Ranking all 32 NFL defensive front-sevens
Director of Analysis Ben Stockwell ranks the league's defensive front-sevens from top to bottom, with the Broncos reigning supreme.
Ranking all 32 NFL defensive front-sevens
Continuing our season preview of NFL positional units, we now examine every teams’ defensive front-seven, ranking them from best to worst. In a sub-package league, the construction of a front-seven is a fluid thing, rather than a static one, with some sub-package players featuring more than starters. To this end, these rankings were constructed by looking at the entirety of the front-seven and how much each player will contribute, rather than a look at just the starters.
Each team we check in with has the starters in base packages (listed as the “Projected starters”) alongside a select group of players who are likely to be key contributors in a rotation, sub-package, or as competition in training camp for some incumbent starters.
With those qualifiers in mind, here are the NFL’s defensive front-sevens, ranked 1–32, entering the 2016 season.
[More: To see a ranking of all 32 NFL quarterback situations entering the 2016 season, click here.]
1. Denver Broncos
Projected starters: DE Vance Walker, NT Sylvester Williams, DE Derek Wolfe; OLB Von Miller, OLB DeMarcus Ware; ILB Brandon Marshall, ILB Todd Davis
Other names to know: DE Jared Crick, DE Adam Gotsis; OLB Shaquil Barrett, OLB Shane Ray
Key stat: Denver recorded pressure on 48.9 percent of passing plays in their sub defense, the best mark in the NFL in 2015.
The reigning Super Bowl champions clinched the Lombardi Trophy with suffocating defense, and despite the loss of Malik Jackson (Jaguars) and Danny Trevathan (Bears), the Broncos still boast a powerful defensive front. Denver is led by a four-strong pack of pass-rushers, but defensive linemen like Walker, Wolfe, and Williams can both eat space to give their edge rushers room and capitalize when teams overcompensate to counter the threat of Miller, Ware, and company. Replacing Trevathan next to Brandon Marshall is the biggest challenge facing this defense.
2. Seattle Seahawks
Projected starters: DT Jordan Hill, DT Ahtyba Rubin; DE Michael Bennett, DE Cliff Avril; LB K.J. Wright, MLB Bobby Wagner, LB Michael Morgan
Other names to know: DT Jarran Reed, DT Sealver Siliga; DE Frank Clark, DE Chris Clemons; LB Kevin Pierre-Louis
Key stat: Seattle allowed only one breakaway run (15+ yards) in base defense, best in the NFL in 2015.
The Seahawks’ defensive front isn’t quite as strong as it was at its peak, but the combination of a terrifying edge-rush duo and linebackers that can cover still makes it a formidable front. Bennett and Avril are a devastating threat next to each other—or opposite one other—while Wright and Wagner are a match for most nickel-linebacker pairings in the league. Rookie Jarran Reed could revitalize an interior run defense that isn’t as fearsome as it was a couple of years ago.
3. Carolina Panthers
Projected starters: DT Kawann Short, DT Star Lotulelei; DE Kony Ealy, DE Charles Johnson; LB Thomas Davis, MLB Luke Kuechly, LB Shaq Thompson
Other names to know: DT Paul Soliai, DT Vernon Butler; DE Mario Addison, DE Wes Horton, DE Ryan Delaire; LB A.J. Klein
Key stat: Carolina stopped 34.0 percent of runs for no gain or a loss in base defense last season, an NFL-best.
Last year’s NFC champions are led by a linebacker corps that is the spine and the beating heart of their defense. Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis formed the league’s benchmark coverage-linebacker pairing, and Kuechly produced a better all-around season than the one that saw him claim the AP’s Defensive Player of the Year award in 2013. Kawann Short is the new star of a defensive line that needs Kony Ealy to build on his productive Super Bowl showing if the Panthers aren’t to be overly reliant on the former for pass-rush production.
4. Los Angeles Rams
Projected starters: DT Aaron Donald, DT Michael Brockers; DE William Hayes, DE Robert Quinn; LB Mark Barron, MLB Alec Ogletree, LB Akeem Ayers
Other names to know: DT Dominique Easley, DT Cam Thomas; DE Quinton Coples, DE Eugene Sims
Key stat: The Rams recorded a stop on 63.0 percent of run plays in their base defense last year, third-best in the league.
