The Best: Defensive player

In our series, The Best, our experts identify the best defensive player in the NFL.

Originally Published: June 4, 2007
ESPN.com

Editor's note: Our two-week series, "The Best," looks at the NFL's best in a number of key categories.

The Best: Defensive player

Cornerback
Denver Broncos

Profile
2006 SEASON STATISTICS
Tot Solo Ast FF Sack Int
86 74 12 0 1 10
Eric Allen: Champ Bailey, CB, Broncos
Bailey is the best defensive player in the league. His 10 interceptions last season don't even begin to show how good a defender Bailey has become. He owns his side of the field and is unafraid to take on any receiver in the league. What really sets him apart, though, is his play in the red zone. Opposing teams simply can't throw to his side because he's so good and almost always gets his hands on the ball.

John Clayton: Brian Urlacher, LB, Bears
Urlacher's the most important defensive player in the league. The Bears use the Cover 2 scheme, which normally features the weakside linebacker. Urlacher has all the playmaking ability of a Derrick Brooks, but he does it in a more important position -- middle linebacker. Urlacher played safety in college, so he drops into coverage with ease. In the Cover 2, he can cover the deep middle of the field. He's quick and sure-handed enough to have five-interception potential in any season. Urlacher can blitz and disrupt a quarterback whenever needed. He's everything a defensive coordinator would need, which makes him so valuable.

THE BEST
Over the next two weeks, our series, "The Best," will look at the NFL's best in a number of key categories.

• May 28: Player to start with | Vote
• May 29: Quarterback | Vote
• May 30: Coach | Vote
• May 31: Wide receiver | Vote
• June 1: Player you've never heard of | Quiz
• June 4: Defensive player | Vote
• June 5: Running back
• June 6: Leader
• June 7: Rookie
• June 8: Owner

Matt Mosley: Urlacher
San Diego linebacker Shawne Merriman already might be the most feared player in the game, Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey is the best cover man, but Urlacher is the best pure defensive player. He was the 2005 defensive player of the year, but his greatness can't be measued always in numbers. The fact that he can cover so much ground from his middle linebacker spot makes opposing quarterbacks constantly have to account for him, and it's a big reason the Bears have been one of the toughest teams to score on since he arrived. Urlacher doesn't pile up sacks (none last season), but he had a career-high 142 tackles and three interceptions. Urlacher played safety in college and he uses his amazing range to make plays all over the field. He's the rare athlete who can punish running backs near the line of scrimmage and also cover them one-on-one 20 yards downfield. Urlacher can make one of those unforgettable leaping interceptions (playoff loss to the Panthers two years ago) at any time because of his remarkable timing and vertical leap. Merriman is one of the most disruptive forces we've seen in years, but I think the majority of players across the league would agree that Urlacher is the best.

Len Pasquarelli: Bailey
Because quarterbacks generally avoid throwing in the direction of Bailey, at least if they know what's good for them, no defender in the NFL gets fewer chances for big, game-altering plays than the Denver Broncos' seven-time Pro Bowl cornerback. And no defender makes more of his chances to have an impact on a game. Bailey is the closest thing to a true shutdown corner the league has seen since Deion Sanders was in his prime and, at a position where it's difficult to dominate, he does. He is the top cornerback in the league by a wide margin. Perhaps wider than any No. 1 player at any position. Blessed with incredible instincts and great hands, Bailey tied for the NFL high in 2006 with 10 interceptions and has 18 of his 39 career pickoffs the last two seasons. Just how good is that? There are eight modern-era cornerbacks in the Hall of Fame and none ever had more than 17 interceptions over a two-season stretch. To go along with his 18 interceptions, three of which were returned for touchdowns, Bailey has 26 of his 97 career passes defensed the past two years. Again, this from a player who isn't thrown at very often. Remember, cornerback is a more passive position than just about any other spot on defense. You've either got to have the ball thrown in your area, or go out of your way to make a big play. Bailey is also a stout defender versus the run, as demonstrated by the fact he has averaged 70 tackles per season. At 28, Bailey hasn't lost a step and could be headed to the Hall of Fame.

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