In our weekly break down of the NFC West we wrap up the defensive line with the ends, after looking at the nose/defensive tackles last week (check out previous positions here). The Arizona Cardinals defensive ends seem to be set in stone but with the transition to a 3-4 defense there are still some questions that will need to be answered, but how they compare to the rest of the division is the real question.
The team's best defensive lineman, Darnell Dockett, will be making the move from tackle to end but he doesn't seem terribly pleased with the move and some question whether it's the best position for his skill set. At tackle, DD was able to shoot gaps and penetrate into the backfield of opposing backfields, creating havoc and picking up the occasion sack, but his responsibilities should be very different as a 3-4 DE. We'll have to wait and see how he handles a role that's built more for facilitating others to make plays as opposed to being a play maker. Either way, most expect Dockett to step in and immediately become one of the better 3-4 defensive ends in the league.
Across from Dockett will be Calais Campbell, who was drafted in the second round last year. Campbell's size (6-8, 282) makes him unique and his athleticism, at that size, makes him special. He surprised everyone by starring on special teams last year and as long as he can consistently keep his pad level low, most expect him to compare favorably to recently departed Antonio Smith. Coming out of Miami he had the reputation as a guy who could get to the quarterback and he flashed his pass rush ability a couple of times last year but his test will be when teams decide to run directly at him.
The top backup at both end spots should be another second year defensive end, Kenny Iwebema, as long as he recovers from a surprise surgery to remove a 'growth' in his chest. By all reports the surgery was a success and everyone expects him to be ready by training camp, but ultimately we won't know until he puts on pads. Last year during camp Iwebema drew rave reviews for his strength and even had some veteran lineman saying that he was virtually unmoveable at the point of attack. When the Cardinals were hurting for a nose tackle late in the preseason and even the regular season opener, they turned to Iwebema as the backup and he didn't disapoint. Pass rushing isn't his greatest strength but he did register two sacks in the preseason last year. While he's projected as a backup, he could still get considerable playing time especially against teams that run the ball more often than they pass.
The battle for the fourth defensive end will likely come down to two undrafted second year players, Keilien Dykes and Jason Banks. The frontrunner, Dykes, spent last year on the practice squad after starring at West Virginia as a defensive tackle. He won't offer much in the pass rush department but he's strong at the point of attack and versatile enough to line up at nose tackle in a pinch. Banks was a raw prospect coming out of Grambling State but he's got better size and more athleticism that Dykes. He probably offers more against the pass but we'll have to wait until training camp to see how it plays out.
The only guy we haven't mentioned yet is Bertrand Berry and that's because no is quite sure where he'll line up. He doesn't have the size to play defensive end but most don't think he can handle a full transition to an outside linebacker spot. He was the teams best pass rusher last year though so there's a thought that he might just come in as a situational pass rusher from multiple positions.
Overall the defensive end spot looks pretty solid but maybe that's just because there isn't a great deal (stat-wise) that's expected from 3-4 defensive ends. The depth chart is stacked with young talent and Dockett has the potential to be a great player no matter where he lines up. In my mind, Dockett is an A and the rest of the group is a C so we'll split and difference and give the Cardinals' defensive ends a grade of B.
The 49ers are in an odd position in terms of their defensive ends. After bouncing back and forth between a 4-3 and 3-4, they finally settled into a base 3-4 when Mike Singletary took over. Defensive ends in the two formations have different roles, so going back and forth was doing nothing for any sort of consistency.
The 49ers best defensive end is of course Justin Smith. The team signed him to a good sized contract prior to last season and he has met expectations. His numbers might not reflect it, but he did a bang-up job for the 49ers. Before settling in as a 3-4 defensive lineman, Smith actually played 6 of the possible 7 DL/LB positions at some point. As impressive as that might be, it also shows the lack of a defensive identity. Once the team switched to a full-time 3-4, Smith settled in at right defensive end. Smith is a bit undersized for a 3-4 defensive end, but he did not miss a snap last season and 49ers fans look forward to more of the same this season.
Smith is the easy part of the equation. The rest of the defensive ends raise plenty of questions. Isaac Sopoaga has bounced around from DT to DE and in fact might be best suited for the 4-3. While he'll get plenty of opportunities this season, time is ticking on him. He'll be competing with 2008 first round pick Kentwan Balmer for playing time. Balmer did next to nothing last season, leaving many 49ers fans frustrated. However, he's been working with Justin Smith this off season and one hopes that a little bit of Smith's production will dust off on Balmer. This preseason will be huge for Balmer. Many think Sopoaga will have the starting job initially, but a big training camp could mean big things for Balmer. It's too early to call him a bust, but this season is definitely a big one for him to see some improvement.
The 49ers signed Demetric Evans in the off season to add some depth to the defensive end position. He's undersized for a traditional 3-4 defensive end so it'll be interesting to see how the 49ers utilize him. The other part to this puzzle is Ray McDonald. McDonald has serious pass rush skills when he's not jumping off sides. McDonald has had injury problems and is currently recovering from one such knee problem. There's a decent chance he starts the season on the PUP list, thus limiting his early season chances. When healthy I see him as a pass rush specialist. It'd be nice if he could develop into an every down defensive end, but at this point I don't know if that will happen. The injuries are an issue, but also I don't know if he has the discipline to be an every down type of guy.
