Top NFL Defensive Linemen: 2022
I spent all of July ranking the top NFL offensive players by position. This month, I will be ranking all of the defensive positions, starting with the defensive line this week.
I decided to list the top 20 EDGE rushers because there are a lot of defensive ends and outside linebackers who are considered pass rushers; guys who come off the edge. Meanwhile, I also listed the top 10 defensive tackles. Although, as you’ll see coming up, there are some pretty big names who are outside the top 10 as of right now. We’ll see what this season brings and who will rise or fall on my list.
Top 20 Pass Rushers:
HM: DE Jadeveon Clowney, DE Brian Burns, OLB Leonard Floyd
I have these three on the outside looking in. Clowney had 9.0 sacks and 37 total tackles last season, Burns had 9.0 sacks and 50 tackles en route to his first Pro Bowl appearance, and Floyd had 9.5 sacks and 70 tackles.
They have a shot at the top 20 this year, but let’s also not forget the rookies who will be looking to make their mark, such as DE Aidan Hutchison (DET), OLB Travon Walker (JAX), and DE Kayvon Thibodeaux (NYG), just to name a few.
20. OLB Harold Landry (TEN)
19. OLB Rashan Gary (GB)
18. DE Chase Young (WSH)
17. DE DeMarcus Lawrence (DAL)
16. OLB Matthew Judon (NE)
15. OLB Za’Darius Smith (GB)
14. DE Danielle Hunter (MIN)
13. OLB Haason Reddick (PHI)
12. OLB Khalil Mack (LAC)
11. OLB Shaq Barrett (TB)
10. DE Chandler Jones (LVR)
I know Chandler Jones’ numbers haven’t been monstrous over the last two seasons, like they were in 2019 (19.0 sacks, 86.0 PFF grade), or in 2017 (17 sacks and 28 tackles for loss/TFLs). But let’s not forget how good he still is just because the Bills signed Von Miller. I will admit, I wanted Jones badly because I didn’t think the Bills had a shot at landing Miller. So I don’t want to act like Jones isn’t good anymore and not top-10 worthy just because he didn’t sign with his hometown team. Besides, I think he’s going to have a huge year playing opposite Maxx Crosby in Vegas. The 32-year old is coming off of a Pro Bowl season in which he had 10.5 sacks for the Cardinals in 2021.
9. DE Trey Hendrickson (CIN)
Trey Hendrickson has really burst onto the scene over the last two seasons. Hendrickson put together a 13.5 sack season with New Orleans in 2020, his first year as a full-time starter. The Bengals rewarded him with a four-year, $60 million contract last offseason and, so far, it has paid off. The former 2017 third-round pick had 14 sacks in 2021 and was a key part to Cincinnati’s Super Bowl run. I would expect the 27-year old to only get better as time goes on.
8. DE Robert Quinn (CHI)
Unlike Hendrickson, Robert Quinn probably won’t keep getting better at this point in his career, but he is still putting up top-10 worthy numbers as a pass rusher. The 32-year old had a huge season last year for the Bears, recording 18.5 sacks, 49 total tackles, and 17 TFLs en route to a Second Team All-Pro and Pro Bowl selection. It was one of Quinn’s best seasons over his 12-year career. The only year he recorded more sacks and tackles for loss was in 2013, when he had 19 sacks and 23 TFLs with the St. Louis Rams. 2021 was Quinn’s fifth 10+ sack season.
7. DE Cameron Jordan (NO)
Cameron Jordan has been one of the most consistent pass rushers over the last decade. The 33-year old had 12.5 sacks for the Saints last season, the fourth time he’s finished with 12+ sacks in the past five seasons. In addition, Jordan hasn’t finished a season with a PFF grade below 82 since 2014. His 137 TFLs ranks fifth among all active NFL players and second among defensive ends. Jordan is under contract for the next two seasons in New Orleans.
