The 2012 NFL regular season is kicking off in just eight short days, and once again it's time for me to pick this year's blue-chip and red-chip players.
(Click here for the 2011 installment of blue-/red-chippers.)
I kicked things off with a look at offensive studs on Monday; now, we take a look at the top defensive talents in the game. And, as an added bonus, I reveal the current blue-chip and red-chip head coaches at the bottom of this page.
As I wrote Monday, these lists are based on how guys performed in 2011 -- no future-casting here. I did not consider players who missed all or much of last season.
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Definition of a blue-chip player
» Demonstrates rare abilities and creates mismatches that have an obvious impact on the game.
» Is a premier player in the league and a weapon on the field.
» Combines competitiveness and skill to provide a consistent championship-level performance.
» Rates in the top five at his position in the league.
Definition of a red-chip player
» Has abilities that can create mismatches vs. most opponents in the league.
» Is a featured player on his team and has an impact on the outcome of the game.
» Can't be taken out of the game in a one-on-one matchup.
» Is consistent from week to week.
» Plays at a championship level.
» Rates in the top 10 at his position in the league.
Jared Allen, Vikings
Trent Cole, Eagles
Jason Pierre-Paul, Giants
Red Bryant, Seahawks
Julius Peppers, Bears
Jason Babin, Eagles
Justin Tuck, Giants
J.J. Watt, Texans
Cameron Wake, Dolphins
Cliff Avril, Lions
» The New York Jets' Muhammad Wilkerson might make the list next year, but right now, he's not as good as these 10.
» Those who are surprised that Bryant qualified as a blue-chipper should talk to any team that has tried to run the ball in his direction. He is a dominant player.
» Mario Williams was out for most of the 2011 season, and therefore is not on the list.
» Indianapolis Colts veterans Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis belong on the list, but both are playing new positions as the Colts shift to a 3-4 defense. However, both are blue-chip-caliber pass rushers in any scheme.
Ndamukong Suh, Lions
Vince Wilfork, Patriots
Haloti Ngata, Ravens
Darnell Dockett, Cardinals
Justin Smith, 49ers
Kevin Williams, Vikings
Paul Soliai, Dolphins
Brodrick Bunkley, Saints
Richard Seymour, Raiders
Geno Atkins, Bengals
» Talented Browns veteran Ahtyba Rubin was close to making the cut. He might after this season.
» Green Bay's B.J. Raji made the Pro Bowl in 2011, but he isn't on this list. The reality, based on what he showed on tape, is that his play was not close to Pro Bowl-caliber. Stamina and weight were concerns last season.
» Bunkley and Soliai are hard to move; both had very good campaigns in 2011.
» Smith is a marvel to watch. He plays as hard on the first snap of a game as he does on the last, which is even more remarkable as he gets older.
» The Bengals have many good players on their defensive front, but Atkins is their best.
Patrick Willis, 49ers
NaVorro Bowman, 49ers
Brian Cushing, Texans
Sean Lee, Cowboys
Derrick Johnson, Chiefs
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Ray Lewis, Ravens
Jerod Mayo, Patriots
London Fletcher, Redskins
D'Qwell Jackson, Browns
Lance Briggs, Bears
» There are times when I'm watching 49ers tape that I cannot tell Willis from Bowman. Both are fast and explosive, and both make a ton of plays.
» Cushing plays fast. Able to impact the game on all three downs, he is the cornerstone of a good Houston defense.
» Lewis is still a good player, he's just not as good as the blue-chippers in terms of range and speed.
» Injury concerns kept Chicago Bears veteran Brian Urlacher off the list.
» New York Jets LB David Harris is a good player, but he isn't better than the red-chippers on this list.
DeMarcus Ware, Cowboys
LaMarr Woodley, Steelers
Tamba Hali, Chiefs
Aldon Smith, 49ers
Von Miller, Broncos
Elvis Dumervil, Broncos
Mathias Kiwanuka, Giants
Brian Orakpo, Redskins
Sean Weatherspoon, Falcons
James Harrison, Steelers
» This is one of the most talented positions in the league. It's so stacked that Green Bay Packers stud Clay Matthews did not make the list. Matthews is a good player, but he didn't match these 10 in 2011.
» Baltimore Ravens OLB Terrell Suggs suffered an offseason injury and will miss much of the season after being placed on the physically-unable-to-perform list on Monday, so he did not make the cut this year.
Darrelle Revis, Jets
Joe Haden, Browns
Lardarius Webb, Ravens
Johnathan Joseph, Texans
Carlos Rogers, 49ers
Nnamdi Asomugha, Eagles
Champ Bailey, Broncos
Brent Grimes, Falcons
Sean Smith, Dolphins
Brandon Flowers, Chiefs
» Too many marginal corners made the list last year, so I decided to hold myself to a tight 10 this year, even though I listed 15 wide receivers. Many teams lack talented second and third corners.
» Asomugha struggled in Philadelphia last year, but he is still a solid corner when he plays press coverage.
» The Baltimore Ravens' Cary Williams, who had a great 2011 season, almost made the list. He and Webb make the secondary a huge strength of the Ravens defense.
» Haden did not have an interception last year, but he was still a shutdown corner. (NOTE: Haden might be facing a suspension after reportedly testing positive for a banned substance.)
» Aqib Talib is a good coverage corner, but it was hard to pick anyone from Tampa's defense, based on how that unit played last year.
Ed Reed, Ravens
Troy Polamalu, Steelers
Jairus Byrd, Bills
Charles Woodson, Packers
Louis Delmas, Lions
Earl Thomas, Seahawks
Michael Griffin, Titans
Adrian Wilson, Cardinals
Eric Weddle, Chargers
Dashon Goldson, 49ers
» Delmas was hurt last year, but his impact on the Lions' defense is huge.
» Woodson might be playing a new position, but he has had experience playing inside before and excels in that area.
» Thomas is very close to joining the blue-chippers.
Mike McCarthy, Packers
Bill Belichick, Patriots
Tom Coughlin, Giants
Jim Harbaugh, 49ers
John Harbaugh, Ravens
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Mike Tomlin, Steelers
Andy Reid, Eagles
Mike Smith, Falcons
Jim Schwartz, Lions
Gary Kubiak, Texans
» Tomlin is a blue-chip coach in my mind, but I only had five spots and the Harbaugh family took two of them.
» The more I watch him, the more McCarthy impresses me with his head-coaching abilities.
» Kubiak has always been a blue-caliber play caller; last season, he was a red-caliber head coach.
» Schwartz will need to do another great job to keep the Lions in the playoff race in 2012; the same goes for Smith in Atlanta.
AND NOW FOR THE OFFENSE ...
Follow Michael Lombardi on Twitter @michaelombardi.