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For more from Chase and Jason, check out their work at Football Perspective and The Big Lead.

Great Defensive Linemen Playing Together

Posted by Chase Stuart on June 3, 2009

Last week, I wrote a post on Great Linebackers Playing Together; it's worth checking out before reading this, as I'm going to skip some of the introductory materials. Just as last post was not a look at the greatest linebacking groups ever, this post is not a look at the greatest defensive line units ever assembled. We might attempt to do that one day, but that's not the goal today. What I want to know is what teams have seen a bunch of great defensive linemen playing together while those players were in their primes?

Once again, I'm using Doug's Approximate Value system to rate the linemen, as opposed to things like sacks, tackles, Pro Bowl nominations or starts. Approximate value incorporates all of those factors, and a little more. It's far from perfect, but it's probably the best way to rank large groups of players from several different eras across every position.

I recorded the peak three years for every defensive lineman since '50, and assigned the average of those numbers as the core rating for each player. Then I gave him an age adjusted score for each season. Once again, the age adjusted score is the rating I’m giving each DL for each season of play, not his actual AV grade.

Last time, I adjusted for age by examing the top 100 or so linebackers in NFL history and their dropoff rates, as measured by AV, and then smoothed out the numbers. In an effort to get this post actually posted and not placed on my imaginary to-do list, I chose to simply use the same dropoff rate again and not derive one specifically for defensive linemen. Here is the rate:

age	weight
21	0.24
22	0.43
23	0.58
24	0.72
25	0.82
26	0.91
27	0.96
28	0.99
29	1.00
30	0.98
31	0.94
32	0.87
33	0.77
34	0.65
35	0.51
36	0.40

To use an example, Reggie White has a peak AV — the average score of his three best seasons — of 20. Mike Rucker has a peak AV of 11; here’s how we would then project how good each player would have been for each season of his career:

age	weight	White  Rucker
21	0.24	 4.9	 2.7
22	0.43	 8.5	 4.7
23	0.58	11.7	 6.4
24	0.72	14.3	 7.9
25	0.82	16.5	 9.1
26	0.91	18.1	10.0
27	0.96	19.3	10.6
28	0.99	19.9	10.9
29	1.00	20.0	11.0
30	0.98	19.6	10.8
31	0.94	18.7	10.3
32	0.87	17.3	 9.5
33	0.77	15.4	 8.5
34	0.65	13.0	 7.2
35	0.51	10.1	 5.6
36	0.40	 8.0	 4.4

Obviously these numbers are far from perfect; the goal is simply to get, roughly, the quality of the production we would find in each season from, approximately, the best defensive linemen ever. I think the results below pass the sniff test; what do you think?

These represent the 40 best combinations of 4-3 defensive linemen playing together at their peaks. The top combination -- by far -- comes from the old Vikings teams. In fact, the top six combinations are all the same: Page, Eller, Larsen and Marshall from the '68 to '73 Vikings. For obvious reasons I decided not to re-list any DL groups that appeared more often than once. Therefore, any time a set of DL appeared multiple times, I only listed the best one (which would be based solely on the ages of the three players). So it's the '70 Vikings that are shown from that group because the seasons after that Marshall was declining due to age and the seasons before that Page was still too young.

The player's age is listed in parentheses while his peak AV (which is NOT the grade he gets for the season in question -- the listed grade is not adjusted for age) is listed after the colon. So in 1970, Minnesota had Eller (age 28) who had a peak AV of 22, Page (at age 25) who had a peak AV of 23.7, Larsen (30) who had a peak AV of 14.3 and Jim Marshall (33) who had a peak AV of 13.3. No other defensive line group even comes that close to the Purple People Eaters. I've listed the average score (which *is* age adjusted) of the four players next to the team name. You can see that Minnesota at 16.4 has a nice edge on all other defensive line groups.