6. OLB Joey Bosa (LAC)
Coming in at number six is Chargers EDGE rusher Joey Bosa. As dominant as Bosa is, he (surprisingly) has never finished a season with more than 12.5 sacks. However, he has finished with double-digit sacks in four of his six NFL seasons and finished with an 85+ PFF grade five times. I think that having Khalil Mack on the other side now will be beneficial for both sides, as Mack can help Bosa potentially crack the top-five on this list, and Bosa can help Mack re-establish himself as a top-10 pass rusher. Expect a big year for both guys.
5. DE Maxx Crosby (LVR)
Cracking the top five this year is Maxx Crosby. Crosby only had eight sacks in 2021, but was one of the best at his position at getting to the quarterback. His 101 QB pressures were 20 more than the next closest player. He also recorded a 91.4 PFF grade, which was a whopping 33.6-point increase from 2020. The Raiders gave their 2019 fourth-round pick a four-year, $94 million contract this past March, making him the fifth-highest paid pass rusher in the NFL. Just like with Bosa and Mack, I think that Crosby and Jones will be a top pass-rushing duo and will only make each other better.
4. DE Von Miller (BUF)
Well, the Bills pulled off the impossible, or so we thought, and landed Von Miller this offseason. I still have to remind myself sometimes that Von Miller is a Buffalo Bill, but I’m getting more and more used to this winning lifestyle. Miller ranks 22nd all-time in career sacks (115.5), and has the most out of any active NFL player. He needs 22.5 sacks to get into the top 10 on that list. A lofty goal for this year, but good thing he is under contract with the Bills for at least three years. Miller also leads all active edge rushers with 154 career TFLs.
As I’ve been saying with the previous pass rushers, Miller is only going to make those around him better. I don’t think Greg Rousseau will elevate his game to the level of Khalil Mack or Chandler Jones this year, but teams will be so focused on stopping Miller that Rousseau should have an easier getting to the quarterback and take a huge step forward in his progression. Not to mention, the wealth of knowledge that Miller can pour over Rousseau, Shaq Lawson, Boogie Basham, A.J. Epenesa, and the rest of the defensive line.
Bills Mafia… it’s once again Miller Time in Buffalo.
3. DE Nick Bosa (SF)
Nick Bosa finally exploded last year for San Francisco, as he had 15.5 sacks, 52 tackles, 21 TFLs (tied-best in the league), four forced fumbles, and an 88.3 PFF grade. He also had 75 pressures, which ranked fourth in the NFL. On top of all this, Nick wasn’t penalized once all season, and he faced a heavy dosage of double teams. He went to the Pro Bowl for the second time in his career. With his strength and power, the sky is the limit for Nick Bosa, who is only 24 years old.
2. DE Myles Garrett (CLE)
Myles Garrett is one of the strongest pass rushers in today’s game. He’s just one of those guys who you can’t block, no matter how many blockers you throw at him. Garrett finished 2021 with 16 sacks, his fourth consecutive 10+ sack season. (He even had 10 sacks through 10 games in 2019 before getting suspended for bashing his helmet on Steelers QB Mason Rudolph’s head.) Garrett had a 92.0 PFF grade and a pass-rush win rate of 28%, which led the league last year. Through five NFL seasons, Garrett has 58.5 sacks, three Pro Bowls, two First Team All-Pro selections, and one Second Team All-Pro.
1. OLB T.J. Watt (PIT)
And my number one pass rusher for the 2022 season is T.J. Watt. Garrett may have the better advanced statistics, but seeing how Watt can change a game is insane. Watt has statistically improved every season since the Steelers drafted him in the first round in 2017; he went from seven sacks his rookie season to an incredible 22.5 sacks (in 15 games) in 2021. It was the second consecutive year he led the league in sacks, as he had 15 in 2020. It was also the second straight year he led the NFL in TFLs (he had 23 in 2020 and 21 in 2021).
Drafted the same year as Garrett, Watt has 72 sacks, 80 TFLs, 22 forced fumbles, four Pro Bowl selections, three First Team All-Pro nods, and was named AP Defensive Player of the Year last year. He is also the highest paid pass rusher in the NFL, making just over $28 million per year.
Top 10 DTs:
HM: J.J. Watt (ARZ), Fletcher Cox (PHI), Calais Campbell (BAL)
These are some of the biggest names and game wreckers in football. However, each player is out of their prime as their stats have shown over the last few years. (Cox is the closest one still to his prime at the age of 31.)
