B/R NFL 1000: Ranking the Top 35 3-4 Defensive Ends from 2014

Matt Miller@nfldraftscoutNFL Draft Lead WriterJune 22, 2015

B/R NFL 1000: Ranking the Top 35 3-4 Defensive Ends from 2014

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    Patric Schneider/Associated Press

    We know J.J. Watt is the best 3-4 defensive end in football, but is he the best player in the NFL? Not based on the last 10 years or one game or positional value, but over the last year, who was the best? Good luck answering that one without starting a fight, right?

    Well, that's what the NFL 1000 aims to do by scouting, grading and then ranking the best players at each position before putting them in order and breaking ties to come up with the top 1,000 players. No narratives, no fantasy football points, no "QBR"—this is cold-hard scouting.

    You can find rankings for all other positions on our B/R NFL 1000 main page.

    The B/R 1000 metric is based heavily on scouting each player and grading the key criteria for each position. The criteria are weighted according to importance for a possible best score of 100.

    Potential is not taken into consideration. Neither are career accomplishments.

    Defensive ends are judged on pass rush (55 points), run defense (40) and their value as a starter or backup (5).

    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 (Dan Bazal, Cian Fahey, Dan Hope, Marshal Miller, Justis Mosqueda) with these key criteria in mind. The following scouting reports and grades are the work of months of film study from our team.

    All statistics from Pro Football Focus. Players' heights, weights and seasons played from NFL.com.

35. Ricky Jean-Francois, Washington

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Run Defense

    33/40

    Ricky Jean-Francois (6'3", 297 lbs), has been kicking around the league for a while now, first with the San Francisco 49ers, then with the Indianapolis Colts and now with Washington. Against zone runs, he does a quality job of throwing in a shoulder to try to blow up a play, but he has an issue with balance through contact, limiting how he can catch up to back from the backside. In some ways, that issue with balance is actually just being too aggressive.

    Pass Rush

    37/55

    As a player on the weak side, he leaves more to be wanted. One wishes that a fringe starting-caliber defensive lineman on your team can at least generate enough pressure to warrant him coming off the bench. He attempts to go at tackles like a 4-3 defensive end, hitting them with several moves and counters but just can't get home. His feet are just simply not at the level they need to be.

    Starter

    3/5

    Ricky Jean-Francois is coming into the middle of his career looking for signs of improvement. He's a low-level contributor at this point, and a team could value a younger “high upside” player over having him continue on its roster. For that reason, his 2015, and even offseason, will show more about where the weak-side end's career is going than his last season of film.

    Overall

    73/100

34. Jaye Howard, Kansas City Chiefs

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Run Defense

    30/40

    Jaye Howard (6'3", 301 lbs) spent the majority of 2014 as a starter for the first time in his career. As a run defender, there's a reason he plays on the weak side. He's more of a chase-you-down type of defender than strength-at-the-point-of-attack lineman. He's pretty athletic and shows tremendous burst at times, which translates to closing speed on the backside of plays. Some of his issues as a stout defender probably arise from the fact that he's not really a big player.

    Pass Rush

    39/55

    After his rookie season, the Seattle Seahawks cut the former fourth-rounder. Now three years into the league, he's done a lot of work to progress to the point where he's at now. After refining part of his raw talent, there's still more effort to be put in, though. He's naturally gifted but needs to train himself in the nuances of the position. For example, his pad level can get very bad once he's a couple of reps in. Continued discipline will help him through those struggles.

    Starter

    4/5

    Being drafted in 2012 and being cut in 2013 is a quick way to become a statistic in this league. Fortunately for Jaye Howard, he got a second chance and made the most out of it. In his first year as a key contributor, he showed enough talent to prove that he has long-term starting potential in the league if he continues to get better at the same pace he has in his first three seasons. He still needs a lot of fixes, both on the ground and against the pass, but he's got enough skill to match his effort to improve by the coaching staff.

    Overall

    73/100

33. Frostee Rucker, Arizona Cardinals

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Run Defense

    33/40

    Frostee Rucker (6'3", 280 lbs) is a player who you can tell how the play is going to end up for within a second or two off the snap. At his light weight for an interior defensive lineman, he often gets stuck on blocks easily, as he doesn't have the length to overcome his size. On the other hand, he's got a very quick first step, which allows him to do things in the backfield if he catches an offensive lineman napping in his stance. He's also pretty good at limiting his surface area to a shoulder and driving through contact. He's not a great run player, but he wins in certain ways that can make him a good matchup against certain run-blockers.

    Pass Rush

    39/55

    Rucker is probably a rotational end in every sense, but especially against the pass. He can get gassed after a couple of reps, leading to him losing balance, which is one of his biggest flaws in this aspect. He's got a solid punch that pops offensive linemen off the ball, and like in the run game, he continues to drive his feet in pass protection against contact. He's no world-beater, but he's good enough to spell for a starter.

    Starter

    2/5

    Frostee Rucker isn't a player who would be in the running for a starting gig anytime soon, but he's one who should hang around in the league. Generally, he wins in the stereotypical ways you'd imagine an undersized defensive lineman winning. He's not a young buck anymore, so what you see is what you're going to get, but a team that needs depth in that third defensive end role could use a value like him.

    Overall

    74/100

32. Brett Keisel, Free Agent (Played 2014 with Pittsburgh Steelers)

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    Run Defense

    28/40

    Well over a decade in the NFL, Brett Keisel (6'5", 285 lbs) is in the last few games of his career. Once a Pro Bowler, Keisel's ability at the line of scrimmage has diminished over the years. Be it strength at the point of attack or burst off the line of scrimmage, there are just simply apparent issues that weren't there just a couple seasons ago.

