B/R NFL 1000 2013: Top 3-4 Defensive Ends
More than half the teams in the NFL run some form of a 3-4 defense heading into the 2013 season. With the explosion of the 3-4, fans, coaches and scouts are becoming more familiar with the difference between a 3-4 defensive end and a 4-3 defensive end.
During last year's NFL 1,000 series, all defensive ends were combined in a ranking that we later found to be confusing to fans. Why scout, grade and rank Cameron Wake using the same criteria as Justin Smith when they are asked to do two very different things on each play?
That led to a revised look at defensive ends—and outside linebackers—in the 2013 NFL 1,000 rankings. The 35 players you’ll see next are all 3-4 defensive ends, or at least they played the majority of their snaps there during the 2012 season.
As always, we looked for a minimum of 200 snaps from each player when evaluating their ability to rush the quarterback and stop the run. And in cases where two players' total scores matched, we broke the tie based on which player we'd rather have on our team right now.
35. Ziggy Hood, Pittsburgh Steelers
A good athlete on the edge, Ziggy Hood has some work to do. He’ll get washed down easily off the snap—blockers push him down the line of scrimmage toward the center to create outside running lanes. There are times when Hood is quick enough to recover, but he doesn’t come off blocks well when teams run at him. It’s one thing to be an anchor on the edge, but even anchors have to make tackles when the ball comes to their side. All throughout the season, teams ran at Hood because tackles could easily turn him away from the play and seal him off.
Hood isn’t asked to sack the quarterback as a 5-technique defensive end in the Steelers’ two-gap scheme, but he is asked to set up the pass rush off the edge. Hood has good first-step quickness and can generate some pressure with a bull rush. He’s not an outside pass-rusher and shouldn’t be used as such. Even though he is quick for the position, he doesn’t have the flexibility or agility to attack the edge.
A former first-round pick, Hood has good athletic potential and upfield quickness, but neither convert to production. Teams attack Hood with the run game, which is the No. 1 job of a 3-4 defensive end to stop.
34. Vaughn Martin, San Diego Chargers
A huge man in the run game, Vaughn Martin can be tough to move when he sits down and digs in his heels. He shows nonstop feet, but he doesn’t always get a consistent push against blockers moving to push him back. Martin will work down the line of scrimmage, but he doesn’t convert that to tackles often enough. He’s a low-impact player who doesn’t make big mistakes on film.
Martin plays with good leverage in the pass game and can push upfield if asked to penetrate the line. He doesn’t offer much as a pass-rusher due to limited quickness and burst off the ball. Pass-blockers can sit and wait for him to make the first move, as he’s not agile enough to use a secondary pass-rush move to win.
A good rotational defensive end, Martin still has some developmental potential left in his big frame. He could be a good candidate to slide inside and play nose tackle in the future.
33. Ropati Pitoitua, Kansas City Chiefs
A massive player on the Kansas City defensive line, Ropati Pitoitua is simply bigger than most blockers. Being so tall, though, hurts his leverage and ability to get under the pads of blockers to hold his ground in the run game. Pitoitua has great reach to make pull-down tackles, but he doesn’t win individual blocking battles with his height and pad level hurting his push upfield.
Pitoitua has a good pop-and-drive in the pass game. He will fire off the ball and can get offensive linemen to walk back to the quarterback, but he’ll struggle to maintain leverage. As soon as blockers get hooked under his shoulders, they can push up and cause him to chop his feet with no movement forward.
A likely No. 3 defensive end, there is some potential here, but Pitoitua needs to play much lower out of the gate and maintain that leverage throughout.
32. Kedric Golston, Washington Redskins
Kedric Golston uses his great size and strength to hold up in the run game. He isn’t the quickest or most athletic defensive end, but his feet are always churning, and he doesn’t give up on any plays.
He's a versatile lineman who can play all three spots on the Redskins line and see a lot of action in the middle on passing downs. Golston can usually get good push, but he isn’t able to shed blockers to create havoc in the backfield.
Golston is a capable reserve who can step in and contribute when asked, but he lacks the quickness and technique to be a starter or every-down player.
