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Will the Eagles Really Have One of the Best Defensive Lines Ever?

Michael Bennett thinks they might, so we looked at who they’d be stacked up against

The Eagles doubled down on what was already one of the league’s most dominant defensive lines this month by trading for Michael Bennett. The former Seahawks pass rusher represents the capstone piece to an absurd collection of talent. The 32-year-old vet is fresh off a season in which he racked up 8.5 sacks, 24 quarterback hits (the 10th-best mark in the league), and 70 total pressures and ranked seventh in the NFL in disruptions—and now joins a defensive front that also features second-team All-Pro defensive tackle Fletcher Cox; a trio of productive edge rushers in Brandon Graham, Derek Barnett, and Chris Long; and a pair of immovable war daddies in Timmy Jernigan and the recently signed Haloti Ngata. Bennett pulled no punches in his introductory presser when he declared that Philadelphia “can have one of the greatest defensive lines to ever play the game.”

So, is Bennett right? Well, it’s always difficult to compare different eras, and it’ll be tough for Philly to stack up to many of the league’s legendary squads, whether we’re talking about the ’85 Bears’ front or the handful of lines so dominant they earned nicknames like the Purple People Eaters, the Steel Curtain, the Fearsome Foursome, and the New York Sack Exchange. So let’s narrow the scope a little bit, stick to this century, and take a look at the relative contemporaries this Eagles defensive line must compete with. Obviously, the first step is to outshine last year’s group, which led the NFL in quarterback pressures and gave up a league-low 79.2 rush yards a game. Then, they’ll have to contend with these 20 teams, the most talent-packed, sack-happy defensive fronts assembled over the past 18 seasons.

2000 New Orleans Saints

The Super Bowl XXXV champion Ravens will go down in history as one of the best overall defenses ever—and its intimidating front consisting of Sam Adams, Tony Siragusa, Peter Boulware, Rob Burnett, and Michael McCrary was nothing to sniff at. But the Saints’ underappreciated front line from that year was somehow better. That unit featured three double-digit sack artists and two Pro Bowlers, and, as a team, the Saints posted 66 sacks—11 more than the second-place Titans and the sixth most in league history. DT La’Roi Glover racked up a league-high 17.0 sacks to earn first-team All-Pro honors; DE Joe Johnson grabbed 12.0 sacks, went to the Pro Bowl, and earned the Comeback Player of the Year award as he returned from a torn patellar; Darren Howard added 11.0 sacks of his own to set a new team rookie record; and outside linebackers Keith Mitchell (6.5 sacks) and Mark Fields (two) both went to the Pro Bowl, too. New Orleans went from worst to first in the division under new head coach Jim Haslett and beat the defending Super Bowl champion Rams in the wild-card round, capturing the franchise’s first-ever playoff win before eventually losing to the Vikings in the divisional round.

2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Jon Gruden’s Super Bowl XXXVII champion Buccaneers rank among the best defenses in league history and were anchored by a front line featuring Hall of Famer Warren Sapp (who grabbed 7.5 sacks), All-Pro pass rusher Simeon Rice (who finished second in the NFL with 15.5 sacks), Anthony “Booger” McFarland, Chartric Darby, Ellis Wyms, and Greg Spires. The Bucs finished with 43 sacks (sixth), and they were strong against the run, too, surrendering just 97.1 rush yards per game and eight rushing touchdowns all year. In the team’s defining 48-21 Super Bowl rout of the Raiders, that group of pass rushers put quarterback Rich Gannon on the turf five times.

2004 Indianapolis Colts

The 2000s Colts will always be linked most heavily to Peyton Manning, but those squads got plenty of help in the form of a fearsome pass rush, especially in 2004. Dwight Freeney earned All-Pro honors with a league-best 16.0 sacks and was joined in the double-digit-sack club by Robert Mathis, who finished with 10.5 of his own. That duo was bolstered by a talented core of role players, including defensive end Raheem Brock (6.5 sacks) and defensive tackles Montae Reagor (5.0 sacks and 34 tackles) and Josh Williams (two fumble recoveries). Indy finished 12-4, won the AFC South, and beat the Broncos 49-24 in the wild-card before losing to the Patriots in the divisional round.

