The Gents Top 10: Interior Defensive Line
Well it’s been a while, but sometimes life gets in the way, I can only apologise for how long this has taken…. anyway, on with the show!
Next on the top 10 list, we take a look at the Interior Defensive linemen and for once there’s minimal argument with who plays where. As a reminder, we’ve compiled this list, by getting the gents and the gents contributors to put together their own top 10 and then combining them. We’d love to discuss this with you guys, so hit us up on twitter here. Any way there’s a ton of honourable mentions so lets get to it.
DJ Reader: DJ Reader is an excellent player that the Gents had as one of the most underrated free agent pickups in the Off Season. Reader heads to the Bengals to become the highest paid Nose Tackle in the league and immediately improves their defensive line to being close to the status of a few years ago. If you want to know how good Reader is, take a look at all the articles written by Houston beat writers about “how they’ll move on” from him. One of the most underrated IDLs in the league and probably deserves to make the list.
Jonathan Allen: The argument for Jonathan Allen goes further than his own ability, which in itself is pretty solid, but to how his surrounding talent and a change in formation will push him to potentially breakout in 2020. However it is fair to say that currently he’s not quite lived up to expectation. I don’t think there is any doubt that the Washington Defensive Line should be a force to reckon with this year however, with Jonathan Allen being a key piece.
Geno Atkins: Is there a more consistently underrated IDL than Geno Atkins? Well another year goes on and now he’s not even made our top 10 (along with Reader). Geno Atkins could make us here in the Gents clubhouse make a little silly, after what could very well be a lone season that didn’t quite live up to expectations. Anyway add Reader into the Bengals defensive front and you’ve got one of the best pairings in the league. If it is actually the case that Atkins actually has lost a step, I have to think he’d still walk into most starting lineups in the league.
Stephon Tuitt: Tuitt missed most of the season (along with most of the Steelers defence) with a pectoral injury last year, but was on schedule to have an outstanding season with his running mate Cameron Heyward. The return of Stephon Tuitt to the starting lineup should be a big boost for the Steelers in 2020.
Shelby Harris, Mike Purcell and Jurrell Casey: The “Vic Fangio effect” is pretty real with any team he’s gone to, however the talent on display for the Broncos would make any coach look good. Harris and Purcell were both surplus to requirements from their previous team, but have found true form with Denver. Jurrell Casey has consistently made our top 10 lists and only just misses out this season. After the slow start that the Broncos defence got off to last year, look to see any or all of these guys potentially move up the list next year. Very much underrated defensive front in Denver at the moment.
Ndamukong Suh: Suh has always been the nearly guy and in terms of our top 10 he has been a regular visitor, but never the guy at the top. However despite Suh losing a step in the passing game, his ability in the run game still make him a force. I think Suh’s true value is now though as the other guy. Aaron Donald had his best statistical season lining up next to Suh and last year both Vita Vea and Shaquil Barrett benefitted greatly from having Suh in the middle. Suh still has value, he’s just not the player you build a defence around.
Sheldon Richardson: Richardson had a relatively good season last year with the Browns and looks set to be a centrepiece DT on a defensive line with a ton of rotational value. The biggest threat to Richardson’s season is probably the addition of Jordan Elliott, who could prove to be a value pick up in the 3rd round this year. This could mean the Browns (who are in fact rumoured to be doing so), could put Richardson up as part of a trade. Equally, Richardson could make more of an impact in his second season and push himself into the top 10.
Kawann Short: Short is a bit of a forgotten man heading in to 2020. In 2018 he was a first team all-pro. In 2019 he only played 2 games thanks to a torn rotator cuff. So with a history of solid play, a new defensive coordinator and the addition of Derrick Brown, you have to think the odds are at least in his favour. The pessimists however might suggest that these variables might cause problems. Regardless, I expect Short might be back in the top 10 next year.
The Top 10
10) Akiem Hicks
Let’s kick this list off with my favourite player in the league. It would be an oversimplification to say that the Bears problems on defence last year came down to a lack of Akiem Hicks, but they were a lot better with him on the field. Hicks missed most of last season, but in 2018 he was dominant, so the Bears will be hoping they can get a legitimate interior pass rusher back to playing his best. Where a lot of these interior defensive linemen cut their teeth, is their ability to allow the other guys to perform with little distraction. Khalil Mack simply wasn’t as productive without Hicks in the lineup, which unsurprising really. Hicks and Mack combine to form one of the best defensive pairings in the league.
9) Kenny Clark
Kenny Clark somehow didn’t make the top 100 this year, which to me is a bit of a headscratcher. It feels like Clark has been the unsung hero in the middle of the Packers defensive improvements. Clark was ranked no. 2 on defence for players that took significant snaps. The problem Green Bay have though, is that he is the lone star of the Packers defensive interior. This was highlighted in the Championship game, where the Niners schemed the game away from him, relying on deficiencies at the second level. Clark doesn’t come close to getting the credit deserved in the pass rush compared to the Smiths, but finished the season with 58 hurries and 9 sacks. They just need to give him some help.
