Welcome back to the NFL PRR! In this series, leading up to the 2021 NFL Draft, I will be ranking the top 12 players at each position for the previous season. This is not where I believe they will rank at the end of 2021, just where they stand now. Because of this, incoming rookies will be exempt from the "Following the 2020 Season" blogs. After the draft, leading up to the 2021 NFL season, I will be ranking where I believe each player will rank after the 2021 season, including incoming rookies.
These lists will be controversial, they will raise some eyebrows, but, most importantly, they will open some eyes towards who is actually dominating in the NFL today. Without further ado, here are my top 12 interior defensive linemen for the 2020 season:
12. Shelby Harris
The unsung hero on the Broncos defense kicks off this list. If you haven't heard of Shelby, it's probably because he's doing his job incredibly well. Being more of a run stuffer, he is able to force running backs and quarterbacks to redirect their path into the defensive lanes and pressure. Even with missing 5 games due to COVID, he compiled 32 tackles, 4 TFLs, 2.5 sacks, 11 QB hits, and 17 pressures. Pair this with 7 pass deflections and a forced fumble, and Shelby had a very solid year for a 3 tech. Over a 16 game stretch, he would have generated 25 pressures and 10 pass deflections; both incredible numbers for someone at his position.
11. Jonathan Allen
Jonathan Allen was able to shine along a star-studded defensive line. Allen tallied 63 tackles, 3 TFLs, 2 sacks, 14 QB hits, and 24 pressures. Allen also posted an 83.9 pass rush grade, 7th among interior defensive linemen per PFF. His size and explosiveness allowed him to find himself in the backfield more often than not. He also got a safety this year, which is very impressive coming from an interior line spot. With other great defenders around him like Chase Young, Matt Ioannidis, Da'Ron Payne, and Montez Sweat, Allen will need to keep this production up if he wants to be considered one of the best interior defenders in the NFL.
10. Quinnen Williams
After a rocky rookie year, Quinnen came back with a vengeance in 2020. In 13 games, Quinnen had 55 tackles, 10 TFLs, 7 sacks, 10 QB hits, and 20 pressures. He also batted down 3 passes and forced 2 fumbles. He did a great job clogging run lanes and forcing QBs to throw the ball away. He also had the 12th highest PFF grade (81.4) out of all interior defenders. Quinnen looks to have a big year three in 2021, as the Jets bring in defensive mastermind Robert Saleh.
Photo: The Athletic
9. Jeffery Simmons
Jeffery is another second year defensive tackle that saw drastic improvements from his rookie season. In 15 games, Jeffery got 49 tackles, 3 TFLs, 3 sacks, and 14 QB hits. He also had 21 pressures, 5 pass deflections, 1 forced fumble and 3 fumble recoveries. He was one of the few bright spots in a bad Tennessee defense. Jeffery looks to capitalize on this production next year, as he posted an 83.6 overall PFF grade, ranking 11th among interior defenders.
8. Grady Jarrett
Grady had a down year in 2020 and was still able to find himself on this list. The Falcons star posted 52 tackles, 8 TFLs, 4 sacks, and 21 QB hits. He also recovered a fumble and had 30 pressures. He brings plenty of speed to the defensive tackle spot, and if he gets some help on the edge, could have a career year in 2021. He finished with an 80.2 overall PFF grade, ranking 13th amongst his position.
7. David Onyemata
One of the main reasons the Saints defensive line has transformed over the past three seasons is due to David's play. He had a great season, tallying 44 tackles, 10 TFLs, 6.5 sacks, and 16 QB hits. He also snagged an interception and 2 pass deflections, while pressuring the opposing QB 24 times. Pair these with an overall PFF grade of 88.8, 7th among interior defenders, it's clear to see why David is considered one of the best defensive tackles in the game right now.
Photo: Associated Press
6. Stephon Tuitt
Tuitt had a career year in 2020. In a defense that has names like TJ Watt, Cameron Heyward, and Minkah Fitzpatrick, Stephon is often an afterthought when people think about the Steelers defense. His production tells a different story, however, as he had 45 tackles, 10 TFLs, 11 sacks, and 25 QB hits. He also had 3 pass deflections, 2 forced fumbles, and 36 pressures in 15 games. Although he doesn't rank high on the PFF side of things (75.8 overall grade, 24th among interior defenders), his output is great enough that he nearly makes it into the top 5 for 2020.
