The Grueling Truth - Where Legends Speak / Top-10 Interior Defensive Linemen in the NFL Entering the 2019 Season

Top-10 Interior Defensive Linemen in the NFL Entering the 2019 Season

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Jan 31, 2018; Bloomington, MN, USA; Philadelphia Eagles defensive tackle Fletcher Cox during a press conference in advance of Super Bowl LII against the New England Patriots at Mall of America. Mandatory Credit: Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports ORG XMIT: USATSI-379425 ORIG FILE ID: 20180131_jla_sl8_041.jpg

The NFL is flushed with talent at the interior defensive line positions. As the stars from the 2010 draft class begin to fade, new talents have emerged to take their place in the hierarchy.

This list includes defensive linemen who play the tradition defensive tackle position along with those who dabble in playing nose tackle. You’ll notice that a number of these players also take snaps at defensive end. That’s normal for versatile defensive linemen and won’t affect their eligibility for this article.

1. Aaron Donald, Los Angeles Rams

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Like many versatile defensive linemen, Donald takes snaps at defensive end and defensive tackle. For this exercise, we’re counting him as a defensive tackle. Putting the reigning two-time Defensive Player of the Year at the top of the list is an easy decision to make. Donald led the NFL in sacks last season with 20.5 and has emerged as the premier defensive force in the league.

2. Fletcher Cox, Philadelphia Eagles

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After a somewhat disappointing 2017 season, Cox rebounded by having arguably the best year of his career. He set a career-high with 10.5 sacks and was a regular visitor to opposing backfields. While Cox has had some good seasons in the past, he put together his best pass rushing display by far in 2018.

3. Chris Jones, Kansas City Chiefs

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Jones showed signs of potential in 2017, but no one expected he would explode for 15.5 sacks in 2018. On a Chiefs team loaded with pass rushers, Jones’ star shone brightest. If not for Cox’s own peak season, Jones would have been a First Team All-Pro. Instead, he was named as a Second Team All-Pro. At 25 years old and entering his fourth NFL seasons, Jones has plenty of prime years ahead of him.

4. DeForest Buckner, San Francisco 49ers

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At 6-7 and nearly 300 lbs., Buckner looks like a towering monster from an offensive coordinator’s worst nightmare. After two decent seasons, Buckner made a massive breakthrough in his third year in the NFL. He posted 67 combined tackles and a career-high 12 sacks. We’ll see if his star continues to rise in 2019.

5. Geno Atkins, Cincinnati Bengals

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The seven-time Pro Bowler has been one of the most consistent defensive linemen since entering the NFL in 2010. Over the past four seasons, Atkins has tallied 165 combined tackles, 39 sacks, and six forced fumbles. While many names have risen and fallen in the defensive tackle hierarchy during the past decade, Atkins has shown remarkable staying power.

6. Cameron Heyward, Pittsburgh Steelers

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While Heyward does still take snaps as a defensive end, he’s transitioned into the defensive tackle role for the Steelers. He was a First Team All-Pro in 2017, but admittedly took a step backward last season. He still finished 2018 with 51 combined tackles, eight sacks, and a forced fumble. Heyward’s presence on the interior has done wonders for T.J. Watt’s development.

7. Jurrell Casey, Tennessee Titans

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Unfortunately, Casey finished the 2018 season on IR and missed Tennessee’s final game. In his 15 appearances, he tallied 62 combined tackles, seven sacks, and two forced fumbles. After being largely overlooked for the first four years of his career, Casey has made four straight Pro Bowl appearances.

8. Akiem Hicks, Chicago Bears

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Hicks entered the NFL back in 2012 as a third round pick by the New Orleans Saints. He didn’t stick in New Orleans though and spent most of 2015 with the New England Patriots before joining the Bears in 2016. Since joining the team, Hicks has been a different player. 23 of his 32.5 career sacks and 163 of his 303 career tackles have come with the Bears in the last three years. In 2018, Hicks made his first Pro Bowl.

9. Damon Harrison, Detroit Lions

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Harrison is unlike any player we’ve talked about so far. While the Lions do list him as a defensive tackle, he has extensive experience as a nose tackle. Even now, Harrison is much more focused on clogging the middle of the field than bringing down the quarterback. In 2018, he posted a stunning 81 combined tackles along with 3.5 sacks and a forced fumble. In the past four seasons, Harrison has racked up 315 tackles from his interior position.

10. Grady Jarrett, Atlanta Falcons

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Jarrett isn’t going to post the same sack numbers as many of the players ranked above him. While he did earn six sacks last season and punished some quarterbacks, his game is more focused on disrupting the run. In 14 games this past season, Jarrett recorded 52 combined tackles and three forced fumbles.

Honorable Mentions

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Kenny Clark, Green Bay Packers

Clark has been developing each year since he entered the NFL. His improvement is likely why Green Bay felt confident in moving on from Mike Daniels. While Clark produced 55 combined tackles and six sacks last season, he still isn’t among the league’s elite interior defensive linemen.

Linval Joseph, Minnesota Vikings

Joseph made the Pro Bowl in 2016 and 2017. A drop in production and the rise of several younger defensive tackles led to him missing the game in 2018. Joseph finished the season with 58 combined tackles, one sack, and a forced fumble. Those are his lowest tackle and sack totals since 2015 when he played in just 12 games.

Sheldon Rankins, New Orleans Saints

Unfortunately, Rankins ruptured his Achilles after putting up the best numbers of his career. It is unknown when we will see him in 2019. Rankins wasn’t very impressive in his first two pro seasons, but he put up 40 combined tackles, eight sacks, and a forced fumble last season. That kind of sack production from the interior is invaluable.

Jarran Reed, Seattle Seahawks

After recording a combined three sacks in his first two NFL seasons, Reed broke through for 10.5 sacks in 2018. He was Seattle’s second-best pass rusher, only trailing Frank Clark. Reed also tallied 50 combined tackles. The young defensive tackle is suspended for the first six weeks of the 2019 season.

Sheldon Richardson, Cleveland Browns

There’s a reason why Richardson is on his fourth team in as many years. He never developed into the star defensive tackle that his play hinted at back in 2014. Still, Richardson is coming off of his best season since 2015. He signed a three-year deal with the Browns this offseason that should keep him in place for a little while.

Kawann Short, Carolina Panthers

Short has produced several seasons that have propelled him into the top ten in the past, but his play slipped in 2018. While Short did make the Pro Bowl, he recorded 42 combined tackles and just three sacks in 14 games. That’s Short’s lowest sack total since his rookie season in 2013. Maybe playing alongside Gerald McCoy will revitalize Short’s career.

What now?

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Mike Daniels, Detroit Lions

The 2017 Pro Bowler was jettisoned by the Packers this offseason, and he signed with the division-rival Lions. After tallying 49 combined tackles and five sacks in 14 appearances in 2017, Daniels played in ten games last season and posted a measly 18 tackles and two sacks. We’ll see if the 30-year-old can capture some of his old magic in 2019.

Gerald McCoy, Carolina Panthers

The third overall pick from the 2010 draft had one of his worst seasons as a pro in 2018. His streak of six consecutive Pro Bowls was snapped as he posted 28 combined tackles and six sacks. At age 31, there are concerns that McCoy won’t be able to get back to his Pro Bowl form.

Ndamukong Suh, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Suh didn’t exactly thrive alongside Donald in Los Angeles. While he didn’t have a bad season, it wasn’t what we expected either. Suh played in all 16 games and finished the 2018 season with 59 combined tackles and 4.5 sacks. While it was better than his 2017 campaign, how much do we think Suh has left in the tank?

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