NFL's Top 28 over 28: Front-7 Defenders
You can make the argument that after quarterback, the positional golden age of this era of NFL football consists of defensive linemen and edge defenders. While positions like running back, offensive line and linebackers have been falling off in recent decades, more and more players, from an early age, are focusing their talents on the defensive line.
In reflection of this trend, the front seven is our 28 for 28 series' strongest positional group, which shouldn't be surprising considering the top-end talent across the league and how many players on a 53-man roster fit into this category.
To accurately reflect the NFL's demands for these players, and to try to create a single scale which values interior defensive linemen, edge defenders and off-the-ball linebackers on an honest scale, we broke front-seven play into four categories.
The first and most important is their pass influence, an attribute taking into account of both a player's ability to get after the passer and to drop into coverage. The NFL is a passing league, and the 45 points awarded to this category reflects that.
The second attribute in a player's grade is run influence, which takes into account of a player's run-pass reads, his ability to shoot through gaps to make tackles for a loss, his ability to set the edge and his ability to hold up at the point of attack. It's hard to make the case that the NFL values run-stoppers as much as pass-rushers when looking at how one-sided players are paid, which is why only 20 points on the 100-point scale are impacted by run influence.
The final two categories are a player's explosive ability, valued at 20 points, and a player's spatial ability, valued at 15 points that we are grouping together. Explosive ability includes a player's ability to get into first gear, either out of his drop as a linebacker or his first step as a player on the line of scrimmage. Spatial ability is what you think of when a player is chasing the backside of a run play or closing in on a running back catching a swing pass out of the backfield.
Taking all of that into account, we hope to have provided you with the most accurate 28 players in the NFL playing in the front seven at the age of 28 or older.
28. Vinny Curry, EDGE/DL, Philadelphia Eagles (28 Years Old)
Vinny Curry has been misused for the majority of his NFL career. At Marshall, he was a pass-rusher, but with the Philadelphia Eagles, who already had the likes of Connor Barwin and Brandon Graham as pass-rushers, he was converted to be a 3-4 defensive end.
That's an incredibly rare position for someone who weighed in at 266 pounds at the combine to play. As a pass-rusher, even when lined up on the edge, he is more of an inside pass-rusher, like Pernell McPhee of the Chicago Bears, than an edge-bender, which makes sense considering how much time he's spent inside.
In 2016, though, he'll be playing under Jim Schwartz, who uses bodies like him to play in a Wide-9 stance and almost focus on speed-to-power conversion in both the air and ground games. Could he be the league's next Ziggy Ansah?
It's hard to tell, but any sort of pinning-down of Curry's talent is set on the unknown of how he handles playing on the edge full time.
For an interior run defender, Curry held up poorly. This will likely change now that he gets to go against tight ends, who are thinner than he is, rather than NFL guards, who could have 50 pounds on the defensive end. Again, pinning him down while he's transitioning to completely different positions can be dangerous.
Curry has some burst off the line of scrimmage, which is typically negated by playing 5-technique, which should give Eagles fans hope about his transition outside. With that being said, when he's in the open field, he looks a lot closer to a 3-4 defensive end than a 3-4 outside linebacker.
Curry's five-year, $46.25 contract this offseason was a head-scratcher for many, but it's a projection from the team for what Curry might be more than what he's done at this point in his career. That can be a tricky dance to execute, but the Eagles have clearly put their money where their mouth is on Curry's projection moving forward.
At times, you saw what could make Curry a quality pass-rusher, but playing out of position for so long, you have to wonder if he ever gets back on the track that made him a top-60 draft pick as a pass-rusher, especially at his age. The first year of the Curry experiment in Philadelphia will tell us a lot about what he's going to be.
27. NaVorro Bowman, LB, San Francisco 49ers (28 Years Old)
By his second year in the league, NaVorro Bowman was one of the best off-the-ball linebackers in the NFL, pairing up with Patrick Willis as the best inside linebacker unit in the sport under head coach Jim Harbaugh. Just sit back, read that sentence and realize how different five years ago was for the San Francisco 49ers.
Bowman, who was a noted coverage linebacker, missed the entire 2014 regular season due to an ACL and MCL tear, which happened in the 2013 postseason. He returned to the field in 2015 with a 154-tackle season, leading to his recent extension, but he is an absolute shell of himself in coverage.
Last year, he only had two passes defensed while only putting together 19 pressures, per Pro Football Focus. In terms of his talent on passing downs, Bowman is the weakest link to make this list.
Bowman's bread and butter is his ability to stuff runs inside the tackles, as he's a true inside linebacker. If he sees a man leading up a hole, he'll meet him to try to jolt the running back out of structure.
His timing is incredible, too. His patience allows him to slow-play an inside-zone play, suffocating a ball-carrier when he tries to bounce into his run fit.
At his age, Bowman should be just peaking or coming out of his prime as an off-the-ball linebacker. His knee recovery has limited him physically, though, as he now moves like a washed-up edge defender.
You can hide that inside a 3-4 defense, and the 49ers seem to be running a truer 3-4 than just about anyone in the league.
Bowman is just the latest San Francisco 49er whose career peak was cut short. On film, there's little reason for him to have earned the Pro Bowl he went to last season, other than his comeback story, which is nice but shouldn't weigh into him being ranked among the elite at the off-ball-linebacker position.
Maybe Bowman's injury will just take two-and-a-half seasons to recover from instead of a year-and-a-half, but he didn't look like the same player in 2015 as he did in 2013, no matter what honors or contract extensions he's been offered.
26. Terrell Suggs, EDGE, Baltimore Ravens
If you don't know Terrell Suggs, who enters his 14th season this year, there's a lot to catch up on. Drafted in the first round in 2003, he has 106.5 sacks to his resume going into 2015.
Last year, an Achilles injury ended his season in the first game of the year, leaving him statistic-less, which means you have to dig back to the 2014 regular season, when he posted 12 sacks, to get a good read on him. At his age, he can still bend the edge, though he can do it with speed.
Suggs' impact in the passing game is almost like a timer that will go off four seconds after the snap. If you can get the ball off quick, he's a non-factor, but if you don't stick to a rhythm through quick progressions, you're going to become very familiar with the veteran.
In the running game, Suggs is nothing more than average, but the Ravens are begging for average this season. Last year, they were forced to play Elvis Dumervil, who typically is a pass-rushing specialist for the team, every down, which limited his pass-rushing impact and forced them to field a liability on running downs.
Suggs' mere presence of "average in every way" can fill a huge hole at the 3-4 outside linebacker position.
Suggs looked like a 31-year-old coming off the ball in 2014, and you can only imagine what two years and an Achilles injury have done to his explosion. That's really the beginning and end of this conversation.
The Baltimore Ravens, who are already having players drop like flies, need Suggs to make an immediate impact in his big bounce-back season. Last year, injuries left them desperate for functional bodies, and Suggs can at least bring that to the table.
It's hard to make heads or tails of Suggs at this point of his career, coming off that injury, but hopes are still high in Baltimore.
25. Mario Williams, EDGE, Miami Dolphins (31 Years Old)
Mario Williams had one of the weirdest years of a top-tier pass-rusher last season. In Rex Ryan's new defensive scheme, Williams was basically asked to play a 5-technique role at times, playing run-first, which is incredibly odd for a player who has 96 career sacks.
Between 2014 and 2015, Williams' sacks mark dropped from 14.5 to just five, including just 25 pressures recorded by Pro Football Focus. In 15 starts, Williams had 15 solo tackles, the fewest since his 2011 season in Houston, when he had 10 in five games.
