Analysis  

 

J.J. Watt, Jared Allen, Jake Long among NFL's best linemen

The midpoint of the season is almost here, and folks are no doubt preparing lists of first-half all-stars. While they'll have a relatively easy time picking out the best quarterbacks, receivers and running backs, I thought I'd lend them a hand and round up the top offensive and defensive linemen so far this year.

I've ranked the five best offensive and defensive linemen according to how they've played thus far this season. I've also listed the top five up-and-comers on each side of the ball, based on both game tape and future potential. On the defensive side of the ball, I included some outside linebackers, since they share similar pass-rushing responsibilities to their D-line brethren.

There are a high number of quality linemen in the NFL, and some very good players were left off these lists. I tried to forget the players' reputations -- dismissing what I already knew about these guys -- and just rank them according to how they've performed on the field in 2012.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN

ESTABLISHED STARS

1. J.J. Watt, DE, Houston Texans
Watt, who has 18 pressures and a league-leading 9.5 sacks, is a pass-tipping machine; he's caused four interceptions with his ability to get his fingers on the ball. Watt has long arms, very strong hands and a rare combination of speed, strength and athletic ability. He's an early favorite to be the Defensive Player of the Year in 2012.

2. Jason Pierre-Paul, DE, New York Giants
A third-year player who burst onto the scene with 16.5 sacks in 2011, Pierre-Paul has continued his quarterback-harassing ways, collecting 4.5 sacks and forcing one fumble through the first seven games of the season.

3. DeMarcus Ware, LB, Dallas Cowboys
A former high school receiver, Ware has accumulated 106 sacks and 30 forced fumbles through eight seasons, and the likely Hall of Famer hasn't shown any signs of slowing down. In six games, Ware has 6.5 sacks and three forced fumbles. He has a great first step and can play in space at times.

4. Geno Atkins, DT, Cincinnati Bengals
Atkins underachieved somewhat at Georgia, but those days are behind him. Very powerful and quick, Atkins has seven sacks in seven games this season after totaling 7.5 in a breakout 2011 campaign.

5. Jared Allen, DE, Minnesota Vikings
Like a big wind-up toy, Allen never slows down. The veteran, in his ninth season, is a big reason that the Vikings are 5-2. He has six sacks in 2011, bringing his career total to 111.

UP-AND-COMERS

1. Aldon Smith, LB, San Francisco 49ers
After collecting 14 sacks in his rookie season, Smith continues to improve and has learned to play the run a lot better in 2012. Smith, who has 5.5 sacks this season, possesses great speed and a quick first step for a pass rusher.

2. Robert Quinn, DE, St. Louis Rams
The 14th overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, Quinn has already surpassed last season's sack total (five), racking up seven through the first seven games of 2012. Quinn, who can also block kicks, has a great first step, long arms and can run the 40-yard dash in less than 4.7 seconds.

3. Chandler Jones, DE, New England Patriots
The rookie has been much better as a pro than I thought he was going to be, forcing three fumbles and posting 5.5 sacks while starting every game in 2012. Jones has very long arms and can play the run.

4. Henry Melton, DT, Chicago Bears
One of the best running backs to ever play high school football in the Dallas area, Melton also spent two years as a ball carrier at Texas before switching to defensive tackle. Melton is nearing his sack total from 2011 (seven) after just seven games this season, collecting 4.5 so far. He has unbelievable athletic ability and the quickness needed to succeed.

5. Gerald McCoy, DT, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
McCoy battled injuries through the early part of his career, but he's found success this season, starting all six games so far and notching three sacks and one forced fumble. McCoy is very quick and disruptive; he needed to add more strength, and did so.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN

ESTABLISHED STARS

1. Duane Brown, T, Houston Texans
Brown is a very good run blocker who also has yet to give up a sack or a hurry this season. A very athletic and smart player who's gotten a lot stronger, Brown was just the second offensive lineman in Texans history to start all 16 games of his rookie campaign back in 2008.

2. Ryan Clady, T, Denver Broncos
Clady is as reliable as they get, having started 70 straight games for the Broncos. The strong and athletic Clady does well in the run game, and has not given up a sack or a hurry this year.

