NFL Analysis: Rams' D-Line may disrupt NFC West
By Frank Cooney, The Sports Xchange
Even as the NFC West is hailed as the best division in the NFL with those bullying offenses in Seattle and San Francisco as well as the resurgent Arizona Cardinals, there is something that may upset that whole scene.
The St. Louis Rams defensive line.
Analysis of each unit on every NFL team by Sports Xchange reporters resulted in strong evidence that the Rams' 2014 defensive line may be the best in the business, slightly ahead of the stifling Carolina Panthers and the bad-boy Detroit Lions.
Also in the NFL's top tier of defensive lines are Rex Ryan's New York Jets and possibly the Denver Broncos in their effort to overcome that embarrassing Super Bowl performance.
In the highly-acclaimed NFC West, Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson, San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick and, for that matter, Arizona's Carson Palmer might need to stay light on their feet now that the Rams added diminutive but disruptive rookie defensive tackle Aaron Donald to the respected team of Quinn, Long, Brockers and Langford.
That may sound like a team of lawyers, but they are really a raucous group that is possibly the most menacing defensive line in the NFL -- Robert Quinn, perhaps the best young defensive end in the league (19 sacks last season), veteran Chris Long (8.5), Michael Brockers (5.5) and Kendall Langford (5.0).
Adding Donald with the 13th overall pick in the draft could give the Rams a chance to out-bully the best in the NFC West. Short but not small at 6 feet 3/4 inch, 285 pounds, Donald was the most dominant defensive college football player in 2013 after totaling 59 tackles, including 28.5 for a loss, and 11 sacks.
The Carolina Panthers not only led the league with 60 sacks last season, they also allowed opposing running offenses to 87 yards per game, give or take an inch, and a mere four touchdowns rushing, best in the league.
In Detroit, the terrible twin tackles (and we mean that in a good way) of Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley could reach their exceedingly high potential trying to prove themselves for a new head coach. And if defensive end Ezekiel Ansah stays healthy enough to benefit from the attention needed to handle all that beef in the middle, he could become a major factor.
This is the first of an eight-part series by The Sports Xchange as we take a closer look at each unit on every team. So, direct from watching the OTAs and minicamps, Sports Xchange reporters offer this closer look at each NFL team's defensive line for 2014:
ST. LOUIS RAMS
--DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- DLE Chris Long, DT Kendall Langford, DT Michael Brockers, DRE Robert Quinn. Backups -- E William Hayes, E Eugene Sims, T Aaron Donald, T Alex Carrington, T Matt Conrath, E Michael Sam, E Sammy Brown, T Ethan Westbrooks, T Deantre Harlan.
There is almost an embarrassment of riches here. Led by Quinn, who had 19 sacks last season, the rest of the line added 27 sacks. Long had 8 1/2 sacks and Hayes contributed five. Hayes and Sims sometimes play inside in passing situations, but that might not be as necessary after the additions of Carrington and Donald. Carrington, who played in Buffalo last season, was signed as an unrestricted free agent and Donald was selected with the 13th overall choice in the first round of the draft. Langford and Brockers man the inside on a unit that ended up ranked ninth in rush defense while allowing just 3.7 yards per attempt. Conrath, who has been on the team since signing as an undrafted free agent in 2012, might be hard-pressed to make the roster. Sam will try to win a job as a designated pass rusher. Westbrook received a $20,000 signing bonus as an undrafted free agent this year and had $30,000 of his base salary guaranteed. At 267 pounds, he looks more like an end, but the Rams believe he can add weight and contend inside.
--DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- DLE Darnell Dockett, NT Dan Williams, DRE Calais Campbell. Backups -- NT Alameda Ta'amu, E Frostee Rucker, E Kareem Martin, E/T Ed Stinson, NT Christian Tupou, NT Justin Renfrow.
The entire front played well in 2013. Campbell enjoyed another elite season. His run defense has improved and he's a menace in passing situations. Dockett had his best season in several years. He started slowly but blossomed in coordinator Todd Bowles' one-gap scheme. Williams was steady all year. Ta'amu, claimed off waivers from Pittsburgh, was so good that he took time away from Williams. Ta'amu is very powerful and a big reason the team ranked first against the run. Rucker is a solid backup and Talley hardly played, partly because of a wrist injury. Martin, a third-round pick, has pass-rush ability and could play in those situations. Stinson was a good run defender in college.
--DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- RDE Kroy Biermann, DT Tyson Jackson, DT Paul Soliai, LDE Jonathan Babineaux. Backups -- E Osi Umenyiora, E Ra'Shede Hagemen, E Jonathan Massaquoi, E Eguae Nosa, E Malliciah Goodman, E Stansly Maponga, T Peria Jerry, T Corey Peters, T Travian Robertson, T Cliff Matthews, T Donte Rumph.
