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Inside the trenches: Ranking the NFC West D-Lines

Another week closer to football, another week of positional rankings.

NFL: Arizona Cardinals at Los Angeles Rams Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

If you want to keep up with the series here is last weeks list.

Last week saw another runaway poll. We had 390 total votes. The Cardinals ran away with 289 (74%), the Rams with 40 (10%), Seattle with 31 (8%), and San Francisco with 30 (8%).

Another week, another list. We draw ever so close to our first taste of football. The Cardinals will report to their Training Camp next Friday. The Rams, 49ers, and Seahawks will all report the week after. Every fan can finally smell it in the air.

As we get closer to football, we also get closer to the end of this series.

( I know, it’s so sad)

After we wrap up ranking the Defensive Lines, we will only have Linebackers, Secondaries, and Special Teams to rank. So, without further ado, let us rank!

Arizona Cardinals: Fourth

Cardinals Defensive Line

Name Position Overall Grade Pass Grade Run Grade Snaps
Name Position Overall Grade Pass Grade Run Grade Snaps
Olsen Pierre DT - - - -
Pason Tasini DT - - - -
Corey Peters DT 73.8 76.4 51.1 499
Josh Mauro DT 57.8 48 75.9 389
Rodney Gunter DT 50.2 50.8 624 244
Robert Nkemdiche DT 45.5 51.4 50.2 82
Xavier Williams DT 44.3 45.4 53.8 118
Frostee Rucker DT 43.7 45.6 51.5 303
Ed Stinson DT 42.1 52.2 44.4 116

It pains me to put our beloved Cardinals dead last. But there are a number of reasons the team has earned this slot.

For starters, if this list was based solely on the numbers from Pro Football Focus, the Cardinals only had one player who is on the roster that earned an average grade in 2016.

The other side is their lack of proven talent. Yes, they have 33-year-old Frostee Rucker, but he’s on the wrong side of 30 and has not played more than 13 games the last two seasons. Corey Peters had a good 2016 campaign but has not played a full season since 2010.

That leaves the Cardinals with a number of huge questions. For starters, who will fill the massive shoes left behind by Calais Campbell? Will it be Robert Nkemdiche? Or will it be a committee approach? That’s something time will tell but for now, leaves many fans wondering who can fill the void.

Beyond that, the Cardinals have numerous unproven commodities. Josh Mauro has always looked good when he’s played. He was the only defensive lineman to grade out with an average score as a pass rusher. Rodney Gunter has not shown much, nor has Ed Stinson.

The coaching staff is high on the upside of both Xavier Williams and Olsen Pierre. Pierre was not able to see the field in 2016, and Williams only saw it 118 times, grading poorly.

2016 First-Round draft pick, Robert Nkemdiche, only saw 82 snaps last season. Bruce Arians was critical on Nkemdiche’s work ethic as a rookie, but as recently as May, was praising him for being in the weight room more than any other player. Nkemdiche will be relied upon to make an impact if the Cardinals want a successful 2017 season.

San Francisco 49ers: (Third)

San Francisco 49ers D-Line

Name Position Overall Grade Run Grade Pass Grade Snaps
Name Position Overall Grade Run Grade Pass Grade Snaps
DJ Jones DL - - - -
Noble Nwachukwu DL - - - -
Solomon Thomas DL - - - -
DeForest Buckner DL 77.2 62.2 74.4 1007
Quinton Dial DL 68.2 53.8 67.1 478
Tank Carradine DL 61.3 62.5 45.9 229
Ronald Blair III DL 46.3 51 50.5 306
Earl Mitchell DL 46.3 39.2 74.9 334
Arik Armstead DL 44.1 39.1 73.2 333
Christopher D Jones DL 43.4 45.9 49.9 302

The 49ers definitely have talent on their defensive line. Putting them at three is not to say they’re bad, but simply the talent on the other two teams is better.

