The NFL is blessed with a transitional group of defensive linemen in today’s era. Thanks to hybrid defensive fronts and many players possessing the ability to move from the edge to the interior, the league has its most versatile group of defensive linemen in some time.
Even with the talented crop, multiple fronts and changing of formations makes it harder to evaluate the best in the league. Which defensive linemen are considered edge rushers and which are interior linemen? Defensive ends and defensive tackles are going by the wayside, especially with linebackers moving to the edge and rushing the passer — creating a new wrinkle to the ever-changing formula.
Let’s make this as simple as possible. We’ve split the rankings into the top 10 edge defenders and top 10 interior linemen. Edge defenders include defensive ends and pass-rushing linebackers, while interior linemen primary play the interior of the defensive line. Both groups do move outside and inside at times, but we’re going where the majority of their snaps are played in 2021.
The main qualification for these rankings is how good the player was in 2021. We’ll also use success over the past few seasons and future projections to help weigh the ranking, but 2021 performance is the key equation in the formula. This is a ranking of the best edge defenders and interior linemen right now, not entirely based on past or future success.
Let’s rank the top 10 edge defenders and interior linemen in the NFL right now, starting with the edge defenders:
10. Shaquil Barrett (Buccaneers)
Barrett certainly has a reputation as one of the best rushers in the NFL, becoming one of the best since he signed with the Buccaneers in 2019. His 217 pressures trail only Aaron Donald for the most in the NFL while his 37.5 sacks in that span are fourth in the league.
This ranking may be low for Barrett, who finished with 65 pressures (seventh in NFL), 10 sacks (tied for 15th), three forced fumbles, and 22 quarterback hits last year. He also is better against the run, as his 29 run stops are ranked in the top 25 in the league.
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Barrett is still one of the best pass rushers in the game, showcasing then his 2019 season (when he recorded a league-leading 19.5 sacks) wasn’t a fluke.
9. Robert Quinn (Bears)
Who was second in the NFL to T.J. Watt in sacks? That would be Quinn, whose 18.5 sacks set a franchise record for sacks in a season. A second-team All-Pro selection in 2021, Quinn had 49 tackles, 22 quarterback hits, four forced fumbles, 47 pressures, and 35 run stops.
It’s tough to ignore how good Quinn was in 2021, a bounce-back season for one of the underrated pass rushers of the last decade. Quinn is one of eight active players with 100 career sacks (101), reaching double-digit sack totals five times. He’s is one of just five players with multiple seasons of 18-plus sacks (the NFL started recording sacks as an official stat in 1982). Reggie White, Michael Strahan, DeMarcus Ware, and J.J. Watt are the others.
The next step for Quinn? Keeping up that same level of production in 2022.
8. Trey Hendrickson (Bengals)
Hendrickson was one of the best free agent signings in 2021, backing up a strong 2020 season in New Orleans with an even-better first year in Cincinnati. Not only did he finish fifth in the NFL in sacks with 14, but he also tallied 70 pressures with 27 quarterback hits and three forced fumbles while earning his first Pro Bowl appearance.
A catalyst toward the Bengals’ defensive line finishing with 42 sacks, Hendrickson was fourth in the NFL in pressures and eighth in quarterback hits. Hendrickson and T.J. Watt are the only two players in the league with at least 13 sacks in each of the last two years. His 16.6% pressure rate was also the highest among defensive linemen in the league.
Hendrickson is already one of the best pass rushers in the league, thriving in Lou Anarumo’s scheme with the speciality of going after the quarterback.
7. Joey Bosa (Chargers)
Bosa has been a force ever since he entered the NFL in 2016, and his 2021 season maintained that status. Finishing with his fourth Pro Bowl appearance in five years (third consecutive), Bosa finished with 10.5 sacks, 20 quarterback hits, 61 pressures and seven forced fumbles — more than he had in his first five seasons in the league.
Not only did Bosa lead all edge defenders in forced fumbles, he’s one of only three defensive linemen with 10 sacks and five forced fumbles last year (T.J. Watt and Chandler Jones are the others). His 58 sacks since 2016 (his rookie season) are sixth in the NFL and his 129 quarterback hits are fifth in the league.
6. Cameron Jordan (Saints)
Jordan continues to be one of the most consistent pass rushers in the league, playing at a high level into his 30s. Finishing his 2021 season with 12.5 sacks (tied for seventh in NFL), Jordan earned his fifth consecutive Pro Bowl selection and his fourth double-digit sack campaign in the last five years.