Starting with Watt, he only played in seven games last year before injuring his shoulder. In those seven games, he only had 16 tackles and one sack. Since 2015, Watt has only played two full seasons and hasn’t had double-digit sacks since 2018. Cox’s numbers have also declined, as the six-time Pro Bowler finished 2021 with just 35 tackles and 3.5 sacks while being discussed in many trade scenarios. He hasn’t had more than 6.5 sacks since 2018, although he was a Pro Bowler in 2019 and 2020. And then with Campbell, he, just like Cox, hasn’t eclipsed 6.5 sacks since 2018 but was was a Pro Bowler in ‘19 and ‘20. In 2021, Campbell finished with 49 tackles and 1.5 sacks in 15 games.
Each player still has the ability to put up huge seasons, and potentially get back into the top 10. However, like I said with the pass rushers, let’s not forget about the rookies who should make an impact, such as DT Jordan Davis (PHI) and DT Devonte Wyatt (GB).
10. DL Leonard Williams (NYG)/DT Grady Jarrett (ATL)
The reason I went with two players here is because I’m not sure exactly where Leonard Williams will be playing this year. He used to be a DT but is now listed as a DE on various depth charts. The Giants list him as a DL on their website. Regardless, Williams has put together a couple of nice seasons for the Giants in the midst of his three year, $63 million contract. In 2020, he had 11.5 sacks and 57 tackles. Last year, he had 6.5 sacks and 81 tackles. We’ll see how Don “Wink” Martindale decides to use him in his first year as the Giants defensive coordinator.
Grady Jarrett, however, is strictly a DT. Jarrett finished 2021 with just one sack, 59 tackles, and a 67.9 PFF grade. Prior to last season, Jarrett compiled four straight 80+ PFF grade seasons, including two Pro Bowl appearances and a Second Team All-Pro nod. He is currently the seventh-highest paid DT in the NFL, making over $16.8 million per year.
9. DT Arik Armstead (SF)
Arik Armstead is a big dude. Standing at 6’7”, 290 pounds, Armstead is built like a defensive end. The 49ers had been using him as both a DE and a DT but, following a season-ending injury to DT Javon Kinlaw, San Francisco made Armstead a permanent DT in Week 8 last season. It seems to have paid off, as the 28-year old finished the season with 63 tackles, six sacks, and a 77.9 PFF grade. Following the full-time switch to the inside, Armstead finished fourth at his position in tackles (46) and tied for ninth in sacks (4) during that span. He also had three sacks in three playoff games last year. On top of it, Armstead hasn’t missed a game since 2017.
8. DT Jonathan Allen (WSH)
Jonathan Allen is one of the most underrated DTs in the NFL. Allen finished 2021 with 62 tackles, a career-best nine sacks, and a career-best 84.9 PFF grade to make his first Pro Bowl. It was the fourth year in a row Allen finished with 60+ tackles and the third out of the last four years that he finished with at least six sacks. His play was a big reason why Bills DT Tim Settle got buried on the Commanders’ depth chart with their talented front four. The former 17th overall pick in 2017 signed a four-year, $72 million contract with Washington last summer, making him the fourth-highest paid DT in the NFL.
7. NT Vita Vea (TB)
Standing at 6’4”, 347 pounds, Vita Vea has a rare combination of speed, power, and athleticism for someone his size. Since being drafted 12th overall in 2018, the Buccaneers have had the second-most efficient run defense (by expected points added per play) in the NFL behind only the Saints. Vea doesn’t rack up a lot of stats; he’s never finished a season with more than 35 tackles and four sacks. But he takes on a lot of double teams and clogs up space, freeing up lanes and gaps for other defensive linemen. Vea is basically what Star Lotulelei was supposed to be for the Bills.
