Criteria roundup: it's tough to compare defensive ends and tackles, but for present purposes, it had to be done. We've got hate weeks to get to, after all. I did my best not to let the fact that ends almost uniformly have more numbers than tackles influence these rankings too much. In my estimation, there just aren't any proven impact tackles coming back this year to merit placement above the pass-rushers listed below. As per usual, I accounted, where possible, for a player's importance to his team. Away we go...
1. DE Andre Monroe, RS Senior, Maryland
Le gasp! The Michigan State writer elevates a non-Spartan over his team's premier defensive talent? And a freaking LAXBRO turtle, no less?! Slow your conspiraroll, friends. Monroe's talent is no joke. If you want to see what he's capable of, watch some of Maryland's bowl game (an otherwise embarrassing defeat at the hands of the mighty Marshall Thunderin' Herd). Monroe is a freaking terror.
Of course, Marshall's offensive linemen don't compare favorably to B1G hog mollies, but Monroe disrupted offensive gameplans all year in the ACC, and escalated his play down the stretch, collecting 6 sacks in Maryland's last 4 games. The one potential knock on Monroe is his tendency towards feast-or-famine performances; of his 9.5 total sacks, he collected 8 in just three games, and in 5 others, he collected one tackle or fewer. Still, available tackles for linemen are often beyond their control, and Monroe is indisputably a premier pass rusher, and brings far more than the typical 3-4 defensive end.
2. DE Shilique Calhoun, RS Junior, Michigan State
For a brief time last year, Calhoun was not only a defensive force, but one of MSU's premier scoring threats as well, racking three defensive TDs in the first two weeks of the season. Although that pace was unsustainable, Calhoun nonetheless made Spartan fans forget about William Gholston in a hurry with his all-conference season in 2013. With his 8 sacks, a pick-six, and 2 fumbles returned for touchdowns, Calhoun provided the pure edge rusher that MSU had not had in recent memory. By the end of the season, he consistently commanded double-teams on passing downs.
Spartan fans may be well-advised to enjoy Calhoun's 2014 season, as NFL scouts are already sniffing around. Calhoun did have occasional difficulties in holding up against the run, but MSU's outstanding linebacker play minimized this potential shortcoming.
3. DE Randy Gregory, Junior, Nebraska
If Randy Gregory had adjusted to life in the B1G more quickly, his name would be on several single-season records. With a pick-six and 10.5 sacks to his name, Gregory's ascendance coincided with the improvement of Nebraska's defense as a whole. Gregory did take advantage of weaker competition somewhat, racking 5 sacks against the two worst offensive lines in the conference in Michigan and Purdue. Still, he gathered an impressive number of total tackles for a defensive lineman, becoming a consistent contributor to a much-improved unit even when he wasn't able to reach the quarterback.
Gregory's prospects on a largely-intact Husker front seven should be very good in 2014. However, with the opposite defensive end, Avery Moss, suspended for the season, Nebraska will need to find another force on the line to make sure Gregory isn't smothered with double-teams.
4. DE Joey Bosa, Sophomore, Ohio State
After a quiet nonconference schedule that may have left some wondering why Bosa wasn't redshirting, the then-true freshman exploded onto the scene during the 2013 B1G season. To do that, he had to dislodge another projected standout player, Adolphus Washington, from his starting place at strongside defensive end.
Bosa's production and impact would be excellent for anyone, but to be so disruptive against veteran B1G offensive linemen as a true freshman makes it all the more impressive. Competition for snaps on OSU's deep and talented defensive line will be steep, but Bosa's ability to muscle his way in as a freshman bodes well for his playing time moving forward. The silver lining for the rest of us? Only two more years until this monster declares for the draft and leaves our quarterbacks alone.
5. DE Noah Spence, Junior, Ohio State
Stepping into a full-time starting role in 2013, Spence vindicated his enormous recruiting hype with an excellent season. His solid play, amassing 8 sacks, helped turn a defensive line that was an uncertain quantity going into the season into the defense's strength. Spence was a consistent presence, as Wisconsin was the only competitive game the Buckeyes played where the opponent was able to minimize his impact (one tackle).
Of course, a description of Spence wouldn't be complete without mentioning the fact that he was suspended for Ohio State's Orange Bowl loss to Clemson. It turned out he had tested positive for ecstasy, which he claims was slipped into his drink at a party. As the suspension was for three games, Spence will thus miss the first two games of 2014. Presumably, he will be able to regain his starting role on a talented defensive line, but as Bosa's case has shown, Urban Meyer is not afraid to award playing time to deserving backups.