Far too often, the “big uglies” on the defensive interior don’t receive the respect they deserve when folks point to why an NFL defense is successful. And when we dig deeper and look at how the position is viewed as a whole, the really big uglies are neglected even more.
Pass rush is king, and interior pressure is even more effective when discussing how a quarterback can react to it. Maybe Philadelphia rookie Jordan Davis will be the unicorn that can be the 320+ pounder that defends the run at a high level and also gets to the passer, but his repertoire as a rusher needs fine-tuned.
Top NFL interior defensive linemen in 2022
1) Aaron Donald, Los Angeles Rams
Another year passes, and another year we’re wondering how Aaron Donald exists. Not only is he still the best player in the NFL, but it’s also becoming increasingly difficult to keep him out of serious consideration as the best defensive player ever.
His accolades include Defensive Rookie of the Year, seven straight first-team All-Pro nominations, first-team All-2010s Team, three Defensive Player of the Year awards, and now a Super Bowl. In that Super Bowl, Donald sacked Joe Burrow twice and played 95% of the defensive snaps.
Donald is not human. He’s simply suppressing his powers enough to try and fool us into believing he’s a mere mortal.
2) Jeffery Simmons, Tennessee Titans
While the jury is out now, the belief that Jeffery Simmons is the second-best defensive tackle in the NFL will be universal by the end of 2022. The only things that could change that inevitability are injury or Donald’s retirement, which could vault him to the top spot.
Last season, Simmons finished fifth in pressures and sacks, and third in defensive stops. The 300-pounder has the anchor of a true 1-technique and carries the entire burden on the defensive interior against the run when DaQuan Jones isn’t on the field.
Simmons possesses powerful hands and an explosive first step when he can pin his ears back. He also plays on special teams along with a high defensive snap count.
3) Cameron Heyward, Pittsburgh Steelers
While Donald is a unicorn for his physical abilities and technical prowess combined, Cameron Heyward is the league’s premier technical wizard. He’s not a particularly explosive athlete, nor is he particularly large for the position. But nobody uses their hands quite like Heyward.
Heyward dissects blocks both against the run and as a pass rusher. He has a stable of moves to beat pass protection and the strength and ability to shed blocks against the run. In 2021, Heyward finished tied for sixth in pressures, and second in sacks and defensive stops amongst interior defensive linemen. His three missed tackles show he also has vice grips and the ability to remain controlled into contact. Heyward also led the league in batted passes with eight.
4) Chris Jones, Kansas City Chiefs
Chris Jones’ performance against the Dallas Cowboys last season was right up there with Chandler Jones’s performance against the Titans in Week 1 as the best individual defensive performance of the season. Jones produced four sacks and practically won that game for the Chiefs by himself.
Jones started slowly in 2021 because Steve Spagnuolo used him primarily as an EDGE for the season’s first four weeks. His production exploded as he moved farther into the teeth of opposing offensive lines. While certainly a more polished pass rusher than Simmons at the moment, Jones isn’t as stout consistently as a run defender.
5) DeForest Buckner, Indianapolis Colts
Nobody on the defensive interior is built quite like DeForest Buckner. At least, none of the upper echelon defensive tackles are. Buckner is every bit of 6-foot-7 (shout out Weezy). He’s got his swagger down pat, and that swagger manifests itself in the most devastating swim move in the NFL.
That swim move is one of the best “go-to” rush moves of any rusher in the league. He possesses hands so large and violent he has offensive linemen calling for Mrs. Officer. And like a fireman, his arms extend like the hose on a tanker truck, making him one of the most consistent finishers in the league.
6) Kenny Clark, Green Bay Packers
No NFL interior defensive lineman has been as underappreciated over the past half-decade as Kenny Clark has been. No defender wins as often as he does rushing from the A gap, where more double teams often occur.
The Packers’ defense doesn’t make things easy on Clark, either. They run a multitude of fronts, but they enjoy using three giant human beings in the 5-0-5 gap range that don’t get to pin their ears back and shoot gaps. That makes Clark’s third-best mark of 68 pressures as a DT all the more impressive.
His club-and-rip is his bread and butter, and Clark’s ability to string rush moves together as he replaces a gap horizontally is a thing of beauty.
7) Vita Vea, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Donald is the most intimidating presence in the NFL, but Vita Vea wins the award for “First Guy off the Bus” terror. His raw power and explosiveness made him the biggest (literally) athletic freak at the position. Jordan Davis threatens that, but their games are a bit different.
