The NFL's Best Players on Defense
Aaron Donald

A look at this season's best defensive players in the NFL.

Aaron Donald

Los Angeles Rams Pro Bowl defensive tackle AARON DONALD earned NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors for the second consecutive season after leading the NFL with a franchise-record 20.5 sacks and 25 tackles for loss in 2018. He joins Pro Football Hall of Famer LAWRENCE TAYLOR (1981 and 1982) and J.J. WATT (2014 and 2015) as the only players since the award's inception in 1971 to win Defensive Player of the Year in consecutive seasons.

With his 20.5 sacks, Donald became the 11th player since 1982, when the individual sack became an official statistic, to record at least 20 sacks in a single season and the first since 2014, when JUSTIN HOUSTON (22) and J.J. WATT (20.5) each eclipsed the 20-sack mark.

In 2018, Donald recorded at least two sacks in seven games and became the fourth player since 1982 to record at least seven games with two-or-more sacks in a single season.

Donald has at least eight sacks in each of his first five seasons and joins Pro Football Hall of Famers REGGIE WHITE (14) and DERRICK THOMAS (10), as well as DeMARCUS WARE (eight), as the only players since 1982 to begin their careers with five consecutive seasons with at least eight sacks. He is the only defensive tackle with at least eight sacks in each of his first five seasons since 1982.

The 13th overall selection in the 2014 NFL Draft, Aaron Donald has excelled at generating pressure in the backfield through his first five seasons. Since he entered the league, he leads all defensive players with 97 tackles for loss and ranks tied for third with 59.5 sacks.

J.J. Watt

In 2018, Houston defensive end J.J. WATT led the AFC and ranked second in the NFL with 16 sacks and had a career-high seven forced fumbles. The three-time Defensive Player of the Year has four seasons with at least 15 sacks, the second most behind only Pro Football Hall of Famer REGGIE WHITE (five seasons) since 1982 when the individual sack became an official statistic.

Watt was named first-team All-Pro for the fifth time, while also being named to the AP's second team as an interior lineman.

Watt tallied two-or-more sacks 23 times in his first 100 games, matching Pro Football Hall of Famer RICHARD DENT for the second-most games with at least two sacks in a player's first 100 games since 1982, trailing only Pro Football Hall of Famer REGGIE WHITE (29 games).

Last season, Watt recorded his 90th sack in his 102nd career game and became the second-fastest player to reach 90 sacks since 1982. He has 92 sacks in 104 career games and his 0.88 sacks per game are the most by any player since 1982 (minimum 100 games).

Watt tallied two-or-more sacks 23 times in his first 100 games, matching Pro Football Hall of Famer RICHARD DENT for the second-most games with at least two sacks in a player's first 100 games since 1982, trailing only Pro Football Hall of Famer REGGIE WHITE (29 games).

Von Miller

Denver linebacker VON MILLER tied for fourth in the league with 14.5 sacks in 2018 and joined Pro Football Hall of Famer REGGIE WHITE (eight) and DEMARCUS WARE (seven) as the only players since 1982, when the individual sack became an office statistic, to register double-digit sacks in seven of their first eight seasons. Miller became the 11th player since 1982 to record at least 10 sacks in five consecutive seasons and has the longest active streak in the league.

Miller enters the 2019 season with 98 career sacks, the most in Denver franchise history. He became the fifth player since 1982 with at least 95 sacks in his first eight seasons and with 12 sacks this season, he would become the fourth player since 1982 with at least 110 sacks through his first nine years.

Since entering the league in 2011, Miller leads the league in sacks (98) and is the only player to record at least 95 sacks in the past eight seasons.

Miller, who registered three sacks in Week 1 of 2018, has also been among the league's best at getting to the quarterback multiple times during games. He has recorded 17 games with at least two sacks and five games with at least three sacks since entering the league in 2011.

Sack Attack

Throughout the NFL, pass rushers reached the quarterback at a record-setting pace in 2018. Twenty-two players recorded at least 10 sacks last season, including five with at least 14 sacks: the Los Angeles Rams' AARON DONALD (20.5), Houston's J.J. WATT (16), Kansas City's CHRIS JONES (15.5), Minnesota's DANIELLE HUNTER (14.5) and Denver's VON MILLER (14.5).

