Edges are the new trenches.
As star running backs become rarer and less effective, team defenses can focus their attention on pressuring the quarterback and disrupting routes run by receivers and tight ends. That means 4-3 defensive ends and 3-4 outside linebackers who can both put a hand in the ground and rush the passer and also drop back into coverage on some of these athletic freaks are extremely valuable. We can also include 4-3 outside linebackers who often must cover tight ends like Rob Gronkowski, or 3-4 defensive ends who must play both the pass and the run on the inside.
This is not a ranking of "the front seven" but of the outside four, plus the depth behind them. It's also one place where the Jets finally rank well ahead of the Patriots. (Asterisks indicate 2017 NFL Draft picks.)
1. Houston Texans. J.J. Watt, Jadeveon Clowney, Whitney Mercilus, Zach Cunningham*, Christian Covington, Joel Heath, Brennan Scarlett, Tony Washington.
This is how a team makes the playoffs in back-to-back years with quarterbacks like Brock Osweiler and Brian Hoyer. Watt returns after missing most of 2016. Clowney finally started to realize the potential he had as the top overall pick in 2014, including three sacks over the final three games. Mercilus has become one of the top pass rushers over the last two seasons. The idea that all three of them could be on the field together next season -- plus the addition of a very talented edge linebacker in Cunningham -- is the one thing that makes Houston watchable.
2. Kansas City Chiefs. Justin Houston, Dee Ford, Allen Bailey, Tamba Hali, Tanoh Kpassagnon*, Chris Jones, Jarvis Jenkins, Ukeme Eligwe*.
Another AFC team with a superstar edge rusher and a handful of really talented supporting players. Houston had four sacks in five games last season. Three years after being a first round pick, Ford broke out with 10 sacks and 27.5 total pressures. Obviously in a 3-4 defense, how much the "defensive ends" like Jones really play on the edge is debatable, but with or without, this is a talented unit. Kpassagnon is a fascinating athlete added to the mix this year.
3. Minnesota Vikings. Anthony Barr, Everson Griffen, Brian Robison, Danielle Hunter, Emmanuel Lamur, Datone Jones, Elijah Lee*, Ifeadi Odenigbo*, Tom Johnson.
You can't overlook Griffen anymore, who had eight sacks and made his second straight Pro Bowl, but also finished seventh in total pressures. Robison had 26.5 pressures, Hunter had 12.5 sacks and Barr may still have the most talent of any of them.
4. New York Jets. Leonard Williams, Sheldon Richardson, Muhammad Wilkerson, Jordan Jenkins, Anthony Johnson, Dylan Donahue*, Lorenzo Mauldin, Corey Lemonier.
Williams led the way with seven sacks, but the strength here is really run defense. They allowed an NFL-low 1.19 yards before contact, and had the top run defense in the league per Football Outsiders. You can't run on New York -- but teams don't run that much anymore, so it's not as valuable a skill as stopping the pass. These are three of the best edge players in football, but will the Jets hold onto Richardson through the end of the year?
5. Denver Broncos. Von Miller, Derek Wolfe, Shane Ray, Jared Crick, DeMarcus Walker*, Adam Gotsis, Shaquil Barrett.
Miller, like Watt, sometimes enjoys the designation of "Best Defensive Player in the NFL," and he helped Denver generate the most pressure on the QB of any defense last season. Second year linebacker Shane Ray had eight sacks and 24.5 total pressures. The team lost DeMarcus Ware, but added Walker in the second round of the draft.
6. Seattle Seahawks. Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril, Frank Clark, K.J. Wright, Cassius Marsh, Quinton Jefferson, Kevin Pierre-Louis, Dion Jordan, Terence Garvin, Garrison Smith.
This could be the NFC's best defensive end duo, but widening it out to everyone on the edge plus depth, and it could really be the conference's best quadruplets also. Avril (11.5 sacks, 35.5 pressures) and Bennett (five sacks in 11 games, 24.5 pressures) were at the Pro Bowl together last year, while Clark contributed 10 sacks of his own. Wright made his first Pro Bowl and is a top-three outside linebacker in a 4-3 defense.
7. Los Angeles Chargers. Melvin Ingram, Joey Bosa, Jerry Attaochu, Kyle Emanuel, Jatavis Brown, Damion Square, Darius Philon, Isaac Rochell*.
