When surveying the NFL 4-3 defensive landscape, one will undoubtedly encounter odd monikers, nicknames, and titles such as "Over," "Under," and "Stack." And while these terms may or may not mean anything to you, I would propose a new term for the venerable 4-3 defense.
It seems as though two or three teams every year convert to the 3-4 defense, with a total of 11 teams converting over the last four years. The 3-4 is a completely different beast and allows flexibility when presenting the offense with a multitude of options to factor for.
With the 3-4 all the rage now, coupled with more aggressive schemes in sacking the QB, we take a look at the NFL's top five defensive ends in the 4-3.
There are few better than Freeney at rushing the quarterback, and he may very well be the most complete pass rusher in the NFL today.
Tom Brady was recently asked, "Who is the most intimidating player you face?" To which he replied, "Dwight Freeney."
"Every play with him is a game-changing play. Every time you throw the ball, Freeney is a factor."
Even without the star QB's endorsement, there are very few NFL fans and players that can bring the pressure like Freeney can on Sundays.
Drafted 11th overall in the 2002 NFL Draft by the Colts, he is their franchise record holder for sacks.
So for all the accolades and praise, why do you ask is he fifth on this list?
Let us forget for one moment that stopping the run is not his forte. Freeney is a pure pass rusher and one of the best. Despite those facts, a closer look at his production over the past five years shows an odd flux of production.
Following Freeney's 2004 and 2005 seasons in which he posted 16 and 11 sacks respectively, he went on to post back-to-back mediocre seasons of 5.5 and 3.5 sacks in 2006 and 2007. He would bounce back the following years and most recently put up 13.5 sacks on his way to his fifth Pro Bowl selection.
He is 30 years old and a speed rusher type of end, and as all speed rushers do, once he begins to slow down and lose a step his drop-off figures to be a considerable one. Freeney is getting up there in age and the proverbial glass ceiling seems to loom on the horizon.
Despite this however, Freeney continues to terrorize opposing QB's and make his presence felt on the field. Freeney put up a whopping 47 QB pressures last year with 17 QB hits and credited with 13.5 sacks.
Improved secondary play along with the return of Bob Sanders figures to have Freeney converting a few more of those pressures into sacks. The Colts in 2009 registered 26 takeaways with a relatively young and unproven secondary.
Opposite Robert Mathis, the Colts one-two punch at their end position is one of the very best in the NFL.
Last season, Abraham struggled to build on his standout year where he posted 16.5 sacks as he barely posted 4.5 last year. At the age of 31, Abraham also sees the glass ceiling approaching along with his age.
However, unlike Freeney, Abraham does not have the luxury of playing opposite another pass rushing demon and didn't enjoy strong secondary play behind him in 2009. The Falcon's pass defense was ranked 28th last season, and gave up 55 plays of 20 yards or more.
Drafted 13th overall in the 2000 NFL Draft by the Jets, he holds the single season record for the Atlanta Falcons for sacks.
Abraham is an excellent pass rusher, but can also secure the edge against the run and is not a huge run or pass coverage liability. He is a very smart player who knows how to play and play to minimize any impact his age has on his physical abilities.
Abraham knows the pressure is on this year to perform, as he posted a respectable 33 QB pressures, with 4.5 sacks and 17 QB hits. However, without three games in the 2009 season where he posted six or more hurries, all against the Saints, Bucs, and Panthers, Abraham's QB hurries seem a lot lower.
He must rebound in a big way to silence his critics. A superior showing by the Falcons secondary will help him but he's the only real threat the Falcons have at this time and their opponents know it.
Trying to figure out Julius Peppers is like trying to put together a 5,000 piece jigsaw puzzle with 500 pieces missing. Simply put, the man is as gifted an athlete as you will find in the NFL today and maybe of all time.
Peppers is a freak whose superior physical abilities mask his lack of technique and pass rushing acumen. To state the obvious, he relies on his physical tools to get the job done and that in and of itself might be the single biggest reason why he is so great.
Drafted second overall in the 2002 NFL Draft by the Carolina Panthers, Peppers is a consistent double digit sack machine.
Despite all of his talents, Peppers is also known for dogging it on the field and been accused of floating far too much. A look at his 2007 year where he coughed out 2.5 sacks and was generally invisible for most of the season is an example of the criticism.
Contractual and personal issues made it difficult for the Panthers to resign their introverted star, and Peppers signed in the offseason with the Chicago Bears.
Although there does not seem to be much in the way of certified help along the Bear's line, Peppers should have no problem producing so long as he is motivated.
A larger market and less supposed media attention should help Peppers relate and perform on the field. For too long he seemed to shrink in a small market like Carolina and maybe on a team like Chicago can he realize his full potential.
Peppers posted 33 QB hurries, 10.5 sacks and 12 QB hits in 2009 all with little to no help along the defensive line that was decimated by interior injuries.
When he's on there just aren't too many players that are better than Peppers, problem is he's not always on.
I can vividly recall the derision and mocking taunts rained down upon the Houston Texans for selecting Mario Williams ahead of Reggie Bush in 2006. How could Charley Casserly, then GM of the Texans ever live this draft blunder down? How stupid were these guys?
Turns out, maybe we were the stupid ones.
Mario Williams is a rare blend of size, speed and athleticism at 6'6", 289 lbs. He possesses as quick of a first step as you will find in the league and then has the strength and power to push around tackles that outweigh him by 40 pounds or more. The guy is a manchild and quite simply cannot be stopped without allocating two or more blockers to occupy him.
Unlike other pass rushers on this list, he is also not a one trick pony and has shown the dedication required to craft his ability. Did I mention he's also the youngest on this list?
Williams posted 9 sacks, 29 QB pressures, and 16 QB hits in 2009, and with a young nucleus around him on defense will have another standout season in 2010.
As good as Williams is, his place among the league's 4-3 defensive ends is only accentuated by how young he is and how dedicated he is to his craft. Williams has tremendous upside and in a few years will just be the best at his position hands down.
For those who would say that Jared Allen isn't the fastest, strongest, smartest defensive end—he is the most productive. Over the past five years the man has put the QB down 63 times. Allen is the perfect blend of work ethic, hard work, and physical ability. His numbers speak for themselves.
Drafted 126th overall in the 2004 Draft by the Kansas City Chiefs, Allen is a superb player and is surrounded by tremendous players on the talented Vikings squad.
If Allen could curb his drinking tendencies and focus purely on football, it's a frightening proposition to try and project his already astronomical numbers.
In his past three seasons (his last with the Chiefs and his first two with the Vikings), Allen has 44.5 sacks, 11 forced fumbles, 4 safeties, and 131 QB pressures.
Jared Allen may play on the one of the most talented defensive lines in all of football, but you won't hear me making excuses. The man is bar none the best 4-3 defensive end in the NFL today and will have one hell of a 2010 season.