Tuesday, December 30, 2008

2008's Top 10 Defensive Backs in the National Football League

As part of a larger series, I was asked to put together a list of the top defensive backs in the National Football League for the 2008 regular season. As I've said before, I jump at these chances because it's like making up for all the tediously boring homework assignments we got growing up. But this one was more challenging than the rest.

For one thing, I didn't have the NFL Sunday Ticket package so I didn't see that many games and I didn't see an extensive breadth of the League.

To put together a definitive and exhaustive list of the best professional football players at any position, you really have to see them play. I'm a huge believer in the eyeball test since statistics don't tell the whole story. In no sport is the eyeball test more important than football. It's just not a game that's easily or effectively approximated by numerology.

And statistics do a particularly poor job of representing defensive worth, especially in the secondary.

First, there's the issue of reputation. Those players roaming the secondary trailing a big name in their wake often don't get the chances to generate shiny numbers. A guy like Nnamdi Asomugha barely appears in the stat categories, but he is quite obviously one of the best corners in the NFL. Meanwhile, other guys pop up all over the place because quarterbacks' eyes light up whenever they see them in coverage.

A guy like Leon Hall leads the NFL in passed defended, but that's because he's had a lot of attention from QBs (and it hasn't always been pretty).

But reputation creates another kind of problem - that of empty effusiveness. A guy like Asante Samuel or Ronde Barber has that name that pops and draws rave reviews/adoration regardless of the actual performances. Barber's name cropped up on a lot of the sounding boards I used as research and Samuel garnered a Pro Bowl appearance.

Neither guy had that great a year. Barber, in particular, had some pretty embarrassing showings.

Then, there's the issue of supporting casts and opposition. How can you compare a guy who plays behind a really strong front seven against a guy whose colleagues give the opposition eons to pick him apart? Now, what if my man behind the strong seven gets the additional advantage of facing a bunch of patsies led by guys who throw like my little sister?

That's why you won't find guys like Cortland Finnegan, Antonio Winfield, or Chris Hope on my list. They all had great years, but played behind strong fronts against really weak schedules. I'm not convinced they're better than guys who had comparable years for weaker defenses and/or faced stronger opposition.

On the other hand, some guys' statistical output was so impressive that they forced my hand. They suffer from some of the above flaws, but their production was simply too thunderous to ignore.

I guess what I'm trying to say is, this is the ultimate in subjective lists. With the possible exception of linemen, elite defensive backs are the hardest to assess without seeing them. They can generate tremendous numbers or none at all. Some of the best at the position play on some of the worst teams while others enjoy the luxury of a sparkling entourage.

So, without further hemming, hawing, and premature backpedaling, here are the top 10 defensive backs in the NFL for the 2008 campaign (in reverse order):

10. Cory Webster, cornerback for the New York Giants

His stats aren't going to knock anyone over - 50 tackles, one sack, two forced fumbles, and three interceptions. However, he was amongst the leaders in passes defended while stifling some of the best receivers in the NFL. Twice he held Terrell Owens in check, Chad Ocho Sinko didn't get to bojangle with Webster attached to his hip (pre-Carson Palmer injury), and Larry Fitzgerald didn't get off either. Most impressively, Webster had a firm hand in New York's homefield-advantage clinching victory over the Carolina Panthers by keeping arguably the most uncoverable wide receiver, Steve Smith, covered to the tune of three catches and no scores.

Yes, he played behind a strong front, but the Giants played a rough schedule. Not only that, but they performed well with a bull's-eye on their backs as the defending champs.

9. Adrian Wilson, safety for the Arizon Cardinals

The Pro Bowl voting was an utter and shameful mess again this year, but the DBs were actually one of the few positions with which nobody seems to have any serious gripes. Wilson is one such selection that needs no defense. Already known as one of the NFL's most ferocious hitters, he dumped a nice year's worth of production onto the pile - 74 tackles, three sacks, two forced fumbles, two interceptions, and five passes defended.

