We kicked off a stroll through our three-year grades last week with the quarterbacks and running backs. This week we’re changing things up a little and jumping to the other side of the ball to have a look at some defenders.
We’re going to be focusing purely on those who played predominantly as defensive ends in 4-3 alignments to get the week started, and it isn’t just going to be about fearsome pass rushers – we’re opting instead to reward the more complete defensive ends.
Setting the qualifying bar, we took the five players that had played the most snaps in the past three years, averaged that number and allowed in anyone with at least two-thirds as many. Simple enough. The cut-off point was 1,835 snaps for those keeping count.
Just to give a bit of added meaning to things, we’ve weighted the gradings so that the coverage grade is worth three quarters that of the pass rushing, run defense and penalties grades.
Let’s get to the list!
1. Trent Cole, Philadelphia Eagles
In the last three years, Cole has finished fifth (2008), third (2009) and first (2010) in our overall 4-3 DE rankings, so maybe the Eagles defensive end has a point when he talks about how criminally underrated he is. He gets credit for his pass rushing, but, interestingly, he may be stronger in run defense – where he has finished with our highest grade in each of the past two years. That’s certainly not a slight to his pass rushing ability in that time, where only three defenders have accumulated more total quarterback disruptions.
2. Dwight Freeney, Indianapolis Colts
By some distance, Freeney was the top-ranked pure pass rusher, which will come to the surprise of nobody who has watched him feast on tackles with a relentless appetite. He may always be somewhat of a liability in run defense, but when you can finish in the top two (and first twice) in our pass rusher rankings, you can look past that. Amazingly consistent.
3. John Abraham, Atlanta Falcons
Maybe it was the 2009 where Abraham’s sack count fell off dramatically, but you get the sense Abraham is a little undervalued by some despite what he brings to the table. If you saw our Pass Rushing Productivity article that applied numbers from the last three years, you’ll see no-one has been more consistent at generating pressure. What’s more, for all the talk, he’s really not that bad a run defender. He’s not great by any stretch, but he’s not the type who sells out to get to the pass rusher at all cost. Cagy veteran who poses immense problems for offenses.
4. Terrell Suggs, Baltimore Ravens
If you had a criticism about Suggs, and it really sticks out given the names around him, he hasn’t always got as much pressure as his reputation would suggest. Now this year he certainly turned that around with some virtuoso performances after a slowish start to the season (from Week 7 through the playoffs he had nine games with five or more pressures). But even accounting for weaker pass-rushing years in 2008 and 2009, he’s always been one of the most active defensive ends in run defense – finishing in the Top 3 of our rankings every year, and twice he has led defensive ends in defensive stops. He’s a great player but not always for the reason many assume.
5. Julius Peppers, Chicago Bears
It’s hard to explain what seems to have happened to Julius Peppers. He has always been a very good pass rusher, but in his last two years at Carolina he just wasn’t making the equivalent kind of plays in run defense. He moves to Chicago and wham-o! With extra fire in his belly to prove those who doubted, he showed up on every play. Peppers was a real force and justified a contract that had so many zero’s on it, it was going to take something special to justify. The Bears really seem to have found out how to get the best out of him.
6. Justin Tuck, New York Giants
Tuck is another player who doesn’t fall into the elite pass rusher category, but he’s more than good enough at that, and so complete that he was always going to finish high up this list, despite bettling a shoulder injury that you’d expect would have impacted him more. Where Tuck has really excelled is in run defense, showing a non-stop motor on every play and finishing with our third highest grade in this respect. The Giants have a number of defensive ends who can get to the quarterback, but only one who can do it all.
7. Jared Allen, Minnesota Vikings
Make no mistake about it, Allen slipped a little this year and racked stats against some weaker tackles (he got his 2010 back on track against Levi Brown). That shouldn’t take away from a tremendous period as a Viking where he has more than made good on the price paid for his services. Fair to say he’s never been the best against the run, it tells you something that we’ve never given him a run defense rating of more than +0.7.
8. Ray Edwards, Minnesota Vikings
It’s a bit of folly to say Edwards gets ignored by offensive co-ordinators, because if that were the case, the NFL would hold a ridiculous amount of foolish OC’s. As it is, Edwards just seems to get better and better, and it’s not hard to see why he feels the Vikings have got more from him, than he has from them. One of the two-way defenders on the list who brings pressure and steps up when teams try to run.
9. Robert Mathis, Indianapolis Colts
As one-dimensional as Dwight Freeney? Very possibly. Mathis isn’t the best when it comes to holding his own at the point of attack, but seems to know what his game is all about. Getting up field and terrorizing right tackles and anyone else brave enough to attempt to block him. Coming off a weaker season by his standards, there’s an understandable feeling that he benefits from the presence of Freeney. Perhaps, but then it’s not like Freeney doesn’t reap rewards playing across from him too.
10. Charles Johnson, Carolina Panthers
The only reason Charles Johnson isn’t higher up this list is that the opportunity to play hasn’t been there. If you read this piece, you’ll see just how good he has been whenever he has played – which begs the questions: why have the Panthers failed to get the most out of him until 2010? and, why didn’t they give him the franchise tag? He only led all defensive ends in stops and quarterback disruptions this year. Will be made a very rich man in free agency, and it’s because he’s more than a one season wonder.