From Aaron Donald to J.J. Watt to Calais Campbell, SI.com ranks the best interior linemen in the NFL.
As this year’s edition of SI’s position-by-position rankings begins, one thing has become clear: The lines between positions are blurrier than ever. That dominant outside cornerback of a decade ago? That same player now has to split time at outside corner and in the slot, and maybe fill in at safety. The top receiver he used to battle along the sidelines? He may now line up in the slot 40% of the time. How about that tweener defensive lineman who was stuck on special teams in 2005? He has a home in today’s defensive fronts now that teams have developed hybrid roles to take advantage of his strengths. Those adaptations make the NFL far more positionally diverse than ever before.
The first group in the spotlight this year personifies this trend. The league’s best interior defenders would have spent most of their time as defensive tackles just a few years ago, but these days it’s rare that a defensive tackle isn’t tasked to do more than one thing or attack more than one gap. Below, we’ve combined 3–4 ends and 4–3 tackles into one elite tier of NFL interior linemen, and let their versatility take care of the rest. But first, a quick look at two players that didn’t quite make the list, but still deserve recognition.
Just missed the cut
Derek Wolfe, Broncos: It remains to be seen how much Wolfe was helped by Malik Jackson, and the Broncos will find out now that Jackson is in Jacksonville. But Wolfe has rare strength and endurance, and he possesses everything it takes to be the linchpin of Denver’s interior line for years to come.
The next big thing
Leonard Williams, Jets: Williams was taken sixth overall in the 2015 draft by the Jets after showcasing his amazing gap versatility at USC, and he has already made an impact in the NFL. Over time, as he learns how to defeat savvier professional blockers with more technique, he could be the successor to J.J. Watt as a multi-gap force.
And now, onto our rankings.
Nobody who looks like Mike Daniels should be able to do what the fifth-year Packer does as an interior rusher. He stands six feet even (generously), weighs about 290 (again, generously), and he doesn’t appear to be what the league traditionally considers an elite athlete. But then the ball is snapped, and Daniels is all over the place, attacking opposing offenses against the run and pass. Daniels is listed as a 3–4 end, but he plays inside in Green Bay’s sub-packages often enough to be considered an elite inside guy. There are times when he’ll take on a center and guard as a one-tech end and simply embarrass everybody in his path, bulling both blockers back with his handfighting and root strength. He’s one of the better multi-gap players in the NFL, but it’s his ability to create consistent inside pressure at his size that makes him so unique.
Campbell has been so good for so long, it’s easy to take him for granted. But he had another excellent season in 2015, playing a lot of one-gap tackle in Cardinals defensive coordinator James Bettcher’s aggressive fronts. Campbell can line up with equal effectiveness right over center, as a one-gap nose tackle, or as a three-tech tackle or five-tech end. While he may not have the raw speed he once did, he’s great at understanding gaps and knowing when to shoot through and when to use his power. With Chandler Jones now on board as the edge rusher the Cardinals have needed for some time, Campbell should be able to make even more of an interior impact in 2016.
Casey has been one of the more overlooked interior defenders over the last couple of years. His early fans may have worried when the Titans decided to switch to a gap-diverse system with more 3–4 looks last season. After all, the general assumption is that tackles who stand 6' 1" and weigh around 300 pounds aren’t tall enough to get the right kind of leverage at the end position, nor are they heavy enough to beat blockers at the point of attack as nose tackles. But Casey was able to dispel these concerns, showing his versatility at multiple positions more than ever last season. He played his usual pass-rushing tackle position very well, but he also showed a real knack for getting pressure as a stand-up rusher. Casey’s most dominant trait is probably his lateral agility—he can zip across multiple gaps in a hurry, making him a stellar stunt defender. Casey made the Pro Bowl for the first time in 2015, but it’s time for more people to know his name and understand how great he really is.
If you want a good example of why Joseph is such a major factor in the Vikings’ defense, watch his performance against the Rams in Week 9 of last season. Not only was he a constant thorn in Todd Gurley’s side, he also proved his speed when the 6' 4", 328-pound Joseph crossed half the field to take the speedy Tavon Austin down on an off-tackle run. The only thing that’s keeping Joseph from a top-five ranking based on last year’s play is the fact that he missed four games with turf toe, but his dominance when healthy is something to see. Joseph isn’t a sack artist per se—he has just 12.5 in his six seasons—but he brings a lot of pressure with his strength and quickness. Moreover, he’s one of the league’s best run defenders, and when Mike Zimmer sets him up angled towards the center in a Stunt 4–3 look, he’s just about guaranteed to blow through protection and create tackles for loss. Joseph is a rising name on what might be the NFL’s next great defense.
