Aaron Donald was named NFL Defensive Player of the Year for the second straight season
Similar to quarterbacks on offense, defensive linemen have basically dominated the NFL awards scene in recent seasons. Six of the past seven NFL Defensive Player of the Year awards have gone to the big guys up front. Aaron Donald has won it each of the past two years, preceded by Khalil Mack (who is now considered a linebacker), and J.J. Watt (2012, '14-15). The last defender that wasn't a lineman to win the honor was linebacker Luke Kuechly in 2013.
So as you can imagine, Donald and Watt head up their position grouping when it comes to Athlon Sports' top defensive ends (that play in a 3-4) entering the 2019 season. But there are other top-tier building blocks up front, whether they are labeled as an end in a 4-3 alignment or operate as a defensive tackle/nose tackle in either scheme. And let's face it, there are some guys, like Donald, who are basically unblockable no matter where they line up.
Athlon's player rankings are just one of the features that appear in the 2019 NFL Preview magazine.
2019 NFL 3-4 Defensive End Rankings
1. Aaron Donald, Los Angeles Rams
The reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year was even more spectacular en route to winning the award for a second straight season. He set a Rams franchise record with an NFL-high 20.5 sacks, throwing quarterbacks for an unprecedented 183.5 yards in losses.
2. J.J. Watt, Houston
Regained his dominating form in 2018 after two injury-ruined seasons. Is the all-time NFL leader in average sacks per game at 0.88 (92 in 104 games), and furthered his penchant for impact plays by forcing seven fumbles, which were four more than any other end last year.
3. Cameron Heyward, Pittsburgh
With eight sacks last season, raising his career total to 45, Heyward surpassed Aaron Smith (44) for the second-highest total among a Steelers defensive lineman in franchise history. Pittsburgh has never lost a game in which Heyward recorded multiple sacks (9–0).
4. Akiem Hicks, Chicago
His play has been key to the Bears being one of only three teams to allow an average of fewer than 300 yards per game. With 7.5 sacks last season, Hicks is now tied for third with Cam Heyward for most sacks among NFL defensive tackles since 2016 (23).
5. Leonard Williams, New York Jets
Hasn't turned as many quarterback hits (85 in four seasons) into sacks (17) as the team had hoped during his first four NFL seasons. That could change in Gregg Williams' scheme in which Williams will be utilized across the defensive line.
6. Jonathan Allen, Washington
The potential that Allen showed during an injury-shortened 2017 rookie season was no tease. He led all Redskins defensive linemen in tackles (61) and added eight sacks.
7. Brandon Williams, Baltimore
Proof of his value in Baltimore is reflected in the Ravens' defensive rankings. No team has allowed fewer rushing yards per game (95.1) since he became a starter in 2014.
8. Michael Brockers, Los Angeles Rams
Overshadowed by Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh last season, but Brockers has played a valuable role anchoring the Rams run defense. He's expected to get used as both a nose tackle and 5-technique end in 2019.
9. Stephon Tuitt, Pittsburgh
He's coming off a transition year learning different techniques under new defensive line coach Karl Dunbar. Focus on improving hand placement and better recognition of blocking schemes should result in Tuitt building upon his 5.5-sack campaign of 2018.
10. Matt Ioannidis, Washington
The most productive season of his young NFL career earned him a three-year, $21.8 million contract extension this offseason. The 2016 fifth-round pick from Temple managed a career-high 7.5 sacks and continues to improve as a pass rusher under Redskins defensive line coach Jim Tomsula.
11. B.J. Hill, New York Giants
12. Henry Anderson, New York Jets
13. Dean Lowery, Green Bay
14. Carl Nassib, Tampa Bay
15. Derek Wolfe, Denver
16. Adam Gotsis, Denver
17. DaQuan Jones, Tennessee
18. D.J. Reader, Houston
19. Rodney Gunter, Arizona
20. Darius Philon, Arizona
2019 NFL 4-3 Defensive End Rankings
1. Calais Campbell, Jacksonville
Continues to defy Father Time at age 32 as the NFL's best all-around 4-3 defensive end. Led all edge defenders with a career-high 43 run stops in 2018 per Pro Football Focus, to go along with 10.5 sacks.
2. Myles Garrett, Cleveland
No Browns player has ever posted more sacks in his first two seasons (20.5) since it became an official NFL statistic in 1982. Should be even more lethal this season with the Browns acquiring complementary end Olivier Vernon from the Giants in an offseason trade.
3. Cameron Jordan, New Orleans
With another 12-sack season in 2019, Jordan (71.5) would climb to second on the franchise's all-time list behind Pro Football Hall of Fame selection Rickey Jackson. Jordan also played a key role on what was the NFL's second-ranked run defense (80.2 ypg) in 2018. New Orleans rewarded their best defender with a three-year, $52.5 million contract extension ($42 million guaranteed) in early June.
4. Joey Bosa, Los Angeles Chargers
Was never truly 100 percent after returning from a preseason foot injury in Week 11. Should be able to regain the form in 2019 that led to double-digit sacks each of his first two NFL seasons.
