Top 10 defensive lines this season
Analyst John Breitenbach breaks down the list of this season's top-performing NFL defensive lines, with Denver reigning supreme.
Top 10 defensive lines this season
With a full 17-week season in the books, it’s time to look ahead to the playoffs. Before we dive deep into the postseason, however, it’s important to recognize the outstanding play from the year. So, where better to start than the defensive side of the all?
Below are the top 10 ranked NFL defensive lines this season.
(Editor’s note: For this ranking, we’ve included edge defenders as part of the D-line. The Week 6 ranking of each team is noted in parentheses.)
1. Denver Broncos (1)
Starters: OLB Von Miller, DE Malik Jackson, NT Sylvester Williams, DE Derek Wolfe, OLB DeMarcus Ware
Rotation: DE Vance Walker, DE Antonio Smith, OLB Shaq Barrett, OLB Shane Ray
The Broncos retain the top spot based predominantly on the quality throughout the lineup. They lack the quantity of blue-chip players of other units, but make up for it with solid performers at every position. Von Miller (91.8 overall grade) is the obvious standout, but this year he ended the season at only fourth overall amongst edge defenders (ED). Still, his 90.3 pass rushing grade (11 sacks, 21 hits, and 50 hurries) was only a little behind Olivier Vernon and Khalil Mack.
Opposite Miller, DeMarcus Ware finished with the 13th-highest pass rush grade, despite missing a handful of games, while Shaq Barrett (78.3) made some important contributions throughout the year. The Broncos’ balance on the defensive line is what really stands out. DEs Malik Jackson (86.1) and Derek Wolfe (90.1) finished 17th and 10th, respectively, amongst defensive interiors (DI), but have different strengths. Jackson recorded the seventh-highest pass rush grade amongst DIs (88.1), while Wolfe finished with the sixth-highest run defense grade (90.9). Sylvester Williams and Vance Walker round out the group as stout two-down run stoppers.
2. Miami Dolphins (Unranked)
Starters: DE Olivier Vernon, DT Ndamukong Suh, DT Jordan Phillips, DE Derrick Shelby
Rotation: DT Earl Mitchell, DT C.J. Mosley, DE Terrence Fede, DE Quinton Coples
The fact the Dolphins have managed to improve their ranking, despite losing one of the league’s best pass rushers in Cameron Wake, is testament to their talent upfront. Olivier Vernon’s second half of the year was simply phenomenal, as he ended up as our third overall ED with a grade of 92.2. He finished with 80 overall pressures (10 sacks, 30 hits, and 40 hurries), and earned the top pass rushing grade (90.5). Ndamukong Suh also played some of his best football towards the end of the year, and only his lack of discipline (-13.2 penalty grade) prevented him from finishing higher than fifth amongst DIs (92.0). A little credit should go to Derrick Shelby (82.9), too; he stepped up his game in the absence of Wake, finishing as our 21st overall ED. The Dolphins need one more player of quality to round out the group, with Mitchell, Phillips, and Mosley all grading negatively.
3. St. Louis Rams (2)
Starters: DE William Hayes, DT Aaron Donald, DT Michael Brockers, DE Chris Long
Rotation: DT Nick Fairley, DE Ethan Westbrooks, DE Matt Longacre, DE Eugene Sims
The Rams would be a strong candidate for the top spot if Robert Quinn had not gone down for the year with a back injury. Aaron Donald (99.9) is playing better than he’s ever done before. He finished first amongst DIs with the highest pass rush (98.8) and second-highest run defense grade (96.9). Donald ended the year with 79 combined pressures (11 sacks, 26 hits, and 42 hurries) to go with 51 defensive stops.
While Donald is the star of the show, the Rams have good depth inside with Brockers (79.7) and Fairley (82.0) also part of the rotation. William Hayes, meanwhile, is one of the more underrated players in the NFL. He mitigated for the loss of Quinn by finishing with an 83.3 grade, good enough for 18th amongst EDs. The Rams could use some depth at defensive end, but pass rushers aren’t easy to find.
