The last two Super Bowls have shown the impact that a dominant defensive front can have on the NFL’s biggest stage.
Joe Burrow was pressured on 18 of his 42 dropbacks (43%) and sacked seven times in Super Bowl LVI against Aaron Donald, Von Miller and the rest of the Los Angeles Rams’ pass-rush unit. That came just one year after the Tampa Bay Buccaneers swarmed Patrick Mahomes repeatedly in Super Bowl LV, pressuring him on 31 of his 56 dropbacks (55%). Those two groups played a massive part in their team’s success.
The Rams’ and Buccaneers’ defensive fronts have undergone some changes since those performances, but both still profile as elite units entering the 2022 season.
Note: These rankings include 3-4 outside linebackers who fall under the edge defender label.
Tier 1: Elite
The Rams don’t have the same kind of depth — particularly on the edge — as some of the other teams in this tier, but that matters a whole lot less when Aaron Donald is on the roster, as he’s the most reliably elite performer in the NFL.
Donald’s brilliance has been well documented, but his durability is an underrated aspect of his game. He played over 1,200 defensive snaps through the 2021 regular season and the Rams’ postseason run, and his 6,995 regular-season defensive snaps since 2014 are more than any other interior defensive lineman in the NFL. The Rams defense should continue to be able to count on elite play from Donald on nearly every defensive snap, creating opportunities for Leonard Floyd, A’Shawn Robinson, Greg Gaines and Justin Hollins in 2022.
Expectations were sky-high for Washington’s defensive line and defense overall entering last season. And there were few more disappointing performances than Washington’s defense ending the 2021 campaign ranked 27th in yards allowed per play (5.7).
It’s reasonable to bank on some regression in 2021, starting with better health at defensive end, where Chase Young and Montez Sweat combined to miss 15 games in 2021. During the 2020 season, those two ranked seventh and eighth respectively in PFF’s wins above replacement (WAR) metric. And Jonathan Allen might actually be the best player on the defensive line entering 2022. Allen’s 18.5% pass-rush win rate since 2020 ranks fourth among all qualifying interior defensive linemen.
It seems strange to say for a team with a reigning two-time MVP at quarterback, but the Packers could lean on their defense in 2022. Rashan Gary has improved in each of his last two seasons, making the jump to elite pass-rusher in 2021, as his 26.0% pass-rush win rate trailed only Maxx Crosby last season. Gary developing into the player who the Packers drafted him to be in the first round of the 2019 NFL Draft — while playing alongside returners like Kenny Clark and Preston Smith and newcomers Devonte Wyatt and Jarran Reed — makes this a formidable unit entering next season.
Stephon Tuitt‘s retirement hurts this group’s outlook entering 2022 and likely puts Chris Wormley back into a similar role to the one he filled in 2021 (69.3 PFF grade on over 750 defensive snaps). However, Pittsburgh still has a top-three interior defensive lineman and top-three edge defender on the roster, as T.J. Watt and Cameron Heyward both rank among the top-three players at their respective position in quarterback pressures over the last three seasons while also playing the run at a high level.
Alex Highsmith is an X-factor for the unit entering his third season out of Charlotte. Highsmith saw his pass-rushing efficiency decrease in 2021 while doubling his snap count from 459 as a rookie to 910 last season.
The Akiem Hicks addition gives the Buccaneers another wrecking ball on the interior to pair with Vita Vea. Tampa Bay will be relying on Hicks staying healthy and second-year edge rusher Joe Tryon-Shoyinka stepping forward in an increased role, but it still have Vea and Shaquil Barrett to lean on as the cornerstones of its front.
Vea ranks among the top-10 interior defensive linemen in pressure rate (11.3%) since 2018, and he’s been a big part of Tampa Bay’s second-ranked run defense in expected points added per play over the last four seasons. Barrett, meanwhile, ranks first among all edge rushers in quarterback pressures since joining the Buccaneers in 2019 (232).
The 49ers have one of the deeper edge rotations in the league with Samson Ebukam, Drake Jackson, Charles Omenihu, Kerry Hyder and Kemoko Turay all competing for snaps on the edge. Nick Bosa will not be in that competition coming off a 2021 season where he ranked seventh at the position in PFF grade, as he’s one of the best all-around edge defenders in the NFL.
