Charg­ers’ de­fen­sive line is elec­tric

USA TODAY International Edition - - SPORTS - Nate Davis

NFL ros­ters are es­sen­tially set un­til train­ing camps open this month. In the mean­time, USA TO­DAY Sports has an­a­lyzed each team’s depth chart and is rank­ing units through­out the league be­fore pro­vid­ing an over­all hi­er­ar­chy of tal­ent. To­day’s po­si­tional group: de­fen­sive line­men.

1. Los An­ge­les Charg­ers: De­fen­sive rookie of the year Joey Bosa fin­ished with 101⁄ sacks in 12 games. He and newly minted Melvin In­gram, who is con­vert­ing from line­backer, could give J. J. Watt and Jade­veon Clowney se­ri­ous com­pe­ti­tion as the league’s top end tan­dem. Ex- Seat­tle Sea­hawk Bran­don Me­bane’s re­u­nion with new de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Gus Bradley means he should be more com­fort­able in the mid­dle. And if lighter, health­ier Corey Li­uget re­bounds in a scheme play­ers typ­i­cally love, this could be a spe­cial quar­tet. 2. Hous­ton Tex­ans: Clowney fi­nally played like a No. 1 over­all draft pick af­ter set­tling in at de­fen­sive end. It’s hard to imag­ine a more de­struc­tive or tal­ented Dline duo if Watt re­verts to form af­ter miss­ing the first games of his ca­reer in 2016. NT D. J. Reader had a solid rookie sea­son but must fill Vince Wil­fork’s huge cleats full time. And depth is a draw­back, es­pe­cially if Watt’s back flares af­ter mul­ti­ple surg­eries or if the in­jury bug re­turns for Clowney. 3. Philadel­phia Ea­gles: Un­der- ap­pre­ci­ated DE Bran­don Gra­ham’s num­bers hardly fore­tell the sleep­less nights he causes of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tors. Vet­er­ans Vinny Curry and Chris Long plus first- rounder Derek Bar­nett flesh out a deep group of pass rush­ers. Very few de­fen­sive tack­les rank with Fletcher Cox, whose pres­ence will cre­ate end­less op­por­tu­ni­ties for re­cently ac­quired Timmy Jerni­gan. 4. New York Gi­ants: DEs Ja­son Pierre- Paul and Olivier Ver­non earned their hefty con­tracts, though de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Steve Steve Spag­n­uolo would love one more pass rusher for his beloved NASCAR pack­age. DT Da­mon “Snacks” Har­ri­son, whose ap­petite for ball­car­ri­ers is rav­en­ous, was an­other wise in­vest­ment. Rookie DT Dalvin Tom­lin­son should re­place Johnathan Hank­ins.

5. Min­nesota Vik­ings: Pro Bowl DE Ever­son Grif­fen re­mains the back­bone, but watch out for Danielle Hunter on the other side. He had 121⁄ sacks last year with nary a start — that will change in 2017. DT Lin­val Joseph clogs the mid­dle as well as any­one in the league. Vet­er­ans Da­tone Jones, Brian Ro­bi­son and Tom John­son pro­vide stel­lar depth.

6. Seat­tle Sea­hawks: DEs Cliff Avril, Michael Ben­nett and Frank Clark com­bined for 261⁄ sacks last year, though Ben­nett does much of his dam­age in­side. DTs Ahtyba Ru­bin and Jar­ran Reed don’t make much noise.

7. Los An­ge­les Rams: Aaron Don­ald might be the NFL’s pre­mier in­te­rior line­man. It’s worth won­der­ing how he’ll be de­ployed in new de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Wade Phillips’ three- man front af­ter dom­i­nat­ing on four- man lines, but don’t for­get that Bruce Smith and J. J. Watt have starred in this de­fense. Don­ald over­shad­ows his line­mates but plays along­side good ones, no­tably Michael Brock­ers. 8. Carolina Pan­thers: DEs Julius Pep­pers, Charles John­son and Mario Ad­di­son form an ex­pe­ri­enced, savvy trio. DT Kawann Short is a mon­ster, hence his new, five- year, $ 80 mil­lion pact. But Star Lo­tulelei will need a bet­ter 2017 if he wants to hold off Ver­non But­ler and even­tu­ally cash in him­self.

