Ranking AFC East defensive lines: Jets’ best group on top

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NEW YORK — Games are won and lost in the trenches. A dominant defensive line makes life easier for the rest of the unit.

Today we focus on the defensive line in the Daily News’ series on AFC East position group rankings.

Edge players are included because the Dolphins and Patriots both run a 3-4 multiple front scheme, with their outside linebackers usually close to the line of scrimmage.

In a traditional look, the defensive ends are in the 5-technique over the tackles and the nose tackles are a 0-technique over the center. The outside linebackers on either side are usually aligned in a 7-technique and the 6-technique (next to the defensive end).

The alignment varies throughout the game based on the defensive assignment called, but outside linebackers in a 3-4 are involved in stopping the run and rushing the passer.

These rankings are based on a combination of production from last year and their immediate outlook for the 2021 season.


1. Jets

This is Gang Green’s strongest group and it’s the best within the division.

They only ranked 21st and 20th in sacks and pressures, respectively, last year. But under Robert Saleh’s attacking 4-3 defense, this line will carry the unit.

They added horses in Carl Lawson, Sheldon Rankins and Vinny Curry to bolster a group that already had talent in Quinnen Williams, Folorunso Fatukasi, John Franklin-Myers and Bryce Huff.

In 2020, Lawson had only 5.5 sacks but 32 quarterback hits — second in the NFL behind the Steelers’ T.J Watt — and 64 pressures, sixth most.

The Jets believe that along with scheme and better surrounding talent Lawson should turn those pressures and hits into sacks, so a potential double-digit sack season could be imminent.

Williams had seven sacks in 13 games, which was sixth most for an interior lineman. Rankins has had various injuries over the last two years, but if he can return close to his 2018 form — when he finished with eight sacks and 12 tackles for loss — that would help the group reach its potential.

Fatukasi and Franklin-Myers also performed well last season.

Pro Football Focus rated Fatukasi 14th out of 126 interior defensive linemen with a grade of 80.1 and Franklin-Myers was 35th with a 71.5 grade; he also was 24th in the NFL in pressures with 51.

Their rush defense was good in 2020. They only allowed 112 yards per game, 12th in the NFL. Combine that with a new scheme and an improved pass rush, and this could be one of the best units in the NFL.

2. Patriots

The defense regressed in 2020 in every major defensive category and the main cause was a weak front seven.

They couldn’t stop the run or get after the quarterback. They allowed 131 yards rushing per game and only generated 24 sacks, 26th in the NFL in both categories. PFF rated the Patriots’ pass rush and run defense 22nd.

However, the run defense and the sack numbers should improve with an infusion of new talent.

The Patriots added Matthew Judon, a Pro Bowler with the Ravens the last two years, plus Kyle Van Noy (back after one year with the Dolphins) and nose tackle Davon Godchaux. Last season, Judon had six sacks with 39 total pressures and Van Noy had five sacks and 31 pressures.

They also signed former Jets defensive end Henry Anderson and took linemen Christian Barmore (Alabama) and Ronnie Perkins (Oklahoma) in the first three rounds of the draft.

They will be the main contributors along with outside linebacker Chase Winovich, defensive end Lawrence Guy and defensive end Deatrich Wise Jr.

Winovich performed well in 2020. He led the team in total pressures (47) with 33 hurries, six sacks and eight quarterback hits.

3. Dolphins

The Dolphins had 41 sacks last year, 10th in the NFL, but that can be a little misleading. They’re a blitz-heavy team — 40.8% of calls — and have premier cover corners in Xavien Howard and Byron Jones, which makes quarterbacks hold the ball longer.

The Dolphins will have to replace a couple of their productive players in the front seven. They traded outside linebacker Shaq Lawson to the Houston Texans and Van Noy joined the Patriots. Both were major contributors to the pass rush. They combined for 70 pressures.

They’re hoping to replace that production with No. 18 pick Jaelan Phillips and an increased role for outside linebacker Andrew Van Ginkel.

Van Ginkel only had 479 snaps (13th on the defense), but 19 total pressures with six sacks, three quarterback hits and a fumble recovery for a defensive touchdown. Some viewed Phillips, a Miami defensive end, as the best pass rusher in the draft. He’ll be at outside linebacker in the Dolphins defense.

Defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah is their No. 1 pass rusher. Ogbah led the team in sacks with 9.5 (11th in the NFL) and total pressures with 66 (5th).

The rest of the potential contributors will be John Jenkins, Zach Sieler, Raekwon Davis, Christian Wilkins and Adam Butler.

The talent could be there, but they have to figure out how to put it together.

4. Bills

The Bills defense regressed after a dominant 2019, going from fourth-ranked (309 yards per game) to 17th (362). One reason: Their defensive line wasn’t as strong. They finished with 38 sacks (15th in the NFL) and allowed 123 rushing yards per game, which was 20th. They were also ranked 20th in total pressures with 143.

A.J. Klein and Mario Addison tied for the lead the team sacks with five. Jerry Hughes had 66 total pressures with 4.5 sacks; Addison had 45 pressures. In the Bills’ 4-3 scheme, an outside linebacker like Klein is mostly in coverage — 307 snaps there compared to 85 rushing the passer.

The rest of the defensive line features Ed Oliver, Vernon Butler, Star Lotulelei, Vernon Butler, Efe Obada, Justin Zimmer and A.J. Epenesa.

They used their first and second round picks on the defensive line by adding Miami’s Gregory Rousseau and Wake Forest’s Carlos Basham Jr. The Bills clearly wanted to improve that unit; for them to reach their Super Bowl goal, they’ll need to be stronger up front.