clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Which NFL division is the best and worst at each defensive position?

And where does the NFC West fall?

Los Angeles Rams v Arizona Cardinals Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

On Thursday I posted which divisions I felt were the best at each offensive position. Guess what today is then.

Offensively, I felt the NFC West might be the worst off at the guard position, but the division was also in the competition for “best” in at least a couple of places, including receiver and tight end. Even the quarterbacks have a solid argument for having a dominant 2020 compared to most other divisions.

Defensively, I it may be a similar story — strengths and weaknesses — but the total package of the NFC West could indeed be the NFL’s toughest division. There’s a few quartets in the running there.

But not the AFC East.

Interior D-Line

Best - AFC North: Geno Atkins, Cam Heyward, Sheldon Richardson, Brandon Williams, Derek Wolfe, Larry Ogunjobi, Chris Wormley, D.J. Reader

West - Aaron Donald, A’Shawn Robinson, Jarran Reed, Solomon Thomas, Javon Kinlaw, Jordan Phillips, Poona Ford

The NFC East (Fletcher Cox, Gerald McCoy, Da’Ron Payne, Jonathan Allen, Dalvin Tomlinson, Malik Jackson, Javon Hargrave, Dontari Poe) is right there too. But Atkins is a Hall of Famer, Heyward’s been very dominant in the last few seasons, and Reader was really good for the Texans last season. Lots of depth too. The West has the best start in this category with Donald but then it’s a drop off.

I feel I could also include Calais Campbell with the Ravens but in this case he’s gotta be an edge.

Worst - AFC East: Ed Oliver, Steve McLendon, Beau Allen, Raekwon Davis, Vernon Butler

Edge Rushers

Best - AFC West: Von Miller, Joey Bosa, Melvin Ingram, Frank Clark, Maxx Crosby, Clelin Ferrell, Bradley Chubb, Jurrell Casey

West - Nick Bosa, Arik Armstead, Dee Ford, Chandler Jones, Bruce Irvin, Rasheem Green, Samson Ebukam, Michael Brockers

I just can’t imagine Leonard Floyd as an “edge rusher” at this point in his career. If Brandon Staley is able to turn him into that, then great that’s what he is, but he has not been a good pass rusher in his career. The Rams don’t have a clear number one pass rusher from the outside and the same could be said for the Seahawks. The Cardinals have Jones but that’s it unless Isaiah Simmons comes in and does that right away. There’s a clear number one here for the NFC West.

It’s a bit hard to evaluate these names league-wide as teams run various defensive schemes and have different defined roles. I’m going with the AFC West because it’s not hard to defend Miller and Bosa as Defensive Player of the Year candidates, while I could see Clark leading the NFL in sacks with the right campaign and the Raiders have a pair of young defensive ends to like for one reason or another.

Maybe this is a better answer though:

NFC North: Khalil Mack, Robert Quinn, Trey Flowers, Za’Darius Smith, Preston Smith, Danielle Hunter, Romeo Okwara, Rashan Gary

If it weren’t for the 49ers, the NFC West could be the worst here.

Worst - AFC East: Mario Addison, Jerry Hughes, Shaq Lawson, Vince Biegel, Quinnen Williams, Henry Anderson, Jordan Jenkins, AJ Epenesa, Lawrence Guy, John Simon

Linebackers (Inside and 4-3 outside)

Best - NFC North: Roquan Smith, Eric Kendricks, Anthony Barr, Christian Kirksey, Jarrad Davis, Danny Trevathan, Jamie Collins

West - Bobby Wagner, Fred Warner, De’Vondre Campbell, Leonard Floyd, Jordan Hicks, Dre Greenlaw, Kwon Alexander, Micah Kiser

This is also a tough one to call, but with Kendricks as an all-pro, Smith potentially on his way there, and Barr a four-time Pro Bowl outside linebacker, maybe just enough to push it over the NFC West? The AFC South (Darius Leonard, Myles Jack, Bernardick McKinney, Rashaan Evans, K’Lavon Chaisson) may be worth a closer look.

Worst - AFC East: Tremaine Edmunds, Avery Williamson (PUP), C.J. Mosley (opted out), Brandon Copeland, Ja’Whaun Bentley, Kyle Van Noy, Raekwon McMillan, Jerome Baker, Elandon Roberts, Matt Milano

Corners

Best - AFC East: Tre’Davious White, Stephon Gilmore, Byron Jones, Xavien Howard, Josh Norman, Jason McCourty, Pierre Desir, JC Jackson

West - Jalen Ramsey, Troy Hill, Patrick Peterson, Richard Sherman, Shaquill Griffin, Byron Murphy, Ahkello Witherspoon, Tre Flowers, Jason Verrett, David Long

Confession: I never looked past the AFC East before deciding it was the best. Would I be allowed to get away with not placing this division here with arguably the two best corners in football, plus quite a few very good ones? The caveat here is Sam Darnold, Luke Falk, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Josh Rosen, and Josh Allen. Not even Tom Brady was very threatening as a passer in 2019. But while I think Gilmore benefited the most from that, both he and White were shutdown players outside of the division.

