AFC North: Antonio Pierce
|James Lang/US Presswire||Kevin Terrell/Getty Images|
It's no surprise that a pair of middle linebackers topped ESPN.com's survey of NFL head coaches for smartest defensive player. With six votes, Zach Thomas of the Dallas Cowboys edged the Baltimore Ravens' Ray Lewis (four votes).
Middle linebackers are often the quarterbacks of a defense. They usually take care of the play-calling responsibilities and are required to know the assignments of teammates. Add in exceptional instincts, ability and countless hours of film study and there's the rare mix you get with Thomas and Lewis.
Three safeties -- Ed Reed, John Lynch and Corey Chavous -- also were in the top five. That position is the last line of defense and usually reserved for some of the smartest players on the team as well.
In addition, there were five votes for defensive linemen and one for a cornerback. Those positions normally rely on beating your opponent with brute strength for linemen, or tremendous athleticism as a cornerback. But the players at those positions on this list are extremely savvy and bring the complete package.
Thirty of 32 NFL head coaches answered the question. Here are the results:
|1.||Zach Thomas||LB||Dallas Cowboys||6|
|2.||Ray Lewis||LB||Baltimore Ravens||4|
|3. (tie)||John Lynch||S||Denver Broncos||3|
|3. (tie)||Ed Reed||S||Baltimore Ravens||3|
|5. (tie)||Corey Chavous||S||St. Louis Rams||2|
|5. (tie)||Warren Sapp||DT||Retired||2|
|5. (tie)||Michael Strahan||DE||Retired||2|
|8. (tie)||Ronde Barber||CB||Tampa Bay Buccaneers||1|
|8. (tie)||Derrick Brooks||LB||Tampa Bay Buccanners||1|
|8. (tie)||Nick Greisen||LB||Baltimore Ravens||1|
|8. (tie)||Rodney Harrison||S||New England Patriots||1|
|8. (tie)||Antonio Pierce||LB||New York Giants||1|
|8. (tie)||Brian Russell||S||Seattle Seahawks||1|
|8. (tie)||Jason Taylor||DE||Miami Dolphins||1|
|8. (tie)||Mike Vrabel||LB||New England Patriots||1|