With J.J. Watt taking home the title of the NFL's top pass-rusher, it's time to evaluate which players do their best work on the interior of defensive lines around the league. Not all 3-4 defensive ends are made the same, for example, with some doing far more work in the A- and B-gaps than others. So the goal here was to pick out the 10 most productive, disruptive forces from among those linemen who operate mainly within the tackles.
Just as our list of the NFL's top 10 pass-rushers featured some positional crossover between defensive linemen and outside linebackers, so too do the interior defensive linemen.
Not all 3-4 defensive ends are made the same, for example, with some doing far more work in the A- and B-gaps than others. There is not much distinguishing defensive ends from defensive tackles in some NFL schemes these days. So the goal here was to pick out the 10 most productive, disruptive forces from among those linemen who operate mainly within the tackles. One obvious candidate, J.J. Watt, took home the top pass-rusher spot and as such was removed from a possible repeat honor here.
Everyone else was fair game, and there were plenty of contenders to choose from.
Honorable mention: Haloti Ngata, Baltimore; Star Lotulelei, Carolina; Linval Joseph, Minnesota; Vince Wilfork, New England; Marcell Dareus, Buffalo; Brandon Mebane, Seattle; Michael Brockers, St. Louis; Jason Hatcher, Washington; Randy Starks, Miami; Nick Fairley, Detroit
10. Henry Melton, Dallas: Starting the top 10 with a roll of the dice. Melton changed teams this offseason, moving from Chicago to Dallas (where he is reunited with ex-Bears assistant Rod Marinelli). An even more pressing matter is that Melton is coming back from the ACL injury that dropped him in Week 3 last year. Will he be ready for the start of 2014? Is he the same player he was prior to that setback?
The Cowboys are banking on a healthy and effective Melton. If they get him, it will be a massive boost to a defense in need of one. Melton jumped into the Bears' starting lineup in 2011 and immediately stepped forward as a potent three-technique tackle. His 2012 performance earned Pro Bowl honors.
9. Jurrell Casey, Tennessee: The Titans' defensive tackle finds himself in a similar boat as Marcell Dareus (listed above) and Dontari Poe (still to come), in that all eyes will be watching to see if 2013's effort is a repeatable one. If Casey answers in the affirmative, we could be talking about the NFL's next great defensive tackle. He really was that good last season en route to 10.5 sacks.
The Titans are tinkering with a 3-4 scheme for 2014, meaning Casey will take on more of a nose tackle role. And that actually may be the best NFL fit for him.
8. Kyle Williams, Buffalo: Williams' teammate, Marcell Dareus, certainly belongs in this discussion -- his troublesome offseason coupled with a failed conditioning test at the start of camp has halted his momentum for the moment. Williams, meanwhile, just keeps plugging along. Pro Football Focus had him tabbed as one of the top five interior D-linemen from 2008-12, and he arguably has improved of late. Case in point: a first-team All-Pro nod last year after notching 10.5 sacks.
7. Justin Smith, San Francisco: It is merely the question of continued longevity that limits Smith's rise up this board. Smith, who turns 35 in September, has claimed five straight Pro Bowl spots and was a second-team All-Pro in 2013, all as the 49ers begin to scale back his snap count, for the sake of keeping him healthy and active.
Smith is not the player he was three or four years ago, a truth most obvious against the run, where Smith used to dominate. He still remains a critical component to San Francisco's front and is among the most reliable defenders in football.
6. Dontari Poe, Kansas City: After his first NFL season in 2012, Poe appeared ripe for a "Bust" label. After his second NFL season, Poe has silenced his critics.
A slimmed-down Poe erased the memory of a frustrating rookie campaign by earning himself a Pro Bowl spot in '13. He had 4.5 sacks (compared to none during his first go-round), but more importantly, he plugged the middle so effectively that the Chiefs could not get him off the field -- his 1,004 snaps were the most played by any tackle last year. His work inside helps free up the likes of Justin Houston and Tamba Hali off the edge, so Kansas City will continue to lean heavily on the emerging Poe.
