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B/R NFL 1000: Top 50 4-3 Defensive Ends

Matt MillerNFL Draft Lead WriterJanuary 11, 2017

B/R NFL 1000: Top 50 4-3 Defensive Ends

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    Editors note: This is the 12th installment in Bleacher Reports 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 NFL has become a league built around quarterbacks and defenses that can rattle those same passers. With the emphasis on passing and pass rushing, a great defensive end can be a total game-changer for both sides of the ball. Thats especially true in a 4-3 defense.

    So who is the best of the best? 

    Thats what the NFL 1000 aims to identify. Throw out the narratives and the fantasy football stats, and dig into the film. Then well 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 4-3 defense are judged on run defense (40 points), pass-rush skills (60) 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.

    Dont 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). Playersheights, weights and seasons from

50. Shea McClellin, Chicago Bears

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    Smart teams run the ball in the direction of Shea McClellin (6’3”, 260 lbs, two seasons) when he is on the field. An undersized defensive end who lacks strength and skill with his hands, McClellin is often dominated by opposing blockers who can drive him off the line of scrimmage or redirect him away from runs, including those that are aimed straight at him. He has poor instincts against the run and is a surprisingly bad tackler.

    Through his first two seasons, McClellin has been unable to translate his athleticism into success as an NFL pass-rusher. He has a decent burst off the line of scrimmage and accelerates well around the corner, but his pass-rushing moves are weak, and he has no power element in his game.

    When the Chicago Bears drafted Shea McClellin with the 19th overall pick in the 2012 draft, some questioned the selection not only for whether he would be able to fit in a 4-3 defense, but also for whether he was a first-round pick at all. Thus far, McClellin has done nothing to silence his doubters, as he has been unproductive and looked out of place as an NFL defensive end.

49. Corey Wootton, Chicago Bears

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    Corey Wootton (6’6”, 270 lbs, four seasons) doesn’t make a great number of impact plays around the line of scrimmage, but he can play both outside and inside and holds his own as a run-stopper. He has good strength and can generate a push when he gets a jump off the snap, but he struggles to counter blocks and often gets redirected as a result. Although undersized for a defensive tackle, he is at his best when working inside, as he lacks the athleticism and open-field tackling ability to be an effective run defender in space.

    Wootton is good at stunting inside and outside, has the power to drive back blockers as a bull-rusher and is adept at using his length to get his arms up and knock down passes. He lacks a significant burst off the line of scrimmage, however, and lacks the speed and natural bend of a productive edge-rusher. While he shows he can generate pressure from inside, he needs to develop stronger pass-rushing moves to have more significant production.

    The Chicago Bears had one of the NFL’s worst defensive lines this past season, and one reason why was their need to rely on Wootton to start 15 games, with many of those starts coming inside at defensive tackle. His versatility to play both outside and inside makes him a solid choice for depth in a defensive line rotation and earned him a one-year contract with the Minnesota Vikings this offseason. But he is overmatched as a starting defensive lineman.

48. Jason Hunter, Oakland Raiders

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    Despite starting 10 games for the Oakland Raiders this past season, Jason Hunter (6’4”, 270 lbs, seven seasons) had low production as a run defender. He struggles to hold his ground against more powerful blockers and is slow to react to plays. Playing opposite one of the NFL’s top defensive ends in Lamarr Houston, Hunter was frequently a target of teams looking to run the ball on the Raiders.

    With a chance to emerge with a breakout season, Hunter failed to step up, especially as a pass-rusher. He doesn’t have the first-step quickness or speed to beat many blockers around the edge, and his rush moves are also subpar. He recorded just 22 total pressures in 346 pass-rush snaps this past season.

    The Raiders turned to Hunter when desperate for another starter at defensive end, and the results were not promising. While his ability might have been affected by injury after a torn triceps kept him out for the entire 2012 season, the 30-year-old has not done enough in his career to keep himself in demand as a free agent this offseason.

47. Derek Wolfe, Denver Broncos

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    While one might expect a converted defensive tackle to be at his best as a run defender, Derek Wolfe (6’5”, 285 lbs, two seasons) doesn’t make many impact plays in that capacity. He is a strong edge-setter who holds his ground well against outside blocks, but he gets redirected more often than he should against runs that come to his side. He struggles to reach ball-carriers and make tackles, and he made just six run stops on 171 snaps in 2013.

    Despite making a full transition to defensive end since his collegiate days, Wolfe does not look quite natural as an edge-rusher. He gets good starts off the line of scrimmage and has the athleticism to beat blockers both inside and outside. But he doesn’t have much in the way of pass-rushing moves. Though he can work his way through his opponents as a bull-rusher, he isn’t as powerful as one might expect a defensive end of his size to be.

    Wolfe’s ability to progress in his second NFL season was set back by a couple of scary health concerns, as he was stretchered out of a preseason game with a spinal cord injury, and his season later came to an early end after he suffered a seizure. Should he be back to 100 percent in 2014, Wolfe will need to continue to develop as an edge defender to remain a key player in an increasingly talent-laden defensive line rotation.

46. David Bass, Chicago Bears

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    David Bass (6’4”, 262 lbs, one season) has the physical tools to develop into a strong run defender, but the key to his development lies in improving his technique. He has the strength to be a strong run-stopper at the line of scrimmage, but he didn’t seem to know what to do with his hands in his rookie season and was often neutralized by blockers as a result. His speed and change-of-direction quickness give him the potential to be a dangerous playmaker in pursuit, but he is a poor tackler.

    A productive pass-rusher in college at Missouri Western State, Bass’ success hasn’t yet translated to the NFL because he is too reliant on his physical tools. While he has good first-step quickness and accelerates fast, he lacks effective pass-rushing moves and takes poor angles off the edge. He has the length, closing speed and power to be a difference-maker in this capacity, but he must become better at disengaging from pass protection.

    A preseason waiver claim by the Bears after he was cut by the Oakland Raiders, Bass was able to work his way into Chicago’s defensive line rotation as a rookie and made a number of notable plays. He has the potential to be a highly disruptive player off the edge, but he has a long way to go in his development.

45. Mathias Kiwanuka, New York Giants

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    After two seasons at strong-side linebacker, the New York Giants moved Mathias Kiwanuka (6’5”, 267 lbs, eight seasons) back to defensive end in 2013. The results, especially as a run defender, weren’t impressive. While Kiwanuka was able to use his burst to get into the backfield and make some plays, he gets controlled too easily by blockers and is redirected away from running plays often as a result.

    Kiwanuka is an explosive athlete who can bring pressure quickly when he has an angle to the quarterback. He has the strength to drive back opposing blockers as a bull-rusher when he generates momentum, and he lined up both outside and inside in pass-rushing situations this past season. However, while he is able to create some pressure as a pass-rusher with his physical tools, he is limited by a lack of strong pass-rushing moves.