It's hard to imagine that a division has ever had more edge talent than what the AFC West has right now. Every team seems to have at least two of the best edge players in the NFL. For the Chargers, that is Ingram (eight sacks, 34.5 total pressures) and Bosa (10.5 sacks, 21.5 total pressures). There's just not as much depth here as in Denver and KC.
8. New York Giants. Jason Pierre-Paul, Olivier Vernon, Devon Kennard, Jonathan Casillas, Romeo Okwara, Devin Taylor, Owamagbe Odighizuwa, J.T. Thomas.
His contract seemed insane (five years, $85 million), and maybe it still is, but Vernon had 61 pressures in 2016, 13 more than any other player. Can he turn some of those into sacks, improving on his final total of 8.5? Pierre-Paul had seven sacks in only 12 games and without a full set of digits. However, there isn't much positive to be said yet about any of the supporting players.
9. Philadelphia Eagles. Brandon Graham, Derek Barnett*, Mychal Kendricks, Vinny Curry, Chris Long, Nigel Bradham, Marcus Smith, Steven Means, Nate Gerry*.
Graham is the NFL's poster boy for being effective without being flashy or having high sack totals to stand out. He had 48 pressures last season (second in the league) but has never had more than 6.5 sacks in any given year. He consistently makes big plays. The Eagles added Barnett, one of college's top pass rushers last season, and still have Curry under contract at five years and $47 million -- that one still doesn't make sense to me, but he generated an above average amount of pressure in 2016.
10. Miami Dolphins. Cameron Wake, Andre Branch, William Hayes, Koa Misi, Raekwon McMillan*, Charles Harris*, Neville Hewitt, Trevor Reilly.
Wake is 35 but he was still one of the top pass rushers in the league last year, adding 11.5 more sacks to his resume. Hayes and Branch are very solid complementary players, while Harris and McMillan join the edge as Miami's first and second round picks this year.
11. Oakland Raiders. Khalil Mack, Mario Edwards, Bruce Irvin, Shilique Calhoun, Jelani Jenkins, Marquel Lee*, Denico Autry, Branden Jackson, Jihad Ward.
Mack is the star (26 sacks, 74.5 pressures over last two seasons), but he lacks reliable help. Irvin is good and had 33.5 pressures, but has lacked consistency in the past. Edwards missed basically all of his second year. Ward was a second round pick with zero sacks. There's one great player but potential for a lot more.
12. Arizona Cardinals. Chandler Jones, Markus Golden, Robert Nkemdiche, Haason Reddick*, Frostee Rucker, Jarvis Jones, Rodney Gunter, Kareem Martin, Ed Stinson.
Jones and Golden combined for 23.5 sacks and 53 pressures last season. The Cards lost Calais Campbell, but are hoping that Reddick (13th overall pick) can fill some of the void in creating problems for offensive linemen -- and I definitely think he's capable of that and much more. Nkemdiche's future is really up in the air after a regrettably poor rookie year.
13. San Francisco 49ers. DeForest Buckner, Arik Armstead, Solomon Thomas*, Aaron Lynch, Ahmad Brooks, Elvis Dumervil, Reuben Foster, Eli Harold, Tank Carradine, Malcolm Smith.
The 49ers are changing from a 3-4 to a 4-3, so there are some personnel issues, but strictly looking at it from a pure talent and depth perspective, San Francisco is fascinating on the edge. Thomas should be the star of the group. Buckner and Armstead are first rounders from 2015 and 2016. Foster went at the end of the first round, with some projecting him as being top-10 worthy. Brooks, Lynch, Dumervil, and Harold have all had their moments in the NFL -- though some moments have lasted longer than others. Even Smith has a Super Bowl MVP trophy among his hardware. It's a talented group on an otherwise very untalented team. Are there any trades brewing?
14. Jacksonville Jaguars. Calais Campbell, Dante Fowler Jr., Yannick Ngakoue, Paul Posluszny, Dawuane Smoot*, Telvin Smith, Lerentee McCree.
Again you could argue "Edge" here with Campbell, but the Jaguars run a 4-3, so he's an edge player opposite of Fowler, the former third overall pick who quietly had 27.5 pressures during his first healthy season. Ngakoue had eight sacks and an interception. Smith will get the "underrated" tag for a couple more years until he's so underrated that he's overrated.
15. Buffalo Bills. Jerry Hughes, Lorenzo Alexander, Shaq Lawson, Ramon Humber, Tanner Vallejo*, Max Valles, Ryan Davis, Gerald Hodges, Ian Seau, Reggie Ragland* (IR rookie season).
