The 2016 positional rankings moves forward by looking at defensive line. There are some very talented defensive lines in these two divisions
First: Carolina Panthers
Carolina has a very strong defensive line in both pass rush and run defense. Carolina only allowed 3.9 YPC and added 44 sacks with consistent hits and hurries. The Panthers have great LBs to aid in both aspects on defense.
Kawann Short (+44.9) and Star Lotulelei (-4.0) were very high picks in 2013 and very good players for the Panthers at defensive tackle. Short is the pass rusher and Lotulelei clogs the lanes. Carolina may have the best starting DT tandem in the league.
Paul Soliai was added for a big bodied run defender after success with Miami but issues with Atlanta. The Panthers took Vernon Butler in Round 1 of the 2016 draft to give them a slam dunk for depth at defensive tackle due to the expiring contracts of their starting DTs in 2017. Kyle Love is average with experience (331 snaps in 2015).
At defensive end, Carolina has strong starters with Charles Johnson (+7.6) and Kony Ealy (+2.7 pass rush). Johnson had success for years rushing the passer from the right end spot despite an injury in 2015. Kony Ealy came on strong during the 2015 season and the former 2nd round pick is becoming a good end in pass rush. Ealy needs to work on his run defense.
Mario Addison is solid depth (+4.8). Ryan Deliare and Wes Horton have some experience but struggled in 2015 as the 4th/5th end.
Larry Webster is a former Lions 4th round pick that is very raw that was picked up by the Panthers during the 2015 season. Webster has great speed but needs to work on his technique.
Carolina has a strong starting front four and some good depth with experience plus a new first round pick in the rotation at defensive tackle.
Second: Minnesota Vikings
Minnesota Vikings are very strong along the defensive line. Everson Griffen has emerged into a really good DE since signing a big deal with the Vikings prior to 2014. Griffen had 10.5 sacks, 16 hits and 44 hurries.
Brian Robison has had some down years (2013-2014) but rebounded with a strong 2015. Robison had 5 sacks, 5 hits and 48 hurries. Danielle Hunter did well as a rookie 3rd round pick in 2015 in both run defense and pass rush. Minnesota had 43 sacks and notched good consistent pressure. However they struggled in run defense allowing 4.3 YPC.
Minnesota has three strong defensive tackles Shariff Floyd had a great rookie season but regressed some in 2015 due to injury. Floyd can be a top 5 DT in the league and has a lot of talent.
Linval Joseph is the 1 tech lane clogger. Joseph had a good 2015 season in pass rush too and proved to be more than a good run defender.
Tom Johnson is a good pass rushing DT specialist but struggles in run defense. Shamar Stephen had an injury plagued 2015 season but can be an adequate 4th DT. Scott Chricton, BJ Dubose and Justin Trattou are below average 4th defensive ends.
Third: Detroit Lions
The Lions have a stud in DE Ziggy Ansah. Ansah had 14.5 sacks, 20 hits and 33 hurries with good run defense. He has been a great player as a top 5 pick in 2013.
Devin Taylor took a step forward in 2015 with 7 sacks, 4 hits and 23 hurries. Taylor was average in run defense and played more snaps than “starter’ Jason Jones in 2015. Jones took his run defense talents to South Beach and could be missed by Detroit.
Wallace Gilberry has been a good backup from the Bengals with a lot of experience. Gilberry will be the Lions 3rd DE. The Lions 4th DE will be Anthony Zettel. Zettel is a 6th round pick from Penn State. He is a DT/DE tweener but was highly productive and has a great motor. Brandon Copeland alternates from OLB to DE and plays special teams.
The Lions are stacked again at defensive tackle. Haloti Ngata is still a monster DT with pass rush ability and clogs up the lanes in run defense. Tyrunn Walker was re-signed after an injury in Week 4 derailed his 2015 season with Detroit. Walker had good grades in 2014 with the Saints and was showing promise with Detroit at the 3 tech spot.
For depth, A’Shawn Robinson was drafted in Round 2 and will provide a big run stuffer that can offer some pass rush. Carraun Reid played a lot in 2015 as a 5th round pick in 2014. Reid had a solid season and fits as a 3 tech with pass rush quickness.
Stefan Charles was added in the offseason and provides solid depth from Buffalo. Gabe Wright is a 2015 4th round pick that has fallen to 6th on the depth chart. Wright showed some promise but was inactive most of the second half of last season. Detroit is strong at defensive tackle and has a game changer at DE plus a solid starting left end.
The Lions allowed 4.2 YPC and had 42 sacks despite major injuries last year at DT and LB. Detroit had 10 really good games and 6 really bad games in run defense. They have the firepower to get back to 2014 form in run defense. Detroit has a strong consistent pass rush that could be better in 2016 with more health at DT.
Fourth: Green Bay Packers
The Packers run a 3-4 and use their defensive linemen a little differently than most teams. Mike Daniels is a stud 3-4 DE in both the run and pass rush. Datone Jones was a first round pick that is asked to stand up more in the Packers defense. Jones provides a pass rush but isn’t used as much in run defense after down years in 2013 and 2014 in run defense.
