NFL: Power Ranking the Top 50 Active Defensive Linemen

Cody SwartzSenior Writer IFebruary 19, 2012

NFL: Power Ranking the Top 50 Active Defensive Linemen

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    This is my sixth such top 50 list of the NFL positions, and if you missed any, feel free to click here for the quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, tight ends or offensive linemen.

    The defensive line list includes all the types of defensive linemen. There are 4-3 ends, 4-3 tackles, 3-4 ends and 3-4 nose tackles. Pro Football Focus is extremely helpful in showing the exact position each linemen played on a game-by-game basis and for how many snaps.

No. 50 to No. 46

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    50. Brian Robison, DE, Minnesota Vikings

    He played under the radar for the entire 2011 season, but Brian Robison had a breakout campaign. He started all 16 games at defensive end opposite Jared Allen and registered career highs in sacks (eight) and forced fumbles (three).


    49. James Hall, DE, St. Louis Rams

    He’s had a pretty underrated career for a guy who has never made the Pro Bowl or even played in a postseason game. James Hall put up a 10.5 sack season for the St. Louis Rams in 2010 and followed it up with six more sacks and 33 quarterback pressures in 2011.


    48. Alan Branch, DT, Seattle Seahawks

    Alan Branch is a key component of a very underrated Seattle Seahawks defensive line. He plays defensive tackle and rated as the third-best run-stuffing defensive tackle in the league, according to the good folks at Pro Football Focus. Branch helped the Seahawks' defense rank fourth in averaged yards allowed per rush.


    47. Jurrell Casey, DT, Tennessee Titans

    The Tennessee Titans got a good find in Jurrell Casey, a third-round rookie defensive tackle who started 15 of 16 games on the defensive line. Casey should be a fixture on the Titans for quite some time, as he’s a top player against the run.


    46. Matt Shaughnessy, DE, Oakland Raiders

    Matt Shaughnessy appeared to be a future Pro Bowler after a breakout 2010 season, but his 2011 campaign was lost due to a shoulder injury suffered early on. When he last played, Shaughnessy registered eight sacks as a pass rusher, and he’s also terrific against the run.

No. 45 to No. 41

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    45. Andre Carter, DE, New England Patriots

    Bill Belichick was able to resurrect the former first-round pick, squeezing 10 sacks and a Pro Bowl selection out of Andre Carter before a quadriceps injury placed him on injured reserve.


    44. John Henderson, DT, Oakland Raiders

    Back when he was with the Jacksonville Jaguars, John Henderson teamed with Marcus Stroud to form arguably the best defensive tackle combination in the NFL. Henderson isn’t quite the same player now that he’s on the Oakland Raiders, but he’s still an enormous body against the run.


    43. Brodrick Bunkley, DT, Denver Broncos

    He’s a former Philadelphia Eagles castoff who excelled after the Denver Broncos picked him up for the 2011 season. Brodrick Bunkley had seen some success in Philly after the team made him a first-round draft pick five years ago, but he played his best football for the Broncos last year.


    42. Ray Edwards, DE, Atlanta Falcons

    He went from playing with Jared Allen in Minnesota to playing opposite John Abraham in Atlanta. Ray Edwards saw his sack total drop from 8.5 in 2009 and 8.0 in 2010 to just 3.5 in 2011, but his 25 quarterback pressures were still a respectable total.


    41. Antonio Garay, NT, San Diego Chargers

    Antonio Garay bounced around the league for three teams before becoming an important member of the San Diego Chargers’ defensive line. Garay is a 320-pound nose tackle who is a good pass rusher and better run stopper.

No. 40 to No. 36

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    40. Michael Bennett, DE, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

    Four sacks doesn’t make a great defensive end, but Michael Bennett registered 28 quarterback pressures, a higher total than Jason Pierre-Paul. Bennett is also arguably the best in the NFL at playing the run.


    39. Antonio Smith, DE, Houston Texans

    He was rewarded with a Pro Bowl selection for his outstanding play at defensive end this season. Antonio Smith is one of the more one-dimensional ends in the league, as he’s awful against the run and commits more than his fair share of penalties, but he’s an elite pass rusher.