31. Marcus Spears, Baltimore Ravens
Marcus Spears may have the size to play defensive end in a 3-4, but film shows that he lacks the strength. He isn’t able to get any sort of push off the line and will at times take himself out of the play by misreading what the offense is doing.
Not much of a factor against the pass, Spears is usually on the sidelines on third down and obvious passing situations. He is slow off the snap, and he struggles getting any kind of pressure on the quarterback.
Spears hasn’t lived up to the hype of being a first-round pick in 2005, but maybe a change of scenery and playing with Haloti Ngata will help.
30. Jerel Worthy, Green Bay Packers
An active, athletic defender who is versatile enough to move around on the three- and four-man front, Jerel Worthy has major upside if he can stay healthy. Against the run, Worthy had a habit of hesitating post-snap, but he’s very quick off the ball and athletic enough to jam and press blockers into a backpedal. Worthy is quick in pursuit and can make plays from behind the ball.
A defensive tackle in college, Worthy was making a good transition to playing as a 5-technique defensive end in Green Bay. He has the first-step quickness to make plays against the quarterback, but he has to learn to not take himself out of the play by attempting outside rushes. He’s not agile enough to win on the edge and must focus on playing "B gap" pass-rusher.
Injuries marred what looked like a promising rookie season from Worthy. The Michigan State product has the skill set to be a factor, but how quickly he recovers from late-season ACL surgery will set the tone for his 2013 season.
29. Ricardo Mathews, Indianapolis Colts
A big body with the size to take over rushing lanes, Ricardo Mathews has to work on his awareness and reaction time. He comes down the line well to attack the run, but he lacks the quickness to recover for cutbacks and misdirection plays. He won’t make many plays on his own, but Mathews impacts the run game by using his mass to throw himself into rushing lanes.
Mathews doesn’t show the speed to be a factor as a dynamic pass-rusher, but he has a strong bull rush off the snap and will use it at will. Awareness can be an issue for Mathews, who seems to hold back at times because he’s not sure of the offensive play call post-snap.
Mathews is still developing read-and-react skills. He plays bigger than his listed weight and doesn’t show great agility because of it. Speed and conditioning need improvement.
28. Stephen Bowen, Washington Redskins
Stout against the run, Stephen Bowen has all of the physical tools to be a great 3-4 defensive end. He shows good gap control, but he will sometimes try to do too much and end up taking himself out of the play.
The Redskins like versatile linemen and like to move their big defensive ends, like Bowen, inside on passing downs. He has an above-average swim move and an innate ability to shed blocks. His sacks were down last season, but he was still able to get consistent pressure on the quarterback.
In his second year with the Redskins, Bowen took a step back. He wasn’t able to make as many big plays, but he showed flashes of returning to his 2011 form. The return of Brian Orakpo next year should also be a big help.
27. Tyson Jackson, Kansas City Chiefs
Tyson Jackson has lived under high expectations since being drafted in Kansas City. As a run defender, he shows positives to build on. Jackson is tough and will draw a double-team as a 5-technique. He’s strong enough to hold the edge and can stop blockers coming off the ball. We noted too many times where he was playing high in his leverage, though, and getting pushed inside when the run was to his side.
Jackson didn’t provide much pass-rush help, even taking into consideration the Chiefs’ scheme. We didn’t see impact plays from Jackson, such as pressures or hurries. He’s a big player who doesn’t move well laterally. Despite a good first step, he doesn’t build momentum to collapse the pocket. Jackson will fight with blockers and doesn’t give up on the play, which results in some coverage sacks, but there’s not much pass rush here.
Jackson took a pay cut to stay in Kansas City for another season. He’ll need to use the 2013 season to show more burst and pressure in the passing game while maintaining his strength against the run.
26. Cory Redding, Indianapolis Colts
As the starting left end, Cory Redding is facing off with big, nasty right tackles on every play. The men he goes against are bigger and stronger, keeping Redding from being a factor in the run game. Redding is an active chase-tackler, and he will make plays from behind or when scraping down the line of scrimmage. But he lacks the base to hold his spot on the defensive line and stuff the run.