Then I did think about the NFC West, and an argument could be made.

Peterson and Sherman are Hall of Fame caliber players with seemingly no issues headed into the year, and Ramsey is in all likelihood going to be even better than them. Let’s say you compare Gilmore to Ramsey, White to Sherman, and Jones to Peterson.

Would that be a fair 3-on-3?

I think the first matchup is fair but then I think White may be better than Sherman at this stage. Is that true? I’m sure Sherman would not agree. He took some of his worst career Ls in his first season with the 49ers but was a top corner for a top defense in 2019. White was even better than Sherman though and he’s going into his age-25 season, as opposed to age 32.

And Jones may have not gotten as much attention last year as he did during his Pro Bowl season in 2018, but the advanced numbers year-over-year are practically identical. Peterson I would not classify as a shutdown coverage corner going into next year.

That, plus better depth after the top three, keeps the East on top for me. (And it may literally be the only thing they have.)

Also, there were a lot of candidates for “Worst” here. The only saving grace for a division was often that they had one or two names (Marshon Lattimore in the NFC South, Darius Slay in the NFC East, Casey Hayward and/or Chris Harris in the AFC West, a bunch of recent first and second rounders in the NFC North) but I couldn’t find anything too reassuring in the AFC South.

A reminder that the team that traded away Jalen Ramsey doesn’t have Jalen Ramsey. They have DJ Hayden and Tre Herndon.

Worst - AFC South: Xavier Rhodes, Adoree’ Jackson, Gareon Conley (PUP), Bradley Roby, Malcolm Butler, DJ Hayden, Tre Herndon, TJ Carrie, Kristian Fulton

Safeties

Best - AFC West: Tyrann Mathieu, Derwin James, Justin Simmons, Johnathan Abram, Juan Thornhill, Rayshawn Jenkins, Damarious Randall

NFC West: Jamal Adams, John Johnson, Budda Baker, Jimmie Ward, Taylor Rapp, Quandre Diggs, Jaquiski Tartt, Terrell Burgess, Jalen Thompson, Isaiah Simmons?

It seems like either West may be the best. With Bradley McDougald swapped out for Adams, the safeties in the NFC West make a good argument as the best in the league. Additionally, Arizona drafted Simmons — who could end up as a safety or something close to it in the modern NFL — eighth overall and the Rams took Burgess in the third and Jordan Fuller in the sixth. The Seahawks are also looking to get Marquise Blair, a second rounder in 2019, on the field with Adams and Diggs at the same time.

John Johnson and Budda Baker are both entering their fourth seasons and have shown promise, so long as Johnson stays healthy and Baker finds his first career interception; Baker has been targeted 126 times in the last two seasons according to Pro-Football-Reference, but has yet to turn any of those into a pick.

But Mathieu was a first team all-pro for the second time in his career and Simmons was on the second team. James is potentially better than both of them. Abram could be the best player on the Raiders defense. Thornhill’s gotten some good marks already in his career.

Worst - NFC East: Landon Collins, Jabrill Peppers, Jalen Mills, Xavier Woods, Rodney McLeod, Sean Davis, Julian Love, Xavier McKinney, K’Von Wallace

K/P

Best - AFC North: Justin Tucker, Chris Boswell, Randy Bullock, Austin Seibert

West - Robbie Gould, Jason Myers, Zane Gonzalez, ?

P

Best is NFC West: Johnny Hekker, Michael Dickson, Andy Lee, Mitch Wishnowsky

It’s just really hard to know what angle to go here with the kickers and punters but I’ll mention the AFC North because all four of those kickers were in the top-11 in accuracy last season. We at least know Tucker is one of the best of all-time and Boswell has been very good in two of the last three seasons. Bullock has settled in with the Bengals, albeit with little distance to speak.

The NFC West is not that strong at kicker and who knows, they could end up as the worst division in that category. But their punters ... I didn’t bother to spend much time with the other divisions as three of those players have combined for seven first team all-pro nods (Hekker 4, Lee 2, Dickson 1).

Overall is the NFC West the toughest division? We didn’t even count coaches yet, but three of the four in this division have been to a Super Bowl. They’ve all lost a Super Bowl, but that’s quite a bit of experience for one division, all coming in the last seven seasons. This is a division that consistently puts a team into the Super Bowl and we rarely seem to know which team is going to come out of the NFC West alive.

The AFC East also consistently puts a team in the Super Bowl. And this experiment has been another great example of why.