    38. Pernell McPhee, DT, Baltimore Ravens

    He had a terrific season as a rookie defensive tackle, especially considering he only played in situational downs. Pernell McPhee is a top pass rusher from the interior spot on the line, and six sacks is a high number for a fifth-round pick.


    37. Randy Starks, DE, Miami Dolphins

    According to Pro Football Focus, Randy Starks is the third-best 3-4 defensive end in the NFL since the 2008 season. Starks has been a full-time starter for the Miami Dolphins for three years now, and he was rewarded with a Pro Bowl selection after the 2010 season.


    36. Cliff Avril, DE, Detroit Lions

    He had a truly spectacular season for the Detroit Lions, racking up 11 sacks and six forced fumbles from the defensive end position. Cliff Avril will be a free agent, and he will almost assuredly want to test the market.

No. 35 to No. 33

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    35. Paul Soliai, NT, Miami Dolphins

    There are a ton of great defensive tackles in the AFC East—Vince Wilfork, Kyle Williams, Marcell Dareus, Sione Pouha—and Paul Solial often goes overlooked when discussing the best. He’s a relentless run stopper, though, as he’s just a big body in the 3-4 formation. Solial was a late addition to this year’s Pro Bowl roster, despite playing in fewer than half of his team’s defensive snaps.


    34. Cullen Jenkins, DT, Philadelphia Eagles

    There has been a lot of talk recently about whether the Philadelphia Eagles should cut Cullen Jenkins—especially since he is due a big bonus soon—but the reality is that he’s one of the most consistent defensive tackles in the business. Jenkins is one of just two tackles in the league to have rated at least 14.0 by PFF’s rankings in each year since 2008.


    33. Elvis Dumervil, DE, Denver Broncos

    He switched from outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme to defensive end in a 4-3, yet he’s still a fearsome and relentless pass rusher. Elvis Dumervil picked up 9.5 sacks in 2011 and earned another Pro Bowl selection.

32. B.J. Raji, DT, Green Bay Packers

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    After a Pro Bowl season in 2010 in which he played a key role in the Green Bay Packers’ Super Bowl championship, Pro Football Focus rated B.J. Raji as the worst defensive tackle in the NFL in 2011.

    Raji started the season strong but consistently received poor marks as the season went on. The loss of Cullen Jenkins to the Philadelphia Eagles had to have a negative impact on Raji, who saw more double teams as a result. The Packers also didn’t have strong pass rushers from the end positions, and Clay Matthews recorded just six sacks a year after putting up 13.5.

    Raji lacked the same explosiveness off the ball as he had in ’10, and a better season from him needs to happen in 2012.

31. Ray McDonald, DE, San Francisco 49ers

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    With Justin Smith on one side and Ray McDonald on the other, the San Francisco 49ers have the best 3-4 defensive ends in the league.

    McDonald hadn’t been a starter for the Niners until this season, and it took Aubrayo Franklin being released and Isaac Sopoaga moving to nose tackle for McDonald to get his chance to play. McDonald registered 5.5 sacks and three forced fumbles in 15 starts, earning a five-year contract extension for his outstanding play.

    McDonald was at his best in the NFC Championship Game loss to the New York Giants, picking up 2.5 sacks and four tackles.

30. Chris Clemons, DE, Seattle Seahawks

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    Whether he was just a late bloomer or benefited from Pete Carroll’s system in Seattle, Chris Clemons was a castoff on his first three teams before breaking out with the Seahawks in 2010.

    Clemons has picked up 11 sacks in each of his last two seasons, leading the team both years. His 45 quarterback pressures this past year were more than all but three defensive linemen in the NFL, and Clemons is fast enough that he can also chase down running backs on screen passes.

29. Ndamukong Suh, DT, Detroit Lions

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    You could make a case that Ndamukong Suh is the most overrated player in the NFL. After an All-Pro rookie season that included 10 sacks, Suh dropped off to just four sacks in 2011 despite the emergence of end Cliff Avril as a star.

