After missing eight games with a hip injury last season, the Chiefs decided that a few million in cap savings were worth more to them than Howard was. That's Chicago's gain. When Howard's right, he's a force in run defense.
As if transitioning from the FCS level to NFL starter in one year wasn't challenging enough, the Colts played Haeg at right tackle, right guard and left guard last season. All things considered, he held up well. He has good enough feet, as long as he can settle in at one position (the guess here is it will be guard).
There's a patience and awareness in his game that you don't see in a lot of young players. It would not be at all surprising if Hicks is a guy who improves steadily over the next three years and winds up having a very nice 10-year career.
Sproles still scares opponents, but hasn't quite been the producer in Philly that he was in New Orleans. That could very well be a function of his roles in those particular offenses. But when you're a niche player, you're evaluated on your role.
He may not have the traits to be a star, but Hyder has the traits to put together a very fine career. His role is already carved out: He's a first-and second-down defensive end, a third down defensive tackle and, in all scenarios, an excellent piece to your schemed four-man pass rushing tactics.
Tannehill is approaching a crossroads season in his career. If he can't thrive in Adam Gase's scheme, and with the weapons Miami has around him, it'll be time for the Dolphins to move on. (I think he will thrive.)
He's an outstanding all-around run defender, whether it be as a stopper himself or as a space-attacker and blocker-eater who generates stops for teammates. The Bucs re-signed Gholston for $27.5 million ($13.5 million guaranteed) over five years.
His life is made easier by the abundance of quality man-to-man defenders around him, but to Stewart's credit, he takes advantage of that and makes plays. And he's not a bad man defender himself, in certain scenarios.
He dominated tight ends in run defense last season, which prevented opponents from running behind crucial double-team blocks against the Ravens. Guy may have trouble staying on this list because the Patriots already have three great run defenders up front (Branch, Brown and Ninkovich).
A bust in Jacksonville, Branch has found a home 350 miles south in Miami. You sometimes see that with guys who enter new schemes. You rarely see it with guys who change teams but stay in the same scheme, like Branch has.
Thomas has a chance to recapture his magic now that he's once again playing for Adam Gase. He'll be split out as a weakside receiver a lot. He wouldn't be a Dolphin if Gase didn't think he could win regularly on the perimeter.
In 2016, Alexander had the type of breakout season that 33-year-olds only have in the movies. Two things are true: (1) He's not a true edge rusher, despite 12.5 sacks last season. And (2) Those sacks, accumulated in a variety of ways, were great plays and a legitimate reflection of his overall performance in 2016. I have no idea of what to make of a guy like this. He won't have the same pass rushing opportunities in Sean McDermott's scheme as he had in Rex Ryan's.
Stanley wasn't on the field quite enough as a rookie to fully evaluate (Weeks 1-3, he played like the new guy learning the ropes, Weeks 4-7 he was out with an injured foot), but he certainly looks the part.
Rarely do undrafted defensive tackles play significant roles as rookies. Even rarer is to see that undrafted rookie dominate regularly in that role. The Ravens fell into a great first-and second-down player here.
If the Panthers indeed give him some of Thomas Davis's nickel snaps, Thompson will skyrocket up this list. He's a tremendous athlete. So tremendous, in fact, that Carolina was the only team in the league last year that, on first and second downs, played regular snaps of its base defense against three-receiver sets.
Next to Tyron Smith, maybe Trent Williams and probably Laremy Tunsil, Armstead is the most athletic offensive tackle in the NFL. The problem is, he can't stay healthy. He missed nine games last season because of knee problems, and is set to miss at least half of 2017 after an offseason shoulder injury.
He's a fine craftsman running routes, though you have to wonder if the Chargers, after drafting Mike Williams seventh overall, believe Allen can stay healthy. Injuries have cost him 23 games over the last two seasons.
Entering his second season, he's already quietly becoming one of the more multidimensional safeties in the game. Byard is good in space, outstanding entering into the box and capable of matching up to tight ends in man coverage.
Iupati is as talented as any guard in football ' and, by those standards, he was terrible in 2016. He must become more alert in pass protection. Too often, defenses had success with designer pass rush tactics against him.
