Rather than spend way too much energy worrying about mistakes with this year’s Pro Bowl roster (like I have in years past), I decided to put together my own All-Pro team highlighting the best players in the NFL this season. After breaking down the offense on Thursday, it’s time to reward some defenders for their outstanding seasons:
Interior Defensive Line
First Team: Aaron Donald, Rams
This man needs no introduction. When building an All-Pro defense these days, the list has to start with Donald. And that’s not just a nod to his reputation, either. His 67 pressures this season lead all interior defensive linemen; if that standing holds over the next two weeks, it would be his fourth straight first-place finish. Donald remains the most disruptive defensive player in the NFL.
First Team: Cameron Heyward, Steelers
Compared to the average human being, I have a lot of conversations with NFL offensive linemen. Those chats often touch on the toughest opponents they face and feature me saying stupid things like, “Playing against that dude just doesn’t seem fun.” Heyward epitomizes that sentiment. Going toe-to-toe with this guy undoubtedly makes for a shitty day at the office. His game is strength, strength, and more strength—combined with expert technique. Good luck moving him in the run game. And if you’re not careful, he’ll march your ass right into the QB’s lap.
Second Team: Grady Jarrett, Falcons
Some players who earn massive contract extensions let their foot off the gas the following season. Not Jarrett. After signing a four-year, $68 million deal in July, Jarrett has turned in the best season of his career. He was a man on fire in last week’s win over the Niners, finishing with six total pressures and four run stops after spending most of the afternoon in San Francisco’s backfield. With a similar build and exceptional movement skills, Garrett is something of an Aaron Donald light. His initial explosiveness makes him a tough matchup in pass protection, and his lateral quickness allows him to make plays up and down the line of scrimmage.
Second Team: Kenny Clark, Packers
As a former first-round pick, Clark’s talent has never been in question, but he’s really put it all together as a pass rusher this fall. In October, Clark told me that offseason additions Za’Darius and Preston Smith had given him plenty of new tips about how to attack certain OL techniques, and it shows: His 58 pressures this year trail only Donald on the interior. Clark is set to enter the fifth and final year of his rookie deal next season, and he’s still only 24 years old. My man is about to get paid.
First Team: T.J. Watt, Steelers
A quick T.J. Watt story: Before the 2017 draft, Watt and his trainer let me tag along for one of their workouts. Earlier that week, Watt’s brother, J.J., had given him shit about never clearing 50 inches during a drill that involved propelling himself in the air with a pair of green rubber bands. So during the workout, with Juvenile blaring in the background, I watched T.J. Watt propel himself 51.3 inches off the ground. He was so high up that he actually got scared on the way down.
The point is that Watt is one of the twitchiest athletes in the entire NFL. He launches out of his stance and often finishes off right tackles with a picturesque dip-and-rip move that requires incredible flexibility and balance. On a per-snap basis, he’s been the most effective edge rusher in the NFL, and his six forced fumbles are tied for the league lead. He’s become a boogeyman for linemen around the league.
First Team: Cameron Jordan, Saints
The Saints’ stalwart defensive end is a model of consistency. He ranks third in the NFL with 75 pressures and has finished in the top 12 in that metric every season since 2015. Jordan’s blend of power and speed off the edge is virtually unmatched. Most guys who weigh close to 290 pounds just can’t roast tackles around the corner the way he can. And his play against the run stacks up with any edge player in the NFL.
Second Team: Nick Bosa, 49ers
You could pick one of about six names out of a hat for these final two spots. Shaquil Barrett leads the league with 16.5 sacks and has been an incredible bargain on a $4 million prove-it deal for Tampa Bay this season. Minnesota’s Danielle Hunter has haunted right tackles all year. And Nick’s brother, Joey, has continued his typically excellent play for the Chargers. Maybe I’m succumbing to recency bias here or going with Nick because he’s a new face, but I’ve just really enjoyed watching the rookie rush the passer. He already has some of the best hands in the league (a trait he shares with his brother), and he’s been a consistent force for the best defense in the NFC.
Second Team: Chandler Jones, Cardinals
Watching Jones go about his work is an absolute pleasure for pass-rushing geeks. Truly great pass rushers have detailed, fleshed-out plans that include counters and complements to their best move. At 35.5 inches, Jones has some of the longest arms in the NFL, and he uses them to manhandle offensive tackles. But it’s the secondary moves off that long-arm technique that make him truly devastating. With the Cardinals toiling away in the desert, Jones may not get as much attention as some other rushers, but there’s a reason he’s tallied at least 11 sacks in each of the past five seasons.