The Rams front seven is a tale of two position groups really, but the quality of their defensive line still pulls them near the top of these rankings. Their defensive line is stacked with Aaron Donald the star of the starting crew and bringing Dominique Easley off the bench will give the Rams quality depth at defensive tackle for a second year in a row. If Robert Quinn can reproduce his 2013 form then this defensive line would boast two of the best players in the entire NFL. The intrigue at linebacker is how Alec Ogletree will fare having finally made the switch to middle linebacker to replace the departed James Laurinaitis.
5. Oakland Raiders
Projected starters: DE Mario Edwards Jr, NT Dan Williams, DE Denico Autry; OLB Khalil Mack, OLB Bruce Irvin; ILB Malcolm Smith, ILB Ben Heeney
Other names to know: NT Justin Ellis, DE Jihad Ward; OLB Aldon Smith, OLB Damontre Moore, OLB Shilique Calhoun
Key stat: Khalil Mack accounted for 28% of pressures by the Raiders front seven in 2015.
In terms of seamless quality and versatility, there may not be a better defensive front in football right now than the Raiders. Khalil Mack provides Oakland with an undeniable star, but the likes of Dan Williams, Mario Edwards Jr., and Bruce Irvin give this front all-around quality and moveable pieces that can produce from a variety of alignments. The play of the Raiders’ off-ball linebackers could be what holds this front—and the defense as a whole—back in 2016.
6. Minnesota Vikings
Projected starters: DT Linval Joseph, DT Sharrif Floyd; DE Everson Griffen, DE Brian Robison; LB Anthony Barr, MLB Eric Kendricks, LB Chad Greenway
Other names to know: DT Tom Johnson, DT Kenrick Ellis; DE Danielle Hunter; LB Emmanuel Lamur, LB Audie Cole
Key stat: Minnesota allowed no rushing TDs on designed runs in sub-packages last season.
The biggest question hanging over this defensive front is whether or not the Vikings can find a replacement for Chad Greenway to plug the only apparent hole in their base defense. Led by the likes of Linval Joseph, Everson Griffen, and Anthony Barr, the Vikings have quality in their starting crop, and typically don’t rotate their players just for the sake of it. Expect Danielle Hunter to see an increase in playing time after a solid rookie season if he can take his pass-rushing to the next level; his run defense is already at a higher level than incumbent starter Brian Robison.
7. Kansas City Chiefs
Projected starters: DE Allen Bailey, NT Dontari Poe, DE Jaye Howard; OLB Tamba Hali, OLB Justin Houston; ILB Derrick Johnson, ILB Josh Mauga
Other names to know: DE Chris Jones, DE Nicholas William; OLB Dee Ford, OLB Dadi Nicolas; ILB Ramik Wilson
Key stat: The Chiefs recorded pressure on 49.7 percent of third-down passing plays last season, the second-best rate in the league.
The Chiefs’ pressure production dropped, unsurprisingly, with Justin Houston out of the lineup last year, but at full health, this defense is a force to be reckoned with—though it does look a little lacking in depth compared to other teams. The defensive line is a force against the run, but is perhaps the most “old school” 3-4 D-line, offering very little in terms of a pass-rushing force. That makes Houston’s health crucially important; the duo of he and the ever-productive Tamba Hali opposite him accounted for nearly 40 percent of the Chiefs’ pass-rushing production last season.
8. Houston Texans
Projected starters: DE J.J. Watt, DE Jeoffrey Pagan, NT Vince Wilfork; OLB Whitney Mercilus, OLB Jadeveon Clowney; ILB Brian Cushing, ILB Benardrick McKinney
Other names to know: DE Christian Covington; OLB John Simon; ILB Akeem Dent, ILB Max Bullough
Key stat: The Texans recorded a sack on 11.7 percent of third-down passing plays, best in the NFL in 2015.
Any defensive front that boasts J.J. Watt is going to be up there in terms of a front-seven ranking, but supporting players started to raise their game around him last year. Whitney Mercilus must prove that 2015 wasn’t just a contract-year one-off, while Jadeveon Clowney needs to stay on the field to build upon his improved performance last season. Inside linebacker is an area to watch for the Texans, with Brian Cushing struggling to hit the heights of his 2009 and 2011 form since injury ravaged campaigns in 2012 and 2013. If Cushing can’t raise his game, the likes of McKinney and Bullough need to push for his playing time.