Alexander got the spotlight for getting 12.5 sacks (after nine sacks in his first nine seasons), but Hughes had eight more pressures than Alexander. So Buffalo has two good edge players, but are hoping for breakout (aka healthy) seasons from Lawson and Ragland to really feel comfortable on the outside long term.
16. Cincinnati Bengals. Carlos Dunlap, Michael Johnson, Marquis Flowers, Vontaze Burfict, Jordan Willis*, Will Clarke, Wallace Gilberry, Carl Lawson*, Jordan Evans*.
Dunlap flew under the radar as he had just eight sacks, but finished third in total pressures with 47. Burfict is a high-end outside linebacker when he can stay out of trouble, and Willis and Lawson seem like they could be good mid-round pickups from the draft. The Bengals edge defense has a significantly gifted end and linebacker but questions everywhere else.
17. Cleveland Browns. Myles Garrett*, Jamie Collins, Emmanuel Ogbah, Carl Nassib, Desmond Bryant, Larry Ogunjobi*, Tank Carder, Xavier Cooper, Joe Schobert, Nate Orchard.
What a difference the best defensive prospect in over a decade makes. Maybe Garrett turns out to be a bust -- there's really no way to know yet -- but there's probably a better chance that he becomes one of the best defenders in the NFL, and soon. Ogbah had a solid rookie season considering he had little help. Collins had 69 tackles and two sacks in only eight games for Cleveland, so even as a "freelancer" he was a huge upgrade to the Browns defense.
18. Tennessee Titans. Brian Orakpo, Derrick Morgan, DaQuan Jones, Karl Klug, Kevin Dodd, Aaron Wallace, Jayon Brown*, Josh Carraway*.
Orakpo and Morgan combined for 59 pressures last season, giving Tennessee a bigger threat on the edge than most fans may realize. Dodd, the 33rd overall pick in 2016, could be the X-factor depending on his health.
19. Washington Redskins. Ryan Kerrigan, Preston Smith, Trent Murphy, Jonathan Allen*, Terrell McClain, Ryan Anderson*, Junior Galette.
The names here lack some pizzazz, but Kerrigan is a premier pass rusher (11 sacks, 38 pressures), Smith is quietly a very good outside linebacker, and Murphy had nine sacks during his breakout 2016 campaign -- though he will be suspended for the first four games in 2017. But there are more reinforcements, as McClain was a solid free agent signing, Allen and Anderson go from Alabama to being top-50 picks by Washington, and Galette looks to return from a torn Achilles. The floor here is very medium, but the ceiling is quite high.
20. Atlanta Falcons. Vic Beasley, Takkarist McKinley*, De'Vondre Campbell, Adrian Clayborn, Brooks Reed, Courtney Upshaw, Duke Riley*, Jack Crawford.
Beasley broke through to lead the league in sacks with 15.5, and he really didn't even have much help in getting him there. McKinley seems like a decent prospect to add to the mix, but it's impossible to know what will come of his rookie campaign, so the depth and talent here still leaves something to be desired once you get past Beasley.
21. Dallas Cowboys. Sean Lee, Demarcus Lawrence, Tyrone Crawford, Taco Charlton*, Damien Wilson, Charles Tapper, Benson Mayowa, Jaylon Smith (IR all of 2016).
Lee had a career-year in 2016, making the All-Pro list for the first time. They added Charlton in the first round out of Michigan and are hoping for a mini-miraculous return from Smith, who is still a big question mark a year and a half after his blown knee suffered at Notre Dame. The outside of Dallas' defense looks decent but they could lack a great pass rusher.
22. Green Bay Packers. Clay Matthews, Nick Perry, Mike Daniels, Kenny Clark, Vince Biegel*, Ricky Jean-Francois, Dean Lowry, Kyler Fackrell.
It's a good spread of talent, but there was not an elite pass rusher on the defense last season, including Matthews, the six-time Pro Bowl linebacker, and Perry, who had 11 sacks and earned a $59 million deal in the offseason. Subsequently, Green Bay had a pass defense that ranked 30th in net yards per attempt allowed and 31st in yards.
23. Pittsburgh Steelers. Cameron Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, T.J. Watt*, James Harrison, Bud Dupree, Arthur Moats, Tyson Alualu, Leterrius Walton, Keion Adams*, Anthony Chickillo.
Pittsburgh totaled 38 sacks last season despite no player on the defense having more than five individually. That was a great reason to add Watt through the draft, but even his brother, J.J., took a year to become one of the best players in the league. The Steelers spent a lot of capital here, but I just don't see a single star on the edge yet.
