Last week we put up our All NFC East Offense squad, so that means it must be time to pick the defensive side of the ball. Much like last time, I am going to use 2014 production, combined with a projection (guess) of how that player will play in 2015.
Because of how often NFL defenses are in sub-packages, and the division is evenly split between 43 and 34 fronts, I am going to pick more than 11 players. My "base" package is going to be a 4-3 defense, mostly because that's what the Giants run and this is Big Blue View. That being said, I will also be picking a slot corner because that is essentially a "starting" position nowadays, and an "Edge Rusher" to accommodate the 3-4 linebackers who don't fit cleanly in a 4-3 defense.
So without further ado:
Jason Pierre-Paul - This one is obvious. Despite all the chatter a year ago about whether or not Pierre-Paul is a "One Year Wonder", JPP claimed that he was one of the best in the business, then backed it up on the field. When he is healthy, there are few players who can take over a game quite like JPP. Not only can he light up the scoreboard, but he commands attention from offenses, freeing up other defenders to make plays. In an era when all anyone cares about from ends is their pass rush, JPP does that while still being a dominant run defender. A slimmed-down Pierre-Paul could be poised to reach even greater heights under the aggressive Steve Spagnuolo.
[Note:] This was written before news of JPP's injury surfaced. I'm going to leave him on the list until more details as to the extent of his injury, and any moves by the Giants emerge.
Robert Ayers - This was a tough one for me. If the Eagles were still running a 4-3 defense, this would be his spot. However, as a situational pass-rushing linebacker, I can't put Graham as a defensive end. As the other 4-3 defense in the NFCE, I looked to the Cowboys for the second defensive end, but they didn't have anyone I really felt was better than Ayers. Greg Hardy is talented, but also serving a 10-game suspension (Truth be told, I doubt wouldn't want him on my team even if he were going to play all 16 games.)
So this spot falls to Ayers almost by default, but despite the worrying pectoral injury, he has some legit stats to back up the selection. Despite playing annoyingly limited snaps, Ayers was the second most efficient edge rushers in the league, only half a percentage behind Justin Huston. And impressively, Ayers did it from the end and tackle positions, while also being stout against the run.
John Hankins - Again, this one is obvious. As a sophomore, Hankins broke out as one of the few defensive tackles to be an elite pass rusher as well as a dominant run stopper. Not only is he a load when it comes to clogging the middle and collapsing the pocket, he has a surprising amount of quickness to loop outside on twists and stunts, a skill he put to great use with JPP's power occupying guard/tackle double teams.
Terrance Knighton - Knighton is new to the NFCE, but he was a tremendous signing for Washington. Signed to man the nose in their 3-4 defense, he is a great run stopper, but like Hankins also has some solid pass rush abilities as well.
Ryan Kerrigan - Kerrigan doesn't get much recognition, but he is a very disruptive player. In fact, PFF lists Kerrigan as the third most disruptive edge rusher in the NFL. While he isn't especially big or powerful, Kerrigan is quick around the edge and can be a headache for offenses to deal with. He isn't as effective against the run as the pass, but as an EDGE specialist, he is getting recognized as a pass rusher.
The other guys in this category are DaMontre Moore (though this could, or should, change) Brandon Graham, and Connor Barwin.
SAM - Devon Kennard - Kennard emerged as a legitimate, three-down, play-making linebacker for the Giants in his rookie season. While his pass coverage still leaves something to be desired (though perhaps not for long), his pass rush and run defense are exemplary.
MIKE - Mychal Kendricks - This basically came down to Rolando McClain and Kendricks. Considering McClain's history, I'm loathe to give him all-conference recognition. His track record is one of tremendous inconsistencies, and a 4 game suspension might not bode well for him. Kendricks isn't as good of a run defender, but he is smart and a good coverage and pass rushing linebacker.
WILL - Sean Lee - I'm going to cheat a bit here. Sean Lee is listed as Dallas' starting weakside linebacker, and is probably the best linebacker in the division... When healthy. And therein lies the rub: Sean Lee is rarely healthy, only playing 17 games since 2012. That's only a little over one third of the possible regular season games. I absolutely recognize his talent, but he has a significant injury history that spans back to college.
So, I'm also putting in a likely to start backup: J.T. Thomas.
While the Giants' signing of JT Thomas was panned by... Well... Just about everybody, he collected a very solid stat line in his first season as a full-time starter: 85 tackles, five passes defensed, two INT, two FF. He also has the lowest passer rating against of any linebacker in the NFL. If you are using your weakside linebacker in coverage
Prince Amukamara - If I were going to put together an "All Underrated Team" (and who knows, I might yet), Prince might be the defensive captain. Before going on the IR with a fluky biceps tear, Prince was playing at a legitimate All-Pro level. His coverage was air-tight, he created turnovers, and still remained one of the best run defending corners around. He missed significant time, but I'm not going to count his injury against him, a torn biceps should affect his ability to cover receivers.
Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie - My other starting boundary defender is also a Giant. DRC played through a painful IT Band injury, and only allowed 492 yards through the air while doing so. Though it remains to be seen how his body will cope with the added mass required to play in Steve Spagnuolo's more aggressive defense, the scheme does cater to both of the Giants' corners' talents.
Brandon Boykin - Boykin might be the best slot corner in the NFL. He was drafted in 2012 and has yet to give up a receiving touchdown while in coverage in the slot. That's impressive, especially considering some of the slot receivers in the NFC East.
Michael Jenkins - A free agent signee, Jenkins looked like a completely different player in Philadelphia than he did in New Orleans. With 11 pass break-ups, he is probably the best incumbent safety in the NFC East.
Landon Collins - Okay, It should say something about the state of the safety position in the NFC East, and NFL as a whole, that my best option for the other starting safety has yet to play in the NFL. However, Collins was widely regarded as the top safety in the 2015 draft, so he's as good a choice as any in the NFC East. He struggled some in man coverage on wide receivers, but he is capable in zone coverage and is a fearsome hitter. Helping his case, Collins comes into the league with a professional mentality and the ability to line up a secondary.