New DL Coach Jeff Zgonina has three pillars to his philosophy. Rotation, the ability to play multiple positions, and the ability to use your athletic ability to maintain your gap in his one-gap scheme.

The 49ers added a huge threat to opposing offenses when they took Solomon Thomas number three overall. John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan addressed the defensive side of the ball this draft, going defense in six of their 10 picks. They took three defensive linemen, including D.J. Jones and Pita Taumoepenu, who is listed as a linebacker on the team's roster.

DeForest Buckner was the 49ers highest rated defensive lineman in 2016, with a 77.2 PFF grade. Buckner played the second most snaps of any defensive lineman in 2016, with 1007. Only Olivier Vernon played more. The 49ers have stated that they want Buckner to be fresher, and want him to play closer to 600 snaps this year. Buckner and Solomon Thomas figure to be the 49ers defensive tackles in sub-packages, as the 49ers make the transition into a 4-3 scheme. Michael Bennett even had this to say on Buckner.

The coaching staff wants to move Armstead into an early down, run stuffer on defense. Armstead will make the move from defensive tackle to a defensive end in base packages. Elvis Dumervil or Ahmad Brooks will be the defensive end on obvious passing downs.

Quinton Dial is also expected to be a dominant force on early run downs, before being subbed out on passing downs. Dial is confident that his name will be “said a lot in the fall”.

David Fucillo at Niners Nation believes Tank Carradine is on the “outside looking in”. With the addition of Solomon Thomas, Carradine could be an expendable piece come roster cuts.

Chris Jones was re-signed after he was signed midseason. He showed enough promise in the 49ers final six games to earn a chance to compete with a new coaching staff.

D.J. Jones could be a practice squad stash for the 49ers in 2017, barring injury.

Solomon Thomas was considered a “tweener” by some scouts during the draft process. He wasn’t as big as you want on the inside, but not as tall as you’d like as an edge rusher. By was never questioned was his motor. Thomas will be a perfect fit in San Francisco and will be able to learn as a rotation guy, before taking the reigns.

Seattle Seahawks: Second

Seattle Seahawks D-Line

Name Position Overall Grade Pass Grade Run Grade Snaps
Name Position Overall Grade Pass Grade Run Grade Snaps
Tylor Harris DE - - - -
Dion Jordan DE - - - -
Shaneil Jenkins DT - - - -
Nazair Jones DT - - - -
Jeremy Liggins DT - - - -
Malik McDowell DT - - - -
Michael Bennett DE 86.3 76.9 93 675
Frank Clark DE 81.8 76.6 82.9 752
Cliff Avril DE 75.6 78.3 44.1 925
David Bass DE 56.1 52 71.5 224
Cassius Marsh DE 50.2 66.5 49.2 440
Garrison Smith DT 49.8 69.5 49.1 60
Quinton Jefferson DT 46.3 59 48.8 22
Jarran Reed DT 44.2 46.2 51.6 545
Ahtyba Rubin DT 41.9 43.9 48.8 675

Seattle gets the second spot. They have two fantastic run stoppers in Michael Bennett and Frank Clark. The Seahawks finished third in sacks, with 42 in 2016.

Bennett was PFF’s #6 overall 4-3 DE in 2016. He earned an extension in December, keeping him with the team through 2020. Bennett missed his first game since 2012, only making 11 appearances last season, but was great enough to make an impact on the Seahawks defense.

Frank Clark had 10 sacks in 2016, to go with 25 tackles. That production earned him the #11 spot on PFF’s list of 4-3 DE’s. Clark has drawn a lot of praise from teammates Cliff Avril and Micahel Bennett, with Avril saying;

“He has probably the quickest get-off on the D-line,” Avril said of Clark last season. “He’s disruptive, too. He gets off the ball fast and he’s disruptive. He plays reckless. He has my get-off and then he has Mike’s mindset as far as for being disruptive, which is a good combo, I think.”

Clark certainly does have a bright future.

