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1. J.J. Watt, Houston Texans
No Surprises here. The Texan’s defensive end was prolific last season; his 65 solo tackles were well in front of any other defensive linemen last year. He also added 10.5 sacks, 4 forced fumbles, and 2 fumble recoveries. He will be joined in Houston by No. 1 overall pick Jadeveon Clowney, who is expected to play outside linebacker. While teams were able to double-team Watt often last season, the prospect of Clowney and Watt occasionally attacking the same side of the ball will force offensive coordinators to reconsider.
2. Robert Quinn, St. Louis Rams
Quinn had a breakout season in 2013, leading all linemen with 19 sacks. He also forced 7 fumbles for St. Louis and their developing defense. Quinn should be just as potent of a pass rushing weapon this season, especially considering the quality young linebackers playing behind him.
3. Chandler Jones, New England Patriots
Jones is entering his third season in the NFL, after a very solid sophomore campaign where he recorded 11.5 sacks (good enough to finish seventh among all linemen). The Patriots’ defense added Darrelle Revis to their secondary in the offseason, which could lead to opposing Quarterbacks holding the ball slightly longer in the pocket and hence, a few more opportunities for Jones to sack said Quarterbacks.
4. Greg Hardy, Carolina Panthers
Hardy was rightfully elected to the Pro Bowl last season after collecting 16 sacks and 40 solo tackles for the Panthers. Hardy was charged and convicted for domestic violence during the offseason, but has since appealed the ruling. A legal outcome for the case in not likely until after the 2014 season so any discipline from the league would likely not come down until the offseason. While Hardy will likely not face any suspension this season, it is difficult to determine how the ongoing saga will affect his play in 2014.
5. Cameron Wake, Miami Dolphins
In just 13 games last season, Wake totaled 8.5 sacks and 37 combined tackles and was named to the Pro Bowl for the second straight year. The Dolphins ranked just 21st in total defense last season, so Wake should have ample time on the field to improve upon his 2013 numbers.
6. Jason Pierre-Paul, N.Y. Giants
Pierre-Paul played in only 11 games in 2013, but at only age 25, he is just two years removed from his 16.5 sack season in 2011. Healthy now, hopefully the Giants’ lineman will have a statistical resurgence in 2014.
7. Demarcus Ware, Denver Broncos
After having made seven consecutive Pro Bowls for Dallas, Ware had a lackluster 2013 season failing to reach double-digits sacks for the first time since his rookie campaign. After being released by the Cowboys in the offseason, Ware will join some other new faces on the Denver defense, who on the whole look quite imposing. Expect Ware to have a resurgent 2014 season, especially since he will be paired with Von Miller, who is coming back from an ACL injury.
8. Rob Ninkovich, New England Patriots
After recording 8 sacks and 91 combined tackles in 2014, the 30-year-old Ninkovich should have a similarly strong season in 2014. Along with his fellow pass-rusher Chandler Jones, I would expect him to add a couple of sacks to his season total thanks to the aforementioned “Revis Effect.”
9. Mario Williams, Buffalo Bills
Williams tallied 13 sacks last season to place him fourth in that category among linemen last season. While he is 29 now, he should still be an important cog in Buffalo’s defense and will likely reach double-digit sacks again.
10. Calais Campbell, Arizona Cardinals
Campbell has been consistent over the last couple of seasons for the Cardinals. In 2013, he totaled 9 sacks and 58 combined tackles. The loss of linebacker Dansby to the Browns will only increase his importance on Arizona’s defense.