Quick in space, Redding has the ability to line up in a number of spots to attack the defense. While he didn’t show the ability to close the gap and secure sacks on film, Redding put considerable pressure on the passer last season. The Colts liked Redding to use his speed to draw the attention of tackles and then loop an outside linebacker around him.
Redding was a great veteran presence for the Colts in 2012. He can be a bigger impact in 2013 with a stronger nose tackle drawing double-teams and if moved around to find a better matchup on passing downs.
25. Darnell Dockett, Arizona Cardinals
Being too aggressive as a defensive end can result in poor run-defending skills. That’s what we saw from Darnell Dockett in 2012. He was in such a hurry to get upfield and attack the backfield that he surrendered the edge and allowed runs off his outside shoulder far too often. Dockett has a good motor and good strength and is quick off the ball, but he had a “quarterback-or-bust” mentality in 2012 that severely limited his run defense.
A strong player off the ball, Dockett doesn’t have the speed to chase down quarterbacks in the pocket. His best move is a bull rush that will walk back the right tackle. But if that tackle has a chance to reset his feet, Dockett can be controlled. The term “double-team” can be overused, but Dockett genuinely drew double-teams often last year on passing downs. He showed a good power move, but he couldn’t follow that up or counter to the outside with any success.
Dockett didn’t get synced up in the Cardinals’ game plan last season, and it showed on the field. While still an active pass-rusher, he wasn’t able to finish plays and consistently generate pressures on the quarterback. The run game was similar, with teams choosing to go at Dockett by season’s end.
24. C.J. Wilson, Green Bay Packers
A balanced defender who shows average burst, C.J. Wilson grabbed our attention with his ability to play inside or outside on the Green Bay line. Wilson does a good job to keep his feet moving against the run, and he’ll push the blocker back with consistency. Wilson knows how to move laterally to clog lanes once engaged by blockers.
More of a chaser when asked to rush the quarterback, Wilson doesn’t have the strength to collapse the pocket with a bull rush. He did show enough quickness to split gaps and cause panic from guards who were left trying to catch him. The key for Wilson is to keep moving and not hesitate after the snap.
The former seventh-round pick has made big strides in his development with Green Bay, enough so that he will be competing for a starting job heading into 2013.
23. Fili Moala, Indianapolis Colts
A solid run defender with good strength, Fili Moala won’t get much push upfield when blockers meet him head on. Moala is more of a chase-and-tackle end who will come down the line and attack backside plays. He can get walked out of his spot on the line and open himself up to run plays by being too aggressive.
Moala is a gap-splitting pass-rusher who shows a nice first step off the ball. He can be productive and active, but he has to consistently play with better leverage. We saw too many plays where Moala was getting his back bent by linemen and having his pad level taken out early. He’s quick enough and strong enough to be a factor here.
A torn right ACL ended Moala’s season in late November, but the team felt good enough to bring him back for the 2013 season. He’ll likely be a situational pass-rusher at defensive tackle.
22. Brett Keisel, Pittsburgh Steelers
A true two-gap run defender, Brett Keisel isn’t asked to get penetration off the snap, but he is asked to clog lanes and make tackles. This is what the big man does best. Keisel has a strong, quick first step, but it's not one that converts to speed to work down the line and make tackles. Instead, he will anchor the right edge of the defense and tie up blockers so his linebackers can make plays on the ball. An efficient run defender, Keisel won’t miss tackles when he’s coming off blockers to attack the ball.
A limited pass-rusher, Keisel is used much more effectively when he’s tying up blockers and allowing the outside linebackers to crash the edge and rush the quarterback. Keisel has a good power move, but he isn’t quick enough to attack the edge and run down quarterbacks. He will pick up sacks off pressure when quarterbacks are scrambling into his reach.
A tough, tone-setting defensive end, Keisel won’t make highlight-reel quarterback sacks, but he’ll be the guy setting up that backbreaking play on the defensive line. His value comes as a run defender and leader on the Steelers defense.
