NFL Predictions: Ranking and Analyzing the 10 Best Defensive Front 7s in the NFL
With the new NFL season getting closer and closer, it's time to start looking at what is going to happen once the big kickoff occurs in September.
There is a saying that football is always won in the trenches. While the cornerback position has received a lot of attention in recent times, the front seven of a defense remains just as important as ever.
Here is a list of the 10 best front sevens in the National Football League for the coming season.
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Just Missing the Cut
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If Justin Houston can be the first-round sack specialist that he was supposed to be before falling to the third round; then this group will be a top-10 unit next year.
The Jets are a great run-stuffing group but they lack an impact player or sack specialist. Shaun Ellis was the most disruptive player on the line, and now he is playing for the Patriots.
The Giants have great pass rushers on the edges, but I'm not totally sold on their ability against the run this year. The lack of talent at linebacker remains a constant problem.
The Falcons are a good run-stuffing front but Ray Edwards isn't a good enough complement to John Abraham. Edwards has never gone above eight sacks in a season when he was playing on a more talented defensive line.
The Panthers were under consideration before Ron Edwards suffered his serious injury. The team has an outstanding linebacker group and if Charles Johnson can repeat his performances of last year they have a chance at being more than respectable.
That's a big if, though. There were too many question marks in the end.
10. San Francisco 49ers
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Starting Linebackers: Aldon Smith-Patrick Willis-NaVorro Bowman-Parys Haralson.
Starting Defensive Line: Ricky Jean-Francois-Isaac Sopoaga-Justin Smith.
Other key contributors: Ahmad Brooks, Thaddeus Gibson, Ray McDonald.
The 49ers have lost some key pieces to their front seven this off-season but they're still good enough to be in the top 10.
Everyone knows about Patrick Willis and what he brings to the table but he will have a new player in front of him and to his side this coming year. Takeo Spikes and Aubrayo Franklin were the key pieces lost to free agency.
Spikes was old but still very effective alongside the best linebacker in the league, while Franklin may have only had a year or two left, so the 49ers wouldn't give him a long term deal.
It's not instantly clear how the team is going to replace Franklin, but Isaac Sopoaga looks like the most logical choice. Sopoaga has the body to hold down the nose and is a very experienced player, considering he was starting at defensive end previously.
There is going to be an open competition to earn the third spot on the defensive line but my favorite is Ricky Jean-Francois who should look to kick on in his third season. The other defensive end position is guaranteed, however, as Justin Smith is one of the best 3-4 ends in the league.
Smith can hold the point against double teams in the running game while also is disruptive enough to wreak havoc in the backfield of the passing game. His physical strength is overwhelming and his veteran leadership will be vital for the very young linebacking unit that projects to start behind him.
That group of linebackers may be young but it is very talented.
Expect NaVorro Bowman to become the full-time starter next to Patrick Willis in Takeo Spikes' place. Bowman will need to double his tackle tally in his second NFL season from his last in order to replace Spikes, but that number came in limited action. Limited action in which he impressed.
Alongside Bowman will be the team's top ten draft choice from this season. Aldon Smith is very talented. He has all the physical tools to be a brilliant pass rusher for the 49ers over the coming years.
He is only 21 years of age so could struggle to translate to the rest of the NFL game, but there is no questioning his ability to get to the quarterback. He will likely blitz on nearly every play next year despite standing up on the outside.
Across from Smith, Parys Haralson should remain the starter but he will be pushed for his place by Ahmad Brooks and second-year player Thaddeus Gibson. Gibson has yet to get many chances in San Francisco but was very impressive as a rookie for the Pittsburgh Steelers to the point they reluctantly released him when forced to during the season.
The former Ohio State product could turn into a diamond in the rough in San Francisco, which would give the team two very potent young pass rushers. A stronger pass rush was a big need for this front last year; however, the loss of Franklin and the unproven nature of their linebackers restricts them from being any higher than 10th on the list.
9. Green Bay Packers
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Starting Linebackers: Frank Zombo-Desmond Bishop-AJ Hawk-Clay Matthews.
Starting Defensive Line: Ryan Pickett-BJ Raji-Mike Neal.