Chandler Jones' skill-set as a rusher is built around his long-arm, with a bunch of great stutters & hesitations before contact to set it up.— Brandon Thorn (@BrandonThornNFL) November 12, 2019
This long-arm fake is a counter to that. Smith tries to snatch it but falls on his face & has to trip him to prevent the sack. Filthy pic.twitter.com/0GPAYPLKMS
First Team: Eric Kendricks, Vikings
The former UCLA product has been a mainstay in Mike Zimmer’s defense for years, but he’s leveled up this season. Kendricks has 12 passes defended, which leads the league among linebackers. And he’s not just lurking in zone coverage and drifting into passing lanes—Kendricks is locking up some of the best backs in the NFL. On a fourth-and-5 late in the Vikings’ Week 10 game against Dallas, Kendricks was manned up with Ezekiel Elliott in the slot. That’s the type of matchup the Cowboys would typically love against most linebackers. But at the snap, Kendricks ran Elliott’s quick out for him and made a diving deflection to seal the game. He’s been arguably the best coverage linebacker in the NFL.
First Team: Demario Davis, Saints
Davis is among the most glaring omissions from this year’s Pro Bowl roster. The 30-year-old linebacker has made a serious impact in every facet of the game this fall. He ranks second in the league in passes defended (11) and tied for third in QB pressures by off-ball linebackers (26). Plus, he’s a wrecking ball against the run. There are no weaknesses to this guy’s game. At nearly 250 pounds, he’s built like an old-school linebacker but moves like a new-school one. It didn’t garner much attention at the time, but the three-year, $24 million contract the Saints gave Davis before the 2018 season now looks like an absolute bargain.
First Team: Lavonte David, Buccaneers
Some of David’s highlights this year just make me chuckle. He erases passes to running backs in the flat, and he’s also comfortable deciphering routes in zone coverage. He plays like he’s been shot out of a cannon.
Second Team: Jamie Collins, Patriots
Chalk up another win for the Pats. At the 2016 trade deadline, New England sent Collins to Cleveland, where the versatile linebacker promptly signed a four-year, $50 million extension. Collins flamed out after two seasons with the Browns, and that’s when the Pats swooped back in and signed him to a one-year, $2 million deal. He’s rewarded them with 24 pressures (third in the league among linebackers) and seven sacks (first), along with three interceptions. His production has fallen off a bit over the second half of the year, but his early-season excellence makes him deserving of inclusion.
Second Team: Alexander Johnson, Broncos
Unlike the rest of the players in this group, the little-known second-year linebacker specializes in run defense. And he’s pretty damn good at it. Whether Johnson is taking on blockers to free up teammates or stalking backs around the line of scrimmage, he’s constantly near the ball in the run game. He’s been a pleasant surprise this year.
Second Team: Luke Kuechly, Panthers
This hasn’t been the best season of Kuechly’s illustrious career, but he still has 11 passes defended and always seems to be in the right place. It’s also impossible to overstate what Kuechly means to the organization and structure of Carolina’s defense. He’s constantly getting his teammates in the proper spots, either with pre-snap recognition or post-snap communication. Kuechly is what every linebacker hopes to be.
First Team: Za’Darius Smith, Packers
Earlier this season, David Bakhtiari told me that the first time he squared off against Za’Darius Smith in practice, his immediately thought “Who the hell is this guy?” They just don’t make ’em like Z anymore. At 272 pounds, Smith is considerably bigger than most outside linebackers, and he uses that frame to his advantage as a pass rusher. The Packers line him up all over the place, and he’s happy to run straight through any offensive lineman who’s unfortunate enough to get in his way. Smith explodes into blockers—and then, the moment they plan for that bull rush, he hits them with a quick arm-over move that makes guards look silly. He’s a fantastic watch for anyone who appreciates the finer points of defensive line play.
Second Team: Jadeveon Clowney, Seahawks
After years of skepticism, I’ve come around on Clowney. He’s not like any other elite edge player in the NFL, and that can make him difficult to study and appreciate. He isn’t a refined pass rusher. He isn’t going to cook offensive tackles around the edge with great bend and technique. He’s not going to show you an array of counter moves. But he’s an agent of chaos that consistently causes trouble in opposing backfields. The former no. 1 overall pick changes direction better than any other defensive lineman in the league. At times, it looks like he’s teleporting. And his sideways leap on his inside swim move is unlike anything in football. He’s unique, and he’s exactly the type of presence this Seattle defense needed.
**The official All-Pro team doesn’t technically have a defensive flex designation, but this is my team, so I get to do what I want. (It also didn’t feel right to not acknowledge these two in some way.)
First Team: Stephon Gilmore, Patriots
My pick for Defensive Player of the Year. Gilmore’s ability to shut down an entire side of the field in man coverage unlocks New England’s defensive scheme. Bill Belichick and his staff are free to devote their other resources elsewhere as Gilmore covers an ocean of space. And when teams do throw his way, Gilmore makes them pay. He’s tied for the league lead with six interceptions, including a pair of pick-sixes. He’s been the most valuable defensive player in football this season.
