By Matt Citak
The time has come. With NFL training camps underway, there will officially be football on every weekend from now until February. With the most glorious time of the year finally here, we are going to take a look at each division around the NFL and break down the best player at each position. Now it is time to check out the NFC West’s top players on defense.
DE: Michael Bennett, Seattle Seahawks
Bennett missed five games last season due to injury, yet still had himself a strong 2016 campaign. The defensive end collected 34 combined tackles and five sacks in those 11 games. While the five sacks was Bennett’s lowest total since 2011, his season was stronger than his numbers show. The 31-year-old posted his sixth consecutive grade above 85.0 from Pro Football Focus, finishing as the analytics site’s 11th-highest-graded edge defender with a mark of 86.4. His pass rushing may have been a bit down in 2016, but Bennett more than made up for it with his run defense. The veteran’s 93.0 run defense grade ranked No. 1 among edge defenders, beating out Von Miller, Jadeveon Clowney, and Khalil Mack. Bennett showed his versatility last season too, with 354 of his 689 snaps coming from the inside. He may be on the wrong side of 30, but Bennett is still one of the game’s top edge defenders.
DT: Aaron Donald, Los Angeles Rams
In just three seasons, Donald has solidified himself as one of the best, if not the best, defensive lineman in the NFL. He has racked up 28 sacks in three years, with at least eight in each season, and led all interior defenders with 82 total pressures in 2016 (tied for third overall in the league). Donald is obviously a dominant force as a pass-rusher, but he also performed well against the run last year. He had 30 defensive stops on 276 run snaps, producing a run stop on 10.9 percent of his run plays, with both numbers ranking fifth among players at his position. Donald’s accolades from last season include a trip to the Pro Bowl, first-team All-Pro nomination, PFF’s Defensive Player of the Year award, PFF’s Best Pass-Rusher award, and the No. 1 ranking on PFF’s top 50 players of the 2017 season. The Rams will need to pony up some big money if they want their best player back on the field soon.
DE: Cliff Avril, Seattle Seahakws
Avril lines up opposite Bennett to form one of the league’s top defensive end combinations. While Bennett made his mark in the run game, Avril did his damage with his pass-rushing. The 6-foot-3 edge defender accumulated 11.5 sacks and five forced fumbles to go along with his 39 combined tackles and three passes defended. Avril added 14 hits and 39 hurries, all while having an 82 percent run-stop rate. The veteran has also been incredibly durable since joining the Seahawks in 2013. In the last four seasons, Avril has missed just one of Seattle’s regular season games, and has picked up 33.5 sacks along the way. Seattle has one of the best defenses in the league, as seen by the team making up most of the All-NFC West Defense. Avril has been a big part of the unit’s success over the last few years.
DE/LB: Chandler Jones, Arizona Cardinals
Jones responded to his trade from the Patriots to Arizona by having the best season of his five-year career. The former first-round pick had 49 combined tackles, 11.0 sacks, and tied his career-best with four forced fumbles. He earned career-high marks in overall grade and pass-rushing grades, in addition to 66 total pressures in the regular season. Jones managed to pick up multiple pressures in all but three games, and his 87.4 overall grade ranked seventh among edge defenders. His performance last season got him a massive five-year, $83 million contract from the Cardinals in March. With Calais Campbell now in Jacksonville, Arizona will need Jones to be at the peak of his game in 2017.
LB: NaVorro Bowman, San Francisco 49ers
After not missing a single game in his first four seasons, Bowman has sat out 28 contests over the last three years. The talented linebacker tore his Achilles in Week 4 of and was forced to watch the rest of the 2016 season from the sidelines. But if Bowman can get over his recent injuries and return to his pre-injury form, then San Francisco will be getting one of the NFL’s top linebackers back. Even with the severity of his recent injuries (he also tore his ACL and MCL in January 2014), Bowman has still been one of the league’s top run stoppers in recent years. The veteran linebacker has a 11.6 percent run-stop rate since 2015, which ranks fourth among linebackers with at least 400 run snaps. Bowman returned to game action over the weekend in the 49ers preseason game against Denver, and seems to be good-to-go for the regular season.
LB: Bobby Wagner, Seattle Seahawks
Despite some of the big names the Seahawks have on both their defensive line and in the secondary, Wagner finished the 2016 season as Seattle’s top-graded defender with an overall grade of 90.9, which ranked third among the league’s linebackers. The linebacker made a whopping 167 combined tackles to go with his 4.5 sacks, one fumble recovery, one interception, and three passes defended. Wagner’s 90.6 run-defense grade was the highest of any player at his position last season, and was also the only mark of 90.0 or higher among linebackers. 2016 was the third consecutive season Wagner made the Pro Bowl and was named an All-Pro (second time as a first-team All-Pro). PFF also rewarded him for his play by naming him to their PFF All-Pro first-team. Wagner is a do-it-all linebacker that serves as a leader for one of the NFL’s top defenses.