If this was just about Justin Smith I'd give the unit an A. At this point there are so many questions on the left defensive end side that I'm going to have to go with a C. If I was convinced Balmer would step up this year I'd give it a B. However, numerous questions remain at the LDE.
Without a doubt this unit could use another edge rusher, but the top of the depth chart combo os Chris Long and Leonard Little is solid. One represents the future, one the past. The one representing the past will be limited on the amount of snaps he sees in order to keep him fresh. They'll hope that Little has enough juice left to play that role. In 14 games last season, Little made six sacks. With better play in the middle of the line and a true middle linebacker finally on board, that should help the DEs.
Chris Long has a bright future with the Rams, and the question is what level will he make it to. Some see a top-flight DE, others see a "mere" Grant Wistrom. Long possesses athleticism and toughness, but his instincts for the game (and a tireless dedication to be better) make him a stand out. In Spagnuolo and Flajole's defense, he'll be lined up on the outside should of the offensive tackle, where he doesn't have to overpower them and can get a good angle into the backfield.
Behind Long and Little is another May/December combo. James Hall led the team in sacks last year, but he's a year older than Little and will be used sparingly. Victor Adeyanju has been a useful role player for the Rams as a run defender, thanks to his speed and athleticism. On the rush, he's a bit more of a project, but he did pick up two sacks last year. Resigned as a restricted free agent, the new coaching staff believes very strongly that they can find his inner pass rusher. After all, Spagnuolo has a noted history of elevating unheard of defensive linemen.
Making the mix more interesting will be some sets that feature four DEs across the line. Often that will be Adeyanju and Hall, but look for Long to make an appearance or two in that role.
Finding another DE will be an off season priority, but for now this mix gets a solid C.
Seattle has numbers and talent at defensive end, but it also has injury concerns and questions marks. Patrick Kerney is the name. He rewarded Seattle with 14.5 sacks in the first year of his six-year, $39.5 million dollar contract. He spent most of the second year on IR. Before his shoulder popped, he was in the midst of another productive season. He had five sacks and two forced fumbles in seven games. Age 32 is a bit of a brick wall for defensive ends. 29 defensive ends, including Kerney at 50, are in the top 50 for career sacks. Those ends averaged 10 sacks at age 30, 9.8 sacks at age 31, but only 7.3 sacks at age 32. Only eight of those 29 reached double digit sacks at 32 and four were Bruce Smith, Reggie White, Michael Strahan and Chris Doleman-four of the top five leaders in career sacks. They totaled 54.5 sacks at age 32. The remaining 24 totaled 150 sacks and averaged just 6.3 at age 32. That's the group that better projects Kerney's future and that's why following his second season ending injury in three seasons, Kerney can no longer be counted on to be a great defensive end.
But he's good. Around him Seattle has talent and depth. It picked up a slimmed down Cory Redding in the Julian Peterson deal and plans on making him a two-down end. Redding was a good player on a botched defense. He's not high-motor; he's weapons grade plutonium. He explodes off the snap. He reappears where the ball carrier is and delivers the hurt. He's not a premier pass rusher, but entering his prime it's still within him. If not singularly great against the pass, he does enough against the pass and the run to be valuable. Unfortunately, he's recovering from a knee injury that might endanger his career. His move to end is in part a move of necessity.
Kerney and Redding are the presumed starters, but in the wings are pass-rush demon Darryl Tapp, developing tools prospect Baraka Atkins, and the physically gifted Lawrence Jackson. Tapp is my personal favorite. Tapp is consistently disruptive. Fans undervalue him because he's yet to produce double-digit sacks, but he's capable. When he's not tackling the quarterback, he is disrupting the quarterback's timing and forcing premature passes. Tapp is from the Dwight Freeney School of defensive ends and his gusto to get to the quarterback often leaves him out of position to defend the run and incapable of sealing the edge. He could be as a good as Robert Mathis, but first Seattle must free him to play.
Atkins is potential making good and in his limited looks last season, he out-produced rookie Lawrence Jackson. The two are kind: Tall, rangy, powerfully built and athletic, but not very skilled and no sure thing to ever be very good. Jackson played on a bad foot all season, but c'mon. He started 14 and never once appeared on the official injury report. Jackson's problem is that he lacks NFL-ready pass rush moves. As the season continued as frustration mounted, he began quitting on plays. There's still a ton of talent inside the guy. More raw talent than any other Seahawks defensive end, but a player can bust fast and after frustratingly bad first season, harbingers of bust loom.
The player that pushes this ranking to a "B" is Mr. Everything Aaron Curry. Curry is auditioning as a situational end. Seattle played Julian Peterson in the role and he embarrassed many a good offensive tackle. Curry has Peterson+ speed and is a chiseled 254, but he lacks Peteron's agility. He's close. And if he can get there, he would be a ransacking nightmare with no clear counter. If he can get there.
With two B's and two C's is pretty clear who the top two and bottom two teams would be, but setting the order from there got a bit more tricky.
So basically Darnell Dockett lead the way to the top ranking but how comfortable are you with the defensive end position? With DD and CC prove to be quality starters and how will they measure up to their counterparts in the West?