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Ranking the NFL's best front sevens

Ron Chenoy/USA TODAY Sports

On Tuesday, Aaron Schatz counted down the best offensive lines through the first five weeks of the season using line metrics from Football Outsiders and ESPN Stats & Information. Today, we'll flip to the other side and look at which front sevens have been the best in the league so far.

Though they seem like natural comparisons, judging front sevens is really quite different from the way we evaluate offensive lines. Ideally, offensive linemen will play every snap and possess generally similar physical strengths based on their specific blocking scheme. Conversely, a strong front seven should rotate players, particularly on the defensive line, and have players whose varied skill sets can fill the proper roles needed in any situation. Bobby Wagner and Brandon Mebane would fail miserably if they switched positions, but putting them together gives the Seattle Seahawks at least one strong solution to any pass or run call the opposing offense dials up.

These front seven rankings stemmed from an average of five categories:

  • Adjusted line yards (ALY): a Football Outsiders metric that splits value between the blocking and the back, based on the length of the run and adjusted for situation and opponent. For defenses, it can help show how much the front is stopping opposing backs early compared to how often the secondary is allowing long runs.

  • Stuffed rate: how often running backs are stuffed for a loss or no gain.

  • Adjusted sack rate (ASR): sacks (and intentional groundings) per pass play, adjusted for situation and opponent.

  • Pressure rate: how often the quarterback is under duress, including both sacks and hurries, according to ESPN Stats & Information charting.

  • DVOA vs. running backs: Measures part of what the front seven does in pass coverage, since linebackers tend to pick up running backs on pass plays. Adjusted for opponent. This category had half the weight of the other four.

Further explanation of the first three categories can be found here, while the full DVOA vs. RB numbers are here.

Here are the top front sevens through Week 5:

1. Denver Broncos

It seems the public is just coming around to the fact that the 2015 Broncos are contending entirely because of defense, and these numbers really hammer home that point. Among the five categories we measured, Denver's worst ranking is in stuff rate, where it checks in at "only" sixth overall.

The Broncos rank second in both pass-rushing categories (adjusted sack rate and pressure rate), highlighting the foundation of this team.

Everyone knows about the edge-rushing tandem of Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware, which has combined for 7.5 sacks already, but John Elway has also built a strong complementary core. Defensive tackle Malik Jackson and linebacker Brandon Marshall were both fifth-round picks in 2012, and each has developed into a three-down starter. Veterans Antonio Smith and Vance Walker were bargain-bin free-agent signings this offseason who are now integral cogs on the defensive line. And rookies Shane Ray and Shaquil Barrett have been competent in rotational edge-rushing roles, which should help soften the loss of Ware as the veteran recovers from a back injury over the next couple of weeks.

The Broncos' defense has ranked first in our DVOA ratings at the end of every week so far, evoking memories of the famed Orange Crush units of the 1970s. With elite man coverage corners complementing this front seven, there isn't much debate about which defense has been the best in the league thus far.