    Pass Rush

    44/55

    As a weak-side defensive end, Keisel's big plus used to be his ability to generate pressure. That's evident by his 30 career sacks. As a sub-300-pound lineman, he almost has to be great there to make up for his size. In 2014, he was still OK at closing in space, but continuing through contact is now his big hangup. His motor still runs hot, so it's not an effort issue, just a physical one that he no longer can get a budge if his initial moves don't work.

    Starter

    2/5

    As a 36-year-old, it might be time for Brett Keisel to call it a career. Known for his famous beard, Keisel's film in 2014 was more about infamy. He just doesn't have the raw traits that he used to possess to combat the fact that he wasn't the stoutest defensive lineman in the world. Now that time has passed him by, he may only hold onto an NFL gig for another season or two.

    Overall

    74/100

31. Billy Winn, Cleveland Browns

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    David Richard/Associated Press

    Run Defense

    32/40

    In his third season, Billy Winn (6'4", 300 lbs) showed some versatility on the defensive line. He mostly played end, but there did come a point where he saw reps at nose tackle. The reason he can play there is his strength, probably his best attribute. His ability at the point of attack is great, but his balance is what keeps him down when he needs to stretch to make plays. If he can gather himself better without losing his feet, he can become a much-better ground defender.

    Pass Rush

    41/55

    Winn is a much better run player than he is a pass player. For various reasons, power conversion, leg drive, etc. he doesn't truly get to push the pocket like you would like your end to. He's more of a guy who does his best work timing his jump in a throwing lane, which isn't the best way to mess up an opponent's passing game. He can sort through trash to get to a passer, but if you're asking him to generate something himself one-on-one, it's going to be difficult for him.

    Starter

    2/5

    Primarily a run defender, Billy Winn really struggles to bring something to the table as a pass-rusher. On the ground, though, he does enough to get reps not only at base end, but nose tackle. He should be viewed as a rotational two-down player at this point, but he's still fairly young, as he was drafted in 2012, so there might still be a chance that he grows into something a couple of levels better than where he ranks in the league in this moment.

    Overall

    75/100

30. Josh Boyd, Green Bay Packers

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    Ann Heisenfelt/Associated Press

    Run Defense

    34/40

    Josh Boyd's (6'3", 310 lbs) role for the Green Bay Packers is as a strong-side defensive end who can flex to nose tackle if needed. That's really the best way to use him, as he's a wide run-stopper. He doesn't really have special traits, but he doesn't have definitive flaws on the ground, either. Plenty of teams could use a two-down lineman like him.

    Pass Rush

    39/55

    As a pass-rusher, he's very limited. That was probably the factor that pushed him down in the draft, as he wasn't selected until the fifth round. He can play high as soon as he gets out of his stance, he doesn't have true moves and his bull rush isn't good enough to blow through offensive linemen. In his 24 NFL games, he's managed to net zero sacks, and it's not hard to figure out why.

    Starter

    2/5

    Josh Boyd is a solid mid-level run defender but doesn't have much promise as a pass-rusher. Because of his limited upside, it's hard to imagine him locking down a starting role for years to come, but he's the type of player who is good enough to bounce around the league for a couple of contracts, helping in-need defensive lines on first and second down.

    Overall

    75/100

29. Cam Thomas, Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    Run Defense

    35/40

    Cam Thomas (6'4", 330 lbs) doesn't look the part of a 3-4 defensive end. At his weight, it's shocking that he doesn't play nose tackle, honestly. His feet are light enough to keep up with zone schemes, though, which helps solidify him at the position. As far as strength is concerned, he's not lacking one bit. He can re-establish the line of scrimmage and anchor very well.

    Pass Rush

    37/55

    When trying to muster up sacks, that's when his “probably should be a nose tackle” criticisms begin to show up. On passing downs, he doesn't bring much to the table for the Steelers. He's just really a big body out there, evident by his 6.5 sacks over his five years in the league. He really doesn't have any special traits or moves that set him above a barely passing grade in every category.

    Starter

    3/5

    Cam Thomas is a solid run-only defender for the Pittsburgh Steelers. His limitations are too much to overcome on obvious passing downs, but it's hard to ask for more on 3rd-and-short than what he can contribute on the strong side of the defense. He's quick for his size and maybe should transition to nose tackle, as he could be viewed as a “plus” player at the position because of his athleticism, rather than a limited one at defensive end.

    Overall

    75/100

28. Jared Crick, Houston Texans

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Run Defense

    30/40

    Jared Crick (6'4", 285 lbs) was a pleasant surprise for the Houston Texans this season. Starting as a weak-side end, he ranked 13th in the league in stops. Most of that was done in space opposite of J.J. Watt, who was being double-teamed regularly, but he did what he was asked to do. As far as flaws in the run game are concerned, his drive isn't what you'd like it to be, and he loses at times at the point of attack because he's not a particularly large or strong lineman. But he's 25 years old, and that can still be fixed, as he's only in his third year in the league.

    Pass Rush

    40/55

    As a pass-rusher, his best and really only trait is his quick jump off the line. Whenever he's in the backfield, it's off that burst. When he attempts to play around the edge, as undersized 3-4 weak ends do at times, he loses balance quickly. He's simply just not built for that type of game. His hands are also pretty slow to get inside, making his route to the quarterback harder.

    Starter

    5/5

    Jared Crick is a solid ground player who seemingly came out of nowhere in his second season. He's still small and plays young, and that's sometimes masked by the rest of the talent on the defensive line for Houston, but he's got a shot to make it into a bigger role in the future, which you can't say about everyone in the league. He's a low-end starter right now, but if he can either become more stout or improve at pinning his ears back, I wouldn't bet against him.

