NFL’s top 5 defensive ends in a 3-4 scheme

Some of the game’s best are proving that defensive ends in a 3-4 scheme can get to the quarterback, too.

The NFL is an ever-changing game. The 3-4 defensive scheme seemed to go extinct for a decade or more after heavy use in the 1970s and ‘80s. Now, after a resurgence, more teams than not are using that as their base defensive set.

However, it’s a bit more complicated than simply saying the defensive ends in the 3-4 are asked to stop the run more than rush the passer. Teams are mixing their alignments more and finding ways to get their best pass rushers in advantageous matchups, whether they are classified as defensive tackles or ends, or in a 4-3 or 3-4 defense.

Officially, J.J. Watt is listed as a defensive end, but there are times the Houston Texans will use him at tackle, too, in their 3-4 defense. But no matter what the scheme or where he’s playing, Watt has established himself as the most dominant defensive lineman in the game and deservedly won the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award twice, including last year.

Watt leads the list of top 3-4 defensive ends, but there are plenty of good ones entering 2015.

1. J.J. Watt, Houston Texans
Watt earns the many accolades he receives. Not only is he the best defensive end in the NFL, he might be the best player in the NFL despite that conversation always being tilted toward quarterbacks. The high-energy player generated 20½ sacks in 2014, 11 passes defensed, an 80-yard interception return for a touchdown, four forced fumbles and five fumbles recovered. Seriously, is there anything he doesn’t do? In addition his 20½ sacks that led all defensive linemen – and the second time he has surpassed 20 sacks in his young career – he was credited with 54 quarterback hurries, according to Pro Football Focus. He also had one of the best rankings against the run on his way to 78 tackles, another league-leading statistic among linemen. In NFL terms, Watt is worth every penny of $100 million contract.

2. Calais Campbell, Arizona Cardinals
Although he doesn’t generate the sack numbers of some of the other defensive ends, Campbell is ideally suited to play the position in a 3-4 defense. Last year, he had 58 tackles, seven sacks, 30 quarterback hurries and four passes defensed. But he is every bit as good stopping the run, maybe better, as he is pressuring the quarterback. The 6-foot-8, 300-pounder is disruptive no matter if it’s a run or a pass, and the Cardinals know his worth, giving him a contract that averages $11 million per season.

3. Sheldon Richardson, New York Jets
Richardson was one of the more used 3-4 ends in the league, playing in 835 snaps, and was equally adept rushing the passer and stopping the run. He produced eight sacks and 67 tackles, one of the better totals among defensive linemen in the NFL. In addition, PFF credited him with 31 quarterback hurries. He had six penalties, but only one of them came in the second half of the season. The dark cloud looming over his head is that he starts the season with a four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s policy on substance abuse, so how quickly will he rebound from that and get acclimated to the new responsibilities in Todd Bowles’ defense?

4. Jerry Hughes, Buffalo Bills
After a shaky start to his career in his first three seasons with the Indianapolis Colts, Hughes adjusted well to the Bills’ system in 2013, when he started only one game but had 10 sacks. Last year, he started every game and produced 10 sacks again, along with 53 tackles. The Bills signed him to a lucrative five-year contract and new Bills coach Rex Ryan said he is happy to have him back, even after having to pull him from an offseason practice because the offense couldn’t work with all the pressure he was applying.

5. Jurrell Casey, Tennessee Titans
Casey’s sack totals fell off from 2013, when he had 10½, but he was strong as ever against the run. Although he had only five sacks last year, PFF credited him with 31 quarterback hurries and 15 quarterback hits, both among the best of 3-4 ends. So, too, were his defensive “stops.” The Titans certainly view him as one of the elite in the game, now paying him an average of $9 million a season.

Honorable mention: Muhammad Wilkerson, Mario Williams (moving to OLB but will play some DE in sub packages), DeMarcus Ware, Fletcher Cox, Cameron Heyward.

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