4) Oakland Raiders (4)
Starters: OLB Khalil Mack, DE Denico Autry, NT Dan Williams, DE Justin Ellis, OLB Mario Edwards Jr.
Rotation: DEs Stacy McGee, DE Justin Tuck, OLB Benson Mayowa
The Raiders are in the No. 4 spot largely thanks to Mack’s outstanding end to the season. He’s rightly in contention for Defensive Player of the Year after finishing at the top of our edge defender grades (95.8). The loss of Aldon Smith from suspension has also been mitigated by the improvement of Mario Edwards (80.9), who has the versatility to play both with his hand in the dirt and standing up. On the interior, Dan Williams (88.0) continues to excel against the run, where he was ranked ninth amongst DIs and had the third-highest run stop percentage amongst DTs. The only weaknesses are the lack of an interior pass rusher and depth in general. Justin Tuck and Denico Autry have provided some push from the inside, but the Raiders would benefit from having a player capable of collapsing the pocket more consistently.
5. Houston Texans (Unranked)
Starters: OLB Whitney Mercilus, DE Jared Crick, NT Vince Wilfork, DE JJ Watt, OLB Jadeveon Clowney
Rotation: NT Christian Covington
The emergence of the talent surrounding J.J. Watt has boosted the Texans up this list, as well as into the playoffs. For the first time in a while, Watt might not be the best candidate for DPOY, but he still had an excellent season, finishing as our second-overall DI, but lagged behind Aaron Donald in both pass rush and run defense grade.
The key for Houston has been the improved play of the outside linebackers. Mercilus (85.2) and Clowney (82.3) are graded at 15th and 24th, respectively, amongst EDs. The former has displayed previously unforeseen pass rush prowess, while Clowney is going from strength to strength on his return from injury. While Vince Wilfork isn’t the player he once was, he still ranks in the top 25 against the run (83.5). Like the Dolphins, the Texans could use more talent on the defensive line, with Jared Crick continuing to struggle (47.2).
6. Philadelphia Eagles (Unranked)
Starters: OLB Brandon Graham, DE Cedric Thornton, NT Bennie Logan, DE Fletcher Cox, OLB Connor Barwin
Rotation: OLB Marcus Smith, DE Vinny Curry, DE Taylor Hart, NT Beau Allen
The Eagles don’t have any All-Pros in their defensive front, but they have a very well-rounded unit. Brandon Graham (86.3) wasn’t as effective in an every-down role as he was in a rotation in 2014, but still finished as our 12th overall ED. Opposite him, Connor Barwin (71.1) is a decent role player, even if he could be improved upon.
Fletcher Cox is the difference-maker inside. He finished the season strong again, ending the season eighth-overall amongst DIs (90.3). Cox recorded 77 combined pressures, including 10 sacks, 13 hits, and 54 hurries.
Surprisingly, it was Bennie Logan, rather than Cedric Thornton, who broke out in 2015. Both are specialized run defenders, but as Thornton struggled with injuries, Logan excelled, finishing with an 88.4 grade against the run (13th in the NFL). Really though, this ranking depends on Vinny Curry, who recorded a 85.2 pass rush grade, despite taking just 357 snaps. He’s amongst the best interior pass rush specialists.
7. Kansas City Chiefs (3)
Starters: OLB Tampa Hali, DE Jaye Howard, NT Dontari Poe, DE Allen Bailey, OLB Justin Houston
Rotation: DE Mike Devito & Nick Williams, OLBs Dee Ford & Frank Zombo
The Chiefs’ defensive front excels in certain areas, but is completely lacking in others. While their top four defensive lineman have a combined +54.7 cumulative run defense grade, they also have a -20.7 pass rush grade. Jaye Howard has had something of a breakout year, finishing with the best run stop percentage at his position. The return to form after injury by Dontari Poe has boosted the unit, as well, but the Chiefs are still lacking an interior pass rusher.
