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Ranking top 20 interior defensive lineman for 2024 NFL season: There’s a new No. 1 after Aaron Donald retires

It’s a new day in the NFL when it comes to the defensive line. For years, whenever we’d go through the exercise of ranking the top defensive linemen in the league, the No. 1 spot was simple: Aaron Donald. Little thought was needed to put the Los Angeles Rams superstar into the top slot in these rankings because the three-time Defensive Player of the Year was/is widely regarded as one of the best defensive players ever. But his time has now come to a close. 

With Donald announcing his retirement back in March, it ushers in a new era for the position group and a new figure atop these rankings. Let’s get to it. 

Oliver’s draft billing as a top 10 pick in 2019 has clouded that the 29-year-old has been a quality piece along Buffalo’s defensive line, albeit not instantly reaching the heights that his selection typically warrants. That said, Oliver is coming off his best season as a pro from a pass-rushing standpoint, tallying a career-high 9.5 sacks in 16 games played. Oliver also had 72 quarterback pressures throughout the season (including Buffalo’s two playoff games), according to Pro Football Focus. 

With the Falcons expected to be a more competitive outfit in 2024 thanks to the arrival of Kirk Cousins and an improved offense, I think Onyemata could start to put himself on the map on a more national level. The ninth-year pro has been a consistent disruptor along the interior throughout his career, including a four-sack campaign in his first season with Atlanta last year. He’s also had seven straight seasons with at least 30 pressures, per PFF.  

Vea is a rare blend of a defensive tackle that is both a plus pass rusher and run stopper. The Bucs star had a career-high 43 tackles in 2023 to go along with 5.5 sacks. Over the past two seasons, the 29-year-old has totaled 12 sacks and 22 quarterback hits, impressive numbers coming from the interior.

For fans of Williams, there should be an outright giddiness to see how the versatile defensive tackle meshes within Mike Macdonald’s defense this season. The former Ravens defensive coordinator turned Seahawks head coach should only enhance Williams’ ability to contribute and rival for a career year even as he enters his age 30 season. Between the Giants and Seahawks last season, the former No. 6 overall pick registered 5.5 sacks and 16 quarterback hits. 

Somewhat lost in the shuffle of Puka Nacua setting the league on fire for Los Angeles last season was the stellar performance that Turner put together as a rookie on the defensive side of the ball. The Wake Forest product was stout both against the run and posted nine sacks as a rookie. Of course, Turner’s job was likely made easier thanks to opposing offensive lines putting the majority of their manpower into stopping Aaron Donald, but impressive nonetheless. With Donald retired, it will be interesting to see how Turner fares with being a main focal point of opposing offenses, but the talent is there for him to climb up these rankings as the years go on. 

Allen’s production slipped slightly from his back-to-back Pro Bowl campaigns in 2021 and 2022, but he was still among the best in the league at his position. He posted 5.5 sacks while his 19 quarterback hits were the second-most of his career. When Allen is firing on all cylinders, the 6-foot-3, 300-pounder is one of the most feared pass rushers from the interior in the league. 

Reader wrapped up a four-year tenure with the Cincinnati Bengals this offseason after inking a deal to join the Lions in free agency. Detroit was already pretty stout against the run last season and should only improve with Reader now joining the unit. On top of his prowess stuffing the run, he can apply some pressure onto the quarterback and had 10 pressures during his final year with the Bengals in 2023.

McNeil is an underrated piece in what has been a fantastic run that the Lions have enjoyed in the NFL Draft in recent seasons. The former third-round pick in 2021 has blossomed into a key figure along Detroit’s defensive line and is coming off his best season as a pass rusher despite being limited to 13 games. In that time, he tallied a career-best five sacks and 10 quarterback hits. In the playoffs, he added another sack and three more QB hits. He’s strong both against the run and rushing the passer and should form a great duo with Reader on the interior. 

Carter was a menace out of the gate for Philadelphia and further solidified himself as a steal in the 2023 NFL Draft despite still being the No. 9 pick. In his first five games, he totaled 3.5 sacks and four quarterback hits while forcing two fumbles. Similar to his entire Eagles team, however, Carter did struggle down the stretch and wasn’t as dominant as we saw at the beginning of the year, showing that there is still plenty of room for him to grow. It wouldn’t be shocking at all to see Carter put together a sophomore season that warrants being in the conversation of a top-five player at his position a year from now.

From a talent standpoint, Simmons is top five in the league. Even after seeing him post two second-team All-Pro seasons throughout his career, there’s room for him to grow into an even more productive and consistent player, which is frankly a scary thought. Simmons was limited to 12 games last season before landing on IR due to a knee injury. Even with that limited showing, he piled up 5.5 sacks and 11 quarterback hits. If he bounces back with a fully healthy 2024 season, he should have plenty of running room to move up. 

