Who will be the kings of the trenches on the defensive side this season? In this article I break down the top 10 defensive ends heading into the 2014 NFL season.
1) Robert Quinn, Saint Louis Rams: Last season- 19.0 Sacks, 23 Tackles for Loss, 57 Combined Tackles, 7 Forced Fumbles, 1 Pass Deflected
Quinn was the best Defensive End in the game last season, and I don’t see any change in that coming into next season. He ranked 2nd in the NFL in both sacks and forced fumbles, as well as first for tackles for loss. His 23 tackles for loss accounted for over 40% of his total tackles, which ranked 2nd in the league among players with 20 or more tackles. If you add his sacks to the tackles for loss then that is 42 of his 57 tackles coming behind the line of scrimmage, that is a jaw dropping 73.6%. This just goes to show how easily getting past opposing linemen comes to him. He forced 7 fumbles last season, and recovered 2 of them (1 for a touchdown). Part of his success is due to the fact that he is a hard defensive end to double team, considering he has veteran pass rusher, Chris Long, lined up across from him. Quinn is also just entering his prime this season; at age 25 is usually the prime of any sports player, Quinn is 24. He has shown a steady increase in production through his 4 years of NFL play, and I don’t see any reason for that to stop, unless of course he gets injured. I believe that he should lead an improving Rams’ team, to be a potential playoff contender.
2) JJ Watt, Houston Texans: Last Season- 10.5 Sacks, 22 Tackles for Loss, 80 Combined Tackles, 4 Forced Fumbles, 7 Passes Deflected
JJ Watt is one of the top Defensive Ends in the league, because he shows more hustle than just about anyone in the NFL. His 80 total tackles showcase his ability to run down players further beyond just the line of scrimmage. Last season I saw a play where Watt ran about 40 yards and tackled Marshawn Lynch, who is not an easy guy to bring down. Although he didn’t have his 20+ sack season he has had in the past, Watt was still the best player on the Texans, and was also still very productive. JJ Swatt, a fan favorite nickname for the star lineman, definitely has earned this nickname by swatting 7 passes, 2nd most among all defensive ends, and 1 more than Pro Bowl Safety, Jarius Byrd. His 22 tackles for a loss ranked 2nd in the NFL, behind only Robert Quinn, and his 4 forced fumbles were also in the top 10 in the league. With him entering his prime year of age, 25, Watt is showing no signs of slowing down anytime soon. It was a rough season for the Texans’ organization last season, but Watt should be a key piece in turning it around, as well as mentoring young star, Jadeveon Clowney.
3) Greg Hardy, Carolina Panthers: Last Season- 15.0 Sacks, 17 Tackles for Loss, 59 Combined Tackles, 1 Forced Fumble, 1 Pass Deflected
I have Hardy at three assuming that the off field drama stays off the field. Hardy was third in the league last year in sacks, showing that he is one of the key pieces to the best front seven in all of football. The Kraken, as most Panthers’ fans would call Hardy, truly came out of the blue last year, and helped the Panthers in a way that Carolina has not seen at defensive end since Julius Peppers. Hardy has the blessing of being lined up across from Charles Johnson, another elite pass rusher who happens to be a little further down on this list, but he has received criticism for not being his normal chaos causing self while Johnson is not in the game. With Johnson in the game he usually doesn’t get quite the double teams he gets with Johnson in, but even without Johnson in the game Hardy causes problems with his presence alone. Hardy draws defenders to him, which opens up holes for Luke Kuechly and a stellar linebacking core. As long as the Panthers are able to fill some key needs, Hardy should be a key piece in leading them back to division champs.
4) Cameron Jordan, New Orleans Saints: Last Season- 12.5 Sacks, 13 Tackles for Loss, 47 Combined Tackles, 2 Forced Fumbles, 4 Passes Deflected
Cam Jordan had a breakout season with the Saints last year. He totaled over 3 sacks more than he had recorded in his previous two years, and found himself among the top 5 sack leaders on the season. He was the core of a Saints defense that had one of the best pass rushing tandems in the league, in Cameron Jordan and Junior Gallete. He is underrated though, and doesn’t get the publicity that JJ Watt, Mario Williams, or other big names on the list get. Despite not getting his name out like some players, he certainly gets the job done and everyone should come to know who he is very soon. He is entering his 4th season in the league, and has shown that he has what it takes to hang among the best at his position. He should be a key part of leading the Saints back to the playoffs.
5) Muhammad Wilkerson, New York Jets: Last Season- 10.5 Sacks, 13 Tackles for Loss, 63 Combined Tackles, 2 Forced Fumbles, 3 Passes Deflected
Wilkerson, like Jordan, is just now coming onto the scene as one of the top Defensive Ends in football. He was one of the few bright spots of a very pathetic Jets team last year. Wilkerson accounted for over a fourth of the Jets sacks for last season, and found himself among the top 20 best pass rushers in the NFL. Wilkerson has another future star and Defensive Rookie of the Year, Sheldon Richardson, lined up across from him which helps quite a bit. At only 24 years of age, Wilkerson should just now be entering the prime of his career after playing 3 years in the league. He has a good ability to deflect passes, as he swatted 3 last season; he also had an interception to go along with those, the first of his career. Although the Jets are no team to get any playoff hopes about, Wilkerson is one of the few pluses on a struggling roster.
