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NFL Defensive Linemen Rankings for 2022

NFL Defensive Linemen Rankings for 2020: Aaron Donald

A three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year honoree and seven-time All-Pro, Aaron Donald continues to be the gold standard when it comes to defensive linemen.

When it comes to ranking the best defensive linemen in the NFL entering the 2022 season, the starting point is obvious, regardless of how you label them. Aaron Donald is the standard-bearer up front. One of three players to be named NFL Defensive Player of the Year three times (Lawrence Taylor, J.J. Watt are the others), Donald has been named first-team All-Pro seven straight seasons and took care of the last thing that was missing on his Hall of Fame résumé — a Super Bowl ring — in February. He reportedly considered retirement this offseason but signed a contract extension in early June that makes him the first non-quarterback to average more than $30 million per season. And deservedly so.

While Donald is certainly a difference-maker wherever he lines up, as it relates to Athlon Sports' rankings entering the 2022 season, he is viewed as a defensive lineman. In the spirit of the growing trend of "positionless" football, Athlon has grouped defensive linemen into two categories — DL and edge rushers.

And just as Donald is the questioned No. 1 among the DL, T.J. Watt is the cream of the crop when it comes to edge rushers, a category that also includes defenders who may be listed or tagged as an outside linebacker. Watt, joined big brother J.J. as NFL Defensive Player of the Year honorees, taking home last season's award after racking up 22.5 sacks in only 15 games. Edge rusher is a loaded category with Myles Garrett and the Bosa brothers (Nick and Joey) also in the top five, along with Las Vegas' Maxx Crosby, while guys like Khalil Mack, Robert Quinn and DeMarcus Lawrence are outside of the top 15.

Athlon's player rankings are just one of the features that appear in the 2022 Pro Football magazine.

2022 NFL Positional Rankings: QB I RB I WR I TE I OL I DL I LB I DB I Top 50

2022 NFL Defensive Linemen Rankings

1. Aaron Donald, Los Angeles Rams

There are not enough superlatives in the football language guide to bestow on Donald. He jumps off the snap like a dog that’s been housed in a kennel for a week. He peppers his explosive hands into the blocker and then discards him with little more than a passing care. While Donald garners much of his praise as a pass rusher, maybe the greatest interior pass rusher in NFL history, his work as a run defender isn’t appreciated nearly enough. The future Hall of Famer can do whatever he wants on a football field.

2. Cameron Heyward, Pittsburgh Steelers

Heyward is a prototypical 3-4 defensive end and one of the most solid five- and seven-technique players this league has ever seen. His ability to use his length and leverage off the snap to jump into gaps, eat up double-team blocks and then disengage from blockers to get sacks is magical. He is punishing as a tackler, penetrates the line to get multiple tackles for a loss and, when his rush is stunted, times up his hands to knock down passes at the line of scrimmage.

3. Chris Jones, Kansas City Chiefs

Jones is a mountain of a man who can move laterally as if he is an Olympic speed skater. While Jones can use power and push to win off the snap, his ability to pop the blocker’s pads and snatch his way through the hole is a weapon few defensive linemen can achieve. Jones is fluid on the move, lining up in a certain gap, only to appear in a different one at the snap of the football due to his ability to get lateral quickly.

4. DeForest Buckner, Indianapolis Colts

Buckner’s ability to bench-press blockers, control the action, shed and get into the backfield speaks to his length and strength. He does this as a run defender, accounting for 60-plus tackles in all six of his NFL seasons. Even as a pass rusher, Buckner is worth at least six sacks a year and in 2021 had seven while adding 10 tackles for a loss. But Buckner gets warrior points because he rarely comes off the field and eats double-teams or chip blocks most of the game.

5. Jonathan Allen, Washington Commanders

Allen had a career year in terms of quarterback hits and pressures, doubling his output compared to his previous best season (15 to 30). Allen has always been a stout inside run defender, and his ability to stack and shed on the ball carrier has allowed him to produce 60-plus tackles in each of the last four seasons. Those are impressive numbers for a player who constantly takes on double-team blocks off the snap. Allen is an extraordinary talent who will take over for the likes of Heyward near the top of this list very soon.

6. Jeffery Simmons, Tennessee Titans

The Titans have a rocket ship rising in Simmons. The space-eater registered 8.5 sacks, 15 tackles for a loss and 20 QB hits in 2021. With Simmons’ play elevated, the Titans will once again compete for an AFC South crown. Simmons is a special player with huge upside.

