AFC North: Antonio Pierce

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
The Cowboys' Zach Thomas, who spent 12 seasons with the Dolphins, was voted the smartest defensive player in a poll of 31 NFL coaches.Baltimore Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis was voted the second smartest defensive player in a ESPN poll of 31 NFL coaches.
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:


PlaceNamePositionTeamVotes
1.Zach ThomasLBDallas Cowboys6
2.Ray LewisLBBaltimore Ravens4
3. (tie)John LynchSDenver Broncos3
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 BrooksLB
Tampa Bay Buccanners
1
8. (tie)
Nick GreisenLB
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 Seahawks1
8. (tie)
Jason TaylorDE
Miami Dolphins
1
8. (tie)
Mike Vrabel
LB
New England Patriots
1

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