Other key contributors: Brad Jones, Erik Walden, Howard Green.
The Packers defense definitely benefits from playing with one of the deepest and best secondaries in the league. Nonetheless, the team's front seven is very good.
The loss of Cullen Jenkins will hurt them but not hamper them. Former second-round pick Mike Neal will probably be looked to in order to fill that void, but he has struggled with injuries throughout his short career.
Neal definitely has the ability, but whether he can do it on the NFL level has yet to be determined due to the lack of appearances.
BJ Raji remains one of the best nose tackles—and defensive linemen as a whole—in the league. His combination of size and athleticism is second only to Haloti Ngata among 3-4 defensive linemen. Raji is overwhelmingly difficult to block and sucks in offensive linemen like a vacuum.
He and Ryan Pickett will be vital parts of the Packers defense next year. Pickett is a valuable, but often overlooked, piece of the Packers defense. At 31 years of age, he is the oldest member of the front seven and that experience will be vital. Pickett entertains blockers in order to free up the talented linebackers to make plays.
The Packers felt comfortable to release Nick Barnett this year after re-signing AJ Hawk to a long-term deal. Hawk and Desmond Bishop are probably the best young tandem of inside linebackers throughout the whole league. Both players are 27 years of age so should be entering the prime of their careers this season.
They are not the most physically imposing, but have fantastic speed and agility in the open field, which makes them integral both against the run and especially in pass coverage. The pair spend a lot of time in pass coverage as the Packers are an incredible blitzing team.
It is unclear as to who will start at outside linebacker across from Clay Matthews but whether it be Erik Walden or Frank Zombo, the team still has a sufficient complement to Matthews and another piece in their complex blitzing unit.
Matthews himself may not be the defensive player of the year from last year and despite the fact that almost half of his sacks from last year came in the first two games of the year, he is definitely a playmaker.
Matthews proved that he could be a leader for the Packers with his Super Bowl performance as he made what was most likely the deciding play forcing a fumble from Rashard Mendenhall.
He may not be a DeMarcus Ware or James Harrison, but Matthews is developing into a very good football player. Should he become better against the run, he could potentially be one of the best linebackers in the league next year.
This team should overcome the loss of Cullen Jenkins relatively easily, but there is no doubt that they benefit from such an outstanding secondary.
8. San Diego Chargers
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Starting Linebackers: Travis LaBoy-Takeo Spikes-Donald Butler-Shaun Phillips.
Starting Defensive Line: Luis Castillo-Antonio Garay-Jacques Cesaire.
Other key contributors: Corey Liuget, Vaughn Martin, Cam Thomas, Larry English, Antwan Barnes, Jonas Mouton.
The Chargers may have lost Kevin Burnett and Stephen Cooper, but Takeo Spikes and Donald Butler could be just as impressive or even better in the coming year.
Larry English's recovery from injury will hamper his chances at being the starter this year, so Travis LaBoy will step in and should hold up well across from Shaun Philips. Philips is undoubtedly the leader of this group and should lead the way in the pass rushing department once again next year.
With second round pick Jonas Mouton and pass rushing specialists Antwan Barnes and English spelling the starters/showing different fronts, the Chargers pass rush should be relentless next year. The Chargers depth at the outside linebacker position is fantastic.
With Butler and Spikes providing the stability against the run with their athleticism, the Chargers will be free to terrorize opposing tackles all year.
The linebackers, of course, are worthless without the stellar play of the Chargers defensive line. They may have been 15th against the run last year, but the front seven as a whole was a major part of the defense that gave up the second most points allowed and the least total yardage.
Corey Liuget probably won't enter the season as a starter but could force his way into the lineup before the end of it. Liuget and Cam Thomas with the potential breakout of Vaughn Martin together give the Chargers outstanding depth on their defensive line.
Thomas was expected to be the starter this year after Antonio Garay filled in as a stop gap. Garay excelled to the point he was one of the best at his position last year which gives the Chargers a major boost ahead of this season.
With a mixture of veterans and raw talent throughout the front seven, this group is easily in the top 10 heading into this season. A healthy Larry English or development of some of the younger pieces could push the Chargers even higher up the list.
