In the NFL, it all starts up front on both sides of the ball. For defense, having a strong front is the key to success in terms of disrupting the passing and running games. A secondary’s job becomes so much easier if pressure is happening up front and a linebacker really appreciates if he can run free at a play because the line is occupying the blockers.
This looks at the best units in the NFL in terms of four man fronts in 4-3 defenses and front threes plus the rush linebackers.
I know I will probably get killed for having this group so “low” on the list, but the league is loaded with defensive line talent. This group is highlighted by Robert Quinn who is the best 4-3 defensive end in the league. He has incredible size, speed, strength and has perfected the technical aspects of his game to become a truly dominant player. On the other side is former second overall pick, Chris Long. Long may have been injured, but there was a definite regression in his game.
Despite a decline in his pass rushing, I think he was still a very good run defender. In the middle of the defense is athletic freak Michael Brockers. Brockers is still putting his game together, but he flashes dominance at the nose guard position as a run defender and a pass rusher. If he can put it fully together, he has great potential to be one of the best in the league. With the thirteenth overall pick in this past draft, the Rams selected Aaron Donald.
Donald is a talented penetrating three-tech who, despite issues with anchor, can take over as a complimentary piece which is what he will be on this talented defensive front. Depth wise, the Rams have two solid contributors in William Hayes and Kendall Langford but lack a truly dangerous rotation.
The Bills defensive line benefited from having a tremendous defensive coordinator in Mike Pettine, but even in a vacuum the defensive front talent is pretty intimidating. Marcell Dareus is a freakish player who dominates from all over the defensive front and Kyle Williams sits next to him disrupting the interior.
On one edge, the Bills have the dynamic Mario Williams who really thrived threatening the edges and making plays against the run and the pass. On the other side, Jerry Hughes finally lived up to his first round selection by using his speed to get after the quarterback. If he can build on his first year with the Bills, the defense will continue its success.
Not only did the Texans have the best defensive line player in the league last year, JJ Watt may have been the best player in the NFL. Arguably better than his Defensive Player of the Year campaign in 2012, Watt spent the entire season wreaking havoc in the opponents backfield and there is still room to improve. Watt is an athletic freak and as he continues to get closer to his ceiling,t he Texans defense will go with him. With the first selection in this year’s draft, the Texans selected the best defensive prospect in the past 10 years in Jadaveon Clowney.
Clowney is another freak of nature who is a dominant overall player with room to grow and, with improvement, Clowney could be at Watt’s level soon enough. In the third round, the Texans selected one of my top rated players in Louis Nix. Nix is a huge presence with tremendous foot quickness for a man his size. If he is healthy, he could start day one at nose tackle and impact immediately. On the edge comes another former first rounder in Whitney Mercilius, a talented speed rusher who has flashed very good ability to get to the quarterback.
Playing on the edges of a defensive line with the star power the Texans could have, Mercilius could have plenty of opportunities to use his speed to take advantage of one-on-one match ups. While the Texans may not have the overall depth that some other teams have, it is hard to deny the star power and the potential of their starters.
The Panthers defense came alive last year and that was mostly due to their solidifying of their defensive line. On the edges, the Panthers have the very talented Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson. Both are athletic pass rushers who have the instincts and the strength to play the run as well and are arguably one of the best duos in the league. Inside, the Panthers have former first rounder Star Lotulelei using his freak strength to push around pockets and stuff up the run.
Dwan Edwards is a solid pass rusher and Kawann Short is a very good rotational player who was able to impact against the running game and displayed much better pass rushing skills than what many thought he had out of college. An important part of this group is rookie Kony Ealy. Ealy was a very good defensive end prospect and could provide depth there for the Panthers, but I think that he could slide inside and create even bigger problems for offenses.
A lot of his best play came from inside the defensive line so the Panthers may want him all over their defense. All in all, this is a star-studded group with good contributors.
When the entire unit was healthy last year, watching offensive lines go up against the Chiefs’ front was like watching them go through a buzz saw. Justin Houston and Tamba Hali are absolute demons coming off the edges. They both possess rare speed and power that prohibits the offense from focusing on either one. The Chiefs also spent a first round selection on Auburn speed rusher, Dee Ford. While I think Ford was a reach, he fits what they want to do on the edges and will be very good in a rotation.
Up front, the Chiefs have a freak in Dontari Poe who has the potential to be one of the best defensive linemen in the league. He is an exceptional athlete with great quickness and some of the best power in the league. He creates interior disruption which is so important in playing defense. Poe is joined by a good player and fantastic run defender in Mike Devito.
The other end spot is a question in terms of who will get majority of the snaps, but with solid players in Vance Walker, Mike Capatano and Allen Bailey all waiting in the wings, that spot is in good hands. Though other lines in the NFL may have better players, no line has this kind of quality all across its front.
Missed the list: New York Jets
The Jets have one of my favorite front threes in the league. Muhammed Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson form the most disruptive five-tech duo in the NFL and both can only get better from where they are now. Sitting in the middle of that defense is Damon “Snacks” Harrison who is a fantastic nose tackle and one of the better interior run defenders the league has to offer.
Despite these studs up front, I am really not a fan of their edge rushers which keeps them from being on this list. With a few steps forwards of the talented Quinton Coples, maybe the Jets find themselves on this list next year.