For the first time ever there are actually a LOT of very good 3-4 defensive ends in the NFL, it's just unfortunate that it is coming at a time that a lot of teams are starting to transition back to a 4-3. Typically in the past, the focus of a 3-4 scheme has been the passing rush of the outside linebackers, flying in off the edge, while a front three of a beefy nose tackle and two stout ends clog up the middle. Now though, there are so many 3-4 ends that are racking up sacks and causing havoc for offenses, and almost a shortage of great pass-rushing outside linebackers.
I want to focus on these great new defensive players starting to come up between the tackles, so I will be creating this team in the form of a 3-4 scheme, but I do want to note that Lavonte David was one of my favorite players to watch this year, despite not fitting my scheme.
Dontari Poe, Kansas City Chiefs
Poe is an absolute monster as a nose tackle. His speed is an absolute nightmare for interior linemen. While these great 3-4 ends are coming around, the Chiefs don't actually have any of them. Poe's presence doesn't make that an issue. He isn't going to rack up double digit sacks, but he collapses pockets as good as Vince Wilfork did in his prime.
JJ Watt, Houston Texans
Muhammad Wilkerson, New York Jets
JJ Watt had a down year, maybe because he broke his nose like six games in a row, but even so he was the best end in the game. Last year, you couldn't even make an argument against him. This year, it's a little closer, but he still gets the nod. He still eclipsed the 10 sack mark, and still demanded double teams every snap. putting him next to a nose tackle like Poe would be unfathomable for coaching staffs, and even scarier is the idea of lining up an outside linebacker to come in right next to him (cough*Clowney*cough).
Wilkerson is one of those ends that has closed the gap on Watt, but Cameron Jordan also deserves recognition. Rob Ryan was the best thing that could have happened to Jordan, as he was a bad fit for a 4-3 defense last year and got to move inside with Ryan's 3-4 this year. It was the right move as Jordan went on to accumulate 12.5 sacks of his own, and made a mediocre Junior Galette look good by demanding double teams frequently. Wilkerson, who was great last year as well, improved even further this year. Wilkerson gets the nod for my team because he's better against the run. Watt, who is great in both the pass and the run, is more dominant in the pass game, so I wanted to have someone with more tackle blood in him rather than the end blood that Cameron has.
Robert Quinn, St. Louis Rams
Robert Mathis, Indianapolis Colts
I know, I know. I Robert Quinn is a defensive end, but hear me out. I was fighting with myself over which outside linebacker to put here. Mathis was a lock, but I was debating between Tamba Hali, Justin Houston, and even Terrell Suggs for weeks. Houston and Hali may very well have been deserving, but because injuries hampered both of them towards the end of the year, I couldn't really consider either one as the top guy. Suggs isn't as good as either one of them, even with his hot start to the year.
Quinn is just too good. He is the best pass rusher in the NFL and it's not even close. It was amazing he didn't get a sack every time the quarterback dropped back for a pass. Watching him play this year was a real treat. Coming out of college he was viewed as a fit for both a 3-4 fit or a 4-3 fit, and personally I thought he could have been even better in a 3-4, but what matters is that we have seen him in the NFL long enough to know that he would dominate either way. The most important thing is that it's easy to see he has the speed to play in pass coverage. Just this year we watched him chase down Cam Newton, Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick for sacks. Truthfully, he's so dominant of a pass rusher that having him do anything else is almost a waste of his talent, but I can confidently say that he would still be the best pass rusher in the NFL if he were playing in a 3-4.
Patrick Willis, San Francisco 49ers
Navarro Bowman, San Francisco 49ers
It's amazing to think that the two best 3-4 inside linebackers are on the same team, but it's the truth. This season Willis essentially handed Bowman the reigns of the defense, and he thrived in every aspect. Kyle likes to call Willis a great insurance policy, because he tells Bowman to do all the work, but if he ever missed his assignment, or a tackle, or anything even remotely bad happened, Willis would be there to clean up the mess. For the record, there were not many messes to clean up this year, which is why Willis wasn't seen much. It's a real shame about Bowman's injury in the playoffs, especially since the entire country watched in happen 400 times (thanks Fox). Unless he has an Adrian Peterson-like recovery we probably won't be seeing him until late in the 2014 season, at the earliest.
Earl Thomas, Seattle Seahawks
Jairus Byrd, Buffalo Bills
In today's NFL, the line between free safety and strong safety are becoming blurred. Seattle and Arizona are really the only teams that you can see a glaring difference between their safeties, and it's really only because Kam Chancellor hits like Optimus Prime and Tyrann Mathieu's range on the field is remarkable. With a run defense led by Willis and Bowman, I would be comfortable taking the two best overall safeties in the NFL to roam the depths of field.
Richard Sherman, Seattle Seahawks
Joe Haden, Cleveland Browns
There are a lot of good corners in the NFL today, with a lot that arguments could be made for as the top corner. Patrick Peterson might be the most athletic person in the league, but he lacks discipline sometimes. Aqib Talib was shutting everybody down the first half of the season, but his second half was plagued with injuries, a bad temper against Carolina and a malicious injury by the Broncos game plan in the AFC Championship game. Alteraun Verner was great this year, as was Darrell Revis, but Haden in my eyes is still the best of the best (until Revis gets back into playing some man coverage). And obviously Richard Sherman is the best corner in the game. Don't try him with a sorry receiver like Michael Crabtree. You know by now the result you're gonna get.