    With a game best suited for playing outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense, Kiwanuka is somewhat miscast in the Giants’ 4-3 scheme. While he has good size, length and athleticism for a defensive end, his technical skills for the position are subpar.

44. Tyson Alualu, Jacksonville Jaguars

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    A big, physical defensive end, Tyson Alualu (6’3”, 295 lbs, four seasons) is at his best when working inside as a run defender. He is adept at working his way through traffic and is a solid tackler. When playing on the edge, he gets turned and pushed away from runs more easily than a player of his size should, while he lacks the speed and quickness to chase ball-carriers outside in pursuit.

    With just 20 total pressures in 348 pass-rush snaps this past season, Alualu was one of the NFL’s least productive 4-3 defensive ends against the pass. From subpar speed and quickness to a lack of effective pass-rushing moves, Alualu simply does not have the tools to be an effective NFL edge-rusher. His movement is too linear, he struggles to disengage from pass protection, and he lacks the power one might expect from a defensive lineman of his size.

    As Jacksonville coach Gus Bradley and his staff employed the Seattle Seahawks’ defensive scheme this past season, Alualu essentially took on the role of a 3-4 defensive end despite playing in a 4-3 scheme. While that role fits his game better as a big defensive lineman who does his best work inside, he continued to be largely unproductive even with the transition.

43. Osi Umenyiora, Atlanta Falcons

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    Osi Umenyiora (6’3”, 255 lbs, 10 seasons) is an undersized defensive end who tends to lose battles of strength at the line of scrimmage, can be redirected away from runs and takes inconsistent angles to the ball. He fires off the snap quickly and can blow up some running plays in the backfield as a result. But he also rarely stays in containment and often vacates running lanes by overrunning plays.

    Umenyiora doesn’t bring pressure with as much frequency as he did in his prime but showed he still has the ability to get after the quarterback with 7.5 sacks this past season. He has a quick burst and often combines this with a strong swim or rip move that can beat a blocker in a hurry. Where Umenyiora can run into trouble is when his initial moves are blocked, as he does not consistently make plays on a second effort.

    Though he isn’t held in the same regard he once was, Umenyiora is still a productive playmaker off the edge, at least when he wants to be. When he is able to anticipate a snap and time his get-off accordingly, he is a tough player to keep out of the backfield.

42. Kyle Wilber, Dallas Cowboys

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    A rangy athlete who tackles well in space, Kyle Wilber (6’4”, 250 lbs, two seasons) spent most of this past season as a defensive end before moving to strong-side linebacker down the stretch. The move seemed to be in Wilber’s best interest. He is a productive player against the run in pursuit but has limited strength and is frequently stopped in his tracks by offensive linemen.

    If you didn’t notice Wilber playing as a pass-rusher before he moved to an off-ball role, that’s probably because he wasn’t making much of an impact getting after the quarterback. With a weak set of pass-rushing moves and a lack of first-step quickness, Wilber recorded just two sacks and 21 total pressures last season.

    With a thinning roster of talent on the defensive line, the Dallas Cowboys will have to make a decision on whether to keep Wilber at strong-side linebacker or move him back to defensive end and count on his development up front. With limited strength and explosiveness, however, his playmaking potential as a defensive end is limited.

41. Derrick Shelby, Miami Dolphins

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    Perhaps the best run-stopping defensive end on a Miami Dolphins defensive line rotation consisting mostly of explosively athletic but smaller edge defenders, Derrick Shelby (6’2”, 280 lbs, two seasons) has point-of-attack strength and does an effective job holding his ground in running lanes. He is good at crashing into the middle of the line of scrimmage and is a sound tackler. But he struggles to disengage from blocks and is limited in pursuit by subpar speed.

    Shelby doesn’t bring a great deal to the table as a pass-rusher. He is not a natural bender around the edge but is rather noticeably linear in his movements. His speed and burst are subpar, and he is not overpowering as a bull-rusher. While he can occasionally fight his way around blockers with his hands to bring pressure, he isn’t a player whom opposing offenses have to specifically account for as a source of pass rush.

    There’s nothing particularly special about Shelby’s game, but he is a solid rotational defensive end with good size and ability to defend the run. At the very least, he should be able to continue providing depth on the Dolphins defensive line and could possibly develop into a bigger-impact player if he can create more disruption with his hands.

40. Devin Taylor, Detroit Lions

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    Devin Taylor (6’7”, 267 lbs, one season) only saw 127 snaps against the run as a rookie, but he flashed the potential to develop into a very good edge-setter. He occupies blocks strongly with great length and size, and is a strong tackler. His movements don’t always look natural, and he does not make many plays in pursuit, but he holds his ground well against blockers and slides his feet effectively.

    Taylor is a good athlete for his size, is strong with his hands and can win with power, but he struggles to work his way around blockers. While the best edge-rushers can get low and arc their way around the corner with speed, Taylor is a linear player who works high and doesn’t bend naturally. Despite his limitations, his physical attributes give him the ability to fight his way to the quarterback for pressure, and he finished his rookie season with 2.5 sacks.

    After flashing potential in a rotational role as a rookie, Taylor could be in position to compete for a starting role, or at least a significant uptick in playing time, in 2014. While his skill set remains raw, he has the physical tools to be a disruptive force on the defensive line if he can become more natural in his movements and play with better leverage.

39. Eugene Sims, St. Louis Rams

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    With 16 run stops in just 143 snaps against the run, Eugene Sims (6’6”, 269 lbs, four seasons) had the highest run-stop percentage of any 4-3 defensive end to play at least 25 percent of his team’s snaps last season. A fast player who is adept at chasing down runners in pursuit, Sims also has good strength and hands to hold gaps at the line of scrimmage. He can play both outside and inside, though he tends to be overwhelmed by double-teams up the middle.

    With fast acceleration and quick feet, Sims’ speed and change-of-direction skills look the part of a great edge-rusher. He is rarely able to take advantage of his athletic gifts, however, because he is too one-dimensional as a rusher. He has weak pass-rushing moves and has little power as a bull-rusher.

    The Rams had no shortage of defensive line talent this past season, but that didn’t stop Sims from making a significant impact, particularly as a run defender, and earning regular playing time in St. Louis’ defensive line rotation.

38. Shaun Phillips, Denver Broncos

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    Playing with his hand in the dirt consistently for the first time in his NFL career after nine years as a 3-4 outside linebacker with the San Diego Chargers, Shaun Phillips (6’3”, 255 lbs, 10 seasons) held up about as well as one would have expected in his first season as a full-time defensive end. While his size and strength are subpar for the position, he has good athletic range, can crash into the backfield with quickness and reverses direction well when necessary. He had some tackling issues in 2013, as he finished the year with 35 total tackles but also missed eight.

