SAN FRANCISCO, CA - JANUARY 22: Osi Umenyiora #72 of the New York Giants sackes Alex Smith #11 of the San Francisco 49ers in the second half during the NFC Championship Game at Candlestick Park on January 22, 2012 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
NFL teams have invested heavily in their defensive lines as the passing game has become more and more important. Where do the defensive lines for all 32 teams rank?
Mark it down, the NFL is a passing league, or so you may have heard. The protocols of labeling and classification demand that we identify the league for its offensive evolution. Besides, it sounds really strange to call it a pass rushing league, even though it would be entirely appropriate.
There is a long list of talented defensive linemen plying their trade in the NFL, from long-time veterans to green rookies. With more and more attacking done through the air, it only stands to reason that the natural counter to that is an aggressive defense, in case the lesson of the 2007 Giants was lost on you.
Of course, defensive lines are more than just pass rushers. These tree trunks represent the first line of defense against the running game, which is not totally extinct, and a string of 300-pound obstacles for the shock troops of the offense to contend with regardless of what the quarterback does with the ball.
From the top to the bottom of the list -- with the possible exception of the bottom three teams -- each team has some talented players. At the top of these rankings are a half dozen teams loaded with talent, from end to end. After that, you enter a tier of the very good -- teams in spots seven through 15 -- that do their jobs well but have a flaw or two, and several of those teams lack the ability to generate pressure from very stout defensive lines.
Heading down the rankings from there, you have a gaggle of teams that maybe feature one solid pass rusher but a soft interior line or a bunch of injured players and rookies who enter the season with the burden of proof on their shoulders.
Here are the rankings, wrapping up our list of defensive positions. I feel certain that there will be plenty to argue about, so jump into the comments with your quibbles.
This is an outstanding group of players led by Justin Smith, one of the best defensive linemen playing today. Ray McDonald had a breakthrough season in 2011, sacking Eli Manning three times in the 49ers' narrow loss in the NFC title game. Isaac Sopoaga is an underrated, yeoman nose tackle.
In researching the defensive rankings, it became clear just how effective this team mixing and matching looks with its front seven. It makes it hard to define in cases like Terrell Suggs, who saw plenty of snaps on the line, but also at linebacker. Haloti Ngata is a special talent who had something of a down year last season.
General manager Jerry Reese knows his defensive linemen. This group has had some notable turnover in between their two most recent Super Bowl wins, but they never seem to slow down. Jason Pierre-Paul had my vote for defensive player of the year for the work he was able to do while Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora were sidelined. The Giants' defensive tackles constitute a solid unit living in the shadows of their defensive ends. I am anxious to see how Marvin Austin develops.
This has the makings of an impressive unit, if only the Bills could harness their heft in stadium lease negotiations. Mario Williams was the top free agent move of the spring, with apologies to Denver's new quarterback. Not happy to be content, Buffalo added Mark Anderson on the other side, plucking him away from New England no less. A healthy Kyle Williams gives the line an immovable middle. Marcell Dareus led the team with five and a half sacks last season, and he could really breakout this year.
The defensive line was one of the few things that went right for the Eagles' defense last season. Jason Babin was third in the NFC with 18 sacks. Trent Cole had 11. First-round pick Fletcher Cox should be starting next to Cullen Jenkins on the inside when the season opens. Vinny Curry, a second-round pick, gives them another pass rusher.
Seattle has quietly assembled one of the league's better defenses. Up front, the Seahawks have a bunch of fairly nameless fellows manning a line that might hold off Genghis Khan, or at least the John Wayne version of him. The only knock on the unit last year was that Chris Clemons was the only player who could reliably get to the quarterback. The addition of Jason Jones gives them an interior lineman capable of pressuring passers. They picked Bruce Irvin, a move that broke each and every mock draft out there, with a wild card selection in the first round.
