We don’t often think about the best defensive tackles in the NFL, at least to the extent we do with quarterbacks, wide receivers, cornerbacks, and pass rushers. However, the middle of the field is becoming more crucial by the week, and getting consistent interior pressure affects QBs more than anything else.
The top of the list is filled with interior defenders who rush the passer well and defend the run at a high level.
Who’s the Best Defensive Tackle in the NFL?
Aaron Donald is the best defensive tackle in the NFL. Nobody in the world should be surprised by who sits at the throne. And until he completely falls off a cliff, he will hold the crown.
While his sack numbers have dropped this season, he still ranks in the top 10 in pressures and stops. Donald is a freak athlete with unbelievable strength packed into a small frame (relative to other defensive tackles).
Donald makes a good argument for being the best interior defender ever, and if he isn’t still in his prime, he’s still close to it. And in February, he was a huge reason the Rams beat Cincinnati in the Super Bowl.
Donald’s list of career achievements reads like a CVS receipt. And even while the Rams are floundering in a Super Bowl hangover, he’s remained steady. He has five sacks, 40 pressures, and 33 stops.
Rest of Top 10 Defensive Tackles Ranked
The younger generation has surged in 2022, with four of the top 10 still on the rookie deals. However, the old guard remains, and the battle for the top is closing as Donald flirts with retirement.
2) Chris Jones, Kansas City Chiefs
No defensive tackle in the NFL is having a more productive season overall than Chris Jones. There is an interior defender who has been more productive on a per-snap basis, which we’ll get to later. But Jones has been a top-three defensive tackle for half a decade now, and he’s arguably having his best season as a pro in 2022.
He leads the league with 54 pressures and is tied with Quinnen Williams in sacks with 11. What sets Jones apart is the lack of help he receives from the rest of his defensive roster, which ranks 25th in DVOA. While Jones is still playing up and down the defensive line for Steve Spagnuolo, he’s playing the bulk of his snaps as a three-technique, where he’s most productive.
3) Jeffery Simmons, Tennessee Titans
Jeffery Simmons isn’t having as productive of a season as the next two players on the list, but he’s not far off their pace, and his year-over-year consistency keeps him inside the top three.
Simmons plays with tremendous power and explosiveness. He has the anchor of a one-technique against the run but can still pin his ears back and rush the passer as one of the best interior rushers in the game. The Titans’ secondary has let down their defensive performance overall, but he’s kept up a torrent pace nonetheless.
4) Quinnen Williams, New York Jets
It took Quinnen Williams time before he became the steady producer we anticipated. As the best prospect from his draft class (including Simmons), we expected him to already be at this level.
Still, here we are. Williams holds a tie for the lead league in sacks from the interior with Jones but on 142 fewer pass-rushing snaps. But he’s not simply a sack machine, either. His 45 pressures tie him for fifth in the league, and his pressure rate is incredible.
Just like in college, he’s proved a sturdy run defender as well. The Jets’ defense has been outstanding in 2022, and Williams’ presence in the middle has been a huge reason. His 29 stops rank ninth in the league.
5) Dexter Lawrence, New York Giants
When Dexter Lawrence left Clemson, he was a technically underdeveloped monster of a man with the athleticism of a much smaller man. Over the past few seasons, he has continuously improved his craft. Additionally, Wink Martindale’s attacking style has completely unlocked Lawrence’s potential.
The… giant… is second in overall pressures and 10th in defensive stops. But it’s his ability to command the A gap that is so impressive. Most interior rushers do their work over the B gap. But Lawrence plays a majority of his snaps between center and guard. In fact, his 475 snaps there are 174 more than the next-closest player.
6) Cameron Heyward, Pittsburgh Steelers
Death, taxes, and Cam Heyward being near the top of every major statistical category for interior defenders in the NFL. He’s 10th in pressures and eighth in stops so far this season. That is, except for batted passes, which he’s usually quite adept at.
What’s most impressive about Heyward is that he isn’t the athletic marvel the others on the list are. He’s carved out a career by being arguably the most technically sound defensive tackle in the league. His hands are powerful and precise, and he plays with outstanding tenacity.
7) DeForest Buckner, Indianapolis Colts
DeForest Buckner is unique. No defensive tackle is built like Buckner, who stands at a somewhat lanky 6-foot-7, 295 pounds. There may be more well-rounded defensive tackles in the NFL today, but none have a more dominant go-to move than Buckner’s arm-over or “swim” technique.
His build and slippery stature make him a tough target to nail down for blockers who aren’t used to defending such a player. His 33 pressures are tied for 14th in the league, and his 34 stops were tied for fourth through 13 weeks. With his frame and relative lack of density, it’s amazing that he is such a dominant run defender.
8) Jonathan Allen, Washington Commanders
Speaking of go-to moves, Jonathan Allen is right up there with Buckner. His ability to cross a blocker’s face off the snap and cross-chop to get through their shoulder is as aesthetically pleasing as a pass rush comes. But he’s not just a fitness rusher. Allen also deploys the “run through your face” tactic to produce pressure. His ability to generate speed to power gives him a three-way go attacking QBs.
It should come as no surprise that he’s currently third in pressures this season after finishing fourth last season. Nonetheless, he’s also been a more consistent run defender this season. He’s second in stops, but making a splash has never been an issue for him. In 2022, he and the entire Washington defensive front is playing more assignment-sound football compared to a season ago.
9) Kenny Clark, Green Bay Packers
Kenny Clark has dropped a few spots from where we last found him on this list, but it has nothing to do with a drop in his performance. The young guns have surpassed the veteran, playing some of the most dominant football in the league.
Clark has struggled to produce since Rashan Gary’s injury. He’s the only legitimate rushing option on the defensive front, and De’Vondre Campbell’s absence hasn’t helped highlight Clark’s strengths as a run defender or taken any of the pressure off the veteran interior defender.
But his club-and-rip is still a thing of beauty.
10) Christian Wilkins, Miami Dolphins
Christian Wilkins is the class clown. He’s a “Mic’d-Up” legend with a mean split and one of the best personalities in the game. He also is one of the most ferocious competitors in the league. And in 2022, the hard work is paying off. He leads the league with 43 defensive stops, but his ridiculous effort in making tackles well outside his area of operation is remarkable.
He’s come into his own recently, giving us one of the best individual performances of the season against the Chargers and 49ers in consecutive weeks. He possesses great lateral quickness, but his flexibility gives him an even greater advantage when anchoring against blockers.
Defensive Tackle Rankings | 11-32
11) Vita Vea, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
12) DJ Reader, Cincinnati Bengals
13) Grady Jarrett, Atlanta Falcons
14) Javon Hargrave, Philadelphia Eagles
15) Grover Stewart, Indianapolis Colts
16) Leonard Williams, New York Giants
17) David Onyemata, New Orleans Saints
18) Ed Oliver, Buffalo Bills
19) Dalvin Tomlinson, Minnesota Vikings
20) Derrick Brown, Carolina Panthers
21) Daron Payne, Washington Commanders
22) Al Woods, Seattle Seahawks
23) D.J. Jones, Denver Broncos
24) Harrison Phillips, Minnesota Vikings
25) Calais Campbell, Baltimore Ravens
26) Poona Ford, Seattle Seahawks
27) Dre’Mont Jones, Denver Broncos
28) Christian Barmore, New England Patriots
29) B.J. Hill, Cincinnati Bengals
30) Folorunso Fatukasi, Jacksonville Jaguars
31) DaQuan Jones, Los Angeles Rams
32) Jordan Davis, Philadelphia Eagles