    Suh missed two games when he was suspended for stomping on Green Bay Packers guard Evan Dietrich-Smith. He also wasn’t the disruptive force the Detroit Lions expected him to be: Suh lacked his prior explosiveness as a pass rusher, played poorly against the run, and committed far too many blatantly stupid penalties.

    If he gets his head on straight, Suh can be anything he wants on the football field. He was downright unblockable at the University of Nebraska, and Mel Kiper, Jr. called him the best defensive tackle he’s seen in 32 years. If Suh doesn’t be careful, though, he will be the next Albert Haynesworth.

28. Marcell Dareus, DT, Buffalo Bills

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    The Buffalo Bills made the right pick choosing Marcell Dareus with the third overall pick in last year’s draft. Dareus has perennial Pro Bowler written all over him, and he’s versatile enough that he can line up as a defensive end in a 3-4 scheme, a defensive tackle or even a nose tackle.

    Dareus played all 16 games, registering 5.5 sacks and 24 quarterback pressures, while playing through multiple injuries—an ankle injury in the preseason and a wrist injury late in the regular season. He and Kyle Williams give the Bills two almost unstoppable players in the interior part of the defensive line.

27. Osi Umenyiora, DE, New York Giants

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    Osi Umenyiora missed a significant portion of the 2011 season with an ankle injury, but he still contributed with nine sacks in the nine games in which he played.

    Umenyiora hits the free agent market this offseason, after finishing up a six-year contract extension he signed following the 2005 season. He has been a vital part of the New York Giants’ pass rush that has won two Super Bowls, but the emergence of Jason Pierre-Paul may leave Umenyiora expendable.

    Even at 30 years old, Umenyiora should command a large deal. He’s a pure pass rusher that can get to and pressure the quarterback, and he’s a solid enough run stopper.

26. Jay Ratliff, NT, Dallas Cowboys

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    He’s extremely underrated, and the Dallas Cowboys are very fortunate to have him on their defense. Jay Ratliff has made four straight Pro Bowls as one of the more undersized nose tackles in the league.

    Ratliff clocks in at just 290 pounds, and moving him to defensive end might extend his career so he doesn’t wear down from constant double teams. Ratliff is extremely durable, though, and he hasn’t missed a game due to injury since taking over as the starter in Week 2 of 2007.

    Ratliff rates very well against both the run and the pass, according to Pro Football Focus. He’s been a terrific find for the Cowboys, a team that was lucky enough to draft a cornerstone piece of their defense in the seventh round back in the 2005 draft.

25. Brett Keisel, DE, Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Brett Keisel has managed to play under the radar the last several seasons, even though he’s a standout 3-4 defensive end for one of the best teams in the NFL.

    Keisel’s rise into stardom has coincided well with the decline of Aaron Smith, a borderline Hall of Famer who doesn’t have much left in his NFL career. Keisel is a terrific player against both the run and in rushing the passer; he got to the quarterback just three times in 2011 but registered 24 pressures.

    Keisel has started 82 games over the last five years, terrific for a former seventh round pick that didn’t really make much of an impact for his first three seasons in the league. Keisel is in the midst of a well-deserved five-year contract extension he signed prior to the ’09 season.

24. Charles Johnson, DE, Carolina Panthers

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    The Carolina Panthers gave Charles Johnson a ridiculous six-year, $72 million contract after the NFL lockout was lifted. Johnson had recorded 11 sacks in 2010, and the Panthers likely wanted to make sure they didn’t lose Johnson in free agency as they had lost Julius Peppers.

    Johnson followed up his ’10 season with an equally impressive 2011 campaign, racking up nine sacks and 32 quarterback pressures. At just 25 years old, Johnson is one of the best young defensive ends in the league, even though he doesn’t really get the recognition he deserves.

23. Darnell Dockett, DE, Arizona Cardinals

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    Darnell Dockett has the versatility to play as both a defensive tackle in a 4-3 formation or 3-4 defensive end for the Arizona Cardinals. He’s been an end now for several seasons, and he’s a terrific pass rusher.