min-1970   16.4   Carl Eller (28): 22        Alan Page (25): 23.7        Gary Larsen (30): 14.3      Jim Marshall (33): 13.3
ram-1967   14.6   Deacon Jones (29): 18      Merlin Olsen (27): 18       Roger Brown (30): 16        Lamar Lundy (32): 8.3
dal-1981   14.3   Randy White (28): 17.7     Too Tall Jones (30): 14.7   Harvey Martin (31): 14.3    John Dutton (30): 12
chi-1987   14.1   Dan Hampton (30): 17.7     Steve McMichael (30): 16.7  Richard Dent (27): 16.3     William Perry (25): 8.7
chi-1988   14.0   Dan Hampton (31): 17.7     Richard Dent (28): 16.3     Steve McMichael (31): 16.7  Al Harris (32): 8.7
pit-1976   13.9   Joe Greene (30): 19        L.C. Greenwood (30): 16.3   Dwight White (27): 12       Ernie Holmes (28): 9.3
min-1974   13.8   Alan Page (29): 23.7       Carl Eller (32): 22         Doug Sutherland (26): 9.3   Jim Marshall (37): 13.3
phi-1991   13.6   Reggie White (30): 20      Clyde Simmons (27): 15.3    Jerome Brown (26): 13.3     Mike Pitts (31): 8.7
ram-1969   13.6   Merlin Olsen (29): 18      Deacon Jones (31): 18       Coy Bacon (27): 11          Diron Talbert (25): 11
chi-1984   13.6   Dan Hampton (27): 17.7     Steve McMichael (27): 16.7  Richard Dent (24): 16.3     Mike Hartenstine (31): 10.3
ram-1968   13.5   Merlin Olsen (28): 18      Deacon Jones (30): 18       Roger Brown (31): 16        Gregg Schumacher (26): 3.7
ram-1965   13.2   Deacon Jones (27): 18      Merlin Olsen (25): 18       Rosey Grier (33): 16.3      Lamar Lundy (30): 8.3
ram-1978   13.1   Jack Youngblood (28): 18   Larry Brooks (28): 13       Fred Dryer (32): 14         Cody Jones (27): 10
cle-1953   13.1   Len Ford (27): 20.7        Don Colo (28): 15.3         Doug Atkins (23): 16        Derrell Palmer (31): 8.3
cle-1954   13.0   Len Ford (28): 20.7        Don Colo (29): 15.3         John Kissell (31): 10       Carlton Massey (24): 9.7
cle-1957   13.0   Len Ford (31): 20.7        Don Colo (32): 15.3         Bob Gain (28): 13           Bill Quinlan (25): 8
dal-1980   13.0   Randy White (27): 17.7     Too Tall Jones (29): 14.7   Harvey Martin (30): 14.3    Larry Cole (34): 9.7
pit-1977   12.9   Joe Greene (31): 19        L.C. Greenwood (31): 16.3   Dwight White (28): 12       Steve Furness (27): 7
tam-2002   12.8   Warren Sapp (30): 19       Simeon Rice (28): 16.7      Greg Spires (28): 9.3       Anthony McFarland (25): 8.3
phi-1990   12.7   Reggie White (29): 20      Clyde Simmons (26): 15.3    Jerome Brown (25): 13.3     Mike Golic (28): 6
pit-1978   12.6   Joe Greene (32): 19        L.C. Greenwood (32): 16.3   Dwight White (29): 12       John Banaszak (28): 8
clt-1957   12.6   Gino Marchetti (30): 17.3  Gene Lipscomb (26): 13.7    Art Donovan (32): 13.7      Don Joyce (28): 9.3
nyg-1952   12.6   Arnie Weinmeister (29): 20 Ray Poole (31): 11.7        Ray Krouse (25): 12.7       Jim Duncan (27): 9.3
dal-1978   12.6   Randy White (25): 17.7     Harvey Martin (28): 14.3    Too Tall Jones (27): 14.7   Jethro Pugh (34): 11.3
min-1966   12.5   Carl Eller (24): 22        Jim Marshall (29): 13.3     Gary Larsen (26): 14.3      Paul Dickson (29): 8
nyg-1959   12.5   Rosey Grier (27): 16.3     Jim Katcavage (25): 16      Andy Robustelli (34): 18.3  Dick Modzelewski (28): 9
min-1967   12.3   Carl Eller (25): 22        Jim Marshall (30): 13.3     Alan Page (22): 23.7        Paul Dickson (30): 8
ram-1976   12.3   Jack Youngblood (26): 18   Fred Dryer (30): 14         Larry Brooks (26): 13       Merlin Olsen (36): 18
gnb-1962   12.2   Willie Davis (28): 17.3    Henry Jordan (27): 17       Bill Quinlan (30): 8        Dave Hanner (32): 8.7
nyg-1951   12.2   Arnie Weinmeister (28): 20 Ray Poole (30): 11.7        Al DeRogatis (24): 12.7     Jim Duncan (26): 9.3
ram-1979   12.0   Jack Youngblood (29): 18   Larry Brooks (29): 13       Fred Dryer (33): 14         Mike Fanning (26): 7
clt-1960   12.0   Ordell Braase (28): 14     Gene Lipscomb (29): 13.7    Gino Marchetti (33): 17.3   Art Donovan (35): 13.7
rai-1995   11.9   Pat Swilling (31): 19      Chester McGlockton (26): 14 Jerry Ball (31): 11.7       Anthony Smith (28): 6.3
chi-1983   11.9   Dan Hampton (26): 17.7     Steve McMichael (26): 16.7  Mike Hartenstine (30): 10.3 Jim Osborne (34): 9.7
min-1992   11.9   Chris Doleman (31): 16.7   John Randle (25): 16        Henry Thomas (27): 11       Al Noga (27): 8.3
sea-1999   11.8   Cortez Kennedy (31): 17    Sam Adams (26): 13.3        Michael Sinclair (31): 11   Phillip Daniels (26): 10
tam-2001   11.8   Warren Sapp (29): 19       Simeon Rice (27): 16.7      Marcus Jones (28): 6.3      Anthony McFarland (24): 8.3
den-1997   11.8   Neil Smith (31): 15.3      Michael Dean Perry (32): 16 Alfred Williams (29): 11    Keith Traylor (28): 8
chi-1990   11.6   Richard Dent (30): 16.3    Dan Hampton (33): 17.7      William Perry (28): 8.7     Trace Armstrong (25): 10
sea-1996   11.6   Cortez Kennedy (28): 17    Michael Sinclair (28): 11   Michael McCrary (26): 12    Sam Adams (23): 13.3

