Today's Best Defensive Ends and Their Throwback Comparisons
And so it continues…
Last time out, the eighth part of our 12-part throwback series saw us take the plunge to the defensive side of the ball. We talked linebackers and which of today’s players reminded us players from the past.
Now we’ve come to the end(s).
That means defensive ends, who, similar to outside linebackers in a 3-4 defense, get plenty of glory because one of their primary objectives is to turn this quarterback-driven league into a quarterback-driven-into-the-ground game.
So in our ninth installment of this fun exercise, we carefully selected eight of today’s defensive ends and attempted to explain who they remind us of when it comes to those all-time warriors.
Once again, the criteria are multi-faceted and one legend doesn’t fit all. We are talking style as much as anything because, after all, the eye test is still the best pop quiz ever. But other factors will be taken into account when making comparisons.
One reminder: This is not a ranking of the eight best defensive ends in the NFL (for those looking for the New York Jets’ Muhammad Wilkerson or the Cincinnati Bengals’ Michael Johnson, etc.). It’s some of the best players at their position and who they remind us of from the distant or not-too distant past.
J.J. Watt, Houston Texans
Similar To: L.C. Greenwood
How did the Houston Texans go from a 12-4 record and a second straight AFC South title in 2012 to a pair of wins and 14 straight losses to close the season in 2013?
While football is a team game and no player is perfect, it is safe to say that Pro Bowl defensive end J.J. Watt gave the club his all this past season. The 2012 NFL Defensive Player of the Year finished second on the Texans with 80 tackles and first in both sacks (10.5) and forced fumbles (four) in 2013. He also knocked down seven passes.
That means over the last two seasons, the relentless warrior has totaled 31 sacks and 23 pass deflections.
When you think of persistence and the ability to be a member of the “swat” team, defensive end L.C. Greenwood comes to mind.
Though perhaps not quite as tall or lanky as the former Pittsburgh Steelers’ great, Watt has made batting down opposing quarterbacks’ passes an art form. Greenwood wasn’t bad at it himself. Just ask Minnesota Vikings quarterback Fran Tarkenton about his frustrating afternoon in Super Bowl IX at Tulane Stadium. Greenwood passed away in late September.
Robert Quinn, St. Louis Rams
Similar To: Fred Dean
It is far too easy to pass up. So why waste the opportunity?
St. Louis Rams defensive end Robert Quinn was pretty mighty in 2013.
The team’s first-round selection in 2011 made his third season in the league the charm. Quinn finished second in the league with 19 sacks. He totaled seven forced fumbles and ranked sixth on the club with 57 tackles.
However, it is the leaps and bounds that the speedy defender made over these last few years that can’t be ignored. As a rookie, he played in 15 games, made one start and totaled five sacks.
In 2012, Quinn basically doubled his production, racking up 10.5 sacks in 16 outings, 14 of those as a starter.
Then came 2013 and his breakout season which resulted in his first Pro Bowl invitation.
Pro Football Hall of Famer Fred Dean was a pass-rushing force with the San Diego Chargers in the late 1970s and went on to become a defensive standout and two-time Super Bowl champion with the San Francisco 49ers in the early 1980s.
Like Quinn, Dean relied on his speed to get into opposing backfields and when he turned the corner, it was usually bad news for quarterbacks.
During much of Dean's career, sacks were not an official statistic. It is safe to say that any quarterback Dean managed to get his hands on early in his career would validate his presence. And the same is starting to be said regarding the lightning-quick Quinn.
Cameron Wake, Miami Dolphins
Similar To: Jack Youngblood
During his five-year NFL career, we have seen Miami Dolphins defender Cameron Wake line up at a variety of positions.
However, the one thing he has done consistently, regardless of position, is get to the quarterback.
The three-time Pro Bowler, who entered the league as an undrafted free agent with the New York Giants in 2005, took the long way to Miami. He signed with the Dolphins in 2009 following two years in the CFL (2007-08). He totaled a combined 39 sacks and was named the league’s Most Outstanding Defensive Player in each season.
In five seasons (77 games) with the Dolphins, Wake has amassed 51.5 sacks, including 14 sacks in 2010 and 15 sacks in 2012.
Many of us know the tales of former Los Angeles Rams defensive end Jack Youngblood, a relentless defender who gained even more notoriety by playing most of the 1979 postseason with a broken leg. The Pro Football Hall of Famer played on and with some of the great defensive fronts to ever take the field, including Merlin Olsen, who is also enshrined in Canton.
Tenacity has been the calling card for Wake, who at 6’2” and 236 pounds doesn’t own that conventional size for a defensive end. Nor did the lanky Youngblood, who played at less than 250 pounds. However, there’s a lot to be said when it comes to technique and rushing the passer is an art form all its own.
Say hello to Michelangelo I and II.
Greg Hardy, Carolina Panthers
Similar To: Richard Dent
Talk about a steady climb.
In four years in the league, Carolina Panther defensive end Greg Hardy has seen his sack total increase each season.
But the 2013 Pro Bowler really came into his own this past season, finishing third in the NFL with 15 sacks. The former sixth-round draft choice was red hot down the stretch, totaling seven sacks in the team’s final two games.
Consider that Hardy totaled exactly seven sacks in his first two pro seasons.
It’s little wonder that Ron Rivera’s club wound up leading the league with 60 sacks in 2013.
Mike Singletary, Dan Hampton, Wilber Marshall. Those are just some of the names that pop into your head when you think of one of the great defenses on one of the great teams during one of the great seasons in NFL history.