9. New Eng­land Pa­tri­ots: If DE Trey Flow­ers was fly­ing un­der the radar af­ter a seven- sack sea­son, he an­nounced his pres­ence by bag­ging Matt Ryan 21⁄ times in the Su­per Bowl. Recla­ma­tion project Kony Ealy and rookie Derek Rivers have ar­rived to help Flow­ers. Lawrence Guy bol­sters an in­te­rior that was al­ready close to im­pen­e­tra­ble with DTs Alan Branch and Mal­com Brown.

10. Mi­ami Dol­phins: The whole was less than the sum of the parts in 2016. But the Dol­phins should gen­er­ate a lot of heat with DEs Cameron Wake and An­dre Branch joined by firstrounder Charles Har­ris and free agent Wil­liam Hayes. In­side, Ndamukong Suh was his typ­i­cal dom­i­nant self, but he needs help af­ter Mi­ami ranked 30th against the run. 11. Jack­sonville Jaguars: Calais Camp­bell’s eight sacks in 2016 were most among NFC in­te­rior line­men. The re­cip­i­ent of a four- year, $ 60 mil­lion deal, he’ll get more op­por­tu­ni­ties on the

edge while anchoring the front with DT Ma­lik Jackson. DE Yan­nick Ngak­oue had eight sacks as a rookie, dou­ble the to­tal 2015 firstrounder Dante Fowler had in his de­but sea­son in 2016. 12. Tampa Bay Buc­ca­neers: DT Ger­ald McCoy should love play­ing along­side free agent ad­di­tion Chris Baker. Hav­ing two play­ers who can stir up so much havoc in­side makes the jobs far eas­ier for DEs Robert Ay­ers, Noah Spence, Wil­liam Ghol­ston and Jac­quies Smith, who re­turns from a ma­jor knee in­jury.

13. At­lanta Fal­cons: Lack of depth was a ma­jor cause for their Su­per Bowl col­lapse as Tom Brady even­tu­ally ran them ragged. But the Fal­cons have shored up their ranks. NT Don­tari Poe and DE Jack Craw­ford signed on, and DE Takkarist McKin­ley ar­rived in the draft. Adrian Clay­born is healed, and Grady Jar­rett should only im­prove. This shouldn’t be the Achilles’ heel any longer. 14. Green Bay Pack­ers: De­spite Letroy Guion’s sus­pen­sion, the Packer have a good thing go­ing. Mike Daniels sets quite a tone with his play and his mouth. Kenny Clark, a first- rounder in 2016, is ready for more af­ter a solid rookie year. New­comer Ricky Jean- Fran­cois of­fers depth and lead­er­ship. 15. Buf­falo Bills: Re­vert­ing to a four- man front de­signed to ap­ply pres­sure should bet­ter suit DEs Jerry Hughes and Shaq Law­son, who man­aged only two sacks in Rex Ryan’s de­fense. Vet­eran DTs Kyle Wil­liams and Mar­cell Dareus have proved they’ll thrive in any scheme.

ing 16. DE Pitts­burghCameron Steel­ers:Hey­ward Los-to a chest­vere blow in­jury to lasta young sea­son de­fense.was a His­sere­turn­fect, es­pe­ciallyshould haveif fel­lowa dra­matic linemene­fStephon Tuitt and Javon Har­grave con­tinue their up­ward tra­jec­to­ries.

17. Cincin­nati Ben­gals: DT Geno Atkins and DE Car­los Dun­lap are two of the most dis­rup­tive pass rush­ers in the league, their 17 com­bined sacks in 2016 hardly in­dica­tive of their col­lec­tive im­pact. Maybe rookie Jor­dan Wil­lis can be­come a needed third play­maker. 18. New York Jets: Long per­ceived as the team’s strength, the line’s play in 2016 forced a re­assess­ment. Leonard Wil­liams might de­servedly be the face of this fran­chise. But Muham­mad Wilk­er­son’s play cratered af­ter he cashed in, and is­sues off the field and in the locker room landed Shel­don Richard­son on the trade block.

19. Ten­nessee Ti­tans: Jur­rell Casey has been a ter­ror for years and might fi­nally get more recog­ni­tion for a team seem­ingly on the cusp of a break­through. DaQuan Jones is steady at the other end, and Karl Klug is ex­cel­lent off the bench.

20. Chicago Bears: DE Akiem Hicks ca­pa­bly holds down his side. And if NT Ed­die Gold­man can re­turn to form af­ter an ab­bre­vi­ated 2016 sea­son, the Bears could be all right here.

