Ranking NFL defensive linemen by team: Have J.J. Watt's Texans been overtaken?

Nate Davis

NFL rosters are essentially set until training camps open later 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. 

Houston Texans outside linebacker Jadeveon Clowney (90) celebrates with defensive end J.J. Watt (99) after sacking New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (not pictured) during the game at NRG Stadium.

Today's positional group: Defensive linemen

1. Los Angeles Chargers: Defensive rookie of the year Joey Bosa finished with 10 ½ sacks in just 12 games. He and newly minted Melvin Ingram, who's converting from linebacker, could give J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney serious competition as the league's top end tandem. Ex-Seahawk Brandon Mebane's reunion with new DC Gus Bradley means he should be more comfortable in the middle. And if a 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. Hard to imagine a more destructive or talented D-line 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 now 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.


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3. Philadelphia Eagles: Underappreciated DE Brandon Graham's numbers hardly foretell the sleepless nights he causes offensive coordinators. Vets 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 DC Steve Steve Spagnuolo would love one more pass rusher for his beloved NASCAR package. DT Damon "Snacks" Harrison, whose appetite for ball carriers 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 12 ½ 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 26 ½ 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 may be the NFL's premier interior lineman. It's worth wondering how he'll be deployed in new DC 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 2 ½ 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 sum of the parts in 2016. But the Fins should generate a lot of heat with DEs Cameron Wake and Andre Branch joined by first rounder 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.


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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 Jags' front with DT Malik Jackson. DE Yannick Ngakoue had eight sacks as a rookie, double the total former first rounder Dante Fowler had in his debut season.

12. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: DT Gerald McCoy should love playing alongside free agent addition Chris Baker. Having two players who can stir so much havoc inside makes the jobs for DEs Robert Ayers, Noah Spence, William Gholston and Jacquies Smith, who returns from a major knee injury, far easier. 

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 Takk 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 Pack has 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 just two sacks in Rex Ryan's defense. Veteran DTs Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus have proven they'll thrive in any scheme.

16. Pittsburgh Steelers: Losing DE Cam Heyward to a chest injury last season was a severe blow to a young defense. His return should have a dramatic effect, especially if fellow linemen Stephon Tuitt and Javon Hargrave continue their upward trajectory.

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 play maker.

18. New York Jets: Long perceived as the team's strength, 2016 forced a reassessment. Leonard Williams may now 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.

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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 inside. But everyone will be adjusting to DC Gregg Williams' lofty demands.

24. San Francisco 49ers: An intriguing mystery. The Niners have allocated their top pick in the past three drafts on the D-line: Arik Armstead, DeForest Buckner and Solomon Thomas, the No. 3 overall selection this year. Seahawks star Michael Bennett recently predicted Buckner will be defensive player of the year at some point. For now, this group is in the midst of a philosophical shift under new DC Robert Saleh. 

25. New Orleans Saints: The loss of DT Nick Fairley (heart ailment) to an already subpar defense is devastating. Imposing DE Cam 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.

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27. Dallas Cowboys: DC 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 already 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 12 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 'Skins seem perilously thin here.

32. Indianapolis Colts: Like the linebackers, the Indy line has undergone 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 actually help?


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