Jordan was one of the best run stoppers in the NFL, finishing tied for first in run stops with 43 and recording a 5.9% missed tackle rate. He had only 48 pressures, yet ranked in 14th in quarterback hits (22) and third among all defensive linemen in passes defensed (six). He also had two forced fumbles and 13 tackles for loss.
The consistency in the pass rush and the excellence against the run is why Jordan is considered among the best edge defenders in the game. In Dennis Allen’s defensive scheme, Jordan has thrived.
5. Von Miller (Bills)
Miller showcased he still can be a dominant edge rusher in the postseason, as he played an integral role in getting the Rams to a Super Bowl title. Leading the NFL with 18 tackles for loss since playing his first game with the Rams in Week 10, Miller also racked up 52 pressures (third in NFL) and nine sacks (tied for sixth) with Los Angeles, including the postseason.
Making his money in the postseason, Miller finished with 14 tackles, four sacks, six quarterback hits, and a forced fumble. His 22 pressures trailed only Aaron Donald (23) and his 16 hurries led all NFL defenders, a critical part in the Rams winning a championship.
Miller finished with 50 tackles, 9.5 sacks, 17 quarterback hits, and a forced fumble in the regular season — along with 55 pressures and 47 hurries (seventh in NFL). The Bills are getting an excellent edge defender in Miller, a player who can carry a pass rush to the Super Bowl — as he proved with Donald last year.
Still one of the best edge defenders in the game, Miller can still get to the quarterback in his 30s. If Miller is healthy, he’s a force to be reckoned with every week.
4. Maxx Crosby (Raiders)
These was only one player in the NFL with more than 80 pressures last season — and that honor belonged to Crosby. He led the NFL with 92 pressures in 2021, 15 more than Aaron Donald (who finished with 77). Crosby didn’t have the sack totals (eight) to back up his pressure rate, but he did finish fourth in quarterback hits (30) and was third among edge defenders in run stops (41).
Crosby earned Second Team All-Pro honors as a result of his breakout season, emerging as one of the top edge rushers in the game. With Chandler Jones lined up opposite of Crosby, the stage is set for him to have an even bigger year in 2022.
3. Nick Bosa (49ers)
Bosa was dominant in his first season back from a torn ACL, emerging as a defensive player of the year candidate. He tied T.J. Watt for the NFL lead in tackles for loss last season (21) with 15.5 sacks and 32 quarterback hits. Bosa and Watt were the only two players in the NFL to finish in the top four in sacks, quarterback hits, and tackles for loss on the year.
Bosa finished fourth in the league in sacks and third in quarterback hits, while his four forced fumbles were tied for seventh. His 67 pressures were sixth in the NFL and his 39 run stops were tied for fifth.
Through three seasons, Bosa has lived up to the hype of a No. 2 draft pick. He’s already a game-changing pass rusher in the league.
2. Myles Garrett (Browns)
Garrett has established himself as an elite pass rusher, as evidenced by the 16 sacks, 33 quarterback hits, and 75 pressures he put up last season. He finished third in sacks and pressures, while ranking second in quarterback hits — showcasing his dominance on the edge.
How good has Garrett been since he entered the league? He reached 50 sacks in 57 career games, trailing only Reggie White and Derrick Thomas for fastest in league history. His 58.5 career sacks were the second most (J.J. Watt, 61) by an active player in his first 68 career games and the fourth most in NFL history, trailing only Thomas (60), Watt (61) and White (77). He also has the most sacks by any No. 1 overall pick in his first five years in the league.
Garrett is one of only four players to have at least 58 sacks and 11 forced fumbles since 2017 (Aaron Donald, T.J. Watt, and Chandler Jones are the others). A First Team All-Pro for the second consecutive season, Garrett has four consecutive double-digit sack seasons on his resume — the second-longest streak in the NFL.
There’s no way to sugarcoat it. Garrett is a top-two edge defender in the league and could remain among the league’s best for the next several years.
1. T.J. Watt (Steelers)
The reigning Defensive Player of the Year deserves to be No. 1 on this list heading into 2022. Watt’s greatness deserves more than just a few paragraphs. He finished with 22.5 sacks in 14 games last season — tying Michael Strahan for the single-season sack record — so let’s start there.
Watt finished his 2021 season leading the league in sacks, quarterback hits (39) and fumble recoveries (three). He averaged 1.5 sacks per game and finished with 12.5 sacks in the second half and overtime — which also led the league. He’s just the fifth player to lead the league in sacks, tackles for loss, and quarterback hits in a season — joining DeMarcus Ware, J.J. Watt, Chandler Jones, and Aaron Donald.
