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2013 Fantasy Preview: Defensive Linemen

Mario Puig

Mario is a Senior Writer at RotoWire who primarily writes and projects for the NFL and college football sections.

As in most years, the 2013 defensive-line pool possesses a small group of stars in the top tier, a similarly meager second tier of middling options and the rest are leftovers light on upside and heavy on flaws. High tackle totals are rare on the line, and there are typically no more than five who pair those with double-digit sacks. Dallas' switch to the 4-3 gives the top tier a boost with DeMarcus Ware joining the DE group, but if you miss out on him, J.J. Watt, Jason Pierre-Paul and Jared Allen, it's probably best to aim for sure-thing linebackers and wait on lower-ranked linemen until very late in your draft.


01. J.J. Watt TEXANS DE

2012 69 81 20.5 0 4 2 0
2013 Proj. 57 72 15 1 3 2 0

Watt was nothing less than incredible in 2012, finishing with 20.5 sacks and a linebacker-like 81 tackles despite playing in a 3-4 alignment. Both figures are unprecedented. It's only reasonable to expect some regression, though, because the 2012 season could easily turn out to be Watt's career year. Plus, Watt's outrageous 2012 season sent the rest of the AFC South into a panic, resulting in the Jaguars (second overall pick Luke Joeckel), Titans (free agent Andy Levitre, 10th overall pick Chance Warmack) and Colts (free agent Gosder Cherilus, third-round pick Hugh Thornton) making huge investments in their offensive lines. Between the inherent probability of a regression to the mean, increased attention in game plans and the increased talent of his opponents, it would be best to expect something like 70 tackles and 15 sacks rather than another 80-tackle, 20-sack bonanza.

02. Jason Pierre-Paul GIANTS DE

2012 43 66 6.5 1 1 1 1
2013 Proj. 50 70 12.5 0 1 1 0

Pierre-Paul was a colossal disappointment in 2012 after his remarkable 2011 set the expectations sky high, but it would be wise to expect a bounce-back season in 2013 for two reasons: (1) Pierre-Paul played through a back issue all December, which could partially explain why he didn't have a sack in that month; and (2) With Osi Umenyiora gone in free agency, Pierre-Paul should see his snap count approach 950 after playing 879 last year. Even if Pierre-Paul doesn't repeat the 16.5 sacks he had in 2011, he's always an excellent source of tackles for a defensive lineman. Pierre-Paul, however, underwent surgery in June to address the lingering back problem (a herniated disk), and his Week 1 status is uncertain.

03. DeMarcus Ware COWBOYS DE

2012 33 56 11.5 0 5 1 0
2013 Proj. 41 64 13.5 0 4 1 0

The Cowboys are abandoning the 3-4 in favor of Monte Kiffin's 4-3 alignment, and the resulting position switch makes the IDP values of Ware and fellow linebacker-turned-end Anthony Spencer skyrocket. No longer left to compete with players who routinely pile up 100 or more tackles, Ware should be one of the first IDPs picked in any format, even with a potential drop in tackles. He battled his way through elbow and shoulder injuries in 2012, both of which required offseason surgery, and still racked up 11.5 sacks despite playing at far less than 100 percent. Kiffin's 4-3 places a high emphasis on disrupting with speed and quickness, and the decreased emphasis on containment could allow Ware to get back into the 20-sack range. Kiffin once made Simeon Rice an annual contender for the league sack title, and Ware is a better player than Rice ever was.

04. Jared Allen VIKINGS DE

2012 36 46 12.0 0 1 1 0
2013 Proj. 43 57 14.5 0 1 1 0

Although he was a slight disappointment in 2012 with just 46 tackles and 12 sacks, it's safe to bet on Allen improving his numbers in 2013. The addition of first-round pick defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd and the continued development of fellow end Everson Griffen should allow Allen to see more collapsed pockets than in recent years, and the addition of first-round press corner Xavier Rhodes alone could result in an extra coverage sack or two in 2013. In addition to the improved supporting cast, Allen will have his odds aided by the fact that he'll be recovered from the torn shoulder labrum through which he played in 2012. Allen is a player who depends on his violent hands as much as his athleticism, so playing with a gimpy shoulder no doubt hurt his effectiveness last year.


05. Calais Campbell CARDINALS DE

2012 50 63 6.5 0 0 0 0
2013 Proj. 58 76 8.0 0 1 0 0

While he's no J.J. Watt, Campbell too has established himself as a remarkably productive 3-4 defensive end, always finding himself around the ball despite navigating heavy traffic every play. Despite missing three games last year, Campbell still surpassed the 60-tackle mark and posted 6.5 sacks. Those numbers would project to roughly 78 tackles and eight sacks had he played 16 games, and that's no fluke because he nearly posted those exact numbers in 2011, when he finished with 72 stops and eight sacks. While it's relatively difficult to find consistent IDP production on the defensive line, where tackles are generally sparse and sacks come in bunches, Campbell managed to post at least five tackles or a sack in nine of his 13 games last year. Give Campbell a bit of a boost if your league gives points for passes defended, because Campbell knocked down 16 passes in his last 29 games.

