Defensive Lineman Tiers
By Sigmund Bloom and Jene Bramel
August 27th, 2011

Whether you do a full set of projections to compare players or put your rank lists together by gut feel, every cheat sheet can be broken out into tiers. The process is simple and the rewards are many. Breaking your rankings into tiers forces you to crystallize your opinions on players. It naturally lends itself to helping you make good strategic decisions during your draft. The process helps you stay on the right side of runs, shows you which positions can be sloughed a round longer than you thought or need to be targeted early. Perhaps most importantly, tiering and then running a few mock drafts leave you prepared for every contingency during your draft and will keep you from scrambling when you're on the clock in those all-important middle rounds.

This series will walk you through our tiering process position by position this summer, including IDPs, and offer our strategic insights along the way. We'll have thoughts on whether you should go with a top quarterback or QBBC, whether you should target a top TE over your RB3 or WR3, whether you should prioritize DL over LB again this year and whether there are any defensive backs worth drafting early.

Previously covered

  • Quarterback
  • Running Back
  • In our first IDP installment in this series, we'll look at the defensive line. We mentioned about 30-35 defensive ends and a handful of defensive tackles last year. This year's tiers include a few more upside targets in the later tiers, but the number of elite DL targets remains about the same. As a result, we again think that you should prioritize a top tier defensive end over a top tier linebacker.

    Jene Bramel

    Clarity. The Footballguys mantra. For most of the summer - in fact, until I began writing this paragraph - I've considered this tier to be seven players deep. But I think that overrates a couple of established veterans and underrates the upside of a small handful of others.

    So, I'm approaching my top two defensive line tiers differently this year.

    Elite DL1

  • Justin Tuck
  • Trent Cole
  • Terrell Suggs
  • Charles Johnson
  • Jared Allen
  • I think the five players above are the elite of the elite. Tuck, Cole and Suggs are the best all-around 4-3 defensive ends in the game and project to at least 900 snaps. Some may worry that Johnson's career season in 2010 was a contract year fluke, but his per snap stats in 2008 and 2009 suggest otherwise. All four have 50-10 potential and, I believe, a near foolproof floor.

    Sigmund Bloom

    Strongly agree with members of this tier. Allen's stellar second half of 2010, Johnson's improved team, Cole's new coach, and the emergence of Jason Pierre-Paul next to Tuck all have me excited about their prospects. Suggs probably the highest floor guy in 2 pt per tackle leagues, but by far the lowest ceiling in sack-heavy leagues. I agree with leaving Peppers out.

    Jene Bramel

    Elite DL1 Upside

  • Ndamukong Suh
  • Julius Peppers
  • Matt Shaughnessy
  • Elvis Dumervil
  • Jason Pierre-Paul
  • Robert Mathis
  • I like Peppers, but his inconsistency keeps me from pushing him into draft-or-else status. And I've seen enough from Shaughnessy, Dumervil and Pierre-Paul this preseason to believe that the only thing holding them back from an elite DL1 projection (45+ solos, 10+ sack potential) is snap count and the inertia we feel when pushing a new candidate into a higher tier than they've been previously. I grow less worried about the snap count issue every week. Shaughnessy looks like Allen did in the year before he broke out. Dumervil has looked very good against the run. And Pierre-Paul has the highest single game upside of anyone in the top ten. I'm a little nervous about how well Suh will adapt to the changes in blocking schemes he'll see this year, but not enough to keep him out of the elite tiers.

    The upshot of this tier should be clear. First, if you miss on a player in the first tier, all's not lost. Don't panic and reach for Julius Peppers. I think the others provide great value as alternative targets a round or more later. Even if you get one of the big five, I'd strongly consider moving on Shaughnessy, Dumervil or Pierre-Paul as an ultra-high upside DL2.

    Sigmund Bloom

    I am liking Pierre-Paul more by the second. He could easily be a clear member of the elite DL1 tier by the end of the second or third game. Osi Umenyiora's knee surgery is all the opening he needs. Suh is worth it this high in DT-required leagues, and maybe even in leagues that lump all DL together. All reports also have Dumervil looking like his old self. Mathis had an outlier season for tackles for him and while others love Shaughnessy, I see more of a Darnell Dockett, Justin Smith type player even though he doesn't play in a 3-4 because of the edge rushing talent and overall pass-rush prowess of the DTs around him.

    Jene Bramel

    Risk-Reward DL2

  • Cliff Avril
  • Osi Umenyiora
  • Chris Long
  • Ray Edwards
  • John Abraham
  • Jason Babin
  • Dwight Freeney
  • High Floor DL2

  • Justin Smith
  • Aaron Kampman
  • Lamarr Houston
  • Darnell Dockett
  • Kyle Vanden Bosch
  • Will Smith
  • Calais Campbell
  • Israel Idonije
  • These tiers are bigger than I'd normally prefer. My straight 1-60 rank list will be a mix of both. How you approach your draft will depend on your risk tolerance, scoring system, and the time in the draft you plan to target this tier. If you're successful in filling your DL2 slot with a player from a tier above, you may ignore this tier altogether, though I think Lamarr Houston may fall far enough to consider alongside some the high upside targets a tier below.