There was also Richard Dent, a massive threat at defensive end who was equally adept at stopping the run as he was rushing the passer. Two years later, he was the MVP for Mike Ditka’s Super Bowl XX champions. He totaled 137.5 sacks in 15 seasons with a total of four teams, one dozen of those years in the Windy City.
The size comparison between Hardy (6’4”, 279 pounds) and Dent (6’5”, 265 pounds) is interesting enough. The fact that Hardy was a sixth-round pick in 2010 and Dent was an eighth-round selection in 1983 also shows how the two performers came into the league without big expectations and became defensive forces. And the best may be yet to come for the Panthers' talented performer.
Julius Peppers, Chicago Bears
Similar To: Carl Eller
We marveled at the athleticism of defensive end Julius Peppers from the moment he was made the second overall pick in the 2002 draft by the Carolina Panthers.
A member of the Chicago Bears for the last four seasons, you could make the case that he went from one of the most talented defenders in the league to one of its most complete.
It all adds up to a pretty impressive career for the 6’6”, 283-pound Peppers, who has totaled 119 sacks, nine interceptions and eight Pro Bowl invitations in a dozen NFL seasons.
Slightly after the Los Angeles Rams' “Fearsome Foursome” made a name for themselves and just before the “Steel Curtain” helped put the Pittsburgh Steelers on the championship map, there was a defensive front in Minnesota known as the “Purple People Eaters.”
And Pro Football Hall of Fame defensive end Carl Eller was a prominent member of those Vikings teams that feasted on opposing quarterbacks. Like Peppers, he was also 6’6" tall. The former University of Minnesota standout teamed with defensive tackles Alan Page (also a Hall of Famer), Gary Larsen and Doug Sutherland, as well as tireless defensive end Jim Marshall, to form one of the great units in NFL annals.
Eller, a six-time Pro Bowler, was one of the most reliable pass rushers of his era.
Mario Williams, Buffalo Bills
Similar To: Bruce Smith
As we all know, football pays the bills for a lot of people.
Two years ago, the Bills paid Mario Williams. And the former first overall pick figures to be part of a defensive revival that is long overdue in Orchard Park, New York.
In just two seasons with the franchise, he’s totaled 23.5 sacks in 32 games. More specifically, the three-time Pro Bowler has come up with 20 sacks in his last 25 games dating back to the middle of 2012.
Williams, the top selection in the 2006 NFL draft by the Houston Texans, has rung up 76.5 sacks in eight seasons. His final season with the Texans was in 2011, when he managed only five sacks in as many games as the team shifted him to outside linebacker in their new 3-4 defense.
For those thinking we’re taking the easy way out with the Bruce Smith comparison due to the connection with the Buffalo Bills, think again. The first overall pick in the 1985 draft and the Pro Football Hall of Famer totaled an amazing 200 sacks in his NFL career. And while lined up at defensive end, you didn’t always find him with his fingers on the ground.
In eight seasons, Williams has seen action outside as an end and a linebacker, albeit the latter was basically in five games in his final season with the Texans.
Jared Allen, Minnesota Vikings
Similar To: Howie Long
You have heard about players with a motor.
In case you’re debating whether Minnesota Vikings defensive end Jared Allen is either a six-cylinder or eight-cylinder engine, take the over.
From the day he came into the league in 2004 with the Kansas City Chiefs, the fourth-round pick from Idaho State hasn’t slowed down when it comes to harassing opposing quarterbacks and ball-carriers.
In 10 NFL seasons, the five-time Pro Bowler has racked up 128.5 career sacks. While he was a terror in Kansas City, he really found a home in the Twin Cities.
Allen has not missed a game in six campaigns with the Purple Gang and totaled 85.5 sacks in 96 regular-season contests. That includes at least 11 sacks in each of those seasons as well as a league-high 22 sacks in 2011.
While Idaho State is not usually recognized as a factory for NFL players, neither is Villanova University. But the Oakland Raiders made defensive end Howie Long a second-round selection from the Pennsylvania school in 1981, and he rewarded the organization with eight Pro Bowl seasons.
Long was part of the club’s last NFL championship season (Super Bowl XVIII) and his bust can be found in Canton, Ohio.
DeMarcus Ware, Dallas Cowboys
Similar To: Charles Haley
It was a season of firsts for Dallas Cowboys defensive end DeMarcus Ware. And not all of them were good.
For the first time in his nine-year NFL career, the seven-time Pro Bowler missed games. Three to be exact, which was a big reason Ware finished with a career-low six sacks.
The former first-rounder was also lining up at defensive end this season after eight campaigns at outside linebacker. Although it was an off year, Ware remains one of the best in the game when it comes to quarterback harassment. In 141 regular-season contests, he has totaled 117 sacks.
Charles Haley is the only player to win five Super Bowls, two with the San Francisco 49ers in 1988 and 1989 (XXIII and XXIV) and three more with the Dallas Cowboys in 1992-93 and 1995 (XXVII, XXVIII and XXX). He was dealt from the Niners to the Cowboys in 1992 and helped swing the balance of NFL power from George Seifert’s club to Jimmy Johnson’s and Barry Switzer’s teams.
The outside linebacker/defensive end totaled 100.5 sacks with San Francisco (66.5) and Dallas (34.0) and forced 26 fumbles during his standout career.
Not only are Haley (6’5”, 252 pounds) and Ware (6’4”, 247 pounds) similar in stature but it is not coincidental that both are classic “tweeners” who can get the job done at both the 3-4 outside linebacking spot or as a 4-3 defensive end. Haley totaled 4.5 sacks in five Super Bowl appearances while the athletic Ware has returned three takeaways (one interception, two fumbles) for touchdowns in the regular season.
It will be very interesting to see the latter healthy and another season under defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin in 2014.