Even as the NFC West is hailed as the best division in the NFL with those bullying offenses in Seattle and San Francisco as well as the resurgent Arizona Cardinals, there is something that may upset that whole scene.
The St. Louis Rams defensive line.
Analysis of each unit on every NFL team by Sports Xchange reporters resulted in strong evidence that the Rams' 2014 defensive line may be the best in the business, slightly ahead of the stifling Carolina Panthers and the bad-boy Detroit Lions.
Also in the NFL's top tier of defensive lines are Rex Ryan's New York Jets and possibly the Denver Broncos in their effort to overcome that embarrassing Super Bowl performance.
In the highly-acclaimed NFC West, Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson, San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick and, for that matter, Arizona's Carson Palmer might need to stay light on their feet now that the Rams added diminutive but disruptive rookie defensive tackle Aaron Donald to the respected team of Quinn, Long, Brockers and Langford.
That may sound like a team of lawyers, but they are really a raucous group that is possibly the most menacing defensive line in the NFL -- Robert Quinn, perhaps the best young defensive end in the league (19 sacks last season), veteran Chris Long (8.5), Michael Brockers (5.5) and Kendall Langford (5.0).
Adding Donald with the 13th overall pick in the draft could give the Rams a chance to out-bully the best in the NFC West. Short but not small at 6 feet 3/4 inch, 285 pounds, Donald was the most dominant defensive college football player in 2013 after totaling 59 tackles, including 28.5 for a loss, and 11 sacks.
The Carolina Panthers not only led the league with 60 sacks last season, they also allowed opposing running offenses to 87 yards per game, give or take an inch, and a mere four touchdowns rushing, best in the league.
In Detroit, the terrible twin tackles (and we mean that in a good way) of Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley could reach their exceedingly high potential trying to prove themselves for a new head coach. And if defensive end Ezekiel Ansah stays healthy enough to benefit from the attention needed to handle all that beef in the middle, he could become a major factor.
This is the first of an eight-part series by The Sports Xchange as we take a closer look at each unit on every team. So, direct from watching the OTAs and minicamps, Sports Xchange reporters offer this closer look at each NFL team's defensive line for 2014:
--DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- DLE Darnell Dockett, NT Dan Williams, DRE Calais Campbell. Backups -- NT Alameda Ta'amu, E Frostee Rucker, E Kareem Martin, E/T Ed Stinson, NT Christian Tupou, NT Justin Renfrow.
The entire front played well in 2013. Campbell enjoyed another elite season. His run defense has improved and he's a menace in passing situations. Dockett had his best season in several years. He started slowly but blossomed in coordinator Todd Bowles' one-gap scheme. Williams was steady all year. Ta'amu, claimed off waivers from Pittsburgh, was so good that he took time away from Williams. Ta'amu is very powerful and a big reason the team ranked first against the run. Rucker is a solid backup and Talley hardly played, partly because of a wrist injury. Martin, a third-round pick, has pass-rush ability and could play in those situations. Stinson was a good run defender in college.
--DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- RDE Kroy Biermann, DT Tyson Jackson, DT Paul Soliai, LDE Jonathan Babineaux. Backups -- E Osi Umenyiora, E Ra'Shede Hagemen, E Jonathan Massaquoi, E Eguae Nosa, E Malliciah Goodman, E Stansly Maponga, T Peria Jerry, T Corey Peters, T Travian Robertson, T Cliff Matthews, T Donte Rumph.
Determined to find a pass rusher, the Falcons have picked four defensive ends over the past two drafts. They also added ex-Dolphin Soliai and ex-Chief Jackson to help anchor the unit as the team plans to be multiple and flow from 4-3 to 3-4 fronts. The Falcons were 31st against the rush (135.8 yards per game) last season. They did a lot of experimenting in the offseason as they retained 4-3 tackles Babineaux, Jerry and Peters in free agency. They drafted the mammoth Hageman in the second round to play end in the 3-4. They are hoping to find someone -- Biermann, Umenyiora, Massaquoi, Maponga or Goodman -- to get some heat on opposing quarterbacks.
--DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- DT Brandon Williams, NT Haloti Ngata, DE Chris Canty. Backups -- DE Brent Urban, DE DeAngelo Tyson, DE Kapron Lewis-Moore, DT A.J. Pataiali'i, DT Timmy Jernigan, DT Derrick Hopkins, DT Levi Brown, DT Jamie Meder.
The defensive line is in transition, with Arthur Jones leaving in free agency to join the Indianapolis Colts. Jernigan is competing with Williams, Tyson and Lewis-Moore to take over Jones' versatile role. The Ravens will need Ngata to be even more disruptive inside. Canty was far too quiet in his first season in Baltimore and could be pressed for playing time by Urban.
--DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- DE Mario Williams, DT Marcell Dareus, DT Kyle Williams, DE Jerry Hughes. Backups -- E Manny Lawson, T Alan Branch, E Jarius Wynn, T Corbin Bryant, T Stefan Charles, L Damien Jackson, DL Bryan Johnson, DL Colby Way, DL Ikponmwosa Igbinosun.
The Bills set a team record with 57 sacks in 2013, and Dareus, Hughes, Mario Williams and Kyle Williams combined for 41. They were helped by former defensive coordinator Mike Pettine's aggressive blitz packages, which opened some pass-rush lanes, and coordinator Jim Schwartz certainly won't back off. Dareus needs to get his act together off the field, and if he does, he can be great. Hughes must prove last year's 10-sack emergence wasn't a one-season blip. The switch to a base 4-3 affects Lawson and Branch, and it wouldn't be a surprise if Lawson is released because he's more of a hybrid LB/DL. Branch's versatility up front should create a place for him. Charles impressed the coaches late last season, and Wynn joined the team as a free agent and he could stick.
--DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LDE Greg Hardy, RDE Charles Johnson, DT Star Lotulelei, DT Colin Cole. Backups -- E Mario Addison, E Frank Alexander, E Kony Ealy, E Alex Hall, E Wes Horton, E Craig Roh, T Dwan Edwards, T Linden Gaydosh, T Drake Nevis, T Shaq Rowell, T Kawann Short, DT Casey Walker.
Johnson and Hardy take up more than 20 percent of the team's cap space, so this will likely be the last year they will be paired together. The Panthers believe the duo -- and the rest of the front seven -- helps give them a shot at another playoff run. Ealy and Addison will see snaps, and they could be the future at end. Lotulelei and Short had solid rookie years and should only get better. Alexander is suspended the first four games for violating the league's substance abuse policy.