Panthers have best DL in NFL

According to PFW, the Panthers have the best defensive line in the NFL.

Updated: October 1, 2004, 2:39 PM ET
By PFW Staff | Pro Football Weekly

In The Trenches -- Part 2
Ask an offensive lineman which team he'd least like to face, and the Panthers are mentioned early in the conversation.

Carolina's front four -- DEs Julius Peppers and Mike Rucker and DTs Brentson Buckner and Kris Jenkins -- was voted the best in the NFL ... and it wasn't that close. The Panthers are getting their money's worth out of a group that carries a $127.5 million tab. While Rucker may be the most underrated defensive lineman in football, Peppers is a long, lean beast-to-block left defensive end with endless potential. Buckner provides veteran leadership and helps keep Jenkins, our choice as the best defensive tackle in football, in check.

Jeff Reynolds unveils his answer to the "Ultimate Offensive Line" featured in the last issue of PFW, raising the curtain on a fearsome foursome of a defensive line that could light up any front five in the league.

With Jenkins and Patriots DL Richard Seymour anchoring the middle and Dolphins DE Jason Taylor and Michael Strahan of the Giants outside, it's up to you to decide who gets single-blocked.

Also, check out Part 1, where PFW turned the spotlight on offensive linemen.

-- PFW Staff
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Panthers defensive tackle Brentson Buckner is the elder statesman of what may be the best front four in the NFL. He will tell you without any hesitation why the Panthers have faced so many play-action passes and three-step drops this season.

"Five offensive linemen are not going to block the four of us," Buckner said. "That's just not possible. I don't care who you are. Five-on-four with a straight drop-back -- that's just not going to happen."

That's what the Panthers hope, anyway. They have invested a staggering $127.5 million in contracts for defensive end Julius Peppers, defensive end Mike Rucker, defensive tackle Kris Jenkins and Buckner, all of whom are signed through at least the 2007 season. It was that front four that helped push the Panthers to the Super Bowl last season, but that front four also has had a mixed-bag start for Carolina so far in 2004.

Taking on Green Bay in the Monday-night opener, Carolina's defense faltered. Green Bay's Ahman Green ran for 119 yards and scored three touchdowns to send the Panthers to a 24-14 loss in front of a national TV audience. The following week, however, the front four showed up again. Peppers posted a pair of sacks, Jenkins wreaked havoc inside and the Panthers held the explosive Chiefs to 10 offensive points in a 28-17 win.

Carolina Panthers
Carolina's D-line features two Pro Bowlers.
Jenkins strained his shoulder in the win, and that sent chills down the collective spine of a Panthers team that already has lost wide receiver Steve Smith for at least half the season to a broken leg and running back Stephen Davis for a couple of weeks due to knee surgery. Even with the injury hampering him, Jenkins kept putting himself back into the game until defensive coordinator Mike Trgovac ordered him to take a seat on the bench.

"(Football) just means so much to Kris," said Trgovac. "It really means so much to all four of those guys up front. It's a very prideful unit."

Peppers ranks as the unit's most well-known player thanks to his status as the second overall selection in the 2002 draft and his widely publicized, multisport career in college at North Carolina. His No. 90 jersey -- along with quarterback Jake Delhomme's No 17 -- dominates the stands at Bank of America Stadium.

But for all the hype that heads Peppers' way, Carolina's defensive front four really begins with Jenkins. The Panthers' defensive right tackle is considered by many to be one of the NFL's top two or three defensive tackles -- he has earned a trip to the Pro Bowl the past two seasons -- but for Jenkins, there is no argument.

"I'll go ahead and say I'm the best," Jenkins said. "But I'm not saying it in a Warren Sapp kind of way. I'm not over here smelling myself, you know what I mean? I'm going to keep working every day to try and be the best, because just when you get sure of yourself in this league, it all goes away."

The 6-foot-4, 335-pound Jenkins has the bulk to clog the middle in the running game, but he also has the athleticism and the quickness to be an effective pass rusher.

"He's a monster, basically," Buckner said. "Usually a guy that big is going to be a Ted Washington type and just stop the run. But Jenkins is quick enough to get to the quarterback, too."

Playing beside Jenkins at defensive right end is Rucker, who also earned a trip to Honolulu in 2003 after leading Carolina with 12 sacks. Rucker is a relentless worker who prides himself on getting more sacks in the second half of games than in the first.

"Not to diminish his athleticism, but Mike doesn't have the physical gifts of Julius," Trgovac said. "If you're going to block him, though, bring your lunch pail."

Rucker also is known as the Panthers' biggest trash talker -- he once had to come out of a game because he hyperventilated from talking so much. He knows how to take the art form to the extreme. But Rucker has a few trash-talking ground rules that are somewhat unique in the NFL: He never curses, and he never talks about anyone's mama.

Peppers, the left defensive end, is the closest thing the Panthers have to an athletic freak. He is powerful, he's fast and he knows all about the pressure of the big stage, having played in both the Final Four and the Super Bowl.

"He can run with defensive backs and is stronger than offensive tackles," Buckner said.

