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B/R NFL 1000: Top 35 3-4 Defensive Ends

Matt MillerNFL Draft Lead WriterMarch 25, 2014

B/R NFL 1000: Top 35 3-4 Defensive Ends

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    Editor's note: This is the 11th installment in Bleacher Report's NFL 1000 for the 2013 season. This signature series runs through April 24, with NFL Draft Lead Writer Matt Miller ranking the best players at every position. You can read more about the series in this introductory article. See the NFL 1000 page for more rankings. 

    The spread of the 3-4 defense in the NFL has led many scouting departments to scour colleges looking for the best big-bodied athletes to play defensive end in this alignment. What are they looking for? A rare athlete with strength, quickness, awareness and an ability to both stop the run and rush the passer.

    So who is the best of the best?

    That’s what the NFL 1000 aims to identify. Throw out the narratives and the fantasy football stats, and dig into the film. Then we’ll see who is the best.

    The B/R 1000 metric is based on scouting each player and grading the key criteria for each position. The criteria are weighted according to importance, on a 100-point scale.

    Potential is not taken into consideration. Nor are career accomplishments.

    Defensive ends in a 3-4 defense are judged on run defense (50 points), pass-rush skills (50) and all of the technique, athletic ability and football intelligence needed to play the position.

    In the case of ties, our team asked, "Which player would I rather have on my team?" and set the rankings accordingly.

    Subjective? Yes. But ties are no fun.

    Each player was scouted by me and a team of experienced evaluators, with these key criteria in mind. The following scouting reports and grades are the work of months of film study from our team.

    Don’t see your favorite player listed here? Check the scheme.

    With so many defenses now playing a hybrid front, we went with the players listed by Pro Football Focus as 3-4 or 4-3 players.

    All statistics from Pro Football Focus (subscription required). Players' heights, weights and seasons from NFL.com.

35. Stephen Bowen, Washington Redskins

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    Richard Lipski/Associated Press

    Run Defense

    37/50

    Stephen Bowen (6’5”, 310 lbs, eight seasons) has a good combination of size and athleticism, which he uses to make plays against the run. He is not a particularly powerful run defender. In fact, he gets driven away from runs more often than he should. That said, he is an agile run defender who moves all along the line of scrimmage to make plays and can also string runs out to the sideline. He is a good edge-setter against the run and is adept at evading cut blocks.

    Pass Defense

    37/50

    Bowen, who recorded no sacks and just 12 total pressures in 10 games in 2013, is not a particularly effective pass-rusher. He is a capable bull-rusher who can impose his size upon blocking opponents when he establishes leverage with his hand placement. He is an ineffective edge-rusher, however, who is not particularly explosive and lacks diverse pass-rushing moves.

    Overall

    74/100

    Bowen’s 2013 season came to an end after 10 games due to a knee injury, but he is a solid starter in a defensive line rotation when healthy. He is athletic for his size, is a fine tackler and can play both defensive tackle and defensive end.

34. Mike DeVito, Kansas City Chiefs

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    Kyle Rivas/Getty Images

    Run Defense

    37/50

    The Chiefs could count on Mike DeVito (6’3”, 305 lbs, seven seasons) in 2013, his first year with the team, to shut down the run on his side of the line of scrimmage. DeVito doesn’t make many flashy plays and recorded just 12 run stops last season, but he has great strength and consistently holds his ground against blockers at the point of attack. He loses some points for his limited ability to shed blocks, but his wherewithal to maintain gap control makes him an asset in run defense.

    Pass Defense

    37/50

    DeVito is a strong bull-rusher who can take on a blocker and drive him back toward the quarterback with power to generate pressure. That said, he doesn’t do much with his hands as a pass-rusher, and he rarely disengages from blocks as a result. He did not record a sack in 2013.

    Overall

    74/100

    DeVito is a strong and consistent run defender, but he does not make many impact plays. His playing time diminished down the stretch for the Chiefs in 2013, partially because of the team’s matchups versus passing-heavy offenses against which he might not have made as much of a difference as he can by closing the door on holes for running plays.

33. Frostee Rucker, Arizona Cardinals

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    Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

    Run Defense

    35/50

    With only six run stops this past season, Frostee Rucker (6’3”, 280 lbs, eight seasons) did not make a big impact against opposing ground games. He has the strength to hold his own at the point of attack and the athleticism to make plays at different spots along the line of scrimmage. But he struggles to disengage from blocks and gets turned away from plays more often than he should as a result.

    Pass Defense

    40/50

    Despite only one sack in 2013, Rucker showed the ability to be a useful pass-rusher, both going inside and around the edge, in his first season as a 3-4 defensive end in Arizona. He accelerates quickly and has the speed to chase quarterbacks out of the pocket. Though he does not have exceptional rush moves and is not an overpowering bull-rusher, he had 25 total pressures in just 219 snaps of pass defense in 2013.

