Defining the roles of defensive players who line up primarily near the line of scrimmage can be a bit complicated.
For example, Cowboys star Micah Parsons recently announced he’s moving from linebacker to defensive end, which seems silly because he’s mostly played on the defensive line the past two years. A better term for Parsons would be edge rusher, but he needed to clarify before he’s eligible to negotiate a massive contract extension next offseason (players labeled defensive end tend to make more than linebackers).
“He is a pass-rushing linebacker,” Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn recently said about Parsons.
For this list, let’s stick to edge rushers. And let’s keep it simple with the interior defensive linemen—we don’t have time for a refresher on the difference between a 5-technique and 3-technique.
Also, edge rushers and interior defenders play on the defensive line, so let’s just group them as defensive linemen for the sake of this exercise.
So, now that we have clarity—remember Jerry Jones, Parsons isn’t an off-ball linebacker—let’s rank the top 10 defensive linemen in the NFL right now.
10Dexter Lawrence, IDL, Giants
Lawrence’s breakout 2022 season earned him his first Pro Bowl and All-Pro selections (second team), and a hefty pay raise from the Giants with a four-year, $90 million contract extension. After primarily contributing as a stout 6'4", 342-pound run stopper, Lawrence, 25, made drastic strides as a pass rusher, recording a career-high 7.5 sacks with 28 quarterback hits last season. Pro Football Focus also took notice of Lawrence’s dominant ’22 campaign, tabbing him with a 91.6 defense grade, which ranked second among interior defenders.
9Jeffery Simmons, IDL, Titans
Simmons, 25, was drafted two spots after Lawrence with the No. 19 pick in the 2019 draft, but he’s had the better career as a two-time Pro Bowler and second-team All-Pro. After a slow rookie season, Simmons has been a consistent playmaker in the middle of the Titans’ defensive line the past three seasons—the team took care of him this offseason with a four-year, $94 million contract extension. Simmons, who has 21 career sacks, is a versatile defender as a productive pass rusher and run stopper.
8Maxx Crosby, Edge, Raiders
Crosby’s relentless motor and extensive pass-rush moves have made him one of the most productive edge rushers since entering the league as a fourth-round pick in 2019 (he had 10 sacks as a rookie). The two-time Pro Bowler delivered his best season in ’22 with 12.5 sacks, 22 tackles for loss, 36 quarterback hits and 89 total tackles. Crosby, 25, also does his best work in crunch time, with one of his best career performances coming in the ’21 regular-season finale against the Chargers. Crosby sacked Justin Herbert twice and hit him four times to send the Raiders to the postseason.
7Quinnen Williams, IDL, Jets
Williams, 25, is also coming off a career year, which he’s looking to turn into a massive contract extension, probably one higher than Simmons’s new deal. Despite Williams’s Twitter bio change, the Jets will likely get close to his contract demands this summer due to his dominant performance last season, and to have him for Aaron Rodgers’s first season. Williams had career highs in sacks (12) and quarterback hits (28) and was named to his first Pro Bowl and All-Pro teams. The 2019 No. 3 pick finally put it together after a few inconsistent seasons to start his career.
6T.J. Watt, edge, Steelers
The string of dominant defensive linemen from the 2019 draft ends here. Watt has been wrecking games since being drafted No. 30 in ’17, and no one has more sacks in that span than Watt’s 77.5 career sacks. Not only does Watt, 28, have the stats to be regarded as one of the best edge rushers of the past decade, his list of accolades rivals what the top two names on this list have achieved. Watt is a three-time first-team All-Pro selection and was named Defensive Player of the Year in ’21. But Watt will be aiming for a bounce-back season after having his ’22 season trimmed to 10 games due to injuries.
5Chris Jones, IDL, Chiefs
Jones, 28, closed the gap on Aaron Donald for best interior defender in the NFL. That’s how dominant he was in 2022, which ended with him hoisting the Super Bowl trophy after the Chiefs defeated the Eagles. Jones, a four-time Pro Bowler, recorded 15.5 sacks—his most in a season since ’18—with 29 quarterback hits, the third time in his career he’s had at least 28 hits. As for the advanced stats, Jones earned a 92.3 defense grade from Pro Football Focus, the highest in ’22 for an interior defender. Also, expect Jones to break the bank this summer to become the second-highest-paid interior defender in the league to again close the gap on Donald when it comes to compensation.
4Myles Garrett, edge, Browns
From those ranked on this list, only Garrett can say he’s been a No. 1 pick in an NFL draft. After taking Garrett first in 2017, the Browns have been rewarded with five consecutive seasons of 10-plus sacks from the four-time Pro Bowler. The 6'4", 272-pound Garrett has combined his strength and athleticism to become a matchup nightmare for opposing offensive lines. He’s coming off back-to-back seasons of at least 16 sacks and had an impressive 33 quarterback hits in ’21. The 27-year-old Garrett also paced all edge defenders last season with a 92