As a part of our partnership with ESPN, this is a part of a story that was originally published on ESPN+ and can be viewed in its entirety here with your ESPN+ subscription – Ranking the NFL's 50 best linemen, combining offense and defense: Aaron Donald, Watt brothers lead the way
Who are the NFL's best players in the trenches when you compare offense and defense? That's what we tried to figure out with the debut of our NFL lineman rankings.
At PFF, we grade every player on every play in every game, which gives us a unique viewpoint on play in the trenches where the story isn't as easily told by readily available statistics like it is at other positions. Using PFF grades and statistics from previous seasons — with extra weight given to results through the first four weeks of the 2020 season — these are our top 50 offensive and defensive linemen right now.
We're including all edge defenders in this ranking, including players who line up primarily as outside linebackers. We're not including players who are out for the season, however, with apologies to injured stars Nick Bosa, Von Miller and Brandon Brooks.
The final results ended with 27 offensive lineman and 23 defensive linemen. Leading the way for the positions were the offensive tackles (14), followed by the defensive tackles (11). Let's start with the clear choice at No. 1 overall:
1. Aaron Donald, DI, Los Angeles Rams
2020 grade: 87.7
Why he's ranked here: There isn't a player in the NFL who towers over his peers in the same way Donald does. Since entering the league in 2014, he has recorded a PFF grade above 90.0 in 37 regular-season games. The next closest interior defensive lineman in that span has done so in … nine. Donald is a game-wrecker in its purest form.
2. Quenton Nelson, G, Indianapolis Colts
2020 grade: 72.0
Why he's ranked here: No interior offensive lineman has been more valuable to his team than Nelson has over the past two full seasons. The 2018 sixth overall pick has graded above 70.0 in 23 of his 36 regular-season games so far, and he has allowed just eight combined sacks and QB hits across 1,376 snaps in pass protection.
3. T.J. Watt, EDGE, Pittsburgh Steelers
2020 grade: 93.8
Why he's ranked here: Watt has earned a 92.6 PFF grade since the start of the 2019 season, two points more than any other edge defender over that span, and he has started 2020 with three consecutive game grades above 90.0. Through four weeks of the season, no edge defender has a higher pass rush win rate than Watt's mark of 29.3%. His older brother J.J. was once considered the best edge defender in the NFL, but now it looks like it's T.J.'s time.
4. Khalil Mack, EDGE, Chicago Bears
2020 grade: 92.1
Why he's ranked here: Mack finished the 2019 season with the lowest PFF grade of his career to date — an 86.2, which ranked 13th at the position. That tells you all you need to know about the edge rusher, who has recorded at least 50 total QB pressures in all seven years of his career and already has 22 pressures and a 90.7 pass-rushing grade through four weeks of the 2020 campaign.
5. Myles Garrett, EDGE, Cleveland Browns
2020 grade: 90.9
Why he's ranked here: Garrett was on the path to becoming the league's best pass-rusher in 2019 before his season-ending suspension in November. He had generated a 91.6 pass-rushing grade before being sidelined, leading all edge rushers. Now back on the field in 2020, Garrett has continued his pass-rushing dominance and has the top pass-rushing grade through Week 4 (91.4).
6. David Bakhtiari, T, Green Bay Packers
2020 grade: 88.2
Why he's ranked here: Bakhtiari was the highest-graded tackle in pass protection in 2016, 2017 and 2018 before breaking that streak and coming in second in 2019. He sits in fourth in 2020 and is on pace to earn grades above 83.0 as both a pass-protector and run-blocker — a feat he has never accomplished in our grading.
7. Fletcher Cox, DI, Philadelphia Eagles
2020 grade: 81.5
Why he's ranked here: Cox hasn't finished outside the top 10 interior defensive linemen in regular-season PFF grade since 2014, when he ranked 13th. With the way Cox is playing to start 2020, it is unlikely this streak is coming to an end. He has earned an 84.1 grade as a pass-rusher through four weeks, tying for fifth at the position.
8. Ronnie Stanley, T, Baltimore Ravens
2020 grade: 90.4
Why he's ranked here: Stanley has developed into one of the league's premier tackles over the past couple of seasons, recording an NFL-high 91.0 PFF grade since the beginning of last season. He is also one of two players at the position to produce grades above 80.0 as both a pass-protector and run-blocker in that span. And it's not like he is being protected in Baltimore's offense, either, as Stanley's grade on true pass sets — plays with no play-action, screen, quick throw, etc. — is the second-best among tackles.
