1. Tennessee Titans
Projected Starters- Jevon Kearse (DE), Tony Brown (DT), Albert Haynesworth (DT), Kyle Vanden Bosch (DE)
Backups- Bryce Fisher (DE), Kevin Vickerson (DT), Antonio Johnson (DT), Sean Conover (DE), Jacob Ford (DE), Barry Booker (DT), Eric Taylor (DT), Jason Jones (DE), William Hayes (DE), Dave Ball (DE)
Last season, the Titans finished fifth in the NFL in run defense, allowing only 92 yards per game, and a big reason for that was Albert Haynesworth, who clogged the middle with his 6’6”, 320 lb. frame. Entering his seventh NFL season, Haynesworth has established himself as one of the top run stuffers in the NFL, using his size and surprising quickness to wreak havoc on opponents. Last season was a contract year for Haynesworth, and that insensitive propelled the former Tennessee Volunteer (and teammate of John Henderson) to arguably a career year. Complementing the talented but sometimes unmotivated Haynesworth at end is Kyle Vanden Bosch, who is a classic overachiever. The former second-round pick has accumulated 30.5 sacks in three seasons with Tennessee (as opposed to four sacks in three years with Arizona) and has done so because of a relentless work-ethic on and off the field. Vanden Bosch isn’t the fastest end, but at 278 lbs, he uses his strength and sound technique to regularly penetrate into the backfield. Lining up opposite to Vanden Bosch is Jevon Kearse, who started his career with the Titans. Kearse can still be an excellent pass-rusher in bursts, and should at least contribute on passing situations. The other starter inside will likely be Tony Brown, who is a local product entering his fourth NFL season. Last year, Brown complimented Haynesworth as a quick tackle who had a nice burst and he will likely fulfill the same role this year. Coming off the bench, the Titans expect rookie Jason Jones to make a splash immediately. Jones is an end with 4.6 speed, but he has the size to move inside in passing situations.
Strengths: Haynesworth and Vanden Bosch make for a stellar one-two punch, and the Titans’ other starters are good pass-rushers.
Weakness: Depth is an issue as there is little experience behind the starters.
2. Houston Texans
Projected Starters- Anthony Weaver (DE), Travis Timmons (DT), Amobi Okoye (DT), Mario Williams (DE)
Backups- Earl Cochran (DE), Anthony Maddox (DT), Jeff Zgonina (DT), N.D. Kalu (DE), Eric Powell (DE), Frank Okam (DT), DelJuan Robinson (DT), Jesse Nading (DE), Tim Bulman (DT)
Like the entire Texans squad, Houston’s defensive line is close to exploding and entering the upper echelon of the NFL. Mario Williams had a coming out party last season and validated his first overall draft pick two year ago by totaling 14 sacks last year. Entering his third season, Williams is equally stout against the run and pass, and just needs to become more consistent to go from very good to great. Lined up next to him is the 20 year-old Amobi Okoye, who had 5.5 sacks as rookie. Okoye hit the rookie wall hard in the middle of the year, but he showed off incredible speed, strength and maturity for such a young person. Travis Johnson also had a career year and could be a very good starter in the NFL, combining good size and quickness. Houston’s other end is Anthony Weaver, who is a crafty veteran that is known more for his run stopping ability than his pass rushing. Where Houston gets the nod over other AFC South foes is in terms of depth behind their star front four. Earl Cochran is versatile combo end, and N.D. Kalu is a good pass-rusher even at the age of 31. Anthony Maddox, a former Jaguar, is a good pass-rusher in the middle, and Jeff Zgonina brings a lot of experience as well. Even third-stringer Frank Okam has potential to be a real good rotation player in the NFL.
Strengths: Houston has a lot of versatility, athleticism and depth.
Weaknesses: Some young players aren’t necessarily battle tested and they might fade as the season progresses.