San Diego Chargers v Seattle Seahawks Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

2006 San Diego Chargers

This Chargers squad led the NFL with 61 sacks, and All-Pro Shawne “Lights Out” Merriman was fun as hell to watch. At just 22 years old, Merriman racked up a league-best 17.0 sacks even after sitting out four games to a steroid-related suspension. He got plenty of help from his teammates, including outside linebacker Shaun Phillips (11.5 sacks), defensive ends Luis Castillo, and Jacques Cesaire (four sacks). The anchor of the line was All-Pro nose tackle Jamal Williams, who weighed 348 pounds. The Bolts rode LaDainian Tomlinson and their relentless pass rush to a 14-2 record and an AFC West title but lost to the Patriots in the divisional round.

2006 Baltimore Ravens

The Ravens’ pass rush that year was just as dominant as that of the Chargers—if not more. That group finished second in the league with 60 sacks and an NFL-best 9.4 percent adjusted sack rate, per Football Outsiders. It was led by All-Pro pass rusher Adalius Thomas (11.0 sacks), Pro Bowler Terrell Suggs (9.5), and then-31-year-old Trevor Pryce, who finished tied for fifth in the league with 13.0 sacks. Kelly Gregg started 16 games at nose tackle, and a 22-year old rookie by the name of Haloti Ngata lined up next to him, notching one sack, 13 solo tackles, and an interception, which he returned 60 yards. The Ravens were incredibly stout against the run, too, allowing just 3.3 yards per carry (second) and a league-low of just five rushing touchdowns. With the help of its dominant front, Baltimore finished 13-3 and won the AFC North but lost in the divisional round to the Colts.

2007 New York Giants

New York featured a surplus of top-tier edge-rushing talent in Michael Strahan, Justin Tuck, and Osi Umenyiora. Against the Eagles in Week 4, the Giants posted an unbelievable 12 sacks to tie the all-time record, and New York ended up leading the NFL in sacks (53) and adjusted sack rate (8.8 percent). Umenyiora finished with 13.0 sacks on the year, Tuck added 10.0, and Strahan finished with nine. The 30-year-old Fred Robbins added 5.5 sacks, Mathias Kiwanuka got 4.5, and defensive tackles Barry Cofield and Jay Alford each tacked on one more. That squad went 10-6 and snuck into the playoffs as a wild-card team but caught fire at the right time to beat the until-then-undefeated Patriots, 17-14, in Super Bowl XLII. The constant pressure that the team’s front line generated while sacking Tom Brady five times played a big part in the upset.

2008 Dallas Cowboys

This group was top-heavy, led by DeMarcus Ware, who racked up 20 of the team’s league-best 59 sacks. But the sheer efficiency in which that unit got after the passer is worth noting: The Cowboys notched an adjusted sack rate of 9.9 percent, per Football Outsiders, fourth best going back to the start of the century behind only the 2000 Saints, 2000 Titans, and 2001 Saints. Defensive end Greg Ellis grabbed eight sacks, Pro Bowler Jay Ratliff added 7.5, and Chris Canty registered another three.

2008 Pittsburgh Steelers

There’s a handful of Steelers squads that could be on this list, but the Super Bowl XLIII champion team stands out the most. That front featured James Harrison (16.0 sacks), LaMarr Woodley (11.5), and Casey Hampton (one), plus a pair of savvy veterans in Brett Keisel (one) and Aaron Smith (5.5). Pittsburgh finished second in the NFL in sacks that year—and against the run, the team was dominant, finishing tied for first in yards per carry allowed (3.3) and second in rush yards surrendered (80.3 per game).

