Ranking NFL interior defensive linemen for top 32 heading into 2022 led again by GOAT
Far too often, the “big ugly” inside defensive players don’t get the respect they deserve when people explain why an NFL defense is successful. And when we dig deeper and look at how the position is viewed as a whole, the really the big ugly ones are even more neglected.
The pass rush is king, and inside pressure is even more effective when it comes to discussing how a quarterback might react to it. Perhaps Philadelphia rookie Jordan Davis will be the unicorn who can be the most 320 pounds who defends the run at a high level and also hits the setter, but his repertoire as a rusher needs to be honed.
Best inside defensive linemen in the NFL in 2022
1) Aaron Donald, Los Angeles Rams
Another year passes, and another year we wonder how Aaron Donald exists. Not only is he still the best player in the NFL, but it’s also getting harder and harder to keep him out as the best defensive player of all time.
His accolades include Defensive Rookie of the Year, seven straight First Team All-Pro nominations, First Team All-2010, three Defensive Player of the Year awards and now a Super Bowl. In this Super Bowl, Donald fired Joe Burrow twice and played 95% of snaps defensively.
Donald is not human. He’s just suppressing his powers enough to try to trick us into thinking he’s a mere mortal.
2) Jeffery Simmons, Tennessee Titans
While the jury is now out, the belief that Jeffery Simmons is the NFL’s second-best defensive tackle will be universal by the end of 2022. The only things that could change that inevitable are Donald’s injuries or retirement, which could blow it to the top spot.
Last season, Simmons was fifth in pressures and sacks, and third in defensive saves. The 300-pounder has the anchor of a true technical 1 and carries all the burden on the inside defensive run when DaQuan Jones is not on the court.
Simmons possesses powerful hands and an explosive first step when he can pin his ears. He also plays on special teams with a high number of defensive snaps.
3) Cameron Heyward, Pittsburgh Steelers
While Donald is a unicorn for his combined physical ability and technical prowess, Cameron Heyward is the league’s top technical assistant. He’s not a particularly explosive athlete, nor a particularly tall one for the job. But no one uses their hands like Heyward.
Heyward dissects blocks both against the run and as a passing thrower. He has a stable of moves to beat pass protection and the strength and ability to throw blocks against the run. In 2021, Heyward finished tied for sixth in pressures and second in sacks and defensive saves among interior defensive linemen. His three missed tackles show he also has vises and the ability to stay controlled in contact. Heyward also led the league in passes batted in with eight.
4) Chris Jones, Kansas City Chiefs
Chris Jones’ performance against the Dallas Cowboys last season matched Chandler Jones’ performance against the Titans in Week 1 as the best individual defensive performance of the season. Jones produced four sacks and virtually won that game for the Chiefs single-handedly.
Jones started 2021 slowly because Steve Spagnuolo used him primarily as an EDGE for the first four weeks of the season. His production exploded as he advanced further into the teeth of opposing offensive lines. While he’s certainly a more polished passing thrower than Simmons at the moment, Jones isn’t always as solid of a running defender.
5) DeForest Buckner, Indianapolis Colts
Nobody on the defensive inside is built like DeForest Buckner. At least none of the top echelon defensive tackles are. Buckner is 6-foot-7 (shout out Weezy). He has his swagger, and that swagger shows up in the NFL’s most devastating swim move.
This swimming move is one of the best “go-to” rushing moves of any rusher in the league. He has hands so big and violent that he has offensive linemen calling Ms. Officer. And like a fireman, his arms stretch out like the hose of a tank truck, making him one of the most consistent finishers in the league.
6) Kenny Clark, Green Bay Packers
No interior defensive lineman in the NFL has been as underrated in the past half-decade as Kenny Clark has been. No defender wins as often as they do rushing from gap A, where more double teams often occur.
The Packers’ defense isn’t making it any easier for Clark either. They run a multitude of fronts, but they like to use three giant humans in the 5-0-5 gap range who can’t seem to pin their ears and shoot gaps. That makes Clark’s third-best rating of 68 pressures as a DT all the more impressive.
His club-and-rip is his bread and butter, and Clark’s ability to chain rushing moves as he replaces a space horizontally is a thing of beauty.
