Last week we covered the big hog mollies in the middle of the line. Now we move on to the glamour position along the defensive front, defensive ends. The first 30 are found below, and if you’re looking for depth and a potential sleeper, ranks 31-60 will be released next week. Let’s get into the stud pass rushers making life miserable for QBs, starting with the obvious name up top:
1) J.J. Watt (HOU) – The crazy part about Watt’s 2013 was that he only had 10.5 sacks. He still dominated games and dominated the position along with the next player on the list. Honestly, do you really think he’s going to have another year like that when they’ve got Clowney on the opposite side? He’ll be back among the league leaders in sacks and pacing the DE position again in 2014.
2) Robert Quinn (STL) – It’s a shame Quinn doesn’t get the mainstream love a guy like Watt gets when he was just as dominant last year. 19 sacks, 7 forced fumbles and 10.5 run stuffs is a monster year and now that teams have even more to contend with along the Rams’ front four (aka Aaron Donald), there’s no reason to believe we won’t see numbers like that again from the Mighty Quinn.
3) Chandler Jones (NE) – Six sacks in his rookie season. 11.5 sacks last year. To say Jones is trending up is an understatement. Mike Reiss, who covers the Patriots for ESPN, doesn’t think 15 sacks is out of the question this year. He makes a very important point when referencing the addition of Darrelle Revis on the outside. A lockdown CB who might make opposing QBs hold the ball a count longer only serves to help Jones get to the ball that much more.
4) Greg Hardy (CAR) – Hardy is coming off one of those 15-sack seasons for Carolina, eight of which came in his last three games. The only thing slowing down his momentum is the pending court date he has stemming from an alleged assault. This could potentially cost him a game or two, but when he’s back on the field, he’ll be every bit the sack artist he was last year.
5) Jason Pierre-Paul (NYG) – After a season where he posted just two sacks and 27 tackles in 11 games, JPP is about as prime a candidate for a bounce back year as anyone you’ll find. The question isn’t his ability, it’s his health. He had back surgery last offseason, then missed the final five games of the year with a shoulder injury. Pierre-Paul says he’s feeling as good as ever and if that’s the case, a return to his 2011 numbers (16.5 sacks, 86 tackles) isn’t a stretch.
6) Mario Williams (BUF) – If you prefer safety in your early DE selection, I give you Mario Williams. He recorded another 13.0 sacks last year and is line for another double-digit season with all the talent that surrounds him on the D-line. The Bills are transitioning into new DC Jim Schwartz Wide 9 4-3 defense, a defense that was top-10 in sacks 5 of 8 seasons when Schwartz was running the defense for the Titans. Expect another solid campaign from Williams in 2014.
7) Cameron Wake (MIA) – A knee injury caused the 32-year old to get off to a slow start last season and he finished with just 8.5 sacks for the year. But Wake was rated as the 2nd most proficient edge rusher (4-3 DE, 3-4 OLB) in all of football in 2013 by Pro Football Focus. If and when he gets home on a few more of those plays this season, expect something more resembling his 2012 numbers (15.0 sacks, 3 forced fumbles).
8) Cameron Jordan (NO) – Jordan has a stated goal of 16 sacks this season, and good luck telling him he won’t get there. He led all 3-4 DEs in not only sacks (12.5) but hurries as well (50). After a career year in his first under DC Rob Ryan, Jordan gets to play for a second consecutive season under the same DC for the first time since he was in college. Seeing him get even more comfortable in this system is a scary proposition for NFC South QBs.
9) DeMarcus Ware (DEN) – I’m glad we already have some experience with veteran players heading to Denver because that picture just looks so wrong to me. Ware dons the orange in Denver after nine seasons and 117 sacks with the Cowboys and looks to bounce back from his least productive NFL campaign. I’d bet on it happening now that Ware gets to team with another dominant outside pass rusher in Von Miller. We won’t see the 19 or 20 sack seasons from Ware again, but 13-14 on this team is a definite possibility if his body is up to the task.
10) Muhammad Wilkerson (NYJ) – Quietly, Wilkerson has become a dominant force for Rex Ryan and the Jets’ defense. He jumped from 5.0 sacks in 2012 to 10.5 sacks in 2013. He’ll get his fair share of attention from opposing offenses, but with the other playmakers along the front (Richardson, Harrison, Pace), Wilkerson will still have his fair share of playmaking opportunities. Could he post 10+ sacks again? His upcoming contract negotiations would certainly be helped by it.
