I am doing some NFC West positional rankings and this is one of them. Make a big deal out of my results.
This time, I needed to group the defensive lines together rather than grade individually, because of the different personnel needs in a 4-3 vs a 3-4. That makes it a little more complicated to rank the defensive lines, but it’s far from a stretch to do it; these are the guys that go up against the offensive linemen most of the time during the game, and that’s what matters.
Seahawks: DE Frank Clark, DE Dion Jordan, DT Jarran Reed, DT Nazair Jones
Rams: DE Aaron Donald, NT Michael Brockers, DT Ndamukong Suh
49ers: DE Solomon Thomas, DE Arik Armstead, DT DeForest Buckner, DT Earl Mitchell
Cardinals: DE Olsen Pierre, DE Robert Nkemdiche, DT Corey Peters
1. LA Rams
At least as far as starters go, of course the Rams should be ranked number one. Donald is the best defensive lineman in the NFL, if not the best overall defensive player. If not, honestly, the best player in the league period. Playing in a role not typically designed to create sack opportunities, Donald has 39 in his four pro seasons, as well as nine forced fumbles, nine batted passes, and he finished 10th in pressures in 2015, sixth in 2016, and eighth in 2017 despite missing two games.
Again, he’s a defensive tackle putting up these numbers in an ocean of edge rushers. With the addition of Suh, a Hall of Fame-level DT in his own right, Donald could face a lot less double and triple-teams, meaning potential new heights for the 26-year-old. The two together is going to be fascinating — will it really work up to the level that the hype is justifiably reaching? Because I think we all see how phenomenal this could be (for the Rams) but how often does “phenomenal expectations” disappoint? That’s what we’ll be watching for, but clearly this is the best defensive line in the division as of April.
And we haven’t even discussed Brockers, a former 14th overall pick who has somehow managed to survive the initial onslaught of big free agent additions without seeing his large salary taken off the books. With these three, there may not be any offensive line good enough to protect the quarterback consistently, let alone what the Seahawks have put out there for the last couple of years.
2. San Francisco 49ers
Buckner leads the group and he had 29 pressures last season (by comparison, Donald had 48.5 in two fewer games) to go with five batted passes, 61 tackles, and three sacks. He’s already very good, it’s just a matter of seeing if he takes that next step to join the elite defensive line company some day. Same goes with Thomas, the third overall pick last year, but he was quite underwhelming when you compare him to some other highly-touted edge rushers coming out of college.
Thomas had 41 tackles, three sacks, 17 pressures, no batted passes, no forced fumbles
Fellow 2017 draftee Myles Garrett dominated immediately, putting up 31 tackles, seven sacks, one forced fumble, one batted pass, and 28.5 pressures in only 11 games.
Joey Bosa went third overall in 2016 and had 10.5 sacks in 12 games as a rookie, even after a holdout.
Jadeveon Clowney dealt with too many injuries in his first two seasons to really evaluate.
Ezekiel Ansah had eight sacks in 14 games as a rookie.
Aldon Smith had 14 sacks as a rookie.
Khalil Mack had only four sacks as a rookie, but had 76 tackles and was considered a fast-riser and overall quality player who was in consideration for Defensive Rookie of the Year. (That went to Donald.)
The top-drafted DEs since 2011 who didn’t really dominate like that were Leonard Williams, Dante Fowler, and Dion Jordan. Williams wasn’t really in a pass-rushing position in the Jets’ crowded front-seven and Jordan, well, was not good. Fowler was injured almost immediately and has yet to really post numbers like you’d expect from a top-3 prospect as he’s fallen on the depth chart behind some premium defensive ends.
A lot of top-ranked pass rushing prospects do dominate immediately and to start “slow” is a consideration when evaluating a potential future for said player. Look at his teammate Armstead, the 17th overall pick in 2015, who started slow, middled slow, and remains slow with just six career sacks. I personally liked Thomas a lot in the draft last year and still do, but we can only really give these players credit for what they’ve proven, not just what we believe they will prove. There’s a balance to that type of evaluation, but it still leans heavier on what you’ve done than what you might do.
With that being said, Buckner looks very good, Mitchell is good, Thomas is still a quality prospect, and Armstead is hoping for a late-ish career breakout.
3. Seattle Seahawks
They’ve lost Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril (probably), and Sheldon Richardson. What more can you expect than a fall down the rankings? It doesn’t mean that they can’t shoot up the board with some breakout seasons — but then they’ll still have to find a way to retain Frank Clark.
Assuming that Avril does not return, Clark suddenly becomes the veteran leader on the defensive line. He’s got more years in Seattle than any other defensive lineman on the team, save Avril. Consider again what I said about Thomas and you’ll see that Clark had only 16 tackles and three sacks as a rookie, but he was also very limited in snaps because of Bennett and Avril. In a game against the Vikings, Clark had two sacks on just 27 total snaps. That was somewhere on the high end of snaps for him that season. By 2016, he saw a significant increase in playing time and had 10 sacks. Last year, they needed him even more and he had nine sacks.
