Aaron Donald made it six straight All-Pro nods last season
When it comes to ranking the best defensive linemen in the NFL entering the 2020 season, it's important to point out that the position assigned to individuals doesn't necessarily tell the whole story.
Take Aaron Donald, for example. The two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year and six-time All-Pro is a difference-maker wherever he lines up. Listed as a defensive tackle on the Los Angeles Rams' roster, he also played a total of 338 snaps at left or right defensive end last season, per Pro Football Focus. Donald's "positionless" excellence and the same type of multi-gap production expected of more and more linemen are the primary reasons Athlon Sports has merged the nose tackle and defensive tackle positions into one "DI" (defensive interior) position in this year’s rankings.
Likewise, it's just as important to separate the edge rushers who make their money outside most of the time, whether that's a defensive end or an outside linebacker. As you will see below, sometimes what a player does and how well he does it, matters more than the position listed next to their name.
Athlon's player rankings are just one of the features that appear in the 2020 Pro Football magazine.
2020 NFL Defensive Interior (DI) Rankings
1. Aaron Donald, Los Angeles Rams
The best defensive lineman in the NFL, and the best defensive player on most Sundays. Donald’s sacks declined from 20.5 to 12.5 and his total pressures from 113 to 80, but he still left a trail of frustrated offensive linemen. At 6'1" and 280 pounds, Donald has an unrivaled combination of technique, strength and quickness to the pocket. He’s an every-gap defender and could probably put up double-digit sacks as a pure end. Donald also led the league in tackles for a loss for the second straight season.
2. Cameron Heyward, Pittsburgh Steelers
The value of multi-gap winners along the defensive line in today’s NFL is clear, and few are better than Heyward. He had an unusual breakout curve with 12.5 sacks in 2017, his second NFL season, in which he played at a Defensive Player of the Year level, and he’s maintained that through the two seasons since. No interior defensive lineman had more run stops than Heyward’s 44 in 2019.
3. Kenny Clark, Green Bay Packers
At 6'3" and 314 pounds, Clark can win everywhere from nose tackle to five-tech end, but he’s especially effective between the guard and tackle as a penetrating, pass-rushing force. Clark, who has never put up more than six sacks in a season, is an example of why that statistic doesn’t always mean as much as we think. Last season, including the playoffs, no interior defensive lineman had more quarterback hurries than Clark’s 58, and only Aaron Donald had more total pressures than Clark’s 69. Factor in his 45 run stops, and you’ve got one of the most complete players at his position.
4. DeForest Buckner, Indianapolis Colts
Traded to the Colts in the offseason for Indianapolis’ 13th overall pick in the 2020 draft, Buckner will give Indy’s defensive line a massive boost in any gap. Selected seventh overall in the 2016 draft, Buckner put up 7.5 sacks in the 2019 regular season, adding 2.5 more in the 49ers’ playoff push. He added nine quarterback hits, 46 QB hurries and 39 run stops, and he was unquestionably a force multiplier in San Francisco’s Super Bowl defense.
5. Chris Jones, Kansas City Chiefs
Jones has been one of the best inside/outside defensive linemen in the NFL over the last few years, and he made a legitimate case for Super Bowl LIV Most Valuable Player with his pressures and deflections. The Chiefs placed the franchise tag on Jones for the 2020 season, and they’d obviously be wise to come to terms with the Mississippi State alum, who will turn 26 in August, on a longer-term commitment.
6. Fletcher Cox, Philadelphia Eagles
Cox didn’t perform quite up to his 2018 level in 2019, but it’s hard to follow up 10.5 sacks and 101 total pressures when you’re getting double-teamed all the time and your secondary is springing leaks. Cox still amassed 3.5 sacks, 60 total pressures, and 23 run stops, with Pro Bowl-level tape most of the season.
7. Geno Atkins, Cincinnati Bengals
Atkins’ great play was lost in Cincinnati’s 2–14 season and in a defense under Lou Anarumo that didn’t always have the right players in the right places. He’s still one of the best leverage tackles in the NFL, able to get under the pads of centers and guards and move them where he wants. Atkins had 4.5 sacks, 53 total pressures, and 28 run stops, and he should be helped tremendously by the addition of ex-Texans nose tackle D.J. Reader in free agency.
8. Grady Jarrett, Atlanta Falcons
Jarrett lasted until the fifth round of the 2015 draft because teams were concerned that he wasn’t big enough. What those teams missed, and what the Falcons gained, was Jarrett’s ability to fire off the ball with alarming speed and use strength and leverage to win the down. In 2019, he put up a career-high 7.5 sacks, with 46 pressures and 40 run stops.
9. Matt Ioannidis, Washington Redskins
Perhaps the most underrated interior defensive lineman in the NFL. The fifth-round pick out of Temple in 2016 has been a consistently productive pass rusher over the last three seasons, but he took the proverbial next step in 2019 as a run stopper.
10. D.J. Reader, Cincinnati Bengals
Reader was an outstanding nose tackle for the Texans, with more quickness than you’d expect from a 6'3", 347-pounder. Putting him next to Geno Atkins in Cincinnati’s defensive front, as the Bengals did with a four-year, $53 million contract, should make every guard and center in the AFC North very nervous.