Ndamukong Suh experienced a sophomore slump last season, aided in part by his two-game suspension. He still looks like the top defensive tackle in the game right now, and should only get better if he learns to drive and keep his head on straight. Speaking of all those problems and more, the Lions also need Nick Fairley to focus more on his trade than the other things life has to offer. Kyle Vanden Bosch and Cliff Avril complete the unit, but we'll watch to see if the team can get the contract issue with the latter resolved in time.
Remember when critics panned the Texans' choice of J.J. Watt with the 11th pick in the 2011 NFL Draft? You might not, since his outstanding rookie season sent most of the critics running from their spring comments. Antonio Smith thrived moving from an end in a four-man front to a five technique. Shaun Cody, their smallish nose tackle, merits little more than a shrug. I loved the addition of Nebraska defensive end Jared Crick in the fourth round this year.
Jared Allen was the one thing that went right for the Vikings last season, leading the league with 22 sacks. Brian Robinson posted eight sacks and consistently pressured quarterbacks in his first season as a starter. Kevin Williams turns 32 in August, but he still plays at a high level. Too bad none of these guys can play cornerback.
A nagging hamstring spoiled what could have been a big second season from Carlos Dunlap; look for him to lead the team in sacks this year. Defensive tackle Geno Atkins, a fourth-round pick in 2010, was the Bengals' leading pass rusher last year. Brandon Thompson and rookie Devon Still make this one of the deeper groups in the league.
12. Chicago Bears
Julius Peppers headlines this unit. On the other side, Israel Idonije plays the run well, and the Bears are counting on rookie Shea McClellin to contribute as a situational pass rusher. Henry Melton has some ability to pressure from the inside. Stephen Paea needs to show some improvement this season.
13. New York Jets
Rex Ryan's defensive front played well last season, except when it came to rushing the passer. First-round pick Quinton Coples is being counted on as the answer to that problem. Sione Pouha was one of the better nose tackles in the game last year. Muhammad Wilkerson played the run well, but the former first-round pick needs to contribute more as a pass rusher.
The Chiefs have a stout three-man front, but the unit did not generate much pressure on opposing quarterbacks. The hope is that Dontari Poe can add some of that. Glenn Dorsey and Tyson Jackson make a pair of immovable objects on the outside.
All eyes are on Casey Hampton as he tries to come back from a torn ACL, no easy task for a player who turns 35 before the first game of the season. The Steelers drafted Alameda Ta'amu as his replacement. Brett Keisel is their top defensive end, and the team needs more from former first-round picks Ziggy Hood and Cameron Heyward.
16. Miami Dolphins
Cameron Wake might actually be better in a four-man front. If so, his four-year $49 million extension might end up being a real bargain. Jared Odrick will be on the left side of the line. Paul Soliai and Randy Starks should be good anchors on the inside.
17. St. Louis Rams
Chris Long has been one of the most productive and consistent edge rushers in the league over the last three seasons; if he played for any team other than the Rams, you might have heard of him. Robert Quinn had five sacks in limited work last season. In the middle, the team went young, using a first round pick on LSU's Michael Brockers, who helps against the run, and signing Kendall Langford away from the Dolphins will provide pressure from the inside.
Jeremy Mincey's eight-sack season was rewarded with a four-year, $27 million extension. It could prove to be a bargain for Jacksonville. Second-round pick Andre Branch adds an explosive pass rusher opposite Mincey. Terrance Knighton has been a force against the run. The real question for the Jags is whether or not Tyson Alualu can get past his status as a "WTF pick" at tenth overall in 2010.
19. Tennessee TItans
The Titans really hurt for players capable of getting the quarterback last year, which is why they signed Kamerion Wimbley. Derrick Morgan's early career has been delayed by a torn ACL, and a breakthrough year could be the key to really boosting the Titans pass rush. Jurrell Casey proved to be a solid run defender as a rookie.
20. Cleveland Browns
Losing Phil Taylor hurts this unit, but the Browns could have him back from a torn pectoral muscle in November. Ahtyba Rubin did much better with the switch to 4-3 last year. They reached for John Hughes, but landed Billy Winn in the sixth round who could see playing time with Taylor on ice. Jabaal Sheard led the team with eight and a half sacks as a rookie last year. Will a rotation of Juqua Parker and Frostee Rucker be enough on the other side of the line?
