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Top front sevens in 2017? Texans, Seahawks, Panthers

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2016 wasn't a great season for front-seven units. The playoffs were marked by good-enough defenses simply trying to slow down great offenses (and usually falling short).

Like most NFL trends, this shouldn't last. Recent champions like the 2015 Broncos and 2013 Seahawks had all-time defenses that were overwhelming up front. Many of the best front-seven groups have reloaded for this season with the complementary pieces necessary to rush the passer and stop the run.

I've ranked the best front sevens below with one simple question in mind: Which group would I want to roll with for the 2017 season?

12) New York Jets

Seven key cogs: Leonard Williams, Muhammad Wilkerson, Sheldon Richardson, Darron Lee, David Harris, Steve McLendon, Lorenzo Mauldin.

The 2016 Jets' front seven was so much less than the sum of its parts. Williams, Wilkerson and Richardson should be awesome, but they don't quite fit together. They are all brute strength and not enough speed. Candidates for the Jets' best edge rusher include ... Mauldin and Jordan Jenkins?

New York still cracks this list over some near misses like the Dolphins, Jaguars, Bucs and Bears because the Jets' Big Three should be so much better. Williams can be a first-team All-Pro. Wilkerson, consistent as a ShackBurger in his first five seasons, shouldn't suddenly be washed up at 27 years old. For all the criticism he took in 2016, Richardson was a top-five run-stopper among 4-3 defensive ends, according to Pro Football Focus. And that came in his worst season.

11) Kansas City Chiefs

Seven key cogs: Justin Houston, Chris Jones, Dee Ford, Bennie Logan, Tamba Hali, Derrick Johnson, Allen Bailey.

The Chiefs, like the Jets, get knocked for not being complete. They tried to address a run-stopping deficiency by signing Logan, but the team has question marks at defensive end and inside linebacker that remain unsolved. That's why they are low on the list, but they are included because of a killer one-two punch. Houston remains one of the most devastating, complete defenders in football. Jones could wind up being the second-best defensive player from the 2016 draft class behind Joey Bosa.

10) Los Angeles Rams

Seven key cogs: Aaron Donald, Robert Quinn, Michael Brockers, Alec Ogletree, Mark Barron, Dominique Easley, Connor Barwin.

Donald will become one of the highest-paid defensive players in NFL history soon, an honor he richly deserves. The rest of his Rams defensive teammates have been living off reputation and Gregg Williams quotes for too long.

Brockers and Easley form an intriguing duo inside, but they combined to play fewer than 900 snaps last season. Quinn was last a consistent force in 2014 -- and his 2013 season, when he was a Defensive Player of the Year candidate, stands out as an anomaly in his career.

It remains to be seen how Ogletree and Barron fit into Wade Phillips' defense, but the Son of Bum always finds a way.

9) Philadelphia Eagles

Seven key cogs: Fletcher Cox, Brandon Graham, Jordan Hicks, Timmy Jernigan, Vinny Curry, Nigel Bradham, Derek Barnett.

Philadelphia's cornerbacks made this group look worse that it really was last season. The Eagles' front consistently applied pressure under Jim Schwartz. And the unit boasts enviable depth, with players like Chris Long and Beau Allen not listed above. Cox and Graham would be bigger stars if the Eagles weren't knee-deep in that 7-9 bull---- the last two seasons. Jernigan and Barnett should add more juice than departed Eagles Connor Barwin and Bennie Logan supplied.

8) Los Angeles Chargers

Seven key cogs: Joey Bosa, Melvin Ingram, Corey Liuget, Denzel Perryman, Brandon Mebane, Kyle Emanuel, Jatavis Brown.

The list of defensive players I would rather have in 2017 than Joey Bosa: J.J. Watt, Von Miller and Khalil Mack.

The list of defensive players I would rather have for the next 10 years than Joey Bosa:

Bosa is a more natural fit for Gus Bradley's 4-3 defense in Los Angeles than as a 3-4 outside linebacker in San Diego -- and Bosa should be even scarier with a full offseason and training camp to get ready. He's surrounded by a group of players that covers all bases. Perryman provides thump at inside linebacker, while Brown adds speed. Ingram is a complete bookend to pair with Bosa, while Mebane and Liuget bring quality beef to the interior defensive line. The Chargers are ranked low on this list for the same reason that Bradley's old team in Jacksonville didn't make the list at all. Thus far, this group has looked better on paper than on the field.

7) Pittsburgh Steelers

Seven key cogs: Cameron Heyward, Ryan Shazier, Stephon Tuitt, Bud Dupree, James Harrison, Javon Hargrave, T.J. Watt.

Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert has stocked his roster with defensive cornerstones for his defensive-minded coach. Mike Tomlin was allowed to depose a franchise legend in former coordinator Dick LeBeau in order for Tomlin to fully execute his defensive vision. Other than Harrison, the key players in this front seven are squarely in the middle of their respective primes. Tuitt, Heyward and Shazier can all excel against the run and pass.

It's time for this group to grow up together and play as one. This is the year.