Of course, the Cardinals didn't exactly face the staunchest opposition. That said, his supporting cast (though much improved) still lagged behind the premier defensive squads in the League so Adrian finds his way onto the list largely by virtue of his singular brilliance.

8. Michael Griffin, safety for the Tennessee Titans

Odd that the lone Titan defensive back to make my list is the one who didn't make the Pro Bowl. Finnegan and Hope both had fine years rewarded by trips to Honolulu, but I think it's Griffin who's the most deserving. He put up a nice all-around year - 64 tackles, one sack, and one forced fumble. The most impressive thing about Griffin, though, is that he intercepted seven passes while defending 11 passes. Oh, and he returned one 83 yards for a touchdown against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the battle that saw Tennessee secure homefield advantage.

Griffin surely had the luxury of a weak schedule and being surrounded by a dominant defensive unit. However, the guy seems like hands receiver who brings the wood like a linebacker - if he's in a position to defend it, he's gonna pick it off. Or he's gonna take your head off if you managed to win it.

7. Brian Dawkins, safety for the Philadelphia Eagles

Another guy who's going to Hawaii and who earned the trip. The veteran Dawkins had 75 tackles, three sacks, six forced fumbles, and an interception. Perhaps more significant is the effect of his intimidating presence on the field. Here's a guy who may have lost a step, but still brings the lumber - as his six forced fumbles (two in the playoff-clinching massacre of the Dallas Cowboys) will attest.

Sure, he draws a direct and substantial benefit from playing with guys like Samuel, Lito Sheppard, Quintin Mikell and Sheldon Brown. But Philly plays in a brutal division for pass defense and the rest of the schedule wasn't exactly soft.

6. Nick Collins, safety for the Green Bay Packers

Someone who watched the Green Bay season up-close-and-personally is gonna have to explain what went wrong. From what I've heard, Aaron Rodgers played very well and the secondary has two no-brainer selections to the Pro Bowl. Of course, that's three out of 22 players and I'm not even considering special teams, but they played in a terrible division.

Anyway, Collins would be one of those guys who played a weak schedule, but put up numbers that can't be denied. He made 69 tackles, forced a fumble, and intercepted seven passes to go with 15 passes defended from safety. Not only that, Collins returned almost half of those interceptions for scores (three). Finally, he seems to be one of the few Packers who turned it up as the playoffs slipped away.

5. Oshiomogho Atogwe, safety for the St. Louis Rams

Believe me, I'm as surprised as you are to see a Ram this high up the list of elite defensive backs in the National Football League. Fortunately, this is where he belongs after authoring 82 tackles, six forced fumbles, and five interceptions on just five passes defended. That's right, if he broke up the pass, it was because he took the ball. Even when he didn't break up the pass, you still weren't out of the woods.

Although Atogwe's Rams toiled in the decrepit National Football Conference West, their schedule was actually pretty rough due to a brutal non-division slate. Not to mention the poor supporting cast around Oshiomogho. St. Louis' dismal season makes perfect sense from this angle while Atogwe's becomes all the more luminous.

4. Charles Woodson, cornerback for the Green Bay Packers

It's nice to have a Stanford guy (my alma mater) and a Michigan guy (the college I grew up following) back-to-back in the top five. Woodson shows up here having rebounded from injury at the ripe age of 32 while playing arguably the most physically-demanding and difficult position on the field (consider how the rule changes have made cornerback a position under siege). But don't believe for a second he's here just by virtue of improbability - 63 tackles, three sacks, a forced fumble, seven interceptions, two taken back for scores, and 17 passes defended.

Woodson had the rep and lost it when injury took away his edge, which explains the numerous shots opposing QBs took at him. That the edge is back would explain snatching seven picks from on-ball coverage as opposed to doing it while playing centerfield a la the safeties on the list. And like Collins, Woodson continued his stellar play while the rest of the team seemed to cave.

