Quarterbacks may get most of the attention and the fame, but in the NFL the old adage still holds true: defense wins championships. Denver proved this last season, riding the league's No. 1 defense all the way to Super Bowl 50. Once there, the Broncos' defense overwhelmed MVP Cam Newton and the rest of the Panthers' offense.
One of the big keys to Denver's defensive success was its relentless pressure on the quarterback, which started up front. To that end, here are Athlon Sports' defensive line rankings, which were done in conjunction with Dan Shonka of Ourlads' NFL Scouting Services and appear in the 2016 NFL Preview magazine. It should come as no surprise that J.J. Watt is No. 1 among 3-4 defensive ends.
Rankings courtesy of Ourlads' NFL Scouting Services, which has been in the football talent evaluation business for more than three decades.
2016 NFL 3-4 Defensive End Rankings
1. J.J. Watt, Houston
Collected his third NFL Defensive Player of the Year award in four years after leading all defensive linemen in sacks (17.5), quarterback hits (50), tackles for a loss (29) and passes defended (eight).
2. Muhammad Wilkerson, New York Jets
Registered 12 sacks and defended seven passes in 2015 en route to his first Pro Bowl berth.
3. Mike Daniels, Green Bay
Is one of the Packers’ featured interior rushers in the team’s nickel sub packages. The short but explosive leverage defender consistently pressures opponents’ quarterbacks.
4. Calais Campbell, Arizona
The angular but explosive edge defender has consistently been one of the top defensive linemen in passes defended over the past five years.
5. Leonard Williams, New York Jets
Impressed during his rookie season by collecting 63 tackles and garnered consideration for Defensive Rookie of the Year honors. He was tremendous against the run game and helped free up teammates to rush the passer.
6. Jurrell Casey, Tennessee
Is recognized among his peers as a high-effort competitor who has been consistent play-in and play-out. In 2015, he had a career-high 28 quarterback pressures and collected 54 tackles.
7. Cameron Heyward, Pittsburgh
The defensive team captain has played in 80 consecutive games since being drafted in 2011. Has recorded 19.5 sacks in the past three seasons.
8. Stephon Tuitt, Pittsburgh
Registered 54 tackles, including 6.5 sacks, in 2015. The country strong edge defender can press the pocket as a pass rusher or can stack the line of scrimmage in the run game.
9. Sheldon Richardson, New York Jets
An explosive player who consistently pushes the pocket and moves the guard back. Physical stuffing the run game. Uses his strong and quick hands to his advantage.
10. Chris Baker, Washington
Has come a long way from an undrafted free agent to a productive interior run stuffer who collected six sacks in 2015 as well as racking up 53 total stops.
11. Jaye Howard, Kansas City
12. DaQuan Jones, Tennessee
13. Kendall Langford, Indianapolis
14. Quinton Dial, San Francisco
15. Alan Branch, New England
16. Akiem Hicks, Chicago
17. Allen Bailey, Kansas City
18. Eddie Goldman, Chicago
19. Desmond Bryant, Cleveland
20. Timmy Jernigan, Baltimore
2016 NFL 4-3 Defensive End Rankings
1. Khalil Mack, Oakland
The first player named to the AP All-Pro first team at two different positions in the same season, linebacker and defensive end. Only J.J. Watt tallied more sacks than the versatile and explosive playmaker.
2. Ezekiel Ansah, Detroit
The relentless and talented ascending defender racked up 14.5 sacks on his way to his first Pro Bowl berth in 2015. He earned second-team All-Pro honors.
3. Carlos Dunlap, Cincinnati
Led the Bengals with a career-best 13.5 sacks. The long-armed defender also earned a Special Teams’ Player of the Week award by blocking a key field-goal attempt versus the 49ers.
4. Everson Griffen, Minnesota
Has recorded 22.5 sacks over the last two seasons and earned his first Pro Bowl bid in 2015.
5. Michael Bennett, Seattle
Collected 10.5 sacks among his 44 total tackles in 2015. In the past four years, he has recorded 36 sacks.
6. Cameron Jordan, New Orleans
For the second time in his Saints career, he posted at least 10 sacks. His productivity also landed him his second Pro Bowl invitation. He has started 79 of a possible 80 games.
7. Cliff Avril, Seattle
A consistent edge-pressure player for the Seahawks with long arms and an explosive first step. Had 47 tackles, including nine sacks, last season.
8. Olivier Vernon, New York Giants
Signed a lucrative contract with the Giants in the offseason. Had 7.5 sacks among his 61 total tackles last fall in his last season in Miami.
9. Connor Barwin, Philadelphia
The total package — can rush the passer, set the edge of a defense on run plays or drop into coverage.
10. Brandon Graham, Philadelphia
His seven forced fumbles over the last two regular seasons tied for third-most in the NFL. Set a career high with 51 tackles in 2015, including 6.5 sacks.
11. Robert Ayers, Tampa Bay
12. Jerry Hughes, Buffalo
13. Derrick Shelby, Atlanta
14. Demarcus Lawrence, Dallas
15. William Hayes, Los Angeles
16. Mario Edwards Jr., Oakland
17. William Gholston, Tampa Bay
18. Jared Odrick, Jacksonville
19. Brian Robison, Minnesota
20. Charles Johnson, Carolina
2016 NFL Defensive Tackle Rankings
1. Aaron Donald, Los Angeles
The Pro Bowler was second among all interior defenders with 69 tackles, including 11 sacks. Has been a force since Day 1 in the league.
2. Geno Atkins, Cincinnati
The quick-twitch and high-motor Atkins returned to form last season. Had 11 sacks, tying for the most in the league among interior linemen.
3. Kawann Short, Carolina
Worked and pushed his way to 55 tackles and 11 sacks last fall. The power player delivers an explosive jolt to the blocker with his hands.
4. Ndamukong Suh, Miami
After signing a huge contract in 2015, Suh had a large target on his back, but fought his way through double- and triple-teams to register 61 tackles and six sacks.
5. Fletcher Cox, Philadelphia
Will make a position scheme move from a 3-4 defensive end to a 4-3 tackle. Regardless of the alignment, Cox closes off running lanes as an impact hitter and pressures the quarterback.
6. Linval Joseph, Minnesota
Is a huge, strong and athletic tackle with raw power. He presses the pocket and is a disruptive interior presence.
7. Derek Wolfe, Denver
Played a key role in the Broncos’ successful Super Bowl run, collecting 15 tackles, including 2.5 sacks, in the postseason.
8. Damon Harrison, New York Giants
Led all interior defenders with 72 tackles as a Jet, then signed as a free agent with the rival Giants. Harrison majors in stuffing the running lane.
9. Malik Jackson, Jacksonville
Signed a five-year, $90 million contract with the Jaguars after earning a Super Bowl ring with the Broncos. He will be expected to pressure the quarterback as a 3-technique tackle like he did in Denver.
10. Marcell Dareus, Buffalo
The No. 3 overall pick out of Alabama in the 2011 draft pressured his way to 51 tackles in 2015. Earned Pro Bowl bids in 2013 and 2014.
11. Ian Williams, San Francisco
12. Gerald McCoy, Tampa Bay
13. Brandon Williams, Baltimore
14. Dontari Poe, Kansas City
15. Dan Williams, Oakland
16. Denico Autry, Oakland
17. Corbin Bryant, Buffalo
18. Sharrif Floyd, Minnesota
19. Michael Brockers, Los Angeles
20. Haloti Ngata, Detroit