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20 NFL defenders that keep QBs awake at night

Sportsnaut logo Sportsnaut 5/25/2018 Jesse Reed
a man looking at the camera © Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Defensive backs that can steal your soul while picking your pocket. Defensive linemen that can dominate at the line of scrimmage to apply constant pressure. These are the NFL defenders quarterbacks dread.

We’re taking a spin around the league to pinpoint the players who fit this mold the best. These are the NFL defenders who keep quarterbacks awake at night.

Note: Players who were rookies in 2017 not included. 

Casey Hayward, cornerback, Los Angeles Chargers

Quarterbacks generally have come to an understanding in recent years that throwing Hayward’s direction is a very bad idea. This guy allowed under 43 percent of all passes thrown his way to be completed, which was the best mark among NFL cornerbacks in 2017. He also broke up 22 passes and came down with four interceptions last season, which proved his seven-pick 2016 campaign was no fluke.  Hayward is arguably the best cornerback in the game right now (though Jalen Ramsey disagrees with that notion).

Cameron Jordan, defensive end, New Orleans Saints

Relentless. That’s the one word that best summarizes the reason Jordan is so great at what he does. He combines outstanding physical tools with a non-stop motor and a repertoire of moves on the edge that continually keeps offensive tackles on their heels (just ask Matt Kalil about that). This is a guy who’s been terrorizing quarterbacks his entire career, and then he stepped his game up another notch in 2017 with 13 sacks, one interception and a touchdown. That’s scary enough. And now he’ll have help, as the Saints used up some big-time draft capital to draft Marcus Davenport in the first round this year.

Jalen Ramsey, cornerback, Jacksonville Jaguars

Already an elite cornerback after two years of play, Ramsey earned First-Team All-Pro honors, along with a Pro Bowl bid, in 2017. Since being selected No. 5 overall in 2016, this young man has become one of the league’s best cover corners and has a knack for coming up big when his team needs him the most. His game-sealing interception against Buffalo in the playoffs this past January was a prime example of that. All told, Ramsey has racked up 31 pass deflections and six interceptions in his first two NFL seasons. And even scarier for NFL quarterbacks, he’s got plenty of room for improvement.

Fletcher Cox, defensive tackle, Philadelphia Eagles

Defensive tackles who can regularly penetrate the pocket and apply pressure from inside are a rare and valuable commodity in the NFL. They always have been, and they always will be. Cox is one of the best the league has to offer right now. The past three seasons, he’s really come on strong, racking up 21.5 sacks, and he ranked No. 8 among interior defenders last year with 50 quarterback pressures, according to Pro Football Focus, which also noted he had 16 total pressures during the Eagles’ Super Bowl run. Cox is a nightmare inside, and his presence allows every other player on that line to have more opportunities to win their one-on-one battles, upping his value even more.

Kevin Byard, safety, Tennessee Titans

I still cannot get over the fact that Deion Sanders, a guy who works for NFL Network and is supposed to be more plugged in than the average bear, didn’t know who Byard was this offseason. Trust me, NFL quarterbacks know this man. He was an absolute terror on the back end last season, racking up a league-high eight interceptions to go along with 16 pass deflections. Not bad for a kid who entered the league as a third-round pick out of Middle Tennessee State and who only has one full year of starting experience under his belt. Byard is only going to get better, too, especially now that the Titans have more corner help and have new blood rushing the passer.

Geno Atkins, defensive tackle, Cincinnati Bengals

As we mentioned discussing Cox, interior linemen who can rush the passer are the bane of quarterbacks. It’s impossible to step up into the pocket and deliver a strike with a 300-pound mound of fury running free inside. Atkins has been among the league’s best at disrupting passing games in this fashion for years. Since 2015, he’s piled up 29 sacks — an ungodly number for a defensive tackle, along with seemingly countless quarterback hits and hurries. It remains to be seen if Atkins can continue his dominant play into his 30s, but right now there is only one other interior defensive lineman in the game today who is better.

Darius Slay, cornerback, Detroit Lions

Slay has been largely underrated for the past few years, but the Lions clearly know his worth. The former second-rounder out of Mississippi State broke out in a big way on the national stage last season, tying Kevin Byard with eight interceptions. He also got his hands on 26 other passes, proving to be one of the most dangerous ball hawks in the game today, and allowed a passer rating of just 55.6, which was among the best in the league. Needless to say, opposing quarterbacks are learning it’s not safe to attack Slay.

Everson Griffen, defensive end, Minnesota Vikings

One of the top 4-3 defensive ends in football, Griffen is a tremendous player who wins both against the run and the pass. The past four years, all he’s done is pile up 43.5 sacks, with the 13 he totaled last year being the pinnacle of his career thus far. Griffen applies pressure on a consistent basis aside from the sacks, as well. Last year he was credited with 55 total pressures off the right side, per PFF, which was the sixth-best total in the NFL. Not bad for a guy who was drafted in the fourth round out of USC back in 2010.

Marcus Peters, cornerback, Los Angeles Rams

Since entering the NFL as a first-round pick out of Washington in 2015, Peters has done some remarkable things. No other player has tallied as many interceptions (19) or passes defended (55) since then, and only one other player in the history of the NFL (Hall of Famer Ed Reed) has more interceptions in his first three seasons. Since that time, Peters has also allowed opposing quarterbacks a passer rating of just 60.7, per NFL.com. To say the Rams got a steal landing him while giving up so little in return this offseason would be an understatement of epic proportions.