    Overall

    75/100

    After previously playing in 4-3 defensive schemes, Rucker isn’t exactly a natural fit for a three-man defensive front, but he still showed in 2013 that he can be a disruptive, productive member of the Cardinals defensive line.

32. Fili Moala, Indianapolis Colts

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    AJ Mast/Associated Press

    Run Defense

    35/50

    A more-than-adequate athlete for the position who uses his hands well, Fili Moala (6’4”, 308 lbs, five seasons) is a disruptive player who can beat blockers in multiple ways to get to the backfield. As a run defender, however, he is mostly only effective when he gets a good jump off the snap. When he allows blockers to get their hands on him first, he tends to be neutralized and driven away from plays.

    Pass Defense

    40/50

    Moala has quick feet and arcs well around the edge, attributes he can use to bring pressure from the outside. Inside, he can work with his arms to fight his way between blockers and shoot gaps to get into the backfield. He does not have a particularly explosive burst and lacks the power to do damage as a bull-rusher, but he used his technical skills to find his way toward the quarterback for 26 total pressures this past season.

    Overall

    75/100

    Moala isn’t a big impact player and might be best suited for a situational role as an inside pass-rusher, but he showed enough in 2013 to earn a one-year contract from the Colts for 2014. If he is going to earn a more lucrative, long-term contract next offseason, he might need to add strength or at least create more disruption at the line of scrimmage.

31. Datone Jones, Green Bay Packers

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    Matt Ludtke/Associated Press

    Run Defense

    35/50

    Used mostly as a situational pass-rusher as a rookie, Datone Jones (6’4”, 285 lbs, one season) played just 37 snaps against the run in his first NFL season. This gave him few opportunities to show what he can do as a run defender. But he has a promising combination of strength at the line of scrimmage and speed to chase ball-carriers in pursuit.

    Pass Defense

    41/50

    Though still developing his technique, Jones made an immediate impact as a pass-rusher off the bench this past season. He has an exceptional first step and accelerates quickly, while he also can drive blockers back with power as a bull-rusher. Despite a lack of effective hand usage, Jones showed in limited playing time that he could bring pressure from both inside and outside. He finished the year with 3.5 sacks and 18 total pressures.

    Overall

    76/100

    If Jones can emerge as a key player in Green Bay’s defensive line rotation in his sophomore season, he could shoot far up next year’s rankings. He will have to prove in training camp and the preseason that he deserves more opportunities to play against the run, while he needs to become a more technically complete player. But he might have only scratched the surface of his potential in 2013.

30. Tony Jerod-Eddie, San Francisco 49ers

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    Grant Halverson/Getty Images

    Run Defense

    37/50

    Tony Jerod-Eddie (6’5”, 301 lbs, two seasons) does not often stand out for his play against the run, but he is strong and can generate a push against blockers, though he gets redirected away from runs more often than he should. He is a very good athlete for his size, which gives him an impressive playmaking range that extends well outside of the pocket.

    Pass Defense

    39/50

    Jerod-Eddie is at his best when using the bull rush. In those situations, he does a nice job winning the leverage battle against opposing blockers, then driving his opponents back into the pocket toward the quarterback. He shows little ability to beat blockers around the edge, however, and does not use his hands well as a rusher.

    Overall

    76/100

    A rotational player in San Francisco, Jerod-Eddie might never emerge as an NFL starter, but he provides adequate depth to the 49ers starters up front. While not as disruptive as the players ahead of him, he holds his own and can make a difference with his movement skills.

29. Ziggy Hood, Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Run Defense

    38/50

    Ziggy Hood (6’3”, 300 lbs, five seasons) uses his point-of-attack strength to hold his place in running lanes and redirect runners away from his gaps. He is not an explosive penetrator, but he holds his ground well at the line of scrimmage. He also has enough lateral movement  to stay in front of plays on the edge and string them out to the sideline. He uses his hands well to fight off blockers and their attempts to turn him away from running backs, and he is a capable tackler.

    Pass Defense

    38/50

    Hood has good strength, hand skills and ability to create leverage, but he lacks the athleticism to be a significantly impactful pass-rusher. Even when he works his way through blocks, he often lacks the closing speed to finish plays or quarterback hits. He also has a limited reach. He still managed three sacks and 19 total pressures in 2013, but he has not been consistently disruptive on passing downs.

    Overall

    76/100

    Though he is a steady, all-around player, Hood never became the guy the Steelers expected him to be when they selected him in the first round of the 2009 NFL draft. He will have a chance to thrive in a new scheme in 2014, as he was recently signed by the Jacksonville Jaguars.

28. Clifton Geathers, Philadelphia Eagles

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    Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

    Run Defense

    39/50

    A massive interior defensive lineman with the versatility to play everywhere from nose tackle to defensive end, Clifton Geathers (6’8”, 340 lbs, four seasons) can be a tough defender for opposing blockers to move out of running lanes. He doesn’t make it into the backfield often and has limited explosiveness and hand skills, but he is good at fighting offensive linemen at the line of scrimmage and closing up gaps.