Determined to find a pass rusher, the Falcons have picked four defensive ends over the past two drafts. They also added ex-Dolphin Soliai and ex-Chief Jackson to help anchor the unit as the team plans to be multiple and flow from 4-3 to 3-4 fronts. The Falcons were 31st against the rush (135.8 yards per game) last season. They did a lot of experimenting in the offseason as they retained 4-3 tackles Babineaux, Jerry and Peters in free agency. They drafted the mammoth Hageman in the second round to play end in the 3-4. They are hoping to find someone -- Biermann, Umenyiora, Massaquoi, Maponga or Goodman -- to get some heat on opposing quarterbacks.
--DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- DT Brandon Williams, NT Haloti Ngata, DE Chris Canty. Backups -- DE Brent Urban, DE DeAngelo Tyson, DE Kapron Lewis-Moore, DT A.J. Pataiali'i, DT Timmy Jernigan, DT Derrick Hopkins, DT Levi Brown, DT Jamie Meder.
The defensive line is in transition, with Arthur Jones leaving in free agency to join the Indianapolis Colts. Jernigan is competing with Williams, Tyson and Lewis-Moore to take over Jones' versatile role. The Ravens will need Ngata to be even more disruptive inside. Canty was far too quiet in his first season in Baltimore and could be pressed for playing time by Urban.
--DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- DE Mario Williams, DT Marcell Dareus, DT Kyle Williams, DE Jerry Hughes. Backups -- E Manny Lawson, T Alan Branch, E Jarius Wynn, T Corbin Bryant, T Stefan Charles, L Damien Jackson, DL Bryan Johnson, DL Colby Way, DL Ikponmwosa Igbinosun.
The Bills set a team record with 57 sacks in 2013, and Dareus, Hughes, Mario Williams and Kyle Williams combined for 41. They were helped by former defensive coordinator Mike Pettine's aggressive blitz packages, which opened some pass-rush lanes, and coordinator Jim Schwartz certainly won't back off. Dareus needs to get his act together off the field, and if he does, he can be great. Hughes must prove last year's 10-sack emergence wasn't a one-season blip. The switch to a base 4-3 affects Lawson and Branch, and it wouldn't be a surprise if Lawson is released because he's more of a hybrid LB/DL. Branch's versatility up front should create a place for him. Charles impressed the coaches late last season, and Wynn joined the team as a free agent and he could stick.
--DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LDE Greg Hardy, RDE Charles Johnson, DT Star Lotulelei, DT Colin Cole. Backups -- E Mario Addison, E Frank Alexander, E Kony Ealy, E Alex Hall, E Wes Horton, E Craig Roh, T Dwan Edwards, T Linden Gaydosh, T Drake Nevis, T Shaq Rowell, T Kawann Short, DT Casey Walker.
Johnson and Hardy take up more than 20 percent of the team's cap space, so this will likely be the last year they will be paired together. The Panthers believe the duo -- and the rest of the front seven -- helps give them a shot at another playoff run. Ealy and Addison will see snaps, and they could be the future at end. Lotulelei and Short had solid rookie years and should only get better. Alexander is suspended the first four games for violating the league's substance abuse policy.
--DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- DRE Jared Allen, DLE Lamarr Houston, DT Stephen Paea, DT Jeremiah Ratliff. Backups -- E Willie Young, E Cornelius Washington, E David Bass, E Austen Lane, E Jamil Merrell, E Tracy Robertson, E Trevor Scott, T Nate Collins, T Ego Ferguson, T Will Sutton, T Brandon Dunn, T Lee Pegues.
The addition of Houston on the left side immediately makes the defense more stout against the run, although it doesn't do a lot for the pass rush. However, the Bears are turning back to the well-proven belief that you must earn the right to rush the passer first by stopping the run. Last year, they earned nothing as run-stoppers and then finished last in sacks, as well. Young figures to come in as a situational pass rusher after some moments of brilliance in Detroit. The Bears think they will be energized on the line by Allen, whose greatest pass-rush strength is a high motor. The talk about being more stout on the edge by coaches is well and good, but the defense couldn't stop the run up the middle last year, either, and it's difficult to see how they've improved much with a 33-year-old Ratliff and often-injured Paea playing tackles. The rookie duo of Ferguson-Sutton is likely to get plenty of playing time. Collins also could make ths team, depending on his surgically repaired knee. Coaches could keep a 10-man defensive line, maybe 11. At worst, this is a much deeper group than last year and that was a major fault with an 8-8 team.
--DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- DLE Carlos Dunlap, DT Geno Atkins, NT Domata Peko, DRE Wallace Gilberry. Backups -- DLE Margus Hunt, T Brandon Thompson, T Devon Still, E Robert Geathers, E Will Clarke, E Dontay Moch, T Christo Bilukidi, T Zach Minter, E Sam Montgomery, T Larry Black, E David King.