    Overall

    75/100

27. Tommy Kelly, Arizona Cardinals

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    Run Defense

    32/40

    Tommy Kelly (6'6", 310 lbs) was once a Pro Bowl-level defensive lineman but has since slowed down over the years. Weight is his biggest attribute in the run game, as his giant size allows him to slow down just about anything that comes near him. That goes both ways, though, as his jump off the line of scrimmage is well below-average, limiting his upside. He's got a very solid anchor, too, and might be the type of guy who should add even more weight and just roll into a nose tackle situation at this point in his career.

    Pass Rush

    40/55

    The biggest way Kelly has changed since his Pro Bowl season of 2010 is his quick first step. That step once ranked him in the top tier of linemen in the league. Now, almost a half-decade removed from that time, he's lost the attribute completely and become a slow-footed player. Not only that, but at the line of scrimmage he wastes too much time, shimmying in place instead of getting where he needs to go.

    Starter

    4/5

    Time has passed Tommy Kelly, as he's a different mold of a defensive lineman than he once was. He still has enough time and skill to reinvent himself, though, if he chooses to extend his career a couple of years longer. The once “first step” ace could transition to a nose tackle role with just a little bit of body adjustment.

    Overall

    76/100

26. Datone Jones, Green Bay Packers

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    Run Defense

    29/40

    Datone Jones (6'4", 285 lbs) is very light for a 3-4 defensive end and doesn't have the strength to overcompensate for his flaws. He's made strong strides since his rookie season of 2013, but he still gets rag-dolled at times. If he makes a great play in the ground game, it's as a penetrator, as he excels with a quick first step. At the point of attack, though, he struggles.

    Pass Rush

    45/55

    His ability to create pressure is why he went in the first round in 2013. He does enough in that aspect that you can even potentially project him as a 4-3 defensive end. He's very fast for his size, and he's got counter moves that are rare at the position. For those reasons, he still potentially has a bright future ahead of him.

    Starter

    3/5

    Datone Jones' skills and flaws are very definitive. He's weak but quick. In today's NFL, there's a premium for getting after the passer, which bumps him a couple of notches. If he can continue to build his body in a way that hopefully leads him to play in the 300-pound range of good weight, he could be a special player. At this moment, though, he's a low-end starter with potential.

    Overall

    77/100

25. Ropati Pitoitua, Tennessee Titans

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    Mark Zaleski/Associated Press

    Run Defense

    35/40

    The general public probably doesn't know Ropati Pitoitua's (6'8", 298 lbs) name. He entered the league as an undrafted player, has bounced around teams and only recently has become a starter. I don't blame them. He does has some positive attributes, though.

    For one, his 6'8" frame provides him giant arms, which keep offensive linemen out of his chest. He's not much of a mover, but he holds very little bad weight. Some of that may be due to his stretched-out body, but he plays strong-on-strong football. That strength and length help him stack and shed guards and tackles each game.

    Pass Rush

    37/55

    Pitoitua must think his length isn't enough at times, as he maximizes his rush with a slanted one-arm move to press the center of pass protectors. Unfortunately, his speed negates that trait at times. With slow foot speed, he lacks the burst off the line of scrimmage that the average starter would possess. On two defensive line sets, he's the first player out. The Titans see the same thing on film as the rest of us.

    Starter

    5/5

    Ropati Pitoitua has made a good career for himself at this point. He's a low-level starter or high-level backup defensive lineman who is giant and plays to his strengths. At times, though, his flaws can be too much to overcome, limiting him to run-only downs where he can use length and power to two-gap.

    Overall

    77/100

24. Vance Walker, Denver Broncos

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Run Defense

    35/40

    Vance Walker (6'2", 305 lbs) was an underrated free-agency addition for the Kansas City Chiefs this past offseason. He's a weak-side defensive end in the body of a strong-side defender, which is a plus at the point of attack. He's got great core strength and a quality anchor, which help him two-gap and control the man assigned to him. One issue that does appear is his hands, which can be ill-timed, causing an offensive linemen to get inside leverage on him, and making it impossible to fully extend his arms.

    Pass Rush

    41/55

    When he does time his hands correctly, his placement is great. He does a very good job at staying underneath his man in pass protection, refusing to stand up. His leg drive and effort also help him get after quarterbacks.

    Starter

    2/5

    He's a bit up-and-down, but as a rotational defensive linemen, there's not going to be many better than Vance Walker. Off the bench, he shows the ability to create pressure, which also gives him value on passing downs over base ends. At this point in his career, he's probably not going to get much better. He is who he is, but a high-level backup is still a sought-after player in the trenches.

    Overall

    78/100

23. Stephon Tuitt, Pittsburgh Steelers

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Run Defense

    30/40

    Stephon Tuitt (6'5", 303 pounds) was very up-and-down during his NFL rookie season. The inconsistent player would look great on one drive, beating his opponent with pure strength, but the next, he wouldn't flash that talent, hindered by poor technique or a lack of urgency. He has all the tools to succeed as a run defender at his size and with the skill set he at times taps into, but he needs to piece it together for more than a couple of plays in a row.

    Pass Rush

    45/55

    His ability as a pass-rusher is why he was a top-50 pick in 2014 and how he ended up as an All-American in 2012. He's still a prospect in this aspect, too, waiting to be molded, but he can make the transition to a high-quality starter down the line. His hands and drive are on and off, but when they are on, he can convert speed to power with the best of them.

    Starter

    3/5

    Stephon Tuitt is almost a stereotypical embodiment of what you'd think of a “high-ceiling, low-floor” rookie as a 3-4 defensive end. If he stays on the right path, he can be a physically imposing force that few will be able to beat one-on-one, but right now, he's years away. At 21 years old, he'll have plenty of time, but he should be looked at as a work-in-progress, not a sure thing.