    While at first glance it looks like the depth at DL is better than it's been in years, it should be noted that there really isn't a lot of upside here. A small number of these players (Avril, Umenyiora, Long) could make the leap into 40-12 tier, but I wouldn't bet my DL1 slot on it. I'm probably going to be lower on Abraham, Babin and Freeney than most, but things have to go just right for a player to hit DL2 plateaus while getting just 600-700 snaps. Remember that Will Smith is likely to be suspended for the season's first four games.

    Sigmund Bloom

    Avril, KVB, and Abraham really stand out to me here. Abraham hasn't had pass-rush partner like Ray Edwards in a long time, if ever. Avril and Abraham have the ridiculous talent pushing up the gut to keep blocking schemes from focusing on them. Dockett and Smith are suitable No. 1s in 3-points-per-sack leagues, and maybe even Campbell too. Will Smith is looking better with his suspension likely going down to two games and the Saints improved defensive line. Umenyiora and Long are going higher than I would take them. I'm a little worried about Idonije losing passing down snaps to more talented pass rushers like Corey Wootton and Henry Melton.

    Jene Bramel

    DL2 Caliber DT

  • Kyle Williams
  • Haloti Ngata
  • Antonio Garay
  • Richard Seymour
  • Sedrick Ellis
  • I'd be comfortable rostering any of these five and using them in a DL2 rotation. Garay could approach the numbers Williams has put up this season and Ellis should see lots of single blocking alongside new nose tackles Shaun Rogers and Aubrayo Franklin.

    Sigmund Bloom

    Ngata is very intriguing this year because the Ravens get the NFC West, which is full of cream puff matchups. Garay looks like he'll be very strong again this year. Tommy Kelly is also a consideration here.

    Jene Bramel

    Risk-Reward DL3

  • Michael Johnson
  • Carlos Dunlap
  • Andre Carter
  • Chris Clemons
  • Brian Robison
  • Derrick Morgan
  • Matt Roth
  • Jason Jones
  • Robert Ayers
  • James Hall
  • Adrian Clayborn
  • Jabaal Sheard
  • I think this is a sweet spot in this year's draft. I think at least two of the first six players in this tier will be considered strong matchup DL2 or better by midseason. The bulk of my drafts this year have ended with me rostering one of my top four DL as my DL1, Shaughnessy or Avril as my DL2 and one or more of the Avril/Johnson/Robison/Morgan group as my DL3/DL4.

    I'd very much like to move Dunlap higher after his impressive run of sacks against strong competition last year, but knee soreness and the coaching staff's reluctance to push him toward a 700-800 snap role has to temper his upside expectation. He may still be a top 20 fantasy DL, but make sure you've got a high floor DL2 in your DL3 slot if you draft him as such. Carter looks like he'll get lots of snaps in New England 's 4-3 and he's looked good in the preseason. Robison and Morgan have both been solid camp performers and are in line for big increases in snaps.

    Sigmund Bloom

    Only a few names stand out to me here: Carlos Dunlap, who was on fire as a pass rusher in the second half last year and could get hot early again versus a weak early schedule, Brian Robison, who has flashed as an edge rusher at times and will benefit from Jared Allen attracting attention on the opposite side, and Andre Carter, who could be a double-digit sack guy on a defense that could be playing from ahead a lot. In general, I would rather spend roster spots on offensive fliers than DL of this caliber.

    Jene Bramel

    High Floor DL3

  • Glenn Dorsey
  • Dwan Edwards
  • William Hayes
  • High Upside Depth

  • Lawrence Jackson
  • Greg Hardy
  • Cameron Jordan
  • Robert Quinn
  • Da'Quan Bowers
  • Jayme Mitchell
  • These two tiers fill out the group of defensive ends, I think are rosterable to begin the season. Hardy should see many more snaps than Everette Brown this year and will ultimately start ahead of Eric Norwood. Jackson and Bowers would be high priority replacement targets if the depth chart opens up for them due to injury.

    Sigmund Bloom

    I'm open to Quinn being the rare rookie DE you can use in IDP leagues. He's that good.

    Jene Bramel

    Rosterable DT Targets

  • B.J. Raji
  • Geno Atkins
  • Henry Melton
  • Gerald McCoy
  • Ahtyba Rubin
  • Shaun Rogers
  • Raji narrowly misses inclusion in the DL2 Caliber DT tier above, but his tackle numbers aren't consistent enough to trust. He's a much better play in DT-required leagues. The others on this list have top five DT upside based on talent and usage patterns. DT-specific leagues should also consider tackle monsters like Sione Pouha, Vince Wilfork and Colin Cole.

    Sigmund Bloom

    Remember Melton's name for early WW periods. He is a ridiculous athlete (former RB actually) and the Bears think he is turning the corner.

    Hope you enjoyed this installment. We'll be rolling out the others over the next week or so. Comments, suggestions or questions are welcome below or by email at bloom@footballguys.com or bramel@footballguys.com. You can also follow our active Twitter feeds @SigmundBloom and @JeneBramel. Thanks for reading.

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