1. Azeem Victor (Washington) LB
A First Team All-Pac-12 selection despite just playing in ten games due to injury last season, it’s scary to think what a healthy Victor could’ve added to Washington’s playoff run down the stretch, especially when the Huskies looked severely over-matched against a top-ranked Alabama team. Heading into 2017, Victor returns as hands-down the best individual defensive talent in the whole conference, so long as he bounces back at full strength. The 6’ 3”, 230 pound linebacker is a dynamic playmaker for Washington, who scrapped together 68 tackles and a forced fumble in 2016 and realistically, Victor could near the 100-tackle plateau this upcoming campaign if all goes according to plan. It’s safe to say that Victor will be the focal point on every offensive coaches scouting report in the Pac-12 this season.
2. Vita Vea (Washington) DL
Oregon State will have a mostly-new offensive line in the Fall, the main reason that three defensive linemen grace the Top 5 on this list with their potential All-Pac-12 abilities. In terms of Washington’s Vita Vea, there may not be a more feared interior defensive threat on the whole West Coast. A colossal 6’ 5”, 332-pound talent who runs a 4.8-second forty-yard dash, if nothing else, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone in all of college football with the same unique mix of size, speed and athleticism. Vea was projected as a second-round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft by CBS Sports but after deciding to return to school, he could climb into a Top 15 pick with another impressive campaign. Vea posted 39 tackles (6.5 for loss) and 5 sacks in 2016.
3. Hercules Mata’afa (Washington State) DL
Considering he’s by far the Cougars’ most gifted player in the defensive front-seven, Mata’afa may not make the presumed impact expected against the Beavers, due to the fact that he’ll probably see a heavy pass protection focused on containing him off the edge. However, make no mistake about it, Mata’afa is one of the best overall defensive ends in the whole Pac-12. Washington State will never be confused for a defensive-minded squad but when they have their moments, they’re usually spearheaded by Mata’afa’s ability to penetrate the offensive line and wreak havoc in the backfield. The All-Pac-12 Defensive Second Team selection from a season ago should work his way onto the First Team in 2017.
4. Cameron Smith (USC) LB
A physical block-shredder who fills holes up the middle like a ten-year NFL veteran, USC’s Cameron Smith is one of the most consistent linebackers in the land, who will anchor the Trojans defense heading into the 2017 campaign. Smith tallied 83 tackles (45 solo) and 7 tackles for loss in 2016, including three different games in which he made 10+ tackles. The key for Smith seems to be that he doesn’t shrink when the brightest lights come on and that he has the natural leadership tools to keep this defense together, through what could be a College Football Playoff-bound season. If USC is to live up to the hype, Smith will have to remain his usual imposing self.
5. Lowell Lotulelei (Utah) DL
When you think about some of the best run-stuffing defensive tackles in the country, Utah’s interior force of Lowell Lotulelei should come to mind, as there’s few who can disrupt an inside-run game like the 6’ 2”, 310-pounder can. And while Lotulelei will never be the statistical master that some of his other counterparts are, he did manage to tally up 28 tackles and 3.5 sacks in 2016, an impressive total for a run-focused nose player. Other players made their own strong cases for the final spot in the Top 5, including the tenacious trio below, but few can have the game-altering effect that Lotulelei can.
Quenton Meeks (Stanford) CB: Meeks’ name is already shooting up 2018 NFL Draft boards, due to the cornerback’s strong coverage skills and his versatility in his position. He totaled 16 tackles, 6 pass break-ups and 1 interception a season ago.
Koron Crump (Arizona State) DL: Crump posted 37 tackles and 9 sacks in 2016 and returns as one of the Pac-12’s most-feared edge rushers. With a versatile and athletic 6’ 4”, 220 pound frame, he could develop into an intriguing 2018 NFL Draft pick.
Taylor Rapp (Washington) S: Rapp won the conference’s Freshman Defensive Player of the Year award last season, after finishing the year with 42 tackles and 2 interceptions. His role is expected to increase during his sophomore campaign with the Huskies.