    Pass Defense

    38/50

    Geathers, who had no sacks and just four total pressures in 2013, isn’t a great pass-rusher. He can move a blocker toward the quarterback when he wins a battle of leverage, but limited athleticism keeps him from frequently beating opponents off the line of scrimmage.

    Overall

    77/100

    The 2013 season was the most productive to date for Geathers, who has played for five teams in four years, but he was still a back-of-the-rotation player in Philadelphia. He provided solid depth, versatility and the ability to disrupt off the bench, but he isn’t likely to ever emerge as a key playmaker on an NFL defense. He recently signed on with the Washington Redskins. 

27. Chris Canty, Baltimore Ravens

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    Run Defense

    38/50

    Chris Canty (6’7”, 317 lbs, nine seasons) has good strength and typically holds his ground in running lanes at the line of scrimmage, though he is sometimes worked away from plays by double-teams. He has subpar pursuit speed and accelerates slowly, but that doesn’t stop him from hustling to keep up with plays, and he usually takes advantage of tackle opportunities.

    Pass Defense

    39/50

    Length is Canty’s best friend as a pass-rusher. He rips with strength and quickness, and his long arms make his rush moves difficult to stop. He has to use that length to make up for limited explosion, as he does not have a great burst and doesn’t overpower opposing blockers. His wingspan enables him to frequently draw double-teams, though it is rare that he breaks through those to bring pressure.

    Overall

    77/100

    Canty has been a solid presence on every NFL defensive line he has played on, and that continued to be the case with the Ravens this past season. While he is not a highly explosive player, he occupies blockers well and can line up everywhere from over the center to outside an offensive tackle as an edge-rusher.

26. Tyson Jackson, Kansas City Chiefs

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    Stephen Morton/Associated Press

    Run Defense

    39/50

    Tyson Jackson (6’4”, 296 lbs, five seasons) is at his best as an edge-setting run defender. He is not much of a penetrator, but he uses his size and strength effectively to hold gaps against blockers, typically even against double-teams. While he does not often work his way past opponents into the backfield, he slides off blocks and consistently makes tackles when runners try to sneak by him.

    Pass Defense

    38/50

    Despite four sacks this past season, there is nothing special about Jackson’s game as a pass-rusher. He can use his strength to bull rush and is active with his hands, but he isn’t very explosive and lacks the speed to beat blockers around the edge. While he occasionally fights his way into the backfield, he is better suited to occupy blocks and free up his teammates to make plays.

    Overall

    77/100

    Jackson was a solid starter in his five seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs, but he never blossomed into the player he was expected to be as the No. 3 overall pick in the 2009 NFL draft. He has signed this offseason with the Atlanta Falcons, where he should be a rotational player on a hybrid defensive front.

25. Cory Redding, Indianapolis Colts

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    Ed Zurga/Associated Press

    Run Defense

    36/50

    Cory Redding (6’4”, 318 lbs, 11 seasons) is a strong, physical run defender who typically holds his position well in potential running lanes. But he also has the quickness to shoot between gaps and make plays in the backfield. He doesn’t make enough plays outside of his zone and is an inconsistent tackler, but he can play both inside and outside and often forces ball-carriers to look in other directions.

    Pass Defense

    41/50

    With 4.5 sacks and 31 total pressures this past season, Redding demonstrated that he can still be a disruptive pass-rusher. He has good athleticism for his size, a well-developed set of rush moves and can beat blockers both inside and outside. At times, however, he seems to disappear as a rusher, especially when he does not get a quick jump off the snap.

    Overall

    77/100

    At 33 years old, Redding is hitting the back end of his career, but he continued to be the best player on Indianapolis’ defensive line this past season. He can line up everywhere from the middle of the defensive front to out on the edge, and he relies on his technical skills as much as he does a strong combination of size and athletic ability.

24. Brett Keisel, Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Jeffrey Phelps/Associated Press

    Run Defense

    36/50

    At 35 years old, Brett Keisel (6’5”, 285 lbs, 11 seasons) didn’t seem quite as powerful in 2013 as he used to be. While he still has the quickness to burst into the backfield and make plays to stop ball-carriers, he also gets driven off the line of scrimmage more often than he should be and can be turned away from plays. That’s not to say he was a liability in run defense in 2013, but he wasn’t much of a difference-maker, recording just 12 run stops in 12 games played.

    Pass Defense

    41/50

    While many 3-4 defensive ends play more like defensive tackles, Keisel showed in 2013 that he can still move more like an outside linebacker. Frequently used on the edge and in stand-up roles as a pass-rusher, Keisel has good speed and acceleration, can arc naturally and complements his athleticism with effective hand usage. He isn’t an overpowering bull-rusher, but he can generate movement against blockers by getting leverage, fighting with his hands and creating momentum with his lower body.

    Overall

    77/100

    A consistent presence on the Steelers defensive line for more than a decade, Keisel is on the back end of his career. But despite missing four games with an injury this past season, he was still able to be a disruptive presence. From standing up wide on the edge to playing over the center as a nose tackle, “Da Beard” can line up anywhere on the defensive line, but his ability to bring pressure off the edge and work inside remains his calling card.