    Overall

    78/100

22. Vinny Curry, Philadelphia Eagles

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    Elsa/Getty Images

    Run Defense

    28/40

    If you lined up 3-4 defensive ends, Vinny Curry (6'3", 279 lbs) wouldn't look the part. Sticking out like a sore thumb, he's very skinny for an odd front lineman. He does enough with arm extension to make up for his size at times, but too often he gets stuck on blocks. Really, if a lineman gets his hands on him first, Curry can be driven back, as he doesn't have the anchor that is typically associated of interior defensive linemen.

    Pass Rush

    47/55

    Curry is a slippery player and one who will take advantage of an offensive lineman if not balanced correctly. Coming off the bench, he's got frantic feet that provide a much-needed boost on third downs. On top of that, his hand placement and arm extension are solid, giving him an advantage when bull rushing. If he can't get home, he throws his arms up in passing lanes, trying to knock balls down.

    Starter

    3/5

    Vinny Curry is currently a player you want on your roster, but he's hard to play in a base set. He could get base looks in a 4-3 defense, but in a 3-4, due to his size, he's pretty much limited to a rotation. If he can improve in the run game, at the point of attack, that could change, but at this point his career looks to be one of a high-end third lineman.

    Overall

    78/100

21. Desmond Bryant, Cleveland Browns

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    Tony Dejak/Associated Press

    Run Defense

    29/40

    Desmond Bryant (6'6", 310 lbs) is a solid weak-side run defender. With his foot speed and length, he's the type of player you want chasing down the backside of plays. He's not the strongest end in the world, but there's no question as to why he has over 200 tackles since being undrafted out of Harvard.

    Pass Rush

    45/55

    Because of his lack of strength, he can get stalled at the line of scrimmage after his initial move on offensive linemen in pass protection. That being said, he has good technique and effort, winning a majority of hand fights he does find himself in. He's also good at limiting his surface area from time to time, giving up only a shoulder on his way to crash a pocket.

    Starter

    4/5

    More than halfway through Desmond Bryant's presumed career, he's blown the doors off expectations set for him entering the league. Currently, he's a mid-level player and a fringe starter, but that's still good enough to compete for a top gig in the league for the next few years. He doesn't have the strength you really want in a base end, but as long as he continues to play on the weak side, that shouldn't be too much of an issue moving forward.

    Overall

    78/100

20. Timmy Jernigan, Baltimore Ravens

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    Gail Burton/Associated Press

    Run Defense

    34/40

    A college All-American, Timmy Jernigan for some reason slipped to the second round of last season's draft. As a rookie, he made the league pay for the decision. On the ground, he fits in perfectly as a two-gapper in Baltimore's scheme. At times, he even played some nose tackle for the team. He needs some work with core strength, but as a young player, that's something that should improve down the line.

    Pass Rush

    42/55

    Jernigan's weakness, and probably the reason he wasn't a first-round selection, was due to a lackluster combine performance. This reflects onto the field when he's supposed to be chasing quarterbacks. He's a strong player who knows how to use his weight against offensive linemen, but his foot quickness doesn't match up. If he gets inside hands and continues to drive his legs on a rush attempt, though, he can post a decent bull rush.

    Starter

    3/5

    One of the best rookie defenders in the league in 2014, Timmy Jernigan has a good foot in the door at the next level. With two talented 3-4 defensive ends ahead of him on the depth chart, it was hard for him to see the field compared to others on the list, but he did the most with what he was given. He's more of a run defender at this point than a pass-rushing expert, and there are some physical limitations with him, but he he has room to improve, potentially as a key contributor.

    Overall

    79/100

19. Chris Canty, Baltimore Ravens

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Run Defense

    30/40

    Chris Canty (6'7", 317 lbs) has played professional football for the better part of this past decade, and on tape, he seems to be slowly declining. After a great 2013 season, his first with the Baltimore Ravens, he looked like a mid-level starter in 2014. He still continued to flash traits like great arm extension and gap integrity, but dipping were others like overall strength. He's better at playing half an offensive lineman in the run game, digging his feet in the ground and bursting forward, not two-gapping and shedding blockers anymore.

    Pass Rush

    44/55

    Oddly enough, Canty's speed is lasting longer than his strength, a rarity. Usually the first step is the first to go, but Canty's still got more than enough juice to burst off the line of scrimmage. He's a very talented pass-rusher, who can go head-to-head with tackles. With his tentacle-like arms, he continues to add pressures to his career total.

    Starter

    5/5

    Chris Canty is still performing at a level that would suggest he can continue to play NFL football, but his decline is visible. Lacking the strength he once had, he can still rush the passer at an above-average rate. That by itself can keep him around past 2015, when his contract with the Baltimore Ravens expires.

    Overall

    79/100

18. Vince Wilfork, Houston Texans

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    Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

    Run Defense

    37/40

    Vince Wilfork (6'2", 325 lbs) is a former nose tackle and looks it. It should almost go without saying that his ability to eat blockers and space with his giant frame is present. He's no longer an all-world talent, but he does more than enough in the ground game to be a huge part in what a team does on first and second down. He's still agile enough to keep up with outside zone runs at this point in his career, too.

    Pass Rush

    37/55

    On the relative scale of 3-4 defensive ends, Wilfork is just not a good pass-rusher. As someone that big, though, he's probably playing out of position. If he does generate pressure, it comes from exploiting a mistake an offensive lineman makes quickly. Everything needs to be well-timed from him, as most will have the make-up speed to catch him. Overall, he's just never played a position that asked him to get after a quarterback, and this late into his NFL time, it seems irrational to expect that now.

    Starter

    5/5

    Formerly an All-Pro at the center of Patriots defenses, Vince Wilfork is now playing as a defensive end for Houston. Between age and size, he's very limited against the pass, but he's still more than good enough to give good reps on first and second down. There's a question if he's a three-down player at this point, but he does enough where you can develop a young player behind him while he starts.