Kenny Clark was drafted in Round 1 to replace BJ Raji (retirement). Clark is a large man to clog the holes but with some pass rush skills. Letroy Guion is solid depth but not really starting quality nose tackle. Mike Pennel is average depth but will be suspended the first four games. Dean Lowry was added in Round 4 of the 2016 draft to replace Josh Boyd.
The Packers have plenty of talent bodies and a stud defender in Daniels. However, Clark and Lowry are unproven and Jones could do more than pass rush as a first round pick. Green Bay uses only two defensive linemen often which made it easier on the depth. Green Bay allowed a poor 4.5 YPC but did bring good pressure in 2015.
The Packers pass rush coupled with their OLBs and Mike Daniels provides a pretty good consistent pass rush. They could get use more from Jones, Clark and their defensive line depth however.
Fifth: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Gerald McCoy is a top 5 DT despite a down year in run defense in 2015. He is a stud 3 tech and a leader on the Buccaneers defense. Akeem Spence and Clinton McDonald are average at best DTs but they have experience. Tampa Bay was second in the league allowing only 3.4 YPC in 2015 in run defense.
Robert Ayers was added in the offseason after a big 2015 season with the Giants in pass rush. Noah Spence was drafted in Round 2 and will be a DE/OLB hybrid. William Gholston had a solid 2015 season and was strong in run defense but poor in pass rush.
George Johnson and Jacques Smith both had very poor 2015 seasons with Tampa Bay. Johnson had a nice 2014 season with Detroit but Tampa Bay lost out with a trade after Johnson’s regression. Howard Jones struggled in 400 snaps with the Buccaneers in 2015.
The Buccaneers have some good pieces but need much more pass rush which is why they added Ayers and drafted Spence.
Tied Sixth: New Orleans Saints
The Saints have a very good DE in Cameron Jordan (+46.3). John Jenkins is a big clogging nose tackle (+6.4 run defense). Sheldon Rankins was drafted in Round 1 to be a 3 tech. Rankins offers a quick first step and high motor but is unproven as a rookie.
Nick Fairley is a former 1st round pick that had success in Detroit and St. Louis. Fairley will be motivated on another one year deal and offers good pass rush and solid run defense. Bobby Richardson is a veteran with experience but is a poor starting defensive end (-15.9).
The Saints allowed a league worst 4.9 YPC but added Rankins and Fairley and some new linebackers. We will see if they can be at least average in run defense for 2016.
David Onyemata was drafted out of Manitoba in Round 4 of the draft to provide DT depth and Fairley or Rankins will be the 3rd DT.
Obum Gwacham played 98 snaps but is poor depth at DE and outside LB Kihaha will rush from the OLB spot for the Saints. Rankins could play some DE in this scheme. Tyeler Davison played a lot of snaps but struggled at DT.
The Saints still have defensive line issues but definitely improved the defensive line this offseason. The Saints still lack one good defensive end and depth.
Tied Sixth: Chicago Bears
Chicago has a good nose tackle in Eddie Goldman (+8.1). He had a nice rookie season as a 2nd round pick from 2015. Akiem Hicks is a veteran free agent addition that did well in New England and New Orleans. Hicks will play 3-4 DE on a free agent contract. Jonathan Bullard was added in the 3rd round of the 2016 draft from Florida to be a 3-4 DE.
Chicago allowed 4.5 YPC in a poor run defense year. The pass rush is produced from the OLBs though but the Bears hope Goldman, Hicks and Bullard can provide more pass rush than they received in 2015 from the defensive line.
Chicago has a solid starting defensive lineman in defensive coordinator Vic Fangio’s, 3-4 defensive system. However the Bears lack some depth. Ego Ferguson, Mitch Unrein, Will Sutton, Bruce Gaston and Cornelius Washington is average at best depth on the defensive line. Unrein is the best of the bunch but is an average depth player.
Eighth: Atlanta Falcons
Vic Beasley is a 1st round pick from 2015 with some talent. Beasley had a disappointing rookie year but got better as the year developed. Beasley had 4 sacks, 5 hits and 33 hurries. Adrian Clayborn is an average left end and did have 3 sacks, 15 hits and 26 hurries in a rare solid pass rush season for Clayborn.
Jonathan Babineaux is a veteran three tech that is solid in run defense. RaShede Hageman is a DE/DT tweener that was average in 424 snaps in 2015. Grady Jarrett is a good run stuffing DT that offers no pass rush. Tyson Jackson struggled in 2015 and continues to disappoint as a big free agency signing for the Falcons. The Falcons have some DT issues.
Atlanta has some talent with Beasley but the rest of the Falcons pass rush is lacking despite a solid 2015 from Clayborn. Atlanta allowed an average 4.0 yards per carry in 2015 but should get some help with their 1st and 2nd round picks in run defense (Keanu Neal and Deion Jones).
There are some very strong defensive lines that bring a good consistent pass rush and stout run defense. The two 3-4 teams (Packers and Bears) have good OLBs to bring their pass rush but will be aided by the defensive line.
It will be determined if Atlanta, New Orleans, Chicago and Tampa Bay can improve their pass rush in 2016. The Panthers, Buccaneers, Lions, Vikings, Packers and Bears have the pieces for strong run defense. Carolina is good in pass rush and run defense and Tampa Bay can stop the run already. Atlanta is average in run defense but added a SS and WLB to improve. Defensive line play is the key to defense. There is plenty of talent in both divisions.