In a fantasy football run world, offensive skill position players get most of the attention. Even when defensive players get the spotlight, it’s the same few stars. Aaron Donald and J.J. Watt deserve the praise, but it’s easy for defensive players to go unnoticed even with stellar contributions to their teams.
The players below have played huge roles in their teams’ success this season, but their play has not been highlighted as such. Here are a few players you should take a closer look at on the defensive side of the ball.
Kyle Van Noy, LB, New England Patriots
One of the secrets of New England’s sustained success is the ability to put players in a position that best suits their skillsets. It’s an incredibly simple thing to say, but not every coaching staff is equipt to cater to the specific skills of individual players. For so many defenses, the thinking is, “you’re a linebacker, this is what our linebackers do.” But with the Patriots, there’s more flexibility and more room for creativity. It becomes apparent with a number of players New England brings in — such as the difference in Jamie Collins’s play during his time in Cleveland to his return to the Patriots — but it’s really be captured by the play of Kyle Van Noy, especially this season.
The Detroit Lions had little idea of what to do with Van Noy, a second-round pick in 2014. He transitioned from edge rusher to linebacker but never excelled in either role and never got extended playing time until 2017. He was traded to New England in the middle of that season — along with a seventh-round pick for a sixth-round pick — and immediately became a starter. He’s been an important piece of the defense, but his impact this season on the league’s best unit has stood out.
With the Patriots, Van Noy has carried over his ability to play both edge rusher and off-ball linebacker. He leads the Patriots in pass-rush snaps but has also only rushed on 73.1% of his pass snaps, per Sports Info Solutions. But among 72 linebackers and defensive ends with at least 100 pass rushes, Van Noy is first in pressure rate at 21.4%, per SIS.
New England has gotten Van Noy into situations where he can use his strengths to diagnose plays and make an impact based on what happens in front of him. Take this 3rd and 1 from the Week 6 Thursday Night Football game against the New York Giants. Van Noy lined up on the left edge of the defense as the Patriots showed six on the line against an empty set. But at the snap, New England rushed just three. Van Noy dropped and kept his eye on quarterback Daniel Jones. Once Jones started to break the pocket, Van Noy rushed in, created pressure, and helped force a bad throw.
He already has 3.5 sacks, which matches his total from last season and is only two behind his career-high. On top of that, he already has two forced fumbles, three passes defensed, and seven quarterback hits in six games.
Ross Cockrell, CB, Carolina Panthers
During the 2017 season, Ross Cockrell was one of the only things that went correctly for the New York Giants defense. Cockrell was traded to the Giants from the Pittsburgh Steelers just a week before the start of the 2017 regular season. Cockrell played in all 16 games for the Giants and eventually started nine. Per Football Outsiders, Cockrell ranked first among 81 qualified cornerbacks in both yards allowed per pass and success rate that season.
As a free agent during that offseason, Cockrell signed with the Carolina Panthers but broke his leg during training camp and missed all of 2018.
Now healthy, Cockrell has played in all six of Carolina’s games and has started four. Among 60 qualified corners, he’s fourth in yards allowed per pass and third in success rate. He’s also allowed just 33.3% of targets against him to be completed, the lowest rate among 60 corners with at least 20 targets. He’s also 10th among 101 cornerbacks with at least 70 coverage snaps in Adjusted Yards Allowed per coverage snap, which weights yards with touchdowns and interceptions.
Through six weeks of the season, Cockrell has six passes defensed and two interceptions. His ability to play the ball comes from instincts in coverage that put him in the best position to make a play. In Week 6, Cockrell had three passes defensed against Jameis Winston and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He was also on the receiving end of one of Winston’s interceptions.
The interception came on a 4th down late in the game and while it didn’t have much of an impact in the final result, it showed Cockrell’s ability to adapt in coverage. Cockrell was in coverage on the outside but watched Winston as the quarterback dropped back and made his progressions. Cockrell noticed Winston was starting down Chris Godwin in the slot, so he left his man, broke on Godwin’s route, and came away with the interception.
Carolina’s defense currently ranks fourth in DVOA and the pass defense is the only reason why — the Panthers are third in pass DVOA and 29th in run defense DVOA. Cockrell, James Bradberry, and Donte Jackson (when healthy) make up a more than solid cornerback trio to go along with safeties Eric Reid and Tre Boston.
Marcus Davenport, EDGE, New Orleans Saints
Before the Los Angeles Rams were the most all-in, win-now team in the league, the New Orleans Saints were the most all-in team with trades and signings meant to extend the championship window with Drew Brees in the short-term. One of those moves was to trade up and trade away a future first-round pick to draft Marcus Davenport 14th overall in 2018.
Davenport had an up-and-down rookie year in 2018, one that involved a toe injury that never really healed. He played 13 games and 40% of New Orleans’s defensive snaps and finished with 4.5 sacks and 12 quarterback hits.
This year, Davenport has looked like one of the best young edge rushers in the league. He’s healthy, which helps, and he’s been on the field for 74% of the Saints’ defensive snaps. He’s seventh among the group of defensive ends and linebackers mentioned above in pressure rate, already has 3.5 sacks, and has matched his 2018 quarterback hits total with 12. Only the Watt brothers have hit the quarterback more often than Davenport this season — both J.J. and T.J. Watt have 14 quarterback hits.
Along with Cameron Jordan, the Saints have one of the most dangerous edge-rushing duos in the league and lead the NFL in overall pressure rate this season. Davenport is on pace to be one of the league’s most disruptive defenders and he’s been able to use both speed (he ran a 4.58 at 264 pounds during the NFL Combine) and he’s matched in some power moves as he’s started to become more refined at the position. He’s able to do things like speed past Cowboys tackle Tyron Smith or blow right through Buccaneers tackle Demar Dotson (there’s a wide range in tackle quality there, but you get the point).
Anthony Harris, S, Minnesota Vikings
The Minnesota Vikings are 8th in DVOA against the pass, but it’s not coming from the place many would expect. Cornerback Xavier Rhodes has struggled mightily this season and Trae Waynes hasn’t been much better. However, the middle of the defense has come through. Mike Hughes has been the best corner on the team to this point in the season and Anthony Harris has been a massive breakout at safety.
Harris is in his fifth NFL season after going undrafted out of Virginia. He was a role player for the Vikings his first three seasons, playing 14%, 23%, and 23% of the team’s defensive snaps. He started nine games for Minnesota last season and was on the field for 60% of the defensive snaps. In the offseason, he re-signed for a one-year/$3 million deal and has started all six games. He’s been on the field for 94% of Minnesota’s defensive snaps and could arguably be considered one of the most impactful players through six games.
Among 73 players with 30 or more coverage snaps responsible for a tight end, per SIS charting, Harris is fifth in Adjusted Yards allowed per coverage snap. He’s been an impressive middle of the field defender this season and Minnesota is third in DVOA on passes to the deep middle of the field. He’s already shown a mix of range and instincts that have solidified the back end, which has allowed Harrison Smith to play closer to the line.
Harris started the season with a two-interception game against the Atlanta Falcons. His first came with an impressive zone drop while he read the eyes of Matt Ryan and backed his way into a pick in front of Julio Jones.
He’s also shown off some range that has allowed the Vikings to disguise coverages pre-snap. In the below play against the Giants, Harris aligned outside the right hash before the snap, then rotated to the middle of the field, and cut off a pass to Evan Engram on the far side of the opposite hash.
In just a year and a half as a starter, Harris has already become one of the league’s better deep safeties in coverage — at least one of the most underrated — and that could be enough to lift the rest of an underperforming Vikings secondary and lead to a nice new contract at the end of the season.