While we at PFF have made the argument that coverage is more valuable than pass rush, elite pass rushers are more reliable from year to year than elite coverage defenders. The defensive line is at the center of both the pass-rushing unit and the run-defense unit. As a result, it’s difficult to field a great defense with a below-average defensive line.
Here are PFF’s top defensive lines heading into the 2021 NFL season, with 3-4 outside linebackers included since they fall under the edge defender label.
One would think that Pittsburgh’s defensive line is slated to take a step back after replacing Bud Dupree with Alex Highsmith. But that step might not be as large as many expect. Highsmith finished his rookie season with a higher pass-rush win rate (16.5%) than Dupree (13.7%) last year. He joins a group that already features T.J. Watt, Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt and Tyson Alualu, all of whom made PFF’s list of the top 32 players at their respective positions entering the 2021 NFL season. That group will look to match a league-leading 45.1% pressure rate in 2020.
When a team invests four consecutive first-round picks into one unit, this is the result they’re hoping for. Jonathan Allen, Daron Payne, Montez Sweat and Chase Young all look to be impact starters through the early stages of their NFL careers. Allen and Sweat, in particular, took clear steps forward last season.
Allen’s 2020 campaign was somewhat overshadowed by Washington's starting edge tandem, but he was excellent when rushing the passer. His 17.1% pass-rush win rate was a top-10 mark among all interior defenders. Matt Ioannidis and Tim Settle provide the Football Team additional interior pass-rushing threats beyond the starters, as well.
General manager Jason Licht managed to bring back every starter from last year’s championship team this offseason. That includes key players along the defensive front in Shaquil Barrett and Ndamukong Suh. It was a unit that played both the run and pass at an elite level in 2020. The Buccaneers ranked fifth in the NFL in team pressure rate (37.1%) and first in rushing yards allowed before contact per attempt (1.0). Those numbers could even improve with a healthy season from Vita Vea in 2021.
The Rams don’t have the same quality of depth as the other top-five defensive lines in these rankings. But does it matter when they boast the single most disruptive force in the NFL? Aaron Donald’s 456 pressures over the past five seasons are 86 more than any other defender despite the fact that he saw a consistent barrage of double and triple teams. The attention he commands frees up other players to enjoy career years, as Dante Fowler Jr. and Leonard Floyd can attest. Los Angeles will have to replace Michael Brockers, whose 5,658 regular-season snaps since joining the Rams in 2012 rank ninth among all players at the position.
Philadelphia’s defensive line has consistently been one of the NFL's best at generating pressure without blitzing. That was the case again last season, as the Eagles were one of just two teams with a pressure rate above 40% without the aid of the blitz.
The Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham pairing has been at the core of the unit for nearly a decade, but Javon Hargrave’s addition in free agency last offseason gives Philadelphia another player on the interior who offenses must contend with on passing downs. Hargrave ranks in the 91st percentile of qualifying interior defenders in pass-rushing grade since 2019.
Despite what his sack totals in recent seasons may suggest, Khalil Mack is still the NFL's most dominant edge defender on a snap-for-snap basis. He was the most valuable edge defender in the league last season by PFF's Wins Above Replacement metric, and he holds the same title across his three seasons with the Bears.
The unit loses Roy Robertson-Harris and Brent Urban heading into 2021 but returns nose tackle Eddie Goldman from an opt-out. Goldman’s run-defense grade across the 2018 and 2019 seasons ranked in the 92nd percentile among all players at the position.
The Jets were not a good football team in 2020. But they did have several promising seasons from young defensive linemen, namely Quinnen Williams, Folorunso Fatukasi and John Franklin-Myers. Those three all finished among the top 35 interior defenders in the NFL in overall grade last season.
New York proceeded to add Sheldon Rankins, Vinny Curry and Carl Lawson to the group in free agency, placing an emphasis on improving the unit. Lawson should provide much-needed pass-rushing ability off the edge. No edge defender graded higher as a pass rusher on true pass-rushing snaps than him in 2020.
Last offseason, Trey Hendrickson’s departure wouldn’t have represented a major loss. But it does now after his 50-pressure, breakout season in 2020. Whether the unit misses a beat in 2021 relies on Marcus Davenport’s health, which has been the opposite of reliable for much of his NFL career.