    Despite making a positional transition near the back end of his career, Phillips recorded his third double-digit-sack season with 10 quarterback takedowns in 2013. While he does not have a great explosive burst or power, he has good bend around the corner and strong closing speed. He does not have devastating pass-rushing moves but is an effective dip-and-rip rusher who can fight his way through a blocker with his hands.

    In his first and potentially only year with the Broncos defense, Phillips helped pick up the slack as a six-game suspension and torn ACL kept Von Miller off the field at different points in the season. Neither Phillips' transition to defensive end nor his age (currently 32) slowed him down significantly in 2013.

37. Olivier Vernon, Miami Dolphins

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    With the ability to explode out of his stance and possession of great speed, Olivier Vernon (6’2”, 268 lbs, two seasons) has a penchant for tracking down runners and making plays in pursuit. An active defender who moves throughout a play, he is good at occupying blocks to set the edge and is a sound tackler. He struggles when blockers go straight at him, however, as he has limited strength and has trouble freeing himself from the grasps of bigger offensive linemen.

    With 11.5 sacks, Vernon had a breakout year as a pass-rusher this past season. Combining his burst with a strong set of pass-rushing moves, he is able to quickly beat blockers then has the closing speed to track down a quarterback. He is fast going around the corner, though he tends to overrun his arc and can be shielded away from the quarterback as a result. He does not have much ability to bull rush, as he lacks power.

    Vernon’s game is still developing and lacks consistency, but he took a huge leap forward in his second season, emerging as a dynamic source of pressure off the edge opposite Cameron Wake.

36. Adrian Clayborn, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    Adrian Clayborn (6’3”, 280 lbs, three seasons) is a big, physical defensive end who is good at finding the football as a run defender. He is strong at the point of attack and typically holds his place against blocks at the line of scrimmage. While he does not have the spectacular athleticism of an NFL edge defender, he moves efficiently along the line and can get outside and upfield to track down runs in space. Clayborn’s tackling inconsistency, however, is concerning. The Buccaneer had 17 missed tackles this past season, the most of any 4-3 defensive end in the NFL.

    Clayborn can fight his way to the backfield to bring pressure on opposing quarterbacks, but it takes him time. He does not have much burst off the line of scrimmage, is relatively slow for an NFL edge defender and lacks impactful pass-rushing moves. He can use his size to his advantage as a bull-rusher, but his limited athleticism and hand skill make it tough for him to break down blockers and get around them.

    Clayborn has been a steady starter for the Buccaneers but not the impact player Tampa Bay expected him to be when it selected him with its first-round pick in the 2011 NFL draft. While he is a fine option to be a two-down player, the Buccaneers would benefit by finding someone who can spell Clayborn and bring more athleticism on the field in obvious pass-rushing situations.

35. Chris Clemons, Seattle Seahawks

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    Even at 32 years old and after suffering a torn ACL in January 2013, Chris Clemons (6’3”, 254 lbs, 10 seasons) is still a difficult player to run away from, but he isn’t particularly tough for offenses to run toward. A somewhat small player for the position, Clemons has limited strength and can be controlled by bigger, more powerful blockers. He can utilize his speed to chase down runners and make tackles in pursuit, but he struggles to shut down running lanes at the line of scrimmage.

    With just 4.5 sacks this past season after three straight years with 11 or more, Clemons’ pass-rushing production dipped, but he showed that he still can be a significant source of pressure off the edge. He is a long-striding speed-rusher who arcs smoothly and tightly around the corner, and he has a well-developed, effective set of pass-rushing moves. He does not exhibit much ability to rush with power, but he can be a handful for edge-blockers to deal with.

    An athletic fit for the “Leo’’ role in Seattle’s defense as a pass-rusher and pursuit specialist, he should reprise a similar role for the Jacksonville Jaguars, with whom he signed a four-year contract this offseason. He played his best football this past season down the stretch, seemingly fully recovered from injury after starting off slowly, and he should add a much-needed spark to Jacksonville’s pass rush.

34. Jonathan Massaquoi, Atlanta Falcons

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    Jonathan Massaquoi (6’2”, 264 lbs, two seasons) is an active, aggressive run defender whose success stems from his ability to accelerate with speed and chase down ball-carriers in pursuit. Though he is relatively small for a defensive end, he takes on blocks physically and doesn’t often get pushed around. A good athlete who can change directions, Massaquoi can make plays in space as well as around the line of scrimmage.

    Though his burst and speed are key assets to his game as a pass-rusher and helped him finish last season with four sacks, Massaquoi still has a long way to go before he’s able to bring pressure consistently off the edge. When he anticipates the snap correctly he can win with speed, while he can also generate solid power. However, he needs to develop stronger pass-rushing moves and take more fluid angles around the edge.

    Massaquoi received significantly more playing time in his second season and started to show promise that could make him a key player in Atlanta’s defensive front. Should the Falcons switch defensive schemes, it could be a beneficial transition for Massaquoi, who projects well with his athleticism and pursuit skills to play outside linebacker in a 3-4 front.

33. Cliff Avril, Seattle Seahawks

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    Cliff Avril (6’3”, 260 lbs, six seasons) is a liability as a run defender. He is frequently driven off the line of scrimmage by blockers or redirected away from running plays. He can occasionally make run stops by exploding into the backfield or by chasing down ball-carriers in pursuit. But he really struggles to hold up at the point of attack.

    Avril is one of the NFL’s best at generating pressure off the edge. A true speed-rusher, Avril pops out of his stance as if he were shot out of a cannon, then can accelerate rapidly and with natural bend around the corner. His track speed in a defensive lineman’s body is often enough on its own for him to bring pressure, but he is also forceful with his hands, has strong pass-rushing moves and can generate power as a bull-rusher.

    Though Avril saw less playing time this past season than he had in previous years as a starter in Detroit, the transition to situational pass rushing in Seattle’s defense was beneficial to his game. By taking him out in most situations where he would get taken advantage of as a run defender, the Seahawks allow him to focus on where he excelsas an explosive pressure-generator off the edge.

32. Jason Babin, Jacksonville Jaguars

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    While Jason Babin (6’3”, 267 lbs, 10 seasons) can take advantage of his acceleration and speed to chase down runners and make plays in pursuit, his ability to defend the run is seriously limited by a lack of strength. He gets driven off the line of scrimmage and redirected away from runs far too often, often leaving running lanes open on his side of the line.