    Dockett complements Calais Campbell very well on the other side of the ball; Pro Football Focus rated Dockett as the seventh-best 3-4 defensive end in 2011, and Campbell as the second-best. Dockett struggled at times against the run, but his 35 quarterback pressures ranked him second in his positional group.

    Dockett has been rewarded with three Pro Bowl selections in the last five seasons and can make several more if he keeps playing at a high level.

22. Kyle Williams, DT, Buffalo Bills

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    He was the lone star player for the Buffalo Bills in 2010 before injuries derailed his 2011 season. If Kyle Williams can return to full form in 2012, he and Marcell Dareus will combine to give the Bills two standout defensive tackles.

    Williams was far and away the best defensive tackle in the NFL during ’10. He rated as a 44.9, according to Pro Football Focus, with no other player even topping a 27.9. Williams led all defensive tackles in tackles (58) and stops (50), and his 29 quarterback pressures ranked second among interior defensive linemen.

    In 2011, Williams played just four games before he was lost for the season with a foot injury. He has five years remaining on the six-year, $39 million deal he signed before ’11, and this was a smart investment for the Bills. Few players are as versatile as Williams against both the pass and the run, and he is a big part of the Bills’ future.

21. Vince Wilfork, DT, New England Patriots

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    It’s amazing to think that the New England Patriots made it all the way to the Super Bowl with essentially just one elite defensive player. Vince Wilfork is a huge body that excelled as a 3-4 nose tackle and now as a 4-3 tackle, a defensive switch that should prolong his career.

    Wilfork was at his best in the playoffs, playing perhaps the best game of his career in the AFC Championship Game against the Baltimore Ravens. Wilfork all but manhandled former Pro Bowl center Matt Birk, racking up 1.5 sacks, five quarterback pressures, six tackles and four stops.

    Over the last three seasons, Wilfork has played in three different roles on the defensive line—defensive tackle, nose tackle and even defensive end in 2010. Wilfork enjoyed his finest season in 2011, racking up a career-high 3.5 sacks, the first two interceptions of his career and two forced fumbles.

20. Richard Seymour, DT, Oakland Raiders

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    Richard Seymour is probably entering the twilight stage of his career at this point, although he’s likely a future Hall of Famer. Seymour has excelled at both defensive end and defensive tackle in his 11 years.

    Seymour has had a truly spectacular career, registering 54.5 sacks, primarily as a 3-4 defensive end. He’s spent the last two seasons as a tackle for the Oakland Raiders, picking up 5.5 and 6.0 sacks.

    Seymour is proving to be worth every bit of the first-round pick the Raiders traded for him in the 2009 preseason. He has made two Pro Bowl selections in three years, and at times, he’s every bit as unblockable as he was in New England.

19. J.J. Watt, DE, Houston Texans

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    J.J. Watt enjoyed a phenomenal, although under the radar, rookie season before breaking out in the AFC playoffs. He recorded a sack and an interception touchdown against the Cincinnati Bengals, and then 2.5 sacks and nine tackles against the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Divisional Round.

    Watt is just 22 years old, and he’s a good enough pass rusher that the Houston Texans may be more content to let Mario Williams go in free agency. Watt recorded nine sacks in 18 games (including the postseason), and he did that as an end in a 3-4 formation. If he played outside linebacker, there’s no telling what he would do to the opposing quarterbacks.

18. Calais Campbell, DE, Arizona Cardinals

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    Here’s another 3-4 defensive end that is among the absolute best in the game. Calais Campbell and Darnell Dockett were the only two 3-4 ends to play more snaps than Justin Smith (946); they accounted for 1,033 and 1,036, respectively.

    Since 2008, Pro Football Focus has rated Campbell as the second-best 3-4 defensive end in the game, behind only Smith.

    Campbell is truly an all-around player, but perhaps his most impressive attribute is his ability to defend in pass coverage: He rated twice as well as any other player at his position in this category, and recorded 10 passes defensed. He also collected a career-best eight sacks, two forced fumbles, his first career interception and 52 tackles.