Cliff Avril had the best season of either of his counterparts. His 11.5 sacks and 39 tackles. At 31 he posted a career high in sacks and his third best season in tackles. Avril underwent a groin surgery during the offseason but was full go at Seahawks minicamp.

Dion Jordan was signed after missing all of 2016 with a knee injury. The former Oregon Duck has missed the last two seasons, the first to suspension. Jordan’s status for the Seahawks is up in the air after he had a “clean-up” knee surgery in June. The Seahawks could stash Jordan on the PUP/Reserve list.

Cassius Marsh could be in line for a rotational role in Seattle, barring an injury to Cliff Avril. Marsh showed “improved rush-skills” during the teams minicamp.

The Seahawks 2017 third round pick, Nazair Jones, will be in line for some rotational run snaps. Jones hardly saw the field as a pass rusher during his time at UNC.

Jarran Reed will be expected to take the next step in 2017. A second round pick in 2016, Reed was a good depth player but left much to be desired a second round selection.

Malik McDowell was another second round selection for the Seahawks. McDowell has faced questions about his motor and work ethic, but his physical numbers are enough to peak any teams curiosity. If Reed can perform, McDowell won’t face pressure to make an immediate impact.

Ahtyba Rubin signed a three-year extension with the team. Rubin was an impact run-clogger for the Seahawks, and should be an early down player.

Los Angeles Rams: First

Los Angeles Rams D-Line

Name Position Overall Grade Run Grade Pass Grade Snaps
Name Position Overall Grade Run Grade Pass Grade Snaps
Ejuan Price DE - - - -
Omarius Bryant DT - - - -
A.J. Jefferson DT - - - -
Casey Sayles DT - - - -
Tanzel Smart DT - - - -
Louis Trinca-Pasat DT - - - -
Aaron Donald DT 95.6 85 96.9 830
Michael Brockers DT 80.8 79.5 71.9 419
Dominique Easley DT 79.1 74.6 74.5 470
Morgan Fox DE 73.5 52.5 79.1 79
Ethan Westbrooks DL 54.4 63.4 49 532
Matt Longracre DE 48.9 51.3 59.4 157
Tyrunn Walker DT 46.4 43.3 70.4 377
Mike Purcell DT 44.1 50 47.7 250

So what separates the Seahawks from the Rams?

The Rams have two of the best young defensive tackles in the game. Aaron Donald and Michael Brockers were number one and 23 respectively by PFF.

Dominique Easley returned to the team after signing his RFA tender. Easley was a very good situational player for the Rams in 2016.

Another situational player, Ethan Westbrooks will return to LA. Westbrooks has managed four sacks in two seasons, only seeing the field on obvious passing downs.

Ejuan Price is an interesting name to keep an eye on too. Price tied Aaron Donald for the fourth most sacks at Pittsburgh. This came after being limited his first three years at the school, due to a number of injuries. If he can overcome the injury bug, Price could be an interesting prospect.

Aaron Donald is currently working on a long-term deal with the Rams. The best Defensive tackle, and easily one of the top 10 players in the NFL, Donald makes it hard on opposing offenses week in and week out.

Michael Brockers is a very good run stuffer. He was one of the reasons the Rams held opposing running backs to zero or fewer yards 29% of the time in 2016.

While the Rams may have managed only 31 sacks in 2016, that has less to do with their talent, and more the poor coaching they endured. Now with Wade Phillips running the Defense, the Rams defense will finally be able to put together the talent they have.

Note that at the time of compiling the data, Tyrunn Walker was still listed with the Rams both on the team's official site and PFF. He was released by the team on June 22nd, amid a sexual assault report.

So what say you? Agree or disagree? Discuss below!


Which NFC West team has the best defensive line?

This poll is closed

  • 9%
    Arizona Cardinals
    (23 votes)
  • 41%
    Los Angeles Rams
    (104 votes)
  • 8%
    San Francisco 49ers
    (20 votes)
  • 41%
    Seattle Seahawks
    (103 votes)
250 votes total Vote Now

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