8) Calais Campbell
Speaking of a lack of credit, the void that Calais Campbell leaves at the Jags is notable. Our appreciation for Campbell starts with his ability to play in a variety of roles. Campbell for the Jags lined up at 3-4 DE, 4-3 DE, DT, NT and as a LEO in an interior pass rush role. What makes Campbell stand out amongst other versatile linemen, is that he has been excellent across the board. This year PFF ranked him as their no. 1 Run defender (yes ahead of that guy) and yet he finished with 6 sacks and 46 hurries. Campbell is, even at 33 a staggeringly good defensive lineman, that combines size, power and agility. Having him on the field covers the role of 3 players and is the key to so called “position-less football”. I know he’s getting older but I think the Ravens just got a lot better on defence.
7) Vita Vea
There is a link between Calais Campbell and our no. 7 player, in the form of defensive coordinator Todd Bowles. Well in Tampa Bay the combination of Vea and Suh has been the centre piece of one of the better defensive lines in the league. Vea was instrumental in stopping the run for Tampa Bay, allowing the least yards and yards per carry, it is his ability to push the line and himself get pressure that make him one of the 10 best interior defensive linemen to us. Vita Vea isn’t Calais Campbell, but a player with the talents of the Bucs nose tackle, allow Todd Bowles to put more players on the field in other areas, which is his speciality. Expect big things from Vea this year.
6) Deforest Buckner
This is an interesting one. Deforest Buckner leaves one of the best Defensive Lines in the league to go to a team where he’ll most likely be the best player on the line. Buckner comes with some impressive stats, but that probably doesn’t tell the whole story. On the Niners, Buckner would line up at 3-technique, in a 4 man defensive front, meaning the defensive end can line up super wide. For the Colts he’ll most likely be asked to do something similar, with the benefit being freeing up the linebackers to make plays, playing up to the Colts strengths. That being said, the Colts do have a potential edge rusher problem, regardless, Buckner stands a pretty good chance of being the standout player.
5) Grady Jarrett
Grady Jarrett’s giant shoulders have been carrying the Falcons defensive line for a couple of years and he deserves some serious credit for. The Falcons defence… actually the Falcons, in general rely on Grady Jarrett’s talent as much as any team in the league rely on a single non-qb player. Whereas a lot of the players on this list we talk about how having a solid interior defensive lineman allows surrounding talent to do what it does best, it simply isn’t the case with Grady Jarrett. The Falcons have, this season attempted to improve their defensive line by adding Dante Fowler, Charles Harris and Marlon Davidson in the draft. Whilst this is an almost entirely different line, there is a feeling that this is simply moving the deckchairs on the titanic. Regardless, Jarrett will most likely still be excellent.
4) Cameron Heyward
Whilst there are players that will draw the headlines on a loaded Steelers defence, Cameron Heyward who doesn’t necessarily draw the attention of TJ Watt or Minkah Fitzpatrick might get the mentions, the defence works around an ability to stop the run and get pressure in the middle of the defensive line. Heyward is high up on this list because he ticks the boxes as a modern day interior pass rusher, which forces attention that could be used to try and stop TJ Watt, also allowing Devin Bush to just martial the middle of the field and drop into coverage. The Steelers have an exceptional defence and could be in for a very good year.
3) Chris Jones
The Chiefs did the right thing and locked up Chris Jones to a massive contract. Whilst Patrick Mahomes will be the centrepiece out and out star on this team, Chris Jones has been a monster on the defence that has lived in oppositions backfields. Starting only 13 games last year, Jones still managed to rack up 9 Sacks. Chris Jones has covered up a multitude of weaknesses on the Chiefs, helping the likes of Frank Clark settle in to become a solid defensive lineman. I don’t think its an exaggeration to say that Chris Jones is the second most important Kansas City Chief.
2) Fletcher Cox
A couple of weeks ago Jim Schwartz said that they were going to try and put 3 defensive tackles on the field at a time, in a similar way to a couple of years ago where they did the same with defensive ends. This says to me that Jim Schwartz A) He might understand the modern game and B) Understand what having talent like Fletcher Cox can do. I can only assume they’re aware of a weakness at linebacker, so they’ll be trying to stop the run at the line of scrimmage, whilst understanding that having someone like Darius Slay, means they can line him up in man and use the secondary to cove a few gaps… although that’s also not particularly deep. Anyway Fletcher Cox’s ability to line up outside and get pressure means he won’t be coming off the field. Fletcher Cox, like nearly every player on this list continues to be vastly underrated.
1) Aaron Donald
This will be short. He’s the best player in the league and I don’t think it’s close. I think he might be one of, if not the best pass rusher in the league as well as being the nailed on no.1 run defender. Line him up anywhere and he’ll be effective, combining speed and power. That’s it… it’s that simple.
There we go. Top 10 no. 2 done. Sorry it took so long! Next list up a lot sooner. Check out the contributors on twitter: Dan (@mcgloogly), James (@jamesru1), Simon (@headedforhades), Duncan (@cpt_liceboy), Tim (@forresttimbo), Will (@wclaringbold), Allan (@aldoW83) and Paul (@Edgepaul)