2009 Minnesota Vikings

This 2009 Vikings’ front was deep and talented: The outside featured defensive end Jared Allen, who finished second in the league with 14.5 sacks, and Ray Edwards, who added 8.5 sacks of his own. All-Pro tackle Kevin Williams and a 37-year-old Pat Williams (who’d gone to the Pro Bowl the previous three seasons) made up “the Williams Wall,” which combined for eight sacks and helped the team finish second in rushing yards allowed while giving up just five touchdowns on the ground all year (tied for first). Add in Brian Robison (4.5 sacks) and Jimmy Kennedy (three), and it should be no surprise Minnesota led the NFL in sacks (48) that year—a factor that helped the team to a 12-4 record and appearance in the NFC championship game.

New York Giants v New York Jets Photo by Rich Schultz /Getty Images

2011 New York Giants

In 2011, Giants defensive coordinator Perry Fewell debuted what would later become known as the team’s “NASCAR” package—eschewing bigger, stouter run-stuffers in the middle of the line to instead lean on a four-man pass-rush group made up of Kiwanuka, Umenyiora, Tuck, and Jason Pierre-Paul. The result? New York tied for third in the league in sacks (48); Pierre-Paul led the way as a 22-year-old, racking up 16.5 sacks to go with Umenyiora’s nine, Tuck’s five, and Kiwanuka’s 3.5—and rotational linemen Dave Tollefson (five sacks), Chris Canty (four), and Linval Joseph (two) pitched in a combined 11 more. Like the team’s dominant 2007 line, this disruptive crew helped lead the G-Men to a Super Bowl win over the Patriots.

2012 Denver Broncos

Denver tied for the league lead in sacks (52) and adjusted sack rate (8.7 percent) in 2012, led by then-23-year old All-Pro outside linebacker Von Miller, who finished third in the NFL with 18.5 sacks. Miller got plenty of help in the form of Pro Bowler Elvis Dumervil (11.0 sacks), rookie Derek Wolfe (six), and veteran Robert Ayers (two) while the trio of Kevin Vickerson, Justin Bannan, and Mitch Unrein helped the team stuff the run, where it surrendered just 3.6 yards per carry and tied for the league-low with just five rushing scores allowed. In Peyton Manning’s first year with the team, Denver rode a much-improved passing attack and its deep defensive line to a 13-3 record and AFC West divisional title, but it lost to the eventual Super Bowl champion Ravens in the divisional round.

2012 San Francisco 49ers

The Jim Harbaugh–era 49ers featured one of the most dominant front sevens ever assembled, an elite group that helped San Francisco win the NFC in 2012. But while the unit certainly benefited from its pair of All-Pro middle linebackers in Navorro Bowman and Patrick Willis, it was anchored by the top-notch group of playmakers up front. Pro Bowler Justin Smith (who still may be one of the most underrated players ever) ate up blocks and caused havoc on the inside, helping to free up then-23-year-old All-Pro Aldon Smith for one-on-one situations off the edge. The younger Smith responded by racking up 19.5 sacks (second in the league), and was bookended on the line by Ahmad Brooks, who finished with 6.5 sacks. The team had plenty of depth everywhere else, with Ray McDonald, Ricky Jean-Francois, and Isaac Sopoaga combining to add another 5.5 sacks. San Francisco gave up just seven scores on the ground that year (fourth) and allowed just 3.7 yards per carry to opposing backs (third).

2013 Carolina Panthers

This Panthers’ line was incredibly deep: Off the edge, Carolina had Greg Hardy (15.0 sacks), Charles Johnson (11.0), Mario Addison (2.5), and Wes Horton (two). In the middle, that unit featured Dwan Edwards (three sacks), Star Lotulelei (three), Kawann Short (1.5), and Colin Cole (1.0). It’s little wonder the Panthers led the NFL with 60 sacks and finished with a 9.2 percent adjusted sack rate, second in the league, while surrendering just four rushing touchdowns all season (tied for fewest). That squad finished 12-4 and won the NFC South before falling to the 49ers in the divisional round.

2013-2014 Buffalo Bills

The Bills finished 6-10 and in last place in the AFC East in 2013, but it wasn’t for lack of trying by its defensive line. That group had three double-digit sack producers in Mario Williams (13.0), Kyle Williams (10.5), and Jerry Hughes (10.0) and got another 7.5 out of Pro Bowl defensive tackle Marcell Dareus. I made this section a two-year stretch because this squad had three double-digit sack artists again the next year from Mario Williams (14.5), Hughes (10.0), and Dareus (10.0). Unfortunately for Buffalo, all that production (the team led the NFL in sacks in 2014) once again failed to help the team to the playoffs.

