We continue along in our series ranking each position group in the NFL with defensive line rankings. With each NFL team's roster mostly settled at this point in the offseason, we have a pretty good understanding of where each team stands on paper, and we can take a legitimate accounting of where everyone is at.
Without further ado, here is my attempt at ranking every NFL team’s defensive line, 1-32. To develop the rankings, I considered my own film study, our data here at FTN Data, and each team's depth chart top to bottom.
Track our NFL position group rankings here:
For the purpose of the article here are some definitions to consider:
- Stuff rate: The percentage of runs that go for less than 4 yards that don’t result in a touchdown or first down.
- Brick wall rate: The percentage of short yardage runs that don’t result in a first down or touchdown.
- Gash rate: The percentage of runs against that go for 10 yards or more.
- Pass rush wins: A pass rusher who affects the pocket on a particular play whether through 1v1 win or through scheme.
2021 NFL Defensive Line Rankings
My rankings for each and every defensive line in the NFL for the 2021 season.
1. Pittsburgh Steelers
After finishing dead last in my offensive line rankings, Steelers fans can breathe a sigh of relief as they comfortably take the top spot in my defensive line rankings. The Steelers have a trio of absolute studs in T.J. Watt, Stephon Tuitt and Cameron Heyward, who can all flat-out rush the passer as well stop the run. Watt led all edge rushers in pass-rush wins in 2020 with 126.
Stat to know: Only team in NFL to have three defensive lineman rank in the top-20 for pass-rush wins.
2. Washington Football Team
With four first-round draft picks starting along the defensive line, it's safe to say the Football Team has staked a lot on the investment. Thankfully for them, the unit — featuring Chase Young, Montez Sweat, Daron Payne and Jonathan Allen — has been outrageously good and almost single-handedly carried them to a playoff berth in 2020. The amazing part is, only Allen (26) is older than 25. Washington also has one of the best backup interior players in the league in Matt Ioannidis.
Stat to know: As a team, Washington finished tied for fifth in time to pressure with a mark of 2.5 seconds.
3. Los Angeles Rams
It’s a simple writeup here: Aaron Donald is arguably the best defensive player to play the game, and until he slows down, this unit will de facto rank highly. Not only can Donald single-handedly wreck an offensive game plan, he elevates everyone around him. Case in point: Leonard Floyd had a career year playing next to Donald, racking up over 60 pass-rush wins and double-digit sacks. Donald led all defensive lineman in the NFL last year in pass-rush wins with 127.
Stat to know: The Rams defensive line ranked tied for first in the NFL in time to pressure generated with a mark of 2.48. They also had the lowest “gash-rate” in the NFL giving up a 10-yard run on just 7.5% of carries against them.
4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The big offseason news for the Bucs was bringing back all 22 starters to set up their title defense. Part of that was rewarding edge rusher Shaquil Barrett with a four-year, $68 million contract that was well deserved. In 2020, Barrett yet again proved to be one of the most effective edge defenders in the NFL at getting after the quarterback, racking up the fifth-most pass-rush wins with 100. In total, the Bucs are another team that has four very good players along their defensive line without any real holes. All four of their starters can get after the passer as well as play the run. Vita Vea is one of the most exciting young nose tackles in the NFL, and while he specializes in stuffing the run, he is uniquely good at pushing the pocket for a man that weighs nearly 350 lbs. The Bucs also added to their group with Joe Tryon, who was the team’s first-round pick this year.
Stat to know: Not only did the Buccaneers rank first in time to pressure (2.48 seconds), they ranked first in yards per carry against as well (3.6).
5. Philadelphia Eagles
The Eagles seemingly have top-end defensive line play year over year — specifically, they routinely stop the run very well. Brandon Graham and Fletcher Cox continue to be perpetually underrated as they are still playing at a very high level both rushing the passer and stopping the run. In 2020, the Eagles got it done with depth, as they had seven defensive linemen play significant snaps and perform at a reasonable level. While the team did lose Malik Jackson in free agency, they added Milton Williams in the second round of this year's draft as a likely replacement. Williams is a freak athlete who can likely play multiple positions.
Stat to know: The Eagles had the highest “stuff rate” in the NFL, stuffing 52.6% of rush attempts against them and the second-highest “brick-wall rate” at 38.6%.
6. New Orleans Saints
The Saints have had a tremendous blend of high-end starters, featuring Cameron Jordan, as well as high-end depth pieces. 2018 first-round pick Marcus Davenport and this year’s first-rounder Payton Turner will be tasked with picking up the void left by Trey Hendrickson, who left in free agency. Hendrickson was a top-10 edge defender in 2020 and leaves behind over 80 pass-rush wins and 13 sacks. Still, this New Orleans unit is chalked full of explosive playmakers.