    Babin has a very good first step, the speed to get to the backfield in a hurry and quick, active hands. He doesn’t take the most natural angles around the edge, but his combination of closing speed and pass-rushing moves makes him a consistent threat to bring pressure from outside. A pure speed-rusher, Babin doesn’t have a significant power element to his game but still demonstrates a great deal of athletic ability.

    Babin has changed teams often over the course of his NFL career, but he will be back with the Jaguars in 2014 after re-signing with Jacksonville this offseason. He will face competition to retain his starting role, but despite being 33 years old, he has shown few signs of slowing down and is a good fit as Jacksonville’s wide pass-rusher.

31. Israel Idonije, Detroit Lions

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    With only seven solo tackles in 2013, Israel Idonije (6’6”, 275 lbs, 10 seasons) made little impact as a run defender in his lone season with the Detroit Lions. While he has very good size and strength and can crash into the middle effectively, he doesn’t do much with his hands and gets controlled and redirected too easily away from outside runs.

    Idonije doesn’t have a great burst, but he generates power from both his upper and lower body, while his long arms make him a tough matchup for opposing blockers. He is much more effective as an inside rusher than outside, but he is a solid bull-rusher who can fight his way around the edge. He has subpar balance and ends up on the ground more than a rusher of his size should.

    A back-of-the-rotation player for Detroit, Idonije didn’t make much of an impact in 2013, even beyond his low numbers on the stat sheet. He is returning to the Chicago Bears, where he was a more productive player for them from 2004 to 2012, on a one-year contract in 2014.

30. Dion Jordan, Miami Dolphins

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    Despite being the No. 3 overall pick in the 2013 draft, Dion Jordan (6’6”, 260 lbs, one season) didn’t see much playing time as a rookie, and that was largely because of his lack of ability as a point-of-attack run defender. If he is going to emerge as an NFL starter, he needs to become physically stronger. He is highly susceptible to being pushed around by blockers. When he is able to break free from the line of scrimmage, he is effective in pursuit and a strong tackler. But he needs to hold his ground better to see more playing time versus the run.

    While Jordan still needs to improve as a pass-rusher, he was able to make an immediate impact off the edge thanks to his exceptional burst off the snap and his ability to turn the corner with great speed. He shows some ability to beat blockers with his hands, though his arsenal of pass-rushing moves remains limited. Jordan also has the impressive ability to drop back into coverage as a pass defender, though he doesn’t get many opportunities to do that as a defensive end.

    An unnatural fit for a 4-3 defense, Jordan could be limited to situational pass-rushing duty as a 4-3 defensive end unless he can become significantly stronger. Though he has exceptional athletic potential, his rookie season in the NFL was more flash than substance.

29. Ropati Pitoitua, Tennessee Titans

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    A massive defensive end with quick feet for his size, Ropati Pitoitua (6’8”, 298 lbs, four seasons) emerged as one of the NFL’s best run-stopping ends this past season. He has great strength, sets the edge well and rarely gets driven out of running lanes. He has a quick first step and excels at crashing the middle of the line of scrimmage. He also shows the ability to kick out and make plays on the outside. He is strong with his hands and fights his way effectively through traffic.

    Built more like a defensive tackle than an end, Pitoitua isn’t much of an edge-rusher. He does not have much speed around the edge and lacks natural bend. He has some occasional success working inside as a rusher, and he is good at using his length to knock down passes. But he is better at occupying blocks to free up his teammates than he is at bringing pressure himself.

    Ideally suited to play 3-4 defensive end, Pitoitua could be poised to have an excellent season in 2014 as the Tennessee Titans, with whom he signed a three-year contract extension this offseason, switch to a hybrid defensive scheme under Ray Horton. While he might not be a household name, Pitoitua is well worth knowing for his massive frame and ability to stop the run. His best football might yet be ahead of him.

28. Kamerion Wimbley, Tennessee Titans

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    Kamerion Wimbley (6’4”, 258 lbs, eight seasons) was used sparingly as a run defender in 2013. He bursts well off the line of scrimmage and can attack the backfield to make plays as a result. His speed also allows him to get upfield and make plays in pursuit. At the line of scrimmage, however, Wimbley can be overwhelmed by bigger, stronger blockers, and he tends to overrun plays while aggressively looking to make things happen.

    Wimbley’s production dipped in his first NFL season as a non-starter, but he continued to show he could impact the game as a situational pass-rusher. A fast mover around the corner, Wimbley curls into the backfield well and is adept at dipping while using his hands to work an angle to the quarterback. He isn’t much of a power rusher off the line of scrimmage, but his quickness makes him a rusher to account for.

    Moving into a 4-3 defense when he joined the Tennessee Titans in 2012 wasn’t the most natural fit for Wimbley, so it’s good news for the veteran edge defender that the Titans will likely play with more 3-4 defensive sets under new defensive coordinator Ray Horton in 2014. Though he performed adequately in a situational role this past season, he could return to the starting lineup as a 3-4 outside linebacker.

27. Derrick Morgan, Tennessee Titans

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    Though it’s not the strength of his game, Derrick Morgan (6’3”, 271 lbs, four seasons) holds up fairly well as a run defender. He doesn’t overpower his opponents, but he can hold his own to keep running lanes closed. He has quick feet and shuffles well along the line of scrimmage to cover ground quickly and make plays.

    Morgan is an athletic edge-rusher who gets off the line efficiently and strides with speed toward opposing quarterbacks. He can shake defenders with his quick feet and has a skillful array of pass-rushing moves. He doesn’t arc as naturally as most speed-rushers, instead playing more straight up. But Morgan doesn’t rely on beating blockers around the outside. He works inside well as a rusher and can occasionally win with power.

    On paper, Morgan’s career has been a disappointment, as he has never had more than 6.5 sacks in a season. In reality, however, Morgan has blossomed over the past two seasons into a productive, well-rounded defensive end who makes the Titans better on all three downs.

26. Red Bryant, Seattle Seahawks

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    An oversized defensive end who carved out a starting role for the Seattle Seahawks for the past three years, Red Bryant (6’4”, 323 lbs, six seasons) takes advantage of his size as a run defender. He is adept at crashing inside to stop runs, sets the edge well and rarely gets driven out of gaps. He isn’t a spectacular athlete and doesn’t do much in pursuit, but he can be a real asset as a run-stuffer at the line of scrimmage.

    It’s a good thing Bryant isn’t a traditional 4-3 defensive end or counted on to consistently be an every-down player, because he isn’t much of a pass-rusher off the edge. He doesn’t have an explosive burst, has poor speed for the position and lacks effective pass-rushing moves. He can occasionally win with power as a bull-rusher, but he is best suited not to play on passing downs.