Ninkovich plays a key role setting the edge in New England's 5-1 front. He is on that long list of Belichick Patriots who simply play the game the right way (think Kevin Faulk, Troy Brown, Mike Vrabel ')
He's an active run defender, but Marks might be learning the hard way that teams don't like guys who publicly criticize their own offense and gripe about playing time. (Especially when those same guys jump offsides on a dummy-call fourth-and-2 a few weeks later to seal a loss to the Lions.)
The Bills will tell you he's the best athlete on their team; he just happens to have one of the worst bodies. Wear and tear should take a toll any minute now, but he's long been, and remains, just a really, really good player.
I love his quick release and have been encouraged by the way he reads the field. Though I would have liked to see a little more consistency in his second season, particularly late in the year. This could be a breakout year for him.
He might be the best in the league at disguising his individual coverage; this created a few turnovers last season. It wouldn't work in every scheme, but in Carolina's zone Coleman has become outstanding.
Around Thanksgiving last year, I would have never guessed the lanky 2015 second-round pick would be anywhere near this list, let alone on it. Collins improved markedly down the stretch. Offenses have gone after him hard, at times with success. But he consistently competes even harder when they do. He has the mental makeup to become a quality long-term NFL corner.
The Chiefs are a matchup defense; when they're not playing straight man-to-man, they're lining up in a Cover 3 zone and aggressively converting it to man after the snap. Parker's cornerbacking experience is critical.
(When available and not in trouble) Guion plays in the throngs of men down in the trenches and can easily get overlooked. Packers coaches know, however, that he's borderline vital in Green Bay's scheme, where coordinator Dom Capers's package of choice is usually a 2-4 nickel front. It's imperative that the defensive linemen make plays.
He's no longer the overwhelming athlete that he once was, but the Eagles love his toughness and technique. Coaches believe Peters can fight like hell and muster a nice last hurrah in 2017. The front office believes he could last even longer; in June, Philly signed him to an extension through 2019.
Conklin struggled against quality pass rushers for much of his rookie season, though he finished with strong performances against Justin Houston and Dante Fowler. The nature of Tennessee's offense, with all the max-protection, play-action concepts and multi-tight end sets, provides plenty of help to the tackles, but first-round picks still should be able to win one-on-one.
You can tell by the way Dallas let him walk, and the contract Baltimore gave him, that the league suspects he'll soon look old. We'll find out. As of right now, at age 31, Carr still plays at a high level.
Yet another example of a guy who, as he's gotten more comfortable with the pro game, has played with more athleticism. I would have never guessed Baker would become a serviceable pass rusher like he has.
His ranking is pretty much a reflection of my skepticism that a 34-year-old can make it back from a second Achilles injury in three years. I hope I'm wrong. Johnson has been a great'not just good, great'player for several years now.
At this point in his career, Peppers is probably a better inside pass rusher than outside pass rusher. Don't be surprised to see him play defensive tackle in nickel, just like he did last year for the Packers.
He's looking to rebound from an unsteady 2016 campaign. Benjamin wasn't the reason Carolina's passing game took a step back, but he certainly didn't help matters the way a well-sized recent first-round pick should.
It will be interesting to see what his market looks like if and when he hits free agency next year. Lotulelei is a good run defender, but his contract value will be largely influenced by how teams see him as a pass rusher.
His arm is good, not great. His decision-making and mechanics have improved but can still go wild at times. If Washington plans on keeping Jay Gruden as its head coach, it'd be wise to figure out a way to keep Cousins long-term. He fits the scheme well.
You know about the injuries. Really, that's the deciding factor. When healthy, Watkins has shown glimpses of the playmaking prowess that made him a darling prospect. It's tough for a wide receiver to find a week-to-week rhythm playing with Tyrod Taylor.
Kendricks is a critical component of Mike Zimmer's double-A-gap scheme because he can line up right over the ball, retreat into coverage and then smoothly transition back into downhill movement. Maybe this sounds highly specific and esoteric, but this defense would not function well without Kendricks' ability to do that.
It was strange to see drops become such a problem last year given Crabtree's ability to pluck balls away from his body. He's not a blazing athlete, but he is one of the most deliberate, precise route runners that you'll find.