Stat to know: In 2020, the Saints stuffed runs at the fourth-highest rate in the NFL (51.1%).
7. San Francisco 49ers
Between trading superstar defensive lineman DeForest Buckner and losing multiple key pieces to injury, including Nick Bosa and Dee Ford, the 49ers defensive line massively underperformed in 2020. That said, I am expecting big things from this unit in 2021 with the presumption they get healthy and 2020 top-15 pick Javon Kinlaw takes a decent step forward. The addition of Maurice Hurst, who had easily been the Raiders best interior defender the past couple seasons, is also a huge addition to the team, giving the 49ers very solid depth.
8. Cleveland Browns
Myles Garrett has developed into the superstar the Browns hoped he could be when they drafted him with the first overall pick in 2017. He has established himself as a top-five edge defender in the league and in 2020 he racked up over 90 pass-rush wins. As long as Garrett is the centerpiece of this DL, the Browns will likely be in pretty good shape. The Browns have also gone to great lengths to build the rest of the line signing Andrew Billings in 2020, Malik Jackson and Jadeveon Clowney this offseason, and also drafting Jordan Elliott in the third round last year as well as Tommy Togiai in the fourth this year. What the Browns have is a very nice collection of specialists that either offer expertise as run defenders or as pass-rushers.
9. Chicago Bears
Khalil Mack and Akiem Hicks are easily one of the best defensive line duos in the NFL. Despite playing through injury for most of 2020, Mack was still easily one of the best edge defenders in the NFL. While the Bears didn’t add anything to the group for 2021, they brought back all four starters, including Robert Quinn and Bilal Nichols along with the previously mentioned duo. All four guys are above-average pass-rushers.
Stat to know: The Bears stuffed 52.1% of runs last season, third best.
10. Denver Broncos
In the absence of Von Miller in 2020, Bradley Chubb took a massive step forward in his play and put up arguably a top-10 season racking up nearly 80 pass-rush wins in just under 14 games played. If Miller returns to form in 2021 the Broncos might just have one of the best edge tandems in the league. Perhaps reminiscent of the Miller/DeMarcus Ware days? With those two chasing quarterbacks, the sky's the limit for this much improved defense.
11. Buffalo Bills
When it comes to talent acquisition, the Bills clearly have a type in an edge defender. The Bills have spent huge capital on big, long and strong edge defenders the past two years, drafting A.J. Epenesa in the second round in 2020, then drafting Gregory Rousseau in the first this year and Carlos Basham in the second. Those three guys join Jerry Hughes, who is still a top-20 player at his position, to form what could turn out to be one of the deepest edge groups in the league. The Bills also have youngster Ed Oliver, who will hopefully continue to develop and give the Bills pass-rush juice in the middle of their defense.
Stat to know: Tied for the fifth-highest time to pressure (2.5 seconds) in 2020.
12. New England Patriots
The difference in the Patriots defense from 2019 to 2020 was almost night and day. A big reason for that was a drop in defensive line play. How did the Patriots respond? First, they retained their own free agents in Lawrence Guy and Deatrich Wise. Then they signed Matt Judon to a massive contract while also bringing in Kyle Van Noy, Montravius Adams and Henry Anderson in free agency. Lastly, they drafted Christian Barmore in the second round and Ronnie Perkins in the third. The result is certainly the most improved unit, at least on paper, but also perhaps the deepest unit in the league as they can now comfortably play 10-12 guys. This is a defensive line that has the potential to finish as a top-five unit if all things go well.
Stat to know: In 2020, the Patriots averaged the second-slowest time to pressure (2.74 seconds).
13. Arizona Cardinals
The Cardinals don’t have a ton of depth along the interior defensive line but they do boast a pass rush tandem of J.J. Watt and Chandler Jones that is almost certainly top-five in the league. Those guys are very good against the run also and should immediately elevate the rest of the unit. Markus Golden is also still on the team and he low-key had a phenomenal 2020 season. He might be one of the most underrated pass-rusher in the league at this point in his career and certainly a good No. 3 option.
Stat to know: Golden had the eighth-most pass-rush wins among edge defenders in 2020 with 85.
14. Indianapolis Colts
Athleticism has been the key component in the Colts’ edge rusher evaluations. Case in point: They spent their first two picks in this year's draft on Kwity Paye and Dayo Odeyingbo, who are both absolute freaks. They join rushers Tyquan Lewis and Kemoko Turay, who have freakish qualities in their own right. DeForest Buckner, also a freak, who is the leader of this group is one of the best interior defenders in the league. While ranking this unit top-15 in the NFL is certainly a bit of a projection, I believe the Colts line, already a good run-stopping unit, takes a big step forward rushing the passer this year.
Stat to know: In 2020, the Colts ranked sixth in the NFL in run stuff percentage (50.7%).
