Pro Football Weekly's 2018 Interior Defensive Lineman rankings

Can J.J. Watt return to excellence? And how good is the Rams' duo of Donald and Suh?

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Pro Football Weekly’s player rankings are compiled with the help of NFL evaluators and coaches, with input from the entire PFW staff. Players are ranked on their performances to date at positions they’ve played and are not projected at new positions which they might move. Rookies are not included in the rankings. NFL personnel participated on condition of anonymity.

We continue our player ratings with PFW’s top 10 interior defensive linemen — nose tackles, defensive tackles and 3-4 defensive ends primarily. For the full rankings (1-27) and player ratings for every position, along with team-by-team season previews, get our Pro Football Weekly NFL Preview Magazine on newsstands now and online.

1. J.J. Watt, Texans

Two years ago, it was almost impossible to argue that Watt wasn't the best player in the NFL — unless you refuse to recognize a defensive player over a quarterback. But can he return to be the same player after back surgery ended his 2016 campaign just three games in and a broken left leg quashed last season in Game Five? At 6-5, 290 pounds, he is a freak of an athlete who lives on the line but could play anywhere in the front seven of a 4-3 or 3-4 defense. When healthy, he is the best pass rusher and run defender in the NFL, an absolute game wrecker whose motor never stops, and he only turned 29 in March.

2. Aaron Donald, Rams

In spite of a contract squabble last offseason, Donald continued his domination en route to being named the NFL's Defensive MVP for the first time. And some believe he might still have another trick or two in his bag before he reaches his ceiling. The lightning-quick Donald has a nose for the ball, and even shy of 6-1 and only 285 pounds, he is remarkably powerful for his size. He will hold the point of attack vs. the run and chases ball carriers down from behind with the best of them. He emerged in 2015 as the most disruptive three-technique in the NFL, but this gap-shooting menace has been to the Pro Bowl in all four of his seasons, including being named first-team All Pro in each of his last three campaigns.

3. Fletcher Cox, Eagles

At 6-4, 300 pounds, Cox can play either tackle spot for the Eagles, and he has emerged as the dominant player on Philly's loaded “D.” The 12th overall pick in the 2012 draft, Cox came into his own as a sack artist in 2015, notching 9 ½ sacks, after totaling 12 ½ in his first three seasons. (He added 12 more from 2016-17). Cox has proven to be extremely durable by playing 15 games as a rookie, all 16 from 2013-16 and 14 last year. Philly rewarded him prior to the ’16 season with a $103-million deal ($63 million guaranteed). Cox has been to the last three Pro Bowls, and was a second-team All Pro in 2014 and 2015 and first-team last season.

4. Damon Harrison, Giants Harrison’s original surprise was emerging as a Pro Bowler and All Pro, after being an undrafted rookie free agent out of William Penn University. Then, the 6-4, 350-pounder developed into one of the more immovable objects in the NFL, whom some believe was the best defensive lineman in the game two seasons ago, after signing his five-year, $46.25-million deal to leave the Jets.

5. Ndamukong Suh, Rams

Suh can be the second-most dominant defensive player in the NFL when he chooses to be. That he'll line up alongside who could be the most dominant, Aaron Donald, after arriving in L.A. on a one-year deal is almost unfair for Rams opponents. At 6-4, 307 pounds, Suh is a great athlete with outstanding natural strength and power and a ridiculous motor — when he has it running. It is difficult to find plays on tape where Suh isn’t playing to and through the whistle ... when he’s focused. Blocking him with one man is a non-starter, and in addition to absorbing double teams on almost every play, it’s not at all unusual to see a back joining a double team to try and keep Suh from collapsing the pocket. In spite of his questionable behavior on the field at times, Suh has been a model citizen off of it.

6. Gerald McCoy, Buccaneers

McCoy could be one of the last great true 3-techniques. With more teams switching to '30' base fronts and less and less love around the league for the “Tampa-2,” fewer teams are looking for the undersized tackles with lightning-quick first steps to shoot gaps and regularly play one-gap penetrating defense. But that is who McCoy is — and he does it as well as anyone in the league. McCoy, who has gone to six straight pro Bowls, was first-team All Pro from 2012 to 2014 and second team in 2016.

7. Cameron Heyward, Steelers

Another late bloomer, Heyward has been a very good football player since he came into the league. But he emerged as a deadly rusher, with a career-best 12 sacks last year, his seventh season, after never totaling more than 7 ½, and only reaching five sacks in two of his first five years. At 6-5, 295 pounds, he is actually a five-technique who has bloomed into a pass-rushing force and can still set the edge against the run as well as anyone in the game.

8. Akiem Hicks, Bears

Hicks might be the best-kept secret in the NFL after an outstanding 2017, in which he was a Pro Bowl snub but perhaps the most dominant defensive lineman in the league not named Calais Campbell or Aaron Donald. A late bloomer who played three seasons in New Orleans after being drafted in the third round, Hicks was traded to the Patriots before the deadline in the 2015 season and later signed as a free agent with the Bears in 2016. At 6-5, 335, he is huge and as country strong as they come. Hicks is a shutdown run defender who managed seven sacks in ’16 and 8 ½ more last year as an interior rusher in the Bears' '30' and '40' fronts.

9. Grady Jarrett, Falcons

Jarrett, the Falcons' fifth-rounder in 2015, really blossomed in the 2016-17 playoffs and in Super Bowl LI, and then began to consistently dominate while starting all 16 games last season. Garrett, 24, is a hometown kid made good from Conyers, Georgia. He’s the fireplug type, standing just 6-foot but weighing in at 305, and he is equally at home stopping the run or collapsing the pocket.

10. Linval Joseph, Vikings

Joseph, one of the best defensive tackles in the NFL, is also one of the most underrated. After spending his first four seasons in New York with the Giants, he signed with the Vikings as a 2014 free agent, and has been one of the game’s dominant interior presences ever since. At 6-4, 330 pounds, Joseph is as stout a two-gap defender as there is in the game, and he was finally acknowledged with his first Pro Bowl selection following the '16 season. Joseph, who won a Super Bowl with the Giants, went to his second consecutive Pro Bowl last year. Born in the U.S. Virgin Islands, he will turn 30 in October.

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