The 3-4 defense has become so pervasive in the NFL that 15 teams will use it as either their base or line up in it a significant portion of the time. Another 10 teams can alternate between the 3-4 and 4-3 on a regular basis.
So what does that mean in terms of the defensive line rankings? Well, it obviously makes it harder because you're comparing different personnel groupings. The line in a 3-4 is usually made up of space-eaters, not thoroughbreds. You don't find many Jared Allens or Dwight Freeney(notes) playing on a 3-4 defense. The reason: Because they're linebackers in that scheme, a la DeMarcus Ware(notes) in Dallas' scheme.
Thus, these rankings are sure to be a matter of taste and this writer tends to give the nod in most cases to four-man lines. That said, four of the top nine lines in the league are 3-4 teams.
Here's the rundown:
1. Minnesota Vikings: When you start with the best defensive end in the league (Jared Allen(notes)) and perhaps the best 4-3 defensive tackle (Kevin Williams(notes)), that's a pretty impressive foundation. Throw in Pat Williams(notes), who is one of the best run stuffers in the league even at 37, and complementary pass rusher Ray Edwards(notes), and you have a group that can do just about anything necessary. The depth at end is lacking and the issue of whether the Williamses will ever serve their four-game suspensions as a result of the StarCaps case continues to hang over the team.
2. Baltimore Ravens: As mentioned above, ranking 3-4 teams really high is tough because those fronts generally don't produce a lot of the pass rush. Rather, they set the table for the linebackers. That's still the case with the Ravens, but they manage to milk enough pass rush from aging Trevor Pryce(notes) at one end spot. However, the true greatness of the Ravens line lies in their malevolence, led by right end Haloti Ngata(notes). Simply put, Ngata can't be blocked by mere mortals. He is not a product of the human species. He is really a creation of a building contractor, made of cinderblocks and some type of flesh-like covering. Throw in Kelly Gregg(notes) at nose tackle and behemoth rookie Terrence Cody(notes) and you have something truly frightening.
3. New York Giants: Between injuries (Justin Tuck(notes) was most banged up and Chris Canty(notes) was never healthy) and the loss of defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, no team went backward more than the Giants last year with their line play. Defensive end Osi Umenyiora(notes) didn't help matters with his whining. That said, this group has the best depth in the league, adding high-ceiling end Jason Pierre-Paul(notes) through the NFL draft. They still miss the professionalism of Michael Strahan(notes), but they should get back to what they were in the 2007 title run.
4. Indianapolis Colts: This might be the best end combination in the league with Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis(notes). In fact, Mathis would be a really good right end on a lot of teams, but instead gets to torment right tackles for a living from the defense's left side. Some critics like to point out that the Colts don't exactly stuff the run, but those critics forget that's by design. Between the emphasis on quickness and the instruction of pass rush-happy line coach John Teerlinck, the Colts simply don't put any emphasis on stopping the run. If they happen to get the running back on the way to the quarterback, so be it. The interior is better than it has been in years and the addition of rookie Jerry Hughes(notes) will add depth at end. The loss of versatile Raheem Brock(notes) is a problem, but not a significant one.
5. Dallas Cowboys: With all due respect to Vince Wilfork(notes) of New England, Jay Ratliff(notes) has become the best 3-4 nose tackle in the game. The key difference is that Ratliff can penetrate and pass rush better than any other nose man. Wilfork, who is a monster when it comes to holding the point, could probably be similar if the Patriots allowed him to do that, but they don't. Thus, Ratliff gets the nod. Left end Marcus Spears(notes) has shown flashes of excellence and right end Igor Olshansky(notes) rebounded from a bad 2008 to play well in 2009. The combination does a great job of setting the table for outside linebackers DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer(notes).
6. Pittsburgh Steelers: Just about everybody in the NFL talks about how the Steelers are aging. They talked about it in 2008 when the Steelers won their sixth Super Bowl title. OK, the Steelers are old and, in particular, end Aaron Smith(notes) is recovering from another injury. But if Smith is healthy and nose tackle Casey Hampton(notes) can max out the run downs he plays, the depth should be good enough to make the 3-4 system work just fine for another year. More progress from second-year man Ziggy Hood(notes) is a must and the Steelers better start drafting some guys.
7. Chicago Bears: OK, a lot of this is dependent upon Julius Peppers(notes) being, well, Julius Peppers – the guy who can be the best defensive end in the league when he chooses. It's also dependent upon Tommie Harris(notes) being the dominant Tommie Harris he has been before being limited because of injuries and losing his edge mentally. If those things happen, everybody else gets better, particularly end Mark Anderson(notes). The depth is highly questionable, but if you have two stars stirring the drink, you have a serious chance to be good.