7. New England Patriots
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Starting Linebackers: Rob Ninkovich-Jerod Mayo-Brandon Spikes-Jermaine Cunningham.
Starting Defensive Linemen: Mike Wright-Vince Wilfork-Shaun Ellis.
Other key contributors: Albert Haynesworth, Mark Anderson, Andre Carter, Gary Guyton, Ron Brace, Brandon Deaderick.
The Patriots front seven wasn't very good last year. In fact, fixing the team's pass rush was something most fans were crying out for throughout the offseason. Until recently, it looked like those calls would go unanswered.
The much-publicized addition of Albert Haynesworth is what most people will remember but Shaun Ellis, Mark Anderson and Andre Carter should all bring a lot to the front too.
Ellis in particular stands out. He may be at the tail end of his career but he was easily the most disruptive piece in the passing game for the Jets over the last year or two.
Ellis can play in either scheme but excels as a 3-4 defensive end. He will definitely be a starter so long as the Patriots are in their 3-4 set and will aid the youngsters around him with both his experience and his play.
Anderson and Carter won't likely contribute much in the team's 3-4 base but will have a big impact on passing downs. Both players can get to the quarterback on a consistent basis lining up as ends in a 4-3 scheme.
With Albert Haynesworth and Vince Wilfork lined up as the tackles, the Patriots 4-3 front is just about worthy of being a in the top 10.
It's going to be very difficult to deal with the Patriots front seven when offensive co-ordinators won't know what to expect on any given play. With Shaun Ellis adding to a probably starting group of Mike Wright and Vince Wilfork, their 3-4 group should fare much better than last year.
The youngsters at linebacker will be gaining another year's experience and shouldn't be affected by the release of Tully Banta-Cain. Look for Jermaine Cunningham to step up in his second year and become chip in with a number of sacks on a defense that will have multiple blitzing threats.
Brandon Spikes and Jerod Mayo bring a steely presence to the center of the linebackers with Spikes looking like having a big year this year. Mayo had a ludicrous number of tackles last season but don't expect him to have to make so many next year.
Nonetheless, he will continue to rack up the hits and make his mark on ball carriers.
Rob Ninkovich is somewhat of an unheralded player for the Patriots who could claim a lack of respect. By no means is he a star but he is a reliable football player who doesn't let the team down.
He will likely be the guy that loses out on a lot of snaps with the Patriots new morphing defensive front but he will remain a solid contributor when put on the field.
The Patriots have a lot of depth at both levels with guys who played a lot last year in Brandon Deaderick, Ron Brace and Gary Guyton giving them solid fill in players to cover any injuries. Each is a young player that would have improved from the added exposure from last season.
6. New Orleans Saints
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Starting Linebackers: Scott Shanle-Jonathan Vilma-Jo-Lunn Dunbar.
Starting Defensive Line: Will Smith-Sedrick Ellis-Aubrayo Franklin-Alex Brown.
Other key contributors: Martez Wilson, Shaun Rodgers, Cameron Jordan, Jeff Charleston, Turk McBride, Danny Clark, Clint Ingram.
On a Greg Williams defense, no one player is going to be a standout as far as pass rushing. However almost every single player will get involved. Fifteen players on the Saints roster registered at least .5 of a sack last year.
This year the team's pass rush should be even better, as Williams will be working with more talent. The draft may have brought Mark Ingram to the offense, but Cameron Jordan arrived on the defensive line before him.
Jordan won't likely start straight away but he will see significant time in the deep rotation. He has the speed and size to find his way into the backfield in any situation.
Jordan will give Williams everything he's every wanted: a player who can line up anywhere and still make it into the backfield. Lucky, too, because that will probably be his role in the myriad of fronts Williams uses.
Will Smith and Alex Brown may not have had huge numbers last year, but they definitely have the ability to rush the passer. Smith in particular has the ability to put up huge numbers and could be propelled to them by the additions on the interior of the line.
There is no doubting that the Saints needed to revamp the interior of their defense after being gutted in the playoffs by Marshawn Lynch. They had an excellent off-season that turned what was a big weakness into a strength.