23. Desmond Bryant, Cleveland Browns

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Run Defense

    36/50

    A very good athlete for his size, Desmond Bryant (6’6”, 310 lbs, five seasons) moves well both straight and laterally, traits he can utilize to make plays all along the line of scrimmage and penetrate into the backfield. He is not a very powerful interior defensive lineman, however, and gets driven back or turned away from many runs as a result. His tackling could also improve.

    Pass Defense

    41/50

    Combining a quick burst off the line of scrimmage with strong rips and other pass-rushing moves, Bryant can productively bring pressure from both inside and outside. He had 3.5 sacks in 12 games in 2013, though he could have had more with stronger tackling. Bryant ranked eighth in pass-rushing productivity among 3-4 defensive ends who played at least 50 percent of their team's snaps in 2013.

    Overall

    77/100

    Bryant’s first season as a 3-4 defensive end with the Cleveland Browns was off to a productive start before it ended four weeks early due to an irregular heartbeat. While he is not among the Browns’ strongest defensive linemen versus the run, he is the team’s most explosive and disruptive penetrator and interior pass-rusher.

22. Chris Baker, Washington Redskins

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    Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

    Run Defense

    40/50

    Chris Baker (6’2”, 333 lbs, two seasons) combines the mammoth size of a nose tackle with the agility and movement skills of a defensive end. While he isn’t as powerful or as effective a gap-filler as one might expect from a player his size, he moves along the line of scrimmage fluidly and can chase running plays to the sideline or downfield.

    Pass Defense

    38/50

    Baker has an adequate first step and shows he can use his hands to work his way around blockers to penetrate. He is at his best, however, when he gets hands into an opponent’s pads, establishes leverage and imposes his size as a bull-rusher. Subpar balance can be an issue for him as a pass-rusher, as he gets knocked down to the ground more than a player of his size should.

    Overall

    78/100

    The combination of size and athleticism that Baker possesses gives him the versatility to play everywhere from nose tackle to defensive end, and it makes him a good fit as a 3-4 defensive end in Washington. Though 2013 was only the second year that Baker was able to stick on an NFL roster for a full season, he emerged as a strong piece of Washington’s defensive line rotation and even took over as a starter in the final three games.

21. Cameron Heyward, Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Tony Dejak/Associated Press

    Run Defense

    37/50

    Cameron Heyward (6’5”, 288 lbs, three seasons) does not stand out frequently as a run-stopper, but he also does not often get pushed around by opposing blockers. He doesn’t usually overpower opposing blockers and doesn’t always shut down his gap, but he uses his active hands and feet to stay around the line of scrimmage and involved in plays. He can utilize his quickness to penetrate in the backfield and make plays at the line of scrimmage. 

    Pass Defense

    41/50

    Heyward combines a quick burst off the line of scrimmage with the length to drive back blockers and the hand activity to fight his way through blocks. He does not win with power, but he can still work blockers back into the backfield with good hand placement and by generating movement with his lower body. He is effective on stunts and has demonstrated that he can draw and defeat multiple blockers on one play. He ranked eighth among NFL 3-4 defensive ends in 2013 with 47 total pressures.

    Overall

    78/100

    After a disappointing first two seasons, Heyward really started to emerge as a disruptive presence on Pittsburgh’s defensive line in 2013. A dynamic inside-outside rusher and penetrator, Heyward is a playmaker who possesses the size and strength to hold up against interior offensive linemen.

20. Allen Bailey, Kansas City Chiefs

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    Ed Zurga/Associated Press

    Run Defense

    41/50

    Allen Bailey (6’3”, 288 lbs, three seasons) emerged as a difference-maker on the Kansas City defensive line this past season, especially against the run. He has the quickness and strength to push back blockers and shut down runs in his gap. He increases his impact against the run by utilizing his movement skills to get into different spots along the line of scrimmage, while he is a strong tackler in pursuit. He had the NFL’s fourth-best run-stops-per-snap percentage among 3-4 defensive ends this past season.

    Pass Defense

    38/50

    Though he recorded only one sack in 2013, Bailey emerged as the best pass-rusher on Kansas City’s defensive line. He gets good jumps off snaps, demonstrates that he can dip around blockers and shows some ability to use his hands to get off blocks, though he doesn’t have well-defined pass-rushing moves. While he is best at getting into the backfield from inside, he also has the athleticism to bring pressure off the edge.

    Overall

    79/100

    Bailey started only three games for the Chiefs this past season, but his playing time increased significantly over the course of the year. A player with the ability to be disruptive as both a run-stopper and pass-rusher, Bailey could be promoted from a situational defender to a three-down starter in 2014.

