Top-tier defensive ends play multiple roles in the National Football League. Their first objective is to get to quarterbacks on Sundays. They also prevent run plays from materializing on the flanks, and the most athletic defensive ends have the ability to drop back and defend against the pass.
The best defensive ends in the league create nightmares for opposing head coaches and offensive coordinators. Those players draw double-team schemes that open up opportunities for other teammates who feature on the defensive line, and they disrupt quarterbacks when they line up in blitz formations.
The man atop this list could be the league’s premier defensive player of 2014.
These are the 10 highest-paid defensive ends in the NFL for the 2014 season.
Cap hits courtesy of Spotrac
Honorable Mention: Darnell Dockett — Arizona Cardinals: $8.75 million cap hit
Dockett tore his ACL during an August practice session. He will not play in 2014.
10. Everson Griffen — Minnesota Vikings: $8.2 million cap hit
It was only a few years ago when Griffen had a reputation for being a trouble-maker off of the football field. He was arrested twice in three days in 2011. Griffen eventually escaped facing felony charges, and he has since gotten his life together.
He is now set to be one of the leaders on Minnesota’s defense.
Griffen had 13.5 sacks in his last two seasons, and his play earned him a new contract this past offseason. The Vikings locked Griffen up for at least the next couple of years, guaranteeing him $19.8 million in the process. While that deal could be reviewed in 2016, there is little reason to believe the Vikes will part ways with the player at that time.
9. Carlos Dunlap — Cincinnati Bengals: $8.6 million cap hit
Dunlap has been a force in the pros since being drafted by the Bengals in the second round of the 2010 draft. He had 9.5 sacks in his rookie season, and Dunlap has accumulated a total of 27.5 NFL quarterback take-downs. He appeared in all of Cincy’s regular season games for the first time in 2013, and he finished the year with 7.5 sacks and a career-high 58 combined tackles.
Dunlap put pen to paper on a long-term deal with the Bengals last summer. The 25-year-old is signed through the end of the 2018 season. $11.7 million of that five-year and $39 million contract is guaranteed.
8. Michael Johnson — Tampa Bay Buccaneers: $9 million cap hit
Tampa Bay took steps to bolster the team’s lineup on both sides of the football during the offseason. The club acquired veteran Josh McCown to be the new starting quarterback of the Buccaneers. Johnson, meanwhile, is hoped to be an impact-player in his first season in Tampa Bay.
The 27-year-old who spent five years with the Cincinnati Bengals signed a five-year deal with the Bucs. He will earn a guaranteed $18 million off of that deal, and Johnson could net up to $43.75 million. After having 11.5 sacks in 2012, Johnson picked up 3.5 sacks last season.
7. Cliff Avril — Seattle Seahawks: $9.25 million cap hit
Defense wins titles, teaches the old adage, and it again proved to be true last February. Avril was a key component of Seattle’s championship defense, racking up eight sacks and forcing five fumbles in his first season with the Seahawks after spending five seasons with the Detroit Lions.
He will be looking to cash in on that success, and soon.
Avril is set to become a free agent after the upcoming season. The 28-year-old is in the prime of his career, and the Purdue University product could be in for a banner year. Avril will get what is coming to him at some point over the next year.
Will the Seahawks break the bank for him?
6. DeMarcus Ware — Denver Broncos: $9,666,666 cap hit
Quarterback Peyton Manning and the Denver offense rewrote record books with their play in the 2013 regular season. They cruised to a division title, and Manning out-played old nemesis Tom Brady of the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game.
The Broncos were then dominated by the defense of the Seattle Seahawks in the Super Bowl.
Denver looked to build a better defense of their own following that brutal loss to Seattle. Acquiring Ware was part of the equation. The veteran of nine NFL seasons will be looking to show that he has plenty of fuel left in the tank, and Ware is just one reason why some believe the Broncos will win it all this time around.
5. Calais Campbell — Arizona Cardinals: $11.25 million cap hit
Campbell was one of many Arizona players who planned on lining up along with teammate Darnell Dockett. With Dockett lost for the season due to the torn ACL, Campbell will be tasked with filling what is a massive void in the defense of the Cardinals.
The 6-foot-8 and 300-pound Campbell has the goods to deliver. He had a career-high nine sacks in 2013, and he finished the season with 58 combined tackles. Arizona locked Campbell up on a five-year contract back in 2012.
4. Greg Hardy — Carolina Panthers: $13.116 million (franchise tag)
Hardy‘s status as an NFL player is up in the air. He was arrested last May following an ugly domestic abuse incident, and a judge sentenced him to 18 months probation and a jail stint that was later suspended. His attorney appealed that ruling, and Hardy’s jury trial will begin in early 2015.
League commissioner Roger Goodell earned less-than-desirable headlines when he suspended Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice for two games after Rice knocked his then-fiancee unconscious while the two were in Atlantic City last February. It has been speculated that the league will, in the future, hand down harsher punishments for players involved in similar situations.
Hardy could be facing an indefinite ban starting next year.
3. Chris Long — St. Louis Rams: $14.9 million cap hit
Long has been a St. Louis mainstay since the Rams drafted him second overall in 2008. The 29-year-old has 50.5 career NFL sacks, 33 of which came in his past three seasons. Long is signed through 2016, but his dead money value does drop from $17 million to $3 million following the upcoming season.
Long and his defensive teammates may not be able to carry the Rams to a winning season. Quarterback Sam Bradford tore his ACL a second time during a preseason game against the Cleveland Browns, and that injury has put his career in doubt. St. Louis needs to find a starting quarterback and soon if the team is to compete in the NFC.
2. Charles Johnson — Carolina Panthers: $16.42 million cap hit
Johnson has been sidelined due to a hamstring injury this summer. He will not play in Carolina’s preseason finale, but the Panthers are hoping that he will be ready for the regular season opener. Johnson is listed as “questionable” for that game at this time.
The Carolina defense certainly would not be the same without having Johnson in the trenches. He has registered no fewer than nine sacks in a season over the past four years. Johnson had 23.5 total sacks in the last two campaigns, and he finished 2013 with 11 sacks despite the fact that he missed two contests.
1. Mario Williams — Buffalo Bills: $18.8 million cap hit
Many have high expectations for the defensive line of the Houston Texans which features J.J. Watt and rookie Jadeveon Clowney, but it is a former Houston defensive end who could be on the cusp of a special season.
Williams has eight NFL seasons under his belt. He his, at 29 years old, in his physical prime. It is widely believed that the former Texans star will thrive while playing under new Buffalo defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz.
Do not be surprised if Williams bags 20 or more sacks this season.