We recently teamed up with four AFC East independent media sites to discuss which team in the AFC East has the best defensive line. Here's what Matt Barbato of New York Jet Fuel, Steve Saslow of Bills Daily, Luis Sung of Phin Maniacs and myself had to say about who has the more dangerous defensive line and secondary in the Division heading into 2015.
Matt Barbato (@NewYorkJetFuel): The AFC East is loaded on the defensive line. Leonard Williams fell to the Jets at the sixth pick of the draft, the Dolphins made a major splash by signing Ndamukong Suh, the Bills hired Rex Ryan to run an already excellent unit led by Mario Williams and Marcell Dareus while the Patriots said goodbye to iconic nose tackle Vince Wilfork.
So guys, after an incredibly busy offseason around the division, who do you think possesses the best defensive line in the AFC East?
Ian Logue (@PatsFans): The Jets were already pretty tough last season, ranking fourth in the NFL in rushing yards allowed per game (93.1) and also fourth in the league in sacks per pass attempt (8.44%). They drafted DL Leonard Williams sixth overall and still seem to have a pretty solid group. Former Patriots coach Pepper Johnson was promoted to defensive line coach, and any fans in New England who remember how good he was should realize he'll have that group ready to go. Add in Darrelle Revis - who was a clear difference-maker in New England and he really did make guys around him better - and it's quietly a defense to worry about. They’re the best defense in my mind.
Buffalo's defense hasn't been the problem there for awhile, they just can't put together an offense to score any points. The Bills were fourth in the league in total yards-per-game allowed in 2014, and third in the NFL in passing yards per game given up. The most surprising number is the sacks-per-pass-attempt, which was 9.66% (1st) and the Bills actually were tops in the NFL in 3rd down pct (33.18). Factor in the arrival of Rex Ryan and this is a unit that is going to be a problem, and if the Bills can figure out a way to score points, they have a defensive line and secondary that should be able to keep them in football games and make them competitive.
The Dolphins added Ndamukong Suh this offseason, who joins an already pretty disruptive group. Suh's addition is going to be interesting to watch because guys with egos typically don't thrive in Miami, but there's no questioning how talented he is and when added to a defense that already has guys like Cameron Wake, they'll be tough. As for their secondary, Miami was sixth in the NFL in passing yards per game in 2015 so it's not like they're a bad group. But the Bills edge them out because of how good Rex Ryan is as a coach at getting his guys ready to play, and Philbin hasn't seemed to bring that same fire to his own defense.
Obviously losing Revis is huge and they also lost defensive back Brandon Browner, who was a physical player and did a good job in his one season. Vince Wilfork departed to Houston as the team starts transitioning to a younger group, and they're definitely going to start the year with some relatively new faces. They drafted first round pick Malcom Brown and have last year's first-round pick Dominique Easley relatively healthy after coming off of an ACL injury.
On the outside, Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich are both good at getting after the quarterback and in the secondary the Patriots have just Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan returning at cornerback from 2014, with plenty of question marks from there. Safety Devin McCourty is one of the top safeties in the league, and Patrick Chung also played well in his return to the Patriots last season.
New England's #4 ranking in this list is primarily because they're probably going to need some time early on for this new group to come together, and history has shown they probably won't be good to start the year and may struggle in the early going. However, what will matter is how they're playing in December and January, and that will be one of the biggest keys during the Patriots 2015 title defense.
DE Rob Ninkovich will likely, once again, be a big key to the Patriots success in 2015.
Luis Sung (@PhinManiacs): Well, I could be biased toward my team and say that the Dolphins have the best defensive line in the NFL. Signing Ndamukong Suh, drafting Jordan Phillips, hanging on to Earl Mitchell, still having Cameron Wake and Olivier Vernon who are set to excel with Suh attacking the middle. All of these things point to the Dolphins having an elite defensive line.
But the issue with the Dolphins is not their front seven, it's actually their depth, specifically at defensive end. While Wake and Vernon are the clear-cut starters, the players after that start to become somewhat of a question mark. Derrick Shelby is clearly talented and can play on either side of the line, but the next man up after that is currently Terrence Fede, who - while talented - is extremely raw and will require quite a bit of development before he can be counted on.
My choice for top defensive line in the AFC East has to go to Buffalo. With the return of starters Marcell Darius and Kyle Williams - who were both Pro Bowl DTs last season - and the return of DEs Jerry Hughes and star pass-rusher Mario Williams, Buffalo is clearly a team to be reckoned with. For their part, Hughes and Williams have combined for more sacks in the league than any other duo, including Wake and Vernon.
