Ranking the defensive fronts: The Triumphant 10

| September 7, 2010

Finishing our look at the defensive lines ahead of the 2010 season, Ben Stockwell takes us through the top 10, starting with the underrated Atlanta Falcons and going all the way up to … well, we can’t tell you just yet, but the answers are a mere click away.

Here’s a hint: Our top team rhymes with “Plowboys.”

10. Atlanta Falcons (Run defense No. 18, Pass rush No. 7)

The Falcons’ defense has been much maligned in the last two years as the offense has emerged with Matt Ryan. But on the defensive line, there is some real quality and the potential for even more in the coming seasons. John Abraham continues to be a threat as a pass-rusher off the edge (+15.9 grade in ’09) and Jonathan Babineaux stepped forward as one of the top defensive tackles in the league last season (+2.9 grade in ’08, +22.4 in ’09). The Falcons need to find the right players next to these two to fill out this unit. There is a crying need particularly at defensive tackle where the pressure is on 2009 first-round pick Peria Jerry to step up and fill the hole next to Babineaux.

Best player: Jonathan Babineaux

Separating Abraham and Babineaux as the best players on this unit is not an easy task, Abraham has the longer track record but Babineaux’s performance deserve some real credit. His pass rushing took a small step up from a solid 2008 (4 sacks, 11 hits, 20 pressures) to 2009 (7 sacks, 5 hits, 25 pressures), but it was his step forward in run defense that was most encouraging. From a sub-standard ’08 season (-5.2), Babineaux put in a strong ’09 season (+5.8) and the Falcons hope for more progress in 2010. Another strong season from Babineaux is key for Atlanta this year — a strong interior presence will help the likes of Abraham and Jerry on the Falcons’ D-line. Something to keep an eye on in 2010.

One to watch: Kroy Biermann

Former first-round pick Jamaal Anderson continues to disappoint as a pass-rusher and although his run defense is still solid, the Falcons will continue to look for someone to displace him. Biermann rose above the pack of depth defensive ends in ’09 with a strong all-around season (+12.5 overall, +6.0 run D, +4.1 pass rush), and it makes sense that Biermann should be given more snaps this year. Biermann played largely in sub packages last year (150 run-defense snaps, 339 pass-rush snaps), so it will be interesting to see how he fares this season if he is able to take snaps in the base defense.

9. Cleveland Browns (Run defense No. 6, Pass rush No. 16)

For all of their struggles all over the field the Browns put together a strong defensive front in the latter part of last season. They made some shrewd additions and saw young players emerge. The rise of Athyba Rubin creates both problems and opportunities for the Browns: With the return of Shaun Rogers (after injury and legal troubles), the Browns now find themselves in the luxurious position of being two-deep at nose tackle. This leave them able to utilize Rogers’ penetrating ability from either 3-4 defensive end or in more sub packages and to deploy Rubin’s stout presence against the run on early downs. Combined with the midseason acquisition of Matt Roth to provide a pass-rushing presence off the edge, the Browns’ defensive line at least is proof of progress in Cleveland.

Under pressure: Shaun Rogers

With the emergence of Rubin and Rogers’ interesting choice of offseason hand luggage, the starting nose tackle position is up for grabs in Cleveland. Will the Browns favor Rogers’ size and speed over the younger Rubin’s stout run defense? Rogers is the stronger pass-rusher (+13.2 grade, 2 sacks, 8 hits, 23 pressures) but with Rubin’s emergence as a run-defender, the Browns could shift Rogers to an end or merely utilize him in sub packages as they did to great effect with Corey Williams in ’09.

One to watch: Matt Roth

Roth was the odd man out in Miami last year and found himself cut loose from the Dolphins. Given a mulligan, would they have cut ties with Joey Porter instead? The play of rookie Koa Misi might be the answer to that question in the long term but Cleveland will be grateful in the short term. Roth was a revelation in his six starts for Cleveland both as a run-defender (+6.7) and a pass-rusher (+7.5, 5 sacks, 3 hits, 14 pressures), and Browns fans will hope for more of the same over a full season in 2010.

8. San Francisco 49ers (Run defense No. 11, Pass rush No. 8 )

Mike Nolan didn’t last long in San Francisco, but two of his signings on the defensive line have formed the foundation of an excellent unit. Aubrayo Franklin was a back up for Nolan in the latter’s time as Baltimore’s defensive coordinator and Justin Smith was an underperforming former first-round pick for division rival Cincinnati. Nolan brought both players to the Bay Area and they have formed the spine of a line strong in both run and pass games. Nolan may have had a disappointing tenure as 49ers head coach but his legacy is a strong defensive front.

