Top 10 defensive lines entering Week 6
John Breitenbach ranks the top 10 NFL defensive lines based on this season's performance.
Top 10 defensive lines entering Week 6
After ranking all 32 offensive lines last week, the team at PFF decided to take on a new challenge: identifying the top 10 defensive lines, based on their performances so far this season.
Editor’s note: For this ranking, we’ve included edge defenders as part of the D-line. When analyzing the grades, we also excluded players with fewer than 80 snaps.
1. Denver Broncos
Combined run defense grade: +10.8
Combined pass rush grade: +45.5
The Denver Broncos have, without a doubt, the best group of pass rushers in the NFL. There is no better duo of edge rushers than Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware. Miller and Ware occupy the first and second spots in pass rush productivity amongst outside linebackers. Shaq Barrett and Shane Ray offer potential off the bench. Malik Jackson (+8.4) is the interior anchor, having graded positively in every game. He’s been able to push the pocket on passing downs, as well as making plays in run defense. The return of Derek Wolfe from suspension will likely help with defending the ground game, considering he recorded a +14.5 grade in that facet in 2014. Rounding out the group, Sylvester Williams and Vance Walker are also good two-down players. Antonio Smith, meanwhile has performed his nickel rusher role well.
2. St. Louis Rams
Combined run defense grade: +30
Combined pass rush grade: + 28
The Rams defensive line doesn’t have a player with a negative run defense grade. Unlike for the Broncos, the star is found in the middle of the line, in the form of Aaron Donald. His grade exceeds all other interior defenders (3-4 DEs, DTs and NTs). After a truly historic 2013, Robert Quinn has reverted to just very good (10th in pass rush productivity). Chris Long appears a little passed his best form, at least as a pass rusher, but backup William Hayes has starting ability. Finally, Michael Brockers is a good run stuffer, who matches Donald’s +9.1 run defense grade exactly. When Nick Fairley can only get on the field for about a third of snaps, you know you have a good unit.
3. Kansas City Chiefs
Combined run defense grade: +30.5
Combined pass rush grade: +13.2
Although not at the same level as Miller as a pass rusher, Justin Houston is probably the most complete outside linebacker. He’s first in run stop percentage, and sixth in pass rush productivity. Partnering him, Tamba Hali is probably on the downside of his career, but remains productive (20 overall pressures). Backup Dee Ford is having to wait for his opportunity, but was highly regarded coming out of Auburn. On the interior, Jaye Howard has broken out in his fourth year in the league. He leads all 3-4 DEs in run stop percentage, having made 18 stops in 91 snaps. Mike DeVito and Allen Bailey are good two-down run stuffers, while Dontari Poe’s 2013 season suggests his slow start is mostly due to the back surgery he had in the offseason.
4. Oakland Raiders
Combined run defense grade: +24.5
Combined pass rush grade: +15.6
Four of the Raider’s five starters on the defensive line are excellent players. Khalil Mack is the standout, with top-3 grades as both a pass rusher and run defender. The Aldon Smith signing was a risk, but he’s been productive. It seemed reasonable to expect a few growing pains for Justin Tuck, as he moved inside in the 3-4, but if anything, his performances have improved. The addition of Dan Williams was one of the more underrated free agency acquisitions. You have to go all the way back to 2014 to find a game where he recorded a game grade under -1.0. Where Oakland does suffer is its lack of depth—defensive ends Denico Autry and Stacy McGee have not played well so far.
5. Seattle Seahawks
Combined run defense grade: +22
Combined pass rush grade: +21.2
The Seahawks have studs at both defensive end spots. Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett occupy the first and second spots in pass rush productivity amongst 4-3 DEs. They don’t sell out to get to the quarterback, either, combining for better than a +10 grade in run defense. Seattle does lack an interior pass rusher on early downs, because Ahtyba Rubin, Jordan Hill, Brandon Mebane, and Frank Clark are predominantly run stuffers. Only Clark has a positive pass rush grade. Bennett does shift inside in the nickel, allowing Bruce Irvin to rush off the edge.
6. Cincinnati Bengals
Combined run defense grade: +13.7
Combined pass rush grade: +15
After Aaron Donald, Geno Atkins has been the best interior defender in 2015. He’s recorded grades of at least +2.5 in every game this season, ranking top in pass rush productivity and fourth in run stop percentage. Out on the edge, Carlos Dunlap is very disruptive in both facets of play. Dunlap is on a hot streak too, having recorded just a single negatively-graded game in his last 13 outings, dating back to 2014. A return to where he’s made his career has also helped Michael Johnson become a serviceable player once again. Aside from those three, the Bengals don’t have a huge amount of talent. Wallace Gilberry and Domata Peko aren’t liabilities, but they’re not difference-makers either.
7. Washington Redskins
Combined run defense grade: +10.1
Combined pass rush grade: +25.1
Washington had quite a bit of turnover this offseason on the defensive line, but the moves they made have paid off. The biggest improvement, though, has come from incumbent Chris Baker. Baker has top-10 grades as both a pass rusher and run defender. While Jason Hatcher offers disruption in the passing game, where he holds the third-best pass rushing grade, Terrance Knighton can clog the middle on running downs. Stephen Paea is also a good player to call on to keep the starters fresh. On the outside, Washington has three players graded inside the top-20. Ryan Kerrigan hasn’t reached the pass rushing heights he achieved in 2014, but is still playing well. The Redskins’ second-round picks in back to back years, Preston Smith and Trent Murphy also know how to get to the quarterback. They’ve combined for four sacks so far in 2015.
8. Tennessee Titans
Combined run defense grade: +7.5
Combined pass rush grade: +20.2
The Titans don’t have any defensive lineman who can’t rush the passer. There are few interior defenders who have mastered that skill, as well as Jurrell Casey, as his top spot in pass rush productivity attests. He can defend the run too, with a team-high +5.1 grade. Aside from Casey, Tennessee has a solid group. Derrick Morgan and Brian Orakpo both grade in the top 15 as pass rushers, while Al Woods and Karl Klug have positive run defense grades. Only DaQuan Jones’ performances has let them down a little.
9. Green Bay Packers
Combined run defense grade: +7.1
Combined pass rush grade: +21.1
It’s testament to the Packers’ depth that they have recorded such a good pass rush grade, despite the fact Clay Matthews is playing inside. Mike Daniels is the best player in his absence, with top-six grades as both a pass rusher and run defender. The only other player to have played enough snaps to qualify is B.J. Raji, who has looked improved on his return to the NFL. At outside linebacker, Julius Peppers, Nick Perry, and Jayrone Elliot are all predominantly pass rushers, combining for a +12.5 grade in that facet of their play.
10. Minnesota Vikings
Combined run defense grade: +4.3
Combined pass rush grade: +18.6
There were a few candidates for the final spot, but by virtue of having played a game fewer, the Vikings have made the list. Only Everson Griffen grades negatively, and that’s only due to seven penalties. Griffen is Minnesota’s best pass rusher, ranking inside the top 8 in pass rush productivity. Brian Robison isn’t as effective when applying pressure but has a positive grade in run defense. Former Giant Linval Joseph, has the highest grade of the unit, currently ranking fourth overall amongst defensive tackles, with grades better than +5.0 as both a pass rusher and run defender. Rounding out the group, Sharrif Floyd (+0.7) and Tom Johnson are capable NFL players.