9. Chicago Bears
Projected starters: DE Jonathan Bullard, NT Eddie Goldman, DE Akiem Hicks; OLB Pernell McPhee, OLB Leonard Floyd; ILB Jerrell Freeman, ILB Danny Trevathan
Other names to know: DE Mitch Unrein, DE Will Sutton; OLB Willie Young, OLB Lamarr Houston, OLB Sam Acho; ILB Christian Jones
Key stat: Five of Chicago’s front-seven players recorded 25 pressures or more in 2015.
There have been few such radical and rapid overhauls of a unit as the Bears have undergone in the last 12 months on defense, with every starter in this defensive front a new face since the end of the 2014 season. The Bears trusted in the ability of Willie Young and Lamarr Houston to play with their hand off the ground, and were rewarded with an array of productive pass-rushers, led by free-agent signing Pernell McPhee, who more than lived up to his contract. This year, the investment went into off-the-ball linebackers, where Jerrell Freeman and Danny Trevathan offer an immediate upgrade. The top questions for the Bears to answer will be the depth on the defensive line and at linebacker—can the rotation match the quality of the starters?
10. New York Jets
Projected starters: DE Leonard Williams, NT Steve McLendon, DE Muhammad Wilkerson; OLB Lorenzo Mauldin, DE/OLB Sheldon Richardson; ILB David Harris, ILB Darron Lee
Other names to know: DE Jarvis Jenkins; OLB Jordan Jenkins; ILB Erin Henderson, ILB Bruce Carter
Key stat: The Jets allowed only one rushing touchdown in base defense–fewest in the NFL in 2015.
Though Sheldon Richardson will miss Week 1 for the second year in a row, the Jets still boast an embarrassment of riches up front on the defensive line. Richardson, Leonard Williams, and Muhammad Wilkerson power a defense whose biggest weakness is a lack of production off the edge, a hole that Lorenzo Mauldin and rookie Jordan Jenkins will be charged with plugging. At the second level, an upgrade on the departed Demario Davis next to David Harris could yet see this defense take a jump forwards in Todd Bowles’ second year at the helm.
11. New England Patriots
Projected starters: DT Malcom Brown, DT Terrance Knighton; DE Jabaal Sheard, DE Rob Ninkovich; LB Dont’a Hightower, MLB Jonathan Freeny, LB Jamie Collins
Other names to know: DT Alan Branch; DE Trey Flowers, DE Chris Long, DE Geneo Grissom; LB Shea McClellin, LB Ramon Humber
Key stat: New England recorded a sack on 11.5 percent of third-down passing plays last season, the third-best rate in the league.
The Patriots jettisoned two talented members of their defensive front this offseason, and yet still boast quality and—in places—depth. The acquisition of Terrance Knighton brings quality and bulk to the middle of the defense, protecting a terrific linebacker pairing of Hightower and Collins. Off the edge is where the Patriots boast their greatest defensive depth, with Jabaal Sheard such a revelation in year one that New England felt comfortable trading Chandler Jones (Arizona). An intriguing battle between veteran Chris Long and second-year players Geneo Grissom and Trey Flowers promises to provide quality depth behind Sheard and the ever-present Rob Ninkovich.
12. New York Giants
Projected starters: DT Damon Harrison, DT Johnathan Hankins; DE Jason Pierre-Paul, DE Olivier Vernon; LB J.T. Thomas, MLB Jasper Brinkley, LB Devon Kennard
Other names to know: DT Jay Bromley; DE Owamagbe Odighizuwa, DE Kerry Wynn; LB Keenan Robinson, LB Kelvin Sheppard, LB Jonathan Casillas, LB Mark Herzlich, LB B.J. Goodson
Key stat: The Giants recorded pressure on only 31.3 percent of passing plays in sub-packages, the second-lowest rate in the NFL in 2015.
The Giants’ defensive front was a weakness last year, but after some heavy investment (at least on the front half), it looks like one of the strengths of their current roster. Damon Harrison’s acquisition should provide dividends in the run game, but it’s Olivier Vernon’s acquisition on sub-packages that could have the biggest impact. Vernon’s 60 pressures were the fifth-most in nickel defenses last season, a mark the Giants only just doubled as an entire team. In spite of the investment up front, the Giants appear to have once again overlooked a linebacking corps that could again be the failing of their entire defense.
