Source: Philadelphia Enquirer

As the NFL regular season and the start of college classes approach, I thought it would be cool to rank the best players at various positions. The defensive end position is an interesting one because there is a clear cutoff between the All-Pro players and the best of the rest. See if you can spot it.
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For this article, Cameron Heyward and Chris Jones are officially being listed as defensive tackles. Heyward still takes a good number of snaps at defensive end, but he’s listed as a defensive tackle on the depth chart on the Pittsburgh Steelers’ official website. Bradley Chubb, Jadeveon Clowney, and Khalil Mack are officially being counted as outside linebackers.

1. J.J. Watt, Houston Texans

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Despite playing in a combined eight games between 2016 and 2017, Watt rebounded in 2018 and proved once again that he’s the best defensive end in football. This past season, Watt was selected as a First Team All-Pro at defensive end and a Second Team All-Pro at defensive tackle. He finished 2018 with 61 combined tackles, the second-most sacks in the league (16), and a league-leading seven forced fumbles.

2. Joey Bosa, Los Angeles Chargers

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2018 was supposed to be the year that Bosa broke into the All-Pro ranks. Unfortunately, injuries limited him to seven appearances and six starts. During his shortened season, Bosa recorded 23 combined tackles and 5.5 sacks. However, in 2017 he posted 70 combined tackles, 12.5 sacks, and four forced fumbles. That’s a better estimate of what we’ll see from Bosa in the future.

3. Myles Garrett, Cleveland Browns

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In just his second season, Garrett was a Second Team All-Pro last season. He finished sixth in sacks last season with 13.5 and also posted 44 combined tackles and three forced fumbles. The Browns have only grown more dangerous this offseason. Specifically, the team signed Pro Bowl defensive end, Olivier Vernon, and former Pro Bowl defensive tackle, Sheldon Richardson. These additions to the defensive line should help propel Garrett to the best year of his young career in 2019.

4. Calais Campbell, Jacksonville Jaguars

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In his early 30s, Campbell is in the prime of his career. The elder statesman at the defensive end position has been money for the Jaguars the last two seasons. During that time, he has 139 combined tackles, 25 sacks, and four forced fumbles. In 2018, Campbell tied a career-high with 72 combined tackles and posted the second-most sacks of his career with 10.5. In 2017, Campbell was a First Team All-Pro at defensive end and a Second Team All-Pro at defensive tackle. He’s a criminally underrated player who quietly impacts games in a huge way.

5. Cameron Jordan, New Orleans Saints

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Over the last two seasons, Jordan posted back-to-back ten-plus sack years for the first time in his career. He was a First Team All-Pro in 2017 and a Second Team All-Pro this past season. Jordan is coming off of a year that saw him post 49 combined tackles and 12 sacks. While he’s a strong pass rusher, Jordan can make a huge impact in the run game. He just needs to keep his sack production up if he wants to continue climbing the defensive end hierarchy.

6. Chandler Jones, Arizona Cardinals

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Maybe it’s because he plays in Arizona, but Jones is overlooked far too often. He was a First Team All-Pro in 2017 when he led the NFL with 17 sacks, but he didn’t even make the Pro Bowl last season. It’s not like his production vanished. It did dip, but Jones still put up 49 combined tackles, 13 sacks, and three forced fumbles. Only Aaron Donald has more sacks than Jones over the past two seasons.

7. Danielle Hunter, Minnesota Vikings

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So far, Hunter has failed to find statistical consistency. Back in 2016, he recorded 12.5 sacks despite not starting a game. However, he managed only seven sacks in 2017 despite being a full-time starter. Now he’s coming off of a 14.5 sack season, which was the fourth-most in the entire NFL. Hunter also set a career high with 72 combined tackles. For his efforts, he was named a Second Team All-Pro. Hunter’s future is exciting, but he needs to show that he can be consistent year in and year out.

8. Demarcus Lawrence, Dallas Cowboys

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Lawrence’s 2018 campaign wasn’t quite as strong as his 2017 performance, but it was close. Lawrence finished last season with 64 combined tackles, 10.5 sacks, an interception, and two forced fumbles. The 2014 second round selection has a balanced game that allows him to play well against the run and pass. The Cowboys have quietly assembled some very talented defensive pieces, but Lawrence serves as the anchor on the defensive line.

9. Dee Ford, San Francisco 49ers

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Earlier I said that Hunter was inconsistent statistically. Well, Ford takes that to another level. He’s battled injuries and inconsistent play throughout his career. That being said, he is coming off of a year where he posted career-highs in combined tackles (55), sacks (13), and forced fumbles (seven). He tied Watt for the league-lead in that final category. Despite his breakout season, Ford wasn’t an All-Pro and the Kansas City Chiefs were comfortable trading him. There’s still some hesitation around the NFL as to how good Ford is.