17. Justin Tuck, DE, New York Giants

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    Justin Tuck actually had arguably his worst regular season since becoming a star, but he came through when it mattered. Tuck registered two sacks and three quarterback pressures of Alex Smith in the NFC Championship Game, then two more sacks, a quarterback hit and six pressures against Tom Brady in the Super Bowl.

    Coupled with his phenomenal performance in the Super Bowl win over the New England Patriots four years ago, Tuck now has four sacks in the two biggest games of his life. He is also exceptional at forcing fumbles, with 14 to his credit in the last five seasons.

16. Carlos Dunlap, DE, Cincinnati Bengals

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    The Cincinnati Bengals got a real steal in Carlos Dunlap, the team’s second-round pick in the 2010 NFL draft. Dunlap picked up 9.5 sacks as a pass rushing extraordinaire in ’10. He followed that up with 4.5 more in 2011 and an incredible 29 quarterback pressures.

    Dunlap is a future Pro Bowler for the Bengals, and he is part of a very underrated defensive line. He is also good enough against the run and scored the first touchdown of his career on a 29-yard fumble return this past year.

15. Geno Atkins, DT, Cincinnati Bengals

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    With two defensive linemen in the list’s top 16, the Cincinnati Bengals have the makings of a very good football team for the future. They get to the quarterback and pressure him, forcing him to make mistakes.

    Geno Atkins is an extremely underrated pass rusher. He rated as the best 4-3 defensive tackle in the NFL in 2011, leading all defensive or nose tackles in sacks (7.5) and quarterback hits (15), while ranking second in pressures (26). He forced two fumbles, recovered two more, scored a touchdown and earned a trip to the Pro Bowl.

14. Sione Pouha, NT, New York Jets

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    The New York Jets will lose a key player if they don’t bring back Sione Pouha, an enormous body that plugs the hole in their 3-4 formation. Pouha played sparingly for his first four seasons with the Jets, then broke out when Kris Jenkins tore his ACL in consecutive seasons and Pouha was thrust into the starting nose tackle spot.

    He was Pro Football Focus’s best defensive tackle in the NFL in 2011, finishing with a 30.2 on their rating scale. Pouha isn’t much of a pass rusher at 325 pounds, but he is terrific in defending the run and played over 600 snaps without committing a single penalty.

    Pouha is set to hit free agency, and at 32 years old, he probably won’t get a sizeable contract. He deserves to come back for several more seasons, though, as he’s a perfect fit for the 3-4 defense.

13. Robert Mathis, DE, Indianapolis Colts

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    Robert Mathis benefits immensely from Dwight Freeney on the other side, but Mathis is also a fantastic pass rusher himself. He’s a master of the strip sack, in which he sacks the quarterback and forces a fumble on the same play: he has forced an incredible 39 fumbles since entering the league in 2003, and he’s recovered 14.

    Mathis has averaged exactly 10 sacks per season since ’04, and he’s made four straight Pro Bowls. Even though he’s not a great run stopper, he’s so good rushing the pass that he’s been a force.

12. Jason Babin, DE, Philadelphia Eagles

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    Jason Babin was a colossal bust after going in the first round of the 2004 NFL draft to the Houston Texans. He registered just 19.5 sacks in six seasons with the Texans, Seattle Seahawks, Kansas City Chiefs and Philadelphia Eagles, before breaking out in Tennessee.

    Babin recorded 12.5 sacks under defensive line coach Jim Washburn with the Titans and then signed a five-year deal with the Eagles this past offseason. He excelled immensely in the wide nine defensive formation, picking up an incredible 18 sacks to go with a career-best three forced fumbles.

    Babin is a liability against the run, and he also committed more penalties (12) than any other defensive end in the NFL. He also benefited ridiculously by the wide nine, but 18 sacks is 18 sacks, and any team will gladly take that.

11. Chris Long, DE, St. Louis Rams

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    There are few players in the game as one-dimensional as Chris Long. He is awful against the run, is terrible on screen passes and gets penalized too much. As a pure pass rusher, though, there might not be anyone as good as Long.