6) Denver Broncos

Seven key cogs: Von Miller, Derek Wolfe, Shane Ray, Shaquil Barrett, Brandon Marshall, Domata Peko, DeMarcus Walker.

There is no such thing as "too many edge rushers." Even with DeMarcus Ware retired, the Broncos could possess one of the most productive outside pass-rushing trios in football in Miller, Ray and Barrett.

Miller will make up for a lot of sins, but the team's inability to stop the run wasn't fully addressed by signing Peko, the 32-year-old longtime Bengal. Even though Wolfe and Ray have the potential to enjoy breakout seasons, this is a top-heavy group that lacks the depth of the team's championship squad, which included Ware, Malik Jackson and Danny Trevathan.

5) New York Giants

Seven key cogs: Jason Pierre-Paul, Olivier Vernon, Damon Harrison, Devon Kennard, Dalvin Tomlinson, Jonathan Casillas, B.J. Goodson.

If this exercise only ranked defensive lines, the Giants would probably finish No. 1. Harrison puts a great run-stopping group over the top. JPP and Vernon play an incredible amount of snaps without sacrificing a consistent pass rush.

The Giants' problem: The three players behind the defensive line count, too. GM Jerry Reese has been skimping at linebacker roughly since Antonio Pierce left town. Goodson, a second-year fourth-round pick who barely played as a rookie, is taking over at middle linebacker. Kennard isn't trusted on passing downs. It looks like another year of the Giants' defensive line and secondary trying to cover for the guys in between.

4) Minnesota Vikings

Seven key cogs: Everson Griffen, Danielle Hunter, Linval Joseph, Anthony Barr, Eric Kendricks, Brian Robison, Datone Jones.

The Vikings don't have the marquee names in lights like most of the teams on this list. They do have a balanced and versatile group with few weaknesses. The young linebacker duo of Barr and Kendricks can excel on any down, covering receivers, stopping the run or rushing the passer. (Barr can play better than he did a year ago.) Hunter, like his two young linebacker teammates, has the potential to break out if he hasn't already. Joseph and Griffen were both given eye-opening, monster contracts by Minnesota, which now seem like forward-looking bargains.

It's not too late for this Vikings group -- with everyone but Robison still under 30 years old -- to achieve the type of dominance that coach Mike Zimmer expected last season. This entire Vikings team has some post-hype potential.

3) Carolina Panthers

Seven key cogs: Luke Kuechly, Kawann Short, Thomas Davis, Julius Peppers, Mario Addison, Charles Johnson, Shaq Thompson.

This is the only front-seven group on this list led by off-the-ball linebackers. Kuechly's concussion problems are concerning, and Davis isn't getting any younger, but this is the fastest, savviest linebacker duo in football until proven otherwise. Thompson, still coming into his own in the NFL at age 23, provides freakish athleticism of his own.

It's not like the defensive line lags far behind. Short was rightly paid as one of the game's best defensive tackles. Peppers, Addison and Johnson form an experienced trio of defensive ends who have been Brady-like in ignoring the ravages of time. Carolina is primed to bounce back in 2017, with this group leading the way.

2) Seattle Seahawks

Seven key cogs: Michael Bennett, Bobby Wagner, Cliff Avril, K.J. Wright, Frank Clark, Malik McDowell, Ahtyba Rubin.

This front seven might never fully get its due, which is a shame. Blame the Legion of Boom's marketing department. Blame Malcolm Butler.

The foursome of Bennett, Wagner, Avril and Wright remains a force, incredible for its longevity in an era built to break up teams, especially great ones. Bennett's ageless versatility and strength is the key, although Wagner and Wright have steadily grown better each season. Clark is a worthy third-wheel pass rusher, allowing Bennett to move inside on passing downs. McDowell landed on the perfect team to maximize his raw talent.

While there is a risk that the Seahawks' stew grows stale, the team's defensive decline was overstated last season. Seattle finished third in points allowed, first in yards-per-carry allowed and fifth in defensive DVOA in a down season. The team's front seven, not the secondary, now leads the way.

1) Houston Texans

Seven key cogs: J.J. Watt, Jadeveon Clowney, Whitney Mercilus, D.J. Reader, Benardrick McKinney, Brian Cushing, Christian Covington.

By the end of last season, Clowney and Mercilus were among the most devastating duos in football. Adding the best defensive player of the century to that tandem isn't fair.

This ranking assumes Watt returns as close to the same player that he was before back surgery. If that happens, this trio could make up for so much: Tom Savage, a so-so Texans linebacker group and possibly the nation's debt. Watt, Clowney and Mercilus are the best front-line trio in football because all three can play in multiple formations, on any down, against any style of offense. The team is also confident in Reader's ability to provide an upgrade from Vince Wilfork.

I started this column looking for a complete front seven, and the Texans don't exactly qualify, lacking in coverage linebackers. But the awesome potential of Prime Watt, Clowney and Mercilus playing together overwhelms the competition on this list, just like it should overwhelm AFC South offensive lines.

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