21. Jarvis Jenkins, Washington Redskins
A true run-stopper, Jarvis Jenkins sees most of his action on first and second down. He is quick off the ball and is able to get good push on running plays. Jenkins is a solid tackler who doesn’t miss many opportunities when they present themselves.
Jenkins doesn’t posses many pass-rushing moves, and he doesn’t have the quickness to blow by his opponent. Until he shows some improvement in his technique, he is better suited being on the sidelines in passing situations.
Coming off a torn ACL injury that caused him to miss his rookie season, there were signs that Jenkins could become an excellent run-stopping defensive end in this league. If he can develop any sort of pass rush, he could see himself near the top of this list in the upcoming years.
20. Drake Nevis, Indianapolis Colts
A team with a strong run game, like Tennessee, will push Drake Nevis around if it can get the angle on him off the ball. He showed good ability to sit and anchor off the edge and control outside gaps. Holding down the left side of the defensive line, Nevis saw a lot of runs his way, and he did a good job not only stuffing lanes but coming off to make tackles.
Nevis showed good quickness off the ball, flashing the ability that made him a fierce pass-rusher at LSU. The Colts’ 3-4 doesn’t ask much of the defensive ends on passing downs, which suits Nevis’ limited ability to beat tackles in one-on-one situations. Nevis would likely be better off in a one-gap scheme as a pass-rusher.
Limited in his second season due to injury, Nevis has potential to fight for a starting job in 2013. He’s the best run-stopping defensive end the team has.
19. Quinton Coples, New York Jets
A rotational defensive end for the Jets, Quinton Coples is a versatile, athletic defender. He can lack strength at the point of attack and will get blown out of the hole off the snap at times. Awareness and recognition were a struggle for the rookie, as too often the ball would go underneath or outside without him making a play on it. This is common for first-year players because they are so focused on the physical aspect of the game that they often miss on reads.
The Jets’ most productive pass-rusher, Coples is athletic enough to be moved around pre-snap and can be a mismatch against offensive tackles on the edge. This allowed him to use his speed, and it put him in a situation where he wasn’t overpowered on every play. Despite not being a quick-twitch athlete, Coples does show good flexibility to bend and move on the edge.
A good player for the Jets’ hybrid defense, Coples adjusted quickly to the NFL game as a pass-rusher. His ability against the run needs some work before Rex Ryan can trust him as an every-down player.
18. Mike Neal, Green Bay Packers
A one-trick specialist in the Green Bay defense, Mike Neal hasn’t yet found his spot as a run defender. He’ll get pushed around at the line if asked to stack blockers and read the play. You ideally want Neal in pass-rushing situations or in a one-gap scheme if asked to stop the run. He’s not strong enough to take on blockers and hold his ground.
One of our favorite 3-4 ends to watch, Neal has the quickness of an outside linebacker in pass-rushing situations. He’s quick enough to win at the line of scrimmage and set up inside or outside rushes. Neal is good in quarterback pursuit thanks to excellent closing speed. He’s not great in one-on-one situations due to strength issues, but he gets a lot of attention from the line when pass rushing. Neal might even be able to stand up and rush the passer.
The Packers have a versatile, attacking defensive lineman on their hands with Mike Neal. He had a rough year with a suspension and multiple injuries, but he flashed a ton of promise when on the field.
17. Tyrone Crawford, Dallas Cowboys
A rookie contributor in the Cowboys’ 3-4 scheme, Tyrone Crawford played well when called upon. A quick player off the snap, Crawford was beaten early in plays by giving up leverage when he played too high. Offensive linemen got inside his pads due to a big target on his chest with his back straight and head up. He’s quick enough to be an effective run-stopper, but as an anchor holding up the edge, Crawford didn’t consistently show the strength to keep the run from going outside.
Crawford has the quickness to come off the ball, jam into the blocker and then create separation to rush the quarterback. He’s a constantly moving presence, which can throw off tackles who are struggling for foot placement and hand positioning. In his first season, Crawford didn’t do well to close on the quarterback in space and will need to work on this.
A promising young player with the athletic ability to be a versatile player on the Cowboys defensive line, Crawford’s goals for 2013 will include increased strength at the point of attack and better flexibility to close on the quarterback in the pass rush.