Bringing in Aubrayo Franklin from the 49ers was a masterstroke. Franklin may have only had 20 tackles last season, but he was playing nose tackle in a 3-4 defense. He is a space eater that excels against the run. Franklin will free up his fellow linemen while allowing linebackers to come free in the running game.
Franklin and Sedrick Ellis will create a formidable pair to pound against next year while Shaun Rogers arrival gives the team a punch to hit back with.
Rodgers disappeared to an extent in Cleveland as the losing attitude that permeated through that franchise gave him an excuse to slacken off. This year—should he be in shape—the veteran locker room that is intent on winning should return him to the Shaun Rogers of old. Rogers is as talented as almost any other defensive tackle in the league and could put up close to seven sacks with Greg Williams defense, despite not starting.
The Saints may be returning the group of linebackers that struggled last year but improved defensive line play should light a spark under their feet. The addition of Martez Wilson through the draft should also give Greg Williams a more dynamic piece to use in passing situations so long as the starters remain stout against the run.
Even though he will be fighting Danny Clark and Clint Ingram for playing time, Martez Wilson's versatility should get him on the field, and he should have no problem adjusting to the NFL.
The Saints' whole offseason has gone under the radar but even bringing in Turk McBride from the Detroit Lions was an astute move as he had five sacks for the Lions last year.
Many people will be surprised to see the Saints this high, but the difference in this unit from last January is startling.
5. Baltimore Ravens
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Starting Linebackers: Terrell Suggs-Ray Lewis-Jameel McClain-Jarrett Johnson.
Starting Defensive Linemen: Haloti Ngata-Terrence Cody-Corey Redding.
Other key contributors: Dannelle Ellerbe, Tavares Gooden, Sergio Kindle*
The loss of Kelly Gregg does hurt this defense despite former second round pick Terrence Cody slotting into the starting spot. I'm not buying what Cody is selling. He appears to lack the intensity to play in the NFL, that may just have been overthinking as a rookie, but I wasn't impressed during the limited play time he did get last year.
Corey Redding was somewhat of the other guy when playing alongside Ngata and Gregg but he still held up his own last year. Redding had three sacks which is impressive for a 3-4 defensive end. Last season was his first with the Ravens but at 30 years of age you know what you are getting from the stout defender.
Haloti Ngata could see more time over the center next year if Cody can't step up but that won't bother him. Ngata for me is not only the best defensive lineman in the league, he is arguably one of the best players in the league. He is unblockable. There is not one single player in the whole league that can hold him back on his own.
Ngata is equally brilliant against the run and pass while rarely leaving the field. He is always the focus of opposing offensive linemen because of the damage that he can do. His versatility position wise makes him scheme omniscient.
He is not the kind of player that just does one job. The likelihood is if he was asked to stand up and rush the passer from outside linebacker he'd probably still make it because he is in perfect shape. He may be 300+ pounds but he does not need to lose a pound of weight.
The young stars play is a big reason in why Ray Lewis has been able to continue his career towards his forties. There is no doubt that Lewis has lost a step or two physically but his brain is still as fresh as ever.
He can still rattle opposing players—just ask Dustin Keller—and make big plays when his team needs him to. His leadership of course is unmatched throughout the whole league.
What Lewis lacks in movement, his partner at inside linebacker does not. Jameel McClain became a starter for the first time last season and while he is not the most overwhelming physically he does do a good job of getting around the field and plays well in pass coverage.
McClain needs to grow into his role as a starter and will hopefully—for the Ravens at least—give the team much more explosiveness next year.
The Ravens have a fantastic group of run stuffers across their front seven but the one truly disruptive force in the passing game is undoubtedly Terrell Suggs.
While his counterpart on the other side, Jarrett Johnson, is potentially the most underrated player on the team because of his brilliant all around play, the Ravens need to find another pass rusher to aid Suggs.
Suggs had 11 sacks last year and was the only Raven above six—Haloti Ngata had 5.5. He is a hybrid defensive end and outside linebacker as he literally does play both positions in the Ravens different formations.
Despite offenses knowing that he is coming he still finds a way to the quarterback because of his relentless motor and overwhelming talent.