Kansas City certainly isn’t lacking pass rush off the edge, however. Houston and Hali have 88.7 and 86.3 pass rush grades, respectively, even though the former has missed the past few games with injury. Those grades are fourth and eighth amongst EDs. The Chiefs will be glad to have Houston back for the playoffs, with Dee Ford (47.9) still adjusting to life in the NFL.
8. New York Jets (Unranked)
Starters: OLB Calvin Pace, DE Muhammad Wilkerson, NT Damon Harrison, DE Leonard Williams, OLB Sheldon Richardson
Rotation: DE Leger Douzable, OLB Lorenzo Mauldin
If this list considered of only defensive lineman, the Jets would run away with the top spot. Harrison, Wilkerson, and Williams are sixth, 11th, and 12th amongst DIs. Harrison’s run defense grade is second only to Donald, and he’s taken significantly fewer snaps. Wilkerson (89.2), meanwhile, has 80 combined pressures. Finally, Leonard Williams (88.8) has adapted quickly to the NFL. His 90.4 run defense grade is eighth amongst DIs.
The Jets’ solution to their edge rushing issues has been to move Sheldon Richardson outside. He was outstanding against a very good left tackle in Cordy Glenn against the Bills, but it remains to be seen whether that’s a long-term move. Regardless of position, Richardson’s 83.9 pass rush grade is impressive, considering he missed the first four games through suspension. The Jets need Richardson to work out on the edge, considering Calvin Pace hasn’t graded positively as a pass rusher since 2009, and rookie Lorenzo Mauldin didn’t hit the ground running (66.2).
9. Washington Redskins (7)
Starters: OLB Trent Murphy, DE Chris I. Baker, NT Terrence Knighton, DE Jason Hatcher, OLB Ryan Kerrigan
Rotation: DE Ricky Jean-Francois, DE Stephen Paea, DE Kedric Golston, OLB Preston Smith
Washington’s front is not the stoutest against the run, but they have a number of consistent pass rushers. Ryan Kerrigan and Trent Murphy were not outstanding by any means, but they combined for a +16.7 cumulative pass rush grade. Interior defensive lineman Chris Baker (82.7) and Jason Hatcher (74.6) also pushed the pocket on a consistent basis. The former also played the run well in 2015 (81.7 run defense grade), unlike his teammate, Hatcher (48.4 run defense grade), who’s been a specialist pass rusher for awhile. Jean-Francois and Knighton combined for a +13.8 cumulative run defense grade, giving Washington a pair of stout run defenders. Stephen Paea (75.8) also proved to be a useful free agent addition, despite getting on the field for just 221 snaps. Preston Smith gives Washington some depth on the edge, even if he ultimately ended up with a poor overall grade this season (68.8). He’s flashed serious potential as a pass rusher, finishing the year with eight sacks and 35 combined pressures.
10. Tennessee Titans (8)
Starters: OLB Brian Orakpo, DE Jurrell Casey, NT Al Woods, DE DaQuan Jones, OLB Derrick Morgan
Rotation: DE Karl Klug, OLB David Bass
The Titans’ defensive front also lacks the star-power of other units, but has talent across the board. Jurrell Casey (88.4) finished ninth overall amongst DIs, as well as ninth in terms of pass rushing alone (88.0). He gets good support on running-downs from Jones and Woods, who are effective at clogging lanes, but don’t generate much pass rush pressure (18 combined hurries in 453 snaps). Karl Klug mitigates their limitations somewhat, coming in on third downs and disrupting QBs consistently (75.6 pass rush grade). The Titans could certainly add a pass rusher down the road, but Brian Orakpo (82.4) is certainly not done yet. 49 combined pressures is a pretty good return on the year. The loss of Derrick Morgan has obviously hurt the Titans, with David Bass yet to show NFL-level ability (48.3).