Throughout the preseason, we’ll take a look at the best – and worst – the NFL has to offer, unit by unit. Look for a new set of rankings every few days.
A powerful defensive line can do wonders for your entire defense. The d-line can keep guards off linebackers or create a rush to give the secondary a helping hand in the passing game.
A team can have sack masters, space eaters or a combination of both if the line is good enough.
Keeping in mind that some teams play the 4-3 and some play the 3-4, what defensive lines are the best in the NFL?
Criteria for defensive line:
80% of a team’s grade will fall on the four starters (or three if the team plays a 3-4). Of those starters, the unit must strike a balance between being able to stop the run and generating a pass rush up front.
Since a lot of teams use a rotation in order to keep their line fresh for the fourth quarter, the rest of the 20% will go to the depth a unit has. Teams may rise or fall depending on their depth, but most of the emphasis will go on the starters.
The Top 10:
1. Carolina Panthers
Julius Peppers, Michael Rucker, Kris Jenkins, Maake Kemoeatu, Kindal Moorehead
It’s hard to argue the production this unit can generate both against the run and pressuring the quarterback. Julius Peppers is an athletic freak who occasionally lines up as wide receiver on the goal line, but mostly just sacks quarterbacks (10.5 put downs last year). Michael Rucker is 31, but is a relentless worker who had 7.5 sacks last year. Kris Jenkins is a former Pro Bowler who could be one of the best DT’s in the game if he could ever stay healthy, and Maake Kemoeatu adds massive size to this unit. Carolina finished fourth against the run last year. Kindal Moorehead and Al Wallace provide excellent depth for this unit.
2. Seattle Seahawks
Grant Wistrom, Rocky Bernard, Chuck Darby, Bryce Fisher, Marcus Tubbs
Talk about depth. The Seahawks can go five deep with their defensive line unit and still get quality production from every player. Grant Wistrom had a bit of a down year last year and needs to rebound, but both Rocky Bernard and Bryce Fisher finished with just under 10 sacks apiece. Chuck Darby ended up being one of the better free agent pickups last season and Marcus Tubbs finished with five and a half sacks as a reserve.
3. Chicago Bears
Adewale Ogunleye, Alex Brown, Tommie Harris, Ian Scott, Alfonso Boone
This line is one of the more balanced front fours in the entire league. Adewale Ogunleye is a speed rusher from the outside and Alex Brown gets consistent pressure opposite the former Dolphin. Tommie Harris and Ian Scott make up two of the most underrated tackles in the league and the Bears have depth to burn with Michael Haynes, Tank Johnson, Alfonso Boone and rookie Dusty Dvoracek.
4. Jacksonville Jaguars
Reggie Howard, John Henderson, Marcus Stroud, Paul Spicer, Rob Meier
This unit could easily be the top defensive line in the league if they were just a bit better against the run. Marcus Stroud and John Henderson form possibly the best defensive-tackle duo in the NFL and since the team added Reggie Howard, he and Paul Spicer give Jacksonville a nice pass rush from the outside. Howard led the Jags with 8.5 sacks last year and Spicer was right on his heels with 7.5. Rob Meier can play both the tackle and end position when rest for the starters is needed.
5. Indianapolis Colts
Dwight Freeney, Robert Mathis, Montae Reagor, Raheem Brock, Corey Simon
These guys are about average or slightly above against the run, but man, can they rush the passer. Dwight Freeney is the big name out of this group, and rightfully so with his speed and athleticism, but pass-rush specialist Robert Mathis is a handful himself. Freeney and Mathis combined to give Indianapolis 22.5 sacks last year. Montae Regor has become the d-line’s leader while Corey Simon fit in well last year as a free agent. Raheem Brock may be the most versatile player among the front four.
6. Pittsburgh Steelers
Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton, Brett Keisel, Orien Harris
The first three-man defensive line on the list goes to the Super Bowl Champions. This unit leaves the sacks to the linebackers, but Casey Hampton gives opposing interior offensive linemen fits trying to man up on him. Aaron Smith is great at the point of attack and gives the Steelers their best pass rush while opposite end Brett Keisel was needed to secure the void left by Kimo von Oeloffen’s defection. If rookie Orien Harris is ready to play at the start of the season, he may claim the starter’s spot from Keisel. Pittsburgh finished third against the run last season.
