clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Ranking the defensive lines of each NFC East team

Which team’s defensive line should be feared the most next season?

If you buy something from an SB Nation link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

NFL: Washington Football Team at Philadelphia Eagles Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

One team’s weakness is another team’s strength.

Here at Big Blue View, we have been ranking the position groups of each team in the NFC East. We recently finished up the offensive rankings (which can be found at the bottom of this post) and are now moving onto the defense. A quick glance at the offensive rankings of each team in the division will illustrate the Dallas Cowboys’ overwhelming advantages (with the exception of the tight end position). Under the leadership of Dak Prescott under center, Dallas is well-positioned for an explosive offensive season.

But the rankings on defensive side of the ball are likely to be much different as all four teams in the NFC East lack balance; a team is often strong in one area but weak in another. In a division that was won with a losing record just a season ago, will defense or offense be the deciding factor?

We will begin attempting to answer that question by taking a closer look at the defensive line of each NFC East team.

4. Dallas Cowboys

Defensive line: DeMarcus Lawrence, Trysten Hill, Carlos Watkins, Neville Gallimore, Randy Gregory, Chauncey Golston, Tarell Basham, Brent Urban, Osa Odighizuwa

It is no secret that Dallas has not invested heavily in its defense in recent years and their defensive line has fallen victim to that trend. But this past offseason, the Cowboys named former Atlanta Falcons head coach Dan Quinn their new defensive coordinator, signaling the need for change on the defensive side of the ball.

The biggest name on the defensive line is Pro Bowler DeMarcus Lawrence but the two-time Pro Bowler and seven-year veteran has been less explosive in recent years. He recorded 6.5 sacks last season and five the season before - a noticeable decrease from the 10.5 and 14.5 he managed in 2018 and 2017.

The Cowboys have added some new players this offseason to try to improve the line but it remains to be seen if those changes will be enough. Randy Gregory, Neville Gallimore and newcomer Brent Urban will together look to stop the run game.

Gregory specifically will aim to make an impact as the starting left edge defender. His six-year NFL career has been inconsistent at best, but he looked particularly strong down the stretch in 2020 as he earned an 80.5 overall grade on his 270 defensive snaps, per Pro Football Focus. If Gregory can pick up where he left off last season, he could become an important component of Dallas’ defense.

Apart from a shaky Lawrence and uncertain Gregory, the Cowboys will also need interior linemen to step up if they are going to be successful. Dallas allowed 2.3 rushing yards before contact per attempt in 2020 — a half yard more than any other defense in the NFL.

3. New York Giants

Defensive line: Leonard Williams, Dexter Lawrence, Azeez Ojulari, Austin Johnson, Danny Shelton, Lorenzo Carter, Ifeadi Odenigbo, Ryan Anderson

Leonard Williams has quietly grown into the face of the New York Giants’ defensive line. Williams was drafted No. 6 overall by the New York Jets in 2015 and joined the Giants in the middle of the 2019 season. At the time, the move from one New York team to another did not look particularly impactful. But in 2020, Williams recorded 11.5 sacks and 30 quarterback hits - numbers deserving of a second Pro Bowl nod that he somehow did not receive. Williams and fellow first-rounder Dexter Lawrence are the mainstays on the Giants’ defensive line.

That line will look a little different in 2020 though as New York will be without Dalvin Tomlinson who signed a contract with the Minnesota Vikings this offseason. He will not be easily replaced but the Giants’ interior defensive line is not short on depth.

While New York is strong on the inside, the outside raises more questions. The Giants’ top four pressure producers last season were all interior defenders. Second-round selection Azeez Ojulari out of Georgia will have plenty of responsibility in his rookie season as he looks to become one of the players to help turn around the exterior of the Giants’ defensive line. Ojulari dropped to No. 50 in the 2020 NFL Draft due to medical concerns but if healthy, he is considered one of the top pure pass rushers in this year’s draft class.

2. Philadelphia Eagles

Defensive line: Fletcher Cox, Brandon Graham, Derek Barnett, Javon Hargrave, Ryan Kerrigan, Josh Sweat, Hassan Ridgeway, Milton Williams

The Giants and Cowboys’ defensive lines were ranked 18 and higher by PFF while the next two NFC East teams both fall within the top five rankings. The Philadelphia Eagles received a No. 5 overall ranking.

The Eagles’ defensive line is led by six-time Pro Bowler Fletcher Cox. He might be 30 years old, but Cox has shown no signs of slowing down as he has been named to the Pro Bowl in six straight seasons.

Cox has been the mainstay on the Eagles’ defensive line alongside Brandon Graham on the edge for the past decade. Together, they have helped turn Philly’s defensive line into one of the NFL’s best at generating pressure without blitzing. In 2020, the Eagles were one of just two teams with a pressure rate above 40 percent without the help of the blitz, per PFF.

In addition to Cox, Javon Hargrave adds more depth on interior. He got off to a slow start with the Eagles in his first season with the team last year, but began to show more potential down the stretch. On the edge, Derek Barnett is a projected starter alongside Graham and Ryan Kerrigan (formerly of the Washington Football Team) and Josh Sweat will provide additional depth.

The Eagles also have a new defensive coordinator in Jonathan Gannon, who spent the past three seasons as the cornerbacks coach of the Indianapolis Colts. The 2021 season will be his first in the coordinator role and he already has a strong rotation of players to work with.

1. Washington Football Team

Defensive line: Chase Young, Da’Ron Payne, Jonathan Allen, Montez Sweat, Matt Ioannidis

While Philly is amongst the top defensive lines in the league, the Washington Football Team has the potential to be the best.

Unlike the Cowboys, who kicked off our defensive line analysis as the worst in the division, Washington has focused heavily on this position group. The Football Team has invested four consecutive first-round picks into this unit. Daron Payne and Jonathan Allen will anchor the middle of the line while 2020 Defensive Rookie of the Year Chase Young and Montez Sweat will continue to bring pressure on the edge. Last season, Young recorded 7.5 sacks, 12 quarterback hits and four forced fumbles.

Young’s heroics likely overshadowed Allen’s progression. Allen’s 17.1 percent pass-rush win rate was a top-10 mark among all interior defenders, according to PFF. Matt Ionnidis will be an additional pass rushing threat on the inside. Washington released Ryan Kerrigan after his 10-year run with the team, but the move made sense considering the strong reinforcement the team has in edge rushers Young and Sweat.

This group, which already looked strong in 2020, is poised to carry that same momentum into this upcoming season.

Quarterback:

  1. Dallas Cowboys
  2. Washington Football Team
  3. New York Giants
  4. Philadelphia Eagles

Wide receiver:

  1. Dallas Cowboys
  2. Washington Football Team
  3. New York Giants
  4. Philadelphia Eagles

Running back:

  1. Dallas Cowboys
  2. New York Giants
  3. Washington Football Team
  4. Philadelphia Eagles

Offensive line:

  1. Dallas Cowboys
  2. Washington Football Team
  3. Philadelphia Eagles
  4. New York Giants

Tight end:

  1. Philadelphia Eagles
  2. New York Giants
  3. Washington Football Team
  4. Dallas Cowboys