What could make our break the Ravens front seven next season is Sergio Kindle. Kindle's status as a football player—not least his effectiveness as one—remains totally up in the air.
If fully healthy, the former Texas star, gives the team everything they are looking for. He is a pass rushing specialist who would give the team the perfect balance alongside Terrell Suggs.
No team can survive with just the one pass rusher, you always have to have a complement. It speaks to how good the rest of the group is that they still made it into the top 10 in the whole league. The loss of Kelly Gregg, reliance on Ray Lewis as he fights Father Time and the lack of a more dynamic pass rush prevents this group from being right at the top.
Which is where they have tended to be over the past decade or so.
4. Detroit Lions
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Starting Linebackers: DeAndre Levy-Stephen Tulloch-Justin Durant
Starting Defensive Linemen: Kyle Vanden Bosch-Nick Fairley-Ndamukong Suh-Cliff Avril
Other key contributors: Sammie Lee Hill, Lawrence Jackson, Corey Williams.
The addition of Ndamukong Suh and Kyle Vanden Bosch changed the attitude of the Detroit Lions' defensive as a whole last season. They were led by a very good defensive line that suffered because of the lack of talent behind it.
The Lions added players to the secondary but it is their additions at linebacker that allow them to be this high on the list.
Nick Fairley's arrival alone doesn't make this front seven the sixth best in the league. Fairley is making a position of strength stronger in Detroit, but it is the addition of Stephen Tulloch and Justin Durant that have made their linebacking group respectable enough to sustain such a high position.
Durant is not a star and even though Tulloch was touted as one, he is not either. The duo along with DeAndre Levy—who's moving to outside linebacker—are reliable which is all they need to be with the strength in front of them.
There may not be a better defensive line in football this coming year.
Ndamukong Suh should continue his dominance from his rookie season while the whole NFL world knows what to expect from Kyle Vanden Bosch at this point in his career. The Fairley addition gives them the most disruptive pair of interior linemen in the whole league.
Fairley destroyed defenses at Auburn no matter who lined up across from him. He should have no issues translating his play to the NFL despite the concerns over his attitude.
Landing in Detroit was perfect for him because of the veteran presence of Vanden Bosch, the example of Suh and the respect he should have for Jim Schwartz who is a brilliant defensive line coach.
Of course there are two other things that make this line even more impressive.
The first is the forgotten man on the four-man front. Much like Ray Edwards did for years in Minnesota, Cliff Avril is sitting in the shadow of his teammates. However, unlike Ray Edwards in Minnesota, Cliff Avril will someday be a star in this league. That year could even be this year.
Avril—despite never starting a full 16 games—has had at least five sacks in each of his three NFL seasons to this point. This is made even more impressive when you consider he was a young player on one of the worst defenses in the league with one of the worst secondaries in the league.
Avril's ability to get to the quarterback will be shown off this year as he has a great burst of speed as well as a 6'3" and 260-pound frame.
The second thing is the depth on the defensive line.
Corey Williams could retain his place as a starter after Nick Fairley suffered an early injury in training camp. Williams as well as Lawrence Jackson and Sammie Lee Hill will allow Schwartz to keep his linemen fresh while also using different mixes of players.
The versatility of Fairley and Suh could see them playing defensive end on occasion without the quality of the line overall dropping.
If the Lions can get even an average performance from their secondary next season, then this defense has a great chance at being a top ten unit.
3. Chicago Bears
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Starting Linebackers: Lance Briggs-Brian Urlacher-Nick Roach.
Starting Defensive Line: Julius Peppers-Anthony Adams-Amobi Okoye-Israel Idonije.
Other key contributors: Stephen Paea, Matt Toeiana, Henry Melton.
Nick Roach for the moment completes the Bears' linebacking corp alongside veteran talents Lance Briggs and Brian Urlacher. There is some talk that he won't be the starter for long as the team could potentially replace him with Pisa Tinoisamoa or Lofa Tatupu. The Bears, however, are happy to have Roach who is reliable if unspectacular.
Briggs and Urlacher are who make that linebacking corp special. Urlacher may be waining as he gets older but he is still a stud. The Bears' defense as a whole has held off the wear and tear of many years in the league, but Urlacher has really led at the forefront. Despite suffering a serious injury before last season he was outstanding in leading the Bears to the NFC Championship game.