3. Indianapolis Colts
Projected Starters- Robert Mathis (DE), Raheem Brock (DT), Edward Johnson (DT), Dwight Freeney (DE)
Backups- Josh Thomas (DE), Darrell Reid (DT), Quinn Pitcock (DT), Jeff Charleston(DE), Keyunta Dawson (DE), Joe Bradley (DT), Marcus Howard (DE), Curtis Johnson (DE), Colin Ferrell (DT), Ben Ishola (DE)
Like Indianapolis’ linebackers and defensive backs, the Colts don’t necessarily have the best players on their defensive line but they have the right guys to fit their scheme. Everyone on the front four is a little undersized, but there is a ton of speed and playmakers all across the line. Dwight Freeney headlines the group and is trying to bounce back from a foot injury that limited him to just nine games and 3.5 sacks last year. With a tremendous first-step and an excellent burst off the edge, Freeney logged over double-digit sacks in his first four NFL seasons, but has since totaled just nine sacks in the past two years. Robert Mathis is the poor- man’s Freeney on the other side, as he too is undersized but ridiculously quick. He logged seven sacks last season and also could use Freeney’s presence to help take some pressure off of him. In the middle, Raheem Brock brings speed and energy and he’s able to get to the backfield because the 300 lb. Ed Johnson distracts opposing linemen with his good size and quickness. JoshThomas and Jeff Charleston aren’t the traditionally quick ends the Indy uses, but they both are fundamentally sound and can step in and play well in a pinch. Quinn Pitcock was adequate as a rookie and could eventually be a starter for the Colts in the middle and Darrell Reid is a great rotation player as well. Keyunta Dawson has the potential to be a very good edge-rusher as does rookie Marcus Howard.
Strengths: There are playmakers aplenty here, and most of the linemen know their role in the Colts’ Cover 2 Scheme.
Weakness: A lack of size makes Indy susceptible to a strong running attack and Freeney’s health could be a concern.
4. Jacksonville Jaguars
Projected Starters- Paul Spicer (DE), Rob Meier (DT), John Henderson (DT), Reggie Hayward (DE)
Backups- Derrick Harvey (DE), Derek Landri (DT), Tony McDaniel (DT), Quentin Groves (DE), Brent Hawkins (DE), Jimmy Kennedy (DT), Jeremy Mincey (DE), James Wyche (DE), Brian Smith (DE)
The Jaguars ranking fourth on this list doesn’t mean that we don’t feel that Jacksonville isn’t talented, but in a conference with perennial Pro Bowlers (or future Pro Bowlers) all across the front four, there are too many questions to say Jacksonville boasts one of the best units. Henderson is clearly Jacksonville’s best returning player and at 6’7”, 325 lbs, he has proven to be one of, if not the best tackles in the game. However, injuries bogged Henderson down last season as did the decline of former All-Pro Marcus Stroud, who was traded this off-season. While Henderson is certainly capable of regaining his old form and becoming a dominant presence inside once again, at 29 years old there are no guarantees that he can get back to one-hundred percent. Stroud will likely be replaced by Meier and McDaniel, who both received contract extensions this off-season. Meier is a crafty, versatile veteran who plays with a lot of effort. McDaniel could be somewhat of a Stroud clone (pre-injury that is), but injuries have derailed his opportunity for playing time. McDaniel is a powerful yet nimble player that has a lot of potential. End is where there are the most question marks, as injuries and an odd combination of older and younger players could make for a hit-or-miss pass rush. Spicer had a breakout season in ’07 with 7.5 sacks, but his feisty play will wear on his body and at 32, his most athletic days are behind him. Across from Spicer is Reggie Hayward, who also is getting up in years (29), but he is trying to recuperate from a torn Achilles’ tendon that has plagued his last two seasons. At one time, Hayward was a terrific dual threat and Jacksonville is desperately hoping that he can get back to old form. Rookies Derrick Harvey and Quentin Groves were taken in rounds one and two respectively, and should improve Jacksonville’s pass rush, but concerns about consistency might force both players to be more situational type guys, although if used properly they could each become forces early in their careers. Backup tackle Derek Landri has a non-stop motor and is eerily similar to Meier. Jimmy Kennedy (a former first-rounder) has all the physical tools to be great, but has yet to put the pieces together. Brent Hawkins and Brian Smith are both undersized pass-rush specialists, but Hawkins hasn’t looked good with pads on and Smith is virtually an enigma, as has been battling a hip injury for some time now. Jeremy Mincey is also a pass-rush type, while James Wyche is a combo player and Jacksonville likes the effort that each player shows, but both will face a lot of competition this pre-season.
Strengths: Solid depth, very good situational players and some young talent means that if things break right, this could be a dangerous group.
Weaknesses: Injuries and inexperience are big concerns and they could bog down the entire defense.