1. Baltimore Ravens
The Ravens' front four is impressive with Trevor Pryce and Terrell Suggs anchoring the end position and consistently pressuring the quarterback. Pryce is on the downside of his career, but he had one of his best seasons in 2006 with 13 sacks. Declining skills and backs problems are a concern for Pryce in the future. Suggs has averaged 10 sacks per season over his career and has 16 pass deflections in four seasons. The defensive tackle position is anchored by seven-year veteran Kelly Gregg and second-year player Haloti Ngata. Gregg is a short, powerful player with an impressive motor and Ngata is a huge body that anchors the middle with strength and short-area effectiveness. Backup Kenny King adds solid depth to the defensive line. The Ravens' defensive linemen have had the benefit of outstanding personnel around them, but their talent and effectiveness should not be underestimated.
2. Chicago Bears
Defensive tackles Tommie Harris and Tank Johnson were tough for opponents' offensive lines to contend with last season. The loss of Johnson (released due to off-the-field problems) and Harris coming off surgery knocks the Bears out of the top spot, but they still will be very impressive. Chicago will be a force along the defensive front with ends Alex Brown and Adewale Ogunleye consistently putting pressure on the quarterback. Head coach Lovie Smith and the Bears' front office have added excellent depth with 2006 draft choice Mark Anderson and 2007 second-rounder Dan Bazuin. Both are somewhat undersized, but Anderson had 12 sacks as a rookie. Bazuin is untested but has great talent to pressure the quarterback off the edge.
3. New England Patriots
Defensive ends Ty Warren and Richard Seymour are excellent run-stoppers and can collapse the pocket when rushing the quarterback. Warren had his best season as a pro, registering 7½ sacks and four pass deflections. Seymour didn't have impressive numbers, but he draws many double teams and continues to be a major force on the defensive line. Backup Jarvis Green, who could start for many NFL teams, gave the Patriots valuable production with 7½ sacks and solid play versus the run. The 3-4 defense is predicated on the nose tackle being a consistent run-stopper and drawing doubles often. Vince Wilfork is a huge, powerful player in the middle who fits well in Bill Belichick's defensive philosophy. His short-area quickness and strength in the middle enables Wilfork to push the pocket as pass-rusher and hold the point versus the run. The Patriots' defense generated 44 sacks and 34 turnovers with a banged-up secondary and linebacking corps, which can directly be traced back to an excellent defensive front.
4. Jacksonville Jaguars
The Jaguars field two of the most imposing defensive tackles in the league with Marcus Stroud (6-foot-6, 320 pounds) and John Henderson (6-7, 330) anchoring the middle. Both former first-round draft choices have been stout versus the run and pressure the quarterback well. Stroud and Henderson draw many double teams, which free up linebackers to make plays. The Jaguars have three effective players at defensive end. Veterans Paul Spicer and Reggie Hayward have great size and strength to hold the point versus the run. Spicer is an average pass-rusher, but Hayward averaged nine-plus sacks from 2003-05 (he was injured in 2006). Third-year player Bobby McCray has great length, but he lacks the bulk to be a solid run-stopper. He's averaged 6½ sacks in his career.
5. San Diego Chargers
San Diego employs a 3-4 scheme that stymies offenses with a variety pressure packages. Nine-year veteran Jamal Williams (6-2, 350) anchors the middle and is effective stuffing the run. Williams has never been an active pass-rusher, but he can disrupt the pocket with an effective push up the middle. Third-year player Luis Castillo had seven sacks in 10 games last year. Look for him to have a huge year in 2007 if he can stay healthy. Igor Olshansky has great size (6-6, 310) and strength to hold the point versus the run, but is an average pass-rusher. However, he does play with a high motor and is a consistent player.
