Defensive Linemen Tiers
By Jene Bramel and John Norton
Updated August 29th, 2012

Note: For the most part, not much has changed since we published our most recent LB tier update on August 10 and the tiers and context to follow will read the same. We note major changes we've made to the tiers in RED. If you're drafting between now and Opening Night, make sure you're following Jene's Twitter feed @JeneBramel and listening to our weekly podcast for the very latest news and analysis.

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.

Bramel: In recent seasons, I've advocated bucking the long-held IDP trend of drafting linebackers early and often in favor of securing at least one (and possibly two) of the small number of elite defensive ends. It's still a viable strategy, but one that must be revisited this season.

More owners and leagues are buying into the "draft elite defensive ends before elite linebackers" approach, squeezing some of the value from the strategy. More importantly, though, is the depth of the top defensive line tiers this season when compared to 2009-2011. Instead of 4-6 truly elite prospects and another 4-6 with strong upside, 2012 features at least 15 very attractive fantasy targets.

I still favor targeting an elite defensive end over an elite linebacker this season, but 2012 will be a season to stock up on offensive talent without fear of falling behind at any IDP position.

Elite DL1

  • Jason Pierre-Paul
  • Jared Allen
  • Trent Cole
  • Mario Williams
  • Pierre-Paul and Allen are in their own mini-tier of fantasy dominance here. I prefer Pierre-Paul (beyond elite solo tackle upside, better supporting DL cast, still approaching his prime age seasons, etc.) but Allen is a close 1a. Cole is a near lock for another 45-10 season and deserves elite consideration. After ending the past two seasons on injured reserve with sports hernias and a torn pectoral muscle, it's easy to forget that Williams had 26 sacks in 2007 and 2008 and 44 between 2007 and 2010. Surrounded by talented line mates, he belongs a half tier above the large group that follows.

    Unlike past seasons, however, I am not standing on the table advocating that you must draft a player from this tier. If you strongly feel that you must anchor your IDP lineup with an elite defensive end, reach for Pierre-Paul (knowing you'll be giving up at least a tier at more than one offensive position to do so) or wait and snipe Williams a round or three later.

    Norton: I see Pierre-Paul and Allen on a tier all by themselves at the top. They are so far ahead of the rest that if you can land one of those two, it might be worth that sacrifice at another position. I love Trent Cole because of his great consistency (40+ tackles and at least 8 sacks in 6 consecutive seasons) and agree that he is an elite player, but I see both Cole and Williams as the top of an unusually deep second tier.

    Bramel: Near Elite DL1

  • Justin Tuck
  • Julius Peppers
  • Cameron Wake
  • Jabaal Sheard
  • Jason Babin
  • Elvis Dumervil
  • Chris Long
  • Here's why you shouldn't panic when your league mates who have finally learned what you knew four seasons ago start moving on the stud defensive ends early. There are eight players in this tier that hold elite upside and seven more in the tier to follow with DL1 ceilings. Even if you disagree on the upside of some of these players, you can be certain that at least one you like will still be on the board 4-6 rounds after Pierre-Paul and Allen are drafted.

    Tuck has remained in my near-elite tier, as there's a chance he'll see too many snaps at defensive tackle due to the Giants' injuries at that position to reach elite upside. I love Cameron Wake and believe that he's one of the more underrated pass rushers in the league. You can see my extended argument for him in an Undervalued/Overvalued discussion in the most recent Reading the Defense update. I've been drafting Wake and Jabaal Sheard frequently as my DL1 over the past two weeks.

    Peppers, Babin, Dumervil and Long are elite pass rushers subject to weekly variance due to lower solo tackle numbers. Any of them could crack the top five with a 15+ sack season, but I'm not willing to project those numbers for anyone not named Pierre-Paul this year. Dumervil is the most likely of that mini-tier to break the 35-10 mold. Babin carries slightly more than anticipated risk after a calf injury slowed him for much of the preseason.

    If you're not now convinced about the depth at the DL position this year, you will be after considering the players "ranked" between DL10 and DL25.

    Norton: I am on board with the players in this tier but would have them in a little different order. Wake clearly has the potential to blow up but I think he is also the biggest risk of the group. He has been a linebacker his entire career, including all of his three years as a starter for Penn State. NFL history is littered with players who were unsuccessful in the transition between 3-4 and 4-3 schemes. This is true for both 4-3 ends moving to outside linebacker (see Jason Babin) and 3-4 linebackers moving to end.

    While I recognize his ability as a pure pass rusher, Wake is only 250 pounds and will have to prove that he can stand up versus the run before I can put him ahead of the other guys on that list. Based on his production over the past two seasons, I would have to put Babin right in there behind Cole, Williams and Tuck on this tier, with Dumervil right on his heels. In defense of Dumervil's tackle production, he was on pace for just over 38 tackles last season had he not missed three games. In fact, he really didn't get up to speed until after the Broncos week six bye. If he can stay healthy I will be surprised to see him fall short of 40 tackles and 12 sacks.

