A ‘front seven’ in football is the unit consisting of defensive lineman and linebackers, which is a total of seven players in standard formations. Considered the foundation of a good defense, here are the best five front sevens in the NFL(subjective).
Having carried the team to two consecutive Super Bowls, the pure dominance of the Seahawks defense is all to familiar to football fans.
In addition to possessing the ever-imposing ‘Legion of Boom’ secondary, the unit is fortified at the front by one of the top front sevens in the league.
On the line, Bennett and Avril are as good of a pass rushing tandem as you’ll find. Bennett in particular is unique in that he is able to generate pressure from any point of attack. For example, he’ll often be employed on the interior on nickel downs. In the middle, Mebane was one of the best run-stuffing nose tackles in football in 2013, though he is coming off an injury-marred 2014 campaign. The line was then additionally bolstered through the draft by adding dynamic Michigan product Frank Clark. Clark had a top 5 z-score on the SPARQ (a systematic test of athleticism Pete Carroll had a hand in developing and the Seahawks often use in scouting), but had a myriad of off-the-field trouble at Michigan. Assuming Clark keeps his act together, he definitely has the talent to make a impact in the Seahawk’s line rotation.
Standing at the back of the trenches are K.J. Wright, Bruce Irvin, and Bobby Wagner, who together make up one of the most talented linebacker trios in football. Individually, all three players are widely considered to be in the top 10 of their respective positions (Wright and Irvin at outside linebacker, and Wagner at inside linebacker). Wagner in particular is a top 5 inside linebacker, with one of his calling cards being his incredible speed and range in coverage. Incredibly stout against the run, the unit was a big reason why opposing teams averaged only 81.5 rushing yards a game and 3.5 yards per carry on the year, good for third in the league for both categories.
If there is one problem with the Seahawk’s front seven, it’s finance. Just one year off signing a fresh four-year, $32 million contract, Michael Bennett is already seeking a new contract, positing that the Seahawks “want me to play five positions but pay me for one.” Needless to say, this is quite a strange situation considering that NFL deals are never redone just one year into the pact.
Secondly, the Seahawks needed to extend Bobby Wagner, which has now been resolved with a 4-year $43 million extension.
The Panthers front seven is just littered with above average to elite players.
Though the loss of 2013 All-Pro Greg Hardy certainly stings, the Panthers’ line is still left with Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short—one of the best tackle tandems in the league, and Charles Johnson—a consistent, every-down pass rusher who has been good for a whopping 52.5 sacks over the past 5 seasons. The interior also has a healthy rotation with veterans Dwan Edwards and Colin Cole. The only question mark is the spot left vacant by Hardy. At right defensive end, Kony Ealy didn’t play very well as a rookie, and Mario Addison was lackluster in his reps at the position. Wes Horton was also ineffective with just 14 total pressures in 2014.
At linebacker, Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis are two of the best linebackers in football, with Kuechly commonly regarded as the #1 middle linebacker. 1st round rookie Shaq Thompson is not expected to be a slouch at left outside linebacker either. With two rookies and several veterans on the depth chart, the Panthers also have great depth at linebacker .
The Bills’ front seven is headed by what is called ‘The Cold Front’. All four of Marcell Dareus, Kyle Williams, Jerry Hughes, and Mario Williams received votes for All-Pro consideration, with Dareus and Williams ultimately receiving first-team honors.
The cold front isn’t expected to be a constant next season however, as new head coach Rex Ryan is known to employ a lot of 3-4 looks. In that case, Dareus would play nose, Williams at right end, and Hughes and Williams at the outside linebacker spots.
Outside of the cold-front members, linebackers Preston Brown and Nigel Bradham are every-down linebackers who look to have monster years in Ryan’s defense. Bradham in particular is in his contract year, and is currently coming off a career year where he posted totals of 104 tackles and 2.5 sacks in 14 games. The veteran Manny Lawson will serve as more of a rotational piece for Ryan.
Playing a 3-4 front, the Ravens have outstanding young talent on the line, with Brandon Williams at nose and Timmy Jernigan at left end. Williams is one of the league’s premium run stuffers, and the rookie Jernigan showed extreme promise filling in for Ngata at the end of the 2014 season, which was part of the reason why Ravens GM Ozzie Newsome was comfortable letting Ngata go. Chris Canty—a longtime productive player in the league, completes the line with a veteran presence.
Behind the line is then arguably the best 3-4 linebacker corps in football, featuring Elvis Dumervil, Daryl Smith, C.J. Mosley, Terrell Suggs, and Courtney Upshaw.
Upshaw and Dumervil make up the rotation at left outside linebacker. Upshaw—the anchor of the sublime 2012 Alabama defense, is a force stopping the run, but doesn’t offer much as a pass-rusher. So on passing downs, the 2011 Defensive Player of the Year “Doom” is unleashed. Always regarded as one of the league’s most dominant pass rushers, Dumervil similarly delivered in 2014, tieing a career high with 17.0 sacks.
At inside linebacker, C.J. Mosely was one of the finalists for Defensive Rookie of the Year. As a rookie, Mosley showed outstanding awareness defending the run and a strong ability to shed blocks and make plays. Mosley has every look of being next in line in a tradition of excellent Ravens Linebackers.
Finally, if there is a prototype for the 3-4 outside linebacker, it’s probably Terrell Suggs, who has dominated the position for years. Suggs is an fearsome pass rusher who beats lineman with sheer power on the bull rush, but can also turn the corner with his speed. Suggs is now coming off four 10+ sack seasons in last five years. But actually, what Suggs does even better than rushing the passer is defending the run. Suggs sets the edge with authority and is relentless in pursuit of downfield running backs, qualities that earned him Pro Football Focus’s top run defense grade among 3-4 outside linebackers.
The Eagles were an under-the-radar candidate for one of the league’s best front sevens when Eagles defensive end Fletcher Cox came out himself to tell the the world that the Eagles have the NFL’s No.1 front seven last month.
Though its a difficult conclusion to make, there is a definitely a punch to the argument.
Statistically, the Eagles’ front seven was 2nd in sacks, and allowed only one running back to rush over 100 yards all season. On paper, the unit is teeming with talent.
Cox himself—the No.12 overall pick in 2012, is a top five 3-4 end. Cedric Thornton is an elite run-stuffer at right end. Off the edges, Brandon Graham and Connor Barwin are very productive pass rushers, with Barwin coming off a career high 14.5 sack season in 2014.
At inside linebacker, the Eagles are stacked with play makers, including DeMeco Ryans, Emmanuel Acho, Brand Jones, rookie Jordan Hicks, and now Kiko Alonso, the return from the LeSean McCoy trade. Though he missed the entire 2014 season due to a torn ACL, Alonzo was highly impressive as a rookie in 2013, where he finished with 159 tackles and flashed tremendous athleticism and coverage skills. If Alonso can pick up where he left off after his one year layoff, the Eagles may not be missing LeSean McCoy for long.