  • At #2 on the list is one of the iterations of the Fearsome Foursome, and in the top fifteen are some of the other members that bore that nickname; unsurprisingly, Deacon Jones and Merlin Olsen carry the group with appropriately high grades.
  • Eagles fans surely noted that the '91 Philly DL is on the list; only a low peak AV for Mike Pitts kept them down.

We can also perform this analysis for 3-4 defensive lines, although be sure to note my caveat at the bottom:


tm.yr	  grd	DL1	                  DL2	                  DL3
buf-1995	  13.0	Bruce Smith (32): 18.3	Ted Washington (27): 14	Phil Hansen (27): 10
buf-1988	  12.6	Bruce Smith (25): 18.3	Fred Smerlas (31): 14	Art Still (33): 12.3
nyj-1985	  12.3	Mark Gastineau (29): 17	Joe Klecko (32): 15.3	Barry Bennett (30): 6.7
mia-1984	  12.3	Bob Baumhower (29): 16	Doug Betters (28): 12.3	Kim Bokamper (30): 8.7
rai-1987	  11.8	Howie Long (27): 16.7	Bill Pickel (28): 10.7	Sean Jones (25): 10.7
kan-1993	  11.3	Neil Smith (27): 15.3	Dan Saleaumua (29): 10.7	Joe Phillips (30): 8.7
den-1978	  11.3	Lyle Alzado (29): 14.7	Rubin Carter (26): 11.3	Barney Chavous (27): 9.3
buf-1993	  11.2	Bruce Smith (30): 18.3	Phil Hansen (25): 10	Jeff Wright (30): 7.7
nwe-2008	  11.2	Richard Seymour (29): 15.3	Vince Wilfork (27): 10.3	Ty Warren (27): 8.7
kan-1991	  11.1	Neil Smith (25): 15.3	Bill Maas (29): 10.3	Dan Saleaumua (27): 10.7
mia-1981	  11.1	Bob Baumhower (26): 16	Doug Betters (25): 12.3	Vern Den Herder (33): 11
sfo-1990	  11.0	Michael Carter (30): 14.7	Pierce Holt (28): 10.7	Kevin Fagan (27): 8.3
phi-1981	  10.9	Charlie Johnson (29): 14.7	Carl Hairston (29): 10	Dennis Harrison (25): 9.7
phi-1985	  10.9	Reggie White (24): 20	Greg Brown (28): 9.3	Ken Clarke (29): 9
sea-1988	  10.8	Joe Nash (28): 12.7	Jacob Green (31): 11	Jeff Bryant (28): 9.7
rai-1989	  10.7	Howie Long (29): 16.7	Bob Golic (32): 11.7	Scott Davis (24): 7.3
phi-1979	  10.7	Charlie Johnson (27): 14.7	Carl Hairston (27): 10	Claude Humphrey (35): 16.3
gnb-1993	  10.7	Reggie White (32): 20	Matt Brock (27): 8.3	John Jurkovic (26): 7.3
tam-1979	  10.6	Wally Chambers (28): 13	Lee Roy Selmon (25): 15	Randy Crowder (26): 7.3
buf-1987	  10.4	Fred Smerlas (30): 14	Bruce Smith (24): 18.3	Sean McNanie (26): 4.7
hou-1988	  10.4	Ray Childress (26): 15.3	William Fuller (26): 12	Doug Smith (29): 6.3
buf-1985	  10.3	Fred Smerlas (28): 14	Ben Williams (31): 9.7	Bruce Smith (22): 18.3
phi-1978	  10.3	Charlie Johnson (26): 14.7	Carl Hairston (26): 10	Manny Sistrunk (31): 9