Coach Marvin Lewis sees Atkins (torn ACL) on pace to play Week 1, but that healing process needs to play out over the next two months. Assuming he returns to his previous form, all will be well along the front. Dunlap plans to move between left and right with Gilberry doing the same. The development of Hunt will be the true test of how good this line can be. The Bengals selected him in the second round last year with the idea the project could be blossoming by the opener of 2014. Peko recently signed a contract extension, but the quality play of Thompson in place of Atkins last year means he'll be part of the interior rotation. Still badly needs to stay healthy and begin producing results.
--DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LDE Ahtyba Rubin, RDE Desmond Bryant, NT Phil Taylor. Backups -- T Calvin Barnett, E Armonty Bryant, E Cam Henderson, T John Hughes, NT Ishmaa'ily Kitchen, T Jacobbi McDaniel, E Billy Winn.
The Browns will use a 3-4 base defense, but also play 4-3 alignments, depending on what the opposition shows. Jabaal Sheard, a linebacker, will line up as a defensive end in some 4-3 formations. This is an important camp for Desmond Bryant, who underwent a heart procedure in the offseason. Defensive coordinator Jim O'Neil's scheme depends on a heavy pass rush. He usually rushes four, but could drop his inside linemen into coverage and blitz a cornerback. Armonty Bryant and Winn will be part of the rotation at end. Rubin is one of the most athletic players on defense. He weighs 330 pounds but can chase a running back like a linebacker. The Browns showed faith in Taylor by picking up his option for next year.
--DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LE George Selvie, NT Nick Hayden, UT Henry Melton, RE DeMarcus Lawrence. Backups -- T Terrell McClain, T Tyrone Crawford, T Ben Bass, T Ken Bishop, E Jeremy Mincey, E Anthony Spencer, E Ben Gardner, E Caesar Rayford, T Amobi Okoye, T Chris Whaley.
This position remains a sore point going into training camp. While the Cowboys pointed to the aging and injury depleted defensive line as the reason for fielding the worst defense in the league last season and while they moved on from veterans DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher and hitched their hopes on younger players, they remain an unproven lot up front. Free-agent signee Melton, 15 1/2 sacks in four seasons in Chicago, is now the anchor at the under tackle position, but he is coming off season-ending knee surgery. Rookie second-round pick Lawrence has been tabbed to replace Ware as the primary pass rusher from right end. But that will come in the years ahead rather than in 2014. The Cowboys hope to be better just because they are younger. They will use their linemen in a rotation in hopes of keeping them fresher and more productive. The Cowboys are betting on a big season from Melton and are hoping for a breakout season from Crawford. McClain has been impressive in minicamp and could push Hayden for the starting job at the nose. They are looking for Selvie to build on the career-high seven sacks he had a year ago.
--DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- DE DeMarcus Ware, DE Malik Jackson, DT Terrance Knighton, DT Sylvester Williams. Backups -- DE/DT Derek Wolfe, DT Kevin Vickerson, DE Quanterus Smith, DT Mitch Unrein, DT Marvin Austin, DT Sione Fua, DE Kenny Anunike, DE Greg Latta, DE Hall Davis.
Versatility is the watchword. Ware, the big-ticket pickup on the outside, helps the pass rush, but can stand up and drop into coverage in a pinch, and looked more mobile in OTAs than he did during an injury-plagued 2013 in Dallas.
Jackson and Wolfe can line up on the inside and outside, depending on the down and distance, although Jackson's emergence as a steady inside rusher likely has him a notch ahead of Wolfe, who admits now he never fully recovered from a preseason neck injury, and finished the 2013 season on injured reserve.
Vickerson returns from a dislocated hip, but will have to fight for playing time after Williams emerged as a solid complement to Knighton, who emerged as an effective, powerful inside presence late last year.
Unrein is the plugger on the inside. Smith provides an extra pass rusher to complement Ware and Von Miller. He was a fifth-round pick last year who sat out because of a torn ACL late in his senior season at Western Kentucky. The time off allowed him to fully recover, and he was one of the most explosive players on the field during OTAs. Ware helped teach him some upper-body and hand moves, and Smith now has a more diverse repertoire than he did in college.
--DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- Closed DE Jason Jones, DT Nick Fairley, DT Ndamukong Suh, Open DE Ezekiel Ansah. Backups -- E Devin Taylor, E Darryl Tapp, T C.J. Mosley, T Andre Fluellen, E Larry Webster, T Caraun Reid, E George Johnson, T Xavier Proctor, T Gregory Hickman, T Jimmy Saddler-McQueen, E Kalonji Kashama.