6) Jason Pierre-Paul, New York Giants: Last Season- 2 Sacks, 6 Tackles for Loss, 27 Combined Tackles, 0 Forced Fumbles, 4 Passes Deflected
Despite a very off year last season for Pierre-Paul, I still have him at six on my list. He was injured for most of the entire season last year with a back injury, missing the final 5 games of the season due to the lingering back issues. He was also sidelined by a shoulder injury acquired midway through the season. We have seen what he is capable of when he is healthy; just look at his 2011 season, in which he recorded 16.5 sacks. Now that he is completely healthy, or very close to it, he should have a 2011-like impact on the Giants defensive front and be one of the leagues top pass rushing threats once again. He is a pro at deflecting passes, as shown by the 22 passes he’s deflected over his 4 year career; only JJ Watt and Calais Campbell have recorded more during this span for this position. So even though Pierre-Paul has by far the worst stats from last season than anyone else on this list, it is impossible to deny his talent. I truly believe he will show that he is a force to be reckoned with once again next season.
7) Chandler Jones, New England Patriots: Last Season- 11.5 Sacks, 14 Tackles for Loss, 79 Combined Tackles, 1 Forced Fumble, 0 Passes Deflected
Chandler Jones was great last year for a team primarily known for their elite offensive stats year in and year out. Jones was the leading pass rusher for the Pats last season, and should reclaim that crown this season. In only his 2nd year in the league he recorded 11.5 sacks, finishing 7th out of all players in total sacks. Like Hardy and Quinn, Jones also lines up across from a veteran pass rusher in Rob Ninkovich, and it seems to show that it helps quite a bit to have another threat on your team to help hog up offensive linemen. Jones, like many others named above, is also under the age of 25, meaning his stats should continue to climb. Jones flies somewhat under the radar, and doesn’t get much of the national attention guys like Watt do, mainly due to the fact that Tom Brady receives most of the attention thrown the Patriots’ way. I think this season should be one that many will hear about, and Jones will have fans across the nation in no time at all. He is a key piece in what should be a very good defense next season after the additions of Revis and Browner, two big free agent acquisitions.
8) Mario Williams, Buffalo Bills: Last Season- 13.0 Sacks, 15 Tackles for Loss, 38 Combined Tackles, 1 Forced Fumble, 3 Passes Deflected
Mario Williams has been one of the more consistent pass rushers we have seen in the past decade, as he found himself within the top 20 pass rushers five out of the last seven seasons. Even as he hits age 32, I still see him as a top 10 defensive end in the league. He is a part of a good Bills’ pass rush, consisting of Marcel Dareus, Kyle Williams, Jerry Hughes, and himself. Williams was 4th last year in sacks, and 5th in tackles for loss. He is a dominant player at both the run and pass game, and is a versatile player between the outside linebacker and defensive end position. I see another big season for Willams this upcoming year, but there probably wont be too many more 10+ sack seasons for the veteran. If he can stay healthy, then the Bills could be thinking playoffs this upcoming year.
9) Ezekiel Ansah, Detroit Lions: Last Season- 8.0 Sacks, 7 Tackles for Loss, 32 Combined Tackles, 2 Forced Fumbles, 1 Pass Deflected
Ansah was just a rookie last season, but I see big things coming from the Ghana native this year. Although not having numbers that were off the charts, Ansah still lead all rookies in sacks. Ansah also got progressively better throughout the season, recording five of his eight sacks in his last five games of the season. He has only played three years of competitive football, which is pretty amazing for any pro football player. If he continues to improve at the rate he does, Ansah will be atop the sack list in no time at all. After the departure of Willie Young in the offseason, Ansah will also be the first string option for the Lions now, meaning he will play significantly more snaps then he did the year prior. The Lions are another border line playoff team for this upcoming year, but if Ansah can play like the top ten end I am predicting he will be, then the Lions should find themselves a spot in the playoffs.
10) Charles Johnson, Carolina Panthers: Last Season- 11.0 Sacks, 13 Tackles for Loss, 31 Combined Tackles, 1 Forced Fumble, 0 Passes Deflected
Charles Johnson, like Greg Hardy, plays on the best front seven in all of football. Together Johnson and Hardy tallied 26 sacks, the 2nd highest pass rushing pair in the league, only behind the Rams’ tandem of Quinn and Long. Johnson alone was tied for 11th in the NFL in sacks, and has had nine or more sacks ever since Julius Peppers left Carolina. Over the past four years he has recorded 44 sacks, seventh best during this span. Unless he gets injured this season, I don’t see any reason for Johnson’s numbers to decline. I think that he should put up almost identical numbers to last season, because even though he has no reason for his numbers to decline, he also doesn’t have any reason for his numbers to drastically improve. All in all, Johnson should help lead the Panthers back to being competitors in the NFC.