With that being said, Williams didn't help himself by bending too wide in his rushes last year. He should hope to bounce back in Miami, but there's no promise that he returns to his former self at his age.
Williams did not thrive in that 5-technique role. He's far from Calais Campbell in the ground game.
He doesn't consistently set the edge, which isn't what you want to hear about a player who was asked to attack offensive linemen instead of the gaps on the outside of linemen last season. Sure, Williams is long and large for an edge-rusher, but that doesn't always translate to success in the running game, which Ryan learned last season.
Maybe his get-off was masked by the position he played, but Williams didn't look like he could take advantage of bookends off the jump like he has in his five previous double-digit sack seasons. It's quite possible that he quit on the team in that scheme, as we always see some friction between a new staff and established players, but this is at least something to keep an eye on moving forward for Williams in Miami.
The Miami Dolphins signed Williams this season after the Buffalo Bills butchered his schematic fit. He shouldn't be considered anything more than a fallen star entering this season, which just adds a collection to the Dolphins' narrative on the defensive line.
Cameron Wake, who will likely start opposite of Williams, is at the end of his career, too, while Dion Jordan, the former third overall pick, looks to make his first impact season in the league. There's a lot of hope at that Miami edge defender unit, but there's not a lot of stability.
24. Brian Orakpo, EDGE, Tennessee Titans (30 Years Old)
If you weren't watching the 2015 Tennessee Titans, who finished with a 3-13 record, we don't blame you. If you did catch the team, though, you would have noticed Brian Orakpo posting his worst season as a healthy starter in the sacks column.
After missing most of the 2012 and 2014 seasons, you can make the case that Orakpo has dropped off some due to injury, but in 2013, between those years, he still posted a 10-sack season, leading to his third and last Pro Bowl.
Last year, according to Pro Football Focus, he had just 36 pressures in 16 games, which makes sense, as he's not able to win on initial force as often as he once did. Now, he spends too much time dancing from gap to gap to find a "half-man" position to win at.
If you need Orakpo in the backfield against run action, you're going to find yourself in a hard spot. That same dancing from gap to gap is also what he does in the running game, leading to him hanging at the line of scrimmage even against the softest of blocks.
Orakpo was noted coming out of the University of Texas as a workout warrior, which showed up at the combine when he jumped out of the gym. With that ability diminishing, though, he still trusts his athleticism like he's one of the league's best athletes, but he's consistently writing checks that his legs can't cash.
Known more for his Geico commercials than anything he's done on the field, Orakpo went from producing as a Washington Redskin to being hidden on the Titans defense. Now cracking the 30-year-old mark, he needs to prove in 2016 that he can rebound to his old self.
In his first three years in the league, Orakpo made 28.5 sacks. In his last four, he's made 19.5. It's possible that he hasn't fully recovered from injury, leading to the lost explosion, but that's something that will be answered no later than November of this year.
23. DeMarcus Ware, EDGE, Denver Broncos (34 Years Old)
DeMarcus Ware is the role model of many "Group of Five" pass-rushers. Despite playing in Auburn, Alabama, he wasn't offered by either the in-state Tigers or Crimson Tide, turning to Troy University to extend his playing career.
From there, Ware became the 11th overall pick in 2005 and has 134.5 sacks to his NFL career, the second-most active sacks by a defender, only behind Julius Peppers. Last year, he was able to earn his ninth Pro Bowl nod, missing the game due to his participation in the Super Bowl.
Why he got there should be in question, though. He posted 7.5 sacks, but in that loaded defense, he wasn't nearly as impactful as he could have been in the past. Right now, he's mostly living off his name, right or wrong.
Since 2006, Ware's worst three sack totals have come in the last three years. His decline is here, and it's why the Broncos elect to drop him into coverage over Von Miller in certain looks, while they're grooming both Shane Ray and Shaquil Barrett to take over Ware's role soon.
Ware took a pay cut this offseason, presumably with the ultimatum that he would be released if he didn't shorten his cap hit. He's a winner and an All-Timer, which is giving him a pass.
As a run defender, Ware's punch is there, but he's nothing close to special in the box. Playing his entire career between the 250-to-260-pound range, Ware has never been known as more than a run defender who could beat outside zone plays, and he's taken some noticeable steps back since then.
Ware still has a decent jump off the line of scrimmage, but watching him try to chase down screens is a sobering sight. Once one of the freakier athletes in the league, Ware looks more human as the seasons pass.
Ware is a quality pass-rusher at this point in his career, but he's no longer the dominant force that he's often billed as. We're clearly at the tail end of his career, as he lived and died with his athleticism, which is slowly slipping away.
If one were to guess, you could say that Ware has maybe a year or two left in the tank before he drops below a baseline 3-4 outside linebackers talent, in which his value lacks that of a young pass-rusher who could use the reps to develop into a quality starter. His legs are starting to go, but Ware is still here. For now.
22. Lawrence Timmons, LB, Pittsburgh Steelers (30 Years Old)
For years, the Pittsburgh Steelers were coordinated on the defensive side of the ball by Dick LeBeau, who was a heavy advocate of zone blitzes, which forced every player on the field to learn how to both drop into coverage and blitz. Now under Keith Butler, the Steelers, though less, still implement that type of mentality.
Even with that in mind, though, Lawrence Timmons was only able to register 10 pressures, according to Pro Football Focus, in 2015. Though it's not rare to see a nose tackle drop into coverage in Pittsburgh's scheme, Timmons' blitzing has been as rare as it has been ineffective.
For the most part, Timmons drops into coverage on passing downs as a 3-4 inside linebacker, which he's average at. In the passing game, he doesn't provide much more than a speed bump.
What he lacks as a pass defender, Timmons brings to the table as a run defender. He's often creeping up to the line of scrimmage before the snap, which makes offensive linemen have to beat him earlier in the down on a run play, making their margin of error much smaller.
Timmons doesn't burst when the ball is snapped, but he does show explosive tendencies once he decides where he is going. Pittsburgh's defense often limits plays by making them hesitate as they go through some of the hardest assignments in the sport.
Mostly, Timmons looks like an aging linebacker, but he can turn the keys and get out of park pretty quickly.
Timmons is a top-five true off-the-ball linebacker on this list, which shouldn't be a surprise for those who saw him in his Pro Bowl season of 2014. While he's the veteran in the unit, Ryan Shazier, the Steelers' first-round pick from 2014, is the shining star of their inside linebacker corp.
The reason for this is the changing game of football at the NFL level. Right now, run-stopping linebackers just don't have much value, so explosive linebackers who can provide help in coverage or in the pass rush are valued much higher than a player like Timmons relative to a decade or two ago.
Timmons is good for his role, but his role isn't that valuable in today's NFL, which is why the going rate for off-the-ball linebackers is falling far behind other front-seven positions.
21. Tamba Hali, EDGE, Kansas City Chiefs (32 Years Old)
The Kansas City Chiefs let you know what they thought of Tamba Hali when they flirted with the idea of letting him walk as a free agent. In the end, the Chiefs did re-sign Hali to a three-year contract, but his $7 million average salary puts him in a seven-way tie for the 86th defender in the league, per Spotrac.
Those numbers basically align with reality, as Hali has lost a step in recent years. Justin Houston is now the team's primary pass-rusher, as Hali has combined for 12.5 sacks over the last two seasons, after posting 11 in a single year in 2013.