    Though Seattle’s defense is technically a 4-3 scheme, Bryant plays mostly on the outside shoulder of the offensive tackle in a role that largely mirrors that of a 3-4 defensive end. He should reprise a similar role with the Jacksonville Jaguars, who are coached by former Seahawks defensive coordinator Gus Bradley and with whom he signed a four-year contract this offseason.

25. Ezekiel Ansah, Detroit Lions

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    Possessing all the tools to be a standout run defender, Ezekiel Ansah (6’5”, 271 lbs, one season) just needs more discipline. He uses his size, strength and length to hold the edge well against blockers and redirect runners, but his pursuit speed is what makes him special. He doesn’t always take great angles to the ball, but he accelerates like a sprinter and can quickly track down runners from behind. However, he has a tendency to overrun plays, which can leave running lanes wide open at the line of scrimmage.

    Despite some inconsistency in his rookie season, Ansah flashed the potential to wreak havoc off the edge. Though his first step off the snap is subpar, he makes up for it with his ability to accelerate. His long arms and quick hands make his pass-rushing moves tough to defend, while he also has the strength to drive back blockers as a bull-rusher. He is shifty on his feet and can maneuver his way into rush lanes quickly, while he has great closing speed. After leading all rookies in 2013 with eight sacks, Ansah’s next step in becoming a great pass-rusher is to develop countermoves he can use to disengage from blocks.

    Ansah’s first year in the NFL was just his fourth season of organized football. While his lack of football experience was evident in his play in 2013, so were his incredible physical attributes and his rapid year-to-year development. The Lions defensive end could end up much higher on next year’s rankings if he continues his fast track to stardom.

24. Everson Griffen, Minnesota Vikings

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    Ann Heisenfelt/Associated Press


    Everson Griffen (6’3”, 273 lbs, four seasons) has been a key piece of the Minnesota Vikings' rotation, and that includes against the run. While he isn’t a big-play defender in this capacity, he has good size and point-of-attack strength, is a solid tackler and sets the edge well. He does not have great quickness in space, but he does not often get pushed around by opposing blockers.

    Griffen rotates into the lineup at both defensive end and defensive tackle and is an effective pass-rusher from both inside and outside. While he doesn’t have a great burst off the line of scrimmage, he has a strong arsenal of pass-rushing moves and can also drive through blockers with his power. He is not a particularly natural bender for an edge-rusher, but he accelerates well and can close to the ball with speed.

    After playing through his initial NFL contract as a productive player off the bench, Griffen is set to take over a starting role in 2014 after signing a five-year contract to remain with the Vikings. Both a physical pass-rusher and a strong run defender, Griffen has the skill set for a breakout season in an expanded role.

23. George Selvie, Dallas Cowboys

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    After playing sparingly between three different teams in his first three NFL seasons, George Selvie (6’4”, 270 lbs, four seasons) finally started to reach his potential, especially as a run defender. A good athlete who can get outside quickly in pursuit, he also holds his ground well against offensive tackles on the edge. He utilizes his long reach well to pull rushers in, but he is an inconsistent tackler who missed nine this past season.

    A fluid edge player who can turn the corner with speed, bull rushes with power and has long limbs, Selvie has the pass-rushing traits one wants to see in an NFL defensive end. He doesn’t have great pass-rushing moves or an exceptional burst, but he is active with his hands and accelerates well. He is effective on inside stunts and demonstrates that he can fight through blockers with a second effort.

    Having finally emerged as a productive player in 2013, the Dallas Cowboys will look for Selvie to continue to build upon his skill set, especially as a pass-rusher, in 2014. With a defensive line that lost its two best players from this past season in DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher, the Cowboys are going to need Selvie to be more than just a one-year wonder.

22. Wallace Gilberry, Cincinnati Bengals

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    Combining good size and strength with the quickness and speed to track down runners in pursuit, Wallace Gilberry (6’2”, 275 lbs, six seasons) is a solid rotational run defender. He uses his hands well to sift his way through traffic and is a sound tackler. He can play both inside and outside as a run defender, though he tends to be pushed around up the middle. He only played 123 snaps against the run in 2013.

    A productive pass-rusher off the bench, Gilberry recorded a career-high 7.5 sacks in 2013. He has limited length and doesn’t have great explosion off the snap, but he has good closing speed and can work through blockers with his strength and hand usage. He is a solid edge-rusher whose ability to kick inside as a tackle in passing situations gives him additional value.

    Gilberry has never started more than two games in an NFL season. With Michael Johnson’s departure from the Cincinnati Bengals, he might finally get his shot in 2014. While he has provided a good spark as a part-time player in Cincinnati for the past two seasons, his all-around skill set could truly be put to the test in an expanded role.

21. Brian Robison, Minnesota Vikings

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    A lack of strength shows up in Brian Robison (6’3”, 259 lbs, seven seasons) against the run, as he is often able to be driven off the line of scrimmage to allow plays to be run in his direction. He doesn’t do enough with his hands to offset his disadvantages in size and strength, and he struggles to work his way through traffic. When he has a clear path to a play, he has the speed to close quickly and is a solid tackler.

    Robison doesn’t explode by blockers with burst or through them with power, but he has a relentless motor and often brings pressure on second effort. He is a very good dip-and-rip rusher around the edge, though he sometimes arcs too wide. However, he is very active with his hands and can also win with a spin move. His 83 total pressures were the second-most among all 4-3 defensive ends this past season.

    While his physical traits do not stand out, he makes the most of his skill set by always playing at full speed. Having signed a four-year contract extension in October, Robison will remain a key piece of Minnesota’s defensive line for 2014 and beyond.

20. William Hayes, St. Louis Rams

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    William Hayes (6’3”, 278 lbs, six seasons), who rotates in at defensive end and tackle for the St. Louis Rams defensive line, is an effective run-stopper from both positions. He has the gap-shooting quickness to attack inside and blow up runs in the backfield, while he also holds his own against blocks both up the middle and on the edge. Credited with 12 stops in just 114 run snaps, Hayes had the NFL’s third-highest run-stop percentage among 4-3 defensive ends this past season.

    Hayes is at his best as an inside rusher, where his quickness off the line of scrimmage gives him a bigger advantage, but he can also create disruption around the edge. He is not particularly athletic around the corner, but he is strong with his hands and closes quickly when he has an angle to the quarterback.

    Though overshadowed by a talented quartet of starters, Hayes had a productive 2013 season as the fifth man in St. Louis’ defensive line rotation. Possessing a strong combination of size, athleticism and technical skills, Hayes can make an impact from both outside and inside when he checks into the game.