LB: K.J. Wright, Seattle Seahawks
It’s difficult to be considered underrated when playing for one of the best defenses in the league, but such is the case for Wright, who would be considered the top linebacker if he were a member of almost any other team. Wright hasn’t missed a game over the last three seasons, and recorded career-highs in combined tackles (126), sacks (4.0), and passes defended (five) in 2016. He received an overall grade of 86.0 from PFF, which was the eighth-best mark the site gave to any linebacker last season. Wright was right behind Wagner in run-defense, as his 84.8 grade finished fifth among linebackers. But Wright was most impressive with his ability to secure tackles, ending the season with by far the highest tackling efficiency among 4-3 outside linebackers. Wright graded positively in every facet of the game that PFF measures last season. The 28-year-old will look to repeat that success in 2017.
CB: Richard Sherman, Seattle Seahawks
Despite the Seahawks’ attempts at trading him this offseason, Sherman returns to Seattle still performing like one of the league’s top corners. Appearing in all 16 games for the sixth consecutive season (Sherman hasn’t missed a game in his career), the star corner added to his interception total by snagging four picks. In fact over the last five years, Sherman has amassed 26 interceptions while no other player in the NFL has more than 20. The 29-year-old corner has the lowest passer rating allowed since 2014, beating out guys like Josh Norman, Chris Harris Jr., and Marcus Peters. He also surrendered a catch once every 14.9 snaps in coverage, which was the best mark in the NFL. News emerged after the season that Sherman was playing all year with a nagging knee injury, which makes his performance last season even more noteworthy. Now fully healthy, Sherman should once again produce like an elite corner.
CB: Patrick Peterson, Arizona Cardinals
Peterson has made the Pro Bowl in every season since he entered the league in 2011, making his 2016 trip the sixth of his career. Last season, the 27-year-old recorded 51 combined tackles, three interceptions, and six passes defended. While those numbers may not sound amazing, keep in mind that Peterson was targeted at the lowest rate of any corner in the NFL, and allowed receptions at the third-lowest rate. Still not impressed? Peterson is a shadow corner, meaning he matches up against the opposing team’s number one receiver (he led the NFL in coverage snaps vs. No. 1 WRs in 2016). Against Mike Evans, Peterson allowed three catches on eight targets for 38 yards, while helping to force Jameis Winston into throwing four interceptions. Against Julio Jones, the Pro Bowl corner surrendered three catches on five targets for 31 yards. Those numbers came against PFF’s two-highest graded receivers last season. Enough said.
FS: Earl Thomas, Seattle Seahawks
Thomas had his worst season since 2012 last year, missing the final five games after breaking his leg. But we’re talking about Earl Thomas here, so his worst season in five years still had him ranked as the 14th-best safety in the league, according to PFF. Thomas is known for being one of the best cover safeties in the NFL, as he has posted top 10 coverage grades in each of the last four seasons. In 2016 he finished with the seventh-best coverage grade among safeties with a mark of 84.5, while also picking up a career-high 10 passes defended. However the Pro Bowl safety struggled mightily in tackling efficiency, finishing 70th out of 74 eligible safeties with at least 86 snaps on defense. With Thomas on schedule to return for the regular season opener, Seattle is hoping he can return to his 2015 form.
SS: Kam Chancellor, Seattle Seahawks
Unlike his fellow members of Seattle’s Legion of Boom, Chancellor is coming off the strongest season of his career. The strong safety picked up 85 combined tackles, one forced fumble, two interceptions, and eight passes defended last season. His 91.2 overall grade was the third-highest mark among the league’s safeties, trailing only Eric Weddle and Landon Collins. Chancellor was able to find success in both defending the run and in pass coverage in 2016. The 29-year-old earned the sixth-best run-defense grade among players at his position at 90.0, while collecting the third-most defensive stops with 35. Chancellor also received the sixth-highest coverage grade at 86.2. Chancellor and Thomas combine to form one of the most lethal safety duos in the entire league, and if both can stay on the field for most of 2017, the Legion of Boom should return in full force.
Matt Citak is a producer for CBS Local Sports and a proud Vanderbilt alum. Follow him on Twitter or send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.