Davis likes to win with his explosiveness, much like a smaller interior defender. Vea flat out bullies offensive linemen into the lap of the quarterback. His hump move lifts blockers’ roots right out of the ground and into the sky. He also employs the ever-entertaining “run through a mother (word redacted) face” technique. We could describe it as converting speed to power, but it’s far more disrespectful.
8) Jonathan Allen, Washington Commanders
Jonathan Allen finished third in sacks, second in pressures, tied for 12th in stops, and only missed one tackle all season. So it’s with great regret that he must slip outside the top five, but he must.
While Allen splashes against the run, he hasn’t been the consistent run defender we expected him to be coming out of Alabama. The talented Washington defense struggled in 2021. Although their struggles most often boiled down to poor pass defense, there was an apparent lack of assignment responsibility at times. That eventually boiled over on the sideline in the form of Allen and professional and college teammate Daron Payne getting into a physical altercation.
What impresses most about Allen’s pass-rushing ability is the consistency. Oftentimes, we see splashes of brilliance against lesser opponents from pass rushers, but Allen consistently provides pressure week in and week out, no matter the opponent. That’s likely because he can win with pure explosiveness, power, technique, and sheer willpower. He’s impossible to game plan against.
9) Grady Jarrett, Atlanta Falcons
The lack of production from Grady Jarrett has nothing to do with Jarrett. His team just isn’t very good. The defensive line is devoid of talent. Truthfully, he’s the only thing getting in the way of an opposing offense’s success on the defensive line. And that makes his life incredibly difficult.
While the rest of the talent Atlanta had on the roster moved on to greener pastures, the Falcons chose Jarrett to build around into the future. He’s surprisingly stout against the run given his size, and his explosiveness makes him a menace as a pass rusher on the off chance he gets a 1-on-1 opportunity.
10) Arik Armstead, San Francisco 49ers
It may be cheating to have Arik Armstead considered as an interior defensive lineman, but he took the most snaps last season from the B gap, so here he is. While built similarly to Buckner, Armstead doesn’t have the same power that Buckner has, although he’s just as flexible.
The most confounding thing about Armstead is that his arms are relatively short for the position at 33 inches. However, anybody who watches him play would swear that he’s related to Inspector Gadget. Maybe that’s due to the long, baggy white undershirt he always wears.
Or maybe it’s because he maximizes his functional length so well. Armstead possesses a plethora of pass-rush moves, and his ability to get after the quarterback in a multitude of ways takes the pressure off Nick Bosa, who already gets double-teamed at a ridiculously high rate.
Top NFL interior defensive linemen in 2022: Best of the rest
It’s important to recognize the league’s elite run-defending defensive tackles. These are the individuals who don’t offer as much as pass rushers but are integral to their team’s defensive success.
D.J. Jones flashes inconsistent pass-rush ability, but he’s one of the best run defenders in the NFL. The Rams Greg Gaines was an absolute pleasure to watch during the team’s Super Bowl run. Meanwhile, Folorunso Fatukasi got a well-deserved bag in free agency, and both Al Woods and DaQuan Jones are veterans who have defended the run at a high level for a long time now.
11) DJ Reader, Cincinnati Bengals
12) Christian Wilkins, Miami Dolphins
13) D.J. Jones, Denver Broncos
14) Javon Hargrave, Philadelphia Eagles
15) Dexter Lawrence, New York Giants
16) Leonard Williams, New York Giants
17) David Onyemata, New Orleans Saints
18) Greg Gaines, Los Angeles Rams
19) Quinnen Williams, New York Jets
20) Fletcher Cox, Philadelphia Eagles
21) Dalvin Tomlinson, Minnesota Vikings
22) B.J. Hill, Cincinnati Bengals
23) Derrick Brown, Carolina Panthers
24) Calais Campbell, Baltimore Ravens
25) Folorunso Fatukasi, Jacksonville Jaguars
26) Poona Ford, Seattle Seahawks
27) Daron Payne, Washington Commanders
28) Christian Barmore, New England Patriots
29) Al Woods, Seattle Seahawks
30) Dre’Mont Jones, Denver Broncos
31) Harrison Phillips, Minnesota Vikings
32) DaQuan Jones, Tennessee Titans
Dalton Miller is the Lead NFL Analyst at Pro Football Network. You can read more of his work here and follow him @daltonbmiller on Twitter and Twitch.