16. Kendall Reyes, San Diego Chargers
A rookie in 2012, Kendall Reyes struggled adjusting to the run game in his first season. Reyes does show positives—active feet, quick hands and good vision—but he lacked the strength to simply squat and stand his ground against the run. Teams came at Reyes and were able to wall him off and move him out of rushing lanes. He has to get better at taking up space and preventing runs off his corner.
A much better pass-rusher initially, Reyes has natural quickness to attack gaps and go after the quarterback. He’s a bully when being pass-blocked and will use his hands to create separation. At this point, Reyes is much better going inside as opposed to trying to win in space against tackles. Reyes has the length to eventually take the pressures he’s getting now and turn them into sacks. Less hesitation off the ball will be key for him.
A developing player who really turned it on late in the year, Reyes was asked to play a new position in 2012 and took some time to get comfortable. But he was flat-out impressive down the stretch.
15. Cameron Heyward, Pittsburgh Steelers
A rotational player on the Steelers defensive line, Cameron Heyward should have seen more playing time. Heyward was the Steelers’ most balanced end on the season, showing the quickness off the ball to frustrate tackles. He has to improve his read-and-react skills, but from a pure physical standpoint, he’s the best they have. While not used to a two-gap scheme, Heyward showed good strength to clog rushing lanes and come free to make tackles.
In limited snaps, Heyward wasn’t able to make a huge impact on the season. But his quickness as a pass-rusher will be an improvement for the Steelers on the edge. He has to do a better job reading pass and getting upfield, but Heyward does show the immediate strength to tie up tackles to free an outside pass rush. That’s a key in this 3-4 defense. Heyward shows the quickness to get outside the tackle and make plays, but he would be best served splitting the guard/tackle B-gap and pressuring the pocket from inside.
A second-year player who saw limited snaps in 2012, Heyward has potential to come in as a starter in 2013 and upgrade the front three in Pittsburgh.
14. Pernell McPhee, Baltimore Ravens
Pernell McPhee is a good run defender on the edge and in space. But when asked to play in a gap-control defense, he’s not strong enough to command a double-team and tie up blockers. McPhee is more of a traditional defensive end who will come upfield and then chase the ball, but he does make stops in the run game. McPhee isn’t at his best with the run coming straight on.
A fast, disruptive presence as a pass-rusher, McPhee didn’t have big production last year but has to be counted on as a potential nightmare for offenses. McPhee is athletic enough to play inside or outside for the Ravens. He can come off the ball and generate pressure off the edge and is quick enough to give offensive tackles problems in space. The key for McPhee will be to hone in on quarterbacks and create sacks and pressures with his burst. He struggles now to convert speed to power.
McPhee is an exciting athlete with high potential, but he has yet to turn that into a full season of production. A great fit in a versatile scheme, McPhee needs to see more playing time in 2013.
13. Glenn Dorsey, San Francisco 49ers
One of the more stout defenders in the NFL at the point of attack, Glenn Dorsey holds his ground well against the run. With natural leverage, Dorsey is tough to move off his spot, and he has the nonstop motor to push and fight his way through blockers. He doesn’t have great length to make tackles when engaged by blockers and won’t show up on backside runs much. With his build and strength, Dorsey might be best served playing more inside as a nose tackle or one-technique.
A limited pass-rusher in some respects due to the Chiefs’ two-gap scheme, Dorsey has a quick first step and makes up ground in the first three yards, but he doesn’t convert pressure to sacks. He has short arms and will cause pressure in the pocket, but not takedowns. He’ll fight through double-teams, but he doesn’t have an outside pass-rush move.
An experienced 5-technique defensive end, Dorsey is strong at the point of attack and can be a tough player to get moved off the edge against the run. In the right scheme, Dorsey could show more pass-rushing talent. The 49ers were smart to grab him in free agency.
12. Arthur Jones, Baltimore Ravens
An athlete playing in the Ravens’ hybrid 3-4 scheme, Arthur Jones is at his best in pursuit against the run. As a true anchor, he doesn’t show the strength to hold up consistently, but he's quick enough to make plays down the line in pursuit. Jones doesn’t have the base strength to take on blockers and stop the run. When the ball is away, Jones is aggressive and fast to come down the line and make a play from behind.