    Bramel: Elite DL2 w/ Top 12 Upside

  • Cliff Avril
  • Calais Campbell
  • Osi Umenyiora
  • J.J. Watt
  • Justin Smith
  • Jeremy Mincey
  • Kamerion Wimbley
  • Chris Clemons
  • Robert Quinn
  • Adrian Clayborn
  • Charles Johnson
  • Matt Shaughnessy
  • Mark Anderson
  • Chandler Jones
  • John Abraham
  • The riches continue. In recent seasons, the DL2 tiers were full of question marks and players with a so-so ceiling and small percentage chance of hitting. Not this year.

    I think every player on this list has a chance to be an every-week DL1 and we're 23 players deep. It's even more ammunition for my argument that you should avoid investing an eighth or ninth round pick in Peppers, Babin, Long, etc. over an offensive player this year.

    Johnson should be better after surgery to fix a shoulder that limited his run defense last year and the likelihood that he'll face more pass drops this year. The Panthers have shown a lot of 3-4 during the preseason, which has me concerned enough to drop Johnson into the bottom half of this tier. I may have Watt a tier too low. I'm not worried about a major impact from the dislocated elbow. If you feel he has 7-9 sack upside, move him into the near elite tier. Mincey was the DL8 in 2011 (albeit in a contract season).

    Quinn and Clayborn are prime candidates to make a Year 2 leap. Clayborn had 7.5 sacks as a rookie. Quinn's pressure numbers look elite when prorated over 850+ snaps. Both are in line for 800+ snaps this season and both remain in favorable schemes despite coaching changes. If Quinn projected to better run support and tackle numbers, he'd be at least a full tier higher. Given their current ADP, prioritize drafting one of them as your high upside DL3.

    I've bumped both Shaughnessy and Jones into this tier since August 10. Shaughnessy has moved up just one tier, but he's again showing his ability to be disruptive against both the run and pass in preseason and deserves late DL2, priority DL3 consideration. Jones looks like a veteran and has all but cemented himself as a 700+ snap player.

    Expect your leaguemates to be wary on Wimbley (and Wake) or forget that they're DL-eligible altogether. It's possible you may be able to draft one or both many rounds after Long and Tuck and get similar or better production.

    Norton: The difference between Wimbley and Wake is that Wimbley has been successful as a 4-3 end before. This will not be a new position for him. I really like this guy as a great value pick who will be available much later than he should be in most leagues. Justin Smith is kind of like Trent Cole when it comes to stellar consistency. He is not going to give us double digit sacks but we can count on him to give us 6-8 and push the 50 tackle mark. His ceiling is not as high as some of the other on this tier but we know exactly what we are getting.

    Anyone who has read my Eyes of the Guru column knows how much I like J.J. Watt. That said, there is still a chance that he was a one year wonder and the recent elbow injury could be a factor; especially early in the season. I love Charles Johnson's potential but his situation there in Carolina scares me a little. Mincey may not have the motivation of a contract year this time around but the addition of Andre Branch could go a long way toward keeping offenses honest with their blocking schemes. I really like his production as a run defender.

    I couldn't agree more with Jene on both Shaughnessy and Jones. Shaughnessy looks just like I expected him to last season when he was one of my favorite value picks before being injured value picks. In 2010 Shaughnessy started just eight games but finished among the top 20 defensive linemen with 43 tackles and 7 sacks. The shoulder is obviously just fine. Even Richard Seymour likes Shaughnessy and recently called him "the best run stopping defensive end in the NFL." I don't know if I would go quite that far but I will say that this guy reminds me of a young Jason Taylor. He would be a steal as your third DL.

    Bramel: DL3 with Top 20 Upside

  • Michael Bennett
  • Derrick Morgan
  • Greg Hardy
  • Andre Branch
  • Derek Wolfe
  • Michael Johnson
  • Carlos Dunlap
  • Dunlap may not have made a Pierre-Paul like leap yet, but he's still just 23 years old. This could be the season that he earns 700+ snaps and plays with consistency on all downs. Unlike last season, however, there are too many better options to consider him more than a risk-reward DL3. I moved him down to the bottom of this tier after yet another serious injury (this time a high grade MCL strain) is slowing his development.

    Many players in this tier project to 750+ snaps. That would have been unheard of in the DL25-DL30 range in recent years. With Da'Quan Bowers sidelined with an Achilles injury, Bennett will be a full time player. Like Dunlap, the talent is there for both Morgan and Johnson to break out. All three have 40-8 potential. Branch isn't as talented as Sheard, but he'll have similar opportunity and could be another rookie surprise.