Arik Armstead is expected to move back to a primarily interior role, where he’s been better as a pass rusher than run defender over the last four seasons.
Arik Armstead snaps and PFF grade by alignment since 2018
|Alignment||Snaps||Run-defense Grade||Pass-rush grade|
With Javon Kinlaw yet to establish himself as an above-average starter on the interior, defensive tackle stands out as the one potential weak point of this unit.
Tier 2: Strong with a weak point or two
The Khalil Mack–Joey Bosa pairing on the edge is the best in the NFL if both players can remain healthy. Since 2016, those two rank first and fourth respectively among edge defenders in PFF’s WAR metric. There seems to be a perception that Mack isn’t elite anymore, but he ranked first at the position in PFF grade in his last healthy season in 2020. It’s difficult to imagine that his ability to defend the run wasn’t a driving factor in the Chargers’ desire to trade for him this offseason.
The interior was bolstered by some familiar faces to Brandon Staley — Sebastian Joseph-Day and Morgan Fox — along with Austin Johnson from the New York Giants. It still doesn’t project as one of the best interior defensive lines in the league, but it should be significantly improved compared to last year’s group.
Cameron Jordan is as consistently productive an edge defender as you’ll find, as he defends both the run and pass at a high level while missing very little time in New Orleans over the last decade. Narrowing that focus to just the last five years, Jordan ranks first among edge defenders in snaps played (4,826) and fourth in PFF grade (92.0).
He’s joined on the Saints defensive line by David Onyemata (22nd on PFF’s interior defensive line rankings) and Marcus Davenport, who has produced at a high level when healthy (88.8 PFF grade in 2021). Staying healthy has been the difficult part for Davenport with missed time in each of his first four seasons.
The backbone of Philadelphia’s defensive line for years — a 31-year-old Fletcher Cox and 34-year-old Brandon Graham — is aging. However, the Eagles have done a nice job of continuing to add depth and create a deep rotation this offseason. Philadelphia added Jordan Davis and Haason Reddick this offseason while also bringing back Derek Barnett in free agency.
As he displayed at the combine, Davis is a truly unique athlete for his size who can single-handedly change a run defense with his power and the way he can hold the point of attack on the interior. Reddick, meanwhile, is tied for 15th among edge rushers in quarterback pressures over the last two seasons (99).
10. Tennessee Titans
Jeffery Simmons is beginning to establish himself as one of the best, young interior defensive linemen in the NFL, as his 62 quarterback pressures in 2021 ranked fifth at the position. He’s joined by a couple of nice pieces up front in Denico Autry, Bud Dupree and Harold Landry III. PFF is a little bit lower on both Landry and Dupree than Tennessee is given the size of their recently signed contracts, but both are still productive players who can capitalize on the interior push from Simmons and Autry.
Indianapolis is going to rely on its front four to generate pressure in Gus Bradley’s new scheme, as no defense blitzed less than Bradley’s Chargers when he was defensive coordinator from 2017 to 2020 (16%), and the same was true for the Las Vegas Raiders under Bradley last season (11%).
The Colts have the players up front to get pressure with four rushers, especially after Yannick Ngakoue’s reunion with Bradley in Indianapolis. DeForest Buckner ranks fourth among interior defensive linemen in combined sacks and quarterback hits (45) since joining the Colts in 2020, and 2021 first-round pick Kwity Paye is looking for a breakout second season as the favorite for the LEO role in Bradley’s defense.
Hunter appeared in just seven games in 2021 (torn pectoral muscle) after missing the entire 2020 season with a herniated disc. Smith is also coming off just 37 defensive snaps last season, dealing with a back injury of his own. The downside is that neither is able to come back at full health and remain on the field. The upside, however, is two of the more impactful edge rushers in the NFL threatening offenses on a down-by-down basis. Smith and Hunter ranked first and second in quarterback pressures back in 2019.
Most quarterback pressures during 2019 season
Tier 3: Solid, all-around defensive fronts
13. Buffalo Bills
General manager Brandon Beane and company have continuously poured resources into their defensive line in recent offseasons, and that didn’t change this year. A 33-year-old Von Miller is the star acquisition, fresh off a postseason run where he led all defenders in PFF pass-rushing grade. However, Buffalo also added DaQuan Jones and Tim Settle to its interior defensive line. Settle had a limited role behind two entrenched starters in Washington, but he’s earned PFF pass-rushing grades north of 72.0 in each of the last two seasons.
