Last year, two of the best defensive lines in football resided in the NFC East. Both Philadelphia and Washington were top-10 in sacks and pressure percentage. As for Dallas and New York, they finished outside the top-10 in nearly every pass rushing category.
The Eagles and Football Team figure to have top-flight defensive fronts again this season, and both New York and Dallas will look to keep up.
Let’s take a look at each and rank the NFC East defensive lines from best to worst.
1. Philadelphia Eagles
LDE: Derek Barnett, Josh Sweat; LDT: Javon Hargrave, Milton Williams; RDT: Fletcher Cox, Hassan Ridgeway; RDE: Brandon Graham, Ryan Kerrigan
While Washington may have the better top-end talent on their defensive line, the Eagles more than make up for it with their depth at each position. The combination of Barnett, Graham, Kerrigan, and Sweat should form one of the best defensive end rotations in the league this season.
Along the interior, you have two studs in Fletcher Cox and Javon Hargrave. Cox is coming off his sixth straight Pro Bowl, despite entering each of the past two seasons with nagging injuries. It seems like this will be the first year in awhile where Cox is entering completely healthy. Over the past few years, he’s taken a handful of weeks to really get going. That shouldn’t be an issue in 2021.
Hargrave adjusted to the Eagles four-man front just fine last season, recording 4.5 sacks, the second-highest mark of his career. With another year in a similar system, he should continue to improve.
The addition of Milton Williams in the third round of this year’s NFL Draft brings nice pass rushing depth to the defensive tackle position as well. He was heralded as one of the best pass rushing DTs coming out of college this year and for good reason. He accumulated 10.5 sacks over his three-year collegiate career, and his raw athleticism paired with nuanced pass rushing tools stands out on tape.
The Eagles line may not be what it was three years ago, but the mix of veteran and young talent should make this group the focal point of the Eagles defense in 2021.
2. Washington Football Team
LDE: Chase Young, Casey Toohill; LDT: Jonathan Allen, Matt Ioannidis; RDT: Daron Payne, Tim Settle; RDE: Montez Sweat, James Smith-Williams
Most people will point to Washington as the best defensive front in the NFC East, and it’s completely understandable to see why. Chase Young is the reigning Defensive Rookie of the Year, Montez Sweat is coming off a career year and is only 24 years old, and their defensive tackle rotation should be lethal if everyone stays healthy.
The only reason I place them slightly behind Philly is their lacking depth at the defensive end position. Casey Toohill was the Eagles seventh round pick last season, and James Smith-Williams was Washington’s seventh round pick last year. Sweat and Young are two of the best young pass rushers in the game, but if one of them goes down with an injury, Washington’s defensive end depth won’t be able to pick up the slack at all.
Although the depth is lacking on the edge, their defensive tackle depth is outstanding. Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne are both solid starters and do a great job against the run. Matt Ioannidis and Tim Settle are two of the better situational pass rushers along any interior defensive line in the league. Ioannidis missed most of last year with injury, but in the two years prior he totaled 16 sacks. Granted, it was as a 3-4 defensive end, but playing a three-tech in a four man front isn’t a major shift.
Settle recorded five sacks from the interior last season while playing just 33 percent of the defensive snaps. He and Ioannidis should wreak havoc on opposing passing games whenever they’re in the game together.
If you wanted to place Washington over Philly in this ranking, I wouldn’t blame you. I just put a lot of value in defensive end depth and the Eagles have them beat in that regard. And I’d also take the Eagles starting defensive tackles over Washington’s.
3. Dallas Cowboys
LDE: DeMarcus Lawrence, Dorance Armstrong; LDT: Neville Gallimore, Osa Odighizuwa; RDT: Trysten Hill, Carlos Watkins; RDE: Randy Gregory, Chauncey Golston
The Cowboys defensive line underperformed last season, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have some solid talent along their front. Led by DeMarcus Lawrence, who has slowed down in sack production over the past two seasons but is still one of the better all-around ends in football.
The Cowboys second leading sack man, Aldon Smith, isn’t returning this year, so they’ll entrust Randy Gregory as the starting right defensive end. He’s always had the talent, but he’s largely been a disappointment in the NFL. From off the field issues to inconsistent play throughout his career, Gregory could be fighting for his NFL life this year.
The pair of starting defensive tackles, Neville Gallimore and Trysten Hill, are both unknowns at this point in their NFL careers.
I do like the additions of Chauncey Golston and Osa Odighizuwa in this year’s draft, though. Golston provides some much needed depth at the defensive end position, and Odighizuwa was one of the best pass rushing interior lineman in this year’s class.
Aside from Lawrence, this group lacks another steady presence along their defensive line. Although I like some of the young talent they have, Dallas’ front office failed to move the needle enough to make this defensive front formidable in 2021.
4. New York Giants
LDE: Dexter Lawrence, B.J. Hill; NT: Danny Shelton, Austin Johnson; RDE Leonard Williams, Niko Lalos
Of all the needs facing the Giants this offseason, defensive line was among the most glaring. And their front office neglected to address it in any meaningful way.
They lost nose tackle Dalvin Tomlinson in free agency this offseason and replaced him with Danny Shelton, but it’ll likely be a committee between him and Austin Johnson. Tomlinson was a consistent force as the team’s nose tackle and replacing his production with a committee of big guys isn’t the most ideal circumstance.
New York’s calling card along their defensive line is of course Leonard Williams, who recorded 11.5 sacks last season. Dexter Lawrence made some strides last season as the starter opposite of Williams, so there’s some optimism. But overall, this defensive line is a ways away from being one of the best in the NFL, let alone in the NFC East.
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