Jones can be too aggressive off the ball and will open himself up to misdirection off his backside. He may be better off in a scheme that lets him split the gaps and attack from inside the line. In Baltimore, he’s asked to be more of a read-and-react player down on the line of scrimmage. Jones can get a little high at times, which makes him easy to reroute for an offensive lineman.
An up-and-comer at the defensive end position, Jones has unreal athletic ability and natural quickness to influence the offense. He still needs work as a technician, but his raw ability is exciting.
11. B.J. Raji, Green Bay Packers
An almost unmovable force against the run, B.J. Raji is so big and so strong that offensive linemen have trouble moving him off the line, no matter where he’s lined up. Raji won’t get moved in the run game, but he doesn’t make many plays either. He’ll set up tackles for the players around him instead.
Each week, Raji seemed to get better. By season’s end, he was back to splitting gaps and crashing the pocket. Raji has the speed to split gaps and make a play in the backfield. He plays tall, though, and offensive linemen can get into his pads because of this. Raji runs hot and cold and will go through streaks of invisibility.
One of the most naturally gifted players at the position, Raji can play nose tackle or defensive end equally well. He’s an example of a gifted player who doesn’t show up on the stat sheet each week but has a big impact on the game.
10. Mike DeVito, Kansas City Chiefs
A two-down player, Mike DeVito is a monster against the run. Playing mostly as a 5-technique (head up on the right tackle), he has the strength to come off the ball and stun the tackle with a power move. While not quick in space, DeVito has a good first step and can quickly get into the body of a blocker to drive them back. He has a nonstop motor against the run and will fight and claw for positioning. He’s stout enough to keep the edge and not let blockers get upfield against him. DeVito makes tackles and causes a lot of tackles to be made by clogging lanes and disrupting the run game.
Not a natural pass-rusher, DeVito generates pressure by fighting upfield. He has a strong bull rush but doesn’t show the speed or quickness to give chase in the pocket. If DeVito makes a play on the quarterback, it’s by collapsing the pocket or a quarterback stepping up into his grasp. He is a player who creates opportunities, though, and his strength against tackles allows outside rushers to make plays.
A good two-gap defensive end, DeVito can control rushing lanes and does a good job setting up the pass rush for others. He’s a valuable piece as a first- and second-down defensive end, and he's one of the best run-defending 3-4 ends we saw.
9. Antonio Smith, Houston Texans
When playing the run, we often saw Antonio Smith lined up head-up on the tackle in a 5-technique. He’s tough off the ball and will fight for positioning, but he doesn’t show the strength to anchor off the edge and come off blockers to make tackles. Smith has the quickness to make tackles in pursuit.
He's a good pass-rusher in the Houston scheme and allows the defensive ends to go after the quarterback. Smith not only sacks the quarterback, but he creates pressure and hurries him in the pocket. He has a positive first step and is able to split blockers and accelerate to the quarterback. Smith has the quickness to explode off the ball and stun blockers with speed. He will try to take an outside move to the quarterback, but he doesn’t have the speed to always close the gap and convert sacks there.
A dynamic pass-rusher in the Houston defensive scheme, Smith is best at splitting a gap and going at the quarterback. He might not be as impactful in a two-gap scheme, but he's ideal in the Texans’ one-gap system.
8. Ray McDonald, San Francisco 49ers
Playing against the run, you see Ray McDonald drawing double-teams and making offensive linemen pay attention to him no matter where he lines up. He has a very quick first step and is strong enough to push the pile if he’s blocked one-on-one. His read-and-react skills are good, as he sees the run well and will pull down runners as they scoot past him or in pursuit. We’d like to see McDonald hold anchor better. He’ll get walked off the line and can be squeezed down the line to create outside running opportunities.
McDonald doesn’t get many sacks, but when you pull up the film, you see him pressuring and hurrying the quarterback often while setting up the outside rush for the team’s linebackers. McDonald has the quickness to frustrate blockers and shows enough versatility to play inside or outside along the line.
