1. Khalil Mack
It is nice to separate Mack and Von Miller by position in this series to avoid the debate of who is better. In all honesty it would be almost a coin flip between the two top tier edge rushers. Mack seemed like a lock to be a stud when drafted in the top five in 2014, and after a strong rookie year, he broke out this season with 15 sacks. Aside from that he is arguably the best edge rush defender in the game, and his athleticism and versatility allow him to line up in multiple techniques all over the field. At only age 25 Mack is already an elite NFL player and who knows what is in store for 2016.
2. Robert Quinn
Quinn dealt with injury last year, and it led to him being passed up in terms of greatness to Mack, but he is still as elite as you can find on the outside. Quinn put up 19 sacks in 2013, and while he has only created 15.5 in the 23 games since then, he is still a force, and it is mainly added attention, and playing through some things in 2015 that attributed to the dip. Quinn is everything you want from an outside pass rusher, and something tells me his 2016 season is going to be a major bounce back.
3. Michael Bennett
Bennett is about as underrated of a lineman as you can find when playing in Seattle with the legion of boom. The secondary is great, but it was the addition of guys like Bennett to the defensive line that really put this team over the top. The best quality about Bennett is that he can line up anywhere at all the defensive line. He is a monster against the run, and is probably better against interior lineman than he is against tackles. He lacks a little bit in terms of edge speed, but in terms of burst and strength, stay out of Bennett’s way.
4. Ziggy Ansah
Ansah is another player who sprung right into the lineup as a game changer from the minute he was drafted. Last year was his big breakout, as he posted 14.5 sacks. He did so on a Lions defensive line that did not really put fear into one, and saw a lot of attention from offensive coordinators. His best attribute is probably his speed off of the edge and his quick moves to get around tackles as smoothly as anyone in the league. Ansah is still growing and is still rising as a player, but at the moment he is already elite.
5. Carlos Dunlap
Call this position of players with young emerging talent off of a breakout year. Mack and Ansah broke out in major ways, and Dunlap also posted the best season of his career. Having Michael Johnson return to the line and a much healthier Geno Atkins obviously helped, but Dunlap is still a strong defender. Aside from his sacks rising by 5.5 up to 13.5 this season, he improved majorly as a run defender. This helped the Bengals establish themselves as a top tier team for a good portion of last season, and while Dunlap has six years of experience now, he is still only 27 and should be in the heart of his prime.
6. Everson Griffen
Mike Zimmer, the guy who drafted Carlos Dunlap took over the Vikings defensive line, saw his own Dunlap in Griffen and saw the kid take off. Griffen always seemed to have the talent coming from USC, but it took some time, and some battling through injury before Griffen could really show what his worth was. Now, it is tough to mention him outside of the elite edge rushers in the position. In two years under Zimmer, Griffen has put up a combined 22.5 sacks, and even battled through a shoulder problem last year to collect 10.5 sacks. In year three, and in hopefully the best shape of his career, Griffen should still be on the rise and should continue to make this Vikings front as dominant as any.
7. Oliver Vernon
It was hard to find a spot for Vernon, and I had wondered if I had given into the bias of the Giants giving him a huge contract. Especially when the majority of his last season it appeared Cameron Wake was still more talented than him. Still, when Wake went down to injury, all attention shifted to Vernon and took advanatge, putting up 5.5 of his 7.5 sacks last year after week ten. The last three years Vernon has been a strong player, and had a lot of people thinking the 2015 Dolphins defensive line could be the best in the league. While that failed to ever take off, he is now across from the now infamous Jason Pierre-Paul, and with the Giants experience of developing pass rushers it is hard not to get excited. While on a contract basis, he is overpaid, he has the chance to live up to his deal, and only time will tell if he can.
8. Jerry Hughes
Jerry Hughes was a former first round pick who really never took off in his rookie deal in Indianapolis. In his second contract and with the Bills he really did take off however, in 2013 and 2014 combined for 20 sacks. 2015 saw a coaching change and a scheme change for Rex Ryan. The scheme change will probably put Hughes back to outside linebacker, where he did not thrive as much, but I guess we have to take Ryan’s word for it. When strictly rushing the passer it is hard to find a tougher player to get off track than Hughes. Here is hoping that Hughes finds his best role in 2016.
9. Brandon Graham
While scheme change may be for the worst for Hughes, it should bring out an even better Graham in 2016. Graham essentially saw his role change two or three times in the span of two or three years, and it may see its final change as he heads back to the 4-3 defense under Jim Schwartz. On the line he is as good as it gets. Having him focus on defending the pass is a bit of a waste of his talents, and his job against the run is as good as you will find. The new defense should be a huge boost to the entire front seven in Philadelphia and Graham should be one of the biggest benefactors.
10. Cliff Avril
As mentioned when discussing Bennett, the Legion of Boom gets all the noise, but this boys off the edge get all the pressure. Think how tough it is to throw on this defense when two of the best in the game are rotating with each other, playing opposite sides and breathing down the defense neck. Last year Avril put up nine sacks, and like most of these guys he is solid in the run defense. Seattle still has one of the best teams on paper, and it is these edge guys that drive the point home.