06. Mario Williams BILLS DE

2012 37 46 10.5 0 2 2 0
2013 Proj. 45 58 13.5 0 2 1 0

Keep an eye on Buffalo to make sure it doesn't formally switch to a 3-4 scheme prior to the season, a change that would switch Williams to OLB and greatly reduce his appeal as an IDP. If he remains at defensive end, Williams should be a strong option in most leagues. Williams had a disappointing start in Buffalo, totaling just 16 tackles and 3.5 sacks in his first seven games, but an arthroscopic wrist surgery during the team's bye week seemed to fix the problem. From that point Williams added 30 tackles and seven sacks in the next nine games, numbers that would project to roughly 53 tackles and 12.5 sacks over a full season. With no known health issues heading into 2013, Williams should be the same player he was in the second half of 2012.

07. Ezekiel Ansah LIONS DE

2013 Proj. 42 64 8.0 1 2 1 0

It certainly takes a leap of faith to put Ansah this high as a rookie, ahead of several players who have already accomplished the tall task of reaching double-digit sacks in the NFL. But between his raw talent and the likely full-time role that awaits him on a Detroit depth chart with almost no defensive end talent, Ansah should pile up cheap stats at the very least in 2013. The fifth overall pick has 4.63 speed on a 6-5, 271-pound frame and possesses an enormous wingspan with 35 1/8-inch arms. Players like Willie Young and Ronnell Lewis are not exactly intimidating competition for playing time, so Ansah should get all the work he can handle. With Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley drawing double-teams on the inside, moreover, Ansah should see single blocking most of the time. Like Aldon Smith coming out of Missouri, Ansah should be advanced in his hand-placement, thanks to spending much of his time at BYU playing in heavy traffic at defensive tackle.

08. Greg Hardy PANTHERS DE

2012 41 61 11.0 0 2 1 0
2013 Proj. 42 59 12.0 0 2 1 0

While Charles Johnson is better paid and better known, it's Hardy who looks like the top IDP option among Carolina defensive ends. Hardy came alive in 2012 despite starting only 10 games, finishing with 61 tackles and 11 sacks. Even after his emergence, Hardy should still see favorable blocking scenarios since Johnson will likely remain the primary concern of offensive lines. The addition of the highly talented rookie defensive tackle duo of Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short will be useful for Hardy, as well. Hardy is a former underachiever who fell to the sixth round of the 2010 draft despite clearly possessing first-round talent, so that could make him a bit of a risk, but you'll notice that pretty much every candidate after the top six has a red flag of some sort, be it low tackle totals, injury issues or scheme change. Hardy's upside makes him worth the gamble.

09. Anthony Spencer COWBOYS DE

2012 55 95 11.0 0 2 1 0
2013 Proj. 44 66 9.0 0 2 1 0

Either Spencer was seeing dollar signs as he played on the franchise tag in 2012, or he turned a corner in his development. The former first-round pick was always adequate as an outside linebacker in the 3-4, but never an impact player. That changed last year, when Spencer went off for 95 tackles - a very high total for a 3-4 outside linebacker - as well as 11 sacks in just 14 games. Even assuming his production spike was due in part to being in a contract year, as of press time Dallas had him on the franchise tag once again for 2013. His tackle count will almost certainly drop now that he's playing end in a 4-3 alignment, but Spencer is still a good bet to surpass 60 tackles and double-digit sacks.

10. Cameron Jordan SAINTS DE

2012 41 67 8.0 0 3 2 0
2013 Proj. 37 70 7.0 0 2 2 0

It will be interesting to see whether New Orleans' switch to the 3-4 harms Jordan's productivity, but given his game was always more about strength and anchoring ability than it was athleticism, he should hold up fine on the interior. Jordan excels as a lane-clogging end thanks to his motor and power, and he took a big step forward last year by more than doubling his tackle total from 31 to 67 and upping his sack count from one to eight. The 2011 first-round pick should keep his stock at the same level in 2013, but is more of a floor pick than a ceiling one - he posted five tackles or a sack in 11 of 16 games last year, though he only had one multi-sack game.