8. New Orleans Saints: The Saints don't have one defensive lineman who makes you say "wow," but they have a lot of very good players, such as end Will Smith(notes), tackle Sedrick Ellis(notes) and versatile backup Anthony Hargrove(notes). The group is diverse enough that defensive coordinator Gregg Williams felt comfortable using a lot of 3-4 looks in the Super Bowl. Former Bears end Alex Brown(notes) joins the defending champs this season, replacing Bobby McCray(notes), and should be a moderate upgrade.
9. Washington Redskins: You can pretty much guarantee the Redskins will move down in the rankings between now and the start of the season because there's about as much chance of tackle Albert Haynesworth(notes) opening the season in Washington as BP exec Tony Hayward has of taking up residency in Louisiana. That's a pretty sad fact because if Haynesworth would get on board and coach Mike Shanahan would get over this idea of having Haynesworth play nose tackle, the Redskins line could be pretty good. Really, though, the Redskins would be better off scrapping the 3-4 altogether and playing 4-3. That's their strength given their personnel and that would allow Haynesworth to line up next to Maake Kemoeatu(notes) in what would be a fearsome tackle combo. The addition of versatile Vonnie Holliday(notes) was a nice move, too.
10. New England Patriots: There's a lot of concern with the Patriots management that Vince Wilfork is going to bloat now that he has gotten paid. That would be sad because Wilfork is the best nose man Bill Belichick has ever coached. Wilfork could end up in the Hall of Fame if he works at it. More important, the Patriots desperately need him to lead a line that is in serious decline. In addition to the trade of Richard Seymour(notes) last year, former top-shelf backup Jarvis Green(notes) is gone, leaving an aging Ty Warren(notes) as the only other accomplished lineman. Mike Wright and Damione Lewis(notes) provide backup and second-year man Ron Brace(notes) better make up for a poor rookie season.
11. Houston Texans: When you start with end Mario Williams(notes), you have a leg up on just about everybody in the league. In fact, the Texans' line got into the top half of the league almost on Williams alone. In short, he is a monster, both in terms of holding up at the point of attack and getting to the passer. He is proof of why the Texans were right on the money in passing on running back Reggie Bush(notes) with the No. 1 pick in the 2006 draft. Now, some other guys have to start playing on a consistent level, starting with fellow end Antonio Smith and tackle Amobi Okoye(notes).
12. Cincinnati Bengals: Perhaps no team in the league has collected more diamonds in the rough than Cincy, nabbing Michael Johnson last year and Carlos Dunlap(notes) this year. Those guys are good enough to force themselves into the lineup quickly, yet also so lacking in work ethic that they could end up out of the league in two years. As for the regulars, Domata Peko(notes) is the best interior lineman you've never heard about, Tank Johnson(notes) has his life together and end Robert Geathers(notes) is just talented enough to be dangerous. Perhaps most important, the Bengals get back end Antwan Odom(notes), who had eight sacks before suffering a season-ending injury in Week 6 last season.
13. Philadelphia Eagles: Welcome to the Eastern version of the Bengals line, although it's very likely the Eagles could leapfrog the Cincy bunch and other teams this season. The Eagles have a bunch of lunch-pail guys who don't seem like much when you look at them individually. End Trent Cole(notes), who is the best of the bunch, is undersized and seemingly not explosive. Tackles Brodrick Bunkley(notes) and Mike Patterson(notes) aren't overwhelming. The combo of Darryl Tapp(notes) and Juqua Parker(notes) on the other side doesn't make the toes tingle with excitement. But when you put them altogether, they're really a pretty good group. No stars, but nobody you can sleep on either.
14. Atlanta Falcons: End John Abraham(notes) is not quite what he used to be, but he's still a great speed rusher off the edge. The problem is that the Falcons don't have enough interior help to get Abraham into more pass-rush situations. That was particularly true after they lost rookie tackle Peria Jerry(notes) last year to injury. If Jerry returns, he makes everybody better, even end Jamaal Anderson(notes), a guy who is keeping his head just barely above water. Barely!