15. Green Bay Packers
The Packers are almost the epitome of “solid” on the defensive line. They don’t necessarily have a superstar, but they have a collection of effective players. While the pass rush took a bit of a step back in 2020, the unit still has a chance to be very good, especially if youngster Rashan Gary can take a step forward. After coming over from Baltimore where his pressure was largely schemed up, Za'Darius Smith has proved to be a legitimate pass-rusher with back-to-back good seasons in Green Bay. In 2020, he performed as a top-10 pass rusher on the edge, racking up 84 total pass-rush wins. We can’t talk about the Green Bay defensive line without mentioning Kenny Clark, who has established himself as a prototype nose tackle, a guy who stuffs the run and can push the pocket from the middle.
Stat to know: The Packers averaged 2.51 seconds to pressure, good for the eighth-best mark in the NFL.
16. Dallas Cowboys
The 2020 season certainly had its low points for the Dallas defense, but the defensive line wasn’t on the hook for much of the blame as they actually performed solidly. Demarcus Lawrence remains one of the better “power ends” in the NFL, and the Cowboys should get a full 16 games from Randy Gregory, who is tailor made for Dan Quinn’s “LEO” role in his defense. I also like the additions of Osa Odighizuwa, who gives me Grady Jarrett vibes, and Chauncey Golston, who was an effective interior rusher in college.
17. Los Angeles Chargers
For years, the Chargers have put out arguably the best pass-rushing duo in the NFL in Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram, but they are likely to lose Ingram, who is still out there as a free agent. While Bosa remains and is still a top player on the edge, I am skeptical of the rest of this defensive line's ability to generate a pass rush. This line should finish the season around middle of the pack in both pressure generated and stopping the run.
Stat to know: In 2020, Joey Bosa ranked third in the NFL in pass-rush wins (103).
18. Carolina Panthers
The Panthers have a trio of pass-rushers in Brian Burns, Yetur Gross-Matos and Haason Reddick that will make or break this unit. If those guys perform up to expectations, this unit has the chance to be very good and a great candidate to climb the list before year's end. After a disappointing rookie season, Burns really stepped up his play last year putting up 84 pass-rush wins, which was good for top-10 among edge defenders. Derrick Brown who is a mountain of a man also figures to be a major factor for this group primarily as the run stopper.
19. Detroit Lions
The Lions got a breakout performance in 2020 from edge rusher Romeo Okwara, who they re-signed to a three-year deal this offseason. They also return Trey Flowers, who has been highly productive as both a pass-rusher and run defender to form a pretty solid edge tandem. This offseason, the Lions clearly identified the interior defensive line group as the weakness of the team and attacked it relentlessly trading for Michael Brockers and spending two high picks on Levi Onwuzurike and Alim McNeil. If the interior group holds up, the defensive line unit as a whole could be on the rise.
Stat to know: Romeo Okwara’s 93 pass-rush wins in 2020 ranked fifth among edge defenders.
20. Kansas City Chiefs
Chris Jones is a bona fide superstar and almost the sole reason the Chiefs unit ranks as high as it does. Only Aaron Donald had more than Jones’ 97 pass-rush wins on the interior. Outside of Jones, the Chiefs don’t really have a difference maker. Frank Clark has had moments, but he doesn’t consistently win the way the Chiefs had hoped when they gave him his contract.
Stat to know: The Chiefs only stuffed 40.4% of rush attempts against them, the fifth-lowest rate in the NFL.
21. Minnesota Vikings
Minnesota was one of the worst teams against the run in 2020 and also struggled generating pressure on the quarterback consistently. Most of their struggles could be chalked up to losing their elite pass-rushing duo from years past in Everson Griffen (free agency) and Danielle Hunter (injury) and just couldn’t recover. The Vikings signed Dalvin Tomlinson to help with their woes stopping the run, which should indeed help. The return of Danielle Hunter should also factor big in getting some semblance of pass-rush going.
Stat to know: The Vikings only stuffed 38.0% of rush attempts against them, the lowest mark in the NFL.
22. Baltimore Ravens
The Ravens have a spectacular interior trio in Brandon Williams, Derek Wolfe and the ageless Calais Campbell who complement each other very well. On the edge though, they continue to let their guys walk, most recently Matt Judon. The Ravens rely heavily on scheming pressure though, so opting not to pay these guys hasn’t had as big of an impact as one might think. Their next-man-up mentality at edge points to Odafe Oweh, a first-round pick this year, as the next guy to carry the torch. As a team that prefers to build from the outside in, I would expect more of the same from the Ravens in 2021, good against the run and heavy scheme to generate pressure.
Stat to know: Stuffed runs at a rate of 51.0%, the fifth-highest mark in 2020.