Somehow we’re kind of taking for granted the fact that a Seahawks defensive lineman has 19 sacks in a two-year period while playing as the backup for most of that time. As the number one player on this defensive line, that could make Clark a target, but if the other guys play well, he could be on his way to breaking the 15-sack barrier. There’s also the chance that Clark is never as good of a starter as he is a rotational player, and we’ve seen him disappear for long stretches in ways that many dominant edge rushers do not.
Reed could be the best run-stopping defensive tackle in the NFL. That is real. He only has three career sacks but there’s plenty of value to having a Damon Harrison-like career. It’s just that I think Reed has potential to do even more as a pass rusher and we’ll see if that develops next season.
Jordan was very exciting in his short five-game stint (four sacks) last season. He was also cheap and available for a reason. Jordan needs to keep focused, not step out of line, and remain healthy, and yes, he could be the Comeback Player of the Year in 2018. Even if he did “come back” last season. I have hope for Jordan, but I’m cautious, and I think that’s the right way to approach it because we see red flags sadly pop up time and time again with certain players.
You could argue that Tom Johnson or Shamar Stephen will get this job, but assuming that it’s Jones (who is more fun to talk about anyway), he’s a high upside player who might have been Seattle’s second or third-best rookie in 2017. He might have the pass rushing prowess that Reed currently lacks, even if he’s not on the same level as a run-stopper. (Few are.)
4. Arizona Cardinals
The more I do these lists, the more I realize that the Cardinals could be picking first overall in 2019.
Key Defensive Line Backups
Seattle Seahawks: DT Malik McDowell, DT Tom Johnson, DT Shamar Stephen, DE Marcus Smith, DE Branden Jackson, DL Quinton Jefferson, DT Garrison Smith
LA Rams: DE Ethan Westbrooks, DE Tanzel Smart, DL Dominique Easley, DE Morgan Fox, DT Omarius Bryant
San Francisco 49ers: DE Cassius Marsh, DT Chris Jones, DT Sheldon Day, DE Ronald Blair, DT D.J. Jones
Arizona Cardinals: NT Rodney Gunter, NT Pasoni Tasini, DL Peli Anaue
This is always where bias comes in more to play than with the starters, because you’re always following “your own guys” on the bench more than anyone else’s. You’re going to have way more hope for Quinton Jefferson and Branden Jackson than any other fans in the league because you know who those guys even are. Maybe.
That being said, the Seahawks do seem to have the best depth in the division. Why? Part of that has to do with the fact that the Niners are the only other team in the division that’s going to need/focus on depth as much as Seattle because they run a 4-3. Naturally, the Seahawks and 49ers have more defensive lineman, need more defensive lineman, and defensive line is even a little bit more important to these defenses. That may not be entirely true with the Rams because they have two All-Pro defensive tackles, but that is quite the rarity among defenses and we’ve even seen LA emphasize the importance of their secondary amid all the 2018 offseason changes there.
And because of that, the Rams have almost no notable depth behind Donald-Suh-Brockers.
The Cards have perhaps the worst defensive line in football, but I haven’t evaluated all the defensive lines. They don’t have the worst pass rush though, it’s just that Chandler Jones is a linebacker.
San Francisco has a couple notable backups, but I think it clearly fails to match the level that the Seahawks are working with right now. Johnson and Stephen look to occupy a rotation at defensive tackle that Seattle hopes will resemble what they had in Richardson. They cost significantly less than Richardson, which was also important. These guys could both start on a number of defenses. Smith is a former first round pick who developed a bit in the Seahawks’ system last year, though you could argue he could be a linebacker and that he still wasn’t great in 2017. Jackson and Jefferson have each shown something in short bursts of opportunities.
Obviously, McDowell is the x-factor. Athletically, he could become one of the best defensive tackles in the NFL. I believe that. Physically, we have absolutely no idea where he’s at in recovery from the ATV accident and that’s been true for almost a year now. He may never play. He may play and not play that well. There’s just so little we know about McDowell, but he’s still a player on the roster and I think most teams wouldn’t mind having him stashed on their rosters either.
I think Seattle has the best depth and that pushes them over San Francisco for overall defensive line, but Los Angeles again ranks first in a positional category:
- LA Rams
- Seattle Seahawks
- San Francisco 49ers
- Arizona Cardinals
This is the third position ranking for the NFC West and the third time that the Rams finished in a distant first and the Cardinals finished in a distant last. Also the third time that the Seahawks and 49ers were basically neck-and-neck in the middle. Is this what we can expect in the 2018 final standings? We still have basically half the team to go, including the most important position of all.