both sacks and takeaways. As much as I'd like to recognize Pro Bowl snub Justin Simmons for an All-Pro-caliber season in Denver, I can't overlook Adams' ability to hijack an offensive game plan. The former LSU standout entered the league just three years ago. Among defensive backs for this entire decade, only 10 have more tackles for loss than Adams' 28, only five have more QB hits than Adams' 23 and only one has more sacks than Adams' 12.

Shook: Anthony Harris, Minnesota Vikings; Minkah Fitzpatrick, Pittsburgh Steelers. Harris topped all DBs with 20-plus targets and 400-plus coverage snaps in hawk rate (47.6%) and ranked third in passer rating allowed (29.4). He also led all safeties in picks (six) and carried a catch rate below expectation of -7.8 percent, topping his more celebrated teammate, five-time Pro Bowler Harrison Smith, in all of the above categories except catch rate below expectation (Smith was, to be fair, targeted 40 times to Harris' 21). Fitzpatrick, meanwhile, matched the praise he garnered after joining the Steelers via in-season trade with his Next Gen Stats production in his 14 games with Pittsburgh. Fitzpatrick ranked third among all defensive backs with at least 20 targets and 400 coverage snaps in hawk rate at 37.5 percent, had a catch rate below expectation of -10.3 percent, tied for second among all safeties in interceptions with five, allowed an opposing passer rating of 46.7 when targeted and had nine passes defended.

Defensive back

Wesseling: Marlon Humphrey, Baltimore Ravens. Defensive coordinator Don "Wink" Martindale is emerging as a hot head-coaching candidate thanks in large part to a pressuring defense that blitzes nearly half the time on early downs, hoping to force a negative play that will win the possession. Martindale has the confidence to take those risks knowing that Humphrey and his backend cohorts won't get burned in isolation coverage. Not just a big-play threat, Humphrey has developed into the stickiest cover corner in a star-studded secondary that includes former All-Pros (Marcus Peters, Earl Thomas), a 192-game NFL starter (Brandon Carr) and the best lockdown coverman (Jimmy Smith) of the John Harbaugh era.

Shook: Justin Simmons, Denver Broncos. Simmons doesn't have quite the loaded production package of Fitzpatrick or Harris, but the safety does have a couple numbers that jump off the screen: hawk rate (34.1 percent), catch rate below expectation (-6.7 percent) and passes defended (15). Add in his four interceptions, opposing passer rating allowed of 34.7, tight windows forced on 34.1 percent of targets and 65.9 percent coverage success rate, and you've got yourself a burgeoning star.

Punter

Wesseling: Brett Kern, Tennessee Titans. Kern finally broke through Johnny Hekker's All-Pro stronghold, thanks to a down year for the typically excellent Rams special teams unit. As poorly as the Titans have kicked field goals this season, they have punted gloriously, with Kern lapping the field in Pro Football Focus' ratings. He's landed 47.4 percent of his punts inside the 20-yard line versus just two touchbacks, good for an astonishing 18.5 ratio. For frame of reference, Hekker entered the season with a career ratio of 8.5, which Pro Football Journal noted was "crazily high and over 2.2 (27%) better" than the second-best punter in the category.

Shook: Brett Kern, Tennessee Titans. We have little to no relevant Next Gen information on punting, so let's go with the stat stuffers, the home-run hitters of the kicking game. Kern wins this because of his league-leading 37 punts inside the 20 (a rate of 47.4 percent), his 18 punts out of bounds with just two touchbacks and -- here's the best part -- his TOP PUNTER SPEED of 14.46 mph when carrying the ball. He covered 19.4 yards of total distance on that run back in Week 8 (which went for no gain, but that doesn't matter here) and sustained a top of speed of 12.21 mph for two seconds. Unfortunately, an even faster player, Tampa Bay's Devin White, was able to corral the wild horse known as Kern, but he still gets the nod because of those kicking numbers.

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