On top of all that, Rex Ryan is now the head coach for the Buffalo Bills, and as everyone is well aware of, defense is his passion. With the powerhouses on Buffalo's D-Line, Rex is likely going to turn the already deadly Bills defense into something far worse to face off against...I'm open to suggestions as to exactly what kind of a picture comes to mind with that statement.
Steve Saslow (@BillsDaily): I hate to be a homer but I have to go with the Buffalo Bills as the best defensive line in a division that has very strong defensive lines on the three teams without Tom Brady at quarterback.
The Bills are returning with the same four defensive linemen for a third straight year. Mario Williams, Kyle Williams, and Marcell Dareus are all coming off pro bowl years. Jerry Hughes is the only member of the starting unit that did not make the Pro Bowl last year and he had double digit sacks. Mario and Hughes lead the NFL as defensive ends in sacks over the past two seasons.
Add to that the addition of Rex Ryan who will use the blitz to get the most out of the linemen and keep them from getting double-teamed too often. Keep in mind that at times Super Mario or Hughes may not have their hand on the ground and may line up at outside linebacker but they are all defensive linemen.
The backups are mostly returning solid role players as well with Corbin Bryant, Stefan Charles, and Jairus Wynn all returning. They also signed Alex Carrington as a free agent. He excelled two years ago in Buffalo.
Some will say the switch from Jim Schwartz’s 4-3 to Ryan’s 3-4 will hurt them but they essentially ran the same defense two years ago when Ryan’s protégé Mike Pettine was the defensive coordinator.
MB: You can argue the Dolphins, Bills or Jets have the best defensive lines in football. The Dolphins have arguably the best defensive tackle in the league in Suh, while Cameron Wake and Olivier Vernon make a strong pass rushing tandem on the outside. The Jets have an already tremendous 3-4 defensive end in Muhammad Wilkerson along with a player many are comparing to Wilkerson, Richard Seymour and even Reggie White in Leonard Williams. The Bills have four outstanding defensive linemen, but one of them may have to play a stand-up outside rusher role in Rex Ryan’s 3-4 scheme.
The Patriots don’t exactly stack up in the defensive trenches with the latter three teams mentioned, but got a great value pick in defensive tackle Malcom Brown at the end of the first round. At 6-foot-2, 319 pounds, the Patriots have their replacement for the iconic Wilfork, who is now a Houston Texan. If Dominique Easley can show some flash in his second season, the Patriots could have a budding unit along the line of scrimmage. New England was ninth in the NFL against the run, which speaks to the ability of the unit. For now, they don’t come close to the other teams in the AFC East.
I took a look at last year’s sack totals to see how much production came from the defensive line. The Bills led the NFL with 54 sacks last season with 39.5 of them came from their starters. The Jets finished sixth in the league with 45 sacks, but only 13.5 of them came from starting defensive linemen. Miami recorded 39 sacks, with 20 of those coming from starters.
Buffalo’s defensive line is clearly the most explosive when it comes to pass rushing and that shouldn’t change under Rex Ryan. His 3-4 defense thrives on confusing blitz schemes and the firepower along the defensive line will only make the Bills defense that much more volatile. The linebackers may steal a few more sacks due to Ryan’s aggressive play calling, but the line will be tremendous again. I’m curious to see if Ryan moves Mario Williams or Jerry Hughes to a stand-up edge rusher position, or uses a rotation among the four starters from last year.
The Jets’ sack numbers reflect Ryan’s scheme. Wilkerson had a down season by his standards, but is more of a run stopper rather than an elite pass rusher. Richardson brings the explosiveness, but is suspended for the first four games of the season. Damon Harrison is a plug at nose guard and is a two-down run stopper. New head coach Todd Bowles may dial down the blitzing a bit, but his defense shouldn’t be much different from Ryan’s. Leonard Williams will be the key player to watch as he steps in to replace Richardson for the first quarter of the season.
Miami’s defensive line was a big reason it finished 24th against the run last year. The addition of Suh will instantly improve that. While Suh plugs up the middle, Wake and Vernon will be a handful along the edge for opposing offensive tackles. When those two are buzzing like they were at the end of 2014, the entire defense improves dramatically. If Miami gets anything from Jordan Phillips or Dion Jordan, it could be a very deep unit.
The best defensive line in the division is Buffalo’s. The Bills have outstanding rushers along the outside in Mario Williams and Hughes, along with great run-stopping tackles in Williams and Dareus. They will all thrive in Ryan’s system and will supersede potentially shoddy quarterback play.
So that’s three votes for Buffalo and one for New York. It’s clear the AFC East will give opponents plenty of problems along the line of scrimmage. For more coverage of these four teams, be sure to follow Jet Fuel, Pats Fans, Phin Maniacs and Bills Daily on Twitter.