    With Jason Hunter out for the year with a triceps injury, Derek Wolfe has added the majority of the base LDE snaps to his already high-leverage three-technique tackle passing down snaps. He's not an elite talent, but he belongs in this tier.

    Norton: I had originally been concerned that both of the Cincinnati guys on this tier might have to deal with a snap limiting rotational situation. After watching some preseason action I feel more comfortable that they will have ample opportunity.

    I was cautious at best when it came to Derrick Morgan but after seeing him in actions this preseason, my position has changed. Morgan looks much quicker and more explosive than last season. There is clearly something to be said for a player being two years removed from a major injury.

    Bramel: DT1 w/ DL3+ Value

  • Geno Atkins
  • Ndamukong Suh
  • Haloti Ngata
  • Marcell Dareus
  • Ahtyba Rubin
  • I moved Geno Atkins to the top of the defensive tackle tier. He's continued to show his worth as a pass rusher, but he's been dominant against the run, too. I've been reaching for him as my 4th or 5th IDP (after drafting three or four defensive ends and linebackers) in leagues that require a defensive tackle starter to ensure I get his upside in my lineup.

    Suh is still an elite defensive tackle capable of a 40-8 season, but he'll (and the Lions' defensive staff) will have to show they can adjust to how offensive lines handle him in the run game before he can be projected to 40+ solos reliably. There may be other tackles worthy of DL3 or better roster status, but I'll focus on these five in my drafts, especially as priority targets in leagues that separate defensive tackles into a separate position.

    Norton: Suh has the talent to be the top interior lineman in the fantasy game but after last season I am pretty skeptical. My mind goes back to other interior linemen who have had great box score success early in their careers only to fade quickly. Kevin Williams is a prime example.

    Atkins has been impressive. Not only might he repeat as the league leader in sacks by an interior lineman, he could break the 40 tackle mark.

    Bramel: Rosterable Depth/DL4 Targets

  • Darnell Dockett
  • Frostee Rucker
  • Brian Robison
  • Quinton Coples
  • Bruce Irvin
  • Terrell Suggs
  • Lamarr Houston
  • Muhammad Wilkerson
  • Kyle Vanden Bosch
  • Pernell McPhee
  • Lawrence Jackson
  • Israel Idonije
  • Jared Odrick
  • Ray Edwards
  • This is a long list of depth targets. Any player in this tier previously that has stood out in preseason play (most notably Chandler Jones) has been moved into a higher priority tier. In most standard league setups, against average competition, you may not reach this tier during the draft. If you do, the top five names on the list are a half tier above the rest.

    Courtney Upshaw may not see many snaps early in the season; it's taking him longer than hoped to acclimate to the playbook and speed of play. He's off the list for now. Quinton Coples has quietly played well and the Jets are using him in enough 4-3 sets to give him value and upside as a depth DL4 play.

    Norton: I like both Lawrence Jackson and Jared Odrick in this tier as late round sleepers. Jackson is a former first round pick (Seattle 2008) and has been very productive in his part time role as the Lions third end. He could be a big surprise if given a bigger role. Odrick may not put up big sack totals but should be a stout run defender with the potential to reach the 40 tackle plateau. He managed six sacks as a 3-4 end last season and could do most of his damage as an inside pass rusher in nickel situations.

    Bramel: Draftable in DT-Mandatory Leagues

  • Kyle Williams
  • Cullen Jenkins
  • Fletcher Cox
  • Richard Seymour
  • Tommy Kelly
  • Antonio Garay
  • Tyson Alualu
  • Karl Klug
  • Jurrell Casey
  • Corey Williams
  • I'm not a fan of drafting more than one defensive tackle, but I'm listing a handful of high upside plays if you miss out on the top five listed above. Brodrick Bunkley, Christian Ballard and Cam Thomas are also interesting names to consider very late in your drafts.

    Speed Dial Free Agent Targets

  • Cameron Jordan
  • Brandon Graham
  • Shea McClellin
  • Kroy Biermann
  • These four players are might already have a chance at 400 or more snaps. If there's an injury that thrusts them into a near full-time role, move on them early and let them establish a trend on your roster rather than leaving them on the free agent list until they do and having to compete for them later.

    Norton: Add the Raiders Desmond Bryant to this list. He was listed as a tackle last season but ended up playing a lot of end after Shaughnessy was injured. In 10 starts he went 30-5-5. Bryant clearly outplayed LaMarr Houston and could figure significantly into the Raiders plans this year.

    Hope you enjoyed this installment. Comments, suggestions or questions are welcome below or by e-mail at bramel@footballguys.com or norton@footballguys.com.

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