The NFC East is one of the most storied divisions in the NFL’s long history. Incredible stars like Lawrence Taylor, Reggie White, Emmitt Smith, and Joe Theismann have all made homes of in Dallas, New York, Philadelphia, or Washington. Today, the NFC maintains this rigorous and exceptional pedigree of legendary players.
This series, the 2017 NFC East All-Division Team, is meant to exhibit the best at every position within the NFC East, broken up into two articles: this one showcases the defense and special teams standouts! Monstrous linemen, agile defensive backs, and perennial pro-bowl returners all populate this list.
2017 NFC East All-Division Team: The Defense and Special Teams
Defensive End: Brandon Graham
Brandon Graham doesn’t get many sacks, but he was astounding in nearly every other category last year. The Eagles defensive line is looking to be very good next year, and Graham is a huge (though ironically, physically undersized) part of that. Graham looks to build upon his first year in Jim Schwartz‘s defense in 2017. Linemates Fletcher Cox, Tim Jernigan, and either Derek Barnett or Chris Long should all lay down a heap of pressure on opposing quarterbacks, paving the way for Graham to have an incredible season.
Defensive End: Olivier Vernon
Oliver Vernon was one of the most sought after free agents in 2016. He delivered. Vernon was paired with Jason Pierre-Paul at both ends and the two formed a pretty solid duo. Vernon was the better of the two though and it’s fair to say that he was one of several players that led the Giants defense to make such a big leap last year. Once again paired with JPP, Vernon should have no problem disrupting offenses in 2017.
Defensive Tackle: Fletcher Cox
Fletcher Cox has enormous potential for the 2017 season. By Cox’s standards, last season was a down year for him — yet he still finished as one of the top defensive tackles in the league. Cox consistently drew double coverage throughout 2016, something that may not be wise in 2017. The Eagles added Ravens’ standout Tim Jernigan who should, on paper, allow Cox to demonstrate his full prowess. All things considered, the Eagles defensive line will be very scary this year.
Defensive Tackle: Damon Harrison
Damon Harrison is probably one of the lesser known names on this list, which is a shame because he’s the best run-stuffing lineman in the NFL. Harrison isn’t a huge factor in the passing defense as he only garnered 2.5 sacks last season, but he didn’t have to be. The Giants already had a great secondary and above-average pass-rush. What they needed was a run-defense. Harrison proved invaluable for that and anchored one of the league’s best run-defenses.
Linebacker: Jordan Hicks
This is the year that Jordan Hicks earns the moniker, elite. Hicks has flirted with that degree of recognized-star talent, but either injuries or a slight inconsistency has kept him just shy. His athleticism is fantastic and he’s proven to be an extremely well-rounded player, useful in virtually every defensive phase. That he’s only going into his third seasons suggests his best years are ahead of him. “All-Pro” is not out of the question.
Linebacker: Sean Lee
The Cowboys defense is about as average as it gets in terms of star talent — a testament to just how good their defensive coordinator is. But, Sean Lee is anything but average. Lee’s early career was rampant with injuries and despite flashes of skill, there were concerns that he might not be able to play a full season. The past two years have been different, and while he’s missed three games, he’s been one of the best outside linebackers in the league. Few are so good at stopping outside runs as Lee is. Barring another injury, Lee should be a focal point of Dallas’ defense in 2017.
Linebacker: Ryan Kerrigan
Ryan Kerrigan has been a standout for the Redskins since he was drafted in 2011. He’s never missed a game and he’s a massive producer in the pass-rush. Over the past three seasons he’s posted 34 sacks. He’s also produced at least two forced fumbles every season he’s played. Kerrigan’s only drawback is that he’s not as effective in the run-game. In a 3-4 defense, Washington tends to keep him outside where he’s mostly used to blitz or target short passes.
Cornerback: Janoris Jenkins
Janoris Jenkins is the last of the Giants free agent pickups from 2016 — and epitomized the definition of “lockdown” corner last year. Jenkins was easily the best cornerback to join the NFC East last season, which is a big deal when you consider that Josh Norman signed with the Redskins. Jenkins was clearly the better of the two, causing four turnovers, allowing significantly fewer yards, and the fourth lowest completion percentage according to Pro Football Focus.
Cornerback: Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie
It shouldn’t come as a surprise as yet another Giant joins the secondary portion of this list. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie was unstoppable in the slot last season. With Janoris Jenkins locking down the outside and Eli Apple performing an admirable job as a rookie, Rodgers-Cromartie was able to focus purely on his target. His value to the team, however, was probably not fully evident until his injury early in the wild card matchup against the Packers. The Giants defense was initially holding strong against Aaron Rodgers, but after DRC went down the entire Giants defense was dissected.
Safety: Landon Collins
Unsure of why Landon Collins is making this list? Just watch this:
Are you kidding, @TheHumble_21?!?!?
— NFL (@NFL) October 23, 2016
Safety: Malcolm Jenkins
The Eagles secondary gets a lot of (rightful) hate and is widely considered to be one of the worst in the NFL right now. That problem is almost unilaterally because of the cornerback group. Jenkins had to play a lot of slot corner last year because of injuries to Ron Brooks and admittedly, he’s only average at that position. However, as a safety Jenkins is great. He managed three interceptions last year and returned two of them. With the Eagles adding Rasul Douglas, Patrick Robinson, and Sidney Jones (assuming he returns from injury), Jenkins should be able to dominate at his natural position in 2017 alongside his partner in crime Rodney McLeod.
Kicker: Dan Bailey
The most accurate kicker in NFL history is pretty much a lock to make the special teams portion of the NFC East All-Division team. Dan Bailey is quite literally the most reliable kicker in the NFL right now, maybe with the exception of Justin Tucker. Unless Bailey is injured, there’s no reason to expect him to lose that historical accuracy in 2017.
Punter: Chris Jones
Like Bailey, Chris Jones has been a reliable and solid asset for the Dallas Cowboys. Oh, and Jones also has potential as a depth linebacker as showcased in this tweet:
— Dallas Cowboys (@dallascowboys) December 27, 2016
Returner: Darren Sproles
Darren Sproles doesn’t return kicks, but he’s the best punt returner in the league right now. Since joining the Eagles in the middle of the (now-despised) Chip Kelly era, Sproles has been outstanding as both a returner and gadget back. His shiftiness is on par with the likes of LeSean McCoy and his speed is just shy of DeSean Jackson‘s. Again, the one knock on him is that he doesn’t return kicks, but Sproles is a generational talent.