7. Kenny Clark, Green Bay Packers

Analytics will never define Clark’s disruptive nature. Lined up primarily over the center, but rarely outside the guards, Clark uses natural strength, lower-body explosion and a low center of gravity to take on and fend off blockers.

8. Christian Wilkins, Miami Dolphins

His work on his hand usage and disengage ability allowed Wilkins to produce 4.5 sacks during the season while still holding down the interior and making 89 total tackles. Those tackle numbers tied Heyward for the most by a defensive lineman in 2021. That development is what scouts and coaches look for in an ascending player.

9. D.J. Reader, Cincinnati Bengals

After a lost 2020 season in which Reader only appeared in five contests, the former Houston Texan slid back into the Bengals’ defensive scheme without missing a beat. Reader really shined in the playoffs, where he accounted for 12 tackles, three tackles for a loss and four quarterback hits.

10. Javon Hargrave, Philadelphia Eagles

With a compact stature ideally built for players physical against the running game, Hargrave uses his size to gain the advantage off the snap, works to gain inside hands on the linemen’s chest plate and either bull-rush or dance around the would-be blocker. Hargrave had a career year with 7.5 sacks and 18 quarterback hits. His 61 total QB pressures were top five in the NFL.

11. Vita Vea, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
12. Stephon Tuitt, Pittsburgh Steelers
13. Grady Jarrett, Atlanta Falcons
14. David Onyemata, New Orleans Saints
15. Leonard Williams, New York Giants
16. Denico Autry, Tennessee Titans
17. Sebastian Joseph-Day, Los Angeles Chargers
18. Zach Sieler, Miami Dolphins
19. Grover Stewart, Indianapolis Colts
20. Calais Campbell, Baltimore Ravens
21. Fletcher Cox, Philadelphia Eagles
22. D.J. Wonnum, Minnesota Vikings
23. Ed Oliver, Buffalo Bills
24. Dawuane Smoot, Jacksonville Jaguars
25. Derrick Brown, Carolina Panthers
26. Poona Ford, Seattle Seahawks
27. Quinnen Williams, New York Jets
28. Michael Pierce, Baltimore Ravens
29. D.J. Jones, Denver Broncos
30. Javon Kinlaw, San Francisco 49ers

2022 NFL Edge Rusher Rankings

1. T.J. Watt, Pittsburgh Steelers

The reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year is one of the greatest pass rushers in recent history. The fact he was knocking on the door of the all-time single-season sack record and didn’t play a full season is a testament to his resolve and discipline. But Watt is more than a sack artist; he caused five fumbles and recovered three. He is adept in coverage and also added seven passes defensed to his résumé in 2021. The assault on the record books will continue in 2022.

2. Myles Garrett, Cleveland Browns

Garrett is a physical freak and has been since grade school. His first step off the football is so potent that he launches off the snap and literally knocks the blocker back before even getting into his rush. Garrett’s ability to play with incredible leverage and dexterity makes him a difficult matchup for most offensive linemen. Teams simply run away from him, so his statistics aren’t as substantial as other edge rushers, but Garrett will be the driving force in Cleveland’s return to glory.

3. Nick Bosa, San Francisco 49ers

Coming off a lost 2020 season, Bosa was back to terrorizing quarterbacks in 2021. A full season removed from his knee injury, the arrow is pointing up for the younger Bosa brother in terms of production and ceiling. His three-game playoff performance was indicative of who Bosa can be in 2022. Bosa was not as effective versus the run as he was his rookie season, but now that he is back to full strength, that part of his game should improve in 2022.

4. Maxx Crosby, Las Vegas Raiders

How does a player with only eight sacks last season crack the top five of the best edge players in the game? By constantly grinding every snap and playing just as effectively versus the run as the pass. He allows his teammates to get sacks, thanks to his 100-plus pressures last season, and when a player is around the passer that much, good things happen for the defense. Crosby is a solid tackler in space, and with his strong hands, 2022 could be his most productive yet.

5. Joey Bosa, Los Angeles Chargers

In his six NFL seasons, the former Ohio State Buckeye has finished four of them with double-digit sacks. He is an unyielding pass rusher with a plethora of moves and created seven fumbles last season. With the Chargers’ additions of ranked players edge Khalil Mack, defensive tackle Sebastian Joseph-Day and cornerback J.C. Jackson, Bosa is primed to have the finest season of his young career.