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 AFC North’s top players on defense.
DL: Carlos Dunlap, Cincinnati Bengals
Dunlap has been one of the best and most consistent edge rushers in the NFL over the last four years. Since 2013, the 28-year-old leads all edge defenders with 273 QB pressures, beating out Denver’s Von Miller (270) and Seattle’s Michael Bennett (263). Last season served as further proof that Dunlap is still in the prime of his career. In 16 games, the veteran racked up 49 combined tackles, eight sacks, three forced fumbles, and an astounding 15 passes defended (he collected 19 passes defended combined in his first six seasons). The 6-foot-6 lineman recorded a pressure in every game last season, and more than one total pressure in every game except one. If everyone on the d-line can stay healthy, the Bengals pass-rush should be scary this season.
DL: Geno Atkins, Cincinnati Bengals
Atkins is a true force to be reckoned with on the defensive line. While amassing only 32 combined tackles in 2016, Atkins led all defensive tackles with nine sacks. He was able to rack up a monstrous 77 total QB pressures over Cincinnati’s 16 games, which finished second among interior defensive lineman behind only Aaron Donald. He wound up being ranked as the sixth-best interior defensive linemen by Pro Football Focus, and has proven to be one of the most consistent interior pass-rushers in football. Atkins has played in all 16 games in six of his seven seasons, and has racked up 52 career sacks. Even with all of his success, Atkins remains one of the league’s most underrated players.
DL: Brandon Williams, Baltimore Ravens
Entering a contract year last season, Williams had the worst season of his career. The tackle has made a name for himself because of his dominance against the run, and was still solid in stopping the run in 2016. However in the two previous seasons, his run-stopping numbers were comparable to those of Damon Harrison, the NFL’s best run defender. But not in 2016. Similar to Harrison, Williams has never offered much as a pass-rusher, which makes his dip in production in run-stopping more noticeable. However Baltimore still handed the tackle a five-year, $52.5 million contract this offseason. Having not missed a game in three years, Williams takes care of the dirty work that allows his teammates to make plays around him.
DL: Danny Shelton, Cleveland Browns
Shelton has only been in the league for two seasons, but has already developed into one of the game’s most disruptive run defenders. Shelton collected 39 stops in the run game, a number that finished second behind just Harrison, and was six higher than any other defensive tackle. At 6-foot-2, 335-pounds, Shelton has the ideal size with just enough speed to be an absolute nuisance in the middle of the line to opposing offenses. Shelton has shown the ability to take on multiple blockers, which helps his teammates get free behind him. Turning 24 later this month, Shelton has the skillset to be one of the best interior defensive linemen for years to come.
LB: Vontaze Burfict, Cincinnati Bengals
Burfict had perhaps his strongest season in 2016, despite playing in only 11 games. The linebacker made 101 combined tackles, two sacks, one forced fumble, two interceptions, and had eight passes defended in those contests. His 87.6 overall grade from PFF was ranked seventh out of 87 eligible off-the-ball linebackers, while his 84.0 passer rating against ranked fourth. Burfict was also incredibly successful against the run, as he ranked third among 28 qualifying 4-3 outside linebackers with a 10.2 run-stop-percentage. It was reported earlier this offseason that Burfict has dropped a lot of weight during the offseason. If he can play all (or close to) 16 games this season, the 6-foot-1 linebacker could finish the year among the elite at his position.
LB: CJ Mosley, Baltimore Ravens
Mosley is coming off career year in the middle of Baltimore’s defense. In his third NFL season, the linebacker picked up 92 combined tackles, one forced fumble, four interceptions, and eight passes defended in 14 games, and graded out as the 11th-best linebacker by PFF. Mosley was excellent against the run in 2016, disrupting running lanes regularly while taking on blocks. He improved tremendously in coverage as well, as his four interceptions were double the amount he had in his first two seasons. Mosley has now become a complete linebacker, and is one of the standouts on an improving Ravens defense. If he can limit his penalties this season, he should find himself in the discussion for one of the league’s top, young linebackers.
LB: Christian Kirksey, Cleveland Browns
Kirksey has improved his play in each of his first three seasons, finishing 2016 with the 22nd-best grade among off-the-ball linebackers. But his performance on the field goes beyond that overall grade. Kirksey developed into a dominant force against the run last season, finishing with a run-defense grade of 84.9, which ranked fourth among linebackers. In addition, the young linebacker led his position with 63 defensive stops, more than his first two seasons combined. Kirksey also showed he can be effective as a pass rusher, with his pass-rush productivity of 16.0 landing him fifth among linebackers with at least 40 pass rush snaps. Cleveland awarded Kirksey with a big contract extension this offseason, locking up the talented linebacker for the next few years.
CB: Jamar Taylor, Cleveland Browns
Taylor was one of the most improved players in the NFL on the defensive side of the ball last season. After being traded from Miami to Cleveland, the young corner really found himself in 2016. Taylor finished the season with an overall grade of 82.8, the 19th-highest mark PFF awarded to a corner. This was a drastic improvement from 2015, when Taylor finished as the league’s 106th-best corner. A big reason for the improvement was his use in the slot. In Miami, Taylor played just five percent of snaps in the slot. But in Cleveland, the corner spent 32 percent of his snaps there and was a lot more successful. Taylor will look to improve on his 2016 campaign with what looks like a much-improved Cleveland defense this season.
CB: Artie Burns, Pittsburgh Steelers
A solid rookie season lands Burns on this list. In 16 games, the rookie corner had 65 combined tackles, three interceptions, and 13 passes defended. He was far from perfect, as he surrendered the most touchdown catches of any rookie corner. But at the same time, his 76.3 overall grade was the 12th-highest of all rookies last season, and the second-best among the five corners drafted in the first round (trailing only Jalen Ramsey, the No. 5 overall pick). Burns allowed fewer than 60 percent of the passes thrown into his coverage to be caught, and his overall numbers are skewed because of a 95-yard catch-and-run he allowed to Mike Wallace. Burns showed a big improvement over the second half of the season, and the Steelers hope he can carry that momentum into 2017.
S: Eric Weddle, Baltimore Ravens
After a bad end to his tenure with the Chargers in 2015, Weddle looked like a man on a mission last season. The veteran safety put together one of the strongest campaigns of his career, collecting 89 tackles, one sack, one forced fumble, four interceptions, and 13 passes defended. Weddle allowed just five catches on 11 targets for 25 yards, zero touchdowns, and one interception through the first nine weeks of the season. He finished the season as PFF’s top-graded safety, highest-graded player across the secondary, and tied for fourth-best grade among the entire league’s defensive units. His numbers in both run-defense and pass-coverage were top of the charts, finishing in the top five at the safety position in most categories. Weddle earned a much-deserved spot in the top 10 of PFF’s Top 101 Players for 2016, and will look to repeat his performance this season.
S: Tony Jefferson, Baltimore Ravens
Jefferson joining the Ravens is bad news for the rest of the AFC North, as he and Weddle combine to give Baltimore the strongest safety duo perhaps in the entire NFL. Jefferson’s run-defense grade placed second among the league’s safeties at 98.0, while he also finished tied for the most run stops (27). While he has always been great against the run, Jefferson has significantly improved his pass-defense. In his first two seasons, the young safety allowed a 111.1 QB Rating when he was the primary defender. In the two years since then, his QB Rating against has dropped to a respectable 87.1. He still has some work to do, but Jefferson has transformed from a solid, one-dimensional safety into an elite run-stopping safety who is also competent in pass coverage.
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.