9. Chris Jones, DI, Kansas City Chiefs
2020 grade: 78.2
Why he's ranked here: Aaron Donald‘s dominance over the position has stolen Jones' thunder, which is a shame, because the Chiefs interior defensive lineman is one of the best pass-rushers at the 3-technique position that we have ever seen. Since 2016, he ranks fourth at the position in total QB pressures (224) and third in both pass rush win rate (16.5%) and PFF pass rush grade (92.1).
10. Cameron Heyward, DI, Pittsburgh Steelers
2020 grade: 85.2
Why he's ranked here: This might be Heyward's 10th NFL season, but he is still producing as though he is in his prime. He has already tallied one sack, four QB hits and nine hurries across 99 pass-rushing snaps, while his 18.2% pressure rate is tied with Fletcher Cox for the sixth-best mark at the position.
11. Zack Martin, G, Dallas Cowboys
2020 grade: 84.8
Why he's ranked here: Martin started the season with a night to forget in pass protection in Week 1 against the Rams, but he has since rallied, putting together the fourth-best PFF grade among guards so far. In his six full years in the NFL, the Cowboys' stalwart has never ranked lower than fifth among guards in single-season PFF grades.
12. J.J. Watt, EDGE, Houston Texans
2020 grade: 69.5
Why he's ranked here: If it weren't for injuries derailing his career, the elder Watt would be with the likes of Aaron Donald and Quenton Nelson atop of this list. Watt posted a PFF grade above 91.5 in every season from 2012 to '15 before a succession of injuries limited him to just 374 snaps from 2016 to '17. He looked close to his best upon his return in 2018, earning a 90.5 PFF grade across 1,026 snaps, and he continued the trend until his season-ending injury in 2019, earning an 87.0 grade across 554 snaps. Let's hope his slow start in 2020 is just down to rust and not an injury-related decline.
13. Ryan Ramczyk, T, New Orleans Saints
2020 grade: 78.5
Why he's ranked here: Ramczyk has posted top-10 PFF grades in each of his first three seasons in the league, and he is on the way to doing the same in 2020. While his pass-blocking has been stout, the backbone of Ramczyk's success has been his run blocking — he boasts the highest run-blocking grade at the position since entering the NFL in 2017.
14. Joey Bosa, EDGE, Los Angeles Chargers
2020 grade: 73.3
Why he's ranked here: Bosa has been dominant since he stepped foot on an NFL field, posting PFF grades above 86.5 in three of his four full seasons. The fifth-year edge rusher got off to a hot start in 2020, producing an NFL-high 17 pressures in Weeks 1 and 2, but he has dipped off some in the two following weeks. If he can consistently perform at that same level we saw to start, he could play his way into the top 10 of these rankings.
15. Mitchell Schwartz, T, Kansas City Chiefs
2020 grade: 72.9
Why he's ranked here: Schwartz has been one of the league's most durable and consistent pass-protecting tackles over his career. He has graded above 72.0 in every full season of his career and has recorded a pass-blocking grade above 70.0 in 87 of his 132 regular-season games. He has allowed pressure on just 5.5% of his pass-blocking snaps since 2012 and ranked in the top three in PFF WAR in each of the past two seasons.
16. Cameron Jordan, EDGE, New Orleans Saints
2020 grade: 68.0
Why he's ranked here: Jordan's start to the 2020 campaign is a bit of a concern, but he still ranks here for his consistently great play in the four years leading up to this season. In that span, he tied for the second-highest grade among edge defenders in the league. It's only a matter of time before we start to see Jordan come to life for New Orleans.
17. Terron Armstead, T, New Orleans Saints
2020 grade: 75.3
Why he's ranked here: Since 2015, Armstead has never ranked lower than eighth among tackles in single-season pass-blocking grade. This season, he has produced the 11th-best mark and allowed just four pressures in his four games played.
18. Grady Jarrett, DI, Atlanta Falcons
2020 grade: 71.1
Why he's ranked here: Only one other interior defensive lineman outside of Aaron Donald produced a PFF grade above 90.0 in both 2018 and 2019 — Jarrett. We have yet to see one of those dominant outings from him in 2020, but he has notched 14 pressures so far, tying for fifth-most at the position.