10. Frank Clark, Kansas City Chiefs

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With Ford gone, the Chiefs were able to trade for a more consistent defensive end in Clark. Clark has 32 sacks over the last three seasons and has only missed one game during that time despite only becoming a full-time starter in 2017. Clark is coming off of a year where he set career-highs in solo tackles (33), sacks (13), interceptions (one), and forced fumbles (three). His 41 combined tackles aren’t very impressive when compared alongside better run-stopping ends, but he is a solid pass rusher who can stay healthy and always get around that ten-sack mark.

Honorable Mentions

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11. Yannick Ngakoue, Jacksonville Jaguars

In his three-year career, Ngakoue has 29.5 sacks. He’s a young star but has yet to maintain consistent Pro Bowl production. As a rookie, Ngakoue made eight sacks and forced four fumbles. In 2017, he set career-highs in combined tackles (30), sacks (12), and forced fumbles (six). Those highs still stand as Ngakoue took a step back in his third season. While he was still able to get after the quarterback, he failed to finish as many plays with sacks and forced zero fumbles. Ngakoue finished 2018 with28 combined tackles and 9.5 sacks. He still has a long way to go.

12. Justin Houston, Indianapolis Colts

The former Chief is four years removed from his last Pro Bowl selection and five years removed from leading the NFL with 22 sacks in 2014. The former outside linebacker signed with the Colts this offseason and will transition to playing defensive end. Hopefully Houston, who is often injured, will stay healthy in Indy and return to his All-Pro form. In 2018, he recorded 37 combined tackles, nine sacks, an interception, and a career-high five forced fumbles.

13. Jason Pierre-Paul, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Injuries and a fireworks incident derailed Pierre-Paul’s once-promising career. However, he scraped together a Pro Bowl worthy 2018 season. Pierre-Paul finished the season with 58 combined tackles, 12.5 sacks, and a forced fumble. The last time Pierre-Paul recorded that many sacks was 2014, which was also the last time he recorded ten or more sacks. The injury bug has bit Pierre-Paul yet again though, as he fractured a vertebra in his neck this offseason. He will be out for a significant portion of the regular season.

14. Melvin Ingram, Los Angeles Chargers

Without Bosa, Ingram struggled in 2018. He followed up a 10.5 sack season in 2017 with just seven last year. His tackle numbers also dropped from 56 down to 43. Ingram was still an impactful player and did make the Pro Bowl, but he was nowhere near as productive without Bosa. He’s not an All-Pro caliber player.

15. Olivier Vernon, Cleveland Browns

Vernon’s highest-sack-total season came back in 2013 with the Miami Dolphins, but he made his first Pro Bowl in 2018. In 11 games, Vernon recorded 30 combined tackles, seven sacks, and a forced fumble. While he’s a good addition for the Browns, he’s not a star pass rusher and probably won’t make another Pro Bowl anytime soon.

What’s next?

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Michael Bennett, New England Patriots

2018 ended Bennett’s streak of three consecutive Pro Bowls. However, if you believe Pro Football Reference, he had the most quarterback hits (30) in 2018 since his 2015 season. As a rotational pass rusher, Bennett still posted nine sacks, which is tied for the second-most in his career. He also made 34 combined tackles and forced two fumbles.

Everson Griffen, Minnesota Vikings

2018 also snapped Griffen’s streak of three consecutive Pro Bowls. Griffen took time away from the team and football to deal with personal issues. He appeared in 11 games and made ten starts. He finished the year with 33 combined tackles and 5.5 sacks. Before 2018, Griffen had 43.5 sacks in the previous four seasons. We’ll see if he can return to form in 2019.

Rising Stars

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1. Jonathan Allen, Washington Redskins

The 17th Overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft played in just five games as a rookie because of injuries. He bounced back with an optimistic 2018 campaign though. Allen played in every game and finished the season with 61 combined tackles and eight sacks. Alongside Ryan Kerrigan and Da’Ron Payne, Allen is primed for a breakout season in 2019.

2. Trey Flowers, Detroit Lions

Flowers earned a massive contract from Detroit this offseason after posting 57 combined tackles, 7.5 sacks, and three forced fumbles with New England in 2018. Analytics say Flowers’ impact is bigger than his stat line shows, but he still hasn’t graduated to that upper echelon of defensive ends.

3. Sam Hubbard, Cincinnati Bengals

The 2018 third round pick showed flashes of potential as a rookie. He appeared in all 16 games, but he never made a start. Even so, he recorded 39 combined tackles and six sacks. Depending on how well Carl Lawson is healing, Hubbard could see a significant number of snaps to start the season.

4. Romeo Okwara, Detroit Lions

With the Lions last season, Okwara recorded 39 combined tackles, 7.5 sacks, and a forced fumble. The former undrafted free agent looked good in his first year as a full-time starter. Now that he’s paired with Flowers, both defensive ends could statistically benefit from each other’s success.