He's not a bender and he sometimes loses balance when he tries to bend, but he has been able to register 55 pressures, according to Pro Football Focus. Hali just can't get home as well as he used to, with his legs going.
At 6'3" and 275 pounds, Hali does a pretty solid job of holding his own at the point of attack. He's better going head-to-head with tight ends, but that can be said about just about any edge defender in the league.
For the most part, his explosive plays in the ground game come from his ability to diagnose when to use a swim move. When he sees a blocker leaning into him, he's savvy enough of a veteran to pull it out of his back pocket to get to the running back.
Hali is right on the fringe of being average in terms of his first-step ability. In space, though, he's a non-factor. He's an aging edge defender who has the size of a 3-4 defensive end from the 1990s. That reflects on the field and on film.
Hali is on the back end of his NFL career, but he should be able to be a safe, consistent pass-rusher for the Chiefs for the next three years. He's going to get you around six sacks a year and play above-average ground play as he ages, which for Kansas City, which has a dominant defensive line loaded up between Hali and Houston, that's enough.
This is certain, though: This should be Hali's last contract in the NFL. He doesn't have the athleticism to give like a Julius Peppers could at Hali's age, which is the main reason why he was able to notch double-digit sacks in 2015, while that now takes Hali two seasons to reach.
20. Ryan Kerrigan, EDGE, Washington Redskins (28 Years Old)
No one talks about Ryan Kerrigan. He was a first-round pick in a pass-rushing class that featured Von Miller, Aldon Smith, Robert Quinn, Cameron Jordan, Muhammad Wilkerson and even Justin Houston, which helps explain the narrative on him.
He's not as dynamic as any of those pass-rushers, but has has produced on a more consistent basis than just about anyone in the league. Since entering the NFL in 2011, Kerrigan has never had fewer than 7.5 sacks.
It's hard to explain why Kerrigan's production is so high, as he hasn't always had a great edge defender playing opposite of him, he hasn't had an elite defensive lineman in front of him and he has no true signature move. Kerrigan just gets sacks, nothing more and nothing less.
In the passing game, Kerrigan has no real distinguishable attributes. In the ground game, though, Kerrigan doesn't bring much to the table.
Other than not getting reached as a 3-4 outside linebacker, there's not much "impact" that he can add to a ground game. He can make sure that a zone run designed to go outside goes one gap short, but that's about as far as his contributions go.
Kerrigan's first step isn't what you'd even consider to be above-average, which makes his consistent production even more questionable for what your eyes see on a down-to-down basis. He's simply average in that aspect, while he looks closer to a 5-technique defensive end in space than a 3-4 outside linebacker.
For the most part, you want to send him on a pass rush rather than dropping him into coverage.
Five years into his NFL career, Kerrigan is nearly halfway to the 100-sack mark. It's hard to imagine him keeping up his pace of production, as he entered the NFL as a 23-year-old, but he needs to be talked about more.
No one at his age with his numbers has been discussed less than Kerrigan has, because of his vanilla style of play. He's one of the more underrated pass-rushers in the league, as he averages more than nine sacks a season, but very few fans actually know anything about the linebacker.
19. Cameron Wake, EDGE, Miami Dolphins (34 Years Old)
Cameron Wake's pass-rushing dominance has been well-documented. After missing out on the NFL as an undrafted free agent coming out of Penn State, he turned to the Canadian Football League for redemption.
After returning to the NFL, he's tallied 70 sacks in seven years with the Miami Dolphins. His seven sacks in seven games as a 33-year-old in 2015 is a pretty amazing stat, no matter how you try to spin it.
If you watch him against a team like the Tennessee Titans last year, you start to question how he's not higher on this list. The problem with Wake's pass-rushing potential at this point in his career is his consistency.
He's no longer "the guy," since he can do it on a down-to-down basis. Last year, he had players like Oliver Vernon, Ndamukong Suh and Derrick Shelby to help take the heat off him.
With Vernon and Shelby gone, the Dolphins made moves for veterans Mario Williams, Jason Jones and Andre Branch this offseason, even while former third overall pick Dion Jordan is coming off suspension. The point is simple: Wake is almost a situational pass-rusher in terms of how many snaps he's able to play at a high level per game.
Like Elvis Dumervil and co., Wake was taken off the field in running situations when Miami's personnel was in shape enough to allow for a situational rotation. Gone are the years when Wake was as equal of a terror against the run as the pass, as his seven sacks and nine combined tackles in 2015 only further prove.
Wake's first step is still solid, as he's above-average for even a pass-rusher, but he no longer owns a neck-snapping explosion jump off the line of scrimmage. In the area of pure athleticism, he's looking like an aging superstar, which there is no shame in for a player in his mid-30s.
The Dolphins have Wake locked up through the 2017 season, but it's hard to tell if he'll even be considered a full-time starter by then. In a 4-3 scheme, it's hard to play with a run-down end and a pass-down end without being caught up in the nuances of nickel defense, which will only make Wake's transitional role even tougher to project.
Unless Wake takes a big step in 2015, with the presumption that those nine games of rest on his body will do him well moving forward, he's ideally a situational player moving forward. He's the best CFL product to come out in well over a decade, but the face for that league will change with Wake's decline coming.
18. Julius Peppers, EDGE, Green Bay Packers (36 Years Old)
Julius Peppers was drafted in 2002 and had a double-digit sack season in 2015. What he's been able to do from a longevity standpoint is pretty amazing, especially in today's NFL when there are so many more snaps on a per-game basis, leading to more and more contact at the line of scrimmage.
Now, Peppers' numbers were better than his on-field performance last year, as some of those sacks came off pressure initiated by others in that aggressive Dom Capers defense, but his bend for his age should go down as one of the best ever on that relative scale. He can still give you a pass rush heading into his late 30s, which puts him among the elite of the elite at his position.
One thing that Peppers has always had going for him in the ground game is his size and length for a 3-4 outside linebacker. There just aren't many 6'7", 287 pound pass-rushers in the NFL, and that makes it hard for offensive tackles to replicate what going against him would be like in practice.
He has heavy hands and is strong at the point of attack. There's a reason why Peppers is often playing on the strong side of formations, forcing tight ends to work for a clean break off the line of scrimmage. He's a mismatch run defender as a primary pass-rusher, which is odd to see in 2016.
To no one's surprise, the linebacker, who is entering his 15th year in the NFL, has lost some athleticism over the years. In a lot of ways, his legs are gone.
No longer is he beating offensive tackles by simply exploding with his first step. He's not the type of edge defender to really worry about chasing down the backside of a run, either, which is why the Packers elect to play him at left outside linebacker, even when Clay Matthews was playing inside linebacker for the squad last season.
The 18th overall slot on this list may seem like harsh grading for a nine-time Pro Bowler coming off the season that Peppers just had, but this is the strongest unit of our 28 over 28 series, and Peppers' age leads to no shame. If you are even able to crack this list at Peppers' age, you're doing something right.
When Peppers was 28 years old, some of the players on this list were still playing college football, which only further explains how ridiculous it is that the future Hall of Famer is still lingering as an impactful player. For every year that passes, it looks to be closer to the end for Peppers, but until he's under the bar of a baseline starter, he'll be able to find work in the NFL.
17. Calais Campbell, DL, Arizona Cardinals (30 Years Old)
Calais Campbell is one of the better 5-technique defensive ends in the NFL, but a 5-technique defensive end rarely is a factor in the passing game. First, the reads are typically based on offensive line movement rather than ball movement. That makes the initial rush attempt, the most important, slow. They also have to stay stout while covering two gaps, while pass-rushers and 3-technique defenders are allowed to shoot a single gap.