7. New England Patriots
Richard Seymour, Vince Wilfork, Ty Warren, Dan Kleco
You could make a serious argument that the Patriots should flip-flop with the Steelers because of end Richard Seymour, but we’ll leave New England here for now. All three of these guys are former number-one picks and Seymour is the best of the bunch by fitting so well into head coach Bill Belichick’s scheme. Ty Warren has started 32 straight regular season games, which speaks volumes about his dependability, and Vince Wilfork finished second on the team last year with 91 tackles. The depth is a bit better on the Steelers at this point, but New England reserve Dan Kleco has a high motor.
8. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Simeon Rice, Greg Spires, Chris Hovan, Anthony McFarland, Jon Bradley
This group gets passed over a lot when analysts talk about defensive lines because Tampa has such a good front seven as a whole, but the Bucs are talented up front. Simeon Rice is a sack demon virtually every year and, although Greg Spires finished with only four sacks, he is probably the best overall player on Tampa’s line. Anthony “Booger” McFarland finally stayed healthy last season and the addition of Chris Hovan propelled the Bucs to a top-10 finish against the run in 2005. Jon Bradley found his way into the regular rotation last season.
9. Miami Dolphins
Jason Taylor, Kevin Carter, Vonnie Holliday, Keith Traylor, Dan Wilkinson
Miami has a solid balance of rush and pass with Jason Taylor leading the way with 12 sacks last year. Kevin Carter and Vonnie Holliday provided a nice pass rush as well last season, and adding big Dan Wilkinson in the offseason will help shore up the run defense in ’06 along with Keith Traylor.
10a. Atlanta Falcons
John Abraham, Patrick Kerney, Rod Coleman, Grady Jackson, Chauncey Davis
The Falcons were on the verge of missing the top 10 due to their atrocious run defense last year, but they didn’t have two of these two guys in ‘05. The Atlanta foursome of John Abraham, Patrick Kerney, Rod Coleman and Grady Jackson has a combined for 190 career regular season starts between them. No other foursome in the league can touch that number and the recent addition of Jackson gives this unit some beef in the middle to help stop opposing runners this year. How excited are Chris Simms, Jake Delhomme and Drew Brees to face this bunch twice a year?
10b. San Diego Chargers
Luis Castillo, Igor Olshansky, Jamal Williams, Chase Page, Jacques Cesaire
The Giants just missed the list in favor of the Chargers’ young trio. Odds are not a lot of people have heard of this group, but they, along with the Chargers’ linebacker unit, finished number one in the NFL against the run last season. The best thing about this unit is its youth too, with Luis Castillo heading into only his second year and Igor Olshansky a mere pup too. Jamal Williams is the veteran of the group and made his first Pro Bowl appearance last season.
The Bottom Five:
28. Oakland Raiders
Derrick Burgess, Tyler Brayton, Tommy Kelly, Warren Sapp, Lance Johnstone
Derrick Burgess led the league in sacks, but he and the rest of this unit get abused in the running game and Warren Sapp should be regulated to a backup at this stage in his declining career.
29. Kansas City Chiefs
Jared Allen, Lional Dalton, Eric Hicks, Tamba Hali, Ryan Sims
Jared Allen is the only true stud of the group with 11 sacks last year, but Eric Hicks is going to get a lot of pressure from rookie Tamba Hali and Ryan Sims continues to be a disappointment due to injuries.
30. San Francisco 49ers
Bryant Young, Anthony Adams, Marques Douglas, Ronnie Fields
Marques Douglas led all 49er linemen with 62 tackles last year, but Anthony Adams is playing out of place in a 3-4 system. How much longer will Bryant Young play?
31. Buffalo Bills
Aaron Schobel, Larry Tripplett, Chris Kelsay, Kyle Williams, John McCargo
Aaron Schobel had a nice year, posting double-digit sacks, but Chris Kelsay isn’t much help on the other side and rookie John McCargo will push Kyle Williams and newly acquired Larry Tripplett for their jobs.
32. Cincinnati Bengals
Justin Smith, Sam Adams, Robert Geathers, Bryan Robinson, Shaun Smith
How can a team with such a good offensive line have such a below average defensive front? This unit is terrible; they just don’t do one thing particularly well. Justin Smith can rush the passer, but hasn’t lived up to the number-four selection the Bengals used on him in 2001, and Sam Adams is getting up there in age. Robert Gethers isn’t much against the run and who knows what Cincinnati has in Bryan Robinson?