19. Andre Branch, Jacksonville Jaguars

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    The play of Andre Branch (6’5”, 265 lbs, two seasons) made a significant leap forward in his sophomore season, especially against the run. An explosive athlete with speed, Branch is good at chasing down runners in pursuit, but he can also hold up in gaps at the line of scrimmage. While he won’t overpower his opponents, he is active with his hands, fights to maintain his ground and is a sound tackler.

    Branch is still very much developing as a pass-rusher, but he was able to take advantage of his quick burst, closing speed and strong hands for six sacks this past season. He is not consistently able to break down opponents with his hands, but he shows the ability to win with pass-rushing moves. He is unlikely ever to emerge as a power rusher, so he needs to continue refining his technique as a speed rusher, which includes becoming more precise in his rush angles around the corner.

    While Branch’s play remained inconsistent, he started to show significant upside and carve out a regular role in Jacksonville’s defensive end rotation after a disappointing rookie year. If he can continue to develop going into his third NFL season, he should have a chance to win a starting job or at least be in line for a key role along the Jaguars defensive line.

18. Rob Ninkovich, New England Patriots

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    Few NFL defenders make as many plays off the edge as Rob Ninkovich (6’2”, 260 lbs, eight seasons). A hybrid defensive end/linebacker in the New England Patriots’ constantly changing defensive scheme, he is a strong tackler in space with great instincts, while he also has good functional strength and holds the edge well at the line of scrimmage. He is a disciplined player who rarely loses containment assignments. The leading tackler among all NFL players listed as defensive linemen with 91, his only real weakness against the run is that his lack of size and length can make it difficult for him to disengage from blocks.

    Ninkovich doesn’t have the prototypical burst, power or length of an NFL edge-rusher, but he makes up for it with his technical prowess. He has very good snap anticipation and more than adequate speed upon acceleration. He uses his hands well and consistently creates leverage with good pad level. Ninkovich’s value as a pass defender is increased significantly by his ability to stand up and drop back into coverage, which he did 88 times during the 2013 regular season.

    Though he technically plays defensive end in a 4-3 scheme, Ninkovich is just as much an outside linebacker, as he is moved all around the field and plays standing up more than he does with his hand in the dirt. From a physical standpoint, Ninkovich is a classic overachiever who wouldn’t wow anyone in a track meet. But he has a nonstop motor and consistently finds ways to make plays.

17. Justin Tuck, New York Giants

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    Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports


    Justin Tuck (6’5”, 268 lbs, nine seasons) has been a productive run defender throughout his career, and that continued to be the case in 2013. He has great strength and is very effective at holding the outside edge against runners, while he is also very good at working his way through traffic to crash inside for run stops. He isn’t the fastest or most agile defensive end, but he holds up well around the line of scrimmage.

    After recording nine combined sacks over his previous two years, Tuck bounced back well in 2013 and took down opposing quarterbacks 11 times. While he isn’t as explosive off the edge as he once was, he can still beat opponents with his hands and power. He is also an excellent inside rusher who can be kicked inside to defensive tackle and create disruption up the middle on passing downs.

    Following a nine-year run in which he was a key piece of two Super Bowl-winning defenses for the Giants, the 31-year-old Tuck signed a two-year contract this offseason to join the Oakland Raiders. Coming off his most productive and first 16-game season since 2010, Tuck will look to bring life to a Raiders defensive line that needs to generate more pressure up front.

16. Jared Allen, Minnesota Vikings

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    Jared Allen (6’6”, 270 lbs, 10 seasons) doesn’t typically make a big impact as a run defender, but his size and strength allow him to hold up and make some plays. He doesn’t typically get driven off the line, and he is a disciplined player who sticks to his assignments and doesn’t vacate gaps when he isn’t supposed to. That said, he is susceptible to being turned away from running plays, is an inconsistent tackler and is average at best in pursuit.

    Allen doesn’t have top-end speed and quickness for an edge-rusher, but he makes up for it with his strength and physicality. He generates great power as a bull-rusher, while he has strong pass-rushing moves and violent hands. As he consistently fights through the whistle as a rusher, he is known to wear down opposing blockers over the course of a game. With 11.5 sacks this past season, Allen has recorded at least 11 sacks in each of his last seven seasons and in eight of his last nine.

    Having signed with the Chicago Bears for 2014, Jared Allen could make a huge impact in helping rebuild a once-great defense. Allen will join newcomers Willie Young and Lamarr Houston to give Chicago a solid, aggressive rotation at defensive end.

15. Julius Peppers, Chicago Bears

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    Playing the run has never been Julius Peppers’ (6’7”, 287 lbs, 12 seasons) forte, but he was still the most solid run defender on a shaky Chicago Bears defensive line last season. He is very good at working his way along the line of scrimmage, both crashing into the middle and moving outside to string running plays wide. He is a solid tackler. But despite his tremendous size, he is not a strong presence when plays are run straight at him, as he tends to be redirected or turned away from the ball-carrier.

    Peppers isn’t as explosive of an athlete as he was in his prime, but he still has the speed and skill to get to the quarterback. He is very good on inside stunts but can also work his way around the edge with his speed and hands. He can no longer win on his burst alone. But he has a solid array of pass-rushing moves and can impose his size to drive back opponents as a bull-rusher.

    At 34 years old, it’s only natural that Peppers is starting to slow down and take a step back. But fortunately for him, he came from such a physically impressive starting point that he might still have a few solid years left in the tank. The Green Bay Packers are banking on the hope that he does, as they signed Peppers to a three-year contract this offseason.

14. Chris Long, St. Louis Rams

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    A steady run defender, Chris Long (6’3”, 268 lbs, six seasons) is a sound tackler who can work his way through traffic to make plays inside and utilize his athleticism to catch runners outside. He isn’t particularly strong in one-on-one matchups and can struggle to counter the push of a run-blocker, which can result in him being redirected away from running plays.

    Long’s speed is average at best for an edge-rusher, but he makes up for it with a well-rounded skill set. Strong and relentless in his upper body, he can work his way around blockers with his pass-rushing moves or drive back a blocker with a bull rush. He is adept at stunting inside, while he turns the corner fluidly outside.

    The Rams could be tempted to select superstar prospect Jadeveon Clowney in this year’s draft and pair him with Robert Quinn. But St. Louis already has one of the NFL’s best defensive end pairings—and a former No. 2 overall pick—with Long in tow. While he was overshadowed by Quinn’s emergence this past season, Long more than holds his own as a disruptive presence on the edge.

13. Michael Johnson, Cincinnati Bengals

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    Tom Uhlman/Associated Press


    An active presence on run defense, Michael Johnson (6’7”, 270 lbs, five seasons) keeps himself consistently around the football, even when plays are run away from his side of the line. A terrific athlete with great length, Johnson can cover ground quickly. He is very good at working his way through traffic and crashing into the middle of the line, but he also has the speed and change-of-direction skills to chase down runs and make tackles in pursuit. He isn’t the most powerful individual, but his combination of technique and athleticism allows him to be highly productive as a run defender.