Campbell was drafted to be a space-eater, and he's adapted that mentality his whole career. Last year, he only had 27 pressures, per Pro Football Focus, and despite his length and strength, he rarely got "clean" pressure.
While his pass rushing lacks, the 6'8", 300-pound Campbell has elite impact in the running game. For the most part, the line of scrimmage is set to wherever Campbell says so.
His strong hands allow him to blow into an offensive lineman straight-up, while his long arms make it difficult for that same lineman to work his hands inside. Campbell's length also shows up when he's shedding off of a block for a tackle. It's amazing that a 5-technique end has 448 tackles in his career.
Campbell's jump off the line of scrimmage is about average once you take into account of him not taking off until the offensive linemen do, which is why he can be late with his first step, but it still holds. Still, he's a below-average athlete, even for his size.
Depending on how you value run defense, Campbell's spot on this list is something you strongly agree or disagree with. In the modern NFL, you have to be able to get after the passer, and Campbell just hasn't done enough of that in his career to consider him to be a top-15 player on this list.
There is no doubt, though, that he is one of the best non-nose tackle run defenders in the league and has a case to take the top spot on that particular list. Hidden in Arizona his entire career, he's underrated by fans and media alike on a national level.
16. Derrick Johnson, LB, Kansas City Chiefs (33 Years Old)
Derrick Johnson, a four-time Pro Bowler, is at the tail end of his NFL career, but he's still more than a quality starting inside linebacker. In today's NFL, you typically hide less-than-athletic thumper types at 3-4 inside linebacker, but Johnson has proved again and again to have the athleticism of an edge defender.
In coverage, he's solid, not great. He's absolutely more of a fan of zone coverage than man cover, as he's best short-framing a window for quarterbacks to throw into rather than having to cover a man one-on-one and be the glass of that window.
One reason he's a solid coverage linebacker is his ability to make fast run-pass reads, getting him into his drops quick. He's not much of a pass-rusher, but with the Kansas City Chiefs' front, they don't ask much out of their inside linebackers anyway.
Johnson's ground game contributions stem from his elite ability to know where the ball is headed at all times. If he sees the logo on the side of a player's helmet, he's aware that a power or counter play is headed his defense's way, and he can beat an offense to that spot.
When he's dropped down on the line of scrimmage over tight ends, he can hold his space at the point of attack. It's hard to get him lost in the wash of power plays, and he often blows up lead blockers and pullers, forcing a running back to run the ball off tempo or out of design.
Johnson isn't who you'd describe as explosive, but his veteran knowledge to know what passes and runs look like make him look faster than he really is, making him a non-liability in that aspect. When he's playing a hook or flat zone responsibility and a running back makes a catch out of the backfield, Johnson is still able to prove that he has a second gear, as he barrels down with great speed to meet those pass-catchers on "easy" receptions.
Entering his 12th season in the NFL, Johnson is an established veteran who doesn't need any introduction. This year, he was allowed to test the open market, but the Kansas City Chiefs decided to offer him a three-year contract, locking him up until he's a 35-year-old.
He still has quietly solid athleticism, and his conflict reads keep him on the field. As long as the wheels don't completely fall off in one drastic year, Johnson should be able to suit up for the Chiefs through the 2018 season.
15. Brandon Graham, EDGE, Philadelphia (28 Years Old)
Brandon Graham is a pass-rusher who beat the "first-round bust" label after he was prematurely slapped with it. Graham, who had short arms coming out of Michigan, was the poster boy for why you shouldn't take a T-Rex-armed edge defender up until the 2015 season.
In his first five years in the league, Graham was limited to a rotational role, only starting 13 games. In 2015, though, he started 10 games, flashing some of the talent which led to the Philadelphia Eagles taking him 13th overall in 2010.
With 45 pressures charted by Pro Football Focus, maybe the rise of Graham will go to show NFL media and fans how little arm length can mean for pass-rushers, who can use one-arm moves and always have the length advantage of any offensive tackle in the league.
Graham is more of true pass-rusher at 6'2" and 265 pounds than someone who is your prototypical "base end." He can keep an outside shoulder clean against outside zone and run down the backside of inside zone plays, but that's about all you can assume from his ground-game contributions.
The former Wolverine has an above-average first step, which is one reason why he does well as a pass-rusher and against zone defenses. In space, though, he almost looks like a 3-technique defender, which goes along with his short, stout frame. He has surprising closing speed for a "pudgy" player at his position.
Graham, who the Eagles have invested in with a long-term contract, finally has reached his potential, even if his sack stats don't reflect his success. In new defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz's scheme, pass-rushers will run more Wide-9 formations than anyone else in the league, which will only help athletic pass-rushers like Graham.
Last year, Ingram was a breakout double-digit sack player for the San Diego Chargers. Based on the situation Graham is in, including his recent progress, if you're looking for this year's Ingram, Graham has to be at the top of the list.
14. Sean Lee, LB, Dallas Cowboys (30 Years Old)
Sean Lee is one of the best linebackers of this generation, but the fact that he's missed 33 games since 2012 is a big deal. Now cracking the big 30-year-old threshold, you have to wonder if he's going to play more than half of the Dallas Cowboys' games over the remainder of his career.
Despite his on-field success, you're never going to think of Lee as a pass-rusher. It took him until he was 29 years old to notch his first NFL sack. On top of that, last year, he only posted five pressures, according to Pro Football Focus.
Where he does thrive in the passing game is in coverage. He's incredibly fast to read and pick up swinging running backs out of the backfield. He's not going to shut down a premier tight end, but if his responsibility sticks to negating anything coming out from behind the quarterback, he'll eliminate those options down quickly.
"Instincts" is the word that comes when you think of Lee's ground-game contribution. He may not be the biggest or strongest linebacker in the world, but his ability to diagnose run or pass is top-tier.
His ability to take on blocks is just average, but Lee is still able to thrive as a run-and-chase linebacker, even after all of his injuries.
It's hard to show explosive ability as an off-the-ball linebacker, as that trait comes second to read-and-react ability, but when Lee sugars gaps as a faux blitzer, he can snap back into his original stack instantly. Lee's explosive ability allows him to disguise what the Cowboys defense is doing, which is a great trait to have against shotgun offenses.
His ability to attack ball-carriers in space is almost a gray area. Sometimes, you can't tell if it's his eyes that are giving him a head start on everyone on the Dallas defense or if his legs really are still top-notch for his position. Either way, he's impactful.
If Lee can stay on the field, he's still a Pro Bowl-caliber off-the-ball linebacker. After missing more than two seasons of football over the last four years, it's hard to count on him on a week-to-week basis, though.
Lee is one of the rare linebackers who could play "Sam," "Mike" or "Will" roles for the majority of 4-3 defenses. It's amazing that he only reached his first Pro Bowl in 2015, since he's clearly one of the best at the position in the past decade or so.
13. Bruce Irvin, EDGE, Oakland Raiders (28 Years Old)
Bruce Irvin is going to be an outside linebacker for Oakland's 3-4 base defense, which is different from his role as a 4-3 outside linebacker in Seattle. The Seahawks only played him as a true pass-rusher in his first season in the NFL, moving him to an off-the-ball role in 2013.
He has underrated speed-to-power conversion and is able to bend the edge well enough to earn a "poor man's Von Miller" label. Last year, as an off-the-ball player in base and a nickel defensive end, he was able to post 21 pressures, per Pro Football Focus, a good mark for someone in his role.