One of the more underrated players at the position, McDonald is an active hustler on the left side of the 49ers defense. He and Ahmad Brooks form one of the best left sides in football that no one talks about.
7. Corey Liuget, San Diego Chargers
A good run defender with upside to get better, Corey Liuget has the quickness and awareness to be a big problem for offensive linemen. Liuget can split gaps and attack the run, but he doesn’t show up as much when asked to simply sit and anchor the edge. He’s much better moving forward than standing still.
There is so much raw potential here, now Liuget just has to harness that quickness and strength into a finished product. He’ll frustrate the hell out of offensive tackles with his speed and motor, but he can also take himself out of plays by overpursuing the quarterback and opening passing lanes. Men Luiget’s size shouldn’t move like this. We actually backed up the tape once because Liuget looked like an outside linebacker blitzing, but nope, it was just this huge defensive end moving like a linebacker. Liuget will get his hands up in passing windows and can knock down passes.
With potential not taken into consideration, Liuget ranks No. 7 overall, but he has the ability to be one of the best players ranked here in 2014.
6. Haloti Ngata, Baltimore Ravens
A defensive tackle and defensive end in the Ravens’ hybrid scheme, Haloti Ngata makes a big impact no matter where he’s lined up. Ngata gets good push off the line and has the leverage to drive blockers into the backfield. He sees the play well and will work down the line of scrimmage to stop the run and can get after the ball in backside pursuit. Ngata was overpowered at times last year, something you don’t see much. The New York Giants were very successful controlling Ngata in the run game with one guard and a tackle chipping him.
Shockingly fast for a man his size, Ngata can attack the backfield from his spot along the Ravens defensive line. A versatile pass-rusher who can play any spot in a three- or four-man front, Ngata puts pressure on the opposition with great first-step moves and the power to follow up with a bull rush or power move. He uses his hands well to keep blockers at bay and is able to frustrate defenders with his quickness. Getting your hands on Ngata and stopping him when he’s moving upfield is nearly impossible.
The 2012 season was a down year for Ngata, as injuries to the Baltimore defense allowed offenses to focus on him more and more. He remains one of the most powerful defenders in the game and is a true anchor for the Ravens line.
5. Jason Hatcher, Dallas Cowboys
A big, strong defensive end with the reach to pull down backs, Jason Hatcher was consistently an impact against the run. As a versatile defensive lineman, Hatcher often lined up in a 5-technique and a 3-technique. He showed valuable run-stuffing assets in both. In a traditional 5-technique, Hatcher is long enough to create separation and read and react to the ball. Inside, Hatcher is just a wrecking ball. He has a great motor to keep his feet churning, and blockers want to get inside Hatcher’s frame. He plays high at times and will be susceptible to a blocker driving up from under his pads.
He's a balanced pass-rusher with great reach and the length to keep blockers off his frame. Hatcher doesn’t have the speed to always convert hurries to sacks, but he puts pressure on the backfield by pushing offensive linemen back and moving the line of scrimmage. Hatcher is quick enough to get outside the tackle on passing downs. He shows good quickness to bend the edge and force pressures on the outside. Hatcher is quick enough off the ball to get blockers backpedaling, which he can counter with a finishing bull rush.
One of the surprises of the NFL 1,000 series, Hatcher is a balanced 3-4 defensive end who made positive impressions in both the run and pass game. How well Hatcher transitions to a 4-3 defense remains to be seen.
4. Calais Campbell, Arizona Cardinals
The key to the Arizona Cardinals’ hybrid defense, Calais Campbell can and does line up all over the team’s front. Campbell is a long, linear athlete with the reach to punch and stun blockers and to pull down runners on the edge with his long arms. Campbell is smart enough to read the offensive line and make plays off his keys. If there’s space, he’ll play assignment football. He make plenty of tackles in the run game off this. While Campbell’s speed and aggressive style of play will take him away from the ball at times, he’s generally quick enough to recover. Crafty offensive linemen will make Campbell pay by baiting him into a rip move—which causes his arms to go up—and then attacking his body.
