The NFL is littered with stud talent along the defensive line. Just about every team has at least one guy that can reliably make plays in the backfield.
Still, a collection of dominant talent on the defensive line is a huge plus. It makes life easier on defensives secondaries and makes life hell for opposing offenses. There are four tiers of defensive line talent: total game-wreckers, talented albeit inconsistent, groups that are a piece away, and defensive lines that need a complete retooling in the offseason.
Los Angeles Rams, Chicago Bears, New Orleans Saints, Philadelphia Eagles
The Rams don’t have a better collection of talent than the Saints or the Bears or the Eagles, but damn, they have Aaron Donald and that matters a ton. Donald is leading the league with 16.5 sacks as a defensive tackle and can break a game wide open for the Rams.
Remember his game against the Chiefs? The Lions? The Packers? The first game against the 49ers? His performance against the Vikings? Over and over again Donald has shown that he can be the singular reason why the Rams’ defense stays afloat with shaky secondary play. Oh yeah, they have guys like Ndamukong Suh and Michael Brockers plus the midseason trade for a solid cleanup guy like Dante Fowler.
The Bears have a dominant group up front as well. Khalil Mack leads them with his 10 sacks and six forced fumbles, but they have studs all over the place on their defensive line. Akiem Hicks has six sacks from the interior. Bilal Nichols is showing out as a rookie, and Eddie Goldman has finally been able to put together a healthy season. Leonard Floyd has been a bit of a disappointment since being a top-10 pick in the 2016 draft, but if he’s the worst player on your defensive line, you’re in great shape.
Chicago has multiple defensive linemen with at least two forced fumbles. Mack has six while Nichols and Hicks each have two a piece. They may “only” rank 10th in sack percentage as a unit, but they know how to make plays.
New Orleans finds itself on here after a few solid draft choices. Cameron Jordan is an elite defensive end. Sheldon Rankins has developed into one of the most disruptive defensive tackles in the league in his third season. Other players, like David Onyemata and Marcus Davenport, have been solid for the Saints as well.
The Eagles, led by Fletcher Cox, have been able to wreak havoc in opposing backfields. Their sack percentage might not be through the roof (23rd), but they get a ton of penetration in the backfield against the run and the pass. Michael Bennett, Fletcher Cox, and Brandon Graham have combined for 27 tackles for loss this season.
Inconsistent, but when they’re hot you better watch out
Dallas Cowboys, Baltimore Ravens, Houston Texans, Minnesota Vikings, Pittsburgh Steelers, Washington, Seattle Seahawks, Los Angeles Chargers, Denver Broncos, Jacksonville Jaguars
Baltimore has constructed their defensive line in a fascinating way. They have a bruising, rugged group filled with heavy hitters like Michael Pierce, Brandon Williams, Terrell Suggs, Zadarius Smith, and Matthew Judon, but they actually get a decent amount of sacks for such a physical play style — Baltimore currently ranks ninth in the league in sack percentage. They beat you up, wear you down, and make plays in the backfield.
The Texans have one of the better defensive lines in the game as well. J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney can dominate in stretches, while Whitney Mercilus and Christian Covington are solid role players. Watt and Clowney have 27 tackles for loss between the two of them, but the rest of their defensive linemen need to step up a bit. The Texans have four other players with at least four tackles for loss, but only one of them spends time on the defensive line — that would be Whitney Mercilus, who is joined by Kareem Jackson (5), Bernardrick McKinney (4), and Tyrann Mathieu (4).
Dallas and Minnesota have similar groups. They each have one great talent (Demarcus Lawrence for Dallas and Danielle Hunter for Minnesota) and guys that can come through in stretches to provide support. The Chargers are in the same boat, but definitely have the potential to move into the top tier with more consistent play from Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa.
A piece away from really making noise
Cleveland Browns, Buffalo Bills, Carolina Panthers, Detroit Lions, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Indianapolis Colts, Arizona Cardinals, Tennessee Titans, Green Bay Packers, Kansas City Chiefs
Each of these teams have a player or two that can really make life difficult for opposing offensive lines. Whether it’s Myles Garrett in Cleveland, Kawann Short in Carolina, Damon Harrison and Da’Shawn Hand in Detroit, or Jason Pierre Paul in Tampa Bay — these guys can make you pay.
The problem is consistency around them. Carolina and Detroit need help on the edge, Cleveland could use an interior ass-kicker to pair with Larry Ogunjobi, and Buffalo needs a guy to eventually replace Kyle Williams — even though they do lead the league, by far, in percentage of run plays ending in zero or fewer yards.
These teams are close to having great defensive lines, but they aren’t quite there yet. That could change with a bonafide free agent or a top flight draft pick, but as of now, they aren’t truly scaring teams.
Need to pour resources into fixing this thing
Atlanta Falcons, Cincinnati Bengals, Oakland Raiders, New England Patriots, Miami Dolphins, San Francisco 49ers, New York Giants, New York Jets
There are plenty of teams that need put resources into their defensive line this offseason. The Atlanta Falcons (Grady Jarrett), San Francisco 49ers (DeForest Buckner), and Oakland Raiders (Maurice Hurst) all have young players budding into legitimate stars, but the rest of their defensive line is in poor shape.
The Falcons specifically have to be upset with their current defensive line situation. Vic Beasley registered 15.5 sacks in 2016, but he has just nine sacks in 27 games over the past two seasons. He’s gone from a player that could get sacks in bunches to someone who offers very little on a down to down basis. With a cap hit of $12.8 million in 2019, his time with the Falcons could be coming to an end anyway.
The Bengals are in a precarious situation. They have a potential future Hall of Famer in Geno Atkins, but still haven’t produced much on the defensive line. Defensive end Carl Lawson suffering a torn ACL halfway through the season hurt, but he only had one sack and six tackles in eight games. Carlos Dunlap has been a solid running mate with Atkins again (the duo have 15 of the Bengals’ 28 sacks on the season), but they need someone else to step up and make a play for them.