In the wake of the Gerald McCoy signing to the Carolina Panthers, I’ve become glued to my computer screen trying to find the best defensive lines in football. Regardless of rookies or players signing with new teams in free agency, there are plenty of defensive line units to get excited about.
As the NFL has shifted into more of a “passing” league, there has been more opportunity to sack the quarterback. Last season, Aaron Donald led the NFL with 20.5 sacks, and the next closest was J.J. Watt with 16. Beyond just the box score, there are many productive defensive linemen across the league, whether you’re looking at Romeo Okwara of the Detroit Lions or Larry Ogunjobi of the Cleveland Browns.
However, not every team is going to have the luxury of a team like the Carolina Panthers. They’re running with experience and youth off the edge, but they also have one of the most talented interior defensive lines in the league. Over the last few days, I’ve examined some of the top defenses in the league and am projecting the following three teams as the best defensive lines in football. Since they inspired this idea of mine, let’s start with those Carolina Panthers.
After Julius Peppers opted for retirement, there became a need for the Panthers to obtain an edge rusher. They did so by signing Bruce Irvin in free agency. The seven-year veteran provides experience off the edge for the Panthers, as shown by his 43.5 career sacks. In Oakland, he played some of the best football of his career with over 100 tackles, 15 sacks, and 37 hits on the quarterback. He’s a season removed from his time with the Raiders, but he could be a one-year wonder for the Panthers.
Meanwhile, he’ll get to teach the Panthers’ first-round pick of the 2019 NFL Draft, Brian Burns. It’s no secret that I wasn’t his biggest fan in the draft process because I thought he lacked the work ethic in some key spots of games. His playing weight was an issue for me, but he still earned a first-round grade. Burns is a natural pass rusher and will compete with veteran Mario Addison. Don’t get it twisted, Addison has 29.5 sacks over the last three seasons; Burns won’t see every single down. He didn’t at Florida State and he won’t for the Panthers, either.
Finally, we get to the best part of the Panthers’ defensive front, and that’s defensive tackle. For starters, what’s not to love about Gerald McCoy? His one-year contract is a reasonable deal that can pay off in a big way for the Panthers. He’ll start right away and provides over 100 starts in his career, three-time All-Pro honors, and over 50 sacks. By just having McCoy, the Panthers have obtained one of the best defensive tackles in the league.
Kawann Short with double swipe technique— Russell Brown (@RussNFLDraft) July 11, 2018
-This is all about timing
-Good burst off the snap
-Power off your back foot
-When OL comes w/his punch, swipe at his elbows
-Force OL to re-apply punch
-Before he does so, swipe hands away + dip
-Rip through, bring hips around to QB pic.twitter.com/0VhlayOuCq
On top of that, they have Dontari Poe and Kawann Short. Starting with Poe, he’s entering the second year of his three-year contract. In his first season with Carolina, he had 17 tackles and one sack. He’ll play during certain running situations, but other than that, I don’t see him beating out Kawann Short. One of the most underrated defensive tackles in football, Short is entering the second year of his massive five-year contract and is fresh off a Pro Bowl season in 2018. He’ll play perfectly alongside McCoy, and this will be key to why the Panthers will have one of the best defensive lines in the NFL next season.
Projected Starters: Bruce Irvin, Kawann Short, Gerald McCoy, Mario Addison (Dontari Poe and Brian Burns will be situational)
Getting to the best defensive line in football, Jim Schwartz at defensive coordinator is going to make this wide 9 defensive front get after the NFC East with ease. Yes, I said it, Cowboys fans. Despite Chris Long retiring, the Eagles have plenty to get excited about in their starting group and some of the players that fall behind them.
Malik Jackson has recorded 158 total QB pressures since 2016 – fourth-most in that span among interior D-linemen. He finds himself on that list with his new teammate, Fletcher Cox, who is just above him. pic.twitter.com/XSvs4ql7mZ— PFF (@PFF) March 13, 2019
Fletcher Cox is one of the best interior defensive linemen in football. He’s coming off of a career year of 10.5 sacks and 12 tackles for loss. Cox is disruptive in the middle of this defensive line and has been an issue for offenses since his arrival in the NFL. It doesn’t stop there, though. This offseason, the Eagles signed Malik Jackson to a three-year contract worth $30 million dollars. He’s got a chance to create some new career highs in tackles, sacks, and tackles for loss in Philadelphia. After all, he’s coming off some of the best football of his career in Jacksonville. It’ll be fun watching how Jim Schwartz utilizes both Cox and Jackson in the middle of that front. I wish interior offensive linemen the best of luck — they’re going to need it.
Lastly, the Eagles will have Derek Barnett and Brandon Graham rushing off the edge for them. Barnett is entering his third year in the league and hasn’t really found the production he had at Tennessee that helped get him drafted in the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft. However, with Long long gone, he should see more snaps, and if he can stay healthy (which was my biggest concern with him), he should produce. Fans should be prepared to see Vinny Curry, Josh Sweat, or rookie Shareef Miller in the rotation for Barnett if he doesn’t produce.
Playing on the opposite side will be Brandon Graham. He’s been a mainstay since 2010 for the Eagles and has produced over 40 sacks in his career. On the stat sheet, he took a step back from his general production last year, but on tape, he was still running the arc and getting after the quarterback. Despite being 31 years old, he just got a contract extension, so he’ll still be used heavily moving forward.
Projected Starters: Derek Barnett, Malik Jackson, Fletcher Cox, Brandon Graham
New Orleans Saints
Lastly, let’s talk about them New Orleans Saints. They may have the best overall roster in football and a defensive line that’s got talent from top to bottom. Starting at the top, Cameron Jordan has been terrorizing quarterbacks since 2011 with a total of 71.5 sacks. He’s got a great blend of speed and power and is incredibly disruptive off the edge. He’s the leader of this defensive line and should be a player we continue to talk about for the Saints for this season and years to come.
Marcus Davenport had a great year for the Saints in his debut season pic.twitter.com/wdThVSeHHc— PFF (@PFF) February 24, 2019
Playing opposite Jordan is former first-round pick Marcus Davenport. He finished his rookie season with 22 tackles and 4.5 sacks. Not great, but not bad for a player that battled through a toe injury for parts of the year and had surgery on his thumb before the season. The future looks bright for Davenport, who also has a rare blend of speed and power. He was still raw as a pass rusher coming into the league and had to find ways to become more active and productive with his hands. He now has one season under his belt, and the expectations should be higher going into his sophomore season.
One of my favorite players from the 2016 NFL Draft was Sheldon Rankins. Coming out of Louisville he was considered undersized, but he’s shown that he has really good burst and has found ways to be disruptive in the backfield. Meanwhile, he’s coming off a career-high of eight sacks in the 2018 season. The bad news is that he tore his Achilles in January and is doubtful to be ready by the start of the season. Injuries aside, he’s a really good player, and hopefully, he can bounce back from a tough injury. When Rankins is not on the field, I’d expect David Onyemata to make plays with his experience in the Saints’ defense.
The Saints will hope that the signing of Malcolm Brown pays off in a big way without Rankins ready to play. Brown signed a three-year contract worth $15 million in the offseason. He’ll be counted on heavily on the interior of this defensive line. Despite not sacking the quarterback in 2018, he has always found ways to make plays along the line and should contribute in stopping the run.
Projected Starters: Cameron Jordan, Sheldon Rankins, Malcolm Brown, Marcus Davenport (David Onyemata should be primary rotational player/spot-starter at DT)