Urlacher starred last year but was still overshadowed by Lance Briggs. Briggs may not have ever really put up the statistics. He's definitely not the greatest pass rusher or hardest hitter in the league but he simply gets the job done. He has no obvious flaws.
He plays every facet of the game to a high level. He'll never put up DeMarcus Ware-type numbers but if you're watching your team play against Lance Briggs, you'll remember him for a long time.
Matt Toeaina started 10 games last year but the Bears brought in former top 10 draft pick Amobi Okoye from the Houston Texans and added Stephen Paea through this year's draft. Okoye is the one of the group that I expect to claim the starting position next to Anthony Adams.
Okoye was a bust in Houston, there is no doubt about that, but he definitely has the talent to play in the NFL and a new start in Chicago could rejuvenate him and kickstart his career. Okoye will benefit from the stability and veteran led defense in Chicago.
Anthony Adams is a reliable part of the defensive line that is focused on stopping the run to allow the relentless defensive ends to chase down the opposing quarterback.
Julius Peppers rewarded the Bears for taking a risk on him with a huge contract by taking their defensive line to a new level.
Peppers may be the most talented defensive end in the whole league. In the past motivation was the only question mark over his helmet. Last season, he never took a play off and was living in the opposition's backfield.
Peppers is part of the trio—along with Briggs and Urlacher—that takes this front seven to the next level. To an extent the other players involved simply have to look after their own assignments and not standout for this defense to simply be good.
That is where a guy like Israel Idonije comes in and makes it the third best in the league. Idonije had eight sacks last year and forced three fumbles. No doubt he benefited massively from playing across from Peppers but he still had to make the plays himself.
Idonije and Peppers give the Bears a scary pass rush to go along with their second rated rush defense from last season. The only threat to this group is their cumulative age.
2. Miami Dolphins
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Starting Linebackers: Cameron Wake-Karlos Dansby-Kevin Burnett-Koa Misi.
Starting Defensive Line: Kendall Langford-Paul Soliai-Randy Starks.
Other key contributors: Jared Odrick, Tony McDaniel, Jason Taylor.
Josh McDaniels let a lot of talent leave in Denver. The biggest of those pieces landed in Miami and it's not Brandon Marshall. Current Dolphins' defensive coordinator Mike Nolan is a defensive genius. In Denver he coached for one season in 2009. The 2008 defense ranked 30th in the league and last season it ranked 32nd. In 2009 with Nolan, it ranked 12th.
Last year the Dolphins ranked 14th overall and have a very good defense overall. The front seven in particular is outstanding.
Last year's first round pick Jared Odrick suffered with injuries throughout his rookie campaign and will look to make a bigger contribution this year. He still won't be a starter, however.
The Dolphins re-signed Paul Soliai to man the nose tackle position which he does to great effect. Nose tackles are always pivotal for a 3-4 defense and Soliai proved himself as one of the better ones in the league last year.
While he may not be Casey Hampton or Vince Wilfork he more than carries his own weight—which is considerable at 355 pounds.
When you place Soliai in between stud defensive ends like Randy Starks and Kendall Langford, you create one of the best lines in the league. With Odrick and Tony McDaniel rotating into the lineup they should be able to keep fresh bodies available all season long.
Langford, Soliai and Starks specialize in stuffing the run as Langford is the lightest of the trio at 295 pounds. The trio alone will be capable of entertaining a whole offensive line when on the field together. They are a huge reason as to why Cameron Wake was third in the league in sacks last year.
Wake is a lightning rod on the outside of the Dolphins' defense. He has an incredible burst off the line of scrimmage and can go past offensive tackles as if they weren't even there. He will demand double teams throughout the season as Nolan uses him like he used Elvis Dumervil in Denver.
Wake specializes in getting to the quarterback and spends a huge amount of time being sent to show off his speciality.
The Dolphins will be looking for Koa Misi to step up across from Wake as he enters his second season. Misi put up 4.5 sacks last year but it is never easy for first time OLBs to make an impression in the NFL.