He's a high-upside signing for the Oakland Raiders, who were looking to add someone across from third-year star Khalil Mack, as Aldon Smith is on a suspension binge.
One of the biggest reasons why the Seahawks moved Irvin off the line of scrimmage was his ability to hold up at the point of attack. For someone who was an odd front defensive end in college, he has more in common with NFL linebackers than NFL defensive ends in the ground game.
When Seattle went into nickel, Michael Bennett, their starting base end, and Frank Clark, a rookie defensive end, were the players they elected to kick inside, as Irvin is much better suited to bend the edge than to shoot gaps against interior offensive linemen.
If a pass-rusher looks visibly different in the running game going against offensive tackles versus tight ends, that's not a good sign. That's where Irvin is at this point in his career.
Irvin's best trait is his ability to explode off the line of scrimmage like a pouncing cat. There are some pass-rushers who you can tell are explosive by simply what their stances look like. Irvin is naturally gifted in that way.
His spatial ability is fairly underrated, as he's better in coverage than most would give him credit for. Though we think of 3-4 outside linebackers as pass-rushers, teams are still sending four pressure players the majority of the time, meaning that one of those outside linebackers typically drops into coverage.
You'd assume, based on Mack's success and Irvin's fluid athleticism, that the former Mountaineer would be the one who hangs out in the flats more times than not.
The Raiders are quietly turning around their franchise, and Irvin's signing may be the sneakiest of their additions over the years. He was derailed due to breakouts of Bennett and Cliff Avril, two free-agent pass-rushers who came into their own in Seattle.
For a player on just his first year of his second NFL contract, he's old, but the lack of wear on him at the line of scrimmage could leave some to believe that not only does he have the ability to sustain his current level of play for years, but that he actually has room to improve, too.
12. Elvis Dumervil, EDGE, Baltimore Ravens (32 Years Old)
Elvis Dumervil was a 2005 All-American and a 2006 Day 3 draft selection. Why? His 5'11" height.
Overcoming the fact that he's vertically challenged, he's been able to post 96 sacks in his career, becoming the best Day 3 pass-rusher drafted in the last dozen years or so. At the tail end of his career, though, he needs to be that: a pass-rusher.
Limited reps are key for him, and after the loss of Pernell McPhee to free agency and Terrell Suggs to injury, the Baltimore Ravens were forced to use him as a full-time starter opposite of Courtney Upshaw, who used to take over the run-situation reps for Dumervil.
Because of that, Dumervil had to play out of position against the run and was worn down with the amount of snaps he was taking, while Upshaw was out of place as a pass-rusher. In the end, Dumervil only had six sacks as a 16-game starter, just one year after netting 17 sacks as a rotational player.
The key to his edge bending at this point in his career is a pitch count. Hopefully, the Ravens will be able to get him on the right track this season.
Ideally, the Ravens don't even want to field Dumervil against the run. He's not a tackles-for-a-loss guy, he gets hung up with offensive tackles and even in 2015, despite the team's losses at the edge position, they got him off the field in bear fronts, which are focused on stopping inside runs by alignment, funneling the ball out to the perimeter.
His closing speed on bootleg action is unimpressive, but Dumervil can get off the ball with some force. Right now, his track to success is exploding off the ball and tightly bending around an offensive tackle with rare hips. Anything that forces him to do something other than that is going to be trouble for him.
According to Pro Football Focus, Dumervil recorded 42 pressures last season, and he looked like a quality pass-rusher early on in games. Baltimore as an organization needs to make it a point to use Dumervil as its third edge defender in the coming year, as we saw what the grind of a 60-minute game in a 16-game season can do to someone his age.
He's still one of the better edge-benders in the game, but he can bring in more sacks on less reps. There's no point in wearing him out on first-down zone runs when he's not able to perform at his peak on third down. He needs a bounce-back year, but the potential for him to get a double-digit sack season is still on the table.
11. Ndamukong Suh, DL, Miami Dolphins (29 Years Old)
2015 was an odd year for Ndamukong Suh. He's been in the spotlight since his final season at Nebraska, when he almost beat a University of Texas team single-handedly in the Big 12 Championship Game, securing himself as the 2010 draft's top non-quarterback prospect.
After five years and four first-team All-Pro nods with the Detroit Lions, Suh became one of the few superstars to actually test the open market. The media will often tell you that signing free agents is overrated and a poor use of assets, since roster-building revolves around acquiring high-upside, rare talents who rarely see free agency, but Suh was the exception of the rule.
The Miami Dolphins were able to bring in Suh, but not until after agreeing to a $116 million price tag, the going rate of a franchise quarterback. The Dolphins locked in a long-term defender to a short-term situation, which was proved when they fired head coach Joe Philbin after a 1-3 start.
The squad has since cleaned house, though Terrell Williams, the team's defensive line coach, made it through the shuffle. Last year, Miami was only able to get six sacks out of Suh, though Cameron Wake was hurt for a good stretch of the year.
With the pairing of Wake and Mario Williams, who will likely break the 100-sack mark on his career this year, there's no excuse for Suh to underperform this season. He wins with violence, not speed, and for some reason that didn't translate to the same success in Miami as it did in Detroit, though the reasons for that are relatively unknown.
As a run defender, Suh has never been better. He's a headache for any offensive lineman who has to try to outmuscle him.
Suh will fight until the whistle blows, even sometimes after it's blown, with various ways to get a blocker's hands out of his chest. You can't beat him in a phone booth, and he'll set the edge close to where the ball is snapped against outside stretch plays, forcing the ball up almost as soon as it's handed off.
You wouldn't call Suh explosive, but you wouldn't say he has a slow get off, either. He's right there on the "above average" scale of quality starting 3-technique defenders in that regard.
Unlike some defensive linemen who can stand up or drop into coverage because of their fluid athleticism, Suh's ability in space makes him look like your average NFL interior defensive lineman. You don't want him to play in a fire zone scheme where those tackles are dropping into zones. You just want him moving north.
If Suh has another season like 2015 in 2016, fans are going to start to wonder if he's worth the contract he has been given. It doesn't seem like he's giving up on plays early, lacking effort after signing "the big deal," but it clearly didn't click with him last year.
With expensive contracts come huge expectations. It's going to be an easy juxtaposition for fans to compare what J.J. Watt or Von Miller are doing on mega-contracts compared to Suh, and even the likes of Fletcher Cox, who is transitioning to a full-time 3-technique role, or Gerald McCoy, who was selected third overall in 2010, right behind Suh, will be compared to him.
10. Jerry Hughes, EDGE, Buffalo Bills (28 Years Old)
Jerry Hughes is one of the more obvious redemption stories in the NFL, along with a cautionary tale for franchises who cut ties with "draft busts" too soon. The Indianapolis Colts drafted Hughes in the first round out of TCU in 2010, just to have Hughes post five sacks in three seasons with the team.
Hughes was then traded from the Colts, who haven't added a quality pass-rusher since his departure and have a shot at finishing last in the league in sacks this season, for linebacker Kelvin Sheppard, who made 46 tackles in his one year in Indianapolis.
Since then, Hughes has made 25 sacks in three seasons with the Bills, including back-to-back 10-sack years before Rex Ryan took over the team's defense. Hughes is a smooth edge-bender who can counter inside once bookends are tired of losing over and over outside.
He had an incredible 49 pressures, per Pro Football Focus, last season, which would suggest that his five-sack year doesn't give enough credit to what he was able to do over a 16-game season.