    Johnson has an explosive burst off the line of scrimmage, great speed for his position and a terrific reach. He has the power to drive back blockers when engaged, while he has quick feet that he uses to maneuver into rush lanes when free. He is not as productive a pass-rusher as he could be because he plays high and has subpar pass-rushing moves. But one of his best traits is his ability to deflect passes at the line of scrimmage. He led all NFL defensive linemen with nine passes defensed in 2013.

    After signing a five-year contract earlier this offseason, Michael Johnson is set to bring a much-needed spark to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ defensive end rotation. He should immediately become Tampa Bay’s star edge defender against both the run and pass.

12. Jason Pierre-Paul, New York Giants

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    USA TODAY Sports


    Known best for his ability to get to the quarterback, Jason Pierre-Paul (6’5”, 278 lbs, four seasons) is also a strong run defender. He is a strong edge-setter who has the speed to chase down runners and make plays in pursuit. Though he doesn’t do it consistently, he can utilize his length and hands to disengage from blocks and track down runners in the backfield.

    Pierre-Paul had a down year in 2013, recording just two sacks in 11 games, but he still has all the tools to re-emerge as one of the league’s premier pass-rushers. He can get off the line of scrimmage, has very good closing speed and arcs naturally around the edge. His long arms allow him to keep blockers off his body and shake them with his moves, while he is also a threat to knock the ball down any time a pass is thrown in his direction.

    JPP never quite got up to full speed after he missed the entire 2013 preseason due to back surgery, then missed the final five games of the Giants’ season with a shoulder injury. At just 25 years old, however, there’s nothing to suggest that Pierre-Paul shouldn’t be able to bounce back and return to form in 2014.

11. Robert Ayers, Denver Broncos

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    Robert Ayers (6’3”, 274 lbs, five seasons) didn’t play consistently against the run in 2013 but was productive in that capacity when he was on the field. While he isn’t the most physically strong player at the point of attack, he is a quick-footed athlete who can cover ground quickly in pursuit. With his ability to break off the edge and make stops in the backfield and along the line of scrimmage, Ayers was credited with a run stop in 10.7 percent of his snaps against the run, the second-best percentage among 4-3 defensive ends who played at least 25 percent of their teams run snaps in 2013.

    Although he was a rotational player who started just three games in 2013, Ayers still finished with a career-high 5.5 sacks. A very good athlete who combines a quick burst with effective playing speed and the agility to shake blockers, Ayers can be a tough rusher for quarterbacks to move away from, and he provides a pass-rushing spark when he checks into the game. While he is not particularly powerful, he can work his way around the blockers with his hands.

    Though he wasn’t a mainstay for the AFC champions in 2013, Ayers was Denver’s best edge defender when he was on the field. Though the 2009 first-round pick has never quite lived up to expectations, he showed more playmaking ability than ever before in his contract year.

10. Willie Young, Detroit Lions

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    Willie Young (6’4”, 251 lbs, four seasons) is a name you’ll want to get to know. Moving from Detroit to Chicago, Young will go head-to-head with NFL left tackles. Given his impressive physical skills, Young is able to use speed and agility to get around blockers to the ball. He lacks the anchor strength to sit and hold his ground, but he is quick and nagging in pursuit.

    You might see Young’s three sacks in 2013 and wonder why he’s rated so highly as a pass-rusher. Well, being a top-tier pass-rusher isn’t just about sacks. It’s about pressuring, hitting and hurrying the quarterback, and setting up opportunities for your teammates. Young does that. On a line featuring exceptional interior pass rushing from Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley, Young was asked to contain the outside and bend the edge. He did that well, showing off speed and flexibility in space. His hands are active, quick and allow him to disengage from the left tackle.

    Young isn’t well-known outside of the NFC North, but his physicality and the opportunity presented to him in Chicago give him the ability to launch himself onto the national radar in 2014.

9. Carlos Dunlap, Cincinnati Bengals

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    Carlos Dunlap (6’6”, 280 lbs, four seasons) represents a unique skill set and style at defensive end. He’s incredibly long and able to get his hands on blockers and lock them out, which keeps his frame clean against the run. He’s also big and is able to use his body and power to drop his weight and hold the edge. Ideally, he could be better as a tackler and at getting through traffic, but Dunlap makes plenty of plays against the run.

    You won’t get elite speed from Dunlap, but he has a complete pass-rushing game. His inside move is powerful and quick, and if he needs to split the B-gap, he can without getting caught up by a reaching tackle or sliding guard. His outside move isn’t quick, and he takes the long way around to the quarterback too often, but he does show the power to bull rush and create pressure without busting loose for a big sack.

    Dunlap, at left defensive end, has the quickness and power to make a constant impact. His improvement in 2013 didn’t go unnoticed.

8. Charles Johnson, Carolina Panthers

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    He doesn’t have elite, ideal size, but Charles Johnson (6’2”, 285 lbs, seven seasons) does have elite production and impact. Against the run, he’s quick and able to shoot gaps and snuff out ball-carriers in space. Johnson will struggle at times to maintain his length and keep blockers off his body, and as a strong-side end, that can be an issue. But if he beats the blocker to the hole, Johnson can be a good tackler and a more than capable run defender.

    This is where Johnson makes his money. He’s quick off the line and causes right tackles problems with his first step. Tackles must be on their game to handle his burst and agility, and he moves well on the go to adjust and counter. His hand use is first-rate as well. In 2013, we saw a drop-off in production and impact as he faced more athletic right tackles, but his hurries and hits made up for a lack of sacks (11.0).

    Johnson was overshadowed at times due to the stellar play of Greg Hardy, but he’s still one of the game’s best. His pass-rushing skills are worth studying by all young ends.

7. Chandler Jones, New England Patriots

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    Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports


    The impact performer of the Patriots’ front four, Chandler Jones (6’5”, 265 lbs, two seasons) continues to show the skills that made him a first-round selection. Jones has become one of the best run-defending ends in the game. He’s a very active tackler (79 total on the season) and uses his length to break free from blockers to attack the ball. Jones’ closing speed and vision allow him to equally make a play on the ball, play side or weak side. And he shows the lower-body strength to anchor and shut down rushing lanes.

    Jones is a long athlete, and as such, he can be a big target coming out of his stance. He showed remarkable improvement at playing with leverage and using his hands to fight off the punch of a tackle. He doesn’t have elite speed, but he shows good inside and outside quickness and a thorough tool kit of pass-rushing moves that allows him to keep blockers guessing.