19. Fletcher Cox, Philadelphia Eagles

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    Michael Perez/Associated Press

    Run Defense

    38/50

    Fletcher Cox (6’4”, 300 lbs, two seasons) is a capable run-stopper with good length and quick feet. He usually makes sound tackles. He is not an overpowering defender in one-on-one situations, but he usually holds his ground. As a penetrator, he can use his quickness to shoot inside of offensive tackles and disrupt the direction of a run play. 

    Pass Defense

    41/50

    Cox’s athleticism aids his ability to rush the passer. He can beat blockers inside with his quick first step but also has the foot skills to stunt outside and bring pressure around the edge. He isn’t very active with his hands as a pass-rusher, and he struggles to disengage from blocks as a result. Cox still managed 52 total pressures, tied for the sixth most among 3-4 defensive ends, in 2013.

    Overall

    79/100

    Just 23 years old with all of the physical tools needed to excel as an NFL defensive lineman, Cox seems to still just be starting to reach his potential. If he can add strength and use his hands more effectively, he has the skills to emerge as a star for the Eagles defense.

18. John Hughes, Cleveland Browns

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    Matt Sullivan/Getty Images

    Run Defense

    40/50

    A strong point-of-attack run defender, John Hughes (6’2”, 320 lbs, two seasons) does a good job holding running lanes and making it tough for opponents to find room to run. He uses his arms well to work through traffic, rarely gets driven away from runs and is a solid tackler.

    Pass Defense

    39/50

    From rips and swims with his arms to a decent spin, Hughes has a number of pass-rushing moves that he can use to beat blockers. He moves well laterally and can find his way into rushing lanes with his movement skills. He isn’t particularly quick or powerful, however, and managed only 13 total pressures this past season.

    Overall

    79/100

    There is nothing flashy about Hughes’ game, but he is a capable rotational defensive lineman who consistently got his job done when he was on the field for the Browns in 2013. That could lead him to a starting role and/or more playing time in 2014.

17. Darnell Dockett, Arizona Cardinals

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    Run Defense

    40/50

    Darnell Dockett (6’4”, 290 lbs, 10 seasons) does a nice job using his length, size and strength to work his way into gaps and plug holes at the line of scrimmage. He is not restricted to making plays at his starting point, however, as he also moves his feet well laterally and makes plays at other areas on the line of scrimmage. He struggles to work himself off blocks and can be turned away from running plays as a result, but he can sometimes recover to reverse course and still get in on a play downfield.

    Pass Defense

    39/50

    Dockett does a great job occupying double-teams to allow players to bring pressure on passing downs, but he rarely breaks off double-teams himself. He does not have an exceptional burst off the snap, but he demonstrates that he can beat single blockers with an array of pass-rushing moves.

    Overall

    79/100

    At 32 years old, Dockett might be reaching the back end of his career, but he showed in a 46-tackle, 4.5-sack 2013 season that he can still make plays. Though not the most explosive interior defensive lineman, he fills gaps well versus the run and can be as disruptive as an interior pass-rusher.

16. Corey Liuget, San Diego Chargers

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    Peter Aiken/Getty Images

    Run Defense

    35/50

    Corey Liuget (6’2”, 300 lbs, three seasons) is an unspectacular run defender who gets moved around more than an NFL interior defensive lineman should. He can make plays with his quickness along the line of scrimmage, but he tends to lose battles of leverage and power. Overall, his run-stops-per-snaps percentage was tied for 40th among the 45 3-4 defensive ends who played 25 percent or more of their team’s snaps against the run last season.

    Pass Defense

    44/50

    Liuget has a good burst off the line of scrimmage, which he uses to his advantage as a pass-rusher. He has enough bend and acceleration to arc around blockers on the edge, but he is also physical with his hands and can work his way through offensive linemen when he gets a strong jump off the snap. He does not utilize great pass-rushing moves with his arms, but his lower-body agility allows him to be an impactful rusher.

    Overall

    79/100

    One of the league’s more athletic 3-4 defensive ends, Liuget uses his quickness to create disruption. He is a versatile player who can move between multiple spots on San Diego’s defensive line and force opposing offensive lines to account for his ability to penetrate.

15. Cedric Thornton, Philadelphia Eagles

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    Run Defense

    44/50

    Cedric Thornton (6’4”, 309 pounds, three seasons) emerged as an interior run-stopping force in a breakout 2013 campaign. Playing both nose tackle and defensive end, Thornton did a great job of patrolling the line of scrimmage and closing running lanes. He can sometimes be directed away from lanes by blockers, but he excels at shifting laterally off blocks and recovering quickly to get back into plays. A good tackler who takes advantage of his size and athleticism, Thornton’s 33 run stops were the third most among 3-4 defensive ends this past season.

    Pass Defense

    36/50

    Thornton’s most effective pass rushing comes when he is lined up as a nose tackle, as he has a demonstrated skill for getting into a smaller center’s pads and driving him back on a bull rush. Outside of overpowering smaller blockers, however, there isn’t much to Thornton’s game as a pass-rusher. He does not have the first-step quickness or hand skills to beat many blockers off the line of scrimmage, and he tends to get completely neutralized by double-teams.