As a run defender, Hughes can be a bit of a liability. He's not a one-down pass-rusher, but the most you're going to get out of him is chasing down the back of zone plays.
One of the biggest knocks in his career has been his size, which has hovered around 255 pounds since he was measured in at the combine. That thin, slightly under 6'2" frame shows up at the point of attack, which means he can be targeted on the ground, if the Bills don't scheme a numbers advantage his way.
For a quality pass-rusher, Hughes doesn't have the burst off the line of scrimmage that he once had. It may be hesitation built-in from Ryan's defensive scheme, which asks inside linebackers to be the squad's primary pass-rushers on blitzes, but that "fluid" label is much closer to truth than an "explosive" label.
On the stat sheet, you may think to yourself that Hughes needs to rebound from his "poor" 2015 numbers, but when you turn on the film, it's hard not to notice the impact that he's making as a pass-rusher. Deeper into his career, he may be a pass-rushing specialist, once that balance of pressure influence dips below the value of his run-game liability, but as of now, he's still a great three-down edge defender.
It's a big year for Ryan's defensive scheme to prove that it can utilize the Bills' best players in the best situations in which they can "win." Hopefully, in Ryan's second year with the team, he and Hughes can mesh their positives and negatives better.
9. Gerald McCoy, DL, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (28 Years Old)
For an under tackle, Gerald McCoy has been able to produce an insane amount of sacks his last three years with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, which are all years in which he's been nominated for the Pro Bowl. In fact, the former third overall pick is the only 3-technique defender to post three straight seasons of at least 8.5 sacks, though Aaron Donald, who has only played two years in the league, has been able to post back-to-back seasons of similar production.
McCoy lives off his explosion into the backfield, which is largely where his 24 pressures, recorded by Pro Football Focus, have come from. His biggest issue as a pass-rusher comes from when he's squared up by offensive linemen, forcing him to reset and go with a bull rush, which just adds more time for a quarterback to get the ball off.
For a 3-technique defender, McCoy is able to handle double-teams well. He's basically been the focal point of any offensive line's attack on the Buccaneers' front during his entire time with the team, and after years of being highlighted with chips, he's refined his skill to take on two opponents at once.
It's hard to envision a situation where Tampa Bay asks him to play nose tackle in pressure looks based off that fact.
As mentioned before, McCoy's first step for a 300-pounder is pretty shocking. When getting after the passer is put on such a premium, it's easy to see how McCoy could live up to his $98 million price tag.
In space, he's what you'd think an interior defensive lineman looks like. He's not asked to do much open-field work as a defensive tackle, so it's not really a "weakness" that stands out game-to-game.
Leading up to the 2010 draft, the debate of if he or Ndamukong Suh were the better long-term under tackle prospects was the hottest debate of the draft. As of right now, McCoy looks to be edging past Suh later in their careers, though McCoy took some time to get going and Suh is making more money, since he signed his second contract on the open market.
If you asked the Buccaneers if they'd rather have he or Suh right now, they would likely stick with their elite interior-pressure player. You can step up to avoid edge pressure. Against interior pressure, you either have to take on the sack immediately or throw off your back foot.
McCoy's impact in the passing game, along with his surprising ability to handle just about any block thrown his way in the ground game, is why he's a top-10 defender on this list.
8. DeAndre Levy, LB, Detroit Lions (29 Years Old)
Never heard of DeAndre Levy? That's fine. Neither do Pro Bowl voters.
Despite making the Associated Press' Second-Team All-Pro list in 2014 after a 151-tackle year, Levy has still yet to make a Pro Bowl. A hip issue kept him from making a single tackle last year, delaying his breakout season for another year.
In 2016, though, he has a chance to return to football as one of the league's best coverage linebackers. He has the talent to be that mythical "covers tight ends" backer, spitting outside of the box into the slot to man up on hybrid pass-catchers.
"Instincts" is a funny word when it comes linebackers, as it's really a term used to explain why a linebacker is around the ball without truly explaining it. That's unfair to Levy.
He has elite "instincts," but they clearly stem from his ability to read the interior offensive line, which can't lie, to track where the ball is going on the ground. If you're wondering how a linebacker gets over 150 tackles in the modern NFL, where running games are slowly vanishing, it's because Levy is the first one to react on run-pass reads, has the athleticism to make most plays and holds up in coverage.
The speed of which he makes decisions is much faster than the speed in which he's able to get his legs moving, but Levy isn't a below-average linebacker in the category of athleticism. What he lacks in an early jump he makes up for in closing speed, though, as he almost plays like a safety when he's attacking a downhill ball-carrier.
Levy is the first of a pair of front-seven defenders on this list who are overcoming major injuries at a "veteran" age. Levy was one of the better-kept secrets in the NFL, as few eyes were on non-Ndamukong Suh defenders.
Levy is up there with the Luke Kuechlys, Thomas Davises and Brandon Marshalls of the NFL in terms of elite coverage linebackers, but if he doesn't return to his former self post-injury, the general football world may never know how talented Levy was.
7. Kyle Williams, DL, Buffalo Bills (33 Years Old)
2015 could be a speed bump in Kyle Williams' career or the beginning of a downward trend, but with only a six-game sample to go off, it's hard to make a definitive case either way. Williams has played both nose tackle and under tackle in the past, which isn't what you'd think a 6'1", 303-pounder can do.
Rex Ryan, the second-year head coach of the Buffalo Bills, used Williams to eat up offensive linemen last year rather than shooting him through gaps, which really limited Williams' best attribute: his first-step explosion. Because of that, Williams was only able to register seven pressures, according to Pro Football Focus, in six games before his meniscus became an issue and he was shut down for the season.
Ryan isn't using Williams correctly, as he can bull rush, has no issues with effort and somehow bends as a former nose tackle. It's possible that Williams' declined started in the camp leading up to their first season together, but the last time that Williams was seen as a non-two-gap player, whose responsibilities are almost run-only, he was a force in the passing game.
In 2013, Williams was a player who posted 10.5 sacks as a defensive tackle, a very rare mark to hit.
In Ryan's 3-4 defense, Williams was asked to two-gap often, which basically means squaring up on an offensive lineman and playing both sides of run responsibility off that lineman. That would suggest that Williams either had to be someone who could clog up two lanes, which at just over 300 pounds didn't make sense on paper, or that he'd be a tremendous stack-and-shed player, which at 6'1" doesn't make much sense on paper.
Still, he was able to get it done. It's possible that linemen leaned too far into him because of his lower pad level, but Williams has such as strong upper body that it's hard to imagine him losing a one-on-one battle at the point of attack even if pad levels were square.
In the ground game, you saw Williams using a violent push-pull move over and over to keep the Bills' run fits fundamentally sound.
In space, Williams looks like a nose tackle. His ability to chase down screens isn't why he's on this list, and there's really no other time where a large defensive lineman is designed to have a free chance to chase down a play anyway.
His get off is one of the more impressive things in the NFL, though. He's incredibly explosive, to the point where you start second-guessing if he's actually able to generate that much force that quickly at that size or if he's jumping the snap every single down.
2016 is going to be a make-or-break year for Williams and the Buffalo Bills. They lost Mario Williams as an edge defender, and star defensive tackle Marcell Dareus is going to start the season off with a suspension. This is all while Williams is overcoming injury.
All eyes will be on him and Jerry Hughes, a pass-rushing specialist, on the squad's front lines as Williams not only recovers from a season-ending injury but aspires to play his first full season in Ryan's complicated defensive scheme.