Davenport has impressed when at full strength over the past two seasons, though. He ranks in the 82nd percentile of players at the position in pass-rush grade and in the 88th percentile of edge defenders in run-defense grade since 2019. The Saints need that performance over the course of a full season opposite the always-reliable Cameron Jordan.
San Francisco’s defensive line went from borderline unblockable in 2019 to underwhelming in 2020. That’s to be expected after the team traded away one of the NFL's best interior defenders (DeForest Buckner) and was without Nick Bosa and Dee Ford for all but 80 combined defensive snaps in 2020 because of injury. Bosa and Ford's return to play alongside Arik Armstead could give the 49ers one of the best edge rotations in the NFL. San Francisco will also need Javon Kinlaw (54.1 PFF grade as a rookie) to make a second-year jump to get back toward the elite group we saw two years ago.
10. Denver Broncos
The Broncos could very well have the best edge duo in the NFL with Bradley Chubb and Miller if Miller does return to 100%. But that's a big ask, as he's 32 years old. In 2019, he earned a sub-90.0 PFF season grade (79.3) for the first time in his career, ending an absurd stretch of dominance. Even with Miller at a level or two below his peak, Denver has a lot of talent up front. Shelby Harris, coming off an 88.3 overall grade in 2020, is one of the more underrated interior defenders in the NFL.
11. Cleveland Browns
Jadeveon Clowney has seemingly gone from being overrated to underrated in the span of a few seasons. Injuries hindered his impact in stops with Seattle and Tennessee, but he has still been disruptive when healthy. Across the past five seasons, Clowney ranks in the 86th percentile at the position in pass-rushing grade and in the 97th percentile in run-defense grade. Clowney’s presence should keep teams from focusing all of their attention on Myles Garrett, creating more one-on-one opportunities for both players.
Jordan Elliott is a name to watch in his second season out of Missouri. He earned PFF grades of at least 85.0 in each of his final two college seasons and could earn a more prominent role on Cleveland’s defensive line in 2021.
Between Chandler Jones, J.J. Watt and Markus Golden, the Cardinals have an impressive collection of players who can win off the edge. All three have recorded at least 250 pressures since 2015 despite significant stretches of missed time due to injuries. The questions for Arizona arise on the interior, where Watt should see more time than he has in the past few seasons with Houston. Jordan Phillips did not make the kind of impact the Cardinals hoped for in 2020, earning a 54.4 overall grade before a hamstring injury cut his season short.
Kenny Clark and Za’Darius Smith are tremendous individual talents. They rank eighth and seventh, respectively, in PFF WAR at their positions since the start of the 2019 season. But Green Bay's surrounding pieces keep this unit from ranking inside the top 10. Rashan Gary did raise his overall grade from 55.8 as a rookie to 68.1 last season, though. The Packers will need continued improvement from him next season opposite Smith.
The Patriots' defensive line and linebackers were problem areas last season. The team had few players who could create consistent true pressure while fielding one of the worst defenses in the league against the run. New England invested heavily in improving that group this offseason, adding Matthew Judon, Kyle Van Noy, Davon Godchaux, Henry Anderson, Montravius Adams, Christian Barmore and Ronnie Perkins across free agency and the 2021 NFL Draft. It should be a much-improved unit heading into next season.
The Vikings' defensive line ended up as one of the NFL's worst in 2020. The group ranked 30th in expected points added allowed per run play and had the lowest pressure rate in the league both with and without blitzing. The 2021 version should look significantly different — Danielle Hunter and Michael Pierce are expected to return from injury and an opt-out, respectively. Minnesota also brought in Dalvin Tomlinson in free agency.
Pierce and Tomlinson both rank in at least the 83rd percentile of interior defenders in run-defense grade over the past four seasons. The concern for Minnesota is whether anyone besides Hunter will be able to generate consistent pass-rush production given that Tomlinson isn't a formidable penetrating 3-technique.
Youth is the theme across Carolina’s defense. The defensive line is no exception, with the Panthers expected to start Brian Burns, Derrick Brown and Yetur Gross-Matos next season. Brown and Gross-Matos still have plenty of room to grow heading into 2021, but Burns already began to show signs of becoming one of the NFL’s elite pass rushers last year. He improved his pass-rushing grade from 68.7 in an injury-plagued rookie season to 86.9 in 2020. The next step will be adding more of a power element to complement his high-end burst and bend.
