After watching games and breaking down film, Scouts Inc., in conjunction with ESPN.com's Matt Williamson, has evaluated and graded more than 2,500 NFL players heading into the 2012 season. Here's how the top defensive ends stacked up.
Note: No rookies were included in this exercise. Age refers to player's age at start of the 2012 season on Sept. 5.
This group consists of the traditional 4-3 defensive ends who play on the edge at the line of scrimmage and 3-4 defensive ends who are asked to play almost like defensive tackles, as inside players against massive offensive linemen in tighter quarters. The 4-3 ends get all of the headlines for one simple reason: pass rush.
The 3-4 ends do more of the dirty work to free up those around them. But the 3-4 defensive ends are doing more penetrating and have become more disruptive schematically than in the past, where they were often just asked to control the man in front of them and control two gaps.
Out of the very top guys on this list, Justin Smith is probably the name that raises the most eyebrows. Although he is a very different player than someone like Jason Pierre-Paul or Jared Allen, by no means should that diminish Smith's greatness. If you haven't already, just watch Smith snap after snap before criticizing how high he is ranked on this list.
Smith is a seasoned veteran and a consistent producer. He brings an excellent combination of size, strength and athleticism to the position.
He has lost a step over the years but has learned to compensate with excellent technique and the ability to recognize blocking schemes, locate the level of the ball and pick angles. He does a very good job of feeling pressure and using his hands to squeeze the play down.
Allen has been an impact player his entire career. He has great length and athleticism for the position.
He has excellent initial quickness as a pass-rusher with deceptive power to counter and collapse the pocket. He has great range in pursuit and plays with a relentless motor. Allen often sets the tone and brings leadership and big-play ability to the Vikings' defense.
Pierre-Paul had an outstanding season, taking over a starting role for the Giants in 2011. He is an excellent combination of size, strength and athleticism. He has explosive speed and quickness off the edge as a pass-rusher and can bend and close well defending the run.
He has deceptive power and can get larger blockers off-balance with a variety of counter moves. He has improved his hand use and ability to react quickly as blocking schemes unfold. He should continue to be an impact player in 2012.