The four-time Pro Bowler could return to the game or find himself as a free agent after this year. There's just not a clean enough read from last season to make up or down of his situation, and the movement of players out of even the squad's 2015 lineup makes it even more difficult.
6. Michael Bennett, EDGE/DL, Seattle Seahawks (30 Years Old)
Michael Bennett is a hot comparison for an NFL trend. We've seen players stuck with labels over the years, as his teammate, Richard Sherman, became the face for long cornerbacks and his division rival, Deone Bucannon, became the face for hybrid linebacker-safety types.
Bennett is who every college prospect who projects to be a base 4-3 defensive end and nickel 4-3 defensive tackle is compared to and for good reason: Bennett is the best in the league at it. Posting an amazing 57 pressures, according to Pro Football Focus, the Seahawk "end" is now your prototypical outside-inside pass-rusher.
In his first four seasons in the NFL, the undrafted free agent had just six sacks in 12 starts. After he broke out with a nine-sack year with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2012, though, he hit free agency, returning to Seattle, who finally got its hands on a fully formed Bennett.
Since then, Bennett has started 35 games, with 25.5 sacks under his belt. He's violent and has a non-stop motor, which is how he is able to win without the traditional skills to "bend the edge."
There are a lot of pass-rushing specialists in the NFL right now, since edge positions are now pass-first, run-second. That means a lot of light-in-the-pants hybrid linebackers are stepping up to the line of scrimmage and losing at the point of attack.
Bennett isn't mistaken as a linebacker at 274 pounds and is used as a gap-shooter in nickel looks, while he sets the edge as a base end in the early downs. He's always going to fight for his spot on the line of scrimmage, which is much more than you can say about the majority of 4-3 defensive ends in the league.
Bennett has solid explosion off the line of scrimmage, but he often wins with his hand usage. No one looks at him as a player who was physically raw and just woke up one day and decided to be a football player. He's about average athletically at the most athletic position in the sport relative to size, but he's an absolute technician.
Bennett is loud. Bennett is violent. Bennett is on a winning team. Bennett is a star.
The NFL is changing, as players who can play nickel and base looks are no longer situational contributors, but mandatory three-down players. You'll see lesser versions of him this year, like Robert Ayers in Tampa Bay, the team which once let Bennett walk, but no one is better in his role right now that he is.
As far as outside-inside defenders are concerned, the only one who can come close to him is J.J. Watt, who mostly plays on the edge with the Houston Texans and very well might go down as the league's best defender of the decade, if not of all time.
5. Thomas Davis, LB, Carolina Panthers (33 Years Old)
Thomas Davis has an unreal story, overcoming a tremendous amount of adversity to become this list's top true off-ball linebacker at the age of 33. First, he was a safety coming out of Georgia in 2005, moving to a linebacker position he had never played at a competitive level until he entered the NFL.
Second, he's undergone three different ACL surgeries, and he hasn't lost much speed compared to what he looked like early in his career. Still, though, his influence on passing downs is limited to coverage, as Pro Football Focus only had him registered for 13 pressures all last season.
He can take on wide zones in the passing game, but underneath coverage is just flat out not as impactful as being able to get after the quarterback in today's NFL. He's a true coverage linebacker, which helps him on the relative scale of off-ball linebackers, but his influence on the passing game isn't that of those who are on the line of scrimmage, at least directly.
You'd be surprised that Davis' run reads aren't as quick as other linebackers, but the delay could be his veteran savvy that leads him to make sure to be certain where a ball is going before he makes a break on a runner. He can live with this because of his great closing speed, where his background as a safety is apparent.
He's hard to beat one-on-one, on the outside or in the open field, as he he takes short, choppy steps that negate a back's cutting ability. He's not the linebacker whose ankles you're going to break and have a highlight against.
You just can't be a top-notch coverage linebacker in the NFL without possessing great recovery speed, and that's Davis' calling card. The Carolina Panthers have a huge amount of success with their zone defense because of their defensive line's ability to clog the running game and their linebackers' ability to take over very wide zones, making the lives of their safeties easier, which then translates to making their cornerbacks cover less ground.
Without the likes of Davis and Luke Kuechly, there is no way that a cornerback like Josh Norman could have developed in Carolina. When Davis is on the field, he's a factor in both the air and ground games as a 4-3 outside linebacker, which very few players in the league can claim as truth.
Davis had plenty of injury struggles early in his career, but he has played in 62 of 64 possible regular-season games over the last four years, once again establishing himself as a staple of the Panthers defense.
4. Everson Griffen, EDGE, Minnesota Vikings (28 Years Old)
Edge defenders aren't discussed like quarterbacks, but there may not be another position closer to quarterbacks in that there's such a clear split on a year-to-year basis between who are and aren't former first-round picks. This matters, as the vast majority of Day 3 and even Day 2 picks have no staying power in the NFL.
Elvis Dumervil may be the position's version of Russell Wilson, as he's an undersized mid-round pick who became a Pro Bowl-caliber player, but Everson Griffen of the Minnesota Vikings can make the case that he's the best fourth-round pick the position has seen since Dumervil's selection in 2006.
Since Dumervil's selection, no former fourth-round pick has been able to reach double-digit sacks in a single season, other than Griffen, who has 12- and 10.5-sack totals in the last two years. Griffen's calling is his explosive burst and counter moves, as he has one of the better-developed spin moves in the NFL.
You have to wonder how much Dwight Freeney film he's watched, as not only is his spin move effective, but he also has a fake spin move, which has somehow landed, that is some next-level advanced placement pass rushing.
As a bigger rusher, listed at 273 pounds, he also is an end who can eat blockers on stunts, which is important in head coach Mike Zimmer's defense, which loves to disguise blitzes and is backed by the likes of speedy linebackers Anthony Barr, a college pass-rusher, and Eric Kendricks.
In a lot of ways, Griffen is built and plays like a high-end college 3-technique in the running game. In the ground game, he's more of an edge-setter and a gap-shooter, aiming for either tackles for losses or to bounce the ball back inside, rather than the type of defender who will chase down the back of a zone play.
Griffen's burst off the line of scrimmage is why he threatens offensive tackles outside, setting up his counter moves to cross their faces, but that's about the extent of Griffen's athleticism. That's more than fine, as long as you know how to play to your strengths, which the Vikings and Griffen both do.
If he gets too deep into the backfield, he doesn't have the open-field ability to make a move on the running back, which then results in him losing the ball-carrier. This could be one reason why he commits to setting the edge.
Rarely do we see Day 3 selections pan out to be quality pass-rushers. Rarely do we see late-bloomers get back-to-back double-digit sack seasons in this league.
Griffen took his time, but he's finally reached his potential in the NFL, earning his first Pro Bowl in 2015. In the last two years, only three players have had back-to-back double-digit sack seasons: Griffen, Von Miller and J.J. Watt. Miller signed a $114.5 million deal this offseason, while Watt signed a $100 million deal in 2014.
According to Spotrac, Griffen is currently in a five-way tie for the 65th-best average salary on the defensive side of the ball in the NFL, good for an eight-way tie for the 130th-best contract in the sport overall. If Griffen had this production at a younger age, we'd be talking about him like one of the best in the sport, but because he took so long to make an impact, he's on one of the better value deals in the league and is one of the better-kept secrets in football.
3. Cliff Avril, EDGE, Seattle Seahawks (30 Years Old)
If Cliff Avril were on 25 other teams in the NFL, he'd be a star defender. In Seattle, Avril plays second-fiddle to Richard Sherman, a loud cornerback, Earl Thomas, a generational talent at free safety, Kam Chancellor, a violent strong safety, and Michael Bennett, the loud defensive end who starts opposite of him.
