After completing our offensive position lists, it’s time to shift over to the defense. We’ll start with the interior defensive line, which is a very fun to position to analyze, since there are a lot of skills needed. As an interior defensive lineman, you need to be able to defend the run, but even more importantly, you have to be able to rush the passer. The latter ability is what separates the good players at this position from the great ones, which is why nose tackles such as Damon Harrison and Michael Pierce failed to make this list. So, let’s look at the top interior defensive lineman heading into 2019!
All Stats and Grades Via Pro Football Focus
#10: Kawann Short, Carolina Panthers
When looking at the highest-paid interior defensive linemen, it may be a surprise that Kawaan Short is the sixth-highest paid player at the position annually. He may be overshadowed by players in Carolina like Cam Newton and Luke Kuechley, but the 30-year-old is a great player in his own right. In 2017, he was one of the top interior defensive linemen with a 91.9 overall grade, a 91.7 run defense grade, and an 83.7 pass-rushing grade from Pro Football Focus. Those are elite numbers, though Short did regress significantly as a pass-rusher last year (69.6 grade), and didn’t have much consistency week to week. Still, he’s an all-around player who was amongst the league’s best as recently as 2017, and he’ll continue to be a key part of Carolina’s defense. His regression last season drops him a few spots, but he still deserves a spot on this list.
#9: Jurrell Casey, Tennesee Titans
The Titans have always been a solid, but not very exciting team to watch. After all, their best player over the last decade has been an interior defensive lineman who doesn’t garner still much attention. Nevertheless, Jurrell Casey continues to get better; his eighth season last year was the best of his career. The 29-year-old set career highs in overall grade (87.1) and run defense grade (91.9). Heck, he even had an impressive 71.5 coverage grade last year, proving to be a versatile player for Tennesee. However, there was one alarming backslide with his production; his pass-rushing grade dropped from 76.1 to 67. Casey’s always been a balanced defensive lineman, so hopefully, this season was an aberration as he adjusted to head coach Mike Vrabel’s new defensive scheme. It can’t be ignored, though, so #9 is the highest Casey can rank as we wait for a bounce-back season for him as a pass rusher.
#8: Akiem Hicks, Chicago Bears
Sometimes, a player just needs a new life or a spark to become the player he had the potential to become. For Akiem Hicks, that’s happened multiple times. He struggled in New Orleans, started to show flashes after being traded to New England, but became an excellent player upon signing with the Bears. Then, Chicago traded for edge rusher Khalil Mack, and likely as a result of it, Hicks exploded last season. His 91.7 overall grade and 92.9 run defense grades were undoubtedly elite, and his pass-rushing grade (78.9) also was a career-best. This was his first season of being a high-end interior defensive lineman, but the 30-year-old has also consistently been an above-average player; this can’t be seen as a sudden breakout that’s unsustainable. The Bears defense, which should be one of the league’s best once again, will be counting on Hicks to repeat his production; his play last season was the most underrated story of this team, and another elite season will cause him to skyrocket up this list.
#7: Cameron Heyward, Pittsburgh Steelers
With superstars like Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown on their team, the Steelers had been one of the loudest teams of the past few seasons, but after cutting ties with both, they’re enjoying their current standing as an under-the-radar team. With all that noise gone, perhaps we can give some more recognition for Cameron Heyward. The 30-year-old has had an 80.3 or better grade in three of the past four seasons, and had a borderline elite 89.1 grade as recently as 2017. He took a slight step back with an 84.9 grade this season, but he didn’t dramatically regress in any area, and maintained a solid 76.7 pass-rushing grade. That’s the story with Heyward, who is rather hard to analyze; he’s the same player every year; his consistency is off-the-charts. The Steelers as a whole should thrive without the noise this season, and Heyward figures to be a major part of that, even if he doesn’t excel in any particular category nor gets talked about a lot.
#6: Grady Jarrett, Atlanta Falcons
The Falcons have made several financial commitments to their key players, but none bigger than the four years, $68 million contract they gave to Grady Jarrett. For casual NFL fans, that may have seemed like a large amount for a relatively unnoticed player on the trenches, but believe it or not, the 26-year-old will be worth every penny. In what was a rough season for the Falcons defense, Jarrett was marvelous last season, posting a 91 overall grade and rating as a terrific run defender (90) and as a pass rusher (86.7). In fact, ever since a disappointing 2016 season, he’s improved significantly in 2017 (83.6 grade) and 2018. He’s the prototype of the new-age defensive lineman; he’s undersized and only 6’1” and 291 pounds, but uses that to his advantage to gain leverage as both a run defender and a pass rusher. For a Falcons team that doesn’t have much in the way of edge rushers, Jarrett’s ability to create pressure on the interior is extremely important for them; he’s emerging quickly as one of the top players at this position.