3. Carl Nicks, G, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The very strong fifth-year player has been worth every penny he got in the $47.5 million, five-year contract he signed with the Bucs last offseason. Nicks excels as a run blocker and has yet to allow a single sack or hurry.

4. Joe Thomas, T, Cleveland Browns
Thomas has good athletic ability and knows where to put his hands. The durable veteran (he's started every game for six years) does not make mistakes: He's given up just two sacks and been called just twice for holding all season. As is true of most of the offensive linemen on this list, Thomas has long arms, which help him fend off defensive linemen. Arm length is very important for the position, because it's one of the few quantifiable indicators of future success.

5. Jake Long, T, Miami Dolphins
Long has come up big for rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill, allowing just two sacks this season in six games. One of just three offensive linemen to be selected first overall in the NFL draft since 1967 (the Dolphins picked in him in 2008), Long has great athletic ability, strength and length.

UP-AND-COMERS

1. Sebastian Vollmer, T, New England Patriots
A very big man (listed at 6-foot-8, 320 pounds) with good feet and long arms, Vollmer has allowed just one sack and one hurry this season. The Patriots have done a lot to make the German native stronger in the four years that he's been in the NFL.

2. Mike Iupati, G, San Francisco 49ers
Niners offensive line coach Mike Solari gets credit for developing Iupati, a powerful and large (6-5, 331) man with long arms who has become a huge asset in the run game in his third year as a pro. He's a big reason why the 49ers (who ranked eighth with 127.8 rushing yards per game in 2011 and are second with 176.6 per game this season) have had such success on the ground.

3. Alex Mack, C, Cleveland Browns
Mack, a very strong, quick and smart fourth-year center, very seldom allows the man he's blocking to make a play. Like his linemate Thomas, the big-handed, long-armed Mack is durable and reliable, having started 55 consecutive games. He hasn't allowed a sack or hurry this season.

4. Tyron Smith, T, Dallas Cowboys
Cowboys offensive line coach Bill Callahan, who is one of the best in the business, told me before a recent game that Smith, a second-year man playing his first season at left tackle, is the real deal. Smith has very long arms and big hands (36.5 inches), and is an excellent athlete with good work habits. The only negative surrounding his game? The five false-start penalties he's incurred. But Callahan will correct that.

5. Nate Solder, T, New England Patriots
A one-time high school tight end, Solder (the 17th overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft) has put in a lot of effort to add core strength. Solder is very athletic and smart, and has great work habits. He's versatile (can play left or right tackle) and will be around for a very long time. He's given up just two sacks this season.

COLLEGE CLIMBERS

Ezekiel Ansah, LB, BYU: Ansah originally went to BYU with the intention of being a track athlete, but he started playing football in 2010 and hasn't looked back since. The 6-foot-5 1/2, 270-pound middle linebacker most likely will be a defensive end prospect, and could be a top-50 player.

Kyle Long, OL, Oregon: The son of Howie Long and brother of St. Louis Rams defensive end Chris Long, Kyle Long doesn't start, but he does contribute to the offensive line and will be drafted. Long originally was going to play baseball for Florida State, but ended up playing football at a junior college before transferring to Oregon.

OTHER OBSERVATIONS

Harrison: Week 8 Power Rankings
Elliot Harrison reshuffles the NFL deck after yet another batch of games, with a new team cracking the top three. More ...

» Phone Call of the Week: Last Thursday, the 49ers held on to win a bruising battle with the Seattle Seahawks. On Friday, Solari called me to say that those were the two best defensive teams he'd ever been involved with in one game.

» I noticed two unsung heroes in Week 7. On defense, I'd like to highlight the performance of Minnesota Vikings defensive end Brian Robison, who had three sacks and a forced fumble in a win over the Arizona Cardinals. Offensively, New Orleans Saints receiver Joe Morgan stood out. Morgan, the first player from Walsh College to score a touchdown in the NFL, hauled in a highlight-reel catch from Drew Brees for his second scoring grab of the season.

» New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning is dominant in October. When he helped the New York Giants beat the Washington Redskins, he improved to 26-5 in the month; his October winning rate of 84 percent is the best of any quarterback in that month in the Super Bowl era.

Headlines

The previous element was an advertisement.

NFL Shop

NFL News
CONTENT
15