19. Laremy Tunsil, T, Houston Texans
2020 grade: 82.6
Why he's ranked here: Tunsil has cemented himself as one of the best pass-protecting tackles in the game. In his time in Houston, he has produced the highest pass-blocking grade on true pass sets, at 91.5. For perspective, Ronnie Stanley sits in second at 90.1 and Terron Armstead ranks third at 82.9.
20. Trent Williams, T, San Francisco 49ers
2020 grade: 79.6
Why he's ranked here: After sitting out last season in Washington, Williams picked up right where he left off in 2018, ranking ninth among all tackles in pass-blocking grade through four weeks of play. He has looked just like the guy who ranked fifth in pass-blocking grade among tackles from 2011 to '18.
21. Calais Campbell, DI, Baltimore Ravens
2020 grade: 72.0
Why he's ranked here: Over the past six seasons leading up to 2020, Campbell established himself as one of the NFL's best run-stuffers. His run-defense grade in that span was the third best among defensive linemen, while his 85 tackles for loss or no gain trailed only Aaron Donald. Campbell's pass rushing hasn't been as hot in 2020, but his work in the run game speaks for itself, as he is tied for fifth at the position in run stops (eight).
22. Kenny Clark, DI, Green Bay Packers
2020 grade: N/A
Why he's ranked here: Clark's 2020 campaign was put on hold after just 15 snaps due to a groin injury that has since sidelined him, but his return is imminent. And when he does take the field, the Packers will be getting one of the best pass-rushing nose tackles in the game. In 2018 and 2019 combined, Clark posted a 92.3 pass-rushing grade when playing 0/1-technique, the best in the NFL.
23. Brandon Graham, EDGE, Philadelphia Eagles
2020 grade: 64.8
Why he's ranked here: Ever since his third-year breakout in 2012, Graham has been a premier edge defender. He has ranked outside the top 10 in single-season PFF grade just twice since then, and he still cracked the top 20 in those two years. Despite Graham's less-than-ideal start to 2020, his penchant for finding the quarterback is evident in his 15 pressures generated (14 of which have come in the past three games).
24. Lane Johnson, T, Philadelphia Eagles
2020 grade: 72.5
Why he's ranked here: Johnson's career has always been defined by top-tier run blocking that routinely opens up holes for the ground game and good, but not elite, pass protection. Things are looking a little different this season, though. Johnson has allowed just one pressure on 125 pass-block snaps en route to an 84.5 pass-block grade (sixth-best). He does, however, have a lingering ankle injury, so we will see if his strong pass protection continues.
25. Tyron Smith, T, Dallas Cowboys
2020 grade: 67.8
Why he's ranked here: Smith has played in just two games this season due to a neck injury, but his pass blocking is as strong as ever. He ranked as the league's sixth-highest-graded tackle in pass protection from 2013 to '19 and ranks 14th in 2020. Smith is also just one of seven tackles to log at least 100 pass-blocking snaps this year and not allow a single sack or quarterback hit.
26. DeForest Buckner, DI, Indianapolis Colts
2020 grade: 90.7
Why he's ranked here: Buckner has been one of the most dominant interior defenders in the NFL through the first four weeks of the 2020 season. His 15 quarterback pressures rank fourth among all interior defenders, and his 90.2 pass-rushing grade trails only Chris Jones at the position. The Colts couldn't have hoped for much more from Buckner after trading for him this offseason.
27. Andrew Whitworth, T, Los Angeles Rams
2020 grade: 88.9
Why he's ranked here: Whitworth is defying Father Time in his 15th NFL season, ranking as one of the highest-graded tackles in the league through Week 4. He is the only tackle with both pass-blocking and run-blocking grades of 85.0 or higher this season. It has been a strong bounce-back campaign following a 2019 season in which Whitworth posted his lowest PFF grade since 2008.
28. Ali Marpet, G, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
2020 grade: 91.3
Why he's ranked here: From the small-school ranks to the NFL, the former Hobart standout is now one of the league's best interior offensive linemen. He has done a tremendous job of keeping new Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady clean this season, allowing just one quarterback pressure on 163 pass-blocking snaps.
29. Vita Vea, DI, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
2020 grade: 84.6
Why he's ranked here: There are few nose tackles who serve as legitimate pass-rushing threats, but Vea can count himself among those ranks. He joins Aaron Donald as the only other interior defenders with at least 50 pass-rushing snaps in 2020 and a pass rush win rate north of 20%. He's a big part of a Buccaneers defense that has played well dating back to the end of the 2019 season.