Players tend to make big strides during their second seasons and hopefully—for the Dolphins—Misi won't have been affected by the troublesome offseason.
Misi is in the perfect spot because of the amount of talent in the Miami front seven. He is the weakest player, and you cannot call him weak, rather that he is just unproven.
The addition of Kevin Burnett pushed this front seven to second overall. Burnett arrives from the Chargers after a big season last year.
In his first season as a full-time starter, Burnett had six sacks, two forced fumbles and two interceptions for the San Diego Chargers. With Nolan at the helm, Burnett could eclipse those numbers despite never reaching them before in his seven-year career.
Burnett will be working with a better partner in Miami than he did in San Diego. Karlos Dansby is incredibly talented and a much better all around player than Stephen Cooper.
Dansby doesn't need much help to defeat blockers but with the stacked defensive line in front of him and Wake demanding a double team on the outside, it will be impossible for offenses to pick up this much talent.
Even without a big improvement in Koa Misi, the Dolphins still have the returning Jason Taylor, who could make an impact in sub packages and on third down. Taylor may be at the end of his career but in certain spots he can still make an impact. Especially with the added motivation of being back with his favored 'Phins.
1. Pittsburgh Steelers
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Starting Linebackers: James Harrison-Lawrence Timmons-James Farrior-LaMarr Woodley.
Starting Defensive Line: Brett Keisel-Casey Hampton-Aaron Smith
Other key contributors: Evander Hood, Cameron Heyward, Jason Worilds, Chris Hoke, Larry Foote, Stevenson Sylvester.
There is absolutely no question about who has the best front seven in football for the coming season.
James Harrison may be coming off a tumultuous off-season filled with media madness and back surgeries, but he's coming off a season of football when he probably should have won the MVP. Harrison was the Steelers best player last year in the regular season—not Troy Polamalu. His consistency separated them.
Lawrence Timmons emerged into the marauding hard hitting physical specimen that Mike Tomlin looked for him to be when he made him his first-ever draft pick. Timmons and Farrior had outstanding seasons last year, and while Farrior remains the leader of the team, Timmons definitely surpassed him as the better inside backer.
LaMarr Woodley just became the second highest paid Steelers player of all time. He deserves every penny of that contract too. Everyone knows about Woodley's ability to get to the quarterback but his strength against the run is a sight to behold. He can consistently beat two linemen and shut down the left side of the defense.
Speaking of strength against the run.
Not everyone around the league will know of Brett Keisel, Casey Hampton or Aaron Smith, but they should. Those three—along with Evander Hood and Chris Hoke—were the reason most teams didn't bother even trying to run on the Steelers last year. Those that did inevitably gave up before half time.
Smith missed a lot of the past few years but he is probably the best 3-4 lineman in the league right now when healthy. Despite playing in a position that doesn't receive recognition, he was still named to the all-decade team for the 2000s.
Despite drafting Cameron Heyward in the first round of the draft this year, he will be lucky to get on the field for this team. It's already difficult to fit Hood into the team and he started on a historically good run defense for the best part of last year. The Steelers do run a rotation but the starters don't need to come out that often.
One who does is Casey Hampton, but Hampton is a monster on the field. He is one of the most disruptive players in the league that never gets any sacks/credit. He is a key to the Steelers defense as a whole so when he is out, his backup—Chris Hoke—steps into the spotlight.
Hoke is the kind of player who should have left the Steelers years ago and become a starter elsewhere. Instead he has decided to stay in his backup role and spell Hampton with impressive play.
The addition of Chris Carter in the draft was considered a steal but there are two other young linebackers who will feature in this front seven next year rather than him. Jason Worilds is a pass rushing specialist—because the Steelers need more of them—that should really be getting playing time but can't because of the all-pro players ahead of him.
Stevenson Sylvester likely won't feature much but could be a prominent role in pressure packages because of his run and hit attitude.
The last guy on the list? He's just a two time starter in the Super Bowl with two rings: Larry Foote. Foote may not be spectacular but he is a perfect fit for the Steelers' system and brings another veteran presence to guide the youngsters around him. He is the first player in line to start when a starter goes down.
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