    He sacked the opposing quarterback 13 times in 2011 and led the NFL with an incredible 58 quarterback pressures. He racked up 57 the year before, giving him an unheard-of 115 in the last two seasons. Long’s rise to stardom has to be a relief for the Rams, because for the first two seasons after being picked second overall in the 2008 NFL draft, Long looked like a colossal bust.

    He still needs to improve some other aspects of his game. He leaves something to be desired in terms of playing against the run, and he’s actually enough of a liability in that aspect that one could make a case for taking Long out in obvious running situations.

    But he’s such a natural pass rusher (obvious genetics passed down from his father, Howie Long) that it makes his failures in other aspects seem almost minimal.

10. Dwight Freeney, DE, Indianapolis Colts

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    For the last decade, Dwight Freeney has been one of the elite pass rushing defensive ends in the NFL. He’s been a staple on an Indianapolis Colts defense that quite often has lacked playmakers, except for its two bookend defensive ends in Freeney and Robert Mathis.

    Freeney has accumulated seven Pro Bowl nominations and four AP All-Pro selections among his 102.5 career sacks. He was the league’s sack champion in 2004 (16) and has registered double-digit totals in seven seasons.

    Freeney is second in NFL history in forced fumbles, giving the Colts a terrific pair of defensive ends that can both sack the quarterback and strip the football.

9. Kevin Williams, DT, Minnesota Vikings

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    Kevin Williams has been an extremely underrated defensive lineman since the Minnesota Vikings took him with the ninth overall pick in the 2003 NFL draft.

    Jared Allen gets most of the credit for his gaudy sack totals, but Williams has been a phenomenal defensive tackle. He’s terrific against both the run and in rushing the quarterback. Williams put up his two highest sack totals (10.5 and 11.5) in his first two NFL seasons, but he’s much more of a complete player now.

    Williams has missed just four games in nine seasons. He’s been to six Pro Bowls and been named AP All-Pro five times, and he was selected to the 2000s All-Decade Team. Williams has been the better half of The Williams Wall that has been stellar in stuffing the run.

8. John Abraham, DE, Atlanta Falcons

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    At this point in his career, John Abraham is starting to build a serious Hall of Fame case. He has made four Pro Bowls and accumulated 112 sacks since being taken with the 13th overall pick in the 2000 NFL draft.

    Abraham has averaged 11 sacks per season since 2007, and he’s terrific at forcing fumbles. Pro Football Focus rates Abraham extremely well; he was the third-best 4-3 defensive end in 2011, second-best in 2010, seventh-best in 2009 and the best in 2008.

    He racks up a ton of sacks even though he doesn’t have a ton of help on the line—Peria Jerry has been a bust since going in the first round in 2009, and Ray Edwards wasn’t quite the impact player the Falcons hoped he would be when they signed him from Minnesota.

7. Jared Allen, DE, Minnesota

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    Jared Allen had arguably the best season of his career in 2011, racking up more sacks (22) than all but one defensive player has ever had in a year in the league’s history.

    Allen has averaged 15.5 sacks per season since leaving Kansas City for Minnesota. He’s suited up for all 16 games every year since 2008. He’s also exceptional at forcing fumbles, recording at least three six separate times.

6. Jason Pierre-Paul, DE, New York Giants

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    The New York Giants made a phenomenal pick with Jason Pierre-Paul in the first round of the 2010 NFL draft, and they’ve already been rewarded with 21 sacks in two seasons, a Pro Bowl selection and a Super Bowl championship.

    JPP is outstanding as a complete defensive end; he’s a young Trent Cole in that he plays both the run and the pass exceptionally well. He recorded 16.5 sacks this season already, and he projects as a top-5 defensive end in this league for the next decade or more.

5. Haloti Ngata, DT, Baltimore Ravens

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    Haloti Ngata has been one of the best interior defensive linemen in the NFL over the past six seasons, and he makes life a heck of a lot easier for Ray Lewis and Ed Reed.

    Ngata can play nose tackle, defensive tackle in a 4-3 or defensive end in a 3-4. He is a huge man that frequently requires double teams. Ngata was signed to a well-deserved five-year contract extension prior to the 2011 season, and then made his third straight Pro Bowl and earned his fourth straight All-Pro selection.