21. Atlanta Falcons
John Abraham started to show his age last year, but he was still incredibly productive. The 34-year-old's snaps will be limited again this season. Jonathan Babineaux, 30, muddled through a down season in 2011, after missing time early with a knee injury. If both Abraham and Babineaux can be effective, Atlanta's line can make things happen. Ray Edwards really needs to get back the form he had with the Vikings. Rookie Jonathan Massaquoi from Troy could surprise as a situational pass rusher.
22. Denver Broncos
Elvis Dumervil missed some time early in the season, but made up for lost time upon his return, racking up double digit sacks. Robert Ayers failed to bring much pressure, but was solid against the run. Rookie Derek Wolfe will be under a microscope and expected to produce as a rookie.
The Pats are smart to withhold a long-term deal for 33-year-old Andre Carter, but they could really use him this season. Chandler Jones, this year's first-round pick, could turn a few heads as a rookie. Jonathan Fanene was added in the offseason. Vince Wilfork is the best player among the group.
Opponents had an open invitation to run on the Colts last season, and could do the same this year since Antonio Johnson is penciled in as their starting nose tackle in the switch to a 3-4. Rookie Josh Chapman could take over that job earlier than expected. Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis will move primarily to outside linebacker, but are still likely to see some time with their hand in the dirt in hybrid sets. Cory Redding, who will be a five-technique, was a solid addition. Fili Moala is an uninspired choice for the other end spot.
25. Dallas Cowboys
Jay Ratliff is one of the most maligned defensive linemen in the league, but he produces, even if he really has no resemblance to a traditional nose tackle. Rookie Tyrone Crawford should be in the mix for plenty of snaps along with Jason Hatcher, Kenyon Coleman and Marcus Spears, who seems to be past his expiration date.
Carolina was roundly criticized for standing by its current group of defensive tackles, a group of players hit hard by injuries. Ron Edwards, who turns 33 this month, is the best of the bunch -- and missed all last season with a torn triceps. Terrell McClain and Sione Fua both ended their rookie seasons on IR last year. The Panthers do have a pair of ends who can get to the quarterback in Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy. Expect bigger numbers from Hardy this season, his third, after he had 33 hurries and eight hits to go with just four sacks last year.
The Bucs took one on the chin when Da'Quan Bowers suffered a torn Achilles tendon this spring. That puts Michael Bennett on the hook for most of the snaps opposite second-year end Adrian Clayborn. A season of health from Gerald McCoy gives them some power in the middle. Gary GIbson has a knack for generating pressure inside as a rotation player.
This is a tough unit to judge. B.J. Raji erased all the pleasant memories of the year before, and if he continues to play poorly, all the Packers have is Daniel Muir behind him. Ryan Pickett is their best defensive end and has question marks of his own. Rookie Jerel Worthy should be starting this year on the opposite side.
29. Oakland Raiders
The Raiders are going to be hurting without Kamerion Wimbley. Richard Seymour is their top pass rusher, but he turns 33 in October. Lamarr Houston, already a good run defender, will be expected to step up his production.
A safety, Roman Harper, led the Saints in sacks last season, and with Will Smith in Goodell's gulag for the first four games of the season, he might do it again. New defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo will have to get creative with his defensive fronts. The addition of Brodrick Bunkley gives them a very good run defender for the middle. Cameron Jordan proved to be a good run stopper as well, but defensive linemen picked in the first round need to do more.
Through no minor miracle of mercy, Norv Turner still has a head coaching job this year. He needs vastly improved play from his defensive line in order to be in this job again next year. Corey Liuget was a disappointment as a rookie, and there is no clear sign that he can get better. Second-round pick Kendall Reyes looks like the team's best defensive end. Nose tackle Antonio Garay was the only lineman who did not get tossed around by opposing blockers last season.