buf-1990	  10.3	Bruce Smith (27): 18.3	Jeff Wright (27): 7.7	Leon Seals (26): 6.3
hou-1975	  10.3	Curley Culp (29): 13	Elvin Bethea (29): 11.3	Tody Smith (27): 6.7
sfo-1991	  10.1	Michael Carter (31): 14.7	Pierce Holt (29): 10.7	Larry Roberts (28): 6
den-1983	  10.0	Rulon Jones (25): 13.7	Rubin Carter (31): 11.3	Barney Chavous (32): 9.3
nyj-2008	   9.9	Kris Jenkins (29): 15.7	Shaun Ellis (31): 9	Kenyon Coleman (29): 5.7
min-1982	   9.8	Charlie Johnson (30): 14.7	Mark Mullaney (29): 7.7	Doug Martin (25):  9
rai-1985	   9.8	Howie Long (25): 16.7	Bill Pickel (26): 10.7	Lyle Alzado (36): 14.7
nyg-1992	   9.7	Leonard Marshall (31): 13	Erik Howard (28): 10.3	Eric Dorsey (28): 6.7
sfo-1986	   9.7	Michael Carter (26): 14.7	Dwaine Board (30): 10	Jeff Stover (28): 6
den-1987	   9.7	Rulon Jones (29): 13.7	Greg Kragen (25): 11.7	Andre Townsend (25): 7
buf-2000	   9.7	Ted Washington (32): 14	Phil Hansen (32): 10	Marcellus Wiley (26): 9
sfo-1987	   9.6	Michael Carter (27): 14.7	Dwaine Board (31): 10	Pete Kugler (28): 5.3
tam-1981	   9.5	Lee Roy Selmon (27): 15	Bill Kollar (29): 7.3	David Logan (25): 8.3
nyj-1997	   9.5	Hugh Douglas (26): 16	Rick Lyle (26): 8.3	Ernie Logan (29): 6.3
tam-1982	   9.4	Lee Roy Selmon (28): 15	David Logan (26): 8.3	Dave Stalls (27): 6
nyg-1989	   9.4	Leonard Marshall (28): 13	Erik Howard (25): 10.3	John Washington (26): 7.3
pit-2006	   9.3	Aaron Smith (30): 10.3	Casey Hampton (29): 10	Brett Keisel (28): 7.7

Some thoughts:

  • The 3-4 rankings look less reliable than the 4-3 ratings because players who excelled in a 4-3 (say, Mark Gastineau) get a high rating as a 3-4 end. While I don't remember how he actually played as a 3-4 end, he wouldn't fit the typical mold of the current 3-4 end. If Dwight Freeney played in a 3-4 this season, he would get a high rating for his team because his peak AV was high -- but that was based on his peak seasons as a 4-3 end. So to some extent, some of these results could be misleading.
  • Bruce Smith was a 3-4 end -- I tend to forget that because his sack totals are insanely high even for a 4-3 end. As my good buddy and defensive expert Jene Bramel said, Bruce Smith reigns supreme for 3-4 end pass rushing production. Bramel's article -- The Ultimate Guide to NFL Defense -- is as good as it is long. I've never read a better article on understanding NFL defenses.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, June 3rd, 2009 at 7:14 am and is filed under Approximate Value, Best/Worst Ever. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.