11) Jared Allen (CHI) – Another man on the move this offseason was Jared Allen. After a very brief flirtation as being Ware’s potential replacement in Dallas, Allen landed in Chicago taking over for another player on our list. The Bears had a dreadful pass rush last year and bringing in Allen and his 128.5 career sacks was a wise move to bolster it. He hasn’t had a season of less than 11.0 sacks since 2006 and he’ll be out to prove that he’s still got more left in the tank.
12) Carlos Dunlap (CIN) – Dunlap had a very productive 2013, registering 58 tackles, 7.5 sacks, and 4 forced fumbles for the Bengals. Most of this occurred with Geno Atkins on the sideline. Atkins will be back at full strength this year to alleviate some of the burden from Dunlap, but his running buddy Michael Johnson took off for Tampa Bay. Expect to see Dunlap moved around on the D-line as Cincinnati looks to find him favorable matchups to exploit.
13) Charles Johnson (CAR) – Despite Greg Hardy becoming the predominant pass rusher in Carolina, Charles Johnson is not a man to forget about. Johnson had 11.5 sacks last year in just 14 games and has averaged 11.0 sacks over the last four seasons. His tackle numbers have suffered over that span as his 31 last year were only half of what he posted in 2010, but I’ll gladly take the tradeoff if it means seeing Johnson get more one-on-one matchups than he’s been accustomed to.
14) Rob Ninkovich (NE) – Not very often do you see a DE approaching 100 tackles, but that’s exactly what Ninkovich did last year. His versatility to play as a 4-3 DE or a 3-4 rush backer means he puts up numbers unlike what you see from most DE qualifiers. That being said, Ninkovich still tallied 8.0 sacks for the second straight year and fits perfectly into a Bill Belichick coached squad where his do-everything mentality will again be on display in 2014.
15) Calais Campbell (ARI) – Campbell is one of the best there is at his position when it comes to defending both the pass and the run. His 9.0 sacks last year were a career high and his 7.5 run stuffs were just one short of his career high. Campbell lacks the upside of some of the other names on this list, but his consistency in both aspects of the game also give him a considerably higher floor week-to-week for the risk averse.
16) Ezekiel Ansah (DET) – Ziggy turned in a solid rookie campaign with 8.0 sacks and 32 tackles in 14 games. Remember though, this is a kid who’s still relatively new to the game of football and he will only get better as he absorbs more and more. Unfortunately, he underwent shoulder surgery this offseason that’s knocked him out of some offseason activities. His technique could still use some refinement, but expect year two to be better than a very good year one.
17) Chris Long (STL) – The emergence of Robert Quinn helps no one more than Chris Long. With so much attention focused on Quinn, the former #2 overall pick will have his fair share of one-on-one matchups and a good chance of getting back to double-digit sacks again in 2014. Even though his 8.5 sacks last year were his lowest since 2010, he did post a career high 6 run stuffs, so Long is definitely expanding his game as needed.
18) Olivier Vernon (MIA) – We expected to see a young DE burst onto the scene last year in Miami, but Vernon wasn’t pegged by many to be that guy. His 11.5 sacks last year more than tripled his output from his rookie year and coaches rave about his hustle and ability to defend the run. As Dion Jordan continues to find ways to sabotage himself, Vernon will continue to capitalize and make an even bigger name for himself for the Dolphins.
19) Chris Clemons (JAC) – Talk about going from the penthouse to the outhouse. Fresh off of a Super Bowl win with the Seahawks, Clemons takes his talents to… Jacksonville. He reunites with Gus Bradley and will return to a more prominent role with the Jaguars. That role could bring Clemons to the level we’re more accustomed to seeing him when he had at least 11.0 sacks each year from 2010-2012.
20) Brian Robison (MIN) – I might have a problem with the way he spells his name, but I can’t say anything bad about the man’s production. Not only did Robison have 9.0 sacks in 2013 (a career high), he was third in the league in QB pressures (83), behind only Watt and Quinn. Read that last sentence again: Watt, Quinn, Robison. The only detraction from Robison is that he’ll no longer have Jared Allen opposite him for defenses to focus on.
21) Jadeveon Clowney (HOU) – Lack of production his final season at South Carolina. New position. Recovering from sports hernia surgery. We’ve got all these different reasons to doubt Clowney this year. But the guy is still a freak of nature. And for the first time in his life, he won’t be the most feared pass rusher on the field. Clowney won’t be seeing constant double and even triple teams like he did as a Gamecock. If he puts in the work, like J.J. Watt kind of work, this ranking could look like a joke sooner rather than later.