5. Leonard Williams
Leonard Williams has had good seasons in the past, but nothing like we saw in 2020. Leonard generated 57 tackles, 14 TFLs, 11.5 sacks, and 30 QB hits. He also had 1 pass deflection, 1 fumble recovery, and 42 pressures. His ability to stuff runs and get after the quarterback were on full display last season. Leonard had the 6th highest run defense grade at his position with an 82.6 per PFF. Leonard got a big pay day during the offseason, and looks to continue his dominance into the 2021 season.
4. Cameron Heyward
Cameron has been a top 3 interior defender for most of his career. He's the soul of the Steelers defense and brings ferocity to every game he plays. In 15 games, he had 54 tackles, 7 TFLs, 4 sacks, and 19 QB hits. He also got an interception, batted down 3 passes, and 31 pressures. So how could I have put him above Leonard? Cameron is an incredible run defender. He had 89.5 and 83 PFF grades overall and in run defense respectively, ranking 6th and 4th in both categories. He also saw about 30 more running snaps in one less game played than Leonard, which could equate to two or three total games depending on what team they're facing when it comes to running the ball. All in all, Cameron's impact won't show up on a stat sheet, but it is still felt on a great level among the Steelers defense.
3. Chris Jones
A massive force in the Kansas City defense, Chris Jones proved why he is still one of the best defensive tackles in the game. In 15 games, Jones tallied 36 tackles, 3 TFLs, 7.5 sacks, and 28 QB hits. He also tallied 4 pass deflections, 2 forced fumbles, a safety, and 44 pressures. He posted 90.3 overall and 92.8 pass rush PFF grades, both ranking 2nd in the league. His production has taken a step back since 2018, but he is still one of the best pass rushers and interior defensive lineman in the league.
2. DeForest Buckner
DeForest needed a culture shift, and got exactly that in Indianapolis. He fit in perfectly to their defense, getting 58 tackles, 10 TFLs, 9.5 sacks, and 26 QB hits. Add in 3 pass deflections, 2 forced fumbles, a safety, and 31 pressures, he dominated in both the pass and the run. Even though his QB hits and pressures are less than Chris Jones, Buckner gets the nod over him due to his production against the run. Although his run defense grade was only a 71.5, this was mostly due to him shooting through gaps instead of staying in his area. This is more so how Indianapolis runs their defense, rather than Buckner being incompetent with his technique. DeForest looks to improve on these numbers in 2021 and make his case for the best defensive tackle in football. If only he didn't have some insane competition to go against...
Photo: USA Today
1. Aaron Donald
Arguably the best defensive linemen in NFL history, Aaron Donald once again proved why he is not only the best defensive linemen in the game, but the best player in the NFL. In one of his best seasons, Donald posted 45 tackles, 14 TFLs, 13.5 sacks, and 28 QB hits. He also tallied 1 pass deflection, 4 forced fumbles, and 45 pressures. These numbers are insane, but even crazier when you consider he was double teamed on 70% of his pass rushes (Lindsey Thiry - ESPN)!!! If you need any additional evidence as to why Aaron Donald deserves the top spot, take a look at his highlights from Week 1 against the Cowboys.
A fun note about Aaron Donald, he has never had a PFF grade below a 90 in any of his 7 seasons in the NFL and only one season, his rookie year, below a 92.5 (90 is an Elite Grade). This was his third season above a 94, and it is well deserving. He locked in his third DPOY award, making him the third player to accomplish this feat. Donald could be in the MVP conversation every single year, but he would need to break the sack record in order to be considered for it. It'll be a sad day when he can't produce the same way he has been throughout his career, so let's enjoy it while it lasts.
Photo: Associated Press
Sources: Pro Football Focus, Pro Football Reference
Some key names that missed the list either due to lack of playing time or total production are Vita Vea, Kenny Clark, Mario Edwards, and Maurice Hurst. All four of these players are studs, but needed either more snaps played or an increase in disruption in order to make the cut.
Join me next time as I cover the top 12 running backs in 2020!