Watt’s 0.94 sacks-per-game average is the highest in league history, as he and Reggie White are the only players to have 13-plus sacks in four consecutive seasons (has 72 sacks in 77 career games). Only White (nine), Bruce Smith (seven) and Kevin Greene (six) have more 13-plus sack seasons than Watt — whose four 13-plus sacks in his first five seasons are tied with White for the most in NFL history.
What Watt has been able to accomplish in his first five seasons has been historic, as his 150 quarterback hits over his first 77 games trail only his brother J.J. Watt for the most in league history. Only White has more sacks (87) over his first 77 games in league history.
Bottom line: Watt is simply dominant. He’s building a Hall of Fame resume as one of best edge defenders of his era.
Just missed cut: Haason Reddick (Eagles), Harold Landry III (Titans), Chandler Jones (Raiders), Matthew Judon (Patriots), Rashan Gary (Packers), Emmanuel Ogbah (Dolphins), J.J. Watt (Cardinals), Brian Burns (Panthers), Frank Clark (Chiefs), Khalil Mack (Chargers)
10. Vita Vea (Buccaneers)
Vea is emerging into one of the top interior linemen in the league, earning his first Pro Bowl appearance as a result of his production. He finished with 33 tackles, 12 quarterback hits, four sacks, thee passes defensed, and 40 pressures.
A massive force on the interior, Vea played a huge role in the Buccaneers finishing with the third-ranked run defense and allowing the fifth-fewest rushing touchdowns in 2021. Tampa Bay has allowed the fewest rushing yards (82.5 per game), fewest yards per carry average (3.72), and fewest rushing touchdowns (32) over the last three years — a stretch when Vea played 37 games (all starts).
The stats may not show it, but Vea continues to play at a high level. If the sack totals improve, he will find his way toward the elite in the league.
9. Javon Hargrave (Eagles)
Hargrave had his best season in 2021, the first in Jonathan Gannon’s defense. Emerging as one of the best pass-rushing tackles in the league, Hargrave notched career-highs in pressures (58), quarterback hits (18), tackles for loss (nine), and sacks (7.5) in earning his first Pro Bowl selection.
He tied Jeffery Simmons for the second-most pressures among defensive tackles and was third in quarterback hits at his position (only Jonathan Allen and Aaron Donald had more). Hargrave also had 32 run stops on the year despite his struggles in run defense.
Poised for an even bigger season in 2022, Hargrave is evolving into one of the best pass-rushing defensive tackles in the league.
8. Kenny Clark (Packers)
Clark deserves more recognition for the position he plays, as it’s difficult for a nose tackle to put up stats. Yet he continues to be productive at his position, as his 43 hurries are sixth among all defensive tackles. Earning his second Pro Bowl trip in three years, Clark’s 22.5 sacks since the start of the 2022 season are the most in the league among nose tackles.
Clark’s 41 quarterback hits are second among all nose tackles since 2017 and his 32 defensive tackles in that span lead his position (sixth in NFL). He also finished with 55 pressures and had a pressure rate of 11% for the third time in four years.
Arguably the best nose tackle in the league, Clark deserves every cent what the Packers are paying him.
7. Christian Wilkins (Dolphins)
The numbers may not be there for Wilkins — who was one of the biggest Pro Bowl snubs from last season — yet he’s one of the game’s top young tackles. Wilkins finished with 89 tackles, which tied Cameron Heyward for tops among all defensive linemen. One of the better run-stopping defensive tackles in the game, Wilkins’ 43 run stops were tied for third in the NFL among interior linemen.
Wilkins had 29 pressures, 4.5 sacks, 13 quarterback hits, and 10 tackles for loss last season. He still needs to improve as a pass rusher, but had his best season under defensive coordinator Josh Boyer. If the sack and pressure numbers go up, Wilkens will be in the conversation among the league’s best.
6. DeForest Buckner (Colts)
Buckner had a down year in 2021, yet is still one of the best interior linemen in the game. His 385 tackles and 239 solo tackles are the most at his position since 2016 (Buckner’s rookie year), while his 45 sacks are tied for third in that span. The reputation is still there for Buckner, even if he didn’t earn an All-Pro selection for the first time in three years.
Buckner finished with seven sacks, 18 quarterback hits and 41 pressures last season. He still was tied for fourth in the league at his position in sacks, third in tackles (68), tied for third in tackles for loss (10) and quarterback hits. Buckner’s 40 solo tackles were also tied for first in the league.
A better run stopper than what he showed in 2021, Buckner is still among the best interior linemen in the game. Another All-Pro season appears to be in store.
5. Jonathan Allen (Commanders)
Allen lived up to his massive potential in Year 5, notching a career-high nine sacks in earning his first Pro Bowl selection. His nine sacks trailed only Aaron Donald for the most in the league, as Allen was one of the most productive interior pass rushers last year.
