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Most Intriguing Position Battles – DL

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Talking about the battle in the trenches isn’t the most ‘exciting’ topic for your casual football fan, but play at the line of scrimmage can win or lose you games. When taking into account how the rules favor the passing game and wide receivers in particular, it’s nearly impossible for cornerbacks to cover them for long periods of time.

With that being said, it’s essential for your front line to make the opposing quarterback uncomfortable in the pocket.

Without further ado, let’s take a look at the most intriguing defensive line battles heading into training camp.

Baltimore Ravens – Despite facing multiple injuries and a four-game suspension for Haloti Ngata, the Baltimore Ravens had one of the leagues top defensive line units in 2014.

Baltimore ranked fourth in run defense, allowing only 3.6 yards per carry and 88.3 yards a game. A lot of pundits were of the belief that Baltimore would take a step back after the retirement of Ray Lewis, but the backbone of their defense has always been upfront.

However, the Ravens just recently traded Ngata and a seventh rounder to the Detroit Lions for a fourth and fifth round pick.

It’s not easy replacing a 5-time Pro Bowler, but considering the depth Baltimore has, they’ll have plenty of options. Veteran Chris Canty is the early favorite due to his experience, but young guys like second year Brent Urban and rookie Carl Davis will have their opportunity to earn snaps. Davis’ versatility could become vital when it comes to his playing time down the line.

New York Jets – After a disappointing 4-12 campaign in 2014, the New York Jets decided to clean house, which entailed the firing of Rex Ryan and John Idzik.

Todd Bowles and Mike Maccagnan have filled in as head coach and general manager respectively. While there wasn’t much to take from last year, one thing the Jets can hold their hat on is the play of the defensive line.

New York ranked fifth in run defense last year and after selecting Leonard Williams with the sixth overall pick in this year’s draft, their run defense should only improve.

All signs point to Bowles sticking with the 3-4 defensive scheme, which means someone will be the odd man out. Sheldon Richardson, Damon Harrison and Muhammad Wilkerson made up the defensive front from a year ago, but one of these guys will be making room for Williams to slide right on in.

Some pundits had Williams as their top prospect in the draft, so you can bet your pretty penny that New York will find plenty of playing time for the USC product.

Miami Dolphins – The biggest splash of the off-season came when the Miami Dolphins signed Ndamukong Suh, making him the highest paid defensive player ever.

Suh’s presence alone will make Miami a very formidable defensive line upfront, but who will be lining up alongside the superstar?

Earl Mitchell is likely to start. The 6-foot-3, 310 pound tackle has only missed one game throughout his five year career. Last season, he appeared in all 16 games for the Dolphins, accumulating 33 tackles and two sacks.

The competition lies at the third spot. Second rounder Jordan Phillips, Anthony Johnson and A.J. Francis will be fighting for that position.

Johnson and Francis both went undrafted in 2014 and 2013 respectively, which gives Phillips the edge, considering the expectations he’s coming into the league with.

The Vice President of Football Operations Mike Tannebaum is excited to have Phillips on board.

“We were very comfortable with Jordan to get him where we did.”

Phillips understands what he must do to become great.

“[I need to] learn how to work. Having a motor like [Cameron] Wake, like [Ndamukong] Suh. That’s what I really want to do. You’ve got to learn what they do, see their routine, try to take after them. Coming from Oklahoma, and seeing how actual professionals work is going to be something new for me.”

Based on the investment Miami made on Phillips, I think the third spot on the line is his to lose heading into training camp.

San Francisco 49ers – The 49ers had an off-season like no other. Patrick Willis, Chris Borland and Justin Smith all retired. Also, Ray McDonald was kicked off the team in December.

Veteran Glenn Dorsey is expected to occupy the right side, while Tank Carradine will most likely enter during nickel situations.

On the left side, youngsters Arik Armstead, Quinton Dial and Tony Jerod-Eddie are all in the mix. Dial has only started in six games, but that’s six more starts than Jerod-Eddie and rookie Armstead have combined.

During Dial’s six starts in 2014, he picked up 21 tackles and two sacks.

However, if Armstead is able to grow up quicker than expected, he’ll have something to say about the starting job. San Francisco spent their 17th overall pick on the Oregon product.

Armstead has impressive size at 6-foot-7, 292 pounds. His potential is unlimited.


About Mark Gunnels

Mark Gunnels

Mark Gunnels is an NFL columnist for Football Insiders. He has several years of experience covering the NFL and NCAA football. He's the radio color commentator for Lincoln University football. Mark's work has been featured on Sports Illustrated, Fox Sports and Yard Barker.