23. Miami Dolphins
The Dolphins are another team that relies on schemed pressure to get the job done. Case in point, Emmanuel Ogbah, just an average player, cracked the top-10 in pass-rush wins (85) in 2020, many of which were not the result of him beating a blocker 1v1. The Dolphins did however draft my top edge defender in the class in Jaelan Phillips, who could give the Dolphins a pure pass-rusher who doesn’t need scheme to win. Either way, Phillips’ athleticism should make him an immediate fit in the Dolphins scheme.
24. Seattle Seahawks
I am one of the few people who actually like what the Seahawks did to address edge rusher this offseason. Both Kerry Hyder and Aldon Smith ranked inside the top-20 in pass-rush wins and are low-key good, affordable signings. For a team whose best pass-rusher was a safety in 2020, those guys should help the defense a ton. If the Seahawks can get any level of pass-rush from the interior guys, this unit could be sneaky good in 2021.
Stat to know: The Seahawks ranked top-10 in both stuffed run rate (50.0%) and brick wall rate (34.4%)
25. New York Jets
The Jets didn’t have much in the way of a pass-rush in 2020 (again) but there are some things to be excited about moving forward. Quinnen Williams appears to be living up to the hype as he took a massive step forward in 2020 and despite spending all their premium draft picks on the offensive side of the ball, the Jets were able to address the defensive line through free agency and they did so in a big way with Carl Lawson and Sheldon Rankins. Lawson immediately gives the Jets the pass-rush specialist they have been in search of for seemingly the better part of a decade. Perpetually one of the most underrated players in the league Lawson has turned himself into one of the most efficient pass-rushers on a snap-for-snap basis. This could certainly be a unit on the rise.
26. New York Giants
While the Giants have a good interior duo adept at stopping the run in Leonard Williams and Dexter Lawrence, they really have no pass-rush to speak of. The Giant's hope Azeez Ojulari, the team’s second-round pick this year, can help patch that up, but opposing quarterbacks shouldn’t have much to fear in 2020.
Stat to know: As a team the Giants average time to pressure was 2.7 seconds, the fourth-slowest rate in the NFL.
27. Cincinnati Bengals
The Bengals had one of the worst defensive lines in the NFL in 2020. A large part of surrendering 5.12 yards per carry in 2020 was giving up a league-leading gash rate of nearly 15%! The Bengals looked to remedy the situation by signing Trey Hendrickson and Larry Ogunjobi in free agency, as well as drafting four defensive linemen in this year's draft, with third-rounder Joseph Ossai the most notable. While the unit could be improved in 2020, this looks to be more of a long-term fix.
Stat to know: Trey Hendrickson’s 80 pass-rush wins in 2020 ranked inside the top-20 among all defensive linemen.
28. Tennessee Titans
The Titans had virtually no pass-rush for most of the 2020 season and combatted that by grossly overpaying Bud Dupree in free agency. Dupree isn’t a bad player by any means, but he is more of a “solid” type of talent who relies heavily on scheme to get pressure on the quarterback. I don’t see Dupree producing at the level the Titans are paying for and ultimately don’t see this unit improving a ton. The Titans as a whole are strong candidate to regress across the board.
29. Jacksonville Jaguars
The Jaguars have certainly invested a lot into their defensive line to the tune of three first-round picks (Taven Bryan, Josh Allen, K'Lavon Chaisson) and a pair of Day 2 picks, but unfortunately for them, the unit has been poor all the way around. In the event they can get a couple of these youngsters to take a step forward there is some improvement to be had but all signs point to this being an ongoing process.
30. Las Vegas Raiders
By most measures, the Raiders were a bottom-10 unit both rushing the passer and stopping the run in 2020. To make matters worse, they didn’t do a ton to remedy the situation. While they did bring in Yannick Ngakoue as a pass-rush specialist, they unexpectedly released their best interior defender in Maurice Hurst.
Stat to know: 2.71 average time to pressure ranked 30th in the NFL.
31. Atlanta Falcons
There is no doubt Grady Jarrett is a great player and one of the best penetrating interior defenders in the NFL, but after that the Falcons have basically nothing. So the question becomes how far can one guy take a whole unit? To make matters worse, they didn’t really address their defensive line in free agency or the draft this offseason.
32. Houston Texans
The now-departed J.J. Watt was the only above-average player along the Texans defensive line in 2020. While the Texans definitely have their hands full with a total rebuild and very limited draft capital, it’s a wonder they didn’t do anything to address the unit this offseason. One area they will try to clean up in 2021 is the number of big plays they give up in the run game as they had the second-highest “gash rate” in the league in 2020 with a mark of 14.5%.
NFL Fantasy Football Content
Find the Best NFL Prop Bets
Find the best prices for your favorite props each day here with the FTN Prop Shop.
Sports Betting Tools
Looking for free betting tools to help you win? Try the FTN Parlay Calculator and FTN Prop Shop.