First Team: Richard Sherman, 49ers
It’s been so fun to watch Sherman regain the form he had with the Seahawks for so many seasons. Two years removed from a torn Achilles, he’s back roaming the deep third on the left side and shutting down that area of the field. At age 31, Sherman has to rely more on savvy and route recognition than he did during his peak, but he’s been up to the task. He’s also one of the best run-defending corners in the NFL, which is important in San Francisco’s zone-heavy scheme. Football is just better when Richard Sherman is playing well.
Second Team: Tre’Davious White, Bills
At just 24 years old, Buffalo’s third-year corner looks like the league’s next great cover man. White is equally comfortable breaking on the ball in off-man coverage and manhandling receivers at the line of scrimmage. This pass breakup he had against Denver’s Courtland Sutton in Week 12 is the sort of play I’ve come to expect from White. He doesn’t even seem to notice that he’s 5 inches shorter and 24 pounds lighter than the budding Broncos star. White is probably the most important player on a Bills defense that ranks third in passing DVOA.
Second Team: Marcus Peters, Ravens
Peters has a risk-taking style that’s not for everyone, but he’s parlayed that aggressiveness into some huge plays for the Ravens this season. That includes a Week 7 pick-six against the Seahawks. After initially falling off his receiver in an attempt to undercut a route on the sideline, Peters was able to bait Russell Wilson into a late throw and return it 67 yards for a crucial touchdown. Peters occasionally shirks his assignments to read the QB’s eyes and hunt interceptions, which can be anxiety-inducing, but when it works, it can win a team games.
First Team: Marlon Humphrey, Ravens
Throwing Humphrey—an absurdly talented former first-round pick—on slot receivers should be against the rules. Humphrey doesn’t waste any movements against quick receivers in space. He’s a smart, efficient corner who’s taken well to playing on the inside.
Second Team: Kenny Moore, Colts
Moore is my favorite type of slot corner. It’s a lofty comparison, but he reminds me a bit of slot legend Antoine Winfield. The former Vikings great is only 5-foot-9, but that never stopped him from dominating in the run game. Moore is cut from the same cloth. He also does some good work as a pass rusher; Moore has 2.5 sacks on the season, and he’s delivered some absolutely crushing hits as a blitzer.
**The AP introduced a “defensive back” designation in recent years, but rather than throw in another outside corner or safety just to do it, let’s recognize the slot corner—which has become a full-time position.
First Team: Jamal Adams, Jets
It’s so refreshing to see a coaching staff allow a player to be exactly who they’re meant to be. And there’s no safety in the league like Adams. He’s a deft cover guy and excellent run defender, but what sets Adams apart are his abilities as a pass rusher. Adams has created 17 pressures on the season, which ranks first among all defensive backs and tied for fifth among all back-seven players. The amazing part is that he’s hit that mark on only 76 (!) pass-rush snaps. Among defenders with at least 50 pass-rushing snaps, Adams has been one of the most consistently disruptive players in the league.
First Team: Minkah Fitzpatrick, Steelers
Trading for Fitzpatrick two games into the season transformed the Steelers defense. It really is that simple. He has five interceptions, three fumble recoveries, and two defensive touchdowns. It seems like he makes a game-altering play every week. Coming into the season, it wasn’t clear where the versatile DB would fit within an NFL defense, but the Steelers have struck gold by sticking Fitzpatrick at free safety and letting him go to work. In Pittsburgh’s scheme, he’s free to take chances and make bold, downhill moves—and that’s resulted in plenty of positive plays for the Steelers.
Second Team: Marcus Williams, Saints
Wiliams has taken his playmaking to the next level this year. He’s been a capable deep safety since entering the league in 2017, but he’s made a ton of highlight-reel plays near the line of scrimmage this season. He’s having a career year, and that bodes well for the future of the Saints defense.
Second Team: Devin McCourty, Patriots
One of Belichick’s old reliables, McCourty is a perfect player for the Patriots defense. He can play center-field safety if need be. He can match up with running backs when they’re split out wide and tight ends all over the field. McCourty can be whatever Belichick needs him to be, and that’s exactly what the Patriots love.
Vikings edge Danielle Hunter; Seahawks CB Shaquill Griffin; Chargers edge Joey Bosa; Jaguars edge Calais Campbell; Buccaneers edge Shaquil Barrett; Titans linebacker Jayon Brown; Broncos safety Justin Simmons; Bills safety Micah Hyde; Patriots cornerback Jonathan Jones
An earlier version of this piece misstated Shaquill Griffin’s position, due to an editing error.