Campbell is quick enough to redirect and counter off his first move. He’ll come upfield, slap the blocker and then track through the line of scrimmage in a fluid movement. Campbell is so quick off the ball that blockers have trouble getting their hands on him. When he is in space, he can quickly find an opening and exploit it. This does cause him to play out of position at times, but he’s an attacking presence on the defensive line. Unlike many 3-4 defensive ends, Campbell is quick enough to close on the quarterback from behind. His burst and athletic ability are huge assets.
One of the better athletes you will find at the position, Campbell is a treat to watch thanks to his quickness, his aggressive style of play and the production that ultimately comes from that ability.
3. Justin Smith, San Francisco 49ers
One of the NFL’s best run defenders, regardless of position, Justin Smith does a great job initiating contact with the offensive line. He’s strong enough to stun blockers and then make a counter move to the ball. Smith holds anchor on the edge as well as anyone, keeping the play from going outside and keeping blockers from getting to the second level on the edge.
The 49ers love to run a "Texas stunt," where Justin Smith goes outside the offensive tackle and outside linebacker Aldon Smith comes around and attacks the inside shoulder of the tackle. This gives the Smith Bros. an equal opportunity to attack the backfield. Justin has the strength to attack the body of a tackle and tie them up—some would call it holding—which allows other players to come free and sack the quarterback. When not stunting, Smith has the strength and quickness to be a factor against the backfield. In 2012, he was more focused on freeing up Aldon Smith on the edge and didn’t attack the backfield as often. A torn triceps late in the year limited Smith’s ability.
A prototypical defensive end in a 3-4 scheme, Justin Smith is a dual threat on every down. His 2012 wasn’t as productive from a numbers standpoint, but his play on the field was a springboard for the 49ers’ success on defense.
2. Muhammad Wilkerson, New York Jets
A classic 3-4 defensive end, Muhammad Wilkerson’s awareness against the run is top-notch. He does a great job coming off the line controlled and looking for the ball. He’ll lock out his arms to keep the blocker off his body while making a read and then can use his quickness to react to the play. Wilkerson works down the line of scrimmage when engaged and has the vision to still find and attack the ball.
An active pass-rusher, Wilkerson won’t always convert pressures to sacks in the open field. He’s a very good containing defensive end, but he will let quarterbacks step up in the pocket. Wilkerson can get stonewalled by big offensive tackles, but he's quick enough to counter with a rip or shoulder dip. Wilkerson uses his hands well to slap and rip away from blockers, but when lined up inside, he plays a bit high and can get slowed down because of it. Wilkerson does a better job pressuring the quarterback instead of actually converting sacks.
Wilkerson played plenty in a 5-technique, but he also lined up as a 4-tech and a 3-tech at times in the Jets’ schemes. No matter the alignment, he showed a balanced game based on strength, quickness and vision.
1. J.J. Watt, Houston Texans
Players as big as J.J. Watt are not supposed to run down Chris Johnson from behind, but he did. Watt is incredibly fast and fluid in pursuit, but he’s also strong enough to effectively hold the edge in a 30 front for the Houston Texans. To play that position, a player needs strength and length, and Watt has both. He can lock his arms out and use his strength to pause the tackle and read the run. He can then use his strength to toss the tackle aside and make a play on the ball. Watt is strong enough to make plays in the run game individually and has the ability to be a one-man wrecking crew.
Watt affects the passing game as both a rusher and as someone who can get up to deflect passes. That dual-threat aspect to his game makes him one of the truly unique players in the NFL today. Watt slides inside to a defensive tackle position often in a passing situation, and there he has the quick first step to split the gap between blockers. Watt is much more agile than you would expect from a man his size, and he can move laterally to get the right pass-rushing angle. Watt is one of the few players in the NFL who can attack the backfield equally going inside or outside a blocker’s shoulder. Watt moves like an outside linebacker with the strength of a nose tackle.
J.J. Watt’s 2012 season is one of the finest you or I will ever see from a defensive end in a 3-4 scheme. Maybe one of the best from any defensive end ever. Watt comes in ranked as the top player at his position by a large margin.
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