In the NFL, we often marvel over the offensive statistics produced by offenses that are loaded with premier NFL talent, but today we are going to look on the other side of the ball: Defense. The AFC has been dominated by the Patriots the past years, however, the Broncos showcased the way to beat them, play good defense. Now teams throughout the AFC have been stockpiling players on defense to combat Brady and Gronkowski. In this list I am going to highlight the top 10 players (currently in the AFC).
Kevin Byard, Tennessee Titans S
The Titans snuck into the playoffs last year and managed to knock off the AFC West Champions, the Chiefs, in a comeback victory led by Mariota and Henry. Bryard was an integral part of the Titans defense that stifled Alex Smith and Co. in the last half of that game. The safety led the league in interceptions last year due to a couple of double interception games along with a three interception game against the Browns. Look for him to continue to improve and benefit from the relatively young Titan defense that will have to stop Deshaun Watson in years to come.
- Cam Heyward, Pittsburgh Steelers DE
Cam Heyward was a part of an underrated Steelers defense last year that crumbled in the playoffs. He was 8th in the NFL in total sacks last year with 12. He earned a spot on the first team all-pro squad in 2017 and provided consistent interior line play. He’ll continue to prove an essential part of the youthful Steelers defense that needs leadership.
- AJ Bouye, Jacksonville Jaguars CB
Bouye was picked up by the Jags in the free agency market last year. Him and Ramsey were amazing in the secondary and were the main reason (along with good D-line play) that the Jaguars were able to make it to the AFC Championship last year. He was a very underrated corner on the Texans. His past two teams were taken to the playoffs with help from his ability to lock down top receivers. He forms half of the formidable secondary in Jacksonville.
- Geno Atkins, Cincinnati Bengals DT
The 6-1 Defensive tackle out of Georgia was quite the steal in the 4th round in the draft several years ago. He has been to 4 consecutive Pro Bowls along with 2 All-Pro selections. He might’ve had a down year with 9 sacks, but he was a consistent force on a weak Bengals defense. He is reaching the end of his prime at the age of 30 but that won’t slow him down from being a top-caliber pass rusher
- Jalen Ramsey, Jacksonville Jaguars CB
The other half of the aforementioned secondary of the Jaguars is Jalen Ramsey, the 2nd year cornerback out of FSU. He had a breakout year and his ball skills were unmatched in the AFC. He intercepted Tyrod Taylor to seal the wild card game and played very well, which led to an AFC Championship appearance for the Jags, the first in a long time. He was selected to both the Pro Bowl and All-Pro teams this year. If he can continue to get better at this pace, there will be no doubt that he will be the best corner in the league when given some time to mature.
- Calais Campbell, Jacksonville Jaguars DE
Another newcomer to the AFC, Campbell led the AFC in sacks last year with 14.5 and was second to Chandler Jones in the NFL. He earned his first All-Pro selection this year. His career seems to be in the twilight phase as it begins to end, but he is one of the best at his job and won’t have that much on his plate with the improvement of Malik Jackson and Dante Fowler.
- Casey Hayward, Los Angeles Chargers CB
If you ask me, Casey Hayward is the best cornerback in the AFC just due to his play over the last two years. He had a seamless transition from San Diego to Los Angeles and has been the foundation of an extremely under the radar Chargers team. When healthy, they are a top 10 team in the NFL and Hayward is easily one of the best on this team. Him and Jason Verrett will continue to dominate next season and prove to be one the best cornerback duos in the AFC.
- JJ Watt, Houston Texans DE
If I were to be making this list a few years ago, Watt would easily be #1. Unfortunately, he has caught the injury bug and hasn’t been on the field consistently in the past 2 years. Watt will rejoin a loaded Texans defense that includes Clowney and Mercilus. He is one of the few players to have a 20 sack season, we’ll see if he can return to form next season.
- Khalil Mack, Oakland Raiders LB/DE
Mack out of Buffalo in 2014 has grown into his role on the sub-par Raiders defense in the past years. Recently he has greatly improved his play to challenge his in-division rival for the #1 spot. The 2016 Defense Player of the Year has been a monster off the edge and is a game-changing talent with the ability to completely change the way an offensive coordinator calls a game. Although he can be a liability in the passing game, if the Raiders can secure him on their roster for the foreseeable future they can build around him to recreate their defense.
- Von Miller, Denver Broncos LB
Miller will sit atop these rankings until someone is able to unseat him. The Denver LB is unstoppable off the edge and his finesse is unprecedented in the current NFL. He is one of the 4 defensive Super Bowl MVPs in the 21st century. If he can keep pace he will rack up even more sacks in coming seasons. He was the best player on an all time great defense and his performance in the 2015 playoffs was some of the best linebacker play in recent years.
“Right now Von Miller is the best pass rusher in the world. He looks exactly like Derrick Thomas did in his heyday. He can absolutely destroy a football game.”
– Jon Gruden
Eric Berry, Kansas City Chiefs S