The only defensive tackle with 30 quarterback hits in 2021, Allen finished with 62 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, and 64 pressures. He finished tied for second in the league among defensive tackles in pressures, tied for third in tackles for loss, and tied for sixth in tackles.
Another tackle who can stand to improve in the run game, Allen was one of the best pass-rushing interior linemen in the league last year. He’ll continue to be a problem for opponents.
4. Jeffery Simmons (Titans)
Simmons is one of the more underrated players in football, as his dominance in the interior isn’t as noticed as it should be. The Titans defensive tackle was one of the best in the league last year, as Simmons finished with 58 pressures and 8.5 sacks with 16 quarterback hits. He was just one of four defensive tackles to finish with 50 tackles, eight sacks, and 15 quarterback hits last season — joining Donald, Allen, and Hargrave.
Not only was Simmons excellent at getting to the quarterback, but his 40 run stops were fifth in the league. His tackling needs some work, but Simmons is on his way to becoming one of the top interior linemen in the league. Simmons’ ability to play inside and outside played a role in helping him earn All-Pro honors for the first time.
3. Chris Jones (Chiefs)
Jones remains one of the elite pass rushers at his position, dominating the interior of the line once the Chiefs moved him back inside in the second half of 2021. Earning Second Team All-Pro honors for the third time in four years, Jones had nine sacks and 17 quarterback hits despite having only 27 tackles last year.
He also had 58 pressures and five passes defensed in 14 games. Injuries have been an issue for Jones over the years, yet he’s still third among all defensive tackles in sacks (32) and second in quarterback hits (94). His 49.5 sacks since 2016 trail only Donald amongst defensive tackles.
Jones has improved against the run, solidifying his game as one of the league’s best on the interior. He’s been a top defensive tackle for several years as he heads into his prime.
2. Cameron Heyward (Steelers)
Heyward is the other excellent defensive lineman on the Steelers roster (yes there are two of them), turning another dominant season into his third First Team All-Pro selection in five years. Heyward pretty much did everything for the Steelers, finishing with 89 tackles, 17 quarterback hits, 10 sacks and nine passes defensed.
Also excellent against the run, Heyward finished second among interior linemen with 46 run stops and finished with an incredible 3.7% missed tackle rate (which is excellent for any lineman). Heyward’s nine passes defensed led all interior linemen, and were five more than Donald and Derrick Brown (second on the list).
Heyward leads the NFL in tackles among all defensive linemen with 322. He leads all interior linemen in tackles for loss (59) and is third in quarterback hits (99). He has 193 solo tackles since 2017, second only to Buckner amongst interior linemen. Heyward’s 43 sacks over the past five years trail only Donald.
There’s no denying Heyward is one of the elite interior linemen in the game. He’s still performing at an All-Pro level into his 30s.
1. Aaron Donald (Rams)
Forget being ranked No. 1. Donald is making his case as the GOAT of interior defensive linemen.
Donald already has three Defensive Player of the Year awards, tying him with J.J. Watt and Lawrence Taylor for the most in NFL history. He has made the Pro Bowl in all of his eight seasons, trailing only Taylor and Derrick Thomas for the most consecutive Pro Bowls to start a career.
Donald has 98 sacks in his career, the most for a defensive tackle after his first eight seasons in NFL history (and fourth-most by any player). His 150 tackles for loss and 226 quarterback hits in his first eight seasons are second-most by a player in NFL history (and most for a defensive tackle). He also has seven First-Team All-Pro selections in eight seasons and is the only player in the NFL with 400 pressures over the last five years.
A top-five finisher in NFL Defensive Player of the Year voting seven consecutive seasons, Donald also already has a Super Bowl championship — along with 6.5 sacks and 17 quarterback hits in 10 postseason games.
Now, let’s get to 2021 — another dominant year for Donald. He finished with 77 pressures, 12.5 sacks, 25 quarterback hits, 19 tackles for loss, and a career-high 84 tackles. He was the only defensive tackle with double-digit sacks in 2021, while also ranking first amongst interior linemen in tackles, tackles for loss, and second in quarterback hits. This led to another First Team All-Pro selection.
There’s no question who’s No. 1 here. The only question remaining is when Donald will remove himself from the king’s throne.
Just missed cut: Leonard Williams (Giants), Ed Oliver (Bills), Fletcher Cox (Eagles), Grady Jarrett (Falcons), Dalvin Tomlinson (Vikings), David Onyemata (Saints), Michael Brockers (Lions), Dexter Lawrence (Giants), Poona Ford (Seahawks), Grover Stewart (Colts)