Cincinnati’s defensive line, like much of its defense, has been shaped by free agency over the last two-to-three offseasons. Trey Hendrickson proved last season that his 2020 breakout with the New Orleans Saints wasn’t a fluke, as his 75 quarterback pressures during the 2021 regular season were a top-five mark among all edge rushers.
D.J. Reader was acquired from the Houston Texans during the previous offseason, but last year was his first full season in Cincinnati after missing time due to injury in 2020. Reader’s impact was felt in the run game, where he ranked in the 92nd percentile among qualifying interior defensive linemen in PFF run-defense grade last season.
15. Miami Dolphins
The Dolphins’ blitz-heavy approach — made possible by talent in the secondary such as Xavien Howard, Byron Jones and Jevon Holland — allows them to generate pressure via scheme rather than individual pass-rushing talent. Miami does have an interesting group to send at quarterbacks off the edge (Emmanuel Ogbah, Melvin Ingram III, Jaelan Phillips and Andrew Van Ginkel), but its strength lies in the interior duo of Christian Wilkins and Zach Sieler, both of whom performed at a high level in 2021, earning PFF grades above 80.0 last season.
16. New York Jets
The Jets’ defensive line was hamstrung last year by a preseason Carl Lawson‘s injury and Quinnen Williams failing to build on a strong 2020 campaign. It still stands out as a group with potential entering the 2022 season, though.
Lawson’s return from injury is accompanied by the addition of first-round pick Jermaine Johnson II and free-agent acquisition Jacob Martin to the edge defender rotation. Martin earned an above-average pass-rushing grade in “true” pass-rush situations in an expanded role last season for Houston, and Johnson is an edge setter who wins with his length and leverage in the run game.
17. Denver Broncos
The Broncos did some work to bolster their defensive front entering the 2022 season, but it remains to be seen how Randy Gregory, D.J. Jones and Nik Bonitto fit in with Bradley Chubb and Dre’Mont Jones.
Gregory has played over 500 defensive snaps just once in his NFL career (2018), but he’s been an effective pass-rusher for Dallas when on the field over the last two seasons, as his 15% pressure rate since 2020 is a top-10 mark among edge rushers with at least 250 pass-rushing snaps. Bonitto will likely be limited to a designated pass-rusher role early on, but he also stood out as one of the more efficient pass-rushers on a per-snap basis at the college level.
18. Baltimore Ravens
Baltimore added some size on the interior with Michael Pierce‘s return in free agency in addition to drafting Travis Jones out of UConn. Both should help bolster their run defense alongside Calais Campbell and Justin Madubuike.
This group's ceiling hinges on second-year edge defender Odafe Oweh‘s improvement. Oweh had a solid rookie season against both the run and pass, ending the year with a 67.9 PFF grade. He enters the 2022 season as the Ravens’ top option off the edge and will be relied upon to generate pressure on a defense lacking high-end pass-rushing options.
Tier 4: Great edge duo, weak interior
Maxx Crosby made his push for the NFL’s elite edge rusher tier with a breakout third season out of Eastern Michigan in 2021. His 91.9 PFF pass-rushing grade last season trailed only Myles Garrett at the position, and no defender recorded more quarterback pressures than Crosby did over the course of the regular season. He’ll be joined next season by one of the premier sack artists in the league over the past decade — Chandler Jones.
The only thing holding the Raiders down in these rankings is one of the weaker interior defensive lines in the NFL. Bilal Nichols is the defensive tackle on the Raiders roster with the highest 2021 PFF grade at just 61.3 overall.
20. Cleveland Browns
The Browns are in a similar boat to Las Vegas. Myles Garrett has firmly established himself as one of the NFL’s most dangerous pass-rushers, earning PFF pass-rushing grades above 90.0 in each of the last three seasons. The Jadeveon Clowney re-signing was a necessary move for the Browns, both for the disruption he causes in the passing game and his ability to defend the run at a high level.