    Overall

    79/100

17. Cedric Thornton, Philadelphia Eagles

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Run Defense

    35/40

    Cedric Thornton (6'4", 309 lbs) has come a long way since he was an undrafted free agent in 2011 out of Southern Arkansas. Since then, he's developed into one of the best ground ends in the game. He's a ferocious puncher, winning early with his heavy hands. At times, he even sees nose tackle reps, despite only being a hair over 300 pounds. He's the ideal strong-side 5-technique whom teams strive to find as a hidden gem.

    Pass Rush

    39/55

    Thornton is more of a strength player than a speed player. He wouldn't work as a weak-side end because of his ability to chase down players with the ball, but as a strong end, he can wreck offensive linemen from the jump, totally rag-dolling them a second or two into the play. His biggest edge in the passing game is his hands, which are quick. With a fast swat move, he can take away his opponent's hands and then let his raw strength take over from there.

    Starter

    5/5

    One could wish he was a better pressure creator, but Cedric Thornton has done well above his expectations as an undrafted player. He's not the premier player at his position in Philadelphia, but he's still a starter and more than adequate in that role. He may be someone you need to spell with a third-down player, but you're going to get high quality first- and second-down snaps from Thornton for years to come.

    Overall

    79/100

16. Justin Smith, San Francisco 49ers (Retired)

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Run Defense

    33/40

    Justin Smith (6'4", 285 lbs) at 35 years old is still one of the strong players at the point of attack in the NFL. With veteran's savvy, he's able to hang onto his starting role, primarily for his contributions in the ground game at this point. With heavy hands and consistent leg drive, he still has the tools to manhandle offensive linemen. His stack-and-shed potential has never dropped despite years passing by.

    Pass Rush

    41/55

    Where his game has slightly dropped off is in the passing game. As a weak-side end, he's not exactly what one aspires to be as a starter anymore. He's still compact with power, flashing a solid bull rush at times, but it's just not there consistently anymore. Part of the issue may come from his feet, which tend to slow down more recently when a tackle drops his anchor. At his size, he's not begging to flip to the strong side, but he's better suited in an off-the-bench role than a primary pass-rusher on the defensive line at this point in his career.

    Starter

    5/5

    Now past his prime, Justin Smith can still put up quality reps as a mid-level starter in the league. The question then becomes how much longer he wants to hold onto his career. He does well enough in the run game to still keep a full-time role, but his diminishing pass-rushing skills make it hard to rationalize keeping him in long-term plans for the 49ers, as he's a weak-side-only type of player due to his size. That being said, he should have a couple of more years in the tank, should he wish to continue. Now might be the time for a team to use him as a transitional starter and work in a new, young talent behind him.

    Overall

    79/100

15. Arthur Jones, Indianapolis Colts

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    Run Defense

    33/40

    One year after his “breakout season” of 2013, Arthur Jones (6'3", 337 lbs) seems to have taken a step back since his offseason addition to the Indianapolis Colts. Listed at 36 pounds heavier than when he left college, his weight may be one cause of the perceived drop in talent. His ability to move around has been severely diminished, but some traits still present themselves as normal. He's still able to stack-and-shed with ease, and his anchor has never been better. Overall, his body is just becoming more of an obstacle for an offensive lineman, as Jones is giving up some versatility for weight.

    Pass Rush

    44/55

    It's rare to see a player his size on the weak side, but the Colts do it. He's lacking the movement skills that you'd like to see on the right side as a pass-rusher, but not all is bad. He still gets in quick hands and locks out his arms well, keeping offensive linemen out of his chest. His one-arm push is effective against longer tackles. One issue that does repeat is his tendency to get straight up if his first move doesn't win. To improve, he must either shed some weight and get lighter on his feet or keep a lower pad level.

    Starter

    4/5

    The 2014 Arthur Jones whom the Colts signed prior to the season probably isn't the one Indianapolis had hoped for. Lacking once-present movement skill, Jones has limited himself into a role as a space occupier. He's at a crossroads in his career, in the start of his second NFL contract. Does he want to continue to be limited, or does he risk losing some weight, getting closer to his college listing and attempt to reinvent himself? Either choice is tough, but currently, he's about a run-of-the-mill starter.

    Overall

    81/100

14. Cory Redding, Arizona Cardinals

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    Run Defense

    30/40

    Cory Redding (6'4", 318 lbs) has gray hair compared to some of the defensive ends in the league. At 34 years old, he's still going strong, but some of his old ways have changed. He plays with more patience now, timing his burst into the backfield well. He picks and chooses when he needs to fire on all cylinders, which can be viewed as a positive and a negative. His speed-to-power transition is well, making him a good strong-side end who may have to deal with double-teams from time to time.

    Pass Rush

    46/55

    If Redding is making a push on the pocket, it's coming from a speed-to-power look. He doesn't really have any pass-rushing move other than just trying to run through a guy, which can be the case for 3-4 defensive linemen. You'd like to see him throw in a swim move or two every once in a while, but he is who he is in his mid-30s. Overall, he's a fairly average pass-rusher, not good or bad on the edges of the 3-4 defensive end bell curve.

    Starter

    5/5

    Cory Redding has spent his fair share of time playing pro football, and it shows. He's not the best guy in the trenches on an average Sunday, but he's still performing to the point where he's not hindering his team's ability to win, either. He generally doesn't have poor or rare traits across the board. If he can keep consistent, he might be able to squeeze a couple of more years out of his NFL career.

    Overall

    81/100

13. Allen Bailey, Kansas City Chiefs

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    Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

    Run Defense

    33/40

    Allen Bailey's (6'3", 288 lbs) role in the professional level is a strong-side defensive end in a 3-4 defense, meaning that he should be above-average in the ground game. Unfortunately for him, he seems to limit his potential. He's a very stout player at just a little under 300 pounds, but too often, he's stiff. When one part of his body moves, the rest comes with it, leading to a turned shoulder in poor alignments, which can result in an offensive lineman handling him for a play. In space he does better, not over-penetrating and keeping gap integrity. He even handles double-teams well in a booth. Overall, he's OK as a run defender, but he shows more potential than that, and he should ask more out of himself four years into the league.

