Sticking near the line of scrimmage for another week, it’s time to check out the top 10 DTs in preparation for the 2022 season. These players can often be underrated, particularly when their premier skill is run stuffing. Those DTs are traditional nose tackles; they are critical on 1st and 2nd down, but often leave the field on 3rd down in passing situations. Complete DTs can totally change a game; see the guy ranked #1 for all the necessary proof of that. I am not discriminating between players who excel against the run and those whose skillsets favor rushing the passer, but players who have both are going to be ranked higher. If you’re looking for pass rushers, head over here.
1. Aaron Donald, Rams
I know, I know…not exactly groundbreaking. When you’re the arguably best defensive player at any position though, you’re going to be ranked #1 in every list. There’s probably not much I can say about this guy that you don’t already know. Three-time defensive player of the year. Seven-time first-team All Pro. Eight-time Pro Bowler. Never had less than 8 sacks or 41 tackles in a season. These statements are all true despite the fact that he gets double- or triple-teamed on every play! He creates opportunities for his fellow linemen while still stuffing his own stat sheet. This is the prototype for a modern NFL DT. Every team wants an Aaron Donald.
2. Jeffery Simmons, Titans
Coming out of Mississippi State, we knew Jeffery Simmons was a first-round talent, but he was coming off an ACL tear. That injury cost him half of his rookie season as expected, making 2020 his true rookie year. He showed promise, but 2021 was his time to shine. Simmons was a wrecking ball this past season, compiling 8.5 sacks, 12 tackles for loss, and (somehow) 6 passes defended. There were times when opposing offensive lines appeared helpless; even double teaming him didn’t work. This was even more important due to the Titans’ porous secondary (aside from Kevin Byard). In 2022, Simmons may finally become a well-deserved household name.
3. Cameron Heyward, Steelers
Heyward has been a strong starter for Pittsburgh since 2013. His longevity is impressive, but it also proves that he could play great without the benefit of having TJ Watt by his side. After a bit of a down year in 2020, Heyward bounced back in a big way last season, with his first double-digit sack season since 2017 and adding 89 tackles. His biggest skill without a doubt though is his ability to know when to stop rushing and get his hands in the air. This trait enabled him to bat 9 passes at the line of scrimmage, and he even picked one of them off! A true three-down player, Heyward might be the man the Steelers can least afford to lose.
4. Chris Jones, Chiefs
Jones profiles as more of a pure pass rusher; he doesn’t offer too much in the running game. That said, he does his defined role extremely well, having even received some snaps on the edge in recent seasons. He has tallied at least 7.5 sacks in every season during which he played more than 10 games, with 9 sacks in 2021. He overwhelms smaller guards with his power, but races by the studier ones with his speed. His signature bull rush has devastating effects on opposing quarterbacks, and they have directly led to many interceptions. Jones might be even more dangerous as a rusher this year with the arrival of first-round rookie George Karlaftis to take some pressure off his shoulders.
5. DeForest Buckner, Colts
I’m surprised the 49ers opted to keep Arik Armstead and trade Buckner. Armstead is a good player, and maybe there was some long-term salary cap math that made retaining Buckner cost-prohibitive, but he’s clearly the star DT. He’s a well-rounded player who produces in the run game and against the pass. In his two seasons as a Colt, he has combined for 16.5 sacks, 126 tackles, and 6 passes defended. Buckner also almost never misses a game; he’s missed just 2 since he was drafted in 2016. If you’re on the field often, and you’re playing well when you’re on the field, that makes you a highly valuable asset, and the Colts know this well.
6. Kenny Clark, Packers
I had a tough time ranking Clark. His stats are nothing special, but I know well that his numbers don’t tell the full story of his impact on a football game. Despite only tallying 4 sacks and 48 tackles last season, nobody could ignore the way in which he pushed the pocket each play. He made things much easier for Preston Smith and Rashan Gary on the edge, helping the latter finally deliver on his first-round promise. If Clark were gone, everyone’s numbers would go down across the board, and that might just be the biggest compliment I could pay an interior defensive lineman.
7. Grady Jarrett, Falcons
Jarrett has been toiling on some poor Atlanta defenses, but nobody can accuse him of being part of the problem. I already touched on him on my free agency page, but I’ll discuss his attributes here. Like Kenny Clark ranked above him, the production Jarrett provides doesn’t always appear in the stat sheet. To that point, he had only 1 sack last year, but he played as well as ever, driving interior linemen back toward the quarterback and forcing him to flee the pocket. Jarrett is largely responsible for Foye Oluokun’s league-leading 192 tackles. One place Jarrett did do statistically well was in tackles, where he tied a career high with 48 and demonstrated his run stopping ability. Jarrett proved every bit worthy of his new deal.
8. Vita Vea, Buccaneers
In this slot, we find the stoutest run defender on this list (and quite possibly in the NFL as a whole). At 6’4″ and 347 pounds, Vea takes up a LOT of space, but he’s more than just big; he’s surprisingly quick for a man of his size, and that athleticism has enabled Tampa to vie with the Saints for the top rushing defense in the league. He also possesses some ability in the passing game. After an injury-plagued 2020, Vea bounced back last season with career highs in several categories, including sacks (4), tackles for loss (5) and QB hits (12). Tampa Bay recently extended him for 4 more years, and I don’t think they regret that at all.
9. Jonathan Allen, Commanders
Don’t let his famous sideline spat with fellow Commander DT and former Alabama teammate Daron Payne fool you. He actually set a career high last year with 9 sacks. However, one could argue that Allen’s sack production was horribly unlucky. He racked up 30 QB hits, doubling his previous season high. If he’s able to convert on a few more of his chances, he’ll easily become a double-digit sack guy. To show his completeness as a lineman, Allen added 62 tackles last year, 10 of which went for a loss. If he can build on his 2021 season (except the teammate smacking part), he’s secure his spot as a franchise cornerstone for years to come.
10. Quinnen Williams, Jets
Last but not least, we have a potential 2022 breakout candidate. Full disclosure: I had Williams as my top-ranked player in the 2019 draft. After a somewhat underwhelming rookie season relative to the hype, he seems to have found his footing during the past two seasons. His size (303 pounds) and speed (4.83-second 40) foretold a monster of a player who would wreak havoc on opposing offenses, and that has started to unfold for Williams. He totaled 13 sacks, 108 tackles (17 for loss), 26 QB hits, and 6 passes defended in 2020 and 2021. All of his 2020 numbers were major jumps from 2019. In his second year in defensively-minded Robert Saleh’s system, watch for Williams to explode in 2022.