15. New York Jets : Give the Jets a lot of credit last year for surviving the loss of nose tackle Kris Jenkins(notes), who is right behind the likes of Jay Ratliff and Vince Wilfork. Backup Sione Pouha(notes) was very impressive in subbing for Jenkings. Also, give end Shaun Ellis(notes) a lot of credit for succeeding in the 3-4 the past four years despite really being more of a 4-3 player. Ellis has great functional strength for his size, allowing him to play inside more. The problem with this line is that there's not very much depth and end Vernon Gholston(notes) has been a disaster. As great of a job as former coach Eric Mangini did in picking cornerback Darrelle Revis(notes), he did exactly the opposite when he pushed for 2008 first-rounder Gholston, a player who simply doesn't like football that much.
16. Detroit Lions: Yeah, yeah, I can hear it now: Some readers will think this is nothing more than a serious man-crush on No. 2 overall draft pick Ndamukong Suh(notes) and that Detroit shouldn't be ranked higher than 35th in a 32-team league (Alabama, Florida and USC might have better defensive lines, they would argue). Well, mock me while you can, but the Lions not only got a great player in Suh, but the additions of end Kyle Vanden Bosch(notes) and tackle Corey Williams(notes) make them a real line for the first time in years.
17. Arizona Cardinals: The Cardinals are aiming to play a 3-4 this season, which is probably wise after the departure of veteran Bertrand Berry(notes), who wasn't great, but was suited for a 4-3. The problem is that end Calais Campbell(notes), who made huge strides last season on his way to 7 sacks, and tackle Darnell Dockett(notes) are really better suited for a 4-3 scheme. That said, first-round pick Dan Williams(notes) seems best-suited for the nose spot at 6-foot-2, 325 pounds (not to mention some really short arms for a defensive lineman). At least the Cardinals have some interior depth with Gabe Watson(notes) and Alan Branch(notes).
18. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: OK, I have to admit right from the start that the Bucs don't have an end who is worth mentioning (they have placeholders in Tim Crowder(notes) and Stylez G White(notes)), but you have to love what the Bucs did with their first two picks in the draft, taking tackle Gerald McCoy(notes) and then following up with Brian Price(notes). McCoy may have a Warren Sapp(notes)-like impact in that he could make those around him much better, making it easier to find good ends.
19. San Francisco 49ers: The 49ers like to sell people on the greatness of Aubrayo Franklin(notes). Nice player, but more along the lines of Cincy's Domata Peko, a tough, hard-working sort. That leaves ends Isaac Sopoaga(notes) and Justin Smith(notes), who are both solid. Smith is terribly overpaid, but that's the nature of free agency in the NFL.
20. Green Bay Packers: Over the past four years, Green Bay has become the home of defensive linemen with unrealized potential. Cullen Jenkins(notes) never seems to stay healthy. Johnny Jolly(notes) never seems to stay out of trouble. B.J. Raji(notes) wasn't consistent as a rookie in '09. Justin Harrell(notes) just never seems. Bottom line, it's pretty damning when journeyman Ryan Pickett(notes) is the most consistent guy on the depth chart. In fairness, there's still plenty of time for Raji. But barring a stunning shift, the rest of the guys are what they are.
21. Kansas City Chiefs: OK, there's still plenty of growth potential here with Tyson Jackson(notes) and Alex Magee(notes) leading the way. In addition, it's hard to judge defensive players properly when they so rarely are in games where the opposing offense has to take any risk. That's because the Chiefs offense was just God-awful last year. However, when the combination of Jackson, Magee, former No. 5 overall pick Glenn Dorsey(notes) and solid veteran Ron Edwards(notes) combine to get all of three sacks, that's just not good. Even in 3-4 scheme, it's just not good.
22. Jacksonville Jaguars: Coach Jack Del Rio finally accomplished what seemed to be a three-year goal of shedding his locker room of tackles Marcus Stroud(notes) and now John Henderson(notes). Once upon a time, those guys made up a wall of humanity that was the foundation of the Jaguars defense. Unfortunately, they disintegrated faster than Purell and the Jags are now trying to rebuild with the likes of end Derrick Harvey(notes) and rookie tackle Tyson Alualu(notes). This is just a guess, but Harvey would probably be best-suited in a 3-4 defense, where his lack of explosiveness in the pass rush wouldn't be so obvious. Too bad the Jags are purely a 4-3 team.
23. Denver Broncos: OK, if you told me a team had Justin Bannan(notes), aging Jamal Williams(notes) and Jarvis Green on its roster as backups, I'd say that team has the makings of something really good. When you tell me that's a team's starting line entering training camp, I would say the fan base should be concerned. Extremely concerned. Perhaps Williams can stay healthy for a year and regain some of his Pro Bowl form, but that's a big if. At least the bench includes Ronald Fields(notes) and Marcus Thomas.
