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Ranking the NFL's top 12 defensive lines: Who's No. 1?

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Finding one pass rusher is difficult. Finding three or four of them is roster nirvana.

A great defensive line is not just about assembling talent. It's about finding complementary pieces that can handle every down and distance. That's why defensive linemen come at such a premium in free agency, with players like Olivier Vernon and Malik Jackson earning bigger contracts than Luke Kuechly and Adrian Peterson.

On the heels of  ranking of top receiver groups last week, let's break down the best defensive lines entering the 2016 season.

Three teams that deserve explanations for not making the list: J.J. Watt is the best football player on the planet, but he's not getting enough help from his Houston Texans teammates for the sake of this list. The Denver Broncos' championship defense took a hit when Jackson left town. With Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware officially listed as outside linebackers, Denver's line is asked to do more of the dirty work.

Stream the Amazon Original Series "All or Nothing: A Season with the Arizona Cardinals" on Prime Video.

Jackson makes the Jacksonville Jaguars' line one to watch next season. Last year's No. 3 overall pick Dante Fowler could give them the edge rusher they desperately need and Sen'Derrick Marks is a big factor if healthy.

On to the list ...

12. Kansas City Chiefs: Dontari Poe, Jaye Howard, Allen Bailey, Chris Jones

Poe, Howard and Bailey sounds like a well-respected law firm. For the purpose of this article, it comprises the most unheralded defensive line in football. Rookie second-rounder Chris Jones will fit right in because of his toughness and forgettable name.

Poe is the closest player to a star here, but Bailey could be in the mix if the NFL ever brought back a strongest man competition. General manager John Dorsey's contract for him in 2014 looks clairvoyant now. Howard is a similarly great value with a high motor who nearly stopped the Broncos' run game by himself last year. This should be one of the best run-stopping units in football again.

11. Buffalo Bills: Marcell Dareus, Jerry Hughes, Kyle Williams, Adolphus Washington, Shaq Lawson

Rex Ryan's arrival made previous defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz look like George Halas in comparison. Buffalo's sack total was cut from 54 to 21. Mario Williams is gone, replaced by a rookie first-round pick (Lawson) who might not play until December. Williams, long the unsung leader of this group, is now 33 years old and coming off major knee surgery. Dareus remains a huge difference maker against the run and will want to bounce back from a down year rushing the passer.

The strangest part of this depleted line: The same Hughes who was once traded straight up for Kelvin Sheppard now might be the most reliable player of the group.

10. Miami Dolphins: Ndamukong Suh, Mario Williams, Cameron Wake, Earl Mitchell, Jordan Phillips

Can we start the backlash to the backlash to Suh's tenure in Miami? There still aren't many defensive tackles we'd take over the three-time first-team All-Pro. Still, there could be a big fall-off in performance after Suh.

This group of names would have been ranked No. 1 two seasons ago. Now no one knows if Williams still has the motor and the juice to be a top-level talent. Wake is one of the best pass rushers of his generation, but he's 34 years old and is coming off a torn Achilles tendon. His recent contract extension was a curious moment, the result of chronic salary-cap mismanagement in Miami.

9. Oakland Raiders: Khalil Mack, Dan Williams, Mario Edwards, Justin Ellis

General manager Reggie McKenzie has secured a place long term with the Raiders, no matter what city they are playing in. The group above built from scratch is a huge reason why; none of them were on the roster in 2013. They show off the variety in McKenzie's team building.

Mack is the franchise cornerstone, a top-15 NFL player taken with the No. 5 overall pick in 2014. Williams was a low-cost, space-eating free agency bargain. Ellis has uncommon versatility for a human who weighs 330 pounds. Edwards proved the draftniks wrong with a great rookie season as Mack's bookend and was cleared to play this offseason after a scary neck injury. This group can grow up together while McKenzie looks for some needed depth.

8. Seattle Seahawks: Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril, Frank Clark, Jarran Reed, Ahtyba Rubin, Jordan Hill

General manager John Schneider stole Avril and Bennett during free agency in 2013. They have improbably improved as pass rushers every season since, the overlooked twin engines behind the historically great defense's success. Last year's first-round pick Frank Clark looked like a future star when he was on the field last year, giving Seattle a great trio.

The defensive tackle group is underwhelming compared to the rest of this list, knocking Seattle down the rankings. But Bennett moves inside so often and second-round pick Jarran Reed should be on the field plenty that it shouldn't be a huge problem.

7. Minnesota Vikings: Everson Griffen, Linval Joseph, Sharrif Floyd, Brian Robison, Danielle Hunter

Mike Zimmer's group lacks a true superstar but the Vikings' line is deep and versatile. Griffen is one of the steadiest, most underrated pass rushers of the past five years. Joseph packed as much run-stuffing power per-snap last season as any NFL player. Floyd offers more pass rush skills from the interior line, while Hunter showed incredible potential last year for a third-round pick who entered the league as a 20-year-old. Look for Hunter to steal snaps from Robison, who has put up at least 900 snaps each year since Brad Childress was scowling up the Vikings' sideline.