21. Detroit Lions: A bum an­kle fu­eled a hugely dis­ap­point­ing year for DE Ziggy An­sah ( two sacks). Su­per sub Kerry Hy­der’s eight sacks were a nice sur­prise. Still, Detroit’s por­ous pass de­fense can largely be at­trib­uted to its short­com­ings up front.

22. Oak­land Raiders: DE Khalil Mack was highly de­serv­ing of his de­fen­sive player of the year se­lec­tion in 2016. Imag­ine the im­pact he’d have with a lit­tle help. Mack’s team­mates com­bined for 14 sacks, giv­ing the Raiders a league- low 25. Oak­land should get a sig­nif­i­cant boost if DE Mario Ed­wards stays healthy. And it would be a bonus if Al­don Smith can get re­in­stated. But the Raiders can’t keep get­ting tram­pled up the gut.

23. Cleve­land Browns: The last time they drafted a de­fen­sive end No. 1 ( Court­ney Brown in 2000), it didn’t work out. Far more will be ex­pected from Myles Gar­rett. DE Em­manuel Og­bah had six sacks as a rookie, and DT Danny Shel­ton is im­mov­able in- side. But every­one will be ad­just­ing to de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Gregg Wil­liams’ lofty de­mands.

24. San Fran­cisco 49ers: An in­trigu­ing mys­tery. The Nin­ers have al­lo­cated their top pick in the last three drafts to the D- line: Arik Arm­stead, De­For­est Buck­ner and Solomon Thomas, the No. 3 over­all se­lec­tion this year. Sea­hawks star Michael Ben­nett has pre­dicted Buck­ner will be a fu­ture de­fen­sive player of the year. For now, this group is in the midst of a philo­soph­i­cal shift un­der new de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Robert Saleh. 25. New Or­leans Saints: The loss of DT Nick Fair­ley ( heart ail­ment) to a sub­par de­fense is dev­as­tat­ing. Im­pos­ing DE Cameron Jor­dan re­mains, but the Saints badly need 2016 first- round DT Shel­don Rank­ins to step up. 26. Kansas City Chiefs: DE Chris Jones had a fan­tas­tic rookie de­but. But with NT Don­tari Poe gone, Jones’ im­pact could be di­luted. 27. Dal­las Cowboys: De­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Rod Marinelli counts on his line to cre­ate pres­sure without blitz help. DE DeMar­cus Lawrence must do more, and first- rounder Taco Charl­ton will be ex­pected to make an im­me­di­ate dif­fer­ence. But the set­backs have started with DT David Irv­ing’s four- game sus­pen­sion. DE Randy Gre­gory won’t be avail­able this year and maybe not again. 28. Bal­ti­more Ravens: NT Bran­don Wil­liams is a black hole for op­pos­ing run­ners. But the Ravens will be look­ing for un­proven play­ers to emerge along­side him. 29. Den­ver Bron­cos: New NT Do­mata Peko brings 11 years of NFL ex­pe­ri­ence. Con­tri­bu­tions from young­sters Adam Got­sis and DeMar­cus Walker would help DE Derek Wolfe. 30. Ari­zona Car­di­nals: Af­ter mak­ing one tackle as a rookie, Robert Nkemdiche, a first- round pick in 2016, has the un­en­vi­able task of re­plac­ing Calais Camp­bell for an oth­er­wise pedes­trian bunch. 31. Wash­ing­ton Red­skins: Rookie Jonathan Allen could be a steal with the 17th pick. But the Red­skins seem per­ilously thin.

32. Indianapolis Colts: Like the lineback­ers, the Indy line has had a makeover, with be­he­moth NT Johnathan Hank­ins and Mar­gus Hunt sign­ing as free agents while the draft brought Tarell Basham and Grover Ste­wart. Now, will it help?

JAKE ROTH, USA TO­DAY SPORTS

Joey Bosa, left, an­chors the Charg­ers’ de­fen­sive line af­ter rack­ing up 101⁄ sacks in 12 games last sea­son and earn­ing NFL de­fen­sive rookie of the year hon­ors. 2

KEVIN JAIRAJ, USA TO­DAY SPORTS

Led by three- time NFL de­fen­sive player of the year J. J. Watt, the Tex­ans’ front line is for­mi­da­ble.

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