When it comes to ranking the best defensive linemen in the NFL entering the 2021 season, the starting point is obvious. Aaron Donald claimed his third NFL Defensive Player of the Year award last season, joining Hall of Famer Lawrence Taylor and J.J. Watt as the only players to achieve that distinction. Watt is looking for a fresh start with a new team after being released by Houston and signing with Arizona this offseason.
Donald, who also can lay claim to the title of the best player in football regardless of position, is certainly one of just a handful of defensive linemen that is a difference-maker wherever they line up. In the spirit of the growing trend of "positionless" football, Athlon Sports has ranked defensive linemen in two categories - defensive interior (DI) and edge rushers.
There's no question that Donald leads off the DI group while the edge rushers are where you find your guys who create havoc from the outside, 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 2021 Pro Football magazine.
2021 NFL Defensive Interior (DI) Rankings
1. Aaron Donald, Los Angeles Rams
One of the best D-linemen in NFL history, Donald has amassed over 100 total pressures in three of the last four seasons, including 2020; 80 pressures signify a great year for an edge rusher. Meanwhile, Donald’s mostly inside as the point of focus (i.e., double-teams) against every offense the Rams face. His 2020 was yet another amazing season, as Donald had 13.5 sacks, 15 quarterback hits, and 73 quarterback hurries.
2. Cameron Heyward, Pittsburgh Steelers
Heyward had just four sacks in the 2020 season, but the tape shows no drop-off at all, and the dominant edge combination of T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree would not have been able to do what it did without Heyward’s presence all over the line. Heyward had 19 quarterback hits and 45 quarterback hurries. From nose tackle to situational end, Heyward is tough to stop wherever he lines up.
3. DeForest Buckner, Indianapolis Colts
Arriving via trade from San Francisco, Buckner totaled 9.5 sacks, 26 QB hits, 30 QB hurries and 32 stops, proving that his overall game as an interior pass rusher and run stopper travels just fine. The Colts signed Buckner to a four-year, $84 million contract extension when the trade was finalized, and they were happy to do it.
4. Chris Jones, Kansas City Chiefs
Jones ended his 2019 season with a performance in Super Bowl LIV that should have had him in serious consideration for the game’s MVP award. In 2020, he did what he’s done over the last few seasons — providing top-shelf quarterback disruption from any gap he’s assigned. Only Aaron Donald and Pittsburgh’s Stephon Tuitt had more total pressures than Jones’ 70 last season.
5. Stephon Tuitt, Pittsburgh Steelers
In conjunction with Cameron Heyward, and with T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree as the edge bookends, Tuitt did his part on the NFL’s best defense with a career-high 11 sacks, 14 quarterback hits, and 45 QB pressures. Tuitt has become a highly valuable disruptor in all phases.
6. Jonathan Allen, Washington Football Team
Allen had just two sacks, but as always, sacks don’t tell the whole story. He is a dominant run defender with the strength to break up any double-team, and he amassed 14 QB hits and 34 QB hurries on 510 pass-rushing snaps.
7. Leonard Williams, New York Giants
Williams had a career-high 11.5 sacks last season, along with 30 quarterback hits and 31 quarterback hurries. He was able to produce as never before because Giants defensive coordinator Patrick Graham astutely put him all over the line, and that should continue in 2021 and beyond.
8. Vita Vea, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Vea suffered a fractured ankle in Week 5 against the Bears and didn’t return until the NFC Championship Game against the Packers. With Vea on the field, the Bucs allowed just 2.8 yards per carry — when Vea was out, that jumped to 4.0 yards per carry. He also totaled 23 pressures on just 189 pass-rushing snaps last season.
9. Grady Jarrett, Atlanta Falcons
Perennially underrated due to his size, the 6'0", 305-pound Jarrett uses great quickness and amazing leverage to upset enemy blockers at both nose tackle and three-technique. In 2020, Jarrett had four sacks, 17 quarterback hits and 35 quarterback hurries with very little else to distract opponents from his presence.
10. Kenny Clark, Green Bay Packers
Injuries limited Clark to a degree in 2020, but he still put up two sacks, six quarterback hits, and 23 quarterback hurries on 424 snaps. And as a run-stopper, he’s as destructive as any defensive tackle in the league.
