Position Power Rankings  

 

St. Louis Rams headline top 10 defensive fronts

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Every week in this space, Chris Wesseling will roll out the power rankings for one specific NFL position, attribute or award.

Last week, we covered the top 10 Offensive Rookie of the Year candidates.

After watching Aaron Donald, J.J. Watt and the Broncos' edge rushers terrorize opposing offensive linemen in the season opener, we are turning our attention to the league's best defensive front sevens.

On to the rankings:

1. St. Louis Rams: Robert Quinn, Aaron Donald, Michael Brockers, Chris Long, Alec Ogletree, James Laurinaitis, Akeem Ayers

What sets the Rams apart is Donald's transcendence and the overall depth up front. Winning with quickness, leverage and power, Donald is a carbon copy of the 2012 version of Geno Atkins that vied with J.J. Watt for Defensive Player of the Year honors. Beyond this dynamic front four, coordinator Gregg Williams can turn to Nick Fairley, William Hayes and Eugene Sims with little dropoff in effectiveness. Ogletree's emergence as a playmaker has bolstered St. Louis' linebacker corps as well. This group flies to the ball.

2. Buffalo Bills: Mario Williams, Marcell Dareus, Kyle Williams, Jerry Hughes, Nigel Bradham, Preston Brown, Manny Lawson

Mike Pettine, Jim Schwartz, Rex Ryan. It doesn't matter who's calling the shots in Buffalo. This defensive line swarms opposing quarterbacks and ball carriers, shutting down the likes of Aaron Rodgers and Andrew Luck. Mario Williams and Hughes have combined for 47.5 sacks over the past two years, while Kyle Williams and Dareus have earned trips to the Pro Bowl in each of those seasons. Don't sleep on young linebackers Nigel Bradham and Preston Brown, who were all over the field in the Bills' convincing win over the Colts.

3. Denver Broncos: Derek Wolfe, Sylvester Williams, Malik Jackson, Von Miller, Brandon Marshall, Danny Trevathan, DeMarcus Ware

Vance Walker filled in with Wolfe, who is suspended for the first month of the season, but that certainly didn't hurt Denver's ferocious pass rush versus Baltimore. New coordinator Wade Phillips, one of the best in the business, turned Miller and Ware loose last week, much to the consternation of the Ravens' offensive tackles. Ware looked like he was 25 years old, repeatedly whipping James Hurst en route to the quarterback. Justin Forsett is going to have nightmares about his treatment at the hands of Marshall and Trevathan, who rocked his world. Secondary included, this was the most impressive defense we witnessed in Week 1.

4. Miami Dolphins: Cameron Wake, Ndamukong Suh, Earl Mitchell, Olivier Vernon, Jelani Jenkins, Kelvin Sheppard, Koa Misi

Minus Suh as their defensive anchor, the Lions' 2014 average of 301 yards allowed ballooned to 483 at San Diego last week. Wake is already among the league's most effective pass rushers. With Suh drawing double teams, Wake and Vernon could each flirt with 15 sacks. Sheppard is the one concern here, as he's been a liability with the Bills and Colts.

5. Carolina Panthers: Charles Johnson, Star Lotulelei, Kawann Short, Kony Ealy, Thomas Davis, Luke Kuechly, Shaq Thompson

Even with Lotulelei sidelined and Kuechly lost to a concussion, the Panthers' nine points allowed were second only to the 49ers' three in Week 1. Every player on this list was selected in the draft's top 85 picks, reflecting general manager Dave Gettleman's obsession with finding "hog mollies" on the interior and "blue goose pass rushers" coming off the edge. For pure athleticism, it's hard to top the Panthers' linebacker trio of Kuechly, Davis and rookie Thompson.

6. Philadelphia Eagles: Fletcher Cox, Bennie Logan, Cedric Thornton, Connor Barwin, Mychal Kendricks, DeMeco Ryans, Brandon Graham

As the Eagles' defensive MVP, Cox was one of the NFL's most egregious Pro Bowl snubs last season. Chip Kelly has already begun talking up pocket-pushing nose tackle Bennie Logan, so the same fate doesn't befall him this year. Philly is so loaded at inside linebacker that Kiko Alonso came off the bench for nickel packages in the loss to Atlanta.

7. Seattle Seahawks: Michael Bennett, Brandon Mebane, Ahtyba Rubin, Cliff Avril, Bruce Irvin, Bobby Wagner, K.J. Wright

The "Legion of Boom" understandably steals the spotlight, but it was Bennett who kept Patriots coaches up at night during Super Bowl week. The defensive line is also bolstered by rotational tackle Jordan Hill and rookie second-round pick Frank Clark, both of whom have the talent to terrorize opposing quarterbacks. Wagner rivals Luke Kuechly and NaVorro Bowman as the NFL's top inside/middle linebackers.

8. Kansas City Chiefs: Mike DeVito, Dontari Poe, Allen Bailey, Justin Houston, Derrick Johnson, Josh Mauga, Tamba Hali

While Hali is on the decline, Houston has been the NFL's most disruptive edge rusher over the past two years. Three-time Pro Bowl inside linebacker Derrick Johnson was a force in Week 1 after missing the final 15 games of the 2014 season. There aren't many 350-pound men who move like Poe. If he makes a strong return from back surgery, this defensive front will challenge Denver's for AFC West supremacy.

9. Houston Texans: J.J. Watt, Vince Wilfork, Jared Crick, Jadeveon Clowney, Brian Cushing, Akeem Dent, Whitney Mercilus

After watching Watt in HBO's Hard Knocks, I wondered how any offensive lineman ever blocks him. He's closing in on Lawrence Taylor as the most dominant defensive force I've ever seen. If Clowney can build on the flash he showed in the season opener, the Texans could boast the league's best pass-rushing duo. This front seven needs Cushing to bounce back from a disappointing 2014 season and rookie Benardrick McKinney to emerge at inside linebacker.

10. Baltimore Ravens: Chris Canty, Brandon Williams, Timmy Jernigan, Elvis Dumervil, C.J. Mosley, Daryl Smith, Courtney Upshaw

Terrell Suggs is a huge loss, but the rest of the linebacker corps is stout enough to withstand his absence. General manager Ozzie Newsome pronounced in April that Williams is as good as there is in the league at nose tackle. That certainly appeared to be the case in Denver last week. Keep an eye on rookie defensive end Carl Davis, who had a strong performance against the Broncos after an impressive preseason.

Honorable mention: New York Jets, Detroit Lions, New England Patriots, Arizona Cardinals

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