Khalil Mack, defensive end, Oakland Raiders

It’s really saying something that Mack’s 2017 season was considered a step back. After all, the man still managed to tally 10.5 sacks and 78 total pressures. But as Oakland’s defense struggled, Mack’s overall impact waned somewhat as well. Still, there is no doubt that this young pass rusher ranks up there with the likes of Von Miller in terms of pure terror off the edge. He is a constant threat, and in addition to his sack totals Mack has forced nine fumbles and showed versatility with a pick-six off Cam Newton in 2016 (watch here).

DeForest Buckner, defensive tackle, San Francisco 49ers

This young pup is starting to grow into his massive 6-foot-7 frame, and the results are going to be devastating for opposing offenses. Though Buckner’s sack totals don’t scream “elite!” he does have a knack for pressuring quarterbacks from inside already. Last year alone in his second season, he was credited with 53 pressures, ranking fifth among interior defenders. Buckner was also a top-six defender in terms of combined sacks and hits, per PFF. Just wait until he really gets it going.

Joey Bosa, defensive end, Los Angeles Chargers

How’s this for a stat? Bosa, in 28 career games, already has 23 sacks to his credit. No slouch against the run, either, he’s become one of the league’s elite edge rushers in short order. Additionally, since teams have to focus so much on slowing Bosa down, his teammate Melvin Ingram has really thrived the past two seasons. The 2016 Defensive Rookie of the Year is still ascending, too, and he appears to be headed toward a long and productive career as a perennial Pro Bowler.

Harrison Smith, safety, Minnesota Vikings

Smith is not only one of the best safeties in the league, he’s one of the best players the NFL has to offer, regardless of position. He’s a player who is listed as a free safety, but he’s so much more than that for the Vikings. He lines up all over the field, and he excels wherever he roams. This past year, opposing quarterbacks were relegated to an astonishing passer rating of 22.0, and Smith managed five interceptions to go along with 12 pass defenses and 1.5 sacks. He’s deadly. That’s why it was so astonishing when Smith wasn’t initially voted to this past year’s Pro Bowl.

Calais Campbell, defensive end, Jacksonville Jaguars

Since Campbell entered the NFL as a second-round pick out of Miami, he’s been terrorizing opposing offensive lines and thwarting quarterbacks’ attempts to make plays in the passing game. Yet for most of his career, Campbell was an interior lineman playing in Arizona’s 3-4 scheme. In 2017, he signed with Jacksonville and was able to play out on the edge much more. Not surprisingly, Campbell dominated. He finished the regular season with 14.5 sacks, good for third in the NFL, and helped the Jags featured one of the scariest defenses in the league.

Eric Weddle, safety, Baltimore Ravens

Even at the age of 33, Weddle remains one of the most-feared defensive backs the NFL has to offer. Just don’t tell that to the Chargers, who kicked him to the curb a few years back. All Weddle has done since joining the Ravens in 2016 is intercept 10 passes, break up 20 more, force two fumbles, tally two sacks and score a touchdown. He’s so darn smart and instinctive that quarterbacks often are shocked to find that, rather than a big play in their favor, Weddle has taken the ball the other way.

Von Miller, outside linebacker, Denver Broncos

No player got to the quarterback as often as Miller did last year. He finished the 2017 season with 83 pressures, per PFF, to go along with 10 sacks. Since his rookie year, Miller has been one of the best players in the game, and in 104 regular-season games he’s racked up an astonishing 83.5 sacks. Miller is also capable of making quarterbacks pay when he drops back into coverage as well, scoring a touchdown on his only career interception. If this (still) young man continues to stay healthy, he’ll have a bust enshrined in Canton five years after he retires.

Landon Collins, safety, New York Giants

Collins not only keeps quarterbacks awake at night, he keeps opposing receivers and offensive coordinators from sleeping, too. A big hitter who is among the league’s best at swallowing ball carriers whole, Collins has also developed a reputation for breaking passes up on the back end. The past two seasons, this Big Blue terror has seven interceptions, 19 pass defenses and a pick-six to his credit (and boy, was that one memorable). Oh, and in 2016 he also had four sacks. He’s a do-it-all defender who is still very young, at the age of 24.

Chandler Jones, outside linebacker, Arizona Cardinals

It was pretty stunning when, back in early 2016, the New England Patriots traded away their best edge defender to the Cardinals. Jones had just come off a career year (at the time), having tallied. 12.5 sacks in 2015. Since then, he’s only gotten better, having piled up 28 sacks the past two seasons for the Bird Gang. Not surprisingly, Arizona was happy to dole out a sweet contract extension for this dynamic pass rusher, who appears to be getting better with age.

A.J. Bouye, cornerback, Jacksonville Jaguars

Since earning a full-time starting role in Houston during the 2016 season, Bouye has been one of the best pure cover cornerbacks in the NFL. He was a highly coveted free agent during the 2017 offseason and landed a lucrative deal with the Jaguars. Playing opposite Jalen Ramsey, he did not disappoint. Opposing quarterbacks managed a passer rating of just 31.6, and Bouye doubled up on his best one-season interception total, coming down with six passes in 2017. That Jacksonville defense is a house of horrors for opposing quarterbacks in general, thanks in no small way to Bouye.

Aaron Donald, defensive tackle, Los Angeles Rams

Aaron Donald is so good. Watching him use opposing offensive linemen as glorified turnstiles en route to the quarterback is a thing of beauty. He wins with power. He wins with speed and agility. He wins by training with knives. In four seasons, this bowling ball of a man has piled up 39 sacks from the defensive tackle spot. Per PFF, he had 91 pressures…in 2017 alone. That was 21 more than any other interior defender. It’s no wonder Donald is currently holding out of offseason workouts as he looks for a new contract.

Related slideshow: The top picks of the 2018 NFL draft (Provided by USA Today Sports) 

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