J.J. Watt still atop ATL's defensive end rankings


So far, we have ranked the top running backs, inside linebackers, outside linebackers, tight ends, defensive tackles and wide receivers in the NFL. This week, we turn our attention to the league's best defensive ends.

Instead of straight rankings, this format will feature tiers so as not to be as arbitrary.

This is not a fantasy football cheat sheet, nor is it an attempt to predict which players will finish with the best statistics this season. The premise is which defensive end I would want for the 2013 season. Although statistics, scouting reports and other factors such as durability were considered, the criteria are based primarily on game film from the 2012 and 2013 seasons.

Top shelf: J.J. Watt, Cameron Jordan, DeMarcus Ware, Cameron Wake, Muhammad Wilkerson, Justin Smith

Watt's sack numbers are down from last season, but he's been the same disruptive force this season. His game against Seattle was one of the best of his three-year career. ... Previously a run plugger, Jordan leads all defensive ends in combined quarterback sacks, hits and hurries, according to Pro Football Focus. ... Even at age 31 there was no significant decline in Ware's get-off before his quadriceps injury.

Entering the season, Wake's career average of .915 sacks per start was the best among active players. He's just now returning to health after an early-season knee sprain. ... Wilkerson is filling the Jets' defensive superstar void left by the Darrelle Revis trade. ... Smith has bounced back just fine from last season's torn triceps.

Next level: Calais Campbell, Robert Quinn, Chris Long, Charles Johnson, Greg Hardy, Julius Peppers, Jared Allen

Campbell slides all over Arizona's defensive line, terrorizing quarterbacks and shutting down running games. There's some Richard Seymour to his game. ... No defensive end has matched Quinn's 17 hits on opposing quarterbacks this season. He and Long are the best players on a Rams defense that hasn't gotten much help elsewhere.

Johnson and Hardy are among the league's most imposing bookends, as the Giants found out in a 38-0 beatdown that including a whopping 15 sacks, hits and hurries by the duo alone. ... Now part of the over-30 crowd, Peppers and Allen have fallen short of the difference-making level this season.

Pro Bowl potential: Sheldon Richardson, Lamarr Houston, Chandler Jones, Fletcher Cox, Carlos Dunlap, Michael Johnson, Desmond Bryant, Ezekiel Ansah, Cliff Avril

Richardson has teamed with Wilkerson and Damon "Big Snacks" Harrison to turn the Jets' defensive line into a brick wall. Don't even try to run on Rex Ryan's defense. ... Houston has been the best player on a surprisingly stingy Raiders defense. ... Jones is the Patriots' only reliable pass rusher. Now that Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo are done for the season, Jones and Aqib Talib are the heart of the defense.

Cox is one of the few building blocks on a beleaguered Eagles defense. ... Dunlap and Johnson are right there with Wilkerson and Richardson as the best run-stuffing duo in the league. ... The addition of Bryant is one of the primary reasons that the Browns now have a ferocious front seven. ... Ansah was billed as an explosive pass rusher, but the rookie has held up surprisingly well against the run for the Lions. ... Avril's play has picked up since joining the Seahawks.

Solid starters: Jason Pierre-Paul, Darnell Dockett, B.J. Raji, Michael Bennett, Chris Clemons, Rob Ninkovich, Red Bryant, Brian Robison, Antonio Smith, Adrian Clayborn, Osi Umenyiora, Everson Griffen, Derek Wolfe, Tyson Jackson, Cory Redding, Phillip Taylor, Ahtyba Rubin, Kendall Reyes, Corey Liuget, Willie Young

Pierre-Paul essentially has been a non-factor, which helps explain the Giants' historically awful defense this season. ... Campbell has bypassed Dockett as the Cardinals' defensive line anchor. ... Raji and Bryant are quintessential run pluggers. ... Bennett and Clemons join Avril as a trio of effective pass rushers in Seattle.

Robison is playing as well as Jared Allen, which explains his new contract extension. ... Excluding Robert Mathis, no Colts defender has played better than Redding this season. ... Taylor and Rubin are shutting down opposing running games this season. ... Reyes and Luiget are more talented than they've shown through six games.

Best of the rest: George Selvie, Derrick Morgan, Stephen Bowen, Chris Canty, Mike DeVito, Cedric Thornton, Brett Keisel, Akiem Hicks, Shaun Phillips, Cameron Heyward, Marcus Spears, Mathias Kiwanuka, Justin Tuck, Ray McDonald, Ricky Jean Francois

Pierre-Paul's teammate at South Florida, Selvie has been a revelation as Anthony Spencer's replacement. ... The Titans still are waiting for Morgan to "make the leap" as Jurrell Casey has done. ... Heyward just displaced Ziggy Hood in the Steelers' starting lineup. ... Much like Pierre-Paul, the current editions of Kiwanuka and Tuck bare little to no resemblance to the players they once were.

Just a guy: Jason Babin, Robert Ayers, Corey Wootton, Matt Shaughnessy, Shea McClellin, Andre Branch, Tyson Alualu, Ziggy Hood

The latest Around The League Podcast discussed the NFL's most impressive rookies.