Patrick Willis and the NFL’s 11 Scariest Defensive Players

  • Patrick Willis

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    Patrick Willis

    LB, 49ers

    The definitive, archetypical inside linebacker has been an NFL staple almost since the league’s inception. Back in the day those names included Chuck Bednarik and Sam Huff, Ray Nitschke and Willie Lanier, Dick Butkus and Jack Ham, Mike Singletary and London Fletcher. Since the retirement of the incomparable Ray Lewis, the current-day standard for the position has been Willis. The 49ers’ sideline-to-sideline patrolman just happens to turn 30 years old today, and has plenty of mileage left to burn. This past season ended for Willis after just six games with a toe injury, snapping a streak of seven straight seasons with at least 97 tackles.

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  • NaVorro Bowman

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    NaVarro Bowman

    LB, 49ers

    One of the scariest things about facing the 49ers is that there’s a younger, faster, sometimes meaner version of Willis lining up right next to the future Hall of Famer. Bowman missed all of this past season recovering from a knee injury he suffered in the 2014 NFC Championship Game, but should he come back to anywhere near his former self, he could be the best linebacker in the league next season.

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  • Justin Houston

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    Justin Houston

    LB, Chiefs

    He led the NFL with 22 sacks this season, coming up a half-sack shy of the single-season record. If only he were good friends with a star QB on another team, he could’ve been gifted – err, he could’ve earned – that last sack he needed to put his name alone in the record books.

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  • Clay Matthews

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    Clay Matthews

    LB, Packers

    If the famous Matthews family are the Corleones of pro football, Clay is some unfair combination of Sonny’s intensity, Michael’s savvy and Fredo’s insecurity (which drives Clay to keep working like he’s one bad practice away from being cut). Clay racked up 11 sacks this season to go with 61 tackles.

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  • Ndamukong Suh

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    Ndamukong Suh

    Don’t bother counting how many times Suh has been called into the league office. Forget about tallying his total amount of fines for unsportsmanlike conduct. Exactly zero teams are going to care about that as they pursue the NFL’s top free agent this offseason. While it’s true that the 28-year-old, four-time Pro Bowler has developed a reputation, I’m pretty sure NFL teams don’t list proper etiquette and on-field politeness as ideal traits in a defensive tackle. Suh had 53 tackles and 8.5 sacks this past regular season while leading the Lions to the playoffs, then had two sacks in a close loss to Dallas in the wild-card round. The fans and media may talk about a lot about Suh’s history of questionable behavior, but opponents are worried less about that and more about his history of dominating games.

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  • J.J. Watt

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    J.J. Watt

    DE, Texans

    He has a realistic chance to win league MVP, which is beyond rare for a defensive player. While I personally wouldn’t give Watt my first-place vote – Houston’s schedule was about as cream-puff as you can get in the NFL, with Jacksonville (twice), Tennessee (twice), Cleveland, Oakland, Washington, and the Giants on their hit list – the fact that he’s even in a discussion usually reserved for quarterbacks and running backs shows how much of a problem he has become.

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  • Mario Williams

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    Mario Williams

    DE, Bills

    “Super Mario” is like the Joe Johnson of the NFL. No matter how productive he is (14.5 sacks this season) and no matter how many games he wins for his team, some people just can’t get over his contract and constantly think he should be doing more. He’s done enough. Williams has 91 career sacks and 16 forced fumbles, and he turns just 30 later this month. Unfortunately for him, he’s never played on a real title contender.

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  • Patrick Peterson

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    Patrick Peterson

    CB, Cardinals

    Arizona’s defense gives offensive coordinators a lot to think about on every level. First you must get past Pro Bowl end Calais Campbell and the defensive line. Then there’s two-time Super Bowl champ Larry Foote and the linebackers. Finally there’s the strength of the defense, the secondary, led by Patrick Peterson. This season Peterson had 50 tackles, a sack, and three interceptions, but of course, those numbers would look better if teams didn’t avoid throwing to his side so often.

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  • Richard Sherman

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    Richard Sherman

    CB, Seahawks

    Speaking of guys who don’t get a lot of chances…In the 2014 regular-season opener, Sherman famously went the entire game without Aaron Rodgers throwing to his side once. Was that due to Sherman truly blanketing his receiver literally at every turn, or was it more Sherman’s reputation that made Green Bay shy from testing him? Any throw in Sherman’s direction is a potential pick, any pick is a potential touchdown, and any TD is guaranteed to come with an earful of Sherman’s yapping.

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  • Troy Polamalu

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    Troy Polamalu

    S, Steelers

    He’s undeniably lost some speed over the years, and you can find an increasing amount of times each game where he guesses wrong and Pittsburgh pays for it. But Polamalu is still a force to be reckoned with. The freewheeling heart of the Steelers’ defense is like a one-man vice squad: Opponents never know where he’ll be, where he’s coming from, or when he’ll seemingly drop down from the sky and blow up their plans.

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  • Kam Chancellor

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    Kam Chancellor

    S, Seahawks

    The modern-day Ronnie Lott is the NFL’s hardest-hitting safety, just as adept at setting the tone early or clinching a win late with one of his bone-crunching acts of intimidation.

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  • Patrick Willis
  • NaVorro Bowman
  • Justin Houston
  • Clay Matthews
  • Ndamukong Suh
  • J.J. Watt
  • Mario Williams
  • Patrick Peterson
  • Richard Sherman
  • Troy Polamalu
  • Kam Chancellor

As often as pride-driven (and often retired) football players and nostalgia-fueled (and often jaded) football fans lament the sport’s movement away from old-school, smash-mouth defense — thanks to increasingly strict pass-interference rules and penalty flags flying on just about any hard hit these days — there still remains a place for defensive players who strike a bit of fear into their opponents.

Fear, however, is an overused word in pro sports.

Perhaps it’s because the vast majority of fans and media are coming at this from a rec-league, weekend-warrior, never-made-it-past-high-school-varsity state of mind, but it’s highly unlikely that any player who has made it to the National Football League is truly scared of another player.

These athletes have taken the hardest of hits and stood back up. They’ve failed in front of the biggest crowds and come back to succeed again. They’ve endured every insult imaginable from hecklers, journalists, and Internet trolls and still come out shining on the other side. The worst NFL player is still better at football than almost everyone else in the world, and they’ve probably seen just about all the game has to offer.

The truth is that no pro football player actually fears another in the same way you or I would if we were dropped into the middle of an NFL game. But there are some players who will inspire the kind of extreme professional respect — call it “fear” if you must — that keeps offensive coordinators awake on Saturday nights and keeps opposing quarterbacks, ball-carriers, and blockers aware of where they are on the field at all times. Maybe they’re not scared of them; but they’re scared of the many ways they can ruin an offensive game plan.

Here is a starting lineup of Patrick Willis and the NFL’s 11 Scariest Defensive Players.

Follow Amaar on Twitter at @AmaarAbdulNasir

image via Michael Zagaris/Getty Images