Analysis  

 

NFL defensive line rankings: Jaguars, Eagles, Rams top the list

Print

The best defensive lines are ranked below, with one criteria in mind: Which group would I most want to roll with for the 2018 season? For the purposes of this exercise, hybrid edge rushers who play outside linebacker and defensive end (Von Miller, for example) were counted as linemen.

Just missed: Green Bay Packers, Pittsburgh Steelers, Oakland Raiders, Tennessee Titans.

8) Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Key players: Gerald McCoy, Jason Pierre-Paul, Vinny Curry, Vita Vea, Noah Spence, William Gholston, Beau Allen, Mitch Unrein.

Can you build a top-shelf defensive line in one offseason? The Giants essentially did in 2016, and Bucs general manager Jason Licht might have pulled it off this year, starting with the acquisition of former Giant Jason Pierre-Paul during March's trade tsunami.

In JPP and Vinny Curry, the Buccaneers picked up two proven pass rushers at the tail end of their primes. They are "win now" pickups from an organization that could be torn apart if the Bucs don't actually win now. That's usually cause for concern, but acquiring two productive starters at an organizational sore spot for under $20 million combined in 2018 cap space looks like great value.

It's not all on Pierre-Paul and Curry. Licht did his best Howie Roseman impression by building a line that is two deep at every position, including first-round run stuffer Vita Vea and former Eagles backup Beau Allen. Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy remains at the center of it all, the equivalent of a straight-A student for his entire career, too often stuck on a group project with a bunch of dummies.

7) Denver Broncos

Key players: Von Miller, Derek Wolfe, Bradley Chubb, Shaq Barrett, Domata Peko, Shane Ray, Adam Gotsis.

There is no better edge defender than Von Miller. Look past his sack total (10) from a year ago and instead check out his league-leading amount of pressures, according to Pro Football Focus. Combine that production with perhaps the league's best run-stopping ability at his position, multiply it by seven seasons, and Miller has a strong case for Canton already.

No. 5 overall pick Bradley Chubb has the look of a player similarly fully formed entering the league, even if he doesn't have Miller's explosiveness. (Who does?) Derek Wolfe is a complete defensive lineman, while Shaq Barrett gives the Broncos rare depth at the edge rusher spot. The interior players here don't match up with the rest of this list, but few teams have as much pure pass-rushing firepower. They are all led by Miller, a man with a magnetic attraction toward Philip Rivers rivaled only by Rivers' wife.

6) Houston Texans

Key players: J.J. Watt, Jadeveon Clowney, Whitney Mercilus, D.J. Reader, Christian Covington, Joel Heath.

The Platonic ideal of this defensive line might be ranked No. 1. But that utopia no longer exists after two straight seasons of serious injuries to J.J. Watt. Even Jadeveon Clowney, who has held up physically over the last two years, is constantly battling nagging issues, as evidenced by another knee surgery this offseason.

I prayed last year to the Football Gods for one healthy season with Watt and Clowney together in their prime, a request so audacious that the Gods responded by tearing Whitney Mercilus' pectoral muscle for good measure.

Only the Rams can rival the pure strength of this group. Clowney has developed into a Pro Bowler without great pass-rush moves, while nose tackle D.J. Reader did a fair Vince Wilfork impression last season when no one was looking. Expect more eyeballs on this group if Watt returns anywhere close to the form that made him the single most dominant defensive player of the 21st century. His peak really wasn't that long ago ...

5) Los Angeles Chargers

Key players: Joey Bosa, Melvin Ingram, Brandon Mebane, Corey Liuget, Darius Philon.

The NFL's tag-team belt belongs to Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram. The arrival of defensive coordinator Gus Bradley and clarity to use both players as down linemen unlocked the duo's potential. Ingram might be one of the only players in football who plays with more energy, hustle and barely-controlled aggression than Bosa. Whereas Bosa is Keanu Reeves-level laconic off the field, one imagines that Ingram even orders his coffee with intensity. He said on NFL Networks "Top 100 Players of 2018" show that he can play any position on the field and should be ranked No. 1 on the entire list, assertions that I'm not going to argue against publicly.

While it's hard to pick whether Bosa or Ingram was more valuable in 2017, the relative lack of line depth for the Chargers prevents them from ranking higher on the list. Brandon Mebane and Darius Philon do a lot of the team's dirty work, while Corey Liuget hasn't lived up to his big contract. With a little more help around the tag-team champs, the Chargers could have the best defense of the Philip Rivers era.

