BEFORE BECOMING the No. 1 pick in 2014, South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney found himself at the center of a debate over how best to evaluate a dominant D-lineman. After a remarkable sophomore season (54 tackles, 23½ TFLs and a whopping 13 sacks), Clowney's numbers had, on paper, regressed in alarming fashion (40, 11½ and just three QB takedowns). His critics argued, shrilly, that the dip owed to a lack of effort, while the pro-Clowney crowd countered that he had impact (despite injury and illness) merely by being on the field.
"A lot of game-changing went on [because of me]," Clowney explained at the combine. "Quick passes, two-on-one blocking, opposite-side runs...."
Such is often the case with standout players up front. Coordinators plan around them, resulting in limited chances to rack up sexy stats. But the impact made by those linemen is still felt heavily, as these four guys have shown this season:
BRANDON WILLIAMS, Ravens DT
Nosetackles are almost as statistically anonymous as the men they line up across from, but Williams's lack of name recognition borders on criminal. His stat line (five tackles, zero sacks) says little about how he ties up bodies and frees Baltimore 'backers to make big plays.
CLIFF AVRIL, Seahawks DE
An end with just a single sack this season is bound to be overlooked, but consider: Seattle's defense is all about pressuring QBs into making mistakes against a ball-hawking secondary, and through Sunday, Avril had an impressive 12 hurries.
WALLACE GILBERRY, Bengals DE
Opposing offenses would love to dodge D-end Carlos Dunlap when playing Cincy. Gilberry's consistency on the opposite side of the Bengals' 4--3 D makes that tough. His two sacks are misleading; look beyond that to his 15 QB hurries (tops for any end) and his pair of batted passes.
J.J. WATT, Texans DE
That Watt is considered the odds-on favorite to win Defensive Player of the Year despite having just two sacks and 19 tackles (well off his pace from either of his past two, dominant seasons) suggests some pundits are finally seeing past the stats. The reality: It's tough to make tackles when opponents repeatedly direct plays in the other direction—but Watt's presence alone turns offenses one-dimensional.
TIM WARNER/CSM (GILBERRY)