#5: Geno Atkins, Cincinnati Bengals
What? Geno Atkins is only #5? Before I analyze Atkins’ numbers, let’s acknowledge one important fact: he’s still an elite interior defensive lineman who can wreck havoc for opposing offenses. However, as a result of new, younger players at the position emerging and some slight regression last season, Atkins falls to #5 on this list. The 31-year-old had been an elite player from 2015 to 2017, but regressed to an 83.5 grade and 72.6 run defense grade. Yes, he remains strong as a pass rusher (85.1 grade), but you still have an obligation to defend the run as a defensive lineman; Atkins’ regression in that department may have been a reason for the Bengals’ defensive issues last season. Due to that, he falls behind younger, more balanced interior defensive lineman.
#4: Kenny Clark, Green Bay Packers
There’s a common stereotype with the Packers; Aaron Rodgers has been labeled as the savior of this team, while common fans often claim that the team possesses no defensive talent. Though, quietly, Green Bay has one of the best interior defensive linemen in the NFL. After a promising rookie season (74.8 overall grade), Kenny Clark took significant strides in his second season, especially in run defense (89.1 run defense grade). However, it was his third season (last year) that really was eye-popping. Clark posted a terrific 90.5 overall grade and slightly improved as a run defender (90.2 grade). The biggest improvement, though, was with his pass-rushing abilities; his pass-rushing grade jumped all the way from 69.6 to 88.8. Now, Clark is one of the most balanced interior defensive linemen in the league; very few players are able to post near 90 grades in the two main areas of a player at the position. The Packers may still have Rodgers, and several new impact players, but Clark may actually be the best player on the team, and his ascension may just be beginning; he’s only 23-years-old.
#3: Chris Jones, Kansas City Chiefs
John Dorsey may be having a lot of success in the draft as general manager of the Browns, but before he was in Cleveland, he was adding impact talent as the general manager of the Chiefs. One of his top picks in Kansas City was in the second round in the 2016 draft, where he landed Chris Jones There were some concerns regarding Jones’ effort level, but his talent was undeniable, and he’s proven to be an elite player in the NFL. The 25-year-old performed well in his rookie season with a 72.6 grade, but in 2017, he improved to an 89.7 grade, and this season, that grade got even better (91). He won’t ever be a great run defender, though his 75.8 run defense grade is solid, but his value is much more significant; his 91.5 pass-rushing grade last season was amazing. For what is an awful Chiefs defense, Jones remains a bright spot, and one could only imagine what the defense would look like without having one of the league’s best interior pass rushers. Now, it’s time for the Chiefs to pay up; he held out earlier this offseason in hopes of a new contract.
#2: Fletcher Cox, Philadelphia Eagles
In actuality, there are two players at this position that are franchise-changing players; they themselves can determine the outcome of a game based on their dominance. Fletcher Cox is one of those two players; he’s had an overall grade above 90 in three of his last four seasons, and at least an 80.8 grade in every season since 2012. The 28-year-old is making over $17 million a year on a contract that’ll pay him over $100 million when it’s over. Yet, an argument can be made that he’s underpaid. Only one player can make the claim that they’re a better interior pass rusher than Cox, who has an 89 or better pass-rushing grade in three of the last four seasons. Unlike players like Atkins and Jones, Cox is also a strong run defender; he had a career-high 86.4 run defense grade last season. Even more impressive, his performance was rather stable weak to weak, and if not for suffering an injury in the divisional round, he was on his way to winning that game against the Saints on his own by completely disrupting Drew Brees. Because of the top player on this list, it often feels like Cox is an underappreciated player, but in reality, he’s probably a top-five player in this league, and for sure top-ten.
#1: Aaron Donald, Los Angeles Rams
Speaking of highest-paid interior defensive lineman, no one comes close to a $135 million contract Aaron Donald signed last offseason, which will pay him $22.5 million annually. That’s for the best; no one comes close to matching Donald’s dominance. The 28-year-old has had at least a 90.2 grade in each of his five seasons in the NFL, including four straight seasons of at least a 93 pass-rushing grade. Despite some criticism as a run defender, Donald’s also exceptional in that category, as he had a 93 run defense grade last season. For opposing players hoping Donald’s drive would go away after signing him mega-contract? He posted a career-high 95 overall defense grade last season, which is simply astonishing. There’s no questioning Donald’s greatness; not only is he the best player at his position, but since his consistency and sensational production cannot be matched, he’s easily the best player in the entire NFL.