13. Detroit Lions
Projected starters: DT Haloti Ngata, DT Tyrunn Walker; DE Ezekiel Ansah, DE Devin Taylor; LB DeAndre Levy, MLB Josh Bynes, LB Tahir Whitehead
Other names to know: DT A’Shawn Robinson, DT Caraun Reid, DT Stefan Charles; DE Wallace Gilberry
Key stat: Detroit surrendered a league-low 3.51 yards per carry in sub-package defenses last year.
The Lions’ run defense was something of an oddity last season; as one of the league’s worst in their base defense, they led the league in yards per carry allowed with five or more defensive backs on the field. The return of a healthy DeAndre Levy should boost their base defense, though Haloti Ngata finding his form from his time in Baltimore would help in that regard, too. Pass-rush support for Ziggy Ansah was a clear weakness for the Lions last year, and that seems destined to repeat in 2016. Ansah accounted for a quarter of the Lions’ sack and total pressures last season, and the likes of Devin Taylor need to raise their game if Ansah isn’t to shoulder the load again.
14. Cincinnati Bengals
Projected starters: DT Geno Atkins, DT Domata Peko; DE Carlos Dunlap, DE Michael Johnson; LB Vontaze Burfict, MLB Rey Maualuga, LB Vincent Rey
Other names to know: DT Pat Sims, DT Andrew Billings, DT Brandon Thompson; DE Margus Hunt, DE Will Clarke; LB Karlos Dansby
Key stat: The Bengals stopped 27.2 percent of runs for no gain or a loss in sub-packages last season, the highest-rate in the NFL.
Geno Atkins’ return to his best form boosted the entire Bengals’ defense last year, but a lack of quality depth not only limits this defensive front, it also increases the risk of a fallback season if Atkins can’t replicate his top-tier play. On the defensive line, the likes of Michael Johnson and Domata Peko need to be pushed to improve—or pushed out of the lineup. Johnson was at least strong in run defense, but a lack of production as a pass-rusher put the pressure on Carlos Dunlap and Atkins to shoulder the load. At linebacker, the acquisition of Karlos Dansby (Browns) could improve the Bengals’ coverage in sub-packages, an area Cincinnati struggled with a year ago.
15. Arizona Cardinals
Projected starters: DE Calais Campbell, NT Rodney Gunter, DE Frostee Rucker; OLB Markus Golden, OLB Chandler Jones; ILB Deone Bucannon, ILB Kevin Minter
Other names to know: DE Robert Nkemdiche, DE Ed Stinson; OLB Alex Okafor, OLB Josh Mauro; ILB Alani Fua
Key stat: Arizona allowed 0.71 yards per carry before contact in base defense last season, the best average in the league.
Lauded as trailblazers for converting Deone Bucannon to linebacker from safety, the Cardinals have somewhat of a patchwork front-seven with quality players like Calais Campbell and new acquisition Chandler Jones sharing the field with the subpar Kevin Minter, who doesn’t appear to have the competition he needs to motivate his improvement or get him out of the lineup. Chandler Jones’ (Patriots) acquisition finally gives the Cardinals a threat off the edge to pair with Markus Golden, whose rookie season was the most productive by a first-year edge rusher since 2011.
16. Buffalo Bills
Projected starters: NT Marcell Dareus, DE Kyle Williams, DE Adolphus Washington; OLB Jerry Hughes, OLB Manny Lawson; ILB Reggie Ragland, ILB Zach Brown
Other names to know: DE Corbin Bryant, DE Leger Douzable; OLB Shaq Lawson; ILB Preston Brown
Key stat: Buffalo recorded a sack on 4.8 percent of third-down passing plays, the third-lowest rate in the NFL last season.
In their first year under Rex Ryan, the Bills’ biggest defensive failing was a complete and utter lack of pass-rushing support for Jerry Hughes. First-round pick Shaq Lawson will need to provide that once he returns from shoulder surgery, but the Bills once again look thin on further support. As ever with a Rex Ryan defense, run-D was not a problem for his defensive front, at least not on the line. Reggie Ragland will look to provide an upgrade over Preston Brown after his disastrous campaign, where he was one of the least-productive middle linebackers in the league.
17. Tennessee Titans
Projected starters: DE Jurrell Casey, NT Al Woods, DE DaQuan Jones; OLB Brian Orakpo, OLB Derrick Morgan; ILB Wesley Woodyard, ILB Avery Williamson
Other names to know: DE Karl Klug, DE Austin Johnson; OLB David Bass, OLB Kevin Dodd; ILB Sean Spence
Key stat: Recorded a sack on 8.1% of pass plays in sub packages; 2nd best in the NFL in 2015.
