In building a successful NFL franchise, there are four cornerstones which must be present. On offense, a franchise quarterback and a elite left tackle are key, and on defense a shutdown cornerback and a top pass rusher are needed. And in the 4-3 defense, the top pass rusher is a defensive end.
In judging a defensive end, being able to get to the quarterback and bring him down is the key attribute. Whether that end is a finesse, power or speed rusher, if he can sack with regularity when offensive lines roll coverage his way, then he is already a top player. Other important abilities for defensive ends are their run-stopping ability and consistency.
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Jared Allen has been one of the most consistent performers at the defensive end position for the last four seasons, recording 55.5 sacks in that time. He has also forced 12 fumbles, made 229 tackles, defended 25 passes and made three interceptions.
Allen is the definition of a relentless pass rusher. He is not super athletic, but uses his array of pass-rush moves and non-stop motor to get to the quarterback. He also contains the run very well for a defensive end. He is most dangerous when he gets past his offensive tackle, so he can dip his shoulder and brush past him on his way to the quarterback.
Allen also has a penchant for big plays. He forces plenty of fumbles, and has made four interceptions in his career. This comes from his awareness and nose for the ball, which can be rare attributes for specialist pass rushers.
Allen drops to number five on this list after being the best rusher last year because of the slow start he had to the season. It took him eight games to record two sacks, and of his 11 sacks, 6.5 of them came against the maligned offensive lines of the Arizona Cardinals, Buffalo Bills, Chicago Bears and Philadelphia Eagles. It is also a well-known fact that he has played on the best defensive line in the league since he moved to Minnesota three seasons ago, which has helped his cause.
2010 stats: 11 sacks, 60 tackles, 8 passes defended, 1 forced fumble, 2 interceptions
Nicknamed "The Freak", Justin Tuck is one of the most athletic defensive ends in the league. At the 2005 scouting combine, he was one of the standout performers, recording a 4.62 40 time and pulling 24 reps in the bench press. However, despite being billed as a mid-first round pick, Tuck slid all the way to the mid-third round when the New York Giants drafted him. After spending his first few seasons behind Osi Umenyiora and Michael Strahan, Tuck finally won the starting right end role after Strahan's retirement in 2008.
Justin Tuck is a unique defensive end who can be effective rushing inside and outside. He has a potent array of pass rush moves which highlight his strength and quickness off the snap. He is great against the run, and is quick to set containment on the edge of the line when playing at defensive end. However, what truly sets him apart from other athletic defensive ends is his tenacity and motor. He gets his fair share of sacks from being the hardest working defensive lineman, and also pursues the play on the backside as well as an outside linebacker.
Tuck also raises his game when the lights are at their brightest. Many, me included, share the opinion that he was more deserving of the Super Bowl XLII MVP award than Eli Manning for his two sacks and constant pressure of Tom Brady.
2010 stats: 11.5 sacks, 76 tackles, 4 passes defended, 6 forced fumbles, 5 fumbles recovered
Like Justin "The Freak" Tuck, Julius "The Freak of Nature" Peppers is a hugely talented pass rusher. Peppers was the second overall pick of the 2002 NFL Draft because of his immense natural talent. Despite entering the scouting combine at 6'7" and 290 pounds, he ran a 4.68 40.
Peppers has been a dominant pass rusher all his career with 89 sacks to his name, but until last season he was never in contention for the Defensive Player of the Year award. It is ironic then that he recorded his third-lowest sack total for his career.
His performance was not reflected by statistics. Peppers was dominant in both the passing and running game. Teams were intentionally running plays away from him, and he forced plenty of hurried throws. Peppers also batted down 11 passes, as he used his height and athletic ability to fill passing lanes.
Despite improving his work ethic and effort this season, he still takes some plays off, which drops him down to third on this list.
2010 stats: 8 sacks, 54 tackles, 11 passes defended, 2 interceptions, 3 forced fumbles,
Born in London, raised in Nigeria, developed in the deep south and unleashed under the bright lights of New York. Umenyiora may be a cultural mish mash, but the one thing he is for certain is a lethal pass rusher. The 6'3", 260-pound pass rusher has been making life hell for offensive tackles and quarterbacks for seven seasons now, and shows no intention of slacking.
One of the fastest and athletic defensive ends in the NFL, Umenyiora ran a 4.60 40 at 270 pounds at the scouting combine in 2003. He also repped out at 26 in the bench press, and jumped 38 inches in the vertical leap.
Umenyiora's game is built around his speed and natural ability. He lines up very wide at the snap, and has one of the fastest get-offs of any player. His signature rush move is the outside speed rush, and he often gets right past the offensive tackle without being touched. However, he also possesses a good motor and enough moves to get past a blocker if they latch on to him. In the run game, he is not stout, but is great in pursuit.
Umenyiora also has a knack for knocking the ball free. In 78 starts he has forced 28 fumbles. However, he does get his sacks in bunches, so he has plenty of games where he fails to register any. Consistency is his issue.
2010 stats: 11.5 sacks, 48 tackles, 2 passes defended, 10 forced fumbles, 1 recovered fumble
John Abraham is one of the elder statesmen of the NFL, who has just completed his 11th season in the league. Over his career he has played for the New York Jets and the Atlanta Falcons, and has taken down the quarterback 102.5 times.
At 6'3" and 263 lbs, Abraham is a specialist pass rusher who uses his explosiveness, speed and moves to get past offensive tackles. His motor runs well most of the time, and he can beat tackles in a variety of ways. His experience means he knows how to beat double teams as well.
Abraham does struggle with his conditioning and fitness, but this weakness is alleviated by Mike Smith's management of Abraham. He does not play every snap, and this means that when he is on the field he can go full bore.
He is not a great run defender, but uses his speed to control the offensive linemen to contain the run on the outside.
While his speed has diminished over the years, his understanding of the game, array of moves and strength have improved, to make him a better pass rusher now than he was in his prime. He is currently the most consistently dangerous defensive tackle in the league, which is why he is the cream of the crop in my opinion.
2010 stats: 13 sacks, 40 tackles, 5 passes defended, 2 forced fumbles, 1 interception
Another senior, Hall has been around the league for 11 seasons, and in that time has put up two great seasons, one with the Detroit Lions in 2004 (11.5 sacks), and one with the St. Louis Rams in 2010 (10.5 sacks). He is a big defensive end who can be dominant against the run and uses his power to blast through offensive tackles.
Super Mario is another big defensive end (6'6", 295 lbs) who is a dangerous pass rusher when healthy. He ran a 4.65 40 at the combine and bench pressed 225 lbs 35 times. In five seasons he has 48 sacks to his name, and that would be more if he had not been hampered by injury and the lack of a decent supporting cast. He can beat linemen with power or speed, and also anchors extremely well against the run. He drops this low solely because he has only 17.5 sacks in his last two seasons.
Throughout his career, Freeney has been the definition of a sack artist. He is not stout against the run, and struggles when long armed, powerful tackles latch on to him. However, his spin move is the most deadly signature move seen in the NFL for quite some time, and when combined with his 4.40 speed and athleticism, it equates to a potent pass rushing package.
His average of 10.4 sacks per season is one of the best in the NFL, and he has a penchant for locating and stripping the ball. I can tell that there will be plenty of angry comments about his exclusion from the top five, but his lack of influence in the run game, not facing many double teams because of the presence of Robert Mathis at right defensive end and his cold patches where the sacks dry up push him just out of it.