The NFL’s Top Defensive Lineman

In 1992, 12 players registered 14 or more sacks. These days, stud defensive linemen are a protected species. Surprisingly, most reside in the NFC. Let’s review the candidates for 2011’s best defensive lineman.

Editor’s Note: This is part four of my journey to determine the one player, at each position, I’d want over all the rest. Still to come: DB, WR, and QB. Apologies to the offensive line, special teamers, and fullbacks. It’s not that I don’t appreciate you, it just wouldn’t be much fun to write about you. Sorry.

Remember, contract, age, fantasy value, and whether or not I despise the player will not influence my decision, nor will statistics and popularity. There’s no mathematic formula. Only my humble opinion. I pick the one player I want most on my team, regardless of what anyone else believes.

A lot of popular defensive linemen were left off the list, so I expect backlash. Bring it. (Reminder: This list is exclusive to defensive lineman. DeMarcus Ware, LaMarr Woodley, Clay Matthews, etc… were included here.)

Here we go. In reverse order.

5. Justin Tuck
Justin Tuck doesn’t always produce flashy stats, but he’s incredibly disruptive and versatile. A three down player, Tuck can rush the passer, stop the run, and even drop in coverage from time to time. Additionally, his ability to move inside gives the New York pass rush an added boost on obvious passing downs. Back in December, when the New York defense frustrated the Eagle offense for 50 minutes, it was Tuck who disrupted Michael Vick’s flow. Tuck attacked at times, then sat back and spied at others. He even dropped back in coverage. It wasn’t until the Giants prematurely checked out that Vick and the Eagles finally got rolling. I’ll take a versatile defensive end over a one-trick-pony any day.

4. Julius Peppers
Peppers probably deserves to be higher. Unfortunately, I’ve had trust issues with Peppers since he mailed in the 2007 season and rivaled Mike Mamula for the laziest effort I’ve ever seen by a defensive end. Regardless, there’s no questioning Peppers’ ability. When he’s on top of his game, he’s arguably the best defensive end in football. That’s the problem, though. With great players, there is no “When” or “Ifs” regarding their level of play. What makes great players great is knowing you’ll always get their best. Granted, Peppers at 75% is still a great player, but it’s hard to accept that mentality. It’ll be interesting to see if Peppers slacks off at all in 2011, considering it’s his second year in Chicago and all. Still, one thing you know you’ll get with Peppers is attendance. Throughout 9 NFL seasons, Peppers has missed less than 10 games. In a league where injuries ruin Super Bowl dreams, that means a lot.

3. Naloti Ngata
How important is Naloti Ngata to the Baltimore defense? In a word, very. Essentially, if he stinks, they stink. Ngata has also been credited as a significant reason Ray Lewis is still an all-pro linebacker. (Ray Lewis is also really, really good, but Ngata’s presence undoubtedly extended Lewis’ career.)
Ngata is the prototypical space-eating monster in the middle of a 3-4 defense. He knows his role; occupy blockers, hold your ground, free linebackers to make plays, and does it better than anyone in the NFL. His athleticism also sets him apart. For a 6’4, 330 lb. man, Ngata moves like a running back. Better yet, I’d compare him to a Grizzly Bear – big and ferocious with uncanny agility and quickness. Attempts to escape Ngata usually conclude similarly to fleeing a Grizzly. Only, without the teeth and claw marks. Well, at least most of the time.

2. Jared Allen.
This is as hard for me as I’m sure it’s hard for most of you. I don’t necessarily dislike Jared Allen, but I’m certainly not a fan. Still, it’s shocking how consistently unstoppable he’s been throughout his career, even in 2010 when many thought he’d lost a step. Dating back to the 2007 season, Allen has registered 15.5, 14.5, 14.5, and 11 sacks. Of those 11 sacks in 2010, 10 came in the final nine games after he and the Vikings finally shook the NFC Championship game hangover.

Sacks don’t even do Allen justice. With the possible exception of DeMarcus Ware, Allen is the most disruptive force in the NFL. In addition to making life miserable for opposing offenses, he’s one of those players you want on your team – a rallying cry for a fan base. If he’s on your team, he’s the best defensive end in football. If not, well, he’s a bum. But I’ll gladly have that bum on my squad.

1. Ndamukong Suh
Too soon? Probably, but I can’t help it. Reggie White was/is/always will be my favorite player. Even when he jetted to Green Bay, it was hard not to like him. Watching a player attack the quarterback with such raw power was a thing of beauty. Suh plays a similar style. In a league where defensive linemen have shrunk and overpowering an offensive lineman is nearly obsolete, Suh’s play is refreshing.
Recently, Tony Dungy criticized Suh, saying he needed to change his style. So he likes to rough up quarterbacks. Big Deal. Isn’t that his job? We need more players like Suh. Quarterbacks are football players just like tight ends and linebackers. Suh simply reminds them of this fact.
It’s too early to forecast where Suh’s career will rate when’s it over. After all, we’ve seen standout rookies disappear many times before (hello, Mark Anderson). For now, Suh is the strongest force, on and off the field, to line up in a three-point stance since Reggie White last graced NFL turf.

Honorable Mention
John Abraham – Unquestionably one of the premier pass rushers in the league. Unfortunately, I can’t remember the last time he was healthy enough to have an impact in every game of the season.

Dwight Freeney – Speaking of healthy, Freeney’s health woes have been worse. Sure, he plays through a lot of injuries and still plays well, but those injuries keep him from performing at the top of his game. In my opinion, both Freeney and Abraham are more gifted pass rushers than Peppers. But Peppers is almost always healthy. You can’t contribute if you can’t play.

Trent Cole – ­My guess is that if I weren’t an Eagles fan, Cole would be higher on this list. He hasn’t missed a game due to injury in as long as I can remember, if ever. Despite being undersized, he’s relentless in attacking the quarterback. On the other hand, he often disappears toward the end of the season, probably as a result of fatigue due to that lack of size. While it’s hard to knock him, most Eagle fans will agree that you hear Trent Cole’s name called a lot more in October and November than in December and January.

Osi Umenyora – I chose Justin Tuck over Umenyora for two reasons. 1. Tuck is less of a prima donna. 2. I think Umenyora is a bit overrated. Yes, he’s a great defensive end, and, while I don’t always like stats, it’s hard to ignore a pattern throughout Umenyora’s career. Take a look.
Sacks by season:
2005: 14.5
2006: 6
2007: 13 (5 of those came at the expense of poor Winston Justice.)
2008: Injured
2009: 7
2010: 11.5
As you can see, Umenyora has been consistently inconsistent. History tells us 2011 will not be good to Osi Umenyora.

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