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The Schein Nine

Ndamukong Suh headlines most indispensable defensive players


Merriam-Webster defines the adjective as "not subject to being set aside or neglected; absolutely necessary; essential." (And yes, I still own an old school, hard-copy dictionary.)

The crack editorial staff at asked me to put together a list of the nine most indispensable defensive players in the league. Not an easy task.

Based upon the definition, I eliminated Packers LB Clay Matthews and Colts CB Vontae Davis. They are beyond important ... but both of their quarterbacks can cover up mistakes or injuries on defense.

I couldn't separate Lavonte David and Gerald McCoy -- which player is more important to the Buccaneers' defense? Likewise, I couldn't differentiate between the underrated Calais Campbell and Patrick Peterson on the Cardinals' D. And Marcell Dareus is fantastic, but who's to say he's more important in the Bills' scheme than Mario Williams (among others)?

I did pick a Seahawk, but it's not Richard Sherman, who I consider the best cornerback in the NFL.

Aldon Smith is a stud when focused, and the 49ers need him more than ever, given all the attrition they've suffered this offseason. But is he indispensable? Well, San Francisco looks like a last-place team whether Smith excels or not.

Remember this is not a list of the best defensive players. It's nine guys I consider to be indispensable. So the surrounding roster and the individual player's effect on the win-loss record both factor in.

Let the debate begin!

1) Ndamukong Suh, DT, Miami Dolphins

It's actually pretty easy to explain this. Three simple steps to clarity:

1) Suh was on the Lions last year, and they made the postseason.
2) In free agency, Suh left Detroit for Miami, a team that missed the 2014 playoffs.
3) Consequently, in 2015, I project the Dolphins to be playoff-bound and the Lions to be playoff-free.

Now that is being indispensable.

I could hit you with stats -- like 8.5 sacks last fall, from the interior -- but that doesn't begin to explain Suh's value. This physical, immoveable object changes everything. You game plan for him and he still beats you -- while making his teammates better in the process. He helped every level of Detroit's defense last year, as the Lions finished second in total defense and first against the rush. I think Suh will have the same effect in Miami. Cameron Wake, who has long been one of the NFL's most underrated pass rushers, will get his due this season, when he piles up a hefty sack total with Suh at his side.

2) J.J. Watt, DL, Houston Texans

He's the best defensive player in the NFL, fresh off a DPOY campaign during which he totaled 78 tackles, 20.5 sacks, 10 pass deflections, four forced fumbles, five fumble recoveries -- and a pick-six for good measure. Watt disrupts everything!

He also masks areas of uncertainty. Brian Cushing has missed 22 games over the past three seasons. No. 1 overall pick Jadeveon Clowney missed three-quarters of his rookie campaign. And the 2014 Texans arguably had the worst quarterback situation in the NFL ... yet they still won nine games. The QB room's a bit improved this season -- with Brian Hoyer coming into the fold -- but far from strong. Still, I think Houston is a playoff team. That's the power of Watt.

3) Luke Kuechly, LB, Carolina Panthers

Carolina's tackling machine is a stud and a true team leader. He hasn't missed a game in three NFL seasons, racking up an eye-popping 473 tackles in the process. He was Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2012, Defensive Player of the Year in 2013 and first-team All-Pro in each of the past two seasons.

The Panthers remain highly flawed on offense -- with issues on the line plus a lack of receiver experience and depth, as well as questions in the backfield -- but the defense has been a top-10 unit in each season that Kuechly has been the man in the middle. He's the best player on the Carolina roster and gives the team the attitude to compete.

4) Justin Houston, OLB, Kansas City Chiefs

Oh, by the way, Mr. Houston sacked the quarterback 22 times last season, falling a half-sack short of the NFL record. Quite possibly the most under-covered great defensive campaign ever. Houston would have run away with Defensive Player of the Year honors in most other seasons.

Anyhow, he's a force who's right in his prime at age 26. This is key, because Tamba Hali's advanced age (31) is beginning to catch up with him, as evidenced by his six sacks in 16 games last year. In today's pass-happy NFL, the Chiefs' aerial attack is far from explosive, and the offensive line has issues. Fortunately, Houston wrecks games -- he also had five pass deflections and four forced fumbles -- and gives K.C. a fighting chance.

5) Muhammad Wilkerson, DL, New York Jets

Wilkerson -- not Darrelle Revis, not Sheldon Richardson -- is the best defensive player on the Jets. And he deserves to be rewarded as the highest-paid member of the team.

Still just 25 years old, Wilkerson does everything for Gang Green. He gets to the quarterback and stops the run. He can play anywhere on the line, in any front. New head coach Todd Bowles is going to love -- and maximize -- this young defensive stud.

Oh, and can we get this guy in the Pro Bowl, for heaven's sake?! The fact that he hasn't been honored in such a way puts quite a taint on the all-star game.

6) Fletcher Cox, DL, Philadelphia Eagles

I cringed when Cox's name was thrown around in trade talks this offseason. Cox is a disruptive diamond in the middle of the Eagles' defense. He's also the best player on the team.

No, Cox doesn't get enough credit for his greatness. The raw stats don't tell the story here. I voted for him as a first-team All-Pro last year. Philadelphia's defense simply couldn't function without him.

7) Von Miller, OLB, Denver Broncos

Denver's offensive line is a mess after the Ryan Clady injury; suddenly, four of the five spots are up for grabs. Peyton Manning was hobbled last year, and 2015 could be his final campaign. Long story short: Denver needs its defense to deliver.

Miller returned to form in 2014, sacking the quarterback 14 times after collecting just five sacks in nine games in 2013. The rare athlete is clearly the crown jewel of the Broncos' defense, an absolutely vital piece if Manning and Co. are to make another Super Bowl run.

8) Earl Thomas, FS, Seattle Seahawks

I included Thomas, Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor on my first-team All-Pro ballot last season. They are all stars. But I think Thomas is the most indispensable, given his hard-hitting, ball-hawking style and leadership at safety. He's the ultimate center fielder in today's game, with range that defies physics.

Despite offseason shoulder surgery, Thomas is on track to be back for training camp, according to Pete Carroll. Good news for the 12s, as this guy's the top dog in the "Legion of Boom."

9) Terrell Suggs, OLB, Baltimore Ravens

I could start by mentioning the 12 sacks last season. But to me, Suggs' indispensability runs far deeper than that. He's the heartbeat of the Ravens in the post-Ray Lewis/Ed Reed era. Joe Flacco leads with his calm demeanor. Suggs leads with his bravado. He makes the Ravens the Ravens, putting forth the image this franchise has cultivated on defense for years.

Due to turn 33 in October, Suggs is no longer the physical freak he once was. But he's still T-Sizzle, an invaluable presence for this franchise.

Follow Adam Schein on Twitter @AdamSchein.

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