Having a stout defensive line can usually separate the good defenses from the elite ones. The front four is tasked with getting pressure on the quarterback, as well as stopping the run and plugging up running lanes. The best are outstanding at doing both, but that’s not something every team possesses. In fact, only a few – including the Rams and Bengals – are so fortunate. Here are the top 10 defensive lines as we approach the 2016 season. The Broncos, Texans and Chiefs are noticeably missing from the list because their top rushers (Von Miller, DeMarcus Ware, Whitney Mercilus, Justin Houston) play outside linebacker, not defensive line.
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New England Patriots
The Patriots made a bold move this offseason by trading Chandler Jones to the Cardinals for guard Jonathan Cooper. It obviously hurts the defensive line greatly, but they needed help on the offensive line. Still, the Patriots are very strong up front. Jabaal Sheard has been a great acquisition for them, playing defensive end opposite Rob Ninkovich. Inside, New England is stacked with big bodies. Malcolm Brown was a steal in the 2015 draft, and Terrance Knighton was a smart signing. They’re backed up by Alan Branch with Chris Long and second-year pro Trey Flowers as second-string ends. The Patriots are better on defense than some give them credit for.
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Khalil Mack is one of the best pass rushers in the league. There’s simply no way around that. Mario Edwards Jr. is a second-year defensive end who exceeded expectations in 2015 and should continue to improve this season. Inside, the Raiders spent a second-round pick on Jihad Ward to play alongside Justin Ellis. Bruce Irvin doesn’t count toward the defensive line since he plays outside linebacker, but he has the ability to get after the quarterback, too. The Raiders are young up front, but Mack can have a J.J. Watt-like impact for the defense, which elevates everyone’s game.
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The Eagles will move to a Wide 9 front under new coordinator Jim Schwartz. It’s an effective scheme, which he had success with in Detroit and Buffalo. As a result, Connor Barwin will move to defensive end, joining Vinny Curry at that spot. The biggest strength of the Eagles’ defensive line is inside, though. Fletcher Cox and Bennie Logan are both outstanding run stoppers, but they also get great pressure up the middle on opposing quarterbacks. Brandon Graham is a strong backup at defensive end, giving the Eagles solid depth behind Curry and Barwin. How this scheme impacts Philadelphia’s defense will be interesting to watch.
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Like the Rams, the Vikings make their living on defense. The defensive line in Minnesota is one no quarterback or running back wants to face because it can stop both the run and the pass. Defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd needs to stay healthy and improve a bit against the pass this season, but he’ll be helped by Linval Joseph at the other tackle spot. On the edge, the Vikings have Brian Robison and Everson Griffen with second-year pro Danielle Hunter rotating in. Hunter was known as a strong run defender who needed work against the pass at LSU, but he showed flashes of pass-rush ability as a rookie in 2015.
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New York Giants
The Giants are on this list simply based on their offseason acquisitions. New York signed Damon Harrison and Olivier Vernon to lucrative free-agent contracts, adding them to a group that featured Jason Pierre-Paul, Johnathan Hankins and Owamagbe Odighizuwa. Despite being paid like a top defensive end in the league, Vernon still has to prove he is such -- because he hasn’t been in recent years. Having such a great core of defenders around him will certainly help. NFC East quarterbacks beware: The Giants are stout up front.
The Panthers were strong up the middle entering this season and they got even better with the addition of rookie Vernon Butler. He’s the third defensive tackle behind studs Kawann Short and Star Lotulelei. They’re bookended by Kony Ealy and Charles Johnson on the outside, the latter of whom missed seven games in 2015. Ealy is poised for a breakout year after improving last season following an uneventful 2014 rookie campaign. The Panthers’ defensive line can be more aggressive too, knowing Luke Keuchly, Thomas Davis and Shaq Thompson are behind them to clean up mistakes.
APJohn D. Simmons
The Seahawks have a nice combination of youth and experience up front. Second-year defensive end Frank Clark is poised for a breakout year on the edge and will push both Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril for snaps in nickel situations. Those two veterans, however, are studs on the ends and will play the majority of the time. Jordan Hill, Ahtyba Rubin and rookie Jarran Reed will all see time at defensive tackle, giving the Seahawks supreme depth up front. Though they may not be the best pass rushers, the Seahawks have some of the best run defenders in the league.
New York Jets
The Jets are one of only two teams to make this list that primarily runs a 3-4 defense. That’s a testament to how strong the Jets are up front despite not having a dynamic pass rusher on the edge. The line is anchored by Leonard Williams, Sheldon Richardson, Muhammad Wilkerson and Steve McLendon, though it’s the first three who are the biggest playmakers. All three are strong against the run and can get after the quarterback. It’s rare for a team to have two players of their caliber, never mind three.
Few teams are as long and athletic as the Bengals are up front. Carlos Dunlap is 6-foot-6, and Michael Johnson is 1 inch taller, giving the Bengals two long-armed defensive ends on the edge. Inside, Geno Atkins is a four-time Pro Bowler, and Domata Peko is a veteran run-stuffer. Rookie Andrew Billings is likely a two-down player, but he’s talented against the run despite his slide down draft boards back in April. The Bengals aren’t a team to take lightly when facing their defense.
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Los Angeles Rams
The Rams aren’t particularly explosive on offense, but their defense is daunting – particularly up front. The defensive line features names like Robert Quinn, Aaron Donald, Michael Brockers and William Hayes as starters with a couple of potentially solid players behind them in Dominique Easley and Quinton Coples. No team has a better front four than Los Angeles, with Donald being a Defensive Player of the Year candidate. If the Rams are going to make a run at the postseason, this defensive line is going to have a lot to do with it.