Best player: Justin Smith

After an underwhelming start to his career in Cincinnati, Smith has flourished in a 3-4 scheme in San Francisco showing the ability to line up inside and outside and bring strong run and pass support from either spot. His pass rushing in ’09 in particular was astounding: 66 total pressures on 585 pass rushes, applying pressure once every 8.9 snaps. Only Dwight Freeney and DeMarcus Ware applied more total pressure (including playoffs) and on a per-snap basis his pressure is comparable to Jared Allen (once every 8.6 plays). Smith picked up his first Pro Bowl berth in 2009 and should be in line for All-Pro recognition if he repeats his 2009 performances this fall.

One to watch: Aubrayo Franklin

Franklin was never likely to see much playing time in Baltimore behind Kelly Gregg and Haloti Ngata and has profited from leaving Baltimore as few defenders have. In the last two seasons Franklin has provided strong and consistent run defense for the 49ers up the middle, registering only 10 below-average run defense games in 31 starts over that period, with only four of those starts being below -1.0. On any other 3-4 defense his work would be lauded as crucial, but with Patrick Willis and Justin Smith starring on the defense there are only so many column inches to go round.

7. New York Jets (Run defense No. 2, Pass rush No. 24)

The Rex Ryan blueprint seems to yield strong run-defending lines that lack something in base pass-rush packages; his exotic blitz schemes are there by design and necessity. The Jets missed Kris Jenkins‘ pass rush last year but Sione Pouha came in and outperformed Jenkins in run defense and, along with Mike DeVito, provided the Jets with a pair of unheralded run-defenders. Run defense should be fine again this year, but where will the pass rush come from? The Jets are trying to get Vernon Gholston involved somehow and they need more from Shaun Ellis as a pass-rusher than they got in ’09 (8 sacks but a -13.0 pass-rush grade).

Best player: Kris Jenkins

Even before Jenkins’ injury in Week 6 against the Bills, 2009 had been somewhat of a disappointment. With only two run defense performances to his usual standards (+1.8 versus Tennessee, +2.7 at Miami) and only 3 hits and 4 pressures, 2009 was not shaping up to hit the heights of 2008 (+14.3 overall grade). Jenkins’ first 11 games of 2008 show what he is capable of, and if he can rediscover that top form in 2010, it will help New York make its assault on the AFC East crown.

Under pressure: Vernon Gholston

As much as we have vented our frustration with Tyson Jackson‘s rookie season, at least he got on the field to show what he can do. Gholston has been an utter disappointment under two coaching staffs and has never looked remotely like he could the field on a regular basis. Gholston has reportedly seen another position change heading into 2010, which is surely his final chance to try to catch on with the Jets’ defense. The Jets are lacking pass rush, and it was his pass rushing for Ohio State that saw him drafted in the top 10 — if he can show it in practice he may see the field more. Can he take advantage of that playing time, should he earn it?

6. Philadelphia Eagles (Run defense No. 5, Pass rush No. 17)

Philadelphia is another team like Baltimore and the Jets that has a stout run defense but struggles to bring pressure with the line. Unlike the Ravens and Jets, the Eagles’ pass rush is largely a one-man band, with Trent Cole bringing an elite level of individual pass rush but the rest of the group not following his lead. Inside, Brodrick Bunkley provides strong run defense and the Eagles will hope for slightly more from Mike Patterson next to him, but there is next to no interior pressure forthcoming (28th-ranked interior pass rush). Jim Johnson-inspired blitz packages ensure the pressure gets there but the base pass rush is average. However, as long as these teams continue to make the playoffs, the lack of base pass rush may not be viewed as their most pressing need.

Best player: Trent Cole

Cole entered the league as a specialist pass-rusher but has developed into one of the best and most well-rounded defensive ends in the league. He brought balance and quality in both ’08 (+19.8 run D, 10 sacks, 16 hits, 40 pressures) and ’09 (+19.8 run D, 14 sacks, 21 hits, 34 pressures) but is rarely credited with being among the league’s best defensive ends. Individual accolades might soothe Cole’s ego, but Eagles’ fans would be far happier for him to continue to play like this under the radar than be given credit just as his production begins to dip.

One to watch: Darryl Tapp

Tapp arrives from Seattle with the talent to gain significant playing time at defensive end, but he also could be used in a hybrid role in sub packages. Juqua Parker disappointed in ’09 (+1.5 overall grade) after a strong 2008 season (+22.3 overall grade) and Victor Abiamiri failed to step up and take that playing time from him. Tapp’s run defense was stronger in ’09 (+11.7) than Parker’s in either ’09 (-6.2) or ’08 (+5.0) and it could be that Tapp is used in base packages, with Parker’s stronger pass rush brought in sub packages. Even with the departure of Chris Clemons, the Eagles have plenty of players to make use of, and finding the right balance will be key in 2010.