7) Vita Vea, Buccaneers of Tampa Bay
Donald is the NFL’s most intimidating presence, but Vita Vea wins the “First Guy off the Bus” terror award. His raw power and explosiveness made him the (literally) biggest athletic monster on the job. Jordan Davis threatens that, but their games are a little different.
Davis likes to win with his explosiveness, much like a small interior defender. Vea bullies offensive linemen into the quarterback’s lap. Its bump move lifts the roots of the blockers out of the ground and into the sky. He also employs the always entertaining technique of “running through a mother’s face (word redacted)”. We could describe it as converting speed into power, but that’s much more disrespectful.
8) Jonathan Allen, Washington Commanders
Jonathan Allen was third in sacks, second in pressures, tied for 12th in saves and missed just one tackle all season. It is therefore with great regret that he must leave the top five, but he has to.
While Allen splashes against the run, he hasn’t been the consistent run defender we expected of him coming out of Alabama. Washington’s talented defense struggled in 2021. While their struggles more often than not boiled down to poor pass defense, there was sometimes a seeming lack of assignment accountability. It eventually spilled over to the sideline in the form of Allen and professional and college teammate Daron Payne entering a physical altercation.
What impresses most about Allen’s ability to rush is the consistency. Often we see splashes of brilliance against lesser opponents from passers, but Allen consistently delivers pressure week after week, regardless of the opponent. It’s probably because he can win with sheer explosiveness, power, technique and willpower. It is impossible to plan a match against him.
9) Grady Jarrett, Atlanta Falcons
Grady Jarrett’s lack of production has nothing to do with Jarrett. His team is not very good. The defensive line is devoid of talent. In fact, he is the only thing that hinders the success of an opposing attack on the defensive line. And that makes his life incredibly difficult.
While the rest of the Atlanta talent on the roster moved to greener pastures, the Falcons picked Jarrett to build the future. He’s surprisingly tough against the run considering his size, and his explosiveness makes him a threat as a passing thrower in case he gets a 1-on-1 opportunity.
10) Arik Armstead, San Francisco 49ers
It may be cheating to have Arik Armstead considered an inside defensive lineman, but he took the most shots last season from the B sideline, so here he is. Although built similarly to Buckner, Armstead does not have the same power as Buckner, although he is just as flexible.
The most confusing thing about Armstead is that his arms are relatively short for the position at 33 inches. However, anyone watching him play would swear he is related to Inspector Gadget. Maybe it’s due to the long, loose white undershirt he always wears.
Or maybe because it maximizes its functional length so well. Armstead boasts a plethora of pass-rush moves, and his ability to tackle the quarterback in multiple ways relieves Nick Bosa, who is already double-teamed at a ridiculously high rate.
Best NFL interior defensive linemen of 2022: The best of the rest
It is important to recognize the league’s elite defensive tackles. These are the individuals who don’t offer as much as the passers but are integral to the defensive success of their team.
DJ Jones displays inconsistent pass-rush ability, but he’s one of the best defensemen in the NFL. Rams Greg Gaines was an absolute delight to watch during the team’s Super Bowl run. Meanwhile, Folorunso Fatukasi got a well-deserved sack in free agency, and Al Woods and DaQuan Jones are veterans who have been defending the race at a high level for a long time now.
11) DJ playerCincinnati Bengals
12) Christian WilkinMiami Dolphins
13) DJ JonesDenver Broncos
14) Javon HargravePhiladelphia Eagles
15) Dexter LawrenceNew York Giants
16) Leonard WilliamsNew York Giants
17) David OnyemataNew Orleans Saints
18) Greg GainesLos Angeles Rams
19) Quinnen WilliamsNew York Jets
20) Cox FletcherPhiladelphia Eagles
21) Dalvin TomlinsonMinnesota Vikings
22) B.J. HillCincinnati Bengals
23) Derrick BrownCarolina Panthers
24) Calais-CampbellBaltimore Ravens
25) Folorunso FatukasiJacksonville Jaguars
26) Poona FordSeattle Seahawks
27) Daron Paynewashington commanders
28) Christian BarmoreNew England Patriots
29) Al WoodsSeattle Seahawks
30) Dre’Mont JonesDenver Broncos
31) Harrison PhillipsMinnesota Vikings
32) DaQuan JonesTennessee Titans