5. Danielle Hunter, Minnesota
Ex-teammate Sheldon Richardson praised Hunter last season, saying he has "everything you want in a young defensive end." The 24-year-old Hunter compiled career highs in tackles (72) and sacks (14.5) in 2018.
6. Demarcus Lawrence, Dallas
"Tank" continued to steamroll opposing offensive linemen en route to a 10.5-sack season in 2018. Valuable enough to the Cowboys defense that he was re-signed to a five-year, $105 million contract this offseason.
7. Frank Clark, Kansas City
The Chiefs paid a steep price both contractually (five-year, $104 million with $62.3 million guaranteed) and in trade compensation (2019 first- and 2020 second-round picks) to acquire a player who has emerged as a pass-rushing force. He has 17.5 sacks, 37 QB hits and four forced fumbles in his past 22 games.
8. Trey Flowers, Detroit
Received the largest contract (five years, $90 million) and most guaranteed money ($56 million) of any player in the 2019 free agent signing class after leading New England in sacks the past three seasons. Can play multiple spots across Detroit’s D-line.
9. Melvin Ingram, Los Angeles Chargers
Did a nice job last season carrying Los Angeles' pass-rush load while Joey Bosa was sidelined with a foot problem. Used at four different defensive positions in 2018, logging 300-plus snaps at both left and right end in Bosa’s absence.
10. Dee Ford, San Francisco
The 49ers believe Ford will thrive in the Leo position in Robert Saleh's defense after acquiring him in a trade with Kansas City. A 13-sack season in 2018 is sound reason for optimism — provided Ford can once again avoid injuries that have marred his five-year NFL career.
11. Michael Bennett, New England
12. Olivier Vernon, Cleveland
13. Mario Addison, Carolina
14. Yannick Ngakoue, Jacksonville
15. Jerry Hughes, Buffalo
16. Justin Houston, Indianapolis
17. Derek Barnett, Philadelphia
18. Carlos Dunlap, Cincinnati
19. Everson Griffen, Minnesota
20. Takkarist McKinley, Atlanta
2019 NFL Defensive Tackle Rankings
(4-3 DTs and 3-4 NTs)
1. Fletcher Cox, Philadelphia
Now the all-time leader in sacks (44.5) and Pro Bowl appearances (four) for an Eagles defensive tackle. Three of his eight career multi-sack games came in 2018, contributing to a career-high 10.5 sacks for the season.
2. Chris Jones, Kansas City
Ascended to the ranks of the NFL's elite interior pass rushers in 2018, which is a distinction that shouldn't change even with his pending move from 3-4 end to 4-3 DT in new Chiefs coordinator Steve Spagnuolo's scheme. Set the NFL's all-time record for consecutive games with a sack (11) en route to 15.5 on the season.
3. DeForest Buckner, San Francisco
Became the first 49ers defender with 12-plus sacks since Aldon Smith in 2012. Could be even more productive in 2019 with the 49ers improving their pass-rush talent in the offseason.
4. Geno Atkins, Cincinnati
One of the few bright spots on the NFL's most porous defense in 2018. With 71 career sacks, he has a legitimate chance of breaking Eddie Edwards’ franchise record of 83.5 in 2019.
5. Grady Jarrett, Atlanta
Considered such a valuable part of the Falcons defense that he was given a one-year, $15.2 million franchise tag to prevent him from leaving in free agency. Has increased his sack total each of the past four seasons with a career-high six in 2018.
6. Sheldon Rankins, New Orleans
The 2016 first-round pick came on strong during his third NFL season with career highs in tackles (40) and sacks (eight). Must rebound from a torn Achilles tendon in the playoffs that has his availability for the start of the 2019 season in doubt.
7. Damon Harrison, Detroit
The elite run stuffer brought those skills to the Lions after a midseason trade from the Giants. The Lions allowed an average of 83.2 rushing yards in their final nine games compared to 144.6 in the first seven.
8. Jurrell Casey, Tennessee
Remains one of the great interior pass rushers, completing his sixth season with at least five sacks. His 50 QB pressures in 2018 also were a career high.
9. Jarran Reed, Seattle
Entering the final year of his rookie contract, Reed put himself in position for a monster extension with a breakout 2018 season. The 23.5 combined sacks from Reed and end Frank Clark were the highest total by Seahawks teammates since 2007.
10. Kawann Short, Carolina
The Panthers are banking on Short and Dontari Poe rebounding from disappointing 2018 seasons. Short’s tackle total (42) was his lowest since 2013.
11. Linval Joseph, Minnesota
12. Eddie Goldman, Chicago
13. Kenny Clark, Green Bay
14. Malik Jackson, Philadelphia
15. Sheldon Richardson, Cleveland
16. Ndamukong Suh, Tampa Bay
17. Gerald McCoy, Carolina
18. Corey Peters, Arizona
19. Lawrence Guy, New England
20. Daron Payne, Washington