5. Sheldon Richardson/Muhammad Wilkerson, New York Jets: Take your pick. Richardson was named the 2013 AP Defensive Rookie of the Year on the strength of 3.5 sacks and an impressive 78 tackles; Wilkerson may have been even better, with 10.5 sacks and a second-team All-Pro nomination.
Jets head coach Rex Ryan asks his cornerbacks to handle a lot of man-to-man coverage, blitzing and throwing numbers into the box often. What happens from there relies on the defensive linemen eating up blockers. Wilkerson and Richardson were so effective that nose tackle Damon Harrison -- an improving player in his own right -- was needed on little more than 500 snaps, compared to nearly 2,000 combined from these two stalwarts. Both can eat up space and Wilkerson in particular has a nose for the quarterback.
4. Calais Campbell, Arizona: Campbell's overall game is not as far removed from Watt's as most might think -- as explained above, Watt's placement atop our "pass-rushers" rankings took him out of the mix here. Campbell has been problematic for his fair share of quarterbacks, with 36.5 career sacks and a personal best of 9.0 last year. He also warrants a spot among the best interior linemen, though, because of how freely Arizona can move him around in its scheme. Campbell does not have to be locked into a 3-4 defensive end spot or push out even wider when Arizona uses a four-man front. He can slide down over center or into the one-tech positions and be plenty effective.
3. Ndamukong Suh, Detroit: Say what you will about Suh's offseason work schedule or his occasional in-game meltdowns, but there is a reason just about every team in the league would be willing to work through the weeds. Suh is a freakish talent who only appears to be getting better as an all-around threat.
The pass-rush prowess was always there: Suh's 10.0 sack total from his rookie season still stands as his career high, and he has added another 17.5 sacks in the three years since. Last year, though, he proved far more adept against the run -- and far less susceptible to the misdirection plays that had caught him out of position frequently in the past.
Will he ever be the leader or model citizen that Detroit wants him to be? Maybe not. But should he leave the Motor City, there would be a long line of suitors waiting.
2. Geno Atkins, Cincinnati: Atkins was limited to nine games last season by a devastating ACL injury that handcuffed the Bengals' defense moving forward. It also might keep Atkins from participating in training camp, at least early, so all eyes will be on his availability for Week 1.
Rather than focus on that recovery process, let's pause a moment to appreciate what Atkins accomplished pre-injury, both last season and during a remarkable 2012. J.J. Watt ran away with a near-unanimous Defensive Player of the Year in '12, with only Von Miller stealing a vote from him. Atkins would have had a case were it not for Watt's complete dominance. Atkins finished that season with 12.5 sacks, four forced fumbles, 49 hurries, 53 tackles and a 73.6 Pro Football Focus rating that was nearly 50 points higher than the next most effective DT (Gerald McCoy).
The Bengals have Atkins locked up through 2018. Perhaps he will have his Player of the Year award by then.
1. Gerald McCoy, Tampa Bay: "We want him around for a long time," new Buccaneers coach Lovie Smith recently said of McCoy.
The 26-year-old defensive tackle, who is entering a contract year and thus could (in theory) hit free agency next season, has established himself among the most irreplaceable players in the league. Last season, with Atkins sidelined by an ACL tear midseason, McCoy ascended the defensive tackle throne, nabbing his second consecutive Pro Bowl bid and first All-Pro honor.
McCoy finished with a career-high 9.5 sacks and a DT-best 56 hurries. Amazingly, he might be even better moving forward in Smith's scheme, one that highlights the three-technique tackle spot from which McCoy has excelled. McCoy's new contract will cost Tampa Bay a pretty penny. Aside from perhaps J.J. Watt, Robert Quinn or a healthy Atkins, there is not a better defensive lineman in the league.