With 16 players recording at least 12 sacks, the 2018 season tied 1992 (16 players) for the third-most players with at least 12 sacks in a single season since 1982 when the individual sack became an official statistic.

Kansas City's CHRIS JONES recorded at least one sack in 11 consecutive games (Weeks 5-16) in 2018, surpassing DEMARCUS WARE (10 games) and SIMON FLETCHER (10) for the most consecutive games with at least one sack since 1982 when the individual sack became an official statistic. Jones also became the first player to record at least one sack in more than eight consecutive games in a single season since 1982.

    "He is out there all the time, and he's getting a lot of shots at you. He's got such explosiveness that if you give him enough chances he's just going to make a play. That's kind of how [the sack streak] has happened. Chris has done a great job of timing his rushes up and knowing what's coming and making people miss, and he's really hard to deal with." -- Seattle Seahawks head coach PETE CARROLL on Jones

For a Loss

Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle AARON DONALD led the NFL with 20.5 sacks and 25 tackles for loss in 2018. He joined J.J. WATT (2012, 2014) and DEMARCUS WARE (2008) as the only players since 2008 with at least 20 sacks and 25 tackles for loss in a single season.

    "He's always making plays. That's why I'm never really worried, because we've got a guy like him back there to help make plays. And he does it every week." -- Los Angeles Rams running back TODD GURLEY on Donald

Minnesota defensive end DANIELLE HUNTER ranked second in the league last season with 21 tackles for loss, followed by Jacksonville's CALAIS CAMPBELL (20) and Carolina's LUKE KUECHLY (20).

In 2018, four players recorded at least 20 tackles for loss for the first time since 2011.

Campbell, who has registered at least 10 tackles for loss in nine consecutive seasons, had a career-high 20 tackles for loss in 2018. At 32 years old, he became the oldest player since 2008 to record at least 20 tackles for loss in a single season.

    "He's a Pro Bowler, first-ballot Hall of Famer, in my opinion. I'm very happy I had the chance to be with this man and really learn from him." -- Eagles defensive tackle MALIK JACKSON on former teammate Calais Campbell

Forces on Defense

During a season in which multiple offensive records were set, pass rushers reached quarterbacks and forced fumbles at an astounding rate. In 2018, four players -- Kansas City's DEE FORD (seven), Houston's J.J. WATT (seven) Chicago's KHALIL MACK (six), and Pittsburgh's T.J. WATT (six) -- recorded at least six forced fumbles, marking the first time since 2013 that at least four different players reached that mark in a single season.

In his first season with Chicago, linebacker KHALIL MACK had a career-high six forced fumbles and helped the Bears tally the most takeaways in the NFL with 36. Since entering the league in 2015, Mack leads the NFL with 14 career forced fumbles.

    "He's had a very big impact from the very first day he walked onto that practice field. You could feel it. It's the same each day with him. You just feel a guy that has extreme confidence in himself, yet he has a lot of confidence with his teammates, too. We love everything he's brought." -- Chicago Bears head coach MATT NAGY on Mack

Dominant Defensive Backs

As the league features more passing on offense, the importance of a stout secondary is heightened. Players like KYLE FULLER, XAVIEN HOWARD and EDDIE JACKSON proved last season the impact defensive backs can have in a game.

Chicago's KYLE FULLER led the league with 21 passes defensed in 2018 and is the only player in the NFL who has recorded at least 20 passes defensed in each of the past two seasons (22 in 2017). With another 20 passes defensed this season, he would become the first player to accomplish the feat in three consecutive seasons since 1999.

    "Kyle is playing like one of the best corners, if not the best corner, in the league right now. He's been consistent, playing on a high level." -- Chicago cornerback PRINCE AMUKAMARA on Kyle Fuller

Fuller also tied Miami's XAVIEN HOWARD and Atlanta's DAMONTAE KAZEE for the league-lead in interceptions last season among defensive backs with seven, a career high for all three players.

Chicago's EDDIE JACKSON led all players with three defensive touchdowns in 2018, including a 65-yard fumble-return touchdown in Week 9. Jackson, who also had 75- and 76-yard touchdowns in 2017, joined Pro Football Hall of Famer DEION SANDERS (three touchdowns in 1994) as the only players since 1970 with at least three defensive touchdowns of 65-or-more yards over any two-year span.

 

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The NFL's Best Players on Defense - NFL 100