Making the Grade: 3-4 Defensive Linemen, 2008-2010

| July 8, 2011

After taking a look at those defensive linemen who have predominantly played in a 4-3 the past three years, we’re going to shift our focus to the oft-forgotten 3-4 defensive linemen. Outside of a few names, they get overlooked because of defensive schemes that accentuate the prolific pass rushers playing with their hand off the ground, but today they have the spotlight to themselves.

That’s right, we’re going to look at the Top 5 3-4 defensive ends and the Top 5 nose tackles since 2008 to give these guys their due.

Someone had to, right?

3-4 Defensive Ends

1. Justin Smith, San Francisco 49ers

If you’ve been reading Pro Football Focus the past three years this probably won’t come as much of a shock to you. An every-down nuisance, it doesn’t matter if you run the ball or throw it, Smith is going to have an impact on the play. Had a great year in 2008 as the 49ers switched back and forth between 3-4 and 4-3, but thrived when they moved full time to a 3-4. Simply in a class of his own, there isn’t another player in the league so dominant in comparison to his position peers.

Grade:  +106.10

2. Randy Starks, Miami Dolphins

If we’re going to be completely honest, 2010 wasn’t the best year for Starks. Whether it was the aborted move to nose tackle or just one of those seasons, he never quite hit the heights of years gone by (especially his superb 2009). He still wreaked plenty of havoc with 31 quarterback disruptions so it’s certainly no slight, but when you can be as good in every phase of the game as he was back in ’09, you want to see more of it.

Grade:  +50.80

3. Cullen Jenkins, Green Bay Packers

When free agency opens, someone will do well to get Jenkins in for a visit and not to let him leave before he signs a contract. He may not be the best run defender in the world (though it doesn’t help playing with a club on your hand), but he’s a fearsome pass rusher and coped with a change in defensive scheme with ease. Was so good in a 4-3 that he could be a target for any number of teams.

Grade:  +49.93

4. Kendall Langford, Miami Dolphins

Another Dolphin who has quietly become better each season since entering the league. Solid as a rookie, Langford’s performance got more and more encouraging throughout 2009. That led into an excellent 2010 where he finished the year our No. 5 ranked 3-4 end, impressing almost as much for the run defense that doesn’t show up on the stat sheet as for his pass rushing. Steadily improving; what does 2011 have in store?

Grade:  +36.55

5. Calais Campbell, Arizona Cardinals

It may surprise some that this is the Cardinal who makes the list. Certainly not as flashy as his partner in crime, Darnell Dockett, Campbell has really come to the forefront since a breakout 2009 season. A more consistent pass rusher than Dockett (he has more pressures on fewer snaps), Campbell will be looking to improve on a patchy 2010.

Grade:  +31.10

Nose Tackles

1. Jay Ratliff, Dallas Cowboys

It’s a weird thing to write when you’re calling someone the best player at their position over the past three years, but Ratliff may be a little overrated. Certainly, the last two years haven’t brought with them the kind of dominance he displayed in 2008, but the praise aimed his way has increased. To be diplomatic, maybe we can put that down to his ’08 being criminally underrated. In any case, has it in him to be one of the most explosive defensive tackles in the league, even if it can sometimes be used against him.

Grade:  +42.35

2. Vince Wilfork, New England Patriots

A smidgen of controversy here. As a pure nose tackle built to shut down a team’s running game, Wilfork is unquestionable a better player than Ratliff. But, the Cowboy has more versatility to his game and can get at the quarterback, something Wilfork has never been particularly consistent at. You can excuse that, though, when you’re as stout and disruptive in run defense as Wilfork. His yearly meetings with Nick Mangold are some of the most anticipated trench battles of the year.

Grade:  +41.68

3.  Sione Pouha, New York Jets

So the Jets lose Kris Jenkins and what happens? A beast of a man steps up and proceeds to swallow up anything that comes his way. Pouha is never going to get confused with the man just one spot below him, but you simply can’t move the big Jet out of the way. Of all the players on the Jets defense, Pouha (and Mike DeVito) are the most under appreciated by observers, but you need only zero in on them in detail to see how valuable they are to Rex Ryan.

Grade:  +41.28

4.  Shaun Rogers, Cleveland Browns

The shame for Rogers is a new coach came in and wanted to run with a more traditional nose tackle. Thus, a player who likes to get up field and disrupt plays with a freaky blend of speed and power was limited to a situational role and kind of wasted. Now he excelled in that the past two years, but we simply didn’t get to see enough of Rogers, otherwise it’s a very strong possibility he would been even higher on this list.

Grade:  +39.03

5.  Aubrayo Franklin, San Francisco 49ers

If this was just about what a player offers his team in run defense, Franklin may have been top of the pile such is his impact on that area of the game. It’s why some team will pay him a lot of money to shore up their defensive interior, and rightly so. He’s exceptional at it. But, you have to remember he does spend a number of snaps rushing the passer, and for a number of those snaps he may as well not be on the field. Still, if a team is going to try to run on you, you want Franklin on the nose.

Grade: +30.48

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