    Overall

    80/100

    Even in a deep defensive line rotation, Thornton’s ability to make plays against the run stands out. If he can learn to use his hands more effectively, he can become a more complete player.

14. Antonio Smith, Houston Texans

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    Wade Payne/Associated Press

    Run Defense

    36/50

    Antonio Smith (6’4”, 289 pounds, 10 seasons) holds his own as a run defender, but he isn’t an overpowering player. He gets driven away from plays more often than he drives defenders back, and he is typically neutralized by double-teams. His first-step quickness allows him to sometimes beat defenders off the snap, but he does not have great instincts as a run defender.

    Pass Defense

    44/50

    While many of the defensive ends in 3-4 schemes would more traditionally play defensive tackle, Smith has the all-around game of a defensive end for any scheme, and it shows in his pass rushing. He can accelerate quickly off the line of scrimmage, beat blockers with his active hands and get into the backfield both inside and around the edge. He ranked ninth among NFL 3-4 defensive ends this past season with 46 total pressures.

    Overall

    80/100

    Smith has had a successful five-year run with the Houston Texans, especially in his past three seasons as a complement opposite J.J. Watt. He is a good inside-outside rusher who has shown the versatility to play everywhere from the middle of the line as a nose tackle to the edge as a defensive end. His skills will be put to the test in 2014 with the Oakland Raiders, however, as the 32-year-old is likely to see an increase in double-teams when not playing opposite Watt.

13. Akiem Hicks, New Orleans Saints

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    David Goldman/Associated Press

    Run Defense

    42/50

    Akiem Hicks (6’5”, 324 lbs, two seasons) blossomed into one of the NFL’s best young interior run defenders in 2013. With terrific size and strength, he can consistently hold his place within gaps to shut down running lanes. Despite his size, Hicks also has the ability to move laterally, which he uses to chase down runs along the line of scrimmage and make plays outside of his gap. His 40 tackles at or behind the line of scrimmage were tied for the third most among 3-4 defensive ends this past season.

    Pass Defense

    39/50

    Hicks doesn’t have a wide array of pass-rushing moves, but he can be a disruptive pass defender thanks to his strength and an explosive first step. He does not often beat blockers around the edge and struggles to disengage when he is in the process of being blocked, but he can win with power as a bull-rusher. 

    Overall

    81/100

    Hicks has emerged as a core player on a New Orleans Saints defense that is becoming younger this offseason. At 24 years old with an exceptional combination of size, power and athleticism, he has the potential to keep on getting better and be a top-10 player at his position in 2014.

12. Billy Winn, Cleveland Browns

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    Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

    Run Defense

    43/50

    The 3-4 defense was kind to Billy Winn (6’4”, 295 lbs, two seasons) in Cleveland. He has the length and quickness to make plays both when locking horns with blockers or when coming off the line. His vision and awareness need work, and that comes with time and experience. But the natural strength to fight with blockers and then come off to make tackles was impressive. 

    Pass Defense

    38/50

    Winn is still developing as a pass-rusher and needs to work on his moves to disengage from pass protectors. He lacks the secondary move needed to counter his bull rush. When he’s able to explode off the line and crash into a blocker, he can win and generate pressures and impact plays.

    Overall

    81/100

    As part of a solid, underrated defense, Winn didn’t get much attention from outsiders in 2013. That will be changing soon, as his play has caught the eyes of many.

11. Vinny Curry, Philadelphia Eagles

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    Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

    Run Defense

    37/50

    The move to a 3-4 defense in Philadelphia was made possible by players like Vinny Curry (6’3”, 279 lbs, two seasons). Misused by the former regime, Curry’s quickness and improved strength made him an asset lined up on the outside shoulder of the offensive tackle. He will get swallowed up by tackles at times in the run game, but he has good initial burst and can quickly get into the backfield to make a play on the ball. Curry isn’t yet effective at holding anchor and shutting down a rushing lane, but he is the type of athlete who will pursue and attack the ball. 

    Pass Defense

    45/50

    Curry’s past experience as a 4-3 defensive end comes into play here. As the Eagles allowed him to pin his ears back and go for the quarterback on third down, he showed the quickness and flexibility in space to be a difference-maker. His four sacks may not stand out to the casual observer, but he added 22 hurries and another five quarterback pressures. 

    Overall

    82/100

    As a rotational player, it can be tough to compare Curry to 16-game starters. Our take on his ability when on the field, while not downgrading him for missed reps, leads to his ranking as the No. 11 3-4 defensive end.

10. Ray McDonald, San Francisco 49ers

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    Brian Bahr/Getty Images

    Run Defense

    40/50

    The San Francisco 49ers have had one of the league’s toughest run defenses in recent years, and Ray McDonald (6’3”, 290 lbs, seven seasons) has been one reason why. He is a strong defender at the point of attack who does a great job holding his gap against blocks and forcing runners to go outside of him on the edge. He also moves well laterally and does a great job of crashing into the middle against inside runs. He is a strong tackler.