The Titans’ defensive front—and entire defense, really—is keyed by Casey, who once again was one of the league’s best and most complete interior defenders. Casey was the Titans’ most productive pass-rusher and trailed only Avery Williams in terms of total stops. A bigger impact from the Titans’ highly-paid outside linebacker pairing will be key to a step forwards in 2016. The Titans were one of the league’s worst defenses at pass-rushing in the first half of games last season; this led to a lot of time playing from behind in the second half, which led to Wesley Woodyard’s excellent run-defense numbers. If the Titans are to step forwards in 2016, Morgan and Orakpo need to make plays earlier in games and be able to pin their ears back more in the second half.
18. Green Bay Packers
Projected starters: DE Mike Daniels, NT Kenny Clark, DE Letroy Guion; OLB Clay Matthews, OLB Julius Peppers; ILB Sam Barrington, ILB Jake Ryan
Other names to know: DE Mike Pennel; OLB Datone Jones, OLB Nick Perry
Key stat: The Packers allowed a breakaway run (15+ yards) on 6.3 percent of running plays in sub-packages, the 23rd-lowest rate in the NFL in 2015.
Anything the Packers can do to get their best defender back on the edge will only be of benefit to their entire defense. Clay Matthews struggled with consistency at inside linebacker, and the Packers were reliant on Julius Peppers to provide big plays off the edge, with the defense lacking the persistent pressure that Matthews can bring from the outside. The star of this defensive front now is Mike Daniels, though even he saw his form dip after he signed his contract extension during the season. If the Packers put the pieces in the right places, there is likely more to come from this front-seven.
19. Baltimore Ravens
Projected starters: NT Brandon Williams, DE Timmy Jernigan, DE Lawrence Guy; OLB Terrell Suggs, OLB Elvis Dumervil; ILB C.J. Mosley, ILB Zachary Orr
Other names to know: DE Brent Urban, DE Carl Davis, DE Bronson Kaufusi; OLB Za’Darius Smith, OLB Kamalei Correa
Key stat: Baltimore recorded pressure on just 36.2 percent of third-down plays last season, the worst rate in the league.
It’s unusual to find the Ravens so low in any ranking relating to defensive quality, but such is the slide that Baltimore has suffered since its last Super Bowl win. Brandon Williams is a force at the nose, but Timmy Jernigan and C.J. Mosley failed to build on impressive rookie campaigns and emerge as the new leaders of this defense. Off the edge, Elvis Dumervil is a constant threat as a pass-rusher, but still lacking in run defense. Can Terrell Suggs return to his best form after his second Achilles injury, or do the Ravens need to look to the likes of Bronson Kaufusi (BYU) and Kamalei Correa (Boise State) to drive this defense into a new era?
20. Jacksonville Jaguars
Projected starters: DT Roy Miller, DT Malik Jackson; DE Dante Fowler, DE Jared Odrick; LB Telvin Smith, MLB Paul Posluszny, LB Dan Skuta
Other names to know: DT Tyson Alualu, DT Abry Jones, DT Michael Bennett, DT Sen’Derrick Marks, DT Sheldon Day; DE Ryan Davis, DE Yannick Ngakoue; LB Myles Jack, LB Hayes Pullard
Key stat: The Jaguars recorded pressure on only 26.5 percent of passing plays in base defense last year, the lowest rate in the NFL.
So much investment, so many options, so much uncertainty. This defensive front could be one of the league’s best, but we have to wait and see how the pieces fit together and what the level of consistency is. The glaring hole is in the pass-rush, where the pressure will be on Malik Jackson (Broncos) and last year’s first-round pick, Dante Fowler, to fill the Jags’ biggest defensive need. If every player in this group hits their peak, this is a top-10 defensive front. No player exemplifies this better than Telvin Smith who over the second half of last season, was a top-10 linebacker, but struggled in the first half and was all too frequently out of position. The “upside” is undeniable for the Jags, but can they produce on a consistent basis?
21. Philadelphia Eagles
Projected starters: DT Fletcher Cox, DT Bennie Logan; DE Brandon Graham, DE Connor Barwin; MLB Jordan Hicks, LB Mychal Kendricks, LB Nigel Bradham
Other names to know: DT Vinny Curry; DE Marcus Smith, DE Alex McCalister
Key stat: Fletcher Cox accounted for 24.7 percent of the total pressures recorded by the Eagles’ front-seven in 2015.