6. NT Kenny Clark (GB)
Another big, under-appreciated nose tackle is Kenny Clark. Clark is one of the NFL’s best pass rushers when lined up over center. Since 2018, “no player earned a higher PFF pass-rushing grade from nose tackle alignments than Clark (91.9), and he tallied 14 more pressures from those alignments than any other player in the league,” according to PFF. Aside from his rookie season, in which he only started two games, Clark has finished with at least 40 tackles every season. He also has 22.5 sacks and two Pro Bowl appearances over his six-year career. The former first-round pick is the sixth-highest paid DT, right behind Vea and Allen.
5. DT Jeffery Simmons (TEN)
Jeffery Simmons is a game-wrecker, as we unfortunately saw last October on Monday Night Football with his goal-line stand on Josh Allen. The Titans’ 2019 first-round pick put together his best season yet last year, recording 54 tackles, 12 TFLs, and 8.5 sacks to make his first Pro Bowl and All-Pro selections (he was named Second Team All-Pro). Simmons finished fifth in the NFL in pressures and sacks, and third in defensive stops for DTs in 2021. Expect him to keep getting better from here on out as he is the centerpiece to Tennessee’s defensive line.
4. DT DeForest Buckner (IND)
The second-highest paid DT in the NFL, DeForest Buckner has, so far, proved to the Colts why they were smart to acquire him from San Francisco and then extend him (four years, $84 million). While I’m sure the money was a big factor in the 49ers’ decision to trade away the star defensive lineman (and draft Javon Kinlaw as his replacement), I’m sure they would love to have Buckner, another 6’7” athletic freak, to pair on the inside with Armstead. Not to mention Nick Bosa on the outside.
But Buckner is making the most of his time in Indy. In 2020, he recorded 9.5 sacks and 58 tackles and was named First Team All-Pro. Last year, he finished with seven sacks and 68 tackles and went to his second Pro Bowl. The former 2016 first-round pick had 45 combined sacks and quarterback hits over the past two seasons, which ranks fourth among all interior defensive linemen.
3. DT Chris Jones (KC)
Coming in at number three is Chris Jones. Jones was originally a DE before the Chiefs switched him to a DT following the 2018 season. He had a monster season before the switch, putting up 15.5 sacks and 19 TFLs en route to his first All-Pro nomination (he made the Second Team). Jones was drafted in the second round of the 2016 NFL Draft, so we have seen an even split of him on the outside and on the inside (although he was on the EDGE the first four weeks of 2021). In his three years as a DE, he had 24 sacks and 100 total tackles. In his three years as a DT, Jones had 25.5 sacks and 99 total tackles.
So, as you can see, it doesn’t matter where you line Jones up — the dude’s a baller. Since 2016, the 28-year old has the second-highest pass-rush win rate at 17.8%. Only Aaron Donald is higher at 23.3%.
2. DT Cameron Heyward (PIT)
Cameron Heyward has formed a dominant one-two punch with T.J. Watt on the Steelers defensive line. Now 33 years old, Heyward has only gotten better with age. He recorded 89 tackles season, the most in his 11-year career. He also had 10 sacks, which was his second-best season total. His three highest-graded PFF seasons of his career all came in the past three years, with his lowest grade being an 89.1. Heyward does a great job of defending the run and the pass, using his strength, great hands, intelligence, and ability to shed blocks in order to do so. The former first-round pick finished tied for sixth in pressures, second in sacks and defensive stops, and first in batted passes among interior defensive linemen in 2021.
1. DT Aaron Donald (LAR)
Aaron Donald. Enough said. Donald is undoubtedly the best DT in the game, if not the best overall player in the NFL. As Ben Linsey of PFF said, “he’s earned his own tier after recording the highest overall PFF grade of any defensive player in each of the past five seasons.” Since 2017, Donald’s grades have been between 93.5 and 94.8… Talk about elite consistency. On top of that, Donald has only missed two games in his entire career (both in 2017). His stats and accolades are ridiculous… so ridiculous that I’ll let them speak for themselves.
Maybe the one thing I can surprise you with is this: OT Greg Robinson, QB Blake Bortles, CB Justin Gilbert, and TE Eric Ebron were all drafted ahead of Aaron Donald in 2014… oh, and Sammy Watkins.
Sorry Bills Mafia, I shouldn’t have ended on such a sour note. Good thing the Bills are Super Bowl favorites this year.
Feature Image: Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images