11. Cameron Wake DOLPHINS DE

2012 38 53 15.0 0 3 0 0
2013 Proj. 34 48 13.0 0 3 0 0

Wake is one of the absolute best at getting to the quarterback, even if his tackle totals are modest. The explosive edge rusher posted a career-high 15 sacks last year, firmly putting to rest the idea that his 8.5 sacks from 2011 made him a one-year wonder after a 14-sack 2010 season. But over the last three years he has averaged 50 tackles, leaving his value almost entirely dependent on his sacks. He could also stand to improve his consistency, as his 15 sacks from last year were spread out over just nine games. Keep an eye on his position designation as the season approaches because Miami has the personnel to run a 3-4 if it wants, though as of press time the team's site lists Wake as an end.

12. Justin Smith 49ERS DE

2012 47 66 3.0 0 0 1 0
2013 Proj. 44 67 6.5 0 1 1 0

Smith is due to slow down sometime soon with his age-34 season on the horizon, but even in decline Smith is far better than most. His high tackle totals make him among the better options available, and it's reasonable to expect improvement on his 2012 total of three sacks. Only twice in his career has Smith failed to make it to five sacks, and he missed two games last year due to a triceps tear. Prospective Smith owners will want to double-check on the recovery status of that triceps as the season approaches, but it's generally believed that Smith won't have any health concerns come Week 1.

13. Dion Jordan DOLPHINS DE

2013 Proj. 41 59 5.5 2 0 0 0

Keep a very close eye on Jordan's position designation in your league, because at press time it was up for interpretation, though the Miami Dolphins official web site listed him as a defensive end. It's a questionable fit, though, because Jordan was arguably at his best as a standup player in college, and he posted just five sacks as a senior. He's a rangy, long player with great pursuit ability, but Jordan looks more like Julian Peterson than DeMarcus Ware. That said, if the Dolphins use him at defensive end, he should thrive anyway, particularly as an IDP. His pass-rush impact could be limited, but Jordan's length and athleticism should allow him to pile up tackles in pursuit, and it's still reasonable to bet he'll play at linebacker a fair amount either way.

14. Robert Quinn RAMS DE

2012 24 29 10.5 0 1 0 0
2013 Proj. 36 45 12.5 0 2 0 0

Quinn's talent warrants a bigger projection, but his 2012 performance implies he'll be a one-dimensional player who makes his mark purely as a pass rusher. Split out wide and away from between-the-tackles running, Quinn rarely showed the ability to post noteworthy tackle totals in 2012, his first as a starter. But he is one of the league's brightest pass-rushing prospects, as he posted 10.5 sacks on just 830 defensive snaps last year. Look for Quinn to continue to improve, but don't expect him to turn into a 60-tackle player in the Rams' current scheme.

15. Justin Tuck GIANTS DE

2012 27 45 4.0 0 0 0 0
2013 Proj. 43 61 7.0 0 1 0 0

Injuries look like the primary culprit in Tuck's decline the last two years, a span in which he's totaled just 82 tackles and nine sacks. That said, his upside makes him a good gamble once the more reliable defensive linemen are off the board. Injury prone or not, Tuck is still a player on a talented defensive line who should have a big role awaiting him, and he's only two years removed from a 76-tackle, 11.5-sack showing.

16. Geno Atkins BENGALS DT

2012 39 54 12.5 0 4 0 0
2013 Proj. 31 49 11.0 0 3 1 0

Atkins is perhaps the top 4-3 tackle in the league, and his pass-rushing skills warrant a rankings boost in leagues that give big points to sacks or don't emphasize the tackle category. But teams tend to avoid Atkins in the running game, so his 54 tackles from 2012 might be a best-case scenario, particularly given that he had just 47 the year before. Atkins should in any case continue to be a double-digit sack threat after posting 12.5 in 2012. Atkins is so explosive and plays with such good leverage that even double-teams aren't necessarily effective on him.

17. Haloti Ngata RAVENS DT

2012 33 51 5.0 0 0 0 0
2013 Proj. 37 61 7.0 0 1 1 0

Even if he plays more often at nose tackle than he did in years past - something that won't necessarily happen given the draft pick of nose prospect Brandon Williams in the third round - Ngata is still a player whose length, strength and athleticism should lead him to the 60-tackle range. Ngata made it to that mark in both 2010 and 2011, and he had a good chance last year had he not missed two games. While his tackle production is stable, Ngata unfortunately doesn't have much pass-rushing upside, as he has only 15.5 sacks in the last three years.

18. Charles Johnson PANTHERS DE

2012 31 43 12.5 0 7 1 0
2013 Proj. 36 47 11.5 0 4 1 0

Even with the emergence of Greg Hardy and the selection of defensive tackle Star Lotulelei with the 14th overall pick, Johnson will probably head into the 2013 season as the most feared member of the Carolina defensive line, and for that reason his road to production might be bumpier than Hardy's. But Johnson is good enough to produce even if he's dealing with double-teams. Although his tackle totals have been held in check he has just 84 in the last two years - Johnson has 21.5 sacks since his breakout 2010 season.