    Pass Rush

    43/55

    As a 26-year-old, this past season was his first time he was in a full-time starting role. In two-defensive linemen looks, he stayed in with Dontari Poe. If that's not the staff telling you what kind of potential he has on third down, I don't know what is. Bailey is a bit of a linear athlete, as in he can deliver a blow, but once an offensive lineman drops his anchor, he doesn't have a move to combat the pass protector other than a hand swat, which needs to be timed well.

    Starter

    5/5

    Right now Allen Bailey is simply an OK defensive lineman for the Kansas City Chiefs. He's shown flashes of talent that would suggest he has room to grow, and he's still very young for a player looking to be on his second contract, but he's not quite there yet. He's limited in the run game because of his body mechanics, and he's limited against the pass because he gets stuck on blocks, but if he can somehow get around those two flaws, he's got a shot at being a big steal for the Chiefs.

    Overall

    81/100

12. Ray McDonald, Free Agent (Played 2014 with San Francisco 49ers)

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    Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

    Run Defense

    33/40

    Ray McDonald as a football player is still worthy of a starting role in the NFL. He's a strong-side defensive end for a reason, as he can just dominate up front at the point of attack. Zone-blocking teams typically avoid him for that reason alone. He can shut an offensive lineman down and stay patent, waiting for the perfect moment to attack the running back, when he thinks he has a chance at daylight. He's good enough in the ground game to bait the offense, which just adds to his performance.

    Pass Rush

    44/55

    McDonald's weaker as a pass-rusher than a run defender. Too often, his lack of counter moves show up on film. He gets stuck on an offensive lineman one-on-one too easily, wasting many snaps. Without a counter or a quick step, he's just a heavy rusher whom you hope produces against offensive tackles with weak anchors.

    Starter

    4/5

    Off the field, Ray McDonald is a mess. When not in legal trouble he's proven to be one of the best left defensive ends in a 3-4 scheme, but a release from the Chicago Bears after a second domestic violence accusation puts his NFL future in jeopardy.

    Overall

    81/100

11. Corey Liuget, San Diego Chargers

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    Run Defense

    28/40

    Still a young buck, Corey Liuget (6'2", 300 lbs) has a lot to prove in the NFL but has a good foot in the door. His largest issue in the run game is that he often slows down his feet. Instead of regrouping and delivering some lower-body explosion, he just uses his core strength to assist his anchor, taking up a block wherever contact is initiated. Because of that trait, he's played some 1-technique, which isn't a bad idea for him. He often tries to beat offensive linemen with his hands, but with out-of-sync feet, he can only do so much.

    Pass Rush

    48/55

    Liuget's a fairly quick big body when facing quarterbacks, which is probably why the San Diego Chargers drafted him in the first round in 2011. He's got a good initial step and quick hands that help him in the beginning as well as down the line in plays. His ability to navigate, also known as his change of direction, is very good for a man his size too. He's no world-breaker, but there's clearly untapped potential to be developed for when the Chargers ask him to pin his ears back.

    Starter

    5/5

    One of the highest-ranking young defensive ends on the list, Corey Liuget has great potential but is a mid-level starter currently. Against the run, he needs a lot of work, particularly with keeping that motor running high when the possibility of a sack isn't presented. If he can put everything together, though, he could be in the league for a decade.

    Overall

    81/100

10. Haloti Ngata, Baltimore Ravens

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Run Defense

    36/40

    In the twilight of his career, Haloti Ngata (6'4", 340 lbs) still brings the pain on the ground. Built like a nose tackle, he can two-gap with the best in the league. Strong and heavy, there are few who even imagine budging him at the line of scrimmage. At this point, he's still a player whom offenses have to scheme around, even though he doesn't get into the backfield like he once used to.

    Pass Rush

    41/55

    If Ngata gets into the backfield, it's with brute force. He's got a pair of heavy hands that can pop any offensive lineman back a couple of steps, opening an opportunity to work in a hand swat to get into the backfield. Everything he does is built off power or veteran technique. One of his best traits are his legs, which continue to churn. They reload continuously, allowing him to drive through pass protection, even exploding hips when needed to finish.

    Starter

    5/5

    With five All-Pro nominations under his belt, no one questions if Haloti Ngata can play in the league at this point. He's a strong and smart 3-4 defensive end who plays like someone smaller than his 0-technique size. More of a run defender than pass-rusher this deep into his almost decade-long career, Ngata has enough in the tank to continue playing within his two-gapping role for another half-dozen years, if he continues to sustain a slow drop-off of talent.

    Overall

    82/100

9. Jason Hatcher, Washington

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    Jeff Haynes/Associated Press

    Run Defense

    32/40

    Jason Hatcher (6'6", 299 lbs) is widely known as a pass-rusher, not a run defender. Still, he does enough to get by as a starter, even at his age, after being in the NFL for the better part of the last decade.

    Spending years as a 4-3 defensive tackle, he's a little lighter than most 3-4 defensive ends, if you take into account the density of his 6'6" frame. That shows up on the field at times, as he loses traction, not having the anchor to ideally play the position. One saving grace in that aspect is his strong hands, which at times negate his flaws.

    Pass Rush

    47/55

    A former Pro Bowl defensive tackle with the Dallas Cowboys, Hatcher suited up with his former divisional rival, the Washington Redskins, after what many think was his best season of his career in 2013. He's getting older now, but he still has all of “it” to make him a continuously special player. He's got a slightly light frame, but he is as strong as an ox, refusing to be stopped by opposing offensive linemen's anchors, instead running through them. As a bursty player with very strong legs, he still has years of quality pass rushing in him.