24. New England Patriots. Trey Flowers, Kony Ealy, Rob Ninkovich, Shea McClellin, Derek Rivers*, Deatrich Wise*, Geneo Grissom, Lawrence Guy, Elandon Roberts.
There's not much to dislike about the Patriots, but they actually lost 50 total pressures by parting ways with Chris Long and Jabaal Sheard. The player returning who had the most pressures in 2016 is Flowers, who was third on New England with 17 of them. The Pats are great at just about everything, but there's a potential weakness in this one area. McClellin is a dark horse here for many fans and writers hoping that Bill Belichick is flawless.
25. Chicago Bears. Leonard Floyd, Pernell McPhee, Willie Young, Jaye Howard, Akiem Hicks, Mitch Unrein, Jonathan Bullard, Lamarr Houston, Sam Acho, Dan Skuta.
By the end of the season, Floyd and McPhee were arguably the most effective 3-4 outside linebackers in football. It may be a stretch to expect that to continue for a whole 16-game season for one of the worst teams in the NFL, but Floyd could definitely develop into a premier pass rusher and edge defender. Young, Howard, Houston and Hicks provide really good depth, especially Hicks who had 28.5 pressures last season.
26. New Orleans Saints. Cameron Jordan, Alex Okafor, Craig Robertson, Dannell Ellerbe, Alex Anzalone*, Trey Hendrickson*, Hau'oli Kikaha, Nathan Stupar, Obum Gwacham.
The Saints have one incredible edge player -- Jordan -- but the rest of their front-seven talent may lie up the middle with Sheldon Rankins and Nick Fairley. They'll need a breakout from one of their third round picks this year -- Anzalone and Hendrickson -- to support Jordan on the outside.
27. Detroit Lions. Ezekiel Ansah, Kerry Hyder, Tahir Whitehead, Paul Worrilow, Cornelius Washington, Armonty Bryant, Jalen Reeves-Maybin*.
An ineffective 2016 season from Ansah has most of us guessing about what's to come next in Detroit.
28. Los Angeles Rams. Robert Quinn, Connor Barwin, Ethan Westbrooks, Samson Ebukam*, Nicholas Grigsby, Morgan Fox, Ejuan Price*.
Quinn has basically done the same thing as Ansah, only a year earlier. After recording 40 sacks from 2012-2014, Quinn has just nine sacks in his last 17 games, including only seven pressures in nine games last season. Barwin can still be an effective edge player, but we don't know to what degree he'll do that in Los Angeles. The Rams' defensive line may be good overall, but most of that has to do with Aaron Donald on the inside, and they struggle against the pass.
29. Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Lavonte David, Robert Ayers, William Gholston, Noah Spence, Cameron Lynch, Adarius Glanton, Jacquies Smith.
David is perhaps the top 4-3 outside linebacker in the league, but the key here is the development of Spence, who some cited as the top pass rusher in the 2016 draft. Outside of those players, it's hard to get excited about Tampa's edge.
30. Baltimore Ravens. Terrell Suggs, Chris Womersley*, Bronson Kaufusi, Albert McClellin, Tyus Bowser*, Tim Williams*, Brent Urban.
Suggs could enter the Hall of Fame one day, but he's also turning 35 in October. They added three edge players in rounds two and three this year, which means that they could be a lot better by 2019 but it might also suffer in the interim.
31. Carolina Panthers. Thomas Davis, Charles Johnson, Julius Peppers, Mario Addison, Shaq Thompson, Daeshon Hall*, Wes Horton.
The best player here is Davis, who is now 34. Peppers is 37. Johnson turns 31 in July and is not very effective anymore. Addison had eight sacks over the last seven games last season, but how much of that will continue for a 29-year-old who had never had more than seven sacks in a year before?
32. Indianapolis Colts. Jabaal Sheard, Kendall Langford, Henry Anderson, John Simon, Barkevious Mingo, Margus Hunt, Hassan Ridgeway, Tarell Basham, Jonathan Bostic.
The main takeaway here, with the Colts being in last place, is that every team has at least a little bit of talent on the edge. Sheard had 24 pressures with the Patriots last season and he's been consistently okay for a little while. Anderson was promising as a rookie in 2015, but hasn't been able to remain healthy or as effective. Simon was a fair pickup from the Texans, but not a game-changer or anything. Indy ranked dead last against the run last year in DVOA, and the defense may not be getting better any time soon.