    The balance of Jones’ game makes him a true three-down player in an era of specialization along the defensive line. While his numbers aren’t elite, his impact and scoutable talents justify his being a top-10 player.

6. Lamarr Houston, Oakland Raiders

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    Lamarr Houston (6’3”, 300 lbs, four seasons) has the size, strength and speed to be elite as a run defender. Being built like a defensive tackle, Houston can take on blockers head-up and control them with his upper- and lower-body strength. He’s also smart and won’t get caught looking into the backfield. He’s a tackler whether in space or when fighting off a block.

    Houston doesn’t have elite speed compared to the players ranked ahead of him, but he’s quick enough to close on the quarterback and create pressures. He may have had just six sacks in 2013, but he was also the focus of every offensive line the Raiders faced. Houston has to work to improve his outside pass rush, as he doesn’t have the flexibility and quick get-off of a speed rusher. But where he wins, with strength (bull rushes, rips) and inside quickness, is impressive.

    One of the best all-around defensive ends in the game, Houston will be much more recognizable now that he’s signed with Chicago. As an ideal left defensive end, his impact against the run will be huge for the Bears defense.

5. Cameron Wake, Miami Dolphins

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    Cameron Wake (6’3”, 258 lbs, five seasons) isn’t known as a run defender, but when he’s on the field for rushing downs, the smooth pass-rusher shows up well. Wake does a good job making plays in space, but where he’ll get in trouble is when the play comes his way. His best attribute in the run game is having the speed to run down ball-carriers and make plays on the back side.

    It’s tough to find a defensive end with a better shoulder dip and burst than Wake. He’s incredibly fluid coming off the line of scrimmage and uses his hands well to keep his frame clean. Couple that with a first step that can be hell on a blocker, and Wake is able to either beat or trick tackles into mistakes. And while his sack numbers (8.5) weren’t elite, his hits (20) and hurries (41) were. And when you’re the entire focus of the offensive line, it’s tough to get the one-on-one matchups speed rushers crave.

    One of the NFL’s best pass-rushers since coming into the league from Canada, Wake has the speed and athleticism to be perennially ranked in the top five.

4. DeMarcus Ware, Dallas Cowboys

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    Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports


    As one of the best tacklers in the game at defensive end, DeMarcus Ware (6’4”, 258 lbs, nine seasons) is great at stopping the outside run. Where he’ll struggle is when asked to lock on to the tackle and anchor. Ware is a player you want in space, where he shows quickness, flexibility and an eye for the ball. You won’t fool him with play action or misdirection. His ability to make tough tackles and pick through trash is high-end.

    It’s important to note that we’re only evaluating players based on their play and not downgrading them for missed time. Take that into account when watching Ware’s 2013 season, and you still see a top-tier pass-rusher. Looking at his production, you see four great games (Weeks 1, 2, 3 and 12) and several very good performances (Weeks 4, 10 and 16). The issue was consistency, and Ware’s film showed him slowing down and taking plays off. That happens to injured players. But when he was on, there were few better at breaking away from the left tackle and getting into the backfield. His first-step quickness is elite when right, and he’s still strong enough to engage blockers and use his hands to get free.

    Ware, who was released by the Cowboys and signed by the Broncos this offseason, might not garner the same recognition he did two seasons ago. But when healthy, he still has the goods to be the best pass-rusher in the NFL. We saw those flashes in 2013 and remain convinced that Ware is still a top-tier defensive end.

3. Michael Bennett, Seattle Seahawks

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    If you want a big-bodied defensive lineman, Michael Bennett (6’4”, 274 lbs, five seasons) is your guy. During the 2013 season, he played left and right end while moving inside to tackle at times. When stopping the run, he’s best on the edge, where he won’t get overrun by big pulling guards in traffic. Bennett is a sure tackler with a long reach, and that allows him to shut down runners in space. As a gap-plugger, he’s average. But playing strong-side defensive end, he’s able to penetrate and make enough plays in the backfield.

    Watch Bennett split blockers, and you see his value. He’s quick out of his stance and has great leverage and instincts. He’ll use his hands to fight off blockers, but more times than not, he can win with that first-step speed. You don’t see Bennett looping outside to beat a blocker as often as crashing on the inside—which makes sense given his experience at both defensive end and defensive tackle. He brings the pass-rushing skill of both to his unique alignment on the Seattle defensive line and mixes up his rushes well enough to keep blockers—inside or out—off balance.

    Bennett’s build, quickness and strength make him a versatile pass-rusher and valuable asset along the defensive line. His play on defense was a huge reason the Seahawks were able to panic and pressure Peyton Manning in Super Bowl XLVIII.

2. Greg Hardy, Carolina Panthers

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    A big, stout defensive end, Greg Hardy (6’4”, 290 lbs, four seasons) has the size, speed and strength defensive coordinators love and offensive tackles hate. He’s long enough to keep blockers off his body and can close on ball-carriers with excellent speed. The only knock on his game would be missed tackles in space when zeroing in on the ball.

    Hardy was nearly unstoppable coming off the right side of the defense. His burst and power allowed for a wonderful variety in his pass-rushing sets. Hardy fires off low, fast and aggressive. That’s what led to 15 sacks, 27 quarterback hits and 45 hurries. Even when he can’t get to the quarterback, Hardy is creating pressures and setting up sacks for his teammates. When scouting his film, you have to love the way he mixes up speed, power and the right blend of fakes to throw off blockers.

    Hardy had an exceptional season, putting himself in the discussion as the best defensive end in the game. Big things are expected from the Panthers’ franchise player in 2014.

1. Robert Quinn, St. Louis Rams

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    Robert Quinn (6’4”, 264 lbs, three seasons) made a legitimate case for Defensive Player of the Year with his performance in 2013. As a run defender, he shows speed and aggression coming off the ball. He’s able to get into the backfield and take away outside runs while showing excellent vision and awareness when coming down the line. Quinn’s lean, sleek body type means blockers can overpower him at times. But as a weak-side end, he’s very impressive.

    Quinn established himself as an elite pass-rusher with a dynamic 2013 season. His 19 sacks, 21 quarterback hits and an astonishing 51 hurries combine to be the best in the league—by far. Quinn has an unreal burst off the line of scrimmage and shows the lower-body flexibility to bend the edge, dip his inside shoulder and explode past blockers. He’s also strong enough to engage blockers when they get into his frame and shed their hands. Quinn’s nose for the ball is exceptional, and he has the athletic tools to back it up.

    Quinn’s 2013 season ranks as one of the best you’ll see from a defensive end. That’s why he comes in so high on both the defensive end and overall player list.

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