4) Minnesota Vikings

Key players: Everson Griffen, Linval Joseph, Sheldon Richardson, Danielle Hunter, Brian Robison.

The Vikings' starting front four fits together like a starting five in basketball. Every player has a defined role and complements the rest of the group. Everson Griffen is the leader, a premier pass rusher with a complete game who plays better after every contract extension. Danielle Hunter is his young apprentice, teeming with untapped athleticism. Linval Joseph is the dogged veteran who has been among the league's best run stoppers since he came into the NFL. Free-agent bargain Sheldon Richardson is more disruptive against the pass from the inside -- and the Vikings hope he's not disruptive in the locker room.

As great as the starting group looks, there is less depth than usual here. Tom Johnson and Shamar Stephen left this offseason, taking more than 1,000 snaps with them. Brian Robison is now 35 years old and not expected to have a huge role. Coach Mike Zimmer doesn't rotate his starters as much as some teams and risks leaning on his top four too much. He can only hope the group, like Griffen, gets better with age.

3) Los Angeles Rams

Key players: Aaron Donald, Ndamukong Suh, Michael Brockers, Samson Ebukam, Matt Longacre, Dominique Easley, Ethan Westbrooks.

Teams shouldn't even try to run on the Rams when Aaron Donald, Ndamukong Suh and Michael Brockers are on the field together. That should make the opposition one-dimensional, allowing defensive coordinator Wade Phillips to cook up pressures and get the ball into the hands of his equally talented secondary.

There's no question that the Rams' top edge rushers -- Samson Ebukam and Matt Longacre -- are dangerously unproven. That keeps the group from topping this list, but the pass rushers should be able to roam free, with all the beef up front attracting double teams. The system will carry them.

Donald is the best overall lineman in football and Suh will be playing right next to him in full mercenary mode. Brockers is coming off a career season under Phillips. These three might not each pile up double-digit sacks, but they should lead the league in knocking offensive linemen to the ground, creating chaos in the pocket and generally terrifying quarterbacks. It's rare to see an all-time defender like Donald paired with an all-time coordinator like Phillips, each flanked by one of the most talented supporting casts in football. This group may only last a year together, so enjoy it while you can.

2) Philadelphia Eagles

Key players: Fletcher Cox, Brandon Graham, Michael Bennett, Derek Barnett, Tim Jernigan, Haloti Ngata, Chris Long.

The Eagles might still boast the deepest D-line in football, but this is far from the same group that helped win a Super Bowl. Vinny Curry has essentially been replaced by Michael Bennett, whose versatility to play inside should come in handy. Haloti Ngata was brought in to take Beau Allen's old spot and could wind up with a bigger role than anticipated because of injuries. Brandon Graham recently underwent ankle surgery and Tim Jernigan's late-April back surgery was serious enough for the Eagles to reportedly take guaranteed money out of his contract.

There are a few inherent risks to this group because of age (Ngata, Bennett, Chris Long) and injuries, but the ceiling is higher than a greased pole reaching to heaven. 2017 first-round pick Derek Barnett's development is the X-factor, but anyone is going to look better playing next to Fletcher Cox, a man strong enough to toss 320-pound Pro Bowlers aside like empty pizza boxes.

1) Jacksonville Jaguars

Key players: Calais Campbell, Yannick Ngakoue, Malik Jackson, Marcell Dareus, Taven Bryan, Abry Jones, Dante Fowler Jr.

What to get the defensive line that has everything? How about backups for everything? The Jaguars sit atop this list because of the depth and diversity of their top players.

Every April, draftniks like to create comps for "The Next Calais Campbell" and "The Next Malik Jackson." These never pan out because there just aren't many humans their size who can shapeshift positions on a variety of formations, fulfilling different roles based on what the play call requires.

While Campbell is a brute on the outside and Jackson can be slippery inside, Yannick Ngakoue and Marcell Dareus fill more traditional roles. Ngakoue's get-off is reminiscent of a young Cameron Wake. Dareus will stop running plays cold if he's not double-teamed. The addition of first-round pick Taven Bryan helps to replenish a veteran group, a reminder that the best organizations often stack strength on strength.

Maintaining an elite defense year after year is nearly impossible in the NFL, so this Jacksonville team needs to strike now, before attrition arrives. For now, the Jaguars as a group are much like Campbell: Bigger and badder than everybody else, finally getting their due.

Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.

Print

Headlines

The previous element was an advertisement.

NFL Shop