This defensive line is Zimmer's Vikings squad in a nutshell, greater than the sum of its parts.

6. Philadelphia Eagles: Fletcher Cox, Vinny Curry, Connor Barwin, Bennie Logan, Brandon Graham

Here's one way to think of the Eagles' spot on this list. They may have the weakest "second best defensive lineman" among teams in the top 10, but they definitely have the "fifth-best defensive lineman" in football. Curry, Barwin, and Graham form an excellent pass rush trio at end. Logan's run-stuffing complements Cox's everything-stuffing. Jim Schwartz is in prime position to make himself a head coaching candidate again.

I went back and forth on whether to rank the Eagles in the top five. The people were close on it too:

5. Carolina Panthers: Kawann Short, Charles Johnson, Star Lotulelei, Kony Ealy, Vernon Butler

The Super Bowl looms large here. Ealy and Johnson were the two best Panthers players on the field in Santa Clara for the Panthers. For Johnson, it was a reminder that he remains a quality starter after nine seasons in Carolina. For Ealy, it was a sign of things to come from the new starter. Short was also disruptive on the game's biggest stage, completing a season during which he made the leap to a top-30 NFL player. Lotulelei, the only player with a first-round pedigree of the group, remains a reliable starter.

The Panthers build their entire system on the front four getting pressure and they also deliver in numbers. That's why no one should be surprised general manager Dave Gettleman drafted another hog mollie (Butler) in the first round this year.

4. New York Giants: Olivier Vernon, Jason Pierre-Paul, Johnathan Hankins, Damon Harrison, Kerry Wynn

The Giants' defensive line remains more of a concept than a reality at this stage, a connection to the Giants lines of old without truly knowing if Steve Spagnuolo can make them all work together. Vernon and Pierre-Paul are the bookends of potential versus production. Vernon consistently pressured the quarterback in Miami without always finishing plays. JPP caused havoc last year as he learned to play with his hand wrapped in a club. Now he will play with a glove, which should help him tackle.

Harrison is a known commodity as a run-stuffer and Hankins is a sleeper to be the best player of the group. The Giants should have four above-average starters, something that is difficult to find elsewhere. They need JPP to return to his 2011 self to get this group to another level.

3. Cincinnati Bengals: Geno Atkins, Carlos Dunlap, Michael Johnson, Domata Peko, Pat Sims

The argument for the Bengals starts with one of the best 1-2 punches in football with Atkins and Dunlap, who are both coming off best seasons. The argument against the Bengals: Their annually terrific depth looks compromised. No organization has done a better job over the last four years at developing and rotating low-cost linemen for quality snaps that come in waves.

Bringing back Johnson helped this group, but he's always been more of a run-stuffer than pass rusher. Margus Hunt's best supporting role came in Hard Knocks. This remains a great unit but they need to start drafting their next generation.

2. New York Jets: Muhammad Wilkerson, Sheldon Richardson, Leonard Williams, Jarvis Jenkins, Steve McLendon

The Jets' defensive line is so good that it can lose one of football's prime run-stoppers in Damon Harrison and still rank as our top 3-4 defensive lines. Richardson slashes and burns like a player 50 pounds lighter. It is no surprise Rex Ryan used him as a goal-line back in 2013 because it always looks like Richardson is playing downhill.

Wilkerson always looks like the smartest, most complete lineman on the field. He is the rare pass rusher that often picks up his sacks by reading the play in front of him and reacting. If the Jets need to roll with Geno Smith for a season just to save cap room to pay Wilkerson all the money, they should just let Ryan Fitzpatrick walk. Williams should soon be part of the top starting trio in football, while Jenkins could be a sneaky steal for depth. This line forms Todd Bowles' best defense against a sophomore slump.

1. Los Angeles Rams: Aaron Donald, Robert Quinn, William Hayes, Michael Brockers, Dominique Easley, Eugene Sims

It's all about the first step. Donald and Quinn might each have the quickest get-off of any player at their position. Coach Jeff Fisher said you need to see Quinn in person to believe how quick he is, and some quality time with Game Pass supports that. He often jump cuts through an offensive line hole like Jamaal Charles slipping past defenders.

"Aaron Donald, again" were the three most popular words in Rams broadcasts last season. Offensive lineman can't keep their hands on him. Halfway through last season, he vowed to start beating double teams. By the year's end, he was splitting them regularly.

The presence of defensive coordinator Gregg Williams and terrific depth puts the Rams over the top. Williams often helps his linemen get advantageous matchups because opposing offenses are so worried about cornerback and safety blitzes. William Hayes has been one of the best rotational defensive ends for years. Even Easley showed great potential when on the field in New England last year.

If the Rams' first season in Los Angeles proves to be a dud, it should not be the fault of the defensive line.

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