He's not quite athletically pliable enough to be an elite receiving tight end, but Cook can certainly be right there on that next tier. He improved his fundamentals and became significantly more dependable in Green Bay last year.
Dupree ignited a stagnant Steelers front seven down the stretch lasts year. He must continue to hone his moves; a lot of his production comes off energy and effort. That's great, but he's talented enough to win off of skill and ability, too.
The 2016 sixth-rounder gave up a small number of big plays last season, and unfortunately for him they were replayed a bunch on nationally televised games. The bulk of his season, however, was phenomenal. Not many rookies can thrive as a man and zone defender both outside and in the slot.
Ebron was the most improved route-running tight end in football last year. The concern is his blocking. It's terrible. Detroit's fourth-round selection of 270-pound Michael Roberts suggests Ebron will be asked to do it less often.
His lack of size is an issue when he's stuck in confined areas against downhill ballcarriers. But the reason he's a Falcon: to cover ground as a zone defender in the team's Cover 3 scheme. With improved awareness, Jones did that much better in the second half of last season.
Perry is a strong edge-setter and second-effort pass-rusher who can also win with his first step at times. The one thing that gives you pause: He never quite fulfilled his first-round potential until his contract year. The Packers know him better than anyone, though, and they were comfortable re-signing him long-term.
Ryan is a physical press corner who can apply his skill outside or in the slot. The Titans, a zone-based D under coordinator Dick LeBeau, played a lot more man coverage in the second half of last season.
It was no sure thing that he'd transition well to middle linebacker; he's always been a see-it-and-Go! type, not necessarily a read-and-react guy. So far, Ogletree has done a commendable job. Now he must answer a challenge again as he learns Wade Phillips' system.
I'm sure 90% of you think he's ranked way too low. (Especially being 21 spots behind division rival Carson Wentz!?!) Here's the rub: Prescott had absolutely perfect conditions last season. His O-line was incredible, his ground game explosive, he had a true No. 1 wideout (Dez Bryant) to impact safeties and clarify coverages and he had two security blankets in tight end Jason Witten and slot man Cole Beasley. Consequently, Prescott's job was easier. It was apparent each week. To his credit, Prescott capitalized. But still, easy quarterbacking is rare in pro football. At some point, something will go wrong and Prescott's job description will change. Conditions don't stay perfect forever; that will be a better time to evaluate Prescott.
What more could he have done to keep his job as the feature back? (It will now be shared with, if not eventually outright go to, Adrian Peterson.) Ingram is a patient, smart runner, adequate blocker and underrated receiver.
Like the Bucs D as a whole, Hargreaves was much better in the second half of last season. It will be interesting to see his second-year development in a system that predominantly features zone coverage.
His route running improved drastically over the course of last season, particularly his in-breakers (slants, posts, digs). Pryor's continued progress will be important, as he likely assumes the Pierre Garcon role in Washington.
His best plays can look as dominant as almost any 3-4 end's best plays. Hicks needs to produce them a little more often, but overall, he's a really, really challenging player with the suddenness and strength to stun blockers.
Perhaps all that will keep him from becoming one of the five most productive receiving tight ends in football is Tampa Bay's first-round pick, O.J. Howard, gobbling up some of that production. Brate is a long, pliable target who can really work the seams.
He's a great utility weapon, but Cobb has only one 1,000-yard season under his belt (1,287 yards in 2014). Entering 2015, I thought he'd be an Offensive Player of Year contender. But at some point you have to consider that maybe 800-900 yards a year is just the type of player he is.
The ex-Giant was right to be surprised by his soft market in free agency. It was the function of a league oversaturated with quality defensive tackles. Fortunately, Hankins got paid in the end: $27-30 million over three years, depending on his performance. The Colts got a good deal here, too.
Gordon is a more comfortable runner when he has a fullback, which the Chargers recognized last season (they brought in his former Wisconsin teammate, Derek Watt). To Gordon's credit, he has also become more decisive out of singleback sets. Maintaining that growth is vital for his long-term success.
If I had to pick one QB to lead my team for the next 10 years, Wentz would be it. (The other guy in consideration would be Luck, who is three years older.) Expect a huge jump in from Wentz in Year Two.