This should be another strength, and if Ansah stays healthy, he could develop into a top pass rusher alongside Suh and Fairley after an eight-sack rookie season. Fairley is motivated and down to 295 pounds after conditioning problems the past three years, so he and Suh could finally live up to their potential. The main concern is on the closed side because Jones struggled in three games before a knee injury last year and Tapp's production is on the decline. Taylor will be Ansah's backup, but could start on the other side if necessary.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
--DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LDE Datone Jones, RDE Mike Daniels, NT B.J. Raji. Backups -- T Letroy Guion, E Jerel Worthy, E Josh Boyd, E Khyri Thornton, E Luther Robinson, E Carlos Gray, T Mike Pennel.
The Packers are going decidedly young in the trenches. They haven't felt compelled to bring back 30-something veterans Ryan Pickett and Johnny Jolly, both free agents. Instead, the oldest players among the reshaped group are Raji and Guion, both 27. Raji, the former first-round draft pick who had an underwhelming 2013 season, is out to prove himself all over again after returning to the team as an unrestricted free agent on a one-year, $4 million contract. He is back to playing nose tackle exclusively, flanked by Jones and Daniels. The coaches are counting on Jones, who didn't meet expectations as the team's first-round draft pick last year, to take a similar jump in production as Daniels did in his second pro season with 7 1/2 sacks in 2013. Worthy, a second-round draft pick in 2012, must prove his worth as he comes off an inactive spring in the workouts. Also in line for playing time in the line rotation are rookie Thornton (third-round draft pick), second-year player Boyd and Guion, a seventh-year pro Green Bay lured in free agency after he played for the rival Minnesota Vikings.
--DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LDE J.J. Watt, NT Jerrell Powe, RDE Jared Crick. Backups -- LDE Keith Browner, LDE Tim Jackson, LDE Julius Warmsley, NT Louis Nix, NT Ricardo Mathews, NT Austin Brown, RDE Tim Jamison, RDE Jeoffrey Pagan.
Defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel plays a traditional 3-4 with a two-gap front. Watt is the league's best defensive lineman, but he's being wasted if they ask him to two-gap. Powe's a good backup. The Texans need Nix, the 6-foot-2, 330-pound third-round pick, to win the starting job. Crick is undersized for right end.
The Texans need depth across the front line. Pagan missed the offseason program because of shoulder surgery, and when he returns, they think he'll contribute at right end. Expect Crennel to move Watt around to take advantage of his athleticism. Unless the Texans can find a nose tackle who can tie up two blockers -- and that's why they drafted Nix -- the line's going to be in trouble.
--DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- DE Cory Redding, NT Josh Chapman, DT Ricky Jean Francois. Backups -- E Gannon Conway, E Tyler Hover, T Montori Hughes, E Arthur Jones, NT Zach Kerr, NT Brandon McKinney, E Nnamdi Obukwelu, T Jeris Pendleton.
Depth along the defensive line should be a little bit better this year. Chapman will be a full-time starter at nose tackle after sharing the duty last year. Jean Francois will be pushed by Jones, who signed with the Colts as a free agent after playing in Baltimore the last several seasons. Hughes and Pendleton are expected to pick up their games this year. McKinney missed the last two seasons recovering from a serious knee injury.
--DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- RDE Chris Clemons, DT Sen'Derrick Marks, DT Roy Miller, LDE Red Bryant. Backups -- RDE Andre Branch, RDE Chris Smith, RDE Ryan Davis, RDE Gerald Rivers, T Ziggy Hood, T Abry Jones, T Jordan Miller, T Ricky Havili-Heimuli, T DeAndre Coleman, LDE Tyson Alualu.
This might be the most improved unit on the team, when comparing what the Jaguars had in 2013 along the line. When the Jaguars elected to release Jason Babin as the offseason drills were concluding, it was an indication they feel good about the quality and quantity along the line. The signings of Clemons, Bryant and Hood, the draft selection of Smith and the improved play of Branch and Alualu has suddenly turned one of the weakest units on the roster into one of the best groups. The Jaguars have been among the league leaders for fewest sacks in each of the last two years, but have taken major strides into becoming one of the better units in defending the run and putting pressure on passing quarterbacks. The Jaguars' line has suddenly gone from pushover status to better-than-average status.
KANSAS CITY CHIEFS
--DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LDE Allen Bailey, NT Dontari Poe, RDE Mike DeVito. Backups -- E Vance Walker, E Mike Catapano, T Jaye Howard, T Kyle Love, T Jermelle Cudjo, E Kona Schwenke, T Dominique Hamilton.
Poe is an unusual nose tackle, as he never leaves the field. Last year, he played more than 1,000 defensive snaps and made progress as a pass rusher, finishing the season with 4 1/2 sacks. The problem for the Kansas City defense was the rest of the linemen produced only six sacks, four of those by the departed Tyson Jackson.
The defense gave up 120 yards per game on the ground, so they need more production against the run as well. Walker was signed as a free agent from the Raiders in hopes he can hold down left end against the run.
--DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- RDE Olivier Vernon, DT Randy Starks, DT Jared Odrick, LDE Cam Wake. Backups -- RDE Dion Jordan, LDE Derrick Shelby, RDE Terrence Fede, LDE Tevin Mims, T Earl Mitchell, T Micajah Reynolds, T Garrison Smith, T Kamal Johnson, T A.J. Francis, T Issako Aaitui.
This should be the group that leads the team. The tackles won't be as strong as last season without Paul Soliai (Atlanta), but the tackle trio is still strong among Starks, Odrick and Mitchell. And the defensive ends could develop into one of the strongest units in the AFC with Vernon (11 1/2 sacks) and Wake (8 1/2 sacks) leading the way and Jordan and Shelby as reserves.
The key is whether the Dolphins can stop the run. Miami was 24th in rushing defense last season at 124.9 yards allowed. They should be pretty good at pass rushing.
--DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LDE Brian Robison, NT Linval Joseph, UT Sharrif Floyd, RDE Everson Griffen. Backups -- LE Scott Crichton, NT Fred Evans, UT Tom Johnson, RE Corey Wootten, NT Chase Baker, E Rakim Cox, NT Kheeston Randall, E Spencer Nealy, T Shamar Stephen, E Justin Trattou.
The Vikings certainly got younger up front. But let's not assume they'll be better. Not when two of the three departing starters are named Jared Allen and Kevin Williams. Robison is the only returning starter. He's 31, but still in his prime and getting better. He actually played better than Allen did last season. Joseph is the first legitimate nose tackle the Vikings have had since Pat Williams in 2010. If Joseph recovers from offseason shoulder surgery, as the team says he will in time for training camp, then he's a major upgrade over Letroy Guion. Floyd begins as the starting under tackle, the spot Williams handled superbly for many years. Floyd did very little to get excited about as a rookie first-round pick a year ago. The pressure is on him to display the quickness that made the Vikings jump on him when he fell to No. 23 in the draft a year ago. If he can't cut it, look for the Vikings to turn to former Saint Johnson. The pressure also is on the 26-year-old Griffen, maybe more than any other Viking. He was handed a big contract while Allen was allowed to walk away without any negotiations. Griffen is a freakish athlete who has excelled as a multi-dimensional pass rusher. But can he produce the consistent sack totals that Allen did year after year? The most intriguing under-the-radar player is Stephen. The Vikings were thrilled to get a player with that kind of size (6 feet 5, 310) and quickness in the seventh round of this year's draft.
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS
--DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LDE Rob Ninkovich, DT Vince Wilfork, DT Tommy Kelly, RDE Chandler Jones. Backups -- E Will Smith, T Dominique Easley, T Armond Armstead, E Michael Buchanan, T Chris Jones, T Sealver Siliga, Zach Moore, T Joe Vellano, Marcus Forston, E Jake Bequette, Seali'i Epenesa, T L.T. Tuipulotu.
If not for injury concerns, the Patriots might have one of the deepest defensive lines, certainly deepest group of defensive tackles, in the league. But it's hard to overlook aging guys coming off major injuries. That begins with Wilfork, as the Pro Bowler tries to bounce back from a torn Achilles that cost him all but four games a year ago. He has been a full participant in spring practice and deems himself healthy, but it still bears watching for the 325-pound plus, 32-year-old centerpiece of the front. If Wilfork can return to form, and there were questions about his level of play before the injury early last year, it would solidify the middle of the front. Kelly is coming off a torn ACL that cost him the bulk of his first year in New England. The veteran showed promise as an interior pass rusher last summer and probably will be in more of a rotational role than he would have filled if healthy a year ago.
New England tapped Easley with its top pick, himself coming off a torn ACL that cost him the bulk of his final season at Florida. Many believe that without the injury Easley could have been a top-15 pick. He brings a penetrating, disruptive, athletic style when he's healthy, a unique skill that New England has lacked up front for years. Easley might not be ready to open the season, but at some point should at least add a rotational jolt to the front.
Armstead is maybe the biggest health wild card on the front. The former USC star has a history of heart problems that cost him his final season with the Trojans, kept him undrafted despite previous predictions of him being a first-round prospect and pushed him to play in Canada for a year. He signed as a free agent last spring in New England, but missed the entire season after surgery to deal with an unspecified infection. He has not practiced this spring and questions are beginning to surface as to whether he'll ever get a chance to play a single down for the Patriots.
With Wilfork, Kelly and Armstead sidelined last fall, the Patriots had to scramble to fill the void in the middle of the line. Chris Jones stepped up as a waiver-wire pickup and showed the ability to get after the passer a little bit from the inside with his six sacks to go along with 56 tackles.
Vellano was a capable contributor at times as an undrafted player, while Siliga came on late in the year after a practice-squad call-up to help solidify a run defense that struggled mightily after Wilfork initially went down. It's unlikely all three will be on the roster again, so they could be competing for the youthful depth at the position.