Cleveland will be lucky to sniff close to the same level of play on their interior, as its defensive tackles collectively earned the fifth-lowest grade of any group in the league last season. The Browns did add Perrion Winfrey in the draft, but he doesn’t profile as the interior run stuffer that this roster needs.
21. Dallas Cowboys
The Cowboys’ ranking depends on how you classify Micah Parsons, as he’ll likely split his time between off-ball and edge alignments again in 2022, just as he did during his rookie season. On snaps where Parsons is lined up on the edge opposite Demarcus Lawrence, that’s one of the best edge tandems in the league.
Parsons’ 23.4% pass-rush win rate when lined up outside the tackle in 2022 ranked fourth among all players with at least 100 snaps in such alignments, trailing only Maxx Crosby, Rashan Gary and Myles Garrett. Meanwhile, Lawrence ranks tied for second in PFF grade at the position since 2017.
The defensive tackle position remains the weak point of the unit after combining for a 33.1 PFF run-defense grade in 2021 (30th out of 32 teams). Osa Odighizuwa — who recorded 38 pressures as a rookie last season — could step up in his second season out of UCLA.
Tier 5: Relying on younger players to make a leap
22. New York Giants
The Giants’ defensive front has a high ceiling, but that’s reliant on Kayvon Thibodeaux and Azeez Ojulari performing at a high level in their first and second NFL seasons, respectively. Thibodeaux has ideal pass-rush traits off the edge that led to a 91.5 pass-rushing grade at Oregon in 2021, but it can sometimes take players in the trenches a season or two to find their footing once jumping to the NFL. Ojulari does have one of those years under his belt already — earning just a 56.9 PFF pass-rush grade despite some success in the pressure column (42).
Matthew Judon is never going to crack the elite tier of edge rushers, but he can be relied on to play the run and provide a steady stream of pressure. Judon has recorded at least 35 pressures in each of the last five seasons.
The way that this Patriots’ defensive front rises up the rankings is with big jumps from Christian Barmore, Josh Uche and Ronnie Perkins. Barmore, in particular, has an opportunity for a big 2022 season. His 48 quarterback pressures as a rookie were over 10 more than any other rookie interior defensive lineman in the last five seasons.
The Panthers have an extremely young group along the defensive line. The recently added Matt Ioannidis qualifies as a veteran at 28 years old. And Carolina needs those younger players to step up if the team wants to improve on its 5-12 record from last season.
The Haason Reddick and Morgan Fox losses put more pressure on third-year edge defender Yetur Gross-Matos, alongside Brian Burns and Derrick Brown, to provide a spark. Gross-Matos has played fewer than 400 defensive snaps in each of his first two seasons with 20 or fewer quarterback pressures both years.
Chris Jones has been a force for the Chiefs since he was drafted in 2016. He ranks second at the position in PFF’s WAR metric over the last six seasons, trailing only Aaron Donald among players who have played the vast majority of their snaps on the interior.
However, Jones hasn’t gotten much help from his teammates on the edge in recent years. Kansas City’s edge defenders collectively rank 28th in PFF grade since 2020. That puts a lot of pressure on rookie George Karlaftis to hit the ground running, particularly after letting Melvin Ingram III leave for Miami in free agency.
26. Detroit Lions
Detroit has potential up front with a myriad of young, recent draft picks such as Levi Onwuzurike, Alim McNeill, Aidan Hutchinson, Josh Paschal and Julian Okwara. However, there isn’t a ton of proven, high-level NFL talent. Michael Brockers — one of the established veterans on the interior — is coming off by far the worst season of his NFL career (40.6 PFF grade in 2021).
Highest @PFF_College grades by a R1 edge taken in the last 5 years:
1. Chase Young: 94.8
2. Nick Bosa: 94.7
3. Myles Garrett: 93.6
4. Aidan Hutchinson: 93.0
Hutchinson dropping to 2 is a big W for Detroit. He’s going to thrive there.
— Ben Linsey (@PFF_Linsey) April 29, 2022
However, there’s reason to believe Aidan Hutchinson, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2022 NFL Draft, can hit the ground running. He has the combination of athletic traits and college production that typically translates to NFL success.
Tier 6: Question marks at multiple positions
The Cardinals are asking two rookies — Cameron Thomas and Myjai Sanders — to replace Chandler Jones‘ production on the edge. That’s no easy task. Jones recorded a PFF pass-rushing grade above 84.0 in four of his six seasons with the Cardinals.