The Packers should strongly consider signing him to a third contract after this season. At 28, Burnett is firmly in his prime and, on top of playing both safety spots, he has shown the ability to moonlight in the slot and as a sub-package linebacker. Could become the new Charles Woodson- or Micah Hyde-style flex piece for this defense.
Gates no longer runs well, and durability has become a concern. But put on the film and you see that defenses still pay him extra attention. There's something to be said for just knowing how to get open.
Chung is a critical piece for New England's D. His run-tackling stability and pass coverage abilities (which extend down into the slot) allow the Patriots to play nickel (five defensive backs) against a litany of different personnel packages. Nickel gives them more flexibility than a base 4-3 or 3-4.
He was once considered more of a gap scheme runner'someone who follows specific blockers through fairly specific running lanes. But Miami has discovered, under Adam Gase, that Ajayi is actually outstanding on outside zone runs, which is usually where slashing runners thrive.
A lot of players with bodies as high-cut as his would have trouble anchoring at right tackle. You see that from Moses occasionally in the run game, but not often. And he's developed into a sturdy pass protector.
An important part of pass-blocking is your ability to skim the grass with your feet. (Mowing the lawn, they call it.) The lower your feet stay while moving, the better your balance and strength. Decker is excellent here. Let's hope he recovers soundly from an offseason shoulder injury.
Tunsil is ranked relatively low only because he hasn't played much left tackle in the NFL. Give him three or four weeks and he could emerge as the best young left tackle in football. His springy movement is unreal.
A better football player than athlete, and Jordan is not a bad athlete. On a team that had any edge-rushing presence whatsoever, he'd probably do what Michael Bennett does for Seattle and slide to defensive tackle on third downs, where his savvy sense for setting up blockers in tight areas would be more usable.
Don't be surprised if he catapults into the top-five cornerback discussion as an NFL sophomore. Ramsey must get a lot more disciplined in his route recognition and technique, but talent-wise, you won't find a better mix of body and athleticism at this position.
He's now joined Terrell Suggs, Jason Witten and Tom Brady in the small pantheon of players who I'm convinced will never grow old. At 34, Grimes still elevates as well as any corner in the game. He's extremely comfortable in Tampa Bay's zone-based scheme.
Winston must cut down on the turnovers. Part of it stems from the fact that he sees so much of the field. Most young QBs only see portions of the field. Now he must be more judicious in deciding what to do with what he sees.
Collins is a limited cover guy that must be hidden as much as possible in pass defense. Give credit to Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo'he's found ways to let Collin be a freer, downhill-centric defender. And give credit to Collins for using that freedom to make big plays.
Who do we believe: The Ford who recorded 10 sacks in the first nine games last season, or the Ford who recorded zero sacks in his last six games? (Considering he was battling a hamstring at times late last season, I believe the Dee Ford from the first nine weeks.)
He's put up big numbers, but what you can't capture statistically is what happens on the plays where Hopkins runs a sloppy route. There are too many. And it's an even bigger problem when you consider that he's a methodical mover.
There are an unusually high number of quality 3-4 defensive ends in the league right now. Remove J.J. Watt from the equation and you could say that Jones, if he continues his rapid progression from down the stretch last season, is the most intriguing of all of them.
Was Palmer's 2016 decline a result of injuries or age? If he's close to what he was in 2015, the Cardinals will contend for an NFC West title. Palmer fits Arizona's offense as nicely as any quarterback fits his respective team's offense.
It's a do-or-die year for Matthews. Was his reduced production last season a function of injuries or a function of turning 30? The Packers are banking on the former. If he doesn't regain his stature, Green Bay's D will have trouble generating pressure without blitzing.
Jackson was an outstanding five-technique in Denver, where he often sparred with tight ends and offensive tackles (sometimes at the same time). He was used more as a three-technique in Jacksonville, where he's expected to shoot gaps. He was effective doing so last season, but in an honest moment, you wonder if he'd admit that he's more comfortable at five-tech than three-tech.
Clark possesses cat-like quickness off the snap, regardless if he's playing inside or outside, or if he's shooting a gap or executing a stunt. Keep him in the back of your mind'he very well could be a top-10 defensive lineman by this time next year.