11. Maliek Collins, Las Vegas Raiders
12. Javon Hargrave, Philadelphia Eagles
13. Ndamukong Suh, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
14. Jurrell Casey, Denver Broncos
15. Vita Vea, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
16. Leonard Williams, New York Giants
17. Gerald McCoy, Dallas Cowboys
18. Larry Ogunjobi, Cleveland Browns
19. Quinton Jefferson, Buffalo Bills
20. Sheldon Richardson, Cleveland Browns
21. Stephon Tuitt, Pittsburgh Steelers
22. Maurice Hurst, Las Vegas Raiders
23. Michael Brockers, Los Angeles Rams
24. Jonathan Allen, Washington Redskins
25. Ed Oliver, Buffalo Bills
26. Jordan Phillips, Arizona Cardinals
27. Christian Wilkins, Miami Dolphins
28. Shelby Harris, Denver Broncos
29. DaQuan Jones, Tennessee Titans
30. Dexter Lawrence, New York Giants
2020 NFL Edge Rusher Rankings
1. Nick Bosa, San Francisco 49ers
Most collegiate edge rushers need a year or so to get up to speed, but Bosa didn’t get that memo. In his rookie campaign, the second overall pick totaled nine regular-season sacks, four more in the postseason, and his 102 total pressures ranked second in the league behind only Green Bay’s Za’Darius Smith. Bosa is also a plus run stopper, and there aren’t any real holes in his game.
2. Za’Darius Smith, Green Bay Packers
An increasingly effective rotational inside-outside pass rusher during his four years with the Ravens, Smith turned his play up several notches after the Packers gave him a four-year, $66 million contract and set him loose in Mike Pettine’s multiple fronts. No defensive lineman had more total pressures in 2019 than Smith’s 104, and his 40 run stops (tied with Minnesota’s Danielle Hunter for fourth best in the NFL) point to the complete nature of his skill set.
3. Danielle Hunter, Minnesota Vikings
Hunter was a third-round pick in 2015 despite his first-round athleticism because he didn’t know the nuances of the position. But he’s developed from a “run-around guy” to one of the better speed rushers in the league, with a sneaky-great bull rush and run-stopping abilities. He put up 14.5 sacks for the second straight season in 2019, and only Za’Darius Smith and Joey Bosa had more total pressures than Hunter’s 97. The more impressive stat, however, might be his 40 run stops.
4. Shaquil Barrett, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The winner of the 2019 “From Out of Nowhere” sweepstakes, Barrett led the league with 19.5 sacks in 2019 after five seasons as a decent rotational end in Denver, with just 14 sacks in those seasons combined. While it was tough for Barrett to find his place alongside Von Miller and Miller’s bookends, Barrett was the perfect speed end in Todd Bowles’ Buccaneers defense. Tampa Bay placed the franchise tag on Barrett after stealing him in 2019 with a one-year, $4 million contract.
5. Chandler Jones, Arizona Cardinals
Year after year, Jones proves himself to be one of the most productive pass rushers in the NFL. Year after year, his name is rarely mentioned when it comes to naming the top players at his position. Jones has played four seasons with the Cardinals after four years with the Patriots, and in those last four seasons, nobody has more quarterback sacks than Jones’ 60. Jones had 19 takedowns in 2019; he led the league with 17 in 2017; and he’s put up double-digit sacks every year since 2015.
6. Cameron Jordan, New Orleans Saints
Jordan doesn’t get the recognition he deserves, and it’s because he’s almost too consistent, as weird as that sounds. He’s put up double-digit sacks in five of the last seven seasons, can kick inside and is a practiced, disciplined run stopper. His coaches, teammates, and opponents understand his value, though.
7. T.J. Watt, Pittsburgh Steelers
Anyone who thought Watt was overcooked as a first-round pick in 2017 got an education when Watt put up seven sacks and 42 total pressures as a rookie. Watt has just become better from there, with 52 pressures in 2018 and 81 in 2019. And in each of his three seasons, the 6'4", 252-pound speed rusher has been an outstanding run stopper. He’s a major cog in the Steelers defense.
8. Von Miller, Denver Broncos
Miller isn’t quite the force he was in the mid-2010s when his speed around the edge, ability to bend through the arc and underrated power through blockers made him just about impossible to stop, but he’s far from washed-up at 31. Last season, he totaled eight sacks and 77 total pressures.
9. Joey Bosa, Los Angeles Chargers
Bosa lost a bit of name traction to his younger brother Nick last season, but there was nothing invisible about his contributions to the Chargers’ defense in 2019. After an injury-plagued 2018 campaign, he bounced back nicely with 11.5 sacks, 71 total pressures, and 49 run stops. No other edge defender had more than Bosa in that last category.
10. Khalil Mack, Chicago Bears
When a player of Mack’s talent puts up 8.5 sacks, 70 total pressures, and 34 run stops and people are alarmed, it’s only because we expect so much more. Perhaps it was an off-year, or he was dealing with unspoken injuries. At this point, we’ll chalk it up as a fluke and expect him to return to form in 2020.
11. Calais Campbell, Baltimore Ravens
12. Myles Garrett, Cleveland Browns
13. Arik Armstead, San Francisco 49ers
14. Jadeveon Clowney, Free Agent
15. Everson Griffen, Free Agent
16. Yannick Ngakoue, Jacksonville Jaguars
17. Frank Clark, Kansas City Chiefs
18. J.J. Watt, Houston Texans
19. Demarcus Lawrence, Dallas Cowboys
20. Dante Fowler Jr., Atlanta Falcons
21. Preston Smith, Green Bay Packers
22. Trey Flowers, Detroit Lions
23. Robert Quinn, Chicago Bears
24. Kyle Van Noy, Miami Dolphins
25. Matthew Judon, Baltimore Ravens
26. Brandon Graham, Philadelphia Eagles
27. Melvin Ingram III, Los Angeles Chargers
28. Whitney Mercilus, Houston Texans
29. Justin Houston, Indianapolis Colts
30. Harold Landry III, Tennessee Titans