11. Akiem Hicks, Chicago Bears
12. Daron Payne, Washington Football Team
13. Fletcher Cox, Philadelphia Eagles
14. Shelby Harris, Denver Broncos
15. Poona Ford, Seattle Seahawks
16. Jeffery Simmons, Tennessee Titans
17. Ndamukong Suh, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
18. Quinnen Williams, New York Jets
19. Tyson Alualu, Pittsburgh Steelers
20. Mario Edwards Jr., Chicago Bears
21. Sheldon Richardson, Minnesota Vikings
22. Dalvin Tomlinson, Minnesota Vikings
23. David Onyemata, New Orleans Saints
24. Calais Campbell, Baltimore Ravens
25. William Gholston, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
26. Ed Oliver, Buffalo Bills
27. Eddie Goldman, Chicago Bears
28. Dexter Lawrence, New York Giants
29. Folorunso Fatukasi, New York Jets
30. Maurice Hurst, San Francisco 49ers
2021 NFL Edge Rusher Rankings
1. Shaquil Barrett, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Buccaneers did some intelligent accounting after their Super Bowl win, signing Barrett to a new four-year, $68 million contract in March after franchise-tagging him the year before. One season after leading the NFL with 19.5 sacks, Barrett had 12 sacks in 2020 (including the postseason), and no edge rusher was able to top his 97 total pressures.
2. T.J. Watt, Pittsburgh Steelers
Through his first four NFL seasons, Trent Jordan Watt has done everything possible to prove that he’s more than just J.J.’s little brother. Not only did the younger Watt lead the league with 15 sacks in 2020, but since 2017, only Aaron Donald and Chandler Jones have more sacks than Watt’s 49.5, and only Donald has more quarterback hits than Watt’s 111.
3. Myles Garrett, Cleveland Browns
Garrett inked a five-year, $125 million contract extension in 2020, and last season, he did his best to earn it. Despite a bout with COVID, Garrett had his third straight double-digit sack season with 13 (including playoffs), and he also put up 18 QB hits and a career-high 41 QB hurries.
4. Za’Darius Smith, Green Bay Packers
While his sack total stayed solid at 12.5, Smith’s total pressures plummeted from 105 to 59. Ankle and knee injuries played a part in that regression, and if he is fully healthy in 2021, he should regain his place as one of the NFL’s finest multi-gap edge defenders.
5. Cameron Jordan, New Orleans Saints
Jordan has been the heart of New Orleans’ defense for a long time. There was a bit of a drop-off in sack production last season, going from 15.5 in 2019 to 7.5 in 2020, but he still had 16 QB hits and 44 QB hurries, along with 38 stops. All this despite playing the final five games of the season with a torn adductor muscle.
6. Carl Lawson, New York Jets
The Jets signed the former Bengal to a three-year, $45 million deal this offseason to augment their pass rush, and Lawson has every attribute to do just that. He had 64 total pressures with 20 stops and two forced fumbles, and he’s an above-average run defender.
7. Emmanuel Ogbah, Miami Dolphins
It wasn’t until the Dolphins signed him to a two-year, $15 million contract before the 2020 season that Ogbah was put in the prime position to showcase all he could do. In Brian Flores’ aggressive man-based schemes, Ogbah set career highs in sacks (9.0), total pressures (66), and stops (26).
8. Chandler Jones, Arizona Cardinals
One of the most productive pass rushers of his era, Jones ranks first in the NFL in sacks since his rookie season of 2012 with 97 through 2020, and that’s despite missing all but five games last season due to a right biceps injury. When healthy in 2021, Jones should continue to be one of the NFL’s best speed rushers.
9. Nick Bosa, San Francisco 49ers
Bosa won the 2019 Defensive Rookie of the Year award with 13 sacks (four in the postseason) and 102 total pressures. Then, his second season ended nearly before it began — he played just two games before a torn ACL set him aside for the rest of 2020. There’s no reason to believe that a healthy Bosa won’t be just as dominant as before.
10. Chase Young, Washington Football Team
On a defensive line with four other first-round picks, Young was at times the most dominant defender in Washington’s front with 7.5 sacks and 42 total pressures. Young will be even more effective as he learns the intricacies of the position.
11. Joey Bosa, Los Angeles Chargers
12. Montez Sweat, Washington Football Team
13. Khalil Mack, Chicago Bears
14. Romeo Okwara, Detroit Lions
15. Bradley Chubb, Denver Broncos
16. Trey Hendrickson, Cincinnati Bengals
17. DeMarcus Lawrence, Dallas Cowboys
18. Von Miller, Denver Broncos
19. Brian Burns, Carolina Panthers
20. Jason Pierre-Paul, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
21. Bud Dupree, Tennessee Titans
22. Leonard Floyd, Los Angeles Rams
23. Brandon Graham, Philadelphia Eagles
24. J.J. Watt, Arizona Cardinals
25. Matt Judon, New England Patriots
26. Haason Reddick, Carolina Panthers
27. Denico Autry, Tennessee Titans
28. Frank Clark, Kansas City Chiefs
29. Markus Golden, Arizona Cardinals
30. Harold Landry III, Tennessee Titans