Maybe the most underrated position in football is the defensive line. Lining up against offensive linemen, tight ends and running backs, having to chase down quarterbacks, and pursuing the ball carrier is just a small part of their job description. In order to do it, and to do it well, defensive linemen need to have that rare mix of speed, strength and size. That’s why they're some of the highest-paid players in the NFL today: they’re game changers. A quarterback sack, a forced fumble, or even a tipped ball at the line of scrimmage always seem to be the key plays that turn a game around. At the same time, it seems a little crazy how defensive linemen can get huge payouts for only getting 10 sacks per season. So the lesson here is that if you have kids in football, get them to rush the quarterback young. To celebrate these huge wreackers of havoc, here are the top 10 highest-paid defensive linemen per pound. Note, the earnings noted here are for the 2014 season.
10 Vince Wilfork – New England Patriots - $23,076/Pound
The top 10 opens with a force. Since entering the league in 2004, the 6’2’’ 320 lb defensive tackle has been nothing but a disruption for offenses that have had to line up against him. Deceptively athletic, Wilfork’s strength is in his size. He can easily hold double-teams on run plays and can use a very effective bull rush to push the pocket and disrupt the quarterback. He isn’t a sack leader by any stretch of the imagination, but he does often disrupt the timing of the opposing quarterback. Either he will force a poor throw from a technical standpoint, or he will manage to rush the quarterback’s progression. That’s why Wilfork is set to earn $7.5 million in 2014, despite a 2013 campaign that was halted by injury.
9 Haloti Ngata – Baltimore Ravens – $25,000/Pound
The ninth position on this list is held by Haloti Ngata, a staple on a Ravens defense that still finds itself in flux since their victory in Super Bowl XLVII. Gone are Ed Reed and Ray Lewis, but Ngata has stayed aboard and has been an anchor on a team that is still looking for a new one. At 340 lbs, the former Oregon Duck also has deceptive quickness and can find his way to the quarterback. Until the 2013 season, Ngata had consistently found himself racking up five sacks per year, and was always in the conversation for defensive player of the year. With a motor that doesn’t stop, the Ravens fell in love with him and Ngata will be raking in $8.5 million in 2014.
8 Cliff Avril – Seattle Seahawks – $26,923/Pound
After leaving Detroit, Cliff Avril had acquired himself a reputation as a relentless pass rusher. He had been a part of one of the better front fours in the league, playing with the likes of Nick Fairley, Ndamukong Suh and Kyle Vanden Bosch. In his years in Detroit his speed was what made him elite coming off the edge. However, the Lions could not come to terms with the consistent 10-sack pass rusher, and released him. Avril found a home in Seattle, and is set to earn $7 million in 2014. After a Super Bowl win and an 8-sack season, the sky is the limit for the 6’3’’ 260 lb defensive end. If he can stay healthy, the Seahawks could have a very productive defensive end for many years, since he is only 27 years old.
7 Chris Clemons – Seattle Seahawks – $29,527/Pound
If you haven’t picked up on the fact that the Seahawks are built from the defense out, well you should now. Chris Clemons is a 6’3’’ 254 lb defensive end that has been an elite pass rusher since joining the Hawks in 2010. However, his 2013 season was disappointing compared to past seasons. Not only that, but Clemons has had lingering injury issues from his 2012 campaign and is not getting any younger. At 32 years old, and with the price tag he carries ($7.5 million dollars in 2014), Chris Clemons may be a luxury Seattle can’t afford. If his production keeps declining, John Schneider may try to let go of #91 in order to free up some much needed cap space to re-sign high profile players like Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas.
6 Charles Johnson – Carolina Panthers - $30,701/Pound
It seems that the Carolina Panthers have quietly been able to assemble one of the best defenses in the league. The only name people seem to be able to remember is Luke Kuechly, but Charles Johnson has discretely been an invaluable member to this unit. The 6’2’’ 285 lb defensive end has accumulated 54 sacks during his 8-year career. Even more astonishing is that he came cheap to the Panthers, since they took him in the 3rd round of the 2007 Draft. His production really picked up in 2010 after a few years of development. Stories like Johnson’s give validation to the idea that no matter where you are picked, you can make an impact. With his big frame, Johnson is extremely physical on the edge and has great hands to shed blockers and pursue the ball carrier or the quarterback, which is why he will earn $8.75 million in 2014.
5 Ndamukong Suh – Detroit Lions - $40,879/Pound
Maybe one of the most polarizing defensive linemen in the league sits at the fifth spot on this list. Ndamukong Suh has been called dirty, competitive, nasty, and many other things. But what is certain is that the former Cornhusker is one of the best interior defensive linemen in the NFL. With his 6’4’’ 307 lb frame, Suh can easily blow up any offensive line in the circuit. Since taking the league by storm with 10 sacks in his rookie season, Suh’s productivity has dipped. Teams need to respect his size and ability, and have double-teamed him in consequence. But don’t be fooled, Suh is and continues to be one of the elite defensive linemen in the league, as is reflected by his $12.55 million 2o14 price tag.
4 Gerald McCoy – Tampa Bay Buccaneers – $42,440/Pound
The two-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle from Oklahoma City sits at the fourth slot on this list. Some stop and look at his size, but the devil is always in the details. Despite his 6’4’’ 300 lb frame, McCoy has great foot speed, fantastic hips and great hands, all of which make him dominant against less athletic interior offensive linemen. The proof is in the pudding, and McCoy has been able to eat offensive linemen’s lunches 9.5 times in 2013. This great 2013 campaign has only added to his resume, and will be a bright spot on a Tampa Bay defense that was ordinary at best in 2013.
3 DeMarcus Ware – Dallas Cowboys - $47,480/Pound
2 Julius Peppers – Chicago Bears - $48,432/Pound
For a 6’7’’ player, Julius Peppers isn’t very heavy at 287 lbs. With long arms and a more slender frame, Peppers is extremely explosive coming off the edge. After a successful stint in Carolina, Peppers jumped ship and joined the Chicago Bears through free agency. With a $13.9 million pay total coming in 2014, the pressure is on Peppers to produce after a disappointing 2013. His explosiveness is second to none despite his age, which is why people in Chicago are very optimistic about what is still to come. A defensive anchor for the Bears since Brian Urlacher retired, Julius Peppers still has lots of tread on the tire left, and could still have a few 10-sack seasons left in him.
1 Chris Long – St. Louis Rams - $49,253/Pound
“Howie Long’s Son” no more, Chris Long has developed into one of the best defensive ends in the NFL. Although he may sometimes be forgotten since he plays in the smaller St. Louis market, Long plays big. He may be tired of hearing about this, but it’s still just as true as it once was; Long plays with an edge, a chip on his shoulder, the same kind of chip that his dad played with when he became played out a Hall of Fame career with the Raiders. Long makes plays everywhere on the field with his fantastic 6’3’’ 268 lb frame and is a great teammate. Although he isn’t a specialized lineman, he’s made a name for himself as a very well-rounded player who can rush the passer when he needs to, and can play tough on the line to stop the run. He will definitely need to live up to his billing in 2014, since he is set to earn $13.2 million next season.