17. Buffalo Bills
A.J. Epenesa, Gregory Rousseau and Carlos Basham Jr. all represent added youth and depth to the Bills' edge defender rotation. However, their 2021 contributions may be limited due to Jerry Hughes and Mario Addison still being in place as the starters at defensive end. Hughes might be one of the more underrated edge rushers in the league based on sack totals. He hasn’t recorded double-digit sacks in a season since 2014, but he ranks in the 81st percentile of all players at the position in pass-rush win rate over the six years since.
Part of the reason Buffalo ranks merely in the middle of the pack here is that Ed Oliver hasn't produced to the level the Bills expected when they selected him in the top 10 of the 2019 NFL Draft. He earned just a 30.0 run-defense grade in 2020.
18. New York Giants
Dalvin Tomlinson won’t be easily replaced in the middle of New York’s defensive line. Luckily for the Giants, the interior defensive line was their deepest position group last year. Leonard Williams (79.8 PFF grade in 2020) and Dexter Lawrence (79.7) remain one of the best inside duos in the NFL. The concerns begin to arise on the edge. New York’s top four pressure producers in 2020 were all interior defenders. A lot of weight will fall on the shoulders of second-round pick Azeez Ojulari as he looks to contribute early in his NFL career.
DeForest Buckner was everything Indianapolis hoped he would be last season. He earned a career-high 89.6 overall grade in 2020 and was the sixth-most valuable interior defender in the league, according to PFF WAR. And due to the Colts' inexperience on the edge, he may need to carry the unit next season. Indianapolis will be relying on rookie Kwity Paye and several players yet to produce at a high level in starting roles (Al-Quadin Muhammad, Tyquan Lewis, Kemoko Turay, Ben Banogu and Isaac Rochell).
Joey Bosa may be the best non-Aaron Donald pass rusher in the NFL. His 22.0% pass-rush win rate since entering the league in 2016 is second to only Donald (23.4%). Bosa’s rate was even higher last season (23.5%) than his career average. Aside from that one-man wrecking crew, this defensive line has clear concerns heading into 2021. Jerry Tillery has been the least valuable defensive lineman in the NFL over the past two seasons, worth -0.22 wins above a replacement-level player over that span. Los Angeles will hope new head coach Brandon Staley can get the most out of the former first-round pick.
21. Baltimore Ravens
Much of the Ravens’ pass-rushing success in recent years has been a function of scheme rather than individual talent. And Baltimore lost two of its best individual pass rushers — Yannick Ngakoue and Matthew Judon — in free agency this offseason.
The trio of Calais Campbell, Brandon Williams and Derek Wolfe on the interior is an impressive collection of run-stuffers, though. All three ranked in the 83rd percentile or better at the position in run-defense grade last season.
Clearly, this is not where a team paying two defensive linemen north of $20 million would like to be ranked. Chris Jones has matched his contract with elite production. The only interior defensive linemen worth more wins above replacement than Jones last season were Aaron Donald and Cam Heyward.
Frank Clark, on the other hand, has not, earning PFF grades of 63.3 and 54.3 in his two seasons with the team. His inability to play up to the level he performed at in Seattle has left Kansas City thin along the defensive line beyond Jones, even after the team signed Jarran Reed this offseason.
23. Tennessee Titans
The Titans paid Bud Dupree and Denico Autry a combined $23.7 million per year to improve this unit heading into the 2021 season. They needed more of a pass-rushing presence after ranking 29th in the NFL in team pressure rate a season ago. Their best defensive lineman — Jeffery Simmons — graded over 10 points higher as a run defender than as a pass rusher in 2020.
Dupree will be asked to pick up a lot of that slack, but his pass-rushing stats didn’t always accurately reflect his level of play in Pittsburgh. He was the beneficiary of a favorable defensive environment where teammates drew much of the attention from opposing offensive lines. It'll be a different story in Tennessee, putting more pressure on Dupree to elevate his play.
24. Detroit Lions
Detroit’s defensive line unit finished the 2020 season ranked 30th in PFF grade, ahead of only the Vikings and Texans. Several offseason additions on the interior — such as Michael Brockers, Levi Onwuzurike and Alim McNeill — along with the return of a healthy Trey Flowers should improve matters in 2021, but the Lions still have a ways to go to get back to average.
It’s easy to forget, given how bad Detroit’s defense has been these past two seasons, that Flowers is one of the better defensive linemen in the league when healthy. He is coming off four straight seasons with overall grades of at least 80.0.