You may think to yourself, why does Sherman get thrown at often enough to have him make an impact with pass breakups and interceptions? The answer is the Seahawks' ability to generate pressure with four pass-rushers, which is where Avril's impact comes in.
As a pure edge defender, Avril is the best on the team. While Bennett kicks inside to defensive tackle, Avril is always on the edge. In passing situations, you'll often see Seattle in a four-defensive end look, with defenders in the A-, B- and C-gaps opposite of Avril, who the staff trusts enough to man that side of the defensive line by himself.
As a run defender, Avril isn't the best in the world, but he's not a liability. He's not a large defensive end, and he lives off athleticism and surface-area limitation, so it makes sense why he doesn't rack up tackles for a loss like a Bennett or Frank Clark, his teammates who have closer skill sets to penetrating 3-technique defensive linemen than outside linebackers.
On outside runs, Avril can set the edge, which is how he's able to earn his keep in the ground game, but don't mistake him for a J.J. Watt.
Again, his ability at the point of attack isn't necessarily his strongest attribute, but he's good enough to see the field as a three-down player. You need to think of him as a "finesse" player, not a power player.
He can get off the ball pretty well, probably the second best on Seattle's line after Bruce Irvin's nickel reps, and he has solid closing speed on the backside of zone plays.
Avril was a top-100 pick who was let go too early by the Detroit Lions after he posted 29 sacks in his last three years with the team. In five of the last six seasons, Avril has made at least eight sacks, which would have made him the No. 1 pass-rusher on nearly half of the league's defenses in 2015.
It's insane that a player like Avril can get overlooked so often despite his consistent production, but he hasn't had "the year" to put him into the limelight, like Khalil Mack had last season when he posted 15 sacks.
Avril is already a top-15 sack artist based on the active career totals. The only players from the 2008 draft class or later who have out-sacked Avril are J.J. Watt and Clay Matthews, who are considered to be on a much different level than Avril, who has yet to make a Pro Bowl.
2. Geno Atkins, DL, Cincinnati Bengals (28 Years Old)
The top interior defensive lineman on this list is Geno Atkins, a two-time first-team All-Pro lineman from Cincinnati who you may know from your exploding backfield. Every NFL team made a mistake of passing up Atkins for three full rounds of the draft, and he proves that week in and week out.
Atkins was an All-SEC defender as a true sophomore at Georgia, but his height, which was just over 6'1", forced the "undersized" label on him, and he's been one of the best "Day 3" under tackles in NFL history since then.
In the passing game, he's a frantic missile. Last year, he was able to register 11 sacks as a true interior player. To put that into perspective, in 2012, he had 12.5 sacks, and since then, only three full-time interior linemen, Aaron Donald, Kawann Short and Jason Hatcher, have been able to match his 2015 output, but no one has crossed that 11-sack threshold.
As an interior lineman, he's susceptible to double-teams, which can neutralize him, and he's not going to kick outside anytime soon. For that reason, he's not a perfect pass-rusher, but for a 3-technique defender, there's nothing more you can ask for from Atkins.
Atkins' low center of gravity actually gives him an advantage in the running game, where offensive linemen have to attack him and try to get under his pad level. Because he's so explosive and small, they often have to lean in for contact, and the Bengal has two answers for unbalanced linemen: a push-pull move and a swim.
On top of just being able to shed a blocker, he can also reset the line of scrimmage a yard or two deep into the backfield on slow-developing handoffs. He's explosive and disciplined which is a hard combo to beat.
No defensive tackle has better spatial ability than Atkins. You don't ask interior linemen to move laterally much, but his closing speed is up there with the best at his position. He's talented enough that he can cheat and "backdoor" on outside zone plays.
His burst off the line of scrimmage is one of the best in the game, often leaving you wondering how in the world a 300-pound lineman can move like a 3-4 outside linebacker.
Ndamukong Suh and Gerald McCoy were the top two defensive tackles taken in the 2010 draft, coming off the board second and third overall behind Sam Bradford. It wasn't until the 120th overall pick that Atkins was finally assigned to a team.
Since then, Atkins has posted 43 sacks in 73 starts, while Suh has made 42 sacks in 94 starts and McCoy has made 35.5 sacks in 79 starts. In a loaded class at the position, Atkins has put himself head and shoulders above his peers, taking over games for the better part of a decade in Cincinnati.
If there was no Atkins, a player like Aaron Donald might have been a fourth-round pick instead of a first-round pick. Atkins brought the idea of a "short" one-gap under tackle into question, which has changed the game in recent years.
1. Clay Matthews, EDGE/LB, Green Bay Packers (30 Years Old)
The Green Bay Packers needed a premier pass-rusher when they transitioned to the 3-4 defense in 2009, and they lucked out with Clay Matthews, who they traded back up in the first round to select. In four of his first five seasons playing 12 or more games, he was able to notch double-digit sacks.
In 2015, the team asked him to move to off-the-ball linebacker, where he had spent some time at USC, as that was the position the team needed immediate impact the most. Still playing a hybrid role, Matthews led off-the-ball linebackers with 37 pressures, per Pro Football Focus.
He may be derailed from his path to the 100-sack club, but Matthews has been to the Pro Bowl in six of his seven NFL seasons for a reason: He is explosive and has the fluid hips to bend the edge.
As an off-the-ball linebacker last year, Matthews was a monster, earning a Pro Bowl nod at a position he was playing for the first time as a professional, late in his career nonetheless. Other than his legs, his best trait is his aggressive playing style.
If a lead block comes his way, he doesn't hesitate to meet the blocker halfway. Against stretch plays, he'll often beat offensive linemen to the block.
He's 255 pounds. Offensive linemen in the ground game will never fear his size. What they will fear, though, is an aggressive, more athletic linebacker outrunning outside runs to get the running back, either forcing the ball in or resulting in a tackle for a loss. Matthews is a lineman's nightmare, especially now that he's going against interior offensive linemen.
You might find an interior defensive lineman who gets a better jump off the snap than Matthews, but there isn't someone who can go from park to second gear faster in this group of players over 28 years old. With that being said, he also has a first step when on the line of scrimmage that 90 percent of the pass-rushers in the league wish they were able to mimic.
In the open field, there may not be a linebacker who can go toe-to-toe with him sideline-to-sideline. While the Packers have struggled against the inside-zone option recently, you'll often find that when quarterbacks do tuck the ball, they are beaten to the sideline by Matthews, who is trying to get a shot in before they step out, making his presence felt.
He's also a solid coverage linebacker, though he does rely on his athleticism. If his assignment is to watch a back coming out of the backfield, he'll meet him behind the line of scrimmage on swing routes rather than waiting, because his trusts his legs.
Matthews won the NFL Defensive Player of the Year Award as just a second-year player in 2010, and he hasn't really fallen off at all since then. The former college walk-on with an NFL pedigree went from an unknown reserve linebacker to the league's premier defender in a three-year span, which just goes to show how fast he was able to develop raw athleticism into nuanced defending.
The Packers defense has been built around Matthews twice, when he came in the league as a plug-and-play edge defender and in 2015 when they asked him to fix their deepest hole on the depth chart, which he filled with accolades. He's now transitioning back to an edge-defending role, but you have to expect that he will still see some off-the-ball looks, too, as he passed defensive coordinator Dom Capers' test with flying colors last season.