Forston has been a practice-squad player in the past, but has limited value and could be at the end of the line. Epenesa and Tuipulotu are undrafted depth players whose best shot might be for the practice squad after they serve their purpose in training camp and preseason action.
The depth chart at end isn't nearly as stocked as tackle, but is a much healthier group. Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich both started 16 games last fall and played nearly all the snaps for the unit. Jones' second season saw him lead the team with 11 1/2 sacks, although he wasn't quite as consistently disruptive off the edge overall as might be preferred out of the former first-round pick. Ninkovich notched eight sacks for the second straight season, serving as a productive if not flashy force on left end. He also tied for the team lead with two forced fumbles and led the squad with two fumble recoveries.
Ideally, the end spot will see a bit more rotation this fall. That could be led by the veteran free-agent addition Smith. He missed all of last season because of a torn ACL in New Orleans, but has practiced this spring. Before that, the 11th-year veteran had played all 16 games in six of the previous nine seasons and never missed more than two games in any campaign. He has 67 1/2 career sacks, including a career-high 13 in 2009, and certainly could be an upgrade over the little that Andre Carter brought to the depth chart a year ago.
Bequette is a former third-round pick who has been basically a healthy scratch for two seasons and probably will come to the end of the line this summer. Buchanan was a nice contributor as a late-round pick a year ago and there is hope he'll improve enough to expand that role in his second year. He could be challenged, though, by the Division II sixth-round pick Moore. He's a raw player with nice measurables, but will have a lot to prove in training camp.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LDE Akiem Hicks, NT Brodrick Bunkley, RDE Cameron Jordan. Backups -- NT John Jenkins, E Glenn Foster, E Tyrunn Walker, T Brandon Deaderick, E Rufus Johnson, E George Uko, NT Moses McCray, E Lawrence Virgil.
Jordan, a four-year veteran, had a breakout season and made the Pro Bowl for the first time with 12 1/2 sacks and is the anchor of the line. Hicks, a mammoth player at 6 feet 5 and 324 pounds, could be ready for a breakout season as well after recording 4 1/2 sacks despite some back issues. Bunkley and Jenkins helped plug up the middle for a run defense that improved dramatically over the previous season. Foster, an undrafted free agent, had three sacks and was part of the rotation with Walker even though both were limited by injuries. Deaderick, a five-year veteran, was picked up to provide depth inside, while Johnson, who played defensive end in college but was tried as an outside linebacker in his rookie season in 2013, will get a look at his old spot.
NEW YORK GIANTS
--DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LDE Robert Ayers, LDT Johnathan Hankins, RDT Cullen Jenkins, RDE Jason Pierre-Paul. Backups -- E Mathias Kiwanuka, E Damontre Moore, T Markus Kuhn, T Jay Bromley, T Everett Dawkins, E Jordan Stanton, E Kerry Wynn, T Mike Patterson, T Kelcy Quarles.
The team is counting on Pierre-Paul bouncing back to his 2011 form when he logged 16 1/2 sacks and was a handful for opponents to cover. Hankins, who flashed as a rookie, will move into the starting lineup at defensive tackle to replace Linval Joseph, who signed with the Vikings as a free agent. Ayers is projected to be the starter at the other defensive end position, replacing Justin Tuck, who left via free agency for the Raiders; however, the team is hoping that Moore, the second-year ball of energy, shows significant improvement playing against the run. For the time being, Moore might handle the passing downs and Ayers might be the run-stopping specialist. Kiwanuka has been seeing snaps as a stand-up pass rusher, a move that draws upon his experience as an outside linebacker. Kuhn figures to be a big part of that defensive interior rotation, as the coaches have liked what they have seen from him. Meanwhile, third-round pick Bromley seems raw and undersized; he could be headed for limited playing time this year while he works to increase his strength and technique.
NEW YORK JETS
--DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- DE Muhammad Wilkerson, DE Sheldon Richardson, NT Damon Harrison. Backups -- T Kenrick Ellis, Leger Douzable, T Tevita Finau, NT T.J. Barnes, E Anthony Grady, Kerry Hyder, Zach Thompson.
Wilkerson, Richardson and Harrison did something last season that no Jets defensive group has achieved in more than 30 years: They got their own nickname. "The Sons of Anarchy" earned the moniker by spearheading a dominant rush defense that spent most of the season on pace to allow fewer yards per carry than any team in the 21st century. Wilkerson and Richardson are do-everything beasts. Richardson even scored two touchdowns as a goal-line back.
Harrison is less spectacular than Wilkerson and Richardson, but no less effective. A serious injury to any of the "Sons" trio would deal a serious blow to the Jets' playoff hopes, but Ellis, whose injury-prone ways opened the door for Harrison last season, and Douzable are better-than-average backups.
--DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- DRE Justin Tuck, NT Pat Sims, DT Antonio Smith, DLE LaMarr Woodley. Backups -- E Shelby Harris, E Denico Autry, E Jack Crawford, E Ryan Robinson, T Justin Ellis, T Stacy McGee, T Ricky Lumpkin, T Torell Troup.
Other than Sims, brought back as a nose tackle, it was pretty much a complete overhaul starting with Tuck, out to prove he can achieve the kind of success in Oakland he had as a two-time champion in New York. Smith missed the offseason because of an unspecified weight-room injury, but brings life and a solid pedigree. Woodley, an outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense with the Steelers, is reinventing himself as an end with his hand on the ground.
There is ample strength in the middle rotation with McGee, an impressive rookie last season, and Ellis, a 335-pound draftee who both figure to play. Harris is out to prove himself after being dismissed from his college team as a senior. The Raiders have never figured out how to best use Crawford, who has been an occasional tackle and end. Robinson was a surprise making the 53-man roster last season but seldom saw the field.
--DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LDE Cedric Thornton, NT Bennie Logan, RDE Fletcher Cox. Backups -- Vinny Curry, Taylor Hart, Alejandro Villanueva, Damion Square, Joe Kruger, Beau Allen, Wade Keliikipi, Brandon Bair, Frances Mays.
Cox is a natural 3-technique tackle and struggled a bit early on last year to make the transition to a 4-technique end in Bill Davis' two-gap 3-4. But he eventually got the hang of it and did a good job against the run and had a team-high 21 hurries to go with three sacks. Logan isn't your typical space-eating 3-4 nose tackle. He brings athleticism to the position and can play inside or outside. The Eagles added a space-eating nose tackle in the draft in seventh-rounder Allen. Curry, who was drafted as a 4-3 end, carved out a niche for himself as an inside nickel pass-rusher. He was third on the team in sacks. The 6-foot-9, 280-pound Villanueva, who served three deployments in Afghanistan and hasn't played football in five years, is an intriguing roster candidate.
--DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LDE Cameron Heyward, RDE Cameron Thomas, NT Steve McLendon. Backups -- E Stephon Tuitt, E Brian Arnfelt, E Nick Williams, NT Hebron Fangupo, NT Daniel McCullers.
This is a big area of concern for the coaches. Heyward is the best player of the bunch, but he did not break into the starting lineup until the fifth game of last season. Thomas, a free-agent acquisition who played last season in San Diego, lined up with the starters during OTAs and minicamp, but he'll be pushed by Tuitt, a second-round selection from Notre Dame. Tuitt had a difficult time this spring picking up the nuances of coordinator Dick LeBeau's defense.
McLendon, who did not hold up well to double teams last season, added 17 pounds during the offseason. McLendon, who replaced longtime nose tackle Casey Hampton, has been labeled a scapegoat for declining run defense statistics. Arnfelt, an undrafted free agent in 2013, was elevated to the active roster late last season and could stick this season.
SAN DIEGO CHARGERS
--DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LDE Kendall Reyes, DT Sean Lissemore, RDE Corey Liuget. Backups -- E Lawrence Guy, T Ryan Carrethers, T Kwame Geathers, E Damik Scafe, E Ricky Tjong-A-Tjoe, T Tenny Palepoi, T Chas Alecxih, E Cordarro Law.
Reyes and Liuget are the bookends of the present and future, and their games continue to grow. Liuget led the line in every category and Reyes, with five sacks, is no slouch either.
The Chargers are looking for more beef in the middle, with a heavier Lissemore reporting to camp and the rookie Carrethers, a space-eater from Arkansas State. Guy and Scafe are serviceable backups.
SAN FRANCISCO *****
--DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- RDT Justin Smith, NT Glenn Dorsey, LDT Ray McDonald. Backups -- NT Ian Williams, LDT Tony Jerod-Eddie, RDT Demarcus Dobbs, T Tank Carradine, NT Quinton Dial, NT Mike Purcell, DT Kaleb Ramsey, Lawrence Okoye.
As Smith and McDonald continue to age, the ***** will rotate along the defensive front more and more. They will have a healthy Carradine in camp after he missed all of last year recovering from an ACL tear suffered at Florida State. The former second-round pick was projected to be a first-round talent before the injury. Jerod-Eddie and Dobbs played well in their reserve roles last season. Dial played sparingly as a rookie but could become a valuable and versatile piece going forward. Former Olympian discus thrower Lawrence Okoye is back continuing to learn the game, but still has a long way to go before becoming a viable player worthy of a roster spot.
--DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LDE Michael Bennett, LDT Tony McDaniel, RDT/NT Brandon Mebane, RDE Cliff Avril. Backups -- LDT Jordan Hill, LDE Cassius Marsh, T Kevin Williams, T Michael Brooks, T Jimmy Staten, NT Dewayne Cherrington, T D'Anthony Smith, T Jesse Williams, E Greg Scruggs, DE Benson Mayowa.
