With "The Top 100 Players of 2011" wrapped up, it got us thinking: Who are the greatest players of the new millennium, the Y2K era? Since 2000, broad developments in NFL strategy have taken place, as well as the specialization of the players who fit into these new schemes. So who has thrived most in the league's ever-evolving environment?
Today, Steve Wyche and Elliot Harrison make a case for the best defensive end. Got an opinion of your own? Sound off in the comments section below.
Wyche: A case for Julius Peppers
Since coming into the league with the Carolina Panthers in 2002, Julius Peppers has not only been one of the most dominant pass rushers in the NFL. He's been one of the most dominant defenders -- period.
Prime example: In his first season last year in a new system with the Chicago Bears at age 30, Peppers had eight sacks, 54 tackles, nine passes defended (batted down at the line of scrimmage, altered in coverage), three forced fumbles, and two interceptions. That doesn't include hurries, altered throws or the denial of running backs into pass routes because they have to stay in protection to help block him.
That's sick. That's also just one season and hardly his most productive.
Now, throw those numbers away. When there is a player that disruptive on the other team, opposing coaches scheme and game plan to minimize that player's role. That's only said about a handful of defenders. Coaches have done that for nine seasons with Peppers. I know because I've talked to a lot of those coaches and players who've gone up against him.
Where Peppers, 31 -- who should be better in his second go-round in Chicago's defense -- tends to trump most scheming is that he can play both end spots, reduce inside to play tackle and drop into coverage as an outside linebacker. There's only so much teams can do to avoid him.
Peppers is just as solid against the run as he is against the pass. "Double Teamed" should be his middle name.
Another thing to take into account when looking at Peppers: He has 89 sacks. Since 2000, only Abraham (102.5) and Freeney (94) have more among defensive ends. Abraham and Freeney have played with very good quarterbacks (Michael Vick and Matt Ryan for Abraham, Peyton Manning for Freeney) and on offenses that tend to get their teams out to big leads, which forces teams to play catch-up and gives pass rushers more chances to get after the quarterback.
That's no slight to Abraham, Freeney, Mathis or anyone else because they get double and triple teamed and still finish the drill. But Peppers? He has played for two conservatively offensive teams with two quarterbacks (Jake Delhomme and Jay Cutler) who've been good but never generated the types of production that routinely allows him to do little else but pass rush.
Still, his totals are right there.
Harrison: A case for Michael Strahan
Michael Strahan was the most complete defensive end of this era.
At the beginning of this time period, from 2000 to 2003, Strahan had 61.5 sacks. That averaged to more than 15 a season. Take any four-year stretch of Peppers' career (the most sacks he had was 41.5), and it's not even close.
The most difficult choice for me was taking Strahan over Jason Taylor. John Abraham and Jared Allen also merit consideration. But the gap-toothed wonder got my vote because, in his prime, I thought he was a more complete player than Taylor, Abraham, or anyone else. That prime fell in the 2001-to-2003 range, part of this Y2K era. So even though Taylor and Abraham had more sacks in the 2000s, it was only because they played the entire duration.
Basically, if I had to play one game to win tomorrow with the great players of the 2000s, I'm lining up Strahan at right defensive end.
Strahan was better against the run than Taylor or Abraham. Neither of those guys, although great, could touch his 22.5-sack season of 2001. Unlike them, Strahan played in two Super Bowls and was the leader on a team that pulled off one of the biggest upsets in NFL history in Super Bowl XLII -- a game ultimately won because of the Giants' pass rush.
In his 15th and final season in 2007, Strahan had nine sacks and added two more in the playoffs. Peppers had eight sacks and none in the postseason.
1) His ability to change to stay effective. He lost over 30 pounds late in his career to get more quickness rushing the passer, ultimately resulting in an 11.5-sack campaign in 2005.
2) He almost single handedly beat the best team in football in Week 5 of 2001, the "Greatest Show on Turf." The Giants ultimately lost to the Rams, 15-14, but Strahan sacked Kurt Warner four times and lived in St. Louis' backfield. It was one of the most dominating performances I've ever seen against a superior team.
There's no defensive end in football right now I know of who can take over a game like that.