Hargrave signed a mammoth deal with the Niners last offseason and lived up to the payday in his first season in the Bay Area. The 31-year-old put together a Pro Bowl season during which he totaled seven sacks and 14 quarterback hits on a San Francisco team that won the NFC and reached Super Bowl LVIII. Where Hargrave makes his money is attacking the quarterback, as he’s had at least seven sacks in each of his previous three seasons.  

Barmore is one of the ascending talents at the position and may fall under the radar simply due to New England not projected to be a competitive team in 2024. Still, the club paid its former second-round pick this offseason by handing him a four-year extension worth $92 million. That made Barmore the highest-paid player in Patriots history not named Tom Brady. The soon-to-be 25-year-old had a breakout season in 2023, totaling 8.5 sacks and 16 quarterback hits and grading out as a plus-play both rushing the passer and stuffing the run. 

The elder statesman of the group, Heyward continues to be among the top players at his position even as he gears up for his age-35 season. His 2023 season was limited to 11 games due to a groin injury he suffered in Week 1, but we’re still keeping him inside the top 10 due to his résumé. When healthy, he’s capable of posting double-digit sacks along the interior, which he did the previous two seasons before 2023. So long as he can remain on the field, he’s one of the league’s best. 

Wilkins cashed in this offseason, signing a four-year, $110 million deal with the Las Vegas Raiders that included $84.75 million guaranteed. That mega-deal put an end to his five-season run with the Dolphins where he developed into a top-tier defensive tackle. Last season, Wilkins was a beast for Miami and routinely popped off the screen. He posted a career-best in both sacks (nine) and quarterback hits (23) in 2023. Having Wilkins on the interior and Maxx Crosby firing off the edge is going to be must-see TV. 

Entering his ninth season in the league, Buckner continues to be among the best all-around interior defenders that the league has. He’s within the upper echelon of players who excel both as a pass rusher and run stopper and is coming off yet another Pro Bowl campaign in 2023. Last year, his 81 tackles were a career-best, while Buckner also registered his second-consecutive season with at least eight sacks, 11 tackles for a loss, and 21 quarterback hits. 

Madubuike is another defensive tackle who got paid this offseason as the Ravens were able to keep him in-house with a massive extension. After initially being hit with the franchise tag, the 26-year-old agreed to a four-year, $98 million extension to remain as a key fixture to Baltimore’s defense for the foreseeable future. This deal comes after a sensational breakout season for the ascending fifth-year pro. He was a second-team All-Pro and a first-time Pro Bowler after posting 13 sacks, 33 quarterback hits, and 56 tackles (all career-highs). According to Pro Football Focus, Madubuike’s 77 total pressures last season (including playoffs) ranked third only behind Aaron Donald and Chris Jones. And there’s no reason to expect him to slow down anytime soon. 

Similar to what we said about Barmore above, I think Brown gets somewhat overlooked because he’s been playing on a bad team, but he’s a stud on the interior and an anchor for the Panthers defense, especially following the trade of Brian Burns this offseason. While other defensive tackles on this list will be lauded for their pass-rushing ability, Brown’s bread-and-butter is his ability to stop the run. The 26-year-old is coming off his first Pro Bowl season in 2023 where he posted a career-high 103 tackles. While not as dominant of a pass rusher, Brown holds his own and had 15 quarterback hits last year to go along with two sacks. 

Williams has been a stud essentially since he first arrived in the NFL, but has truly come into his own over the last couple of seasons as one of the NFL’s top overall defensive players. He really popped in 2022 where he had 12 sacks and was a first-team All-Pro selection, but he’s continued that ascent with his second-consecutive Pro Bowl season in 2023. In 17 games, he had five sacks and 20 quarterback hits. His 122 pressures over the last two seasons are also third-best at his position. Simply put, the 6-foot-3, 303-pounder is an absolute force. 

One of the things I’m personally most excited about for this upcoming season is to watch New York’s defensive line that now features edge rusher Brian Burns and Dexter Lawrence, who is our No. 2 ranked defensive tackle in the league. Lawrence truly is in the center of the action within the Giants defense as primarily a nose tackle and wreaks havoc on opposing offenses. He’s been named second-team All-Pro and to the Pro Bowl in each of the last two seasons. In 16 games played in 2023, he posted 4.5 sacks and 21 quarterback hits and grades as arguably the most productive dual-threat defensive lineman as both a pass rusher and run stopper. 

In a post-Aaron Donald world, the crown lies on Chris Jones’ head. In truth, Jones had rivaled for this top spot long before the Rams star hung up his helmet, but his official coronation can now begin with Donald retired. Jones has been a central figure in Kansas City’s dynasty and is a three-time Super Bowl champion. He’s been a first-team All-Pro in each of the last two seasons and is coming off a 2023 season where he posted 10.5 sacks and 29 quarterback hits. Per PFF, no other interior defender has had a higher pressure rate than Jones. The definition of a superstar defensive tackle. 

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Author: Tyler Sullivan
July 10, 2024 | 9:30 am

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