6. Miami Dolphins
The Dolphins' defense is anchored in the middle by two veteran players in Vonnie Holliday and Keith Traylor. Holliday had one of his best seasons in 2006 with seven sacks. Traylor, a 17-year veteran, is obviously on the last legs, but he also had a productive season in 2006. Both of these players have huge question marks about their declining skills, but if they can continue to play at a high level, the Dolphins' defense will be tough again in 2007. Defensive ends Jason Taylor and Matt Roth are somewhat different athletes and players. Taylor still possesses outstanding quickness, speed, agility and instincts in his 11th year. His playmaking ability forces offensive coordinators to produce different game plans versus the Dolphins. Roth is a tough, hard-nosed veteran and tends to make plays with effort, technique and intensity rather than outstanding athleticism. This defensive front has age concerns, but appears to have at least one more season of effectiveness in it.
7. Carolina Panthers
The Panthers, led by Julius Peppers, have one of the most impressive defensive fronts in the league. Peppers is the most imposing defensive end in the league. He has outstanding size and athleticism as an edge rusher, and most offensive coordinators have to produce a game plan for him. His length, strength, speed, quickness and balance make him an almost impossible matchup for one blocker. Peppers is explosive off the line of scrimmage and has power pass-rush moves as well as effective counters, keeping blockers off balance and guessing. Mike Rucker has good size and athletic ability as a defensive end, but has lost a step and some quickness as a pass-rusher. He can anchor versus the run, but has been less of a playmaker the past three seasons. The Panthers have two huge players anchoring the middle in six-year veteran Kris Jenkins (6-4, 335) and fifth-year player Maake Kemoeatu (6-5 350). Jenkins has explosive strength and power to draw many double teams, but he's lost some quickness and playmaking ability as a pass-rusher as a result of injuries. Kemoeatu is strictly a limited area player and clogs up the middle versus the run.
8. Pittsburgh Steelers
The Steelers field a very solid front line with former first-round draft choice Casey Hampton anchoring the middle. His low center of gravity (6-1, 330) combined with his power and quickness makes it tough on opposing offensive lines. Hampton is a disruptive player who draws a bunch of double teams and is very stout versus the run. Hampton is effective pushing the pocket, but he doesn't get many sacks. Veterans Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel have excellent size and are more accomplished run-stoppers than pass-rushers. New head coach Mike Tomlin will tinker with the 3-4 defense that the Steelers have employed for years, but he will utilize his personnel accordingly. Pittsburgh drafted Ryan McBean in 2006 to add depth to its defensive line.
9. Minnesota Vikings
The Vikings were the most effective defense versus the run (yielding only 61 yards per game) in 2006. This defensive front has three former first-round draft choices and a 10-year veteran anchoring the line. Both Kenechi Udeze and Erasmus James are solid technicians who are stout versus the run. James is the more athletic pass-rusher and should have a productive year if he can stay healthy in 2007. Kevin Williams has been the most productive defensive tackle in the league over the past four seasons (31 sacks). He has an excellent combination of size, strength and athleticism. He is an explosive player who draws many double teams to free up other defenders. Veteran Pat Williams is strictly a run-stopper and is not very active rushing the quarterback.
10. Philadelphia Eagles
The Eagles play a bend-but-don't-break philosophy under defensive coordinator Jim Johnson. This defense took a big hit early in the 2006 season when impact pass-rusher Jevon Kearse went down with an injury. Kearse posted 15 sacks in the previous two seasons and the Eagles missed his quickness and disruption that drew many double teams from opposing offenses. Defensive end Darren Howard was a solid acquisition for Philly in 2006 as he had five sacks. Backup defensive end Trent Cole has been a pleasant surprise for the Eagles as he led the team in sacks in 2006 with eight. Cole plays with great intensity and has developed a variety of moves off the edge. The interior of the defensive line is held down by two first-round choices in Brodrick Bunkley (2006) and Mike Patterson (2005). These two defensive tackles are mainly run-stoppers and have little impact pressuring the quarterback, but they play well within the Eagles' defensive scheme.