J.J. Watt is still in the fold as an impact player up front, as his 18.3% pass-rush win rate when healthy last season ranked fifth among all interior defensive linemen with at least 100 pass-rushing snaps, but staying healthy has been the issue for Watt as he enters his 12th NFL season.
Jacksonville has invested a lot of resources into the edge defender position with first-round picks spent on Josh Allen, K’Lavon Chaisson and Travon Walker in the last four offseasons. However, Walker was drafted No. 1 overall for his rare, physical traits and not his track record of college production. It remains to be seen how much he can add as a rookie at a position where both production and athleticism matter when projecting to the NFL.
Pro vs. college PFF grades for every R1 edge since 2017 with reference lines for where Hutchinson, Thibodeaux and Walker would fall pic.twitter.com/74pKXIDz8G
— Ben Linsey (@PFF_Linsey) April 25, 2022
The other big addition to a defensive front that ranked 30th in PFF grade in 2021 was Folorunso Fatukasi. The 318-pound defensive tackle was one of the position’s best run defenders across the 2019 and 2020 seasons but took a step back with the Jets last year (57.3 PFF run-defense grade).
29. Seattle Seahawks
The Seahawks have a few starting-caliber pieces on the interior between Poona Ford, Shelby Harris and Al Woods, but it’s difficult to see where the pressure off the edge is going to come from in 2022.
Free-agent acquisition Uchenna Nwosu has a career PFF pass-rushing grade below 70.0, leaving it up to one of Seattle’s young edge rushers such as Darrell Taylor, Alton Robinson or Boye Mafe to lead the way. Taylor is the most likely player to step up. The former Tennessee Volunteer missed his rookie season in 2020 with injury, but he recorded 36 quarterback pressures in a rotational role last year.
30. Houston Texans
The Texans lost one of their primary edge defenders during the 2021 season (Jacob Martin), but they’re still likely in better shape entering 2022. Ogbonnia Okoronkwo could break out if given an opportunity in a larger role. Okoronkwo’s 314 defensive snaps in 2021 marked a career-high, as did his 75.3 PFF pass-rushing grade. He’s joined by veterans Jerry Hughes (34 in August) and Mario Addison (35 in September) alongside Jonathan Greenard.
Houston will also be looking for more out of 2020 second-round pick Ross Blacklock on the interior. Blacklock improved his PFF grade from 30.2 as a rookie to 50.4 in 2021, but the run game is his biggest area for growth after earning PFF run-defense grades below 40.0 in each of his first two seasons.
31. Chicago Bears
Robert Quinn stands out as the clear star of Chicago’s defensive line following their decision to cut ties with Khalil Mack. Quinn is fresh off a second-team All Pro appearance in 2021, but his 69.9 PFF grade (34th among 108 qualifying edge defenders) indicates that there were more deserving players for that accolade. The rest of the unit beyond Quinn looks uninspiring on paper.
Al-Quadin Muhammad comes over with new head coach Matt Eberflus from Indianapolis after earning PFF grades between 60.0 and 67.0 in each of the last four seasons for the Colts. On the interior, Justin Jones, Khyiris Tonga, Angelo Blackson and Mario Edwards Jr. will all compete for snaps. Jones and Blackson are the most established of that group, but they’ve combined for just one season with a PFF grade above 60.0 on at least 250 defensive snaps in 11 combined seasons.
32. Atlanta Falcons
The Falcons had the unenviable distinction of having the only defensive line in the league to grade below 50.0 as a unit in 2022.
Lowest-graded defensive lines in 2021
|Team||Defensive line unit grade|
|32. Atlanta Falcons||48.4|
|31. Detroit Lions||53.9|
|30. Jacksonville Jaguars||54.4|
Atlanta took some steps to make things better this offseason by bringing in Lorenzo Carter and Arnold Ebiketie on the edge but relying on a second-round rookie and a fifth-year edge rusher who has never earned a PFF pass-rushing grade above 62.0 as the top two options at the position still isn’t a spot you want to be in as a defense. They’ll be leaning heavily on Grady Jarrett to keep this from being one of the worst units in the league again next season.