Over the next few days, we’ll be taking a look at the talent in the NFC West and seeing how the Rams match up. Today we look at the defensive linemen.
There’s little doubt that the St. Louis Rams have the best defensive line in the NFC West, and it may just be the best in the league heading into 2014. The group will be led by 2013 NFL Defensive Player of the Year Robert Quinn, who had 19 sacks and 57 total tackles last season. He showed himself to be the best 4-3 defensive end in the NFL during 2013, and he’ll look to follow up that performance this season. On Quinn’s opposite end will be 29-year-old Chris Long, a very impressive pass rusher in his own right who had 8.5 sacks in 2013 following two straight double-digit sack seasons.
The Rams will have an impressive pass rush on the interior, too. Defensive tackle Michael Brockers will provide a major presence at the position, and he’ll look to continue to increase his sack total, which went up from 4 to 5.5 between his rookie and sophomore seasons. In addition to Brockers, though, the Rams will have a formidable duo of pass rushing defensive tackles in veteran Kendall Langford and rookie Aaron Donald. While Langford hasn’t necessarily lived up to the huge contract the Rams gave him before the 2012 season, he had a very solid year in 2013, recording five sacks and 49 total tackles, the best total among the Rams’ defensive tackles. Donald, meanwhile, was one of the most prolific pass rushers in recent college football history, recording 29.5 career sacks and 66 tackles for loss. Though he’s a bit undersized for the NFL, Donald will look to translate that production to the pro level.
After their impressive 2013 season which led to a Super Bowl victory, the Seattle Seahawks also figure to have success on the defensive line heading into 2014. After letting veterans Chris Clemons and Red Bryant walk, they’ll be more reliant on 2013 additions Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril to have success. Bennett, a power rusher who can effectively contribute from any position along the line, will look to replicate the success of his first season in Seattle, when he had 31 total tackles and 8.5 sacks. Avril, a speed-rushing specialist who thrived in a situational pass rushing role in 2013 and had eight sacks, will attempt to have the same level of success as a starter this year.
Tony McDaniel and Brandon Mebane will once again fill Seattle’s primary defensive tackle roles. While neither one of them has nearly the pass-rushing ability of the Rams’ top three DTs, both of them are very stout run defenders. And to help fill the interior pass rushing presence that was lost with the departure of Bryant, Seattle signed longtime Minnesota Viking Kevin Williams, who was once one of the NFL’s best pass-rushing defensive tackles but has seen his production drop off over the past few years.
The remaining two defensive fronts in the West, those belonging to the San Francisco 49ers and Arizona Cardinals, are 3-man fronts that are comprised primarily of aging veterans. The 49ers’ situation should be particularly interesting this year, as things went well for them a year ago, but they can’t necessarily expect the same in 2014.
San Francisco’s defensive line will be led by Justin Smith, who turns 35 in September. The 6-foot-4, 285-pounder was once again effective in 2013, picking up 6.5 sacks. However, he had a career-low 49 total tackles. That regression, combined with the fact that Smith has dealt with injury issues in recent years, could be a liability for San Francisco this season.
On the other end, the 49ers will have Ray McDonald, who was marginally effective last season, recording 37 total tackles and 3.5 sacks. McDonald’s not a superstar, but he is a very solid two-down player in the 49ers’ defense. Former top-five pick Glenn Dorsey will fill the nose tackle position after having one of the most effective seasons of his career in 2013. He’ll be pushed, however, by Ian Williams, who went into last season as the Niners’ starter before suffering a season-ending broken ankle early in the year. Williams still hasn’t returned to 100 percent, though, so Dorsey figures to have the advantage early on. Either way, the nose tackle in San Francisco’s defense is not a major playmaker.
Depth could be an issue for San Francisco if any of their veterans go down. Beyond the starters at the 5-technique defensive tackle positions, San Francisco has former undrafted free agents Tony Jerod-Eddie and Demarcus Dobbs (who doubles as a tight end). Neither of them have any career sacks. The 49ers will be hoping that 2013 second-rounder Tank Carradine can develop into an effective depth player at the position this season.
Arizona’s defensive line will also look to make an impact this year. They’re led by 5-technique Calais Campbell, who had one of the best seasons of his six-year career in 2013 with 58 total tackles and a career-high nine sacks. 33-year-old defensive tackle Darnell Dockett will need to rebound, however, after having his production drop off during the past few seasons. At one point, Dockett was one of the better pass rushing interior linemen in the league, but he hasn’t been as effective since the Cardinals switched to a 3-4 look and has just 9.5 sacks over the past three seasons.
Former first-rounder Dan Williams will be the Cardinals’ nose tackle and attempt to have a breakout season after being rather disappointing thus far through his four-year career. Though his speciality is supposed to be as a run-stuffer, it’s kind of alarming that Williams only has one career sack, and it’s not like he’s had the greatest impact as a run defender, either. If Arizona wants to run an effective 3-4 defense, they need solid nose tackle play, and they’ll be hoping that comes from Williams.
Because of the lack of depth on the other squads in the division, the Rams appear to have a clear edge on the defensive line to start the year. That’s not to say that the other teams are devoid of talent, though, and it should be very interesting to see how effective those teams’ pass rushing attacks are in 2014.