Trgovac makes it a point to say that opponents pay so much attention to Peppers that it gets frustrating for the 24-year-old. Peppers' sack total dropped from 12 in 12 games in 2002 to seven in 16 games in 2003.

Considering Peppers' suspension during his rookie year in which he sat out four games for violating the league's banned-substance policy, there was talk that Peppers' stellar rookie season may have been about more than just his skills. But Trgovac dismisses that kind of nonsense.

"There are always going be a lot of people around him," Trgovac said. "So with Julius, we keep working on how to beat double-teams."

Buckner, in his 11th season, is the coach on the field. He's a thinker and a film watcher, always alert for tendencies he can exploit. Buckner believes it is a blue-collar, hardworking approach that has allowed the Panthers to turn the franchise around from a 1-15 team three years ago to NFC champs in 2003.

There is depth in the line as well.

The Panthers feature a couple of solid reserves on the current squad. Defensive end Al Wallace, who worked as an assistant principal in 2001 when he was out of football entirely, posted five sacks and two interceptions in 2003 as a backup. Kindal Moorehead is the top defensive tackle backup, and his versatility helps keep the Panthers fresh. The defensive line's familiarity with one another keeps the unit stable as well.

"What (head coach) John Fox has done here (on defense) is just the opposite of what so many other teams do," Buckner said. "So much of the offseason in the NFL is about, 'Who's going to get Terrell Owens? Who's going to get this big-name running back?' It's teams looking for skill players, building from the outside-in. Coach Fox is old-fashioned -- he has built us from the inside out."

Buckner is right. Consider that of the starting front four, all but Buckner came through the draft. And certainly, it's not a perfect unit.

Buckner was suspended in 2002 for testing positive for a banned supplement. Rucker started his career slowly, recording only one start and a total of 5½ sacks in his first two NFL seasons. Jenkins was a rookie during the Panthers' horrid 1-15 season of 2001 and played unevenly. He won a starting job, then lost it as he slept through some meetings (in part because of a then-undiagnosed sleep disorder).

But the Panthers' current front four slowly came together. They didn't miss a beat when then-defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio made the move to the head-coaching job in Jacksonville, and Trgovac, the former defensive line coach, was promoted. Under Del Rio and Trogvac's guidance, they have become a whole lot better than the last time Carolina got excited about its D-line.

Only diehard Carolina fans remember the dream-turned-nightmare unit of Chuck Smith, Reggie White, Sean Gilbert and Eric Swann -- all of whom were well on the decline before they ever got to Charlotte.

In fact, the Panthers' current front four might be getting better. A trip to the Super Bowl might leave some squads content with having turned things around, but for Carolina, last season's surprising run may have just been the beginning. The players certainly believe that they have yet to play their best football, and it is the D-line that is expected to be the catalyst for the ballclub.

A trip to the Super Bowl might have been great, but a Vince Lombardi Trophy -- or two or three -- might finally give the boys up front some satisfaction.

"We put a whole lot of pressure on our defensive line," Trgovac said. "But this group is up to it. And it better be."

Best of the rest

2. Philadelphia Eagles
Starters: DRE Derrick Burgess (26 years old), DT Corey Simon (27), DT Darwin Walker (27), DLE Jevon Kearse (28).

EaglesThe Panthers don't boast the only defensive line with myriad Pro Bowl personnel. Simon and Kearse provide the Eagles with a most impressive one-two punch. Without Kearse, the Eagles were balancing between adequate and average. With Kearse, even elite offensive lines, like Minnesota's, can appear pedestrian for long stretches.

"(Jevon) is one of the better athletes I've ever seen," said Jim Johnson, veteran defensive coordinator of the Eagles.

Jevon Kearse
Defensive End
Philadelphia Eagles
Tot Ast Solo FF Sack Int
10 9 1 1 3 0
Johnson bounced through the Eagles' facility brimming with confidence on March 2, the day head coach Andy Reid brought news of Kearse's imminent signing. If he stays healthy, Kearse can bank on playing defensive roles he's only dreamed of. In a Week 2 thrashing of the Vikings' front five, Kearse played what Johnson calls a "joker" role, lining up as an inside linebacker, defensive end and outside linebacker, depending on the call from the sideline. On most Sundays, he'll rush from the left side as a down lineman; he played the right side in Tennessee last season.

"He's the kind of athlete we can move around," Johnson said. "We got him comfortable with the scheme, and we're moving him around now."

Kearse is drawing attention beyond double-teams, opening lanes for Burgess, Walker and Simon.

"Our tackles aren't the biggest tackles in the world," Johnson said of Simon (6-2, 293) and Walker (6-3, 294), who thrive on uncanny lower-body bulk for power and quickness. "Hollis is a big guy weight-wise. But we get a push. Corey and Walker are two very good pass-rushing tackles. Hollis Thomas and Sam Rayburn are more run-type tackles. We've always felt with Corey and Walker, we're getting enough push in the middle. With four tackles, we rotate them on first and second down, and that makes a difference, too."

3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Starters: DRE Simeon Rice (30 years old), DT Anthony McFarland (26), DT Chartric Darby (28), DLE Greg Spires (30).