It’s not often that a team signs a defensive end to a four-year, $60 million contract in the offseason and gets worse at the position. We saw it this offseason in Cincinnati. Trey Hendrickson will likely be a downgrade from Carl Lawson, considering what he accomplished as a pass rusher last season. D.J. Reader‘s return should give Cincinnati a major boost on the interior, though. He recorded a career-high 85.4 PFF grade back in 2019 with Houston before injuries cut his 2020 Cincinnati debut short after just five games.
The Raiders have struggled to generate any kind of pass rush for years now. The addition of Yannick Ngakoue and his 80th-percentile pass-rushing grade since 2017 should help in that department. Ngakoue, Clelin Ferrell and Maxx Crosby at least give Las Vegas an intriguing mix of young edge rushers. But the Raiders are thin on the interior. Johnathan Hankins, Quinton Jefferson and Solomon Thomas as the top three options on the defensive tackle depth chart form one of the weaker interior groups in the league following Maurice Hurst‘s release.
27. Dallas Cowboys
Randy Gregory will have an opportunity to finally put it all together as the starting left edge defender in Dan Quinn’s new defense in Dallas. The first six years of his NFL career have featured up-and-down play and extended suspensions, but he was playing the best football of his career down the stretch of 2020, earning an 80.5 overall grade on his 270 defensive snaps. He still needs to show he can play up to that level as a starter over the course of an entire season.
While Dallas' edge group features some promise, the team needs several interior players to take big steps forward. The Cowboys allowed 2.3 rushing yards before contact per attempt in 2020 — a half yard more than any other defense in the NFL.
28. Miami Dolphins
A team can lean more on the blitz when its starting cornerbacks are Xavien Howard and Byron Jones. Miami did just that, blitzing at a top-five rate of 41.2%. The Dolphins still ranked only 14th in team pressure rate, in part because there aren’t many above-average pass rushers on their roster. Emmanuel Ogbah was their most productive pass rusher in 2020, but even he finished the year with only a 64.5 pass-rushing grade.
First-round rookie Jaelan Phillips could begin to change that next season, coming off an 86.6 PFF grade last season at the University of Miami.
29. Seattle Seahawks
The Seahawks’ inability to generate pressure with their defensive line last season, especially early in the year, became a national storyline. Safety Jamal Adams led the team in total pressures (25) through the first 13 weeks of the 2020 campaign. Seattle has made several additions to help alleviate those issues, starting with trading for Carlos Dunlap in 2020 and signing Kerry Hyder this offseason. This group’s success next season will largely depend on the impact of younger players such as L.J. Collier, Darrell Taylor and Alton Robinson.
The Seahawks will also need to replace Jarran Reed at the 3-technique position, but they're without any candidates they should feel comfortable with as things stand. Poona Ford could receive more time there in 2021.
Josh Allen and K’Lavon Chaisson have the tools to develop into a dynamic edge-rushing duo, but 2021 may still be a year too early for that to take hold. Allen has already proven to be an effective pass rusher across the first two years of his career, earning pass-rushing grades between 70.0 and 75.0 in both 2019 and 2020. Chaisson came on stronger down the stretch last season but recorded just a 9.2% pressure rate overall. With work still left to do for those two and little to get excited about on the interior, this should be one of the lower-graded units in the league again next season.
31. Atlanta Falcons
This ranking doesn’t feel fair to Grady Jarrett. He’s been the sixth-most valuable interior defensive lineman in the NFL over the past four years, per PFF WAR. There just isn’t much around him on Atlanta's defensive line. Dante Fowler Jr.’s first year with the team was nowhere near what the Falcons were expecting when they signed him to a multi-year deal last offseason. He recorded a run-defense grade below 40.0 and a pressure rate well below 10% for the season.
The Falcons will be eager to see better seasons from both Fowler and a healthy Marlon Davidson in his second season after he earned a 58.1 grade on just over 100 snaps as a rookie.
32. Houston Texans
Houston’s defensive line ranked dead last in overall PFF grade as a unit (47.0) in 2020. And that was despite J.J. Watt earning an 85.4 overall grade on over 1,000 defensive snaps. Things aren’t getting any better with Watt no longer in town. The Texans will need younger players, such as Charles Omenihu (52.1 overall grade in 2020) and Ross Blacklock (30.2), to take big steps forward if their defensive line is to be anything other than the NFL's worst such unit again next season.