    Pass Defense

    42/50

    McDonald possesses the strength to drive blockers back into the pocket with his bull rush, while he has the quickness to get around blockers both on the edge and inside. That said, he lacks an effective set of pass-rushing moves and struggles to break down blocks as a result.

    Overall

    82/100

    With stars all around him on San Francisco’s defensive front seven, McDonald is frequently overlooked, but he plays an important role in the unit’s ability to shut down the run and bring pressure against quarterbacks. He tends to play within his role, but he does it well.

9. Muhammad Wilkerson, New York Jets

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    Al Bello/Getty Images

    Run Defense

    41/50

    Muhammad Wilkerson (6’4”, 315 lbs, three seasons) has great size and strength, and he utilizes those traits well to hold his place within running lanes and close them for opposing offenses. He uses his hands to work his way off blockers, while he has the athleticism to make plays all along the line of scrimmage. He is a disruptive player who is strong as a tackler but also does a good job drawing double-teams at the line of scrimmage to free up the players around him.

    Pass Defense

    41/50

    With 10.5 sacks this past season, Wilkerson tied for the second-most quarterback takedowns among 3-4 defensive ends. He has the power to bull rush opponents backward, while he is tremendous at using his hands to work his way off blocks. He doesn’t have the burst to beat blockers with his quickness alone, but he demonstrates that he can work his way around them both inside and on the edge.

    Overall

    82/100

    A versatile defensive lineman who can be positioned anywhere from outside the offensive tackle to over the center, Wilkerson is a disruptive player whose impact often goes well beyond the statistics, even though the emergence of other stars on the New York Jets defensive line helped him put up great numbers in 2013.

8. Arthur Jones, Baltimore Ravens

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    Run Defense

    41/50

    Big, bad Arthur Jones (6’3”, 315 lbs, four seasons) might not be as well-known as others on this list, but he should be. And he will be. Jones has the raw strength to be a menace when facing offensive tackles or guards one-on-one. He can struggle to maintain leverage at times and come off blocks, but if he hits the rushing lane, you’re not overpowering him to the ball-carrier.

    Pass Defense

    42/50

    Athletically, Jones has the goods to be a dynamic pass-rusher. His natural strength and quickness make him a tough player to handle in space, and he uses that combination well to mix up his pass-rushing moves. If he’s asked to contain or slow-play at the line, Jones can struggle to break off blocks and attack. Improved leverage would be a bonus here, but as it stands, he’s physically dominant enough to beat most tackles without having truly established technique.

    Overall

    83/100

    An up-and-comer at the position, Jones is a cornerstone-type defensive lineman. His balance as a defender against either the run or pass makes him even more valuable. The Colts thought so too and shelled out top dollar for the defensive lineman in free agency.

7. Sheldon Richardson, New York Jets

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    Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY

    Run Defense

    43/50

    Leaving Missouri, Sheldon Richardson (6’3”, 294 lbs, one season) looked like a linebacker playing defensive line. That translated well to the NFL, where he quickly became the most impactful defender for the New York Jets. Richardson’s quickness out of his stance allows him to stun blockers, and he combines that with deadly hand use for a lightning-fast move into the path of the ball-carrier. He can improve at identifying the play, but his transition to the NFL was an impressive one.

    Pass Defense

    40/50

    With Richardson’s quickness and power, he can be a terrorizing pass-rusher. His instincts aren’t quite developed, but you can see him winning with agility and hand use. Richardson’s ability to get off blockers and redirect into the backfield is top-notch. He’s fast enough to show closing speed when the quarterback gets away from him and has the reach to make arm-tackles and otherwise frustrate passers.

    Overall

    83/100

    Don’t be surprised if Richardson is in the top five next season. His raw ability and rookie-season production were some of the best in the 2013 draft class.

6. Kyle Williams, Buffalo Bills

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    Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

    Run Defense

    38/50

    One of the more versatile defensive linemen at the position, Kyle Williams (6’1”, 303 lbs, eight seasons) can line up anywhere from nose tackle to the outside shoulder of the offensive tackle. While he lacks ideal length to get his hands on blockers and keep them off his body, his natural leverage is good for holding the point of attack. Williams’ lack of length is his biggest issue when defending against the run on the edge, and it's why his score dropped in 2013.

    Pass Defense

    46/50

    When asked to attack a gap and get into the backfield, Williams shows good quickness off the ball and a variety of pass-rushing moves. He’s strong enough to fire off a bull rush and counters well with his hands. He’s low to the ground and quick, which makes it tough to get under his pads and stand him up when he’s driving into the backfield.

    Overall

    84/100

    Moving Williams to defensive end was met with curious criticisms, but his play there was exceptional as the Bills launched a hybrid defensive front.

5. Cameron Jordan, New Orleans Saints

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    Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

    Run Defense

    36/50

    Cameron Jordan (6’4”, 287 lbs, three seasons) has the ideal length and quickness to attack in the run game. Where he’ll struggle is with the strength to lock out blockers and hold the edge. When asked to contain the edge, he’s solid at making tackles in space, but his lean frame does open him up to power blockers. 