BucsThe one-man hype machine has left the building, but the Buccaneers are as dominant as ever, even without Warren Sapp in the middle of the defensive line. The Buccaneers have used McFarland as a combo-tackle in their Cover-2 base defense, and many scouts opined that McFarland surpassed Sapp in on-field performance last season. The line's early-season showing was impressive, as opponents were largely held in check. McFarland posted two sacks in the first two games, and Rice is always a threat to post big sack numbers. Rice has averaged 11.6 sacks per season since '96.

Even without the in-house hype, the Buccaneers haven't lost their swagger.

"It's a completely different dynamic," cornerback Ronde Barber said. "It's not the same as it once was. When Warren was Warren, and he was great, and Simeon came in and he was spectacular, and we had Anthony playing under tackle and whoever else -- Marcus Jones and the myriad of other guys at D-end -- those were great teams. I think the guys now know their roles are a little different. It's not the same monster group of guys up there who are going to go up and just kill everybody. Now, Chuck Darby, our nose tackle, is a gritty dude who does everything right. Anthony's trying to replace Sapp, and the guy's legend."

Barber said Spires is extremely underrated and wears the tag as the workhorse of the defense.

4. Seattle Seahawks
Starters: DRE Grant Wistrom (28 years old), DRT Rashad Moore (25), DLT Cedric Woodard (27), DLE Chike Okeafor (28).

SeahawksSeattle was a sexy "sleeper" pick for the Super Bowl, but most prognosticators were counting on a dominant offense to carry the Seahawks into February. But no team has allowed fewer than the 13 points surrendered by the Seattle defense through three games, and for the first time since Chuck Knox's 1991 Seahawks, opponents scored seven or fewer points in consecutive games.

Wistrom came to Seattle via unrestricted free agency. The Seahawks were interested in Jevon Kearse, but the Eagles pounced too quickly. In Wistrom, Seattle believes it landed a better all-around defensive end and a superior leader.

While his performance is no surprise, the play of Moore and Woodard, both on the other side of 310 pounds, has been a surprise to those outside the Seahawks' locker room. Moreover, the Seahawks couldn't be more pleased with their depth on the interior. First-round pick Marcus Tubbs and Rocky Bernard, who has three sacks through three games, will do their best to help Seahawks fans forget about John Randle, Chad Eaton and Norman Hand.

Head coach Mike Holmgren credited Randle with lighting a fire beneath Moore last season, when Randle verbally and emotionally tortured the rookie with a history of underachieving. Okeafor is the pass rusher in the bunch. He's not a monster, but his motor never stops, an advantage over plodding right tackles.

5. Jacksonville Jaguars
Starters: DRE Brandon Green (24 years old), DRT John Henderson (25), DLT Marcus Stroud (26) DLE Lionel Barnes (28).

JaguarsGo ahead, name one of two starting defensive ends in Jacksonville? And don't say Tony Brackens, Hugh Douglas or even Paul Spicer. You aren't in the minority if Barnes, Green, Rob Meier and Bobby McCray didn't roll off your tongue, but these were the starting candidates remaining after Douglas and Brackens were cut and Spicer suffered a broken leg in Week 2. These players are keen to the fact that the Jaguars' defense has been dominant because of the play of Stroud and Henderson.

Marcus Stroud
Defensive Tackle
Jacksonville Jaguars
Tot Ast Solo FF Sack Int
16 13 3 0 1 0
"Right now, Marcus and John see things in slow motion," said Ray Hamilton, Jaguars DL coach. "They get the grasp of what we're talking about, how people are trying to attack them. The game is coming to them, and they know how to react to it."

Middle linebacker Mike Peterson is among the league leaders in tackles, and strong safety Donovin Darius isn't far behind, but Hamilton points out that both players owe a debt of gratitude, or at least a thank-you, to the tackle duo that has been a springboard for their success.

"Any linebacker would love to play behind John and Marcus," Hamilton said. "They knock the guards back, keep the guards and the centers off the linebackers. Mike Peterson is having a great season, and one part of it is that John and Marcus do a great job of keeping him clean."

Stroud moves like a 275-pounder, a stunning aberration to offensive guards accustomed to squaring off against slow-footed 330-pounders. He's constantly double-teamed, but his tedious preparation and football intelligence keep Stroud ahead of the game. Stroud and an upstart linebacker corps are the main reasons the Jaguars hadn't allowed a 100-yard rusher in 17 games before Titans running back Chris Brown snapped the streak by rushing for 101 yards in Week 3.

Henderson is underrated -- at 6-7, 317, you'd think he'd be hard to miss.

"John is a big, powerful guy," Hamilton said. "When he hunkers down in there, even when he sees two or three guys on him, they just can't move him. John gets around pretty well, too. He's not known as a speed guy, but he's quick. Marcus plays fast; John plays with strength, just kind of kills people at the point of attack."

Honorable mention

Minnesota Vikings
Starters: DRE Kenechi Udeze, NT Chris Hovan, UT Kevin Williams, DLE Kenny Mixon.

Dallas Cowboys
Starters: DRE Greg Ellis, NT Leonardo Carson, DLT La'Roi Glover, DLE Marcellus Wiley.

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