Shifting from a 3-4 to a 4-3 front in their base defense will put the Eagles’ two most productive players, Fletcher Cox and Bennie Logan, into the heart of the defense. The defensive line is strong with a limited rotation, but beyond fifth lineman Vinny Curry, a versatile pass-rush weapon, the depth is shaky. Those issues creep into the starting lineup at linebacker, where the Eagles will have to hope Jordan Hicks can pick up where he left off in his rookie campaign to lead the group. Mychal Kendricks and Nigel Bradham, meanwhile are coming off of poor seasons and will hope to return to former glories if the Eagles are to outperform this ranking in 2016.
22. Miami Dolphins
Projected starters: DT Ndamukong Suh, DT Earl Mitchell; DE Mario Williams, DE Cameron Wake; LB Koa Misi, MLB Kiko Alonso, LB Jelani Jenkins
Other names to know: DT Jordan Phillips; DE Jason Jones, DE Andre Branch, DE Dion Jordan; LB Neville Hewitt, LB Zach Vigil
Key stat: The Dolphins allowed 4.03 yards per carry in base defense last season, the 22nd-best mark in the NFL.
While it perhaps didn’t live up to $100 million in value, Ndamukong Suh’s first season in Miami was far from a disappointment. The pressure will be on him in 2016 to lead the D-line and add to his production in the passing game, with those around him looking to bounce back. A healthy Cameron Wake answers many questions off the edge, but will there be support from Mario Williams shaking off a sluggish 2015 in Buffalo? Will Dion Jordan be reinstated to add a wildcard to this mix? Wild would be an apt, if not terribly flattering, description for the Dolphins’ linebackers, too; if Kiko Alonso can recover his knack for finding the ball that he showed as a rookie in Buffalo, it would bring a massive boost to this defensive front.
23. San Francisco 49ers
Projected starters: DE DeForest Buckner, NT Ian Williams, DE Quinton Dial; OLB Aaron Lynch, OLB Ahmad Brooks; ILB NaVorro Bowman, ILB Gerald Hodges
Other names to know: DE Arik Armstead, DE Glenn Dorsey; OLB Eli Harold, OLB Corey Lemonier; ILB Michael Wilhoite
Key stat: The 49ers allowed 5.13 yards per carry in sub packages last season, the fourth-worst mark in the NFL.
Led by Ian Williams, the 49ers’ base run defense is in safe hands, but they allowed nearly 2 yards per carry more in sub-packages than base, the biggest drop-off in the league last year. While the addition of Buckner to pair with former Oregon teammate Arik Armstead adds to their interior pass-rush, the 49ers’ sub-package run-D has to raise its game in 2016, Williams is the key to the 49ers’ run defense, and teams can remove him from the equation without blocking him, simply by forcing San Francisco into their nickel and dime defenses. Another year removed from a devastating knee injury, San Francisco will hope that NaVorro Bowman can be close to his old self in coverage after he allowed the most yards and broke up the fewest passes in a single season since he entered the starting lineup last year.
24. Dallas Cowboys
Projected starters: DT Cedric Thornton, DT Tyrone Crawford; DE Randy Gregory, DE DeMarcus Lawrence; LB Sean Lee, MLB Anthony Hitchens, LB Andrew Gachkar
Other names to know: DT Jack Crawford, DT Maliek Collins, DT David Irving; DE Benson Mayowa, DE Charles Tapper; LB Kyle Wilber
Key stat: Dallas recorded a pressure on 33.8 percent of passing plays in sub-packages last season, the 23rd-best mark in the NFL.
Suspensions are going to weaken an already thin Dallas front-seven for the start of this season, with their expected middle linebacker gone for 10 weeks and their top two defensive ends missing the first four weeks of the season. Those suspensions expose inexperience at defensive end and the underwhelming Anthony Hitchens at linebacker for an extended period of time. The Cowboys will look to lean on Sean Lee at the second level as one of the league’s best coverage linebackers, but if an unheralded star can’t emerge at defensive end, then too much will be asked of Tyrone Crawford to power Dallas’ pass-rush for the first month of the season.
