By Steve Silverman
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There is little doubt that the NFL is built around its quarterbacks. Put a tremendous passer on the field who has just a little bit of charisma with his teammates, and a team has a good chance of winning on any given Sunday.
There is much more to winning football than just QB play, and the second-most important aspect of getting that “W” just may be the ability to pressure the quarterbacks.
There are many ways to do this, but teams that have strong, pass-rushing defensive ends usually find themselves ahead of the game. Any team that has a great pass-rushing defensive end doesn’t have to put itself at risk by resorting to a frequent blitz to get to the quarterback.
In this piece, we look at the 10 best and most effective defensive ends in the league headed into the 2016 season.
1. J.J. Watt, Houston Texans
Watt has been the dominant defensive player in the NFL for the past four seasons. But had back surgery in late July, and that came after groin surgery six months earlier. While he could need a couple of weeks before he gets up to full speed, expect Watt to remain at the top of the charts again this season. He is simply too quick, too powerful and too nasty to allow for any slippage. Watt had 17½ sacks and 50 quarterback hits last season. Look for more of the same from the 27-year-old this season.
2. Khalil Mack, Oakland Raiders
Mack is one of the most versatile defenders in the league because he can line up as a 4-3 defensive end and can also play any of the linebacker spots. He won All-Pro honors at defensive end and linebacker last year because he can rush the passer as well as anyone not named Watt and he is dominant when going sideline to sideline and stopping the run. Mack had 15 sacks in 2015. If the first blocker does not engulf him, Mack will cause havoc and ruin opposing offenses.
3. Muhammad Wilkerson, New York Jets
Wilkerson is another versatile pass rusher because he can line up anywhere on the defensive line and get the job done. He is exceptional at stuffing the run, but he can turn any game around with his ability to get to the quarterback. He had 12 sacks and seven passes defensed in 2015. Wilkerson has spectacular feet for a 6-foot-4, 315-pound defensive lineman, and he can shock opponents with his powerful arms.
4. DeMarcus Ware, Denver Broncos
Ware was clearly the hero of the Broncos’ postseason run to the Super Bowl, and he played hardball with the team in contract negotiations during the offseason, pulling off another impressive victory. When Ware comes around the corner, he zeroes in on the quarterback’s belt buckle like few others, and he almost never misses his target. As he gets ready for his 11th season, he may have lost a fraction of a step, but he more than makes up for it with his intelligence. Ware had 7½ sacks during the regular season in 2015 and another 3½ in the playoffs.
5. Chandler Jones, Arizona Cardinals
The New England Patriots may have made a move to improve their salary-cap situation by trading Jones to the Cardinals, but they may have a hard time overcoming his absence. Jones is a brilliant pass rusher who has 36 sacks in his first four years in the league, including 12½ last year. His closing speed is his best asset, and once he fights his way past the initial block, he is almost impossible to stop.
6. Ziggy Ansah, Detroit Lions
Ansah is a relentless pass rusher who grew tremendously during the 2015 season and became one of the most effective defensive players in the league. He finished the year with 14½ sacks and earned second-team All-Pro status. While he opened eyes around the league with his consistent play, his self-confidence also increased dramatically.
7. Sheldon Richardson, New York Jets
He may be even more valuable to the Jets’ future than Wilkerson because he is younger and still improving. Richardson can set the edge against the run like few players in the league, and he excels at closing on the quarterback. While he faces a one-game suspension to start the season, his ability to push the pocket makes him an excellent asset for the Jets.
8. Robert Quinn, Los Angeles Rams
If the Rams are going to be respectable in their first year back in Los Angeles, it is the defense that is going to lead them. Quinn can be a game-changing pass rusher who can take over any game. Injuries impacted his 2015 season, but he had 10½ sacks and five forced fumbles in 2014. Coach Jeff Fisher and hard-bitten defensive line coach Mike Waufle are expecting him to get back to form this year.
9. Calais Campbell, Arizona Cardinals
Few defensive linemen are as difficult to stop as Campbell. While he appears skinny at 6-8 and 282 pounds, his massive wingspan allows him to take hold of opposing blockers who are often frustrated by his quickness and decisive movements. Campbell is hoping to match or exceed the career-high 9 sacks he had during the 2014 season.
10. Michael Bennett, Seattle Seahawks
Bennett has been a tremendous competitor and consistent contributor for the nasty and explosive Seattle defense, and he is clearly the team’s best defensive lineman. Bennett is strong and fast, but the biggest reason for his success is his ability to string moves together that confound opposing offensive linemen. He is coming off a career-high 10 sacks, and he could exceed that this year. He, however, will take undisciplined penalties at times, which tends to get under coach Pete Carroll’s skin.
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