24. Oakland Raiders: In two years since signing a then-record, seven-year, $50.5 million contract, tackle Tommy Kelly(notes) has produced all of 5½ sacks, including only one last season. Yeah, one, in a full 16-game season. Kelly returns and the Raiders are going to experiment with Richard Seymour at left end, hoping he can channel a little Reggie White. Don't expect that to last. By the middle of training camp, look for Seymour to seek a return to the inside, where he can take advantage of mismatches against shorter guards and not have to deal with big-bodied offensive tackles. After Kelly and Seymour, the dropoff for the Raiders is steep, featuring flotsam like Desmond Bryant(notes), Matt Shaughnessy(notes) and Quentin Groves(notes).
25. St. Louis Rams: Poor Chris Long(notes). In two years, the end has nine sacks, which many people would see as disappointing. When you play for the Rams these days, those nine are the rough equivalent of 25 for and end on a decent team. OK, that's overstatement, but it's certainly fair to say that Long has rarely had a chance to simply pin his ears back and go. The addition of tackle Fred Robbins(notes) will help, but the Rams are still a ways away from giving Long a chance to prove that he's probably a better player than his dad.
26. Miami Dolphins: It's three years into the Bill Parcells Project and the best the Dolphins have to show along the defensive line is Randy Starks(notes), Phillip Merling(notes), rookie Jared Odrick(notes) and reserve Kendall Langford(notes). There's not one serious or potential playmaker in the bunch. Thus, even by 3-4 standards, this is the ultimate collection of plugger types.
27. Buffalo Bills: The Bills are switching to a 3-4, which is interesting since former 4-3 ends Chris Kelsay(notes) and Aaron Schobel(notes) (who is considering retirement) are now shifting to linebacker (good luck in pass coverage boys). The Bills are hoping to milk a decent season out of Stroud and are praying that Kyle Williams and Dwan Edwards(notes) can be something more than pluggers. The good news here is that head coach Chan Gailey is a very religious man, so the prayers might have a better chance to be heard.
28. San Diego Chargers: It was only two years ago that the Chargers had a 3-4 line featuring Pro Bowler Jamal Williams to go with rugged ends Igor Olshansky and Luis Castillo(notes). These days, only Castillo remains and that's troubling. He's decent, but hardly a guy you build around. The rest of the group includes Jacques Cesaire(notes), Ogemdi Nwagbuo(notes) and Ryon Bingham(notes). Not exactly fearsome.
29. Cleveland Browns: I remember getting ripped a couple of years ago when I had the gumption to say that Browns nose tackle Shaun Rogers(notes) wasn't all that good. Talented? No question. But really good? Not really. Rogers only plays hard about half the time and suffered season-ending injuries to his lower left leg and ankle last year. He is sort of like the latest version of Sam Adams(notes), a guy who could be dominant when he felt like it, but usually didn't feel like it. The group includes Robaire Smith(notes), Kenyon Coleman(notes) and reserve C.J. Mosley(notes).
30. Tennessee Titans: While many people like to dismiss Albert Haynesworth and his impact because they don't like him personally, it's worth noting that the sack total for the Titans' starting defensive line dropped from 39½ in 2008 to 24 last season. The run defense wasn't so hot either. Now, the Titans have lost Kyle Vanden Bosch, their most accomplished pass rusher. No wonder the Titans, who are hoping Derrick Morgan(notes) comes through and are hoping Washington will let go of Haynesworth.
31. Seattle Seahawks: Pete "Mr. Optimism" Carroll is hoping that third-year end Lawrence Jackson(notes), one of his former pupils at USC, can make a jump this season after posting 4½ sacks last season. Jackson better improve or the decision to push Patrick Kerney(notes) to retirement isn't going to look good. The rest of the group is mediocre, at best, featuring Brandon Mebane(notes), Colin Cole(notes) and Craig Terrill(notes).
32. Carolina Panthers: How the mighty have fallen. A few years ago, the Panthers had a brutally tough line featuring Julius Peppers and Kris Jenkins. No, they have try-hard guy Tyler Brayton(notes) to go with a bunch of JAGs (Just A Guy) like Nick Hayden(notes), Louis Leonard(notes) and Everette Brown(notes). Rookie Greg Hardy(notes) has potential, but he needs to get his head on straight.
- Gregg Williams