25. Pittsburgh Steelers
Projected starters: DE Cameron Heyward, NT Daniel McCullers, DE Stephon Tuitt; OLB James Harrison, OLB Bud Dupree; ILB Ryan Shazier, ILB Lawrence Timmons
Other names to know: DE Ricardo Mathews, DE Javon Hargrave; OLB Arthur Moats, OLB Jarvis Jones; ILB Vince Williams
Key stat: The Steelers recorded pressure on just 39.3 percent of third-down passing plays last season, the sixth-worth rate in the NFL.
When he is on his game, Cameron Heyward is one of the most destructive interior defenders in the entire NFL, but that is too infrequent to be the cornerstone of a defense. As Pittsburgh tries to inject youth into the lineup, its most consistent defender last year was, once again, James Harrison, who continues to defy age and bring it to opposing offensive tackles, even as the likes of Bud Dupree and Jarvis Jones are brought in to push him aside. If Lawrence Timmons and Ryan Shazier can cut down on their 34 combined missed tackles from last seasons, that would help the Steelers’ defense to be more settled and consistent in 2016.
26. Indianapolis Colts
Projected starters: DE Henry Anderson, NT David Parry, DE Kendall Langford; OLB Erik Walden, OLB Robert Mathis; ILB D’Qwell Jackson, ILB Nate Irving
Other names to know: DE Zach Kerr, DE T.Y. McGill; OLB Trent Cole; ILB Antonio Morrison, ILB Sio Moore
Key stat: Last season, the Colts recorded pressure less often from sub-packages (33.5 percent) than in their bases defense (36.7 percent).
A strong rookie season (cut short) from Henry Anderson and a career-year from Kendall Langford were the bright spots in an otherwise disappointing season from the Colts’ defensive front. D’Qwell Jackson was a tackling machine, but offered little penetration to make those tackles and missed more than his fair share. Next to Jackson, the pressure will be on Nate Irving to finally claim the full-time role that his performances on limited snaps in Denver suggested he was ready for. Off the edge, the Colts will hope for Robert Mathis and Trent Cole to roll back the years and raise their games after each had solid 2015 seasons, but far from the team-leading production you would hope for from them.
27. Washington Redskins
Projected starters: DE Chris Baker, NT Kedric Golston, DE Trent Murphy; OLB Ryan Kerrigan, OLB Preston Smith; ILB Mason Foster, ILB Will Compton
Other names to know: DE Stephen Paea, DE Ricky Jean-Francois, DE Kendall Reyes; OLB Junior Galette; ILB Perry Riley, ILB Su’a Cravens
Key stat: Allowed 5.31 yards per carry in sub package defenses; 31st in the NFL in 2015.
The Redskins overhauled their defensive line last season, and yet old faces like Baker and Golston at present still seem destined for prominent roles. Baker, to his credit, has earned that spot after outperforming Washington’s free-agent additions, tying Ryan Kerrigan and Dashon Goldson for the team lead with 32 stops. The most interesting move comes on the edge, where Trent Murphy steps down from outside linebacker to end to get all three of Murphy, Preston Smith, and Kerrigan on the field at once in the hope of upgrading the pass-rush across the board. At inside linebacker, Washington has plenty of competition, but each member of that group has been poor on the field in recent seasons, offering little hope that the winners of this battle will give the defense a boost.
28. Atlanta Falcons
Projected starters: DT Grady Jarrett, DT Tyson Jackson; DE Derrick Shelby, DE Ra’Shede Hageman; LB Vic Beasley, MLB Deion Jones, LB Sean Weatherspoon
Other names to know: DT Jonathan Babineaux, DT Malliciah Goodman, DT Joey Mbu; DE Adrian Clayborn, DE/LB Courtney Upshaw; LB Brooks Reed, LB Paul Worrilow, LB Philip Wheeler, LB De’Vondre Campbell
Key stat: The Falcons recorded a sack on 4.6 percent of third-down passing plays last year, the second-worst rate in the league.
While the Falcons may be well short of the quality of Dan Quinn’s old defense in Seattle, there is a similar atmosphere of competition in Atlanta, with a wealth of options at every position. The Falcons must improve their pass-rush this season, and while Derrick Shelby (Dolphins) should be a solid acquisition, there haven’t been any major additions made. A proposed move off the ball for Vic Beasley will do little to improve their pass-rush with four defensive backs on the field.