30. Joel Bitonio, G, Cleveland Browns
2020 grade: 77.9
Why he's ranked here: There's a case to be made that Cleveland's offensive line ranks as the best in the NFL this season, and Bitonio has a strong case for being the unit's best offensive lineman. He is one of four guards with 1,000 pass-blocking snaps and a pressure rate allowed below 3% since the start of the 2017 season.
31. Stephon Tuitt, DI, Pittsburgh Steelers
2020 grade: 74.4
Why he's ranked here: Tuitt is one of several tough matchups in pass protection along the Steelers' defensive front. His 17 quarterback pressures in 2020 are fewer than only Aaron Donald among interior defenders, building on what looked to be a career year in 2019 before a season-ending injury.
32. Jack Conklin, T, Cleveland Browns
2020 grade: 85.8
Why he's ranked here: Conklin was one of the top free-agent signings of this past offseason after his time with the Titans, and he has fit right in to what offensive line coach Bill Callahan is building in Cleveland. Conklin is one of the best run-blocking tackles in the NFL — he has an 84.2 PFF run-blocking grade this season. He has allowed just four pressures on 99 pass-blocking snaps.
33. Arik Armstead, EDGE, San Francisco 49ers
2020 grade: 81.1
Why he's ranked here: There was some concern heading into this season that Armstead might have been a one-year wonder in his contract year in 2019, but he has put those concerns aside with a strong start to the 2020 season. While the departure of DeForest Buckner via trade and injuries to Nick Bosa and Dee Ford have hampered the 49ers' defensive line, Armstead has remained a constant with strong contributions against the run and the pass. His ability to play both outside and inside gives San Francisco flexibility along the defensive line.
34. Joe Thuney, G, New England Patriots
2020 grade: 83.2
Why he's ranked here: Thuney has developed into one of the league's most reliable pass-protecting guards, a key part of an impressive Patriots interior offensive line. In fact, he leads all guards in PFF pass-blocking grade since the start of the 2018 season (89.6). He should be in line for a nice long-term contract this offseason after playing on the franchise tag in 2020.
35. Duane Brown, T, Seattle Seahawks
2020 grade: 82.9
Why he's ranked here: Brown has been the best member of a poor Seahawks offensive line for the past few years, and although the unit is showing some signs of improvement, Brown is still comfortably its best individual player. He has earned a pass-blocking grade of 80.0 or higher in seven of the past eight seasons, and he's on pace to make that eight of nine with an 80.1 pass-blocking grade this season.
36. Chase Young, EDGE, Washington Football Team
2020 grade: 78.0
Why he's ranked here: It might seem premature to have a rookie who has played just over two career NFL games as the 36th-ranked player on this list, but Young isn't your run-of-the-mill rookie. He has all the physical tools necessary to become an elite edge rusher in the NFL, and he's coming off a 2019 season at Ohio State in which he put up a 96.0 overall grade, the highest we've seen at the college level at his position. The start to his NFL career before his groin injury showed he's already one of the best defensive linemen in the NFL.
37. Jason Kelce, C, Philadelphia Eagles
2020 grade: 66.7
Why he's ranked here: There have been revolving doors at nearly every position on the Eagles' offensive line this season, and it's hard to think that isn't having some impact on Kelce's play. His 66.7 PFF grade through the first four weeks of this season is decidedly lower than the 93.3 mark he put up across the 2017, 2018 and 2019 seasons (first at the center position). Kelce has rare athleticism and ability to get out in space and maintain blocks in the run game. He should bounce back as the year progresses.
38. DeMarcus Lawrence, EDGE Dallas Cowboys
2020 grade: 60.7
Why he's ranked here: It has certainly not been an ideal start to the 2020 season for the Cowboys' defense, and that extends to Lawrence. It's hard to drop him too far down the list after three consecutive seasons with 50 or more quarterback pressures. A lot of attention gets paid to what he brings as a pass-rusher for good reason, but Lawrence has turned in run-defense grades of 80.0 or higher in each of the past three seasons, as well.
39. Jake Matthews, T, Atlanta Falcons
2020 grade: 69.6
Why he's ranked here: Since a shaky rookie season, Matthews has developed into a reliable pass protector at left tackle for quarterback Matt Ryan. His 87.3 pass-blocking grade since 2015 is a top-10 mark among active tackles with at least 1,000 offensive snaps over that span.