    Ngata is pushing 350 pounds, but he is so freakishly quick and explosive off the ball that he takes up blockers and allows his teammates to make plays.

4. Julius Peppers, DE, Chicago Bears

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    In my opinion, Julius Peppers is the best defensive end the NFL has seen since Reggie White. He has been a Hall of Famer since the Carolina Panthers picked him with the second overall selection in the 2002 draft.

    Peppers is a seven-time Pro Bowler, five-time All-Pro and member of the 2000s All-Decade Team. He has racked up 100 sacks in 10 years, a solid average of 10 per season. Peppers hasn’t missed a beat since joining Chicago; he’s still as explosive and quick off the snap as any defensive end to ever suit up.

    His 53 quarterback pressures in 2011 were more than any other player in the game except Chris Long. Peppers is also agile enough that he can drop back into coverage and chase down ball carries, and he’s a great player against the run as well.

3. Trent Cole, DE, Philadelphia Eagles

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    Even at this point in his career, Trent Cole is still one of the more underrated players in the NFL. Pro Football Focus has rated Cole as the best 4-3 defensive end in the league for each of the last two seasons, yet he didn’t make the Pro Bowl either time.

    Cole has averaged 10.5 sacks per season since 2006. He all but assaulted Atlanta Falcons left tackle Sam Baker in Week 2, racking up one sack, two hits and nine quarterback pressures. He got three sacks against the Miami Dolphins later in the year. And he ended the season on a strong note, manhandling Dallas Cowboys left tackle Doug Free and Washington Redskins left tackle Trent Williams.

    It’s a shame he wasn’t rewarded with a Pro Bowl selection because he was consistently spectacular, week in and week out.

2. Terrell Suggs, DE, Baltimore Ravens

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    He was rewarded for a fantastic 2011 season with a Defensive Player of the Year award. Terrell Suggs racked up a career-high 14 sacks and seven forced fumbles to go with two interceptions, nine passes defensed and 33 quarterback pressures.

    He switched from linebacker to 4-3 defensive end in ’11 and excelled like never before. He is athletic enough that he can both play the run and rush the quarterback, and he can also drop back into pass coverage to defend.

    Suggs began the year with a bang, picking up three sacks against the division rival Pittsburgh Steelers. As the right end, he played against the opposing left tackle, and he turned in some of his finest performances against the best blockers.

    Suggs had five quarterback pressures against Houston Texans left tackle Duane Brown, a phenomenal player that didn’t give up a single sack this season. Suggs registered three sacks against All-Pro Joe Staley of the San Francisco 49ers and then a sack and two pressures the following week against Joe Thomas.

    Suggs switched over to right outside linebacker for the playoffs, averaging five tackles and two quarterback pressures in each of the Ravens’ two contests.

1. Justin Smith, DE, San Francisco 49ers

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    Since Pro Football Focus was founded in 2008, no defensive linemen had registered higher than the 47.1 mark Trent Cole put up in 2010. And then Justin Smith turned in an insanely good 59.9 season in 2011, the single best season by a non-quarterback in the website’s history.

    Smith was a key factor in the San Francisco 49ers’ division title. He was a force as a 3-4 defensive end against both the pass and the run. His numbers—7.5 sacks, three forced fumbles and a fumble recovery—don’t do him justice.

    Smith picked up 48 quarterback pressures in the regular season and an incredible 14 more in the postseason. He had at least five pressures seven separate times, and this is as a 3-4 end whose job is primarily to free up blockers for the outside linebackers to get the sacks.

    Here’s a comparison of just how good five pressures is: Jared Allen picked up 22 sacks, the second-best single-season total in NFL history, and he had five pressures in a game once. And that was as a 4-3 end.

    Smith is also stellar against the run, and he helped Ray McDonald have a Pro Bowl-caliber season on the other side of the line. Smith frees up blockers for NaVarro Bowman, Patrick Willis and Aldon Smith in the linebacking corps.

    Smith was at his best in the playoffs, averaging one sack, 3.5 quarterback hits and an amazing seven pressures in the two postseason contests.