    Pass Defense

    48/50

    One of the best pass-rushing 3-4 defensive ends in the league, Jordan has the movement skills of a much smaller man. He’s able to knife through blockers and gaps and get into the backfield. Once there, his length and speed make it tough for quarterbacks to get away. Jordan is productive, impactful and still has room to grow. He’s scary good.

    Overall

    84/100

    Jordan flourished under Rob Ryan in the Saints defense. The needle is pointing way up on his career.

4. Mike Daniels, Green Bay Packers

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    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    Run Defense

    42/50

    Mike Daniels (6’0”, 291 lbs, two seasons) doesn’t have the height or length of most 3-4 defensive ends, but he makes up for it with gap-splitting quickness and moves. Against the run he can get locked out by the long arms of tackles, but he does well to use his quickness to counter that and come underneath to make a play on the ball. Daniels doesn’t anchor exceptionally well, but he has high pursuit and pressure skills.

    Pass Defense

    44/50

    Daniels might play defensive end, but he moves like an outside linebacker in space. His burst off the line allows the former Iowa defender to stun blockers and then counter with a rip or swim move to get into the backfield. Once he’s there, quarterbacks struggle to run away from his speed. 

    Overall

    86/100

    Daniels came out of nowhere to shock the Packers and their fans with his ability in 2013. His athleticism has allowed the team to rebuild the defense with versatility and hybrid sets in mind.

3. Justin Smith, San Francisco 49ers

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    Brian Bahr/Getty Images

    Run Defense

    41/50

    Even as he ages, Justin Smith (6’4”, 285 lbs, 13 seasons) remains an effective run defender and all-around defensive end. He plays with a natural strength few can match. He’s also incredibly aware and instinctive when the ball is snapped. His vision to find the ball combined with his quickness and strength to shed blockers make him tough to handle. He did have a drop-off in his production against the run, but teams were also able to send more attention his way when Aldon Smith was out of the lineup. 

    Pass Defense

    45/50

    One of the game’s best stunting defensive ends, Smith is able to work inside or outside the offensive tackle. He’s quick if crossing the tackle’s face and attacking the guard-tackle gap but also shows good strength to work outside the tackle’s left shoulder and hold anchor to allow other defenders to crash the same gap. Smith can counter his strength with speed. The only downfall is that so many stunts leave him containing more than pass rushing.

    Overall

    86/100

    Smith is one of the reasons the 3-4 defense has become so popular in the NFL. Taking a big, strong athlete and placing him on the outside shoulder of a tackle wasn’t as trendy when the 49ers signed and lined him up there. He’s still one of the game’s best at that spot.

2. Calais Campbell, Arizona Cardinals

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    Run Defense

    45/50

    A top-tier athlete, Calais Campbell (6’8”, 300 lbs, six seasons) has the length, size and power to be an effective run defender. When he reads run, offensive tackles can get locked out by his wingspan and upper-body strength. You’d like to see him anchor a bit better against the run, but Campbell is active and aggressive when making plays on the ball. 

    Pass Defense

    44/50

    Known as a tough athlete to get your hands on, Campbell has a smooth first step and can get through gaps to pressure the backfield. With his length, he also has great reach to grab quarterbacks and create pressures and hurries. At 6’8”, Campbell can struggle to get leverage and will make himself a big target for blockers. If he fires out low and aggressive, few tackles can contend with his combination of speed and power.

    Overall

    89/100

    One of the top 3-4 defensive ends for the last several years, Campbell moves up the list to No. 2. In an aggressive, versatile Arizona defense, he’s arguably its most important player.

1. J.J. Watt, Houston Texans

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    Dave Einsel/Associated Press

    Run Defense

    46/50

    Houston’s J.J. Watt (6’5”, 289 lbs, three seasons) is the standard by which all defensive linemen are evaluated. In the run game, he’s both strong and long, which allows him to keep blockers off his frame and then shed their hands to make a play on the ball. His vision is near flawless, and when he locks on the ball, his speed in pursuit is elite. The only reason Watt doesn’t score a perfect grade here is that there are times when he can be washed down the line. That’s not to say we’d recommend running at Watt if you’re an NFL offensive coordinator.

    Pass Defense

    49/50

    Watt is exceptional at not only getting to the quarterback and producing sacks, but in generating impact rushes. He’s a constant disruptor in the backfield and does as much damage as any player in the NFL with sacks, quarterback hurries and quarterback hits. No matter where he’s lined up—over the outside shoulder of a tackle or guard—Watt has the strength, speed and technical ability to beat blockers. His first step is jaw-droppingly quick, and he’s rare in his ability to rally with power if his speed move is met by a blocker. Watt’s versatility as a pass-rusher makes him truly unique.

    Overall

    95/100

    You could make a legitimate case for Watt being the best player in the NFL regardless of position. Even as his numbers and the Texans’ wins were down in 2013, his impact was great as usual.

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