40. Jadeveon Clowney, EDGE, Tennessee Titans
2020 grade: 72.9
Why he's ranked here: Clowney has been more disruptive for his new team than the zero sacks he has recorded this season would suggest. His 13.3% pressure rate is a top-20 mark among edge defenders with at least 50 pass-rushing snaps, and he has been a force in the run game. That's an area in which he has excelled throughout his career, even if he has never quite lived up to expectations as a pass-rusher.
41. Rodney Hudson, C, Las Vegas Raiders
2020 grade: 71.5
Why he's ranked here: Hudson is the league's best pass-protecting center, and it isn't particularly close. If you look at the five highest PFF single-season pass-blocking grades at the position over the past five seasons, he owns all five of the top slots. He is a bit off that pace through the first four weeks of the 2020 season, but it would be a safe bet to say Hudson will once again finish this season with one of the best pass-blocking grades at the position.
42. Anthony Castonzo, T, Indianapolis Colts
2020 grade: 63.6
Why he's ranked here: Castonzo's 2020 grade has been dragged down a bit by a poor start as a run blocker, but he continues to be reliable in pass protection. He has recorded a pass-blocking grade of 75.0 or higher in every season since 2014, and he's on pace for that mark again this season. Protection like that is certainly a nice change of pace for quarterback Philip Rivers after playing behind plenty of shaky offensive lines with the Chargers.
43. Alex Mack, C, Atlanta Falcons
2020 grade: 64.4
Why he's ranked here: Dating back to his days with the Browns, Mack has been one of the best centers in the league for a long time. The 35-year-old's career might be on the decline, but he was still a top-10 center by PFF grade last season and has the kind of track record that warrants a spot on this list.
44. David DeCastro, G, Pittsburgh Steelers
2020 grade: 63.4
Why he's ranked here: DeCastro has seen his run-blocking grades take a hit in recent seasons, which has led to lower overall grades than the career-high 89.0 mark we saw in 2017, but he remains a wall in pass protection. He joins Zack Martin and Brandon Brooks as the only two other active guards with at least 1,000 pass-blocking snaps and a pass-blocking grade of 90.0 or higher since 2015.
45. Corey Linsley, C, Green Bay Packers
2020 grade: 86.9
Why he's ranked here: Linsley is on pace for a career season in the middle of a Packers offensive line that is firing on all cylinders. He has yet to allow a pressure in 145 pass-blocking snaps, and his run-blocking grade of 84.7 ranks first at the position.
2020 grade: 89.5
Why he's ranked here: Simmons had a solid showing as a rookie last season after starting the year sidelined with injury, and now it looks as if he is on the verge of breaking out. He recorded a career-high seven pressures in his last game — a Week 3 contest with the Vikings — and has one of the higher grades at the interior defender position this season.
47. Za'Darius Smith, EDGE, Green Bay Packers
2020 grade: 71.9
Why he's ranked here: Smith isn't quite off to the same pace that we saw from him in 2019 when he recorded an 88.8 pass-rushing grade and led the NFL with 93 pressures, but he is coming off his best game of the season in Week 4 against the Falcons. Smith recorded seven pressures and earned a pass-rushing grade north of 90.0 for the week.
48. David Andrews, C, New England Patriots
2020 grade: 77.6
Why he's ranked here: Andrews has had some tough luck with injuries — missing the entirety of the 2019 season with blood clots in his lungs and recently getting placed on injured reserve with a broken thumb — but he has proven to be one of the NFL's best centers when healthy. He recorded pass-blocking grades of 80.0 or higher in each of 2017 and 2018, and he was above that threshold again in the first two weeks of the 2020 season.
49. Chandler Jones, EDGE, Arizona Cardinals
2020 grade: 60.3
Why he's ranked here: Purely going off the sack numbers, this ranking would appear low for Jones. He has consistently produced sacks at a higher rate than his pressure rate and pass-rushing grade would suggest. Being able to consistently turn pressures into sacks at a high rate is a valuable — albeit rare — skill, however, and Jones stands out as one of the best edge rushers in the NFL.
50. JC Tretter, C, Cleveland Browns
2020 grade: 80.4
Why he's ranked here: Pass protection was a concern for Baker Mayfield and the Browns coming into the season, but that stemmed largely from the tackle positions. Tretter certainly wasn't at fault after five consecutive seasons with a pass-blocking grade of 80.0 or higher. He's a key part of a much-improved offensive line.