Suh became the highest-paid defensive player in league history last season, a mark that lasted one year before Fletcher Cox technically exceeded it this month. His first season with the Dolphins had checkered results, as Miami coaches had him two-gapping and opening up holes for other defenders. It was a questionable strategy, reminiscent of the schematic disaster the Redskins created when they gave Albert Haynesworth the gross national product of France and similarly moved him away from his preferred playing style. But unlike Haynesworth, Suh adapted, and unlike Washington’s coaches back in the day, the Dolphins’ staff finally figured it out. Suh is great no matter where he plays on the line, but he is of course best utilized as a three-tech power tackle who can cave in half of the offensive line when he’s on. Under new defensive coordinator Vance Joseph, Suh will return to the wide-nine defense he played with the Lions, which suits his talents. Suh rebounded after a slow start in 2015, but when used correctly, he remains as good as he’s ever been.
When any player signs the kind of contract Cox did on June 14—a six-year, $103 million extension with $63 million in injury guarantees—the first logical question is, “Is he worth it?” When we set aside the salary cap increases that are expected to raise the price tag for elite players across all positions over the next few years, we’re left judging by what Cox does as a player in unique circumstances. He totaled 9.5 sacks and 77 total pressures in 2015. Cox played on the end in Philly’s 3–4 base defense, but he also lined up pretty frequently as a zero-tech nose tackle—straight over the head of the center—and used his impressive bull-rush and pocket speed to disrupt there as well. It is rare in today’s NFL to see a guy be this type of a wrecking ball as a two-gap player, and now that new defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz will move the Eagles back to a 4–3 base, Cox could really disrupt as a one-gap three-tech tackle and occasional sub-package end. So again, we’re back to the big question: Is he worth all that money? It’s a subjective question, but there are few interior players better than Cox in the league today.
Like Geno Atkins, Short was weighed down by questions about his motor coming out of college, and like Atkins, Short proved that those concerns were completely off-base. Short played most of the defensive snaps at Purdue, which will wear a lot of young tackles down, but he shined once he got into Ron Rivera’s defense in Carolina. He broke out in 2015, amassing 13 sacks and 81 total pressures through the Panthers’ dominant run to the Super Bowl. As with all interior defenders, Short is about far more than his sacks. Just watch the first half of this year’s divisional round win over the Seahawks, and you’ll see how one guy can wreck an entire passing offense with his mere presence. Short will occasionally lose leverage when he’s too high in his stance, but he’s amazing in pursuit for his size, and he gets a surprising number of his sacks with open-field speed and second-level determination.
Wait ... Why on earth is Watt only third on this list, you may ask? Actually, I flirted with pushing him lower, for one simple reason: He’s obviously the best inside pass rusher in the league, but he doesn’t spend a lot of time there. According to Pro Football Focus charting, Watt lined up as an end on 63.2% of his snaps last season. Now, some of those snaps were as a 3–4 end, but Watt has a unique ability to dominate from any gap. It’s what makes him special, but as impactful as he is on the 36.8% of his snaps that come on the inside, there’s simply more to his game. When he is inside, though, Watt is an absolute terror. No man his size (6’ 6", 290 pounds) should be as fast and athletic as he is, and nobody with his height should be able to win leverage battles like he does. Watt does it with spectacular technique, an implicit understanding of blocking concepts and pure effort. He may very well be the best defensive player in the league, but his versatility will ding him on this list and place him high on another one that's dropping in the coming days.
What is it with the NFL and short defensive tackles? No matter how many of them come into the league and thrive, they always seem to be underrated and underdrafted. The 6’ 1", 286-pound Atkins was taken in the fourth round of the 2010 draft because he was moved all over the line at Georgia, and there were concerns about his intensity and consistency. But Atkins tore it up from his first summer with the Bengals and has only gotten better from there. His best statistical season came in 2012, when his 12.5 sacks tied for sixth in the league, but his 2015 performance was a gem. He showed he had totally recovered from the torn ACL he suffered two seasons before with 11 sacks and a ton of pressures. Atkins can get to the quarterback with strength and leverage, but he has also developed a devastating rip move he uses to get past blockers at the line of scrimmage. When he turns on the speed to the pocket, it’s all over.
Put simply, there is no player in the NFL who’s more disruptive on a down-to-down basis between the tackles than Donald. He was clearly a top-five talent in the 2014 draft out of Pitt, and yet he fell to the Rams at No. 13. Two years into his career, he has used his undersized frame to his advantage: At 6’ 1" and 285 pounds, he gains ferocious leverage at the snap by getting under the pads of blockers and using his upper-body strength to move them back. Add in his quickness and pursuit speed, and there are long stretches when he’s just about unblockable, even though he faces double-teams on a regular basis. Donald amassed 11 sacks in 2015 and already has 20 in his short career, but his impact is about more than that. He’s an incredible run defender, and he racks up pressures in bunches—last year he had 79 in total and 51 defensive stops according to Pro Football Focus. He’s the epicenter of the Rams’ front four, and he’ll stay in that role for a long time.