Like most teams, the Seahawks value versatility, and most players will be asked to play multiple positions. While Seattle lost three valued players in salary-cap moves after the season -- DEs Red Bryant and Chris Clemons and DT Clinton McDonald --- Seattle returns a solid starting four in Bennett, McDaniel, Mebane and Avril. Bennett will be asked to play more in early-down run situations this year. McDaniel could move outside some to take up some of the slack created by the loss of Bryant. Mebane is back in the middle after having his best season in 2013. And Avril is likely to play more snaps this season as he takes over as the starter for Clemons at the team's rush end, or LEO, position. The big question entering the offseason was the loss of some of the experienced depth of last season. But the Seahawks took a big step toward replacing some of that with the signing of Williams, a 12-year vet. He will compete for time at both tackle spots. Hill and Williams are each 2013 draftees who missed much or all of last season due to injuries but are healthy now and expected to contribute on the interior. Scruggs, who missed last year with a knee injury, is expected to vie for time at both end and tackle. Mayowa, a rush end, has added roughly 15 pounds and could become a situational pass rusher at the least. Also worth mentioning is that the team has plans to use strong-side linebacker Bruce Irvin more in pass-rush situations this season, though it's unclear when he will be available after having recent hip surgery. He was the team's first pick in 2012 as a defensive end but played primarily linebacker last season. Marsh, one of the team's fourth-round picks, could also have a big role as essentially Bennett's backup. He was a 250-pound end last year at UCLA but is said to be up to 270 or so now and able to play some inside.
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS
--DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LDT Adrian Clayborn, NT Clinton McDonald, UT Gerald McCoy, RDE Michael Johnson.
McCoy, the two-time All-Pro, is the engine that makes the Bucs' defensive line go. He had 9 1/2 sacks last season and is arguably the best defensive tackle in the NFL. In head coach Lovie Smith's Tampa 2, he finally gets to play the 3-technique the way he had hoped to. McCoy is on his fifth defensive line coach in as many years. He will be helped by an increase in talent around him. Johnson had 12 1/2 sacks two years ago for the Bengals and is a long and a natural pass rusher the likes of which the Bucs have not seen since Simeon Rice. McDonald had 5 1/2 sacks as part of that vaunted Seattle rotation of defensive linemen that resulted in a Super Bowl win for the Seahawks. Clayborn moves from the right to the left side and coaches believe he will thrive in Smith's system where he will have his hand back in the dirt.
--DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- DLE Ropati Pitoitua, NT Sammie Hill, DRE Jurrell Casey. Backups -- E Karl Klug, NT Antonio Johnson, NT/DE DaQuan Jones, NT Al Woods, E Mike Martin, E Lavar Edwards.
As the makeover to a 3-4 begins, the Titans have done a lot of shuffling in the front seven. Three-fourths of last year's 4-3 line appears to be on track to start initially, with Casey (10 1/2 sacks a year ago) being the most intriguing of that bunch.
The Titans are high on fourth-round pick Jones, who can play in the middle or on the end in the 3-4. Johnson and free-agent pickup Woods will also compete with Hill for the nose spot. Players like Klug, Martin and Edwards will be adjusting to new roles. There is the chance that a usable part or two from last year's 4-3 might not fit at all in the new scheme.
--DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- DLE Jason Hatcher, NT Barry Cofield, DRE Chris Baker. Backups -- DE Jarvis Jenkins, DE Stephen Bowen, DE Kedric Golston, NT Chris Neild, NT Clifton Geathers, DE Frank Kearse, DE Doug Worthington, NT Robert Thomas.
During minicamp, Hatcher, who had a career-high 11 sacks for Dallas at 31 during his contract year of 2013, was sidelined before having his left knee scoped. Cofield, 30, was also out of action because he had hernia surgery earlier in the spring. And Bowen, who's also 30 and was Washington's right end the past three seasons, continued his recovery from major surgery on his right knee last December. That's not exactly great news for a unit whose performance has eroded since a strong 2011 season. Jenkins, a second-rounder in 2011 who missed his rookie year with a torn ACL, didn't do much during his first two years as a starter and will begin camp behind one-time undrafted rookie nose tackle Baker, who worked hard to be ready to step in when Bowen went down last November. Golston, a sixth-rounder in 2006 who's now easily the defense's longest-tenured player, lost significant weight this offseason in hopes of maintaining his roster spot. Like Baker and Golston, 2011 seventh-rounder Neild is an overachiever. He missed 2012 with a torn ACL and didn't play much in 2013. The massive 6-8, 325-pound Geathers got into 31 games, starting none for four teams during the past four years. Kearse played in 16 games, starting eight for Carolina and Dallas the past three seasons. Worthington has never done much despite his great body. Undrafted rookie Thomas is a true long shot.
Re: NFL Analysis: Rams' D-Line may disrupt NFC West