If a casual NFL fan read that question, he would probably say, 'Seymour. By a mile. And by the way, who is Aaron Smith?'
Though debatable, I'd say that Seymour is considered the league's top 3-4 defensive end. If not the best, certainly he's on the short list. Aaron Smith would have to be on that short list as well, yet we hear far more from the national media about Seymour than we do about Smith. Seymour, who came into the league in 2001 out of the University of Georgia, has been to 5 Pro Bowls, including five straight from 2002-2006. His streak was snapped in 2007 due to the fact that he appeared in just 9 games. Smith on the other hand, has been to just one Pro Bowl, in 2004, since coming into the league out of Northern Colorado in 1999.
Let's take a look at the two players respective statistics to see if there is as large a disparity in their production as their fame and Pro Bowl apperances might suggest:
Hmm. Survey says? Not much of a difference. If Seymour has any leg up on Smith, perhaps it's that he's been a tiny bit more consistent accumulating sacks than Smith. While Smith has had three seasons with fewer than three sacks recorded, Seymour has had only one, and that was in 2007 when he missed significant time due to injury.
That said, Smith's best season (2004) rivals Seymour's best season (2003). Furthermore, Seymour's best tackle season (36), only matches Smith's 3rd best season. Bottom line is Aaron Smith flat out gets it done clogging the 'B' and 'C' gaps in the 3-4 defensive scheme. Does Casey Hampton deserve some of the credit for incentivizing opposing offenses from running away from the 'A' gap? Sure. But Vincent Wilfork, who plays the role of Hampton at nose tackle in New England's defense since 2004, is no slouch.
One final thing. Look at that durability from Smith. 112 straight games from 2002 to 2006, and that streak likely would have continued through 2007 if not for the somewhat freak injury to his bicep against New England this past year. I, like the rest of Steelers Nation, is concerned about our defense if Aaron Smith is not healthy and contributing, but really, there's not all that much reason to believe that he won't be back to form in 2008.
For whatever reason, the Steelers' Aaron Smith toils in relative anonymity despite being one of the league's premiere defensive ends for the 3-4. This was written not to knock on Seymour; he's a great player and probably worth the roughly $7.5 million per year that the Patriots pay him. But for the price (~$3.5 million/year), Smith is probably the best value in the league at his position - certainly for any player not playing on his rookie contract.
Most would scoff at the suggestion that Aaron Smith is not that far off from being on the fringe of a Hall of Fame career. But for those who do, I invite you to take a look at the career statistics of Dan Hampton, Fred Dean, and other DEs in the Hall. Smith's sack totals will never have him garner serious consideration I'd guess, but for the system he plays in, he's about as good as they come. And for those who are still laughing, remember that I said that Smith should be considered close to on the fringe, meaning he's not yet even close to being worthy of a serious look from the HOF voters. Regardless, 1 Pro Bowl for a player of his caliber is laughable. He'll never receive the heaps of praise he deserves from the larger football loving audience. But from me, he will. Now, for the remainder of his career in Pittsburgh, and long after he's hung up his cleats for the last time.