This could be the first time since Brian Orakpo left (after the 2014 season) that Kerrigan is surrounded by other true pass rushing threats. It depends on how rookies Jonathan Allen and Ryan Anderson pan out.
We saw his value when he went down with a thigh injury in the playoff loss at Green Bay. With no one to cover the slot, the Giants' man-to-man-centric scheme took a hit, compromising significant portions of their gameplan.
It was far from certain that the 2010 first-rounder would pan out given his run of knee injuries. But that's precisely what he's done. Bulaga is not as deft a mover as he was before the injuries, but he is a steadier technician.
He's a valuable commodity for his blocking and mid-range receiving prowess. Even more valuable than that is what Bennett's presence does for Green Bay's offense. With a movable tight end, the Packers' system goes from static to diverse just because of the increased number of formations it can employ. It's no coincidence that Green Bay was 10-3 when Jared Cook was healthy last year.
I didn't think he could become a quality NFL pocket passer. And, to be clear, because of his height, there are still plays from the pocket that he simply can't make. But to Wilson's immense credit, and to Seattle's, he has discovered some dropback discipline on quick-strike throws out of spread sets. The beauty is that this doesn't come at the expense of his sandlot abilities.
With a new coaching staff and O-line coach, the Rams' ground game should rebound from an atrocious 2016. Expect to once again see the Todd Gurley who has excellent stop-start quickness and almost imperceptible change-of-direction ability.
How many players in history could have torn their Achilles at age 33 and still recorded 11.5 sacks at age 34? With the trade for ex-Ram William Hayes and first-round selection of Charles Harris, Wake can fully settle in as a pass-rushing specialist. This will prolong his career.
Another guy from that small handful of corners who can play man or zone on the perimeter and in the slot. Hayward traveled with No. 1 receivers over the second half of last season and got better each week. He is also a playmaker (league-high seven interceptions last season, and six as a rookie for Green Bay in 2012).
The question is: How much did his undisclosed knee injury impact him last season? We'll find out this year. The Seahawks need him to be better versus in-breaking routes. Against vertical routes along the boundary, he's still as good as anyone.
Lang found his home at guard after an up-and-down ride early in his career at right tackle. I'm a little surprised Green Bay did not re-sign him. No offensive line was better at sustaining prolonged pass blocks last year, and Lang was a big part of that.
When he's been healthy'he wasn't for much of 2016'Breaux has displayed excellent press-man technique in boundary coverage. If the Saints had two of him, their bottom-feeding defense would rank in the top half of the league. (And they know this, hence the first round selection of Marshon Lattimore last spring.)
He squeaks into that select group of corners who can travel with plus-sized No. 1 receivers. Johnson is most comfortable in off-coverage, where he can jump routes, but is plenty capable in press, as well.
Don't assume a player is old just because his age is advanced. Plenty of quality safeties have played at a high level well into their late 30s (John Lynch, Brian Dawkins, Rod Woodson, to name a few). Weddle, who studies the game like a coach, has a chance to do that.
Barr has a defensive end's body but plays stack linebacker. In Minnesota's scheme, linebackers must be able to retreat quickly into coverage and change directions at the drop of a hat. Barr more than does the job.
Gilmore is a long-armed press corner who wasn't consistent enough last year for the Bills. Obviously Bill Belichick and Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia, who run a predominantly man-based scheme, see him in a better light than what his 2016 film casts.
Lions offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter has simplified the offense in a way that requires Stafford to be smarter before the snap and more disciplined after it. And Stafford has responded extremely well.
Matthews is a natural mover with steady hands. And how is it that no one talks about the continuously improving high first-round pick who plays left tackle for one of the greatest offenses of all-time?
Beasley is to be commended for his growth as an edge rusher. The next step for him is developing more moves in confined areas. As it stands, he's a speed rusher who needs space created for him in order to thrive.
Jefferson got rich this offseason because he expanded his coverage abilities in Arizona (he can play press-man on tight ends and convert his zone coverage into man against seam receivers). He's also a fantastic edge blitzer.
Howard is the best all-around zone runner in football. He has the wheels and body lean to flourish on outside zone, following his O-line's cohesive run blocks toward the sideline. On inside zone, he's excellent at fitting the ball between the tackles behind double-team blocks.