5. Washington Redskins (Run defense No. 14, Pass rush No. 4)

Shrewd, under-the-radar offseason acquisitions are not typical of your average Redskins offseason. But Mike Shanahan‘s first offseason was a break from tradition — whether it proves to be a positive break remains to be seen. Washington’s additions haven’t been without their risks: Two projected starters missed the entire 2009 season through injury and whether they rediscover their form in 2010 remains to be seen. In addition, the entire defense is switching from a 4-3 to 3-4. How they pick up the new scheme remains to be seen, but the talent and performances are there for the Redskins to have one of the best defensive fronts in the league in 2010.

Best player: Albert Haynesworth

Haynesworth finally passed his conditioning test and after a couple of preseason displays might finally be at ease with his role in the Redskins’ 3-4 defense. He’ll not be stuck over the nose, he’ll get to rush the passer and just generally dominate in similar alignments to those he’s used to in a 4-3 defense. Happy, Haynesworth? Justin Smith has shown what a penetrating lineman can do at defensive end in a 3-4 — the scheme may be different in Washington, but Haynesworth can still be an impact player.

One to watch: Ma’ake Kemoeatu

One year out for injury and the older Kemoeatu brother returns to the gridiron at a position he hasn’t played since his time in Baltimore. How he returns from injury will be the big question, but if he displays anything like the consistent quality of run defense he showed in Carolina in ’09 (+13.3 run D grade and only three negatively graded games in 15 starts) the Redskins will be well set up the middle.

4. Miami Dolphins (Run defense No. 8, Pass rush No. 6)

Year 2 for Tony Sparano in Miami brought more good performances but not the wins or the division title that was captured in his first year on South Beach. The defensive line continued to perform well and in 2010 the Dolphins will see a third starter at nose tackle in as many years, with Randy Starks kicking inside from defensive end. If he can replicate his outstanding form from defensive end the Dolphins will be well set with some promising performers and rookie Jared Odrick to add to the mix as well. At outside linebacker there are bigger questions to answer, with Cameron Wake stepping into a starting role and rookie Koa Misi potentially starting opposite him. We were shouting loudly for Wake to be given an expanded role last season as he was outperforming starter Joey Porter on fewer snaps. Now is the time for him to flourish and make a name for himself in a starting role.

Best player: Randy Starks

How Starks takes to playing nose tackle will be the factor in how this defense fares this year. Arriving in Miami from Tennessee, Starks has put in some strong performances at defensive end and the Dolphins will hope he can replicate his strong run defense from ’09 (+13.5) in the heart of the defense. If he can bring his pass-rush numbers (+8.3, 7 sacks, 10 hits, 15 pressures) to the position in a way similar to Jay Ratliff in Dallas, then the Dolphins will be just fine.

One to watch: Kendall Langford

Langford enters his third season with the Dolphins ready to breakout as one of the best 3-4 ends in the league. He ranked seventh in our list last season (+15.7 overall) and brought solid play both as a run-defender (+4.9) and pass-rusher (+7.6, 2 sacks, 4 hits, 15 pressures). With Starks now shifted inside to nose tackle and younger players like Odrick in the fold, the pressure now falls on Langford to be the consistent veteran presence at end. He had a midseason dip last year bracketed by a strong start and strong finish. If he can cut that dip out this year he should start to receive the plaudits that his play deserves.

3. Pittsburgh Steelers (Run defense No. 9, Pass rush No. 3)

The more things change, the more they stay the same. The Steelers continue to have one of the very best defensive fronts in the league, as has been the case for most of this decade. Aaron Smith returns from injury and the Steelers will hope Ziggy Hood can either push Smith to recover his pre-injury form or push past him on the depth chart. Out wide, the Steelers have arguably the best pair of 3-4 OLBs in the league with James Harrison (+24.3 overall) and LaMarr Woodley (+32.6 overall). With this pair, the issue is merely a maintenance of form as neither is lacking anything as a pass-rusher or run-defender. Casey Hampton is still stout over the nose, and the challenge for this unit is to be at its absolute best for the first four weeks while the Steelers play without Ben Roethlisberger. If this defensive front can help the Steelers stay competitive until his return, all bets are off for the Steelers on the run in.

Best player: James Harrison

I’ve attempted to focus on defensive linemen in these segments, but with Hampton now stout rather than dominant over the nose, it is difficult to ignore Harrison as the best player on this unit. He registered more than 1,000 snaps in the regular season last year and although he didn’t quite match his 2008 season (+24.3 overall in ’09, compared to +35.8 in ’08) Steelers fans were hardly short-changed. With Harrison beating blocks for pressure once every 8.94 snaps in 2009 and Woodley matching that output on the other side, it’s reasonable to expect another strong season from Harrison in 2010.

