By Steve Silverman
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Try to play great defense in the NFL without consistent production from the defensive line. It’s simply not going to happen.
When a defensive end can repeatedly turn the corner, flatten out, and get to the quarterback, he turns a good cornerback into a potentially great one. The same holds for a defensive tackle or nose tackle who gets penetration and destroys the pocket.
That’s because coverage time gets reduced when linemen put quarterbacks flat on their backs.
In this column, I look at the best defensive linemen in the league. While some edge rushers, including Von Miller, Vic Beasley, and Chandler Jones, charge into the backfield at least 75 percent of the time, they will be included with our linebacker evaluation later this week.
1. DE J.J. Watt, Houston Texans
Watt will be a motivated player this season after missing all but three games of the 2016 season. He’ll want to show that he is just as good as he was prior to back surgery. He has twice surpassed 20 sacked in a season and is also a sensational run defender. Watt may be the best player in the league when healthy regardless of position, and he will make a very good Houston defense that much better because he can line up anywhere along the front seven and cause havoc on nearly every play.
2. NT Aaron Donald, Los Angeles Rams
You won’t find Donald preparing with his teammates for the 2017 season because he remains in a contract holdout, but there is very little chance that it will continue into the regular season. He is the Rams’ most dominant player and is capable of providing nearly as much disruption as Watt. Donald is almost certainly the quickest tackle in the league and he excels at shooting the gap and getting fast penetration. He can wreck plays, and even though he is just 6-foot-1 and 285 pounds, he has shocking power and strength.
3. DE Khalil Mack, Oakland Raiders
Mack is really more of a game-changing edge rusher than he is a traditional end. He is 6-3 and 252 pounds, and that’s clearly quite small for an end in the modern NFL. However, there’s nothing small about the way that Mack plays the game. He had 11 sacks last year along with nine tackles for loss and five forced fumbles. When the Raiders’ defense makes a big play, Mack is almost always involved.
4. DE Jadeveon Clowney, Houston Texans
A look at the Texans’ depth chart shows that Clowney is listed as an outside linebacker, but he made a name for himself last year as a defensive end. I think Clowney will return to the line before the first month of the season is over. He was one of the most destructive players in the league last year with six sacks, 12 tackles for loss and 52 tackles. The combination of Watt and Clowney should be devastating.
5. DT Gerald McCoy, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
He is nearly the equal of Donald as he attacks the backfield from his interior defensive line position with eye-catching quickness, superb technique and shocking effectiveness. McCoy is just a remarkable athlete for his size, and, unlike most defensive tackles, he is not built like a refrigerator. He’s tall for his position at 6-3, but he brilliantly knows how to avoid the block and get in the quarterback’s face and stop a running back in his tracks.
6. DT Ndamukong Suh, Miami Dolphins
Suh remains one of the most controversial players in the league because of his tendency to cross the line when it comes to dirty play, but he is a remarkable player when he is focused and motivated. He is a brilliant athlete for his position and he has remarkable strength and power at 6-4 and 308 pounds. Suh regularly faces a double team, and it’s not unusual for opponents to send a running back to help the two blockers trying to handle him. Suh is a very smart and thoughtful man, and there are times when he is thinking about other things besides football – even when he is on the field.
7. DT Damon Harrison, N.Y. Giants
Harrison has more than lived up to the five-year, $46.25 million free agent contract he signed last year. “Snacks” is a powerful man at 6-4 and 350-plus pounds who is basically impossible to move. He helped the Giants improve dramatically against the interior run last year (fourth in rushing yards allowed per play). He is an overachiever who has become a dominant force even though he went undrafted out of unheralded William Penn.
8. DE Michael Bennett, Seattle Seahawks
The quirky Bennett has been the anchor on the Seahawks’ defensive line for years, and he can play anywhere and do it well. Head coach Pete Carroll and defensive coordinator Kris Richard will find the weak spot on the opponent’s offensive line and place Bennett opposite that player. He excels at getting penetration and can cause huge problems on an every-game basis.
9. DE Muhammad Wilkerson, N.Y. Jets
Many NFL observers look at the Jets and are convinced that they will be the worst team in football this year. While there is not much to recommend about the Jets’ offense, the defense should be able to hold its own for a large portion of the season before it finally wears down. Wilkerson did not have his best season in 2016 after signing a huge contract, but he should return to his best form this year. Wilkerson had 4.5 sacks and 58 tackles last year, after recording 12 sacks and 64 tackles in 2015.
10. DE Calais Campbell, Jacksonville Jaguars
After proving to be one of the most disruptive defensive linemen in the league with the Arizona Cardinals, Campbell signed a $60 million deal with the Jaguars. Jacksonville clearly needs production and leadership, and the 6-8 Campbell should be able to create big plays with his huge wingspan and excellent instincts. Campbell had eight sacks, 53 tackles, three fumble recoveries, six passes defensed and one interception last year.
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