3. Troy Polamalu, safety for the Pittsburgh Steelers

Ho hum. Now we're getting to the boring part of the lists where everyone knows who's coming. I'll be quick. Polamalu is a no-brainer up here. He might even be too low considering how important just his presence is. And it's not like his 2008 line - 73 tackles to go with seven interceptions and 17 passes defended - is that shabby.

But his true significance and the real reason he makes this list while playing in one of the most talented defenses is because he makes the whole thing go. Sure, the Steelers would still have a formidable defense if not for the man from Troy. No way it's the best in the League though, not without that intimidation over the middle that creates countless drops, drops that don't show up in the stat book.

2. Nnamdi Asomugha, cornerback for the Oakland Raiders

This may be the one guy who surprises you, depending on where you live or how closely you follow football. As I mentioned above, he barely pops up anywhere as far as the general public's concerned. Not on the stat pages, not on national television, not in the playoffs. Nowhere except at the Pro Bowl (quick aside: I usually think the Pro Bowl is meaningless, but this position may be an exception to that general rule). Seriously, look at his numbers - 40 tackles, one forced fumble, one interception, and nine passed defended in five games.

The only teams to really push the issue were the New England Patriots (not a bad little team), the Carolina Panthers (a legit Super Bowl contender with a confident QB, who accounted for Asomugha's lone INT), and the Kansas City Chiefs (just not that bright).

In week 12 against the Denver Broncos (a division rival who knows better than most the perils of messing with the Raider corner), Asomugha defended a single pass. That's it.

In week four against the San Diego Chargers (another division rival), he literally didn't exist on paper. No tackles, no passes defended, no interceptions, no forced fumbles. Bagel.

Of course, anyone lucky enough to watch him play knows differently. Nnamdi's a six-foot, two-inch, 210 pound blanket on a defense that saw it's share of meltdown.

1b. Mother Nature

I was gonna give it to Big Momma all by her lonesome, but I thought that would be a cop out. However, anyone who watched the 75 mile per hour wind whip around the Buffalo Bills and Pats on Sunday knows that of which I speak.

When she was at her peak in the first half, Mother Nature prevented either team from throwing a single pass into the teeth of the wind and yielded no points, swatting away a 26-yard field goal that New England was arrogant enough to attempt.

Going with the wind wasn't exactly a picnic. The two teams combined for eight passes (for 19 yds, 13 yds, 12 yds, five yds, three yds, another three yds, no gain, and an incompletion), a made 33-yard field goal, and a missed 47-yard attempt.

Conditions let up enough by the second half for business as somewhat usual, but the teams still finished the game having combined for only 20 completions on 33 attempts, 206 yards, and no passing touchdowns.

It takes a special lady to shutdown every receiver and both quarterbacks.

1a. Ed Reed, safety for the Baltimore Ravens

You know you're in another stratosphere when you can outplay Mother Nature and that's what Ed Reed has done in 2008. He tallied 41 tackles, one sack, one forced fumble, and nine interceptions to lead the NFL. Reed returned two of those nine picks for touchdowns, including a 107-yard return from the back of his own endzone. Ed threw in 16 passes defended from his safety slot.

Not too shabby.

Of course, as is always the case with the all-time great players, you can't just look at the numbers.

The Ravens' safety rose to the occasion when the stakes were highest. He managed multiple thefts against the Eagles, an NFC playoff team that Baltimore had to beat to stay in the postseason hunt; the Washington Redskins, a metro-area rival and playoff contender; the Dallas Cowboys, an emotional team (this was the last game at Texas Stadium) that Baltimore needed to beat to keep control of its postseason destiny; and the Jacksonville Jaguars in the season finale to clinch a postseason berth.

Most importantly, Ed Reed teams up with Ray Lewis to give a voice to that lockerroom and an identity to that team. That makes the Baltimore Ravens a very dangerous squad going forward.

And it makes Ed Reed the best defensive back in the National Football League for 2008.

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