19. Chandler Jones PATRIOTS DE

2012 24 45 6.0 0 3 0 0
2013 Proj. 33 57 8.0 0 2 0 0

Like Justin Tuck, Jones is a player with a ton of upside but also a low floor once you take his recent injury history into account. The Patriots' 2012 first-round pick bolted to a 33-tackle, six-sack start in his first eight games, a pace that had him firmly in Pro Bowl contention, but he disappeared in the second half of the year likely due to a lingering ankle injury suffered in Week 11. Jones also missed five games due to a lower leg injury at Syracuse in 2011. Nonetheless, once you've gotten past the more reliable options at the position, Jones' upside makes him worth a dice roll.

20. Kyle Williams BILLS DT

2012 27 46 5.0 0 0 0 0
2013 Proj. 40 63 6.0 0 0 0 0

Williams underwent surgeries on his right Achilles' tendon in February and on his left Achilles' tendon after the 2011 season, so his durability is a concern. But at press time, he's expected to be ready for the start of 2013. Williams' 46 tackles and five sacks from 2012 constituted a down year for him, but he's historically been good for high tackle numbers. He posted 76 stops in 2010 and 66 in 2009, adding 5.5 and four sacks, respectively.

21. Rob Ninkovich PATRIOTS DE

2012 32 58 8.0 0 5 4 0
2013 Proj. 39 63 6.0 0 3 2 0

The addition of second-round pick and pass rusher Jamie Collins is a concern for Ninkovich, but Collins could still be a year away from eating into Ninkovich's snap count, especially on first and second downs. Ninkovich has carved out a nice role as a DE/LB tweener with the Patriots, posting 131 tackles and 14.5 sacks the last two years. Expect more of the same with the more dynamic Collins likely serving as injury insurance for Chandler Jones in Year 1.

22. Kroy Biermann FALCONS DE

2012 31 46 4.0 0 0 0 0
2013 Proj. 42 62 6.0 0 0 0 0

Biermann doesn't excel in any one area, but he's a versatile player who should see a sizable snap count now that both John Abraham and Ray Edwards are no longer around. While the Falcons did sign Osi Umenyiora, it should still be a net gain in playing time for Biermann. Keep in mind while Biermann's unlikely to have much value in leagues that reward heavily for sacks, he should pile up some cheap tackles at least.

23. Fletcher Cox EAGLES DE

2012 32 39 5.5 0 1 0 0
2013 Proj. 37 56 7.5 0 1 0 0

Although Cox fell to the 12th pick of last year's draft, he probably belonged in the top eight. He finished his rookie year with 39 tackles and 5.5 sacks on just 511 snaps, and that count could rise significantly in 2013. His rookie rate of production projects to about 57 tackles and eight sacks on 750 snaps, which could be ballpark for him. The former Mississippi State star also had 56 tackles and five sacks in 12 games during his final year of college.

24. Ahtyba Rubin BROWNS DE

2012 30 44 2.0 0 2 0 0
2013 Proj. 44 68 3.5 0 0 0 0

Phil Taylor is expected to man the nose tackle role in Cleveland instead of Rubin, who should shift out to end in the team's 3-4 alignment. The distinction shouldn't matter a whole lot for Rubin, who has repeatedly demonstrated the ability to find ballcarriers on the interior of a defensive line. He had two seasons in a row with more than 80 tackles in 2010-11, so there's reason to believe he'll surge above last year's numbers, particularly considering he dealt with calf troubles in 2012.

25. Lamarr Houston RAIDERS DE

2012 49 67 4.0 0 1 1 0
2013 Proj. 41 63 5.0 0 1 1 0

Houston lacks pass-rushing ability as an oversized defensive end, but he nonetheless managed to find ballcarriers with a high frequency in 2012. His 67 tackles were a lofty total for a defensive lineman, and his 51 stops from the year prior were a respectable figure, too. While Houston should again approach the 60-tackle mark in 2013, he's not especially consistent - 27 of his tackles came from three games last year, leaving just 40 tackles for the other 13.


26. Nick Fairley - DT, DET
27. Carlos Dunlap - DE, CIN
28. Derrick Morgan - DE, TEN
29. Osi Umenyiora - DE, ATL
30. Mathias Kiwanuka - DE, NYG
31. Ndamukong Suh - DT, DET
32. Chris Long - DE, STL
33. Julius Peppers - DE, CHI
34. Datone Jones - DE, GB
35. Sheldon Richardson - DE, NYJ