2014 Kansas City Chiefs

The 2014 Chiefs featured three Pro Bowlers up front who combined for 34 sacks, with Justin Houston grabbing a league-best 22.0 and Tamba Hali and nose tackle Dontari Poe adding six apiece. Add in Allen Bailey (5.0 sacks), Vance Walker (2.0), Dee Ford (1.5), and Jaye Howard (1.0), and that was an extremely deep and talented front. In addition to their pass-rush prowess, the Chiefs allowed just four rushing touchdowns on the year (first). It wasn’t enough to get to the postseason, though, and Kansas City ended the year 9-7 and tied for second place in the AFC West.

Oakland Raiders v Denver Broncos Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

2015 Denver Broncos

Denver’s defensive front line dominated in the team’s run to the Super Bowl with a league-leading 52 sacks and an NFL-best 8.1 percent adjusted sack rate. The combo of Miller (11.0 sacks) and Ware (7.5) was just the start. That unit brought pressure from every angle: Shaquil Barrett and rookie Shane Ray combined for 9.5 sacks off the edge, and Malik Jackson (5.5), Wolfe (5.5), Sylvester Williams (2.5), and Antonio Smith (2.5) all made an impact rushing from the inside. Oh, and this squad allowed a league-low 3.3 yards per carry and just 83.6 rushing yards a game to opposing teams.

2015 Houston Texans

Houston’s top-tier, über-deep defensive line group basically carried the team to the playoffs in 2015, with Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt leading the way. Watt was unblockable, racking up 17.5 sacks and 92 pressures, but he had plenty of support around him, with Whitney Mercilus grabbing 12.0 sacks and John Simon and Jadeveon Clowney adding another 9.5 combined. At 325 pounds, Vince Wilfork plugged up the middle, and was joined on the inside by Jared Crick. The Texans finished 9-7 to win the AFC South but took an early exit from the postseason with a wild-card loss to the Chiefs.

2015 New England Patriots

Tom Brady’s always going to be the center of attention for New England, but the Patriots’ 2015 defense had a seriously impressive pass-rushing crew. Positional roles in the Pats’ defense are pretty fluid, so the term “defensive front” is a little generous, but the combination of Chandler Jones (12.5 sacks), Jabaal Sheard (eight), Rob Ninkovich (6.5), Jamie Collins (5.5), Dont’a Hightower (3.5), Malcom Brown (three), Akiem Hicks (three), Dominique Easley (two), and Alan Branch (one) was simply too much to handle for most offensive lines. New England finished second in the NFL in both adjusted sack rate (7.8 percent) and sacks (49).

2016 Arizona Cardinals

The Cardinals led the league in sacks (48) two years ago thanks to a trio of explosive pass rushers: Markus Golden led the team with 12.5 sacks, Chandler Jones grabbed 11.0 of his own, and the inimitable Calais Campbell added 8.0 rushing from all over the line. A dependable, tough interior rotation of Corey Peters, Josh Mauro, Frostee Rucker, and Rodney Gunter helped make Arizona one of the best run-defending teams in the league, too, and the team surrendered just 3.6 yards per carry to tie for second-fewest in the league.

2017 Jacksonville Jaguars

The depth and talent on the Jaguars’ line from last year were rivaled only by those of the Eagles. Jacksonville finished second in the league in sacks (55), utilizing a devastating rotation of rushers to overwhelm opposing offensive lines. In his first year in a Jaguars uniform, Campbell racked up 14.5 sacks, and second-year pro Yannick Ngakoue joined him in the double digits with 12.0 sacks, primarily coming off the other edge. Malik Jackson added eight sacks from the middle, and Dante Fowler grabbed another eight for himself. The midseason addition of former All-Pro Marcell Dareus was just the cherry on top for an already talent-packed group, and was a major piece to the team’s improvement against the run in the second half of the year.