    Starter

    5/5

    Switching to the “dark side” in the minds of Cowboys fans in 2014, Jason Hatcher has proved to the world that he still has the attributes that made him a Pro Bowler just a season ago. The Dallas franchise may be kicking itself over letting him go, as his performance last season locked him into the top 10 at his position, even after a position switch. No one knows when age will catch up with him, but at this point, he's still a key contributor at the professional level.

    Overall

    84/100

8. Cameron Heyward, Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Don Wright/Associated Press

    Run Defense

    32/40

    Still in his late 20s, Cameron Heyward (6'5", 288 lbs) is already making marks on the league. Known more for his increasing sack total in all four of his NFL seasons, Heyward still does more than enough to consider him a three-down player for the Pittsburgh Steelers. He's stout in the run, even against double-teams when he drops his anchor and locks himself to the line of scrimmage. He's also athletic enough to get depth on run plays, making tackles in the backfield. Against stretch-zone plays, he rides blockers, keeping toe-to-toe with them and tries to slide past them with good timing.

    Pass Rush

    47/55

    Heyward is a guy you want on defense on third downs. Outside of his heavy feet, there's very little that he can't do as a pass-rusher that other 3-4 defensive ends can do in the league. He's not a big-burst guy either, slowly working his way to crush the pocket throughout a play, as opposed to getting in with that quick, strong first step like a Jurrell Casey or Mike Daniels do. That again goes back to his slow feet, which have improved over his NFL career.

    Starter

    5/5

    Valued most as an extra-pressure creator, Cameron Heyward is a well above average starter in the NFL. The Pittsburgh Steelers are lucky to have a player who can not only hold his own against two offensive linemen in the ground game but also push a tackle into the quarterback's blind side. As a young, versatile player, there's still hope that he can break into the upper echelon of players in the league, one day ending up on All-Pro or Pro Bowl lists.

    Overall

    84/100

7. Muhammad Wilkerson, New York Jets

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    Julio Cortez/Associated Press

    Run Defense

    34/40

    Muhammad Wilkerson (6'4", 315 lbs) is a throwback 3-4 defensive end in a league that almost prides itself by not running a true two-gap scheme anymore. He's got a great frame and even longer arms, which help him lock out offensive linemen from his breast plate and also allow him to deliver the first blow, making his life a lot easier. He's great at stacking and shedding, a key move for any 3-4 defensive end in the league. He's also a versatile run defender, as he gets strong-side defensive end looks when the Jets went to the 4-3 in 2014.

    Pass Rush

    47/55

    On paper, his 315 pounds may lead one to believe he's nose tackle sized, but he holds it very well. Not once as a pass-rusher did he look like he was over 315 pounds, and neither did he play like it. He's just simply not your typical defensive end, in a good way. He's got above-average burst off the line of scrimmage and is freaky athletic at his size, but his true attribute that pushes him ahead of his raw talent is his technique. Often when he does get to the quarterback, either for a sack or hit, it's because his hand usage put him past an offensive lineman.

    Starter

    5/5

    Along with Sheldon Richardson, Muhammad Wilkerson gave the New York Jets what was probably the best defensive end combo for a 3-4 team in 2014. Wilkerson is the rare athlete who has the frame of a big-body player when looking at him in the media guide, but he looks and plays like a much smaller player. An absolute force in the run game, Wilkerson isn't too shabby at getting after opposing quarterbacks, either.

    Overall

    86/100

6. Jurrell Casey, Tennessee Titans

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    Matt Rourke/Associated Press

    Run Defense

    34/40

    Jurrell Casey (6'1", 305 lbs) isn't the type of player you usually think of when you bring up 3-4 defensive ends. He's not a player who is known for strength at the point of attack, not that he lacks it, but more so for his ability to use his quick first step to get into the backfield. A premier undertackle type in the NFL, Tennessee's transition to a 3-4 this past season also meant that he had to evolve as a football player. He converts speed to power well, making him tough to budge man-on-man, and he's also slippery, to the point where if an offensive lineman bends incorrectly, he'll slide right past him for a tackle for loss.

    Pass Rush

    48/55

    Previously an undertackle, it's no surprise that his best attribute is getting at the quarterback. Slightly undersized, he more than makes up for his length as a pass-rusher with quick hands and his swim move that allows him to teleport himself behind guards. He wastes a bit too much time at times with a slight shimmy move, which more often than not means his rush attempt on the play was wasted.

    Starter

    5/5

    If for some reason Jurrell Casey hit the open market, I doubt he would end up on a 3-4 team. He's better built to put his foot in the dirt in a 4-3 defensive front than attempting to two-gap as an sub-6'3" defensive lineman, but he does the best he can do in Tennessee in an non-ideal role and still performs to an extent where most would said he's the key building block of that defense heading into the future.

    Overall

    87/100

5. Calais Campbell, Arizona Cardinals

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    Bob Leverone/Associated Press

    Run Defense

    35/40

    At 6'8", 300 pounds, Calais Campbell is an absolute mammoth. With more than a half-decade of time in the league since leaving the University of Miami, he's savvy enough as a professional to make a huge impact in the run game, really understanding how to use his weight and leverage against offensive linemen, which is rare for someone his size. Against double-teams he can struggle because he shoots his long body straight up, but one-on-one, he possesses a J.J. Watt-like arm-over swim move that usually ends up with him in the backfield.

    Pass Rush

    48/55

    Campbell brings to the table the ability to create pressure to a level that is rare for interior defensive linemen. He's got very good hand usage, winning one-on-one hands fights regularly. He also has an explosive burst off the line of scrimmage, demanding offensive linemen match him at the line of scrimmage with quick feet and initial contact, or he'll live in the backfield.