22) Justin Tuck (OAK) – Welcome back, Justin Tuck. It was nice to see you doing work on the field again instead of just all those Subway commercials. After 9.0 sacks in 2011 and 2012 combined, Tuck recorded 11.0 last year, just in time for a new deal. Look, he’s only getting $11 million over two years but I have to figure that is way more than what he might’ve gotten after 2012. I’m always worried about these spikes in production in a contract year which is why Tuck is pushed down this far. If he goes out and proves me wrong, I’ll be the first to eat my words, and a footlong Italian B.M.T.
23) Julius Peppers (GB) – It’s very unPacker-like to go out and make a huge splash in free agency, unless of course it’s to sign a big name pass rusher. I love the addition of Peppers to this team as they’ll put him opposite Clay Matthews for a nasty 1-2 punch. Peppers isn’t the same guy he was in his Carolina days. At 34, you have to start wondering when the tread is coming off the tires. But he’s in a very good situation a la DeMarcus Ware in which he will no longer be the primary focus of opposing O-lines. I’d be shocked if he didn’t improve on his 7.0-sack season of a year ago.
24) Michael Johnson (TB) – I’ll attempt to keep my bias for a fellow Yellow Jacket at bay here, but I’ve loved watching Johnson get after it since his days in Atlanta. His last two years have brought Jekyll and Hyde numbers. In 2012, Johnson had 11.5 sacks; in 2013, just 3.5 sacks. The Bucs paid him this offseason like he was the 2012 version (5 yrs, $43.75 million) and I’m inclined to believe them. Putting him next to Gerald McCoy, Johnson’s numbers will look more like 2012 than 2013.
25) Everson Griffen (MIN) – Griffen got himself a big payday as well this offseason (5 yrs, $42.5 million) to stay with the Vikings and essentially take the spot vacated by Jared Allen. Ironically, he’ll also be filling the same position in new HC Mike Zimmer’s defense that Michael Johnson occupied last year. One of the major hurdles Griffen will have to climb is an increased snap count that could be in the 900s when his previous career high is only 717. His sack totals won’t be jaw-dropping, but another 8.0 sack campaign along with a few run stuffs should be attainable.
26) Cliff Avril (SEA) – 20 tackles in 15 games shouldn’t net you a spot on the first page of the leaderboard, but when 8 of those are sacks and you force five fumbles along with it, you deserve the accolades, including a Super Bowl ring. Avril had such an impact for the world champion Seahawks that they felt the aforementioned Chris Clemons was expendable. Seattle doesn’t lack for depth which could still keep Avril’s snap count lower than others on this list, but he’s dynamite when he’s on the field and will approach 10.0 sacks this year.
27) Adrian Clayborn (TB) – We go back to Tampa to find the man playing across from Michael Johnson. Clayborn was much better for fantasy owners than for the Bucs due in large part to his 14.5 run stuffs, tied with J.J. Watt for most in the league, 4 more than third place Robert Quinn. Safe to say that’s a rather large outlier for someone who only had 3.5 total in his first 19 games. Combine that with a modest career sack total (13 in 35 career games) and the upside here is limited.
28) LaMarr Houston (CHI) – Another run-stopping defensive end, Houston leaves Oakland after four seasons for Chicago. He’ll step in for the departing Peppers as the game of DE musical chairs continues. Houston was a wise add for the worst rush defense in 2013. But a run stuffer like him typically isn’t the most exciting add to a fantasy squad. The 69 tackles and 6.0 sacks he posted were useful, and that’s about where he should be in the Windy City this year.
29) Cameron Heyward (PIT) – The word that seems to surround Heyward’s place in the Steelers’ defense is cornerstone. Heyward started 12 games and really got things going in the second half of 2013, tallying 48 tackles and 5.0 sacks in the final nine games. He’ll be fully entrenched in the starting lineup this year and will look to build on a promising 2013 campaign in which he was second on the Steelers in sacks.
30) Michael Bennett (SEA) – I love it when Michael Bennett records a sack because then we get to see the sack dance. The only thing better than seeing Bennett do the sack dance is seeing him teach Papi how to do the sack dance. After resigning in Seattle, expect to see Bennett swiveling his hips even more this year after 9.0 sacks in 2012 and 8.5 in 2014. His versatility is more valuable to Seattle than it is to fantasy owners, but don’t sleep on his consistency.
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