29. New Orleans Saints
Projected starters: DT John Jenkins, DT Sheldon Rankins; DE Cameron Jordan, DE Bobby Richardson; LB Stephone Anthony, MLB James Laurinaitis, LB Dannell Ellerbe
Other names to know: DT Nick Fairley, DT Tyeler Davison; DE Darryl Tapp, DE Kasim Edebali; LB Craig Robertson
Key stat: The Saints allowed breakaway plays on 8.3 percent of runs in sub-package defenses, the worst rate in the NFL in 2015.
The Saints’ run defense was dire last season, with a league-worst 4.80 yards per carry allowed in base defense and 5.40 yards per carry allowed in sub-packages. Regardless of how many defensive backs they had on the field, the Saints simply couldn’t stop the run. New Orleans will hope that first-round pick Sheldon Rankins (Louisville) can pair with Cameron Jordan to provide the spine of a strong defensive line to disrupt opposing offenses at the line of scrimmage. Behind them, the Saints boast a linebacking corps that, Stephone Anthony aside, is simply too short on production against the run to offer hope of a significant leap forwards in 2016.
30. San Diego Chargers
Projected starters: DE Corey Liuget, NT Brandon Mebane, DE Joey Bosa; OLB Melvin Ingram, OLB Jerry Attaochu; ILB Manti Te’o, ILB Denzel Perryman
Other names to know: DE Darius Philon, DE Sean Lissemore; OLB Kyle Emanuel; ILB Joshua Perry
Key stat: The Chargers allowed 5.27 yards per carry in sub-package defenses last season, the third-worst mark int he NFL.
The Chargers’ defensive line was a disaster last season, with only Corey Liuget’s run defense offering any crumb of comfort for a unit that couldn’t affect opposing offenses against the run or pass. The spark of optimism for the Chargers, outside of first-round pick Joey Bosa (Ohio State), comes off the ball, where a healthy Melvin Ingram proved his ability with a fine season as a pass-rusher opposite the impressive Jerry Attaochu. Paired with Denzel Perryman’s impressive rookie season as a run defender, the Chargers have some pieces in place for improvement in their front-seven this season but there is still a big disparity between the best and worst players in their defensive front.
31. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Projected starters: DT Gerald McCoy, DT Clinton McDonald; DE Robert Ayers, DE William Gholston; LB Lavonte David, MLB Kwon Alexander, LB Jeremiah George
Other names to know: DT Akeem Spence; DE George Johnson, DE Jacquies Smith, DE Noah Spence; LB Daryl Smith
Key stat: Tamp Bay’s fronts seven defenders missed 85 tackles last year, the most in the NFL in 2015.
For years, the Buccaneers have been a very hit-and-miss defense, providing plenty of penetration and disruption against the run, but with extremely inconsistent finishers leading to big swings in their run defense, in particular. Lavonte David has missed 42 tackles in the last two seasons, and Kwon Alexander missed 27 in his rookie campaign. Those two linebackers find the ball very well, and if they fall off fewer tackles, the Bucs will be set for an improvement. A fully-healthy Gerald McCoy and Robert Ayers (Giants) delivering immediately on his free-agent contract would only push this defense further forwards.
32. Cleveland Browns
Projected starters: DE Desmond Bryant, NT Danny Shelton, DE Jamie Meder; OLB Paul Kruger, OLB Nate Orchard; ILB Chris Kirksey, ILB Demario Davis
Other names to know: DE John Hughes, DE Xavier Cooper; OLB Barkevious Mingo, OLB Emmanuel Ogbah, DE/OLB Carl Nassib
Key stat: The Browns recorded pressure on just 32.3 percent of passing plays in sub-package defenses, the fifth-worst rate in the NFL last season.
The Browns’ front-seven, as is the case with much of their entire roster, will be very reliant on the development of their 2016 draft class, both in terms of potential upside and immediate impact. This defensive front lacks a star to drive their production against either the run or the pass, with Bryant and Kruger solid role players, but not the ultra-productive guys needed to spark the rest of the group. The battle at outside linebacker could prove to be the spark this defense needs; there is talent and potential production there, with the likes of Nassib (Penn State), Orchard, Mingo, and Ogbah (Oklahoma State). If that competition drives the whole group forward, rather than just finding a winner for playing time at two spots, this could be the production that drives the Browns’ front-seven off the bottom of the league.
Ben Stockwell | Director of Analysis
Ben joined Pro Football Focus in 2007, and has since been in charge of the company’s analysis process. He also contributes to PFF’s weekly NFL podcast.