One to watch: Evander ‘Ziggy’ Hood

Even with the injury to Smith last year, Hood was not thrust into the lineup in his rookie season, registering only 225 snaps in 15 games. That was fewer than Smith registered in five games (250), Nick Eason registered in eight games (291) and Travis Kirschke registered in 12 games (420). Clearly the Steelers’ plan is to bring Hood along slowly. They also expect him to show the ability to replace the Steelers’ aging 3-4 ends, should their form begin to dip. With Kirschke no longer on the roster, Hood should be stepping forward to claim more playing time in 2010.

2. Minnesota Vikings (Run defense No. 3, Pass rush No. 1)

The top pass-rushing team in our rankings and also the highest-ranked (and most balanced) 4-3 defense to boot. The Vikings have quality across the board with their starters and in spite of having some impressive depth, they don’t make full use of it. Of the nine defensive linemen who saw snaps in 2009, only Letroy Guion (-1.7 overall on 90 snaps) and Jayme Mitchell (-2.1 overall on 64 snaps) had below-average seasons. The Vikings rotate their players less frequently than every other team in the league, but when you’ve got starters like Jared Allen (+24.3 pass rush), Kevin Williams (+24.1 overall), Ray Edwards (+24.4 overall) and Pat Williams (+18.0 run D), there’s no real need to use your backups.

Best player: Kevin Williams

Allen most frequently takes the plaudits as being the best player on this line, but Williams is the keystone. He is equally destructive as a run-defender (+9.2) and pass-rusher (+17.9, 5 sacks, 11 hits, 29 pressures) and makes this unit tick. Williams is extremely consistent as well, posting only three games (at Detroit, versus Chicago, at Arizona) with an overall grade of -0.5 or below last season. Putting together this sort of form along with playing such a high snap count (871 in the regular season, most among defensive tackles) is truly outstanding. Vikings fans should be looking forwards to more of the same in 2010.

One to watch: Brian Robison

Robison is both blessed and blighted by playing on the Vikings’ defensive line. Blessed in that when he gets on the field he gets to play alongside some of the best linemen in the league, blighted by the fact that those linemen are so good and so durable that he doesn’t get to see much of the field. Robison is used almost exclusively in sub packages (211 of his 262 snaps on passing plays) and made an impressive impact on those downs (5 sacks, 7 hits, 15 pressures). Opportunities appear limited in base packages, but with Edwards’ long-term contract situation up in the air Robison may finally see some opportunities to prove his worth beyond specialist pass-rusher status.

1. Dallas Cowboys (Run defense No. 1, Pass rush No. 2)

To have this much quality and balance along the line is truly impressive. Our Pass-rusher Profile of DeMarcus Ware showed the balance he had in his individual game and that extends to the unit as a whole, with top quality starters in places and role players aiding the weakest area at 3-4 DE. When the weak point of the unit is rotating average players like Marcus Spears, Jason Hatcher and Stephen Bowen to get them into situations where they can best contribute, you know you’re well set. The Cowboys have a pair of outside linebackers who are spectacular both in run and pass defense and one of the most disruptive nose tackles in the league. Four of the top five defensive fronts in football are 3-4 defenses and although that may show a slight flaw in the methodology of this study, it’s tough to say that the Cowboys aren’t worth this ranking.

Best player: Jay Ratliff

There is a new breed of nose tackles in the NFL. No longer do 3-4 NTs have to occupy two gaps, and players like Ratliff are taking advantage of the chance to play one-gap responsibilities in the middle. Ratliff’s pass rushing took a step back from ’08 (+13.9, 8 sacks, 8 hits, 23 pressures) to ’09 (0.0,  7 sacks, 7 hits, 16 pressures), but his run defense was stronger (+10.5 in ’08, +13.2 in ’09). Even though Ware takes the headlines on the outside (rightly so), Ratliff is every bit as valuable to this defense.

Under pressure: Marcus Spears

Spears is an average player starting on a unit brimming with top-quality players, and unless he can put together stronger and more consistent performances in both the run and pass games, the Cowboys may look to replace him with role players. Bowen is a stronger run-defender (+2.8 compared to Spears’ -2.5 in ’09) and Hatcher is a more adept pass-rusher (+7.3 compared to +2.5), so the Cowboys have what they need to replace Spears in rotation. Hatcher and Bowen played far more snaps in pass rush than run defense, so it will be interesting to see whether the Cowboys start to move these two into a rotation in the base defense and begin moving Spears out of the lineup.

So that’s it. All 32 teams, ranked from bottom to top (click here for the bottom third of our rankings and here for the middling squads). Will the lines pan out as we’ve predicted? We’re soon to find out.

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