Of all the NFL’s positions, interior linemen on both sides of the ball might be the most overlooked by fans. They generate virtually no fantasy value, and practically nothing on the regular stat sheet as well. This seems silly since they are working harder than every other player on the field, getting into a wrestling match on 100% of plays. Offensive linemen generally get to help each other out, but defensive linemen are on their own when it comes to their gap responsibilities. Many of these interior defensive players get double teamed, which unsurprisingly leads to a disparity of highlights and gaudy stat lines. However make no mistake about it; many of the best players in the league are on the interior defensive line, and are a big factor in allowing their teammates to make plays by attracting so much attention from the opposition.
Tier 1: JJ Watt
1. Watt: This may seem unfair to some other players, since the rest of the players on this list are really good. However it’s not unfair at all, as Watt is really THAT GOOD. He’s entering his 4th year in the league, and he already might be the greatest interior defensive lineman of all time. That’s not a hyperbole, it’s not a joke, he is that much of a destructive force against both the run and pass. He commands a double team against every single team in the league, and even triple teams often enough! There is not a single defensive player in this league that causes as many headaches for an offensive coordinator as Watt does, and the scary thing is that he is only 25 and could potentially improve. The defense around him in Houston hasn’t even been that good, and now they added the freak DE Jadeveon Clowney? Best of luck to opposing offensive linemen, they will need it as these two players are a lock to become the greatest pass rushing tandem of all time. Clowney will likely have the better stat lines in the years to come, but don’t kid yourself; Watt will be a gigantic factor in Clowney’s success, perhaps even more so than Clowney’s off the charts athleticism. The gap between Watt and the next player at his position is bigger than that of any other #1 player at their position, and I see no reason why that will change any time soon.
Tier 2: Ndamukong Suh, Gerald McCoy, Geno Atkins
2. Suh: When I see this guy play, I feel like I’m watching a freight train going at full speed. Suh’s acceleration off the snap is scary for a man of his size, gaining momentum so quickly that he is incredibly tough to block. In previous years offenses were actually taking advantage of this on running plays, just letting him through the line unblocked at the first level while the running back scampered off in a different direction. While this was still occasionally a problem this year, Suh’s discipline was much improved and he played the run much better than in 2012. Many people hate Suh for his dirty play in previous years, as he was notorious for extracurricular activity after the whistle was blown. I am still disgusted with his attempt to kick Matt Schaub in the groin on Thanksgiving in 2012. That said, he showed some maturity in 2013 with very few dirty plays, while continuing to dominate as a pass rusher. His QB disruption numbers have been consistently great every year in the league, trending upwards from 35, 58, to 62 in 2011-2013. If teammate Nick Fairley can realize his potential, the Lions will have the best interior DL tandem in the league this year.
3. McCoy: Greg Schiano didn’t do much good in Tampa Bay, but he did transform McCoy from a good player into a star. In 2012, McCoy put up a pretty good 53 QB disruptions (sacks + QB hits + QB pressures). In 2013 under Schiano, that number ballooned to 80, second only to JJ Watt’s 85 disruptions. What made this performance even more impressive was that the Bucs did not have any other good pass rushers, meaning that McCoy was seeing plenty of double teams and still beating them. He does stand to improve against the run, but is a very positive force there as well. Really, the only complaint to made against him was his increase in penalties; he was flagged 12 times last year after just 3 in 2012. With the addition of DE Michael Johnson, and Adrian Clayborn having a healthy offseason, continued success seems likely under the tutelage of defensive guru Lovie Smith.
4. Atkins: If it wasn’t for an ACL injury that prematurely ended his 2013 season, Atkins would be #2 on this list. In 2012 he led all interior DL with 76 QB disruptions, even besting Watt who was second with 75. No one else was close at all, with Suh coming a distant third at 58. This past year he was maintaining a similar pace, recording 34 disruptions through 8 games before the Bengals decided to shut him down for the season. When healthy, Atkins is easily a more complete player than either of McCoy or Suh, boasting similar pass rush skills while dominating against the run as well. It remains to be seen how far his injury will set him back this year, but I cannot drop him further than this when he was clearly the best interior DL behind JJ Watt last year.
Tier 3: Kyle Williams, Muhammad Wilkerson, Calais Campbell, Jurrell Casey
This is the tier of linemen who are great two way players, but aren’t exactly wreaking havoc entirely by themselves. While the players in tier 1-2 can carry the performance of a defensive line on their own, the guys here in tier 3 can be managed by most double teams and single teams from some of the leagues better offensive linemen. I’m not trying to take anything away from them; they are great players who demand attention on every play. That said, they do not match the physical freakishness of the above tiers and thus there is a limitation to how much damage they can cause on any given play. All four players are great pass rushers (recording at least 52 QB disruptions in 2013) and stout against the run, but when their effective teammates leave the field, they can occasionally disappear from the game. Kyle Williams is definitely the best of this group, as he is the only guy who can rotate seamlessly between 3-4 DE and nose tackle; the rest of these guys are at their best when relegated to one gapping responsibilities. While it would surprise me somewhat, it is definitely possible that Wilkerson or Casey could improve enough to leap into the next tier. They will both turn just 24 years old this year, and have not reached their ceilings yet.
Tier 4: Dontari Poe, Sheldon Richardson
This was the toughest part of the ranking to complete, as there are a handful of veteran DT’s that have compelling arguments. I chose Poe and Richardson because these two youngsters have enormous potential and are very likely to become star players against both the run and pass. While there are other players who are better pass rushers right now, they are likely to slightly regress this next season while Poe and Richardson should see an uptick in performance. Poe in particular is an exciting player who has the best chance of anyone in tiers 3-4 to jump up to tier 2; he has great size at 6’3” 346 lbs while matching the athleticism of guys like Richardson who weigh a good 40-50 lbs less. Richardson isn’t as large at around 300 lbs, but his quickness and burst off the snap will make him a scary one gapper in the years to come.
Star Lotulelei – if it wasn’t for the fact that I value pass rushing skills more highly, Star would have made this top 10. He already demands double teams on rushing downs, and has shown capability to rush the passer. I could easily see him improving to the level of Kyle Williams within the next two years.