Elite and Underrated: Six Really Good Defensive Lineman That Don’t Get Any Recognition

July 29, 2015 Updated: July 29, 2015

Part 3 of 3

In the sport of football, if you aren’t a quarterback, wide receiver, or running back, you are susceptible to being very underrated, even if you’re among the best players at your position. Here are six such players on the defensive line.

Jurrell Casey,3–4 DE, Tennessee Titans

Any Titans fan will tell you Casey is an absolute beast, and the best player on the team, bar none.

Looking at his game log, you see that 2013 was a standout statistical year for Casey in that he compiled 10.5 sacks—a ridiculous number for a defensive tackle.

In 2014, Casey finished with five sacks, but his play isn’t considered to have regressed at all. The sack decline can in part be attributed to the Titans changing schematically from a 4–3 to 3–4 defense. Because of this, Casey often found himself in alignments that he previously had no experience with. Under these circumstances, a drop off in production is not unexpected. 

But the key is, Casey continued to affect plays in monumental ways. Due to the lack of talent around him, Casey was constantly singled out by the offense and was a magnet for double teams. Casey then showed phenomenal technique and power in beating these double teams, or “soaking” them up so as to allow another pass-rusher to get free. This is a striking characteristic for a defensive lineman whom you can build a team around. Casey ultimately finished 2014 second in QB hits (behind only the anomaly J.J. Watt), first in tackles, and fifth in QB hurries among 3–4 ends. So all in all, Casey had a phenomenal year and had no problems getting after the passer. Actually, five sacks from a 3–4 end is not bad to begin with.

What is truly a disgrace however, is the fact that Casey has never made the Pro Bowl, and only just recently made the NFL players top 100 list at No. 96. In actuality, he is one of the best defensive lineman in the league on an annual basis.

Mike Daniels, 3–4 DE, Green Bay Packers

When you think elite players on the Packers defense, Clay Matthews is often the first name that comes to mind—rarely does anyone think of Mike Daniels.

The fact of the matter is, though Daniels is not the flashiest player, he was by all accounts elite when you compare his stats to the peers at his position.

When you think elite players on the Packers defense, Clay Matthews is often the first name that comes to mind—rarely does anyone think of Mike Daniels.
Among 3-4 ends, Daniels finished last season ranked eighth in sacks (5.5), fourth in quarterback hits (11), ninth in hurries (24), and was terrific against the run. Overall, he finished as Pro Football Focus’s eighth ranked defensive end.

Playing on the last year of his contract, Daniels is expected to get a major payday if he hits free agency next summer.

 Johnathan Hankins, 4–3 NT, New York Giants

Hankins is a mammoth nose tackle who mans the middle of the Giants line. A rising third-year player, Hankins has always been highly regarded for his size, run-stuffing ability, and surprising nimbleness for a man his size. Then last season, Hankins successfully added pass-rushing to his repertoire, finishing with seven sacks and a top-12 pass rushing grade among tackles from Pro Football Focus. Hankins was not only the most improved player on the Giants last season, but also arguably the best defensive player.

Hankins and Jason Pierre Paul form one of the intimidating right lines in the league.
Hankins and Jason Pierre Paul form one of the intimidating right lines in the league. When Hankins is able to penetrate and draw attention in the middle, a path is cleared for JPP to rush the quarterback or get after the running back. However, the tackle spot next to Hankins is currently a big question mark. If the Giants can find a solid player to man that spot, it will also benefit Hankins.

Overall, many Giants fans believe the sky is the limit for Hankins and that though he was snubbed this past season, the Pro Bowls and accolades will soon be ineluctable.

 Malik Jackson, 3-4 DE, Denver Broncos

Malik Jackson is essentially the C.J. Anderson of the Broncos defense—though in a limited role on the season, Jackson’s play was undeniably elite. Jackson had a quarter less snaps than eminent Broncos pass rushers DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller, but finished with around the same number of tackles and quarterback hits, and was also the team leader in tackles for loss (11). Jackson is also a fantastic great run-stopper, receiving a 12.1 rating from Pro Football Focus, good for fifth among 4–3 ends. Overall, Jackson’s play was already considered up there with the league’s best at the position.

The Broncos had a quite a few changes in coaching personnel this past offseason, and the team is expected to convert into a 3–4 defense under new defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. But for Jackson, a player with balanced play and proven versatility (Jackson has played snaps at interior DE, Edge DE, DT, and even nose tackle) the transition period should be short.

Furthermore, this will be Jackson’s first full season as a starter, so it has every look of a breakout season. The lineman has already called double digit sacks on the season.

 Calais Campbell, 3-4 DE, Arizona Cardinals

For Cardinals defensive end Calais Campbell 2014 was a season of firsts. In 2014, Campbell made his first Pro Bowl, as well as cracked the NFL Top 100 Players for the first time, albeit barely at No. 99. 

In comparison, Campbell was within the top 30 of Pro Football Focus’s Top 101 best players list each of the past three seasons. General sentiment also has it that Campbell has been a top 5 defensive end for each of the past several years.

So why has it taken Campbell so long to get recognition? Some said he isn’t the flashiest player or doesn’t get the gaudiest stats; others blame his market. But in regard to the market argument, former Cardinals teammate and defensive lineman Darnell Dockett has gotten pretty good recognition.

 Brandon Williams, 3-4 NT, Baltimore Ravens

Brandon Williams plays nose tackle for the Ravens, and is a brawny man in the truest sense of the word. Williams made headlines a few years back when videos of him benching 525 pounds and walking on his hands surfaced. Williams also worked for a porta-potty company in college, in which he would hoist porta-potties onto trucks while pretending that he was lifting an offensive lineman. So combined with a low center of gravity (Williams stands at 6-foot-1-inch tall 335 pounds), Williams is a load to handle on the field.

On the field, Williams is primarily tasked with collapsing the pocket, which allows edge rushers Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs to get sacks. In terms of play Williams is the not the most adept pass-rusher, nor is he an every down player, but he is fantastic at clogging the run. Overall, Williams finished 2014 as Pro Football Focus’s 10th ranked nose tackle. Entering just his third season, Williams has the potential to become a mainstay among the NFL’s elite nose tackles for years to come.

To read Part 1 of this three-part series please go to: http://bit.ly/1I2zAmZ 
To read Part 2 of this three-part series please go to: http://bit.ly/1eB9cGe