    Starter

    5/5

    Now established in the league as a force after his first Pro Bowl season of 2014, Calais Campbell's talent should be known league-wide. A giant who's light on his feet is rare, and he combines that with self-aware body mechanics to build his game as a nearly flawless 3-4 defensive end whom the Arizona Cardinals couldn't be more happy to have on their roster.

    Overall

    88/100

4. Sheldon Richardson, New York Jets

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Run Defense

    34/40

    Sheldon Richardson (6'3", 294 lbs) is a 3-4 defensive end for the New York Jets but did play some undertackle in their even-front looks. He's not a big-body type, so his inconsistent pad level hurts him a bit in the ground game. When he doesn't use leverage correctly, he can be budged much easier. Despite his average length, he does a good job of using his arm length to stack-and-shed while two-gapping. In space, he's a bit of a freak, making him a Jets force in multiple ways.

    Pass Rush

    49/55

    If he played for a 4-3 team, Richardson could be a power pass-rusher on the strong side. That's how good he is at chasing quarterbacks. He's got several counters and has a more-than-quality bull rush that helps him collapse a pocket. If the 2013 draft class were redone today, it's not out of the question that he might be the best second-year player in the league. Physically gifted and motivated on film, he can be one of the best big-body pressure men in the NFL.

    Starter

    5/5

    Sheldon Richardson is one of the best young athletes in the NFL. As a run defender, he's a little up-and-down, but he's still well above average in that aspect. As a player against the pass, he shows the potential to catch up with anyone other than J.J. Watt at the position by next season. If he continues to go down the path he's on currently, he'll be a multiple-time All-Pro player before it's all said and done.

    Overall

    88/100

3. Mike Daniels, Green Bay Packers

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    Jeff Haynes/Associated Press

    Run Defense

    35/40

    Mike Daniels (6'0", 305 lbs) is one of the best and most versatile defensive linemen in the sport. He's strong at the point of attack despite being undersized and can get into the backfield with blazing speed for someone over 300 pounds. When he's on, like he was against the New York Jets, he dominates for 60 minutes, abusing guards with his first step.

    Pass Rush

    51/55

    That quickness also applies as a pass-rusher. In his short NFL career, he already has 14 sacks. He does enough that he could project as a undertackle for a 4-3 team. With quick hands, leg drive and high effort, he's one of the toughest defensive ends in the league to face, because if you wait for him, he'll convert speed to power and blow you off the ball, but if you are too aggressive, he'll finesse his way through you with counter moves.

    Starter

    5/5

    Mike Daniels could be a Geno Atkins-level 4-3 undertackle, but Green Bay's 3-4 defense isn't a traditional one, playing essentially an even front, which allows Daniels to succeed. It's hard to point at Daniels' flaws. He's got a very good all-around game and has a high upside that is only limited by his height, if that.

    Overall

    91/100

2. Fletcher Cox, Philadelphia Eagles

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    Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

    Run Defense

    36/40

    Fletcher Cox (6'4", 300 lbs) is first and foremost a run defender. That's not a necessarily a negative for a 3-4 defensive lineman, as he excels in this aspect. He's got a large frame and gross length that allows him to control, and at time rag-doll, offensive linemen. He does a good job at keeping a free shoulder on zone plays for a bigger guy, which can be attributed to his feet. When challenged at the point of attack, he keeps a wide base and drops an anchor that few can even budge.

    Pass Rush

    41/55

    Despite being such a good run defender, he's still a weak-side defensive end on most plays for the Philadelphia Eagles. The reason for that is his rare athleticism at the position. He's got great speed and burst for a 3-4 defensive lineman, which helps him convert speed to power and blow up an offensive tackle if he's the first to initiate contact. He's got heavy hands that also assist him in that role. He doesn't have much versatility in his pass-rushing game, but what he does, he does well, and that's more than enough to rank him with the best in the league at the position.

    Starter

    5/5

    Overall, Fletcher Cox has developed into the talent the Eagles thought he could become when they drafted him in the first round in 2012. By the end of the 2014 season, he clearly looked like the second-best 3-4 defensive end in the game. As a run defender, he's a world-class player. As a pressure creator, he's what other NFL players strive to be. With no signs of slowing down, Cox is one of the rising stars in the NFC East. 

    Overall

    92/100

1. J.J. Watt, Houston Texans

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    Patric Schneider/Associated Press

    Run Defense

    38/40

    J.J. Watt (6'5", 289 lbs) is one of the most dominant NFL players, in part due to his run presence. As a strong-side defensive end, he's head-to-head with some of the league's top run-blockers on a snap-to-snap basis, and he comes out a winner much more often than not. Rarely will you see his body be pushed backward—in fact, he's usually re-establishing the line of scrimmage. Even at his size, he possesses enough athleticism to limit his surface area, gaining ground in the backfield. He fights like his life is dependent on each snap, leading to his 61 run stops, the best at his position at the pro level in 2014.

    Pass Rush

    55/55

    As a pass-rusher, he shows even more talent than as a run-stopper. His 54 pressures and 21 sacks last season are proof of that. He's got redirection skills on the edge, giving him a rare ability to make plays in space for a player essentially built like an offensive lineman. He has great technique, flashing his arm-over move consistently when he is able to bait blockers. His powerful, heavy hands pop his opponents a couple of steps back almost instantly and help him with his bull rush. His sacks and quarterback hits are vastly larger than his hurries, on the relative scale of how they correlate, meaning he's a “closer” who can get home at a solid count.

    Starter

    5/5

    It should be to no one's surprise that J.J. Watt, who was a 2014 MVP candidate, is ranked so high on this list. Already one of the best in the league, some wonder if he's the best large-bodied pass-rusher since the late Reggie White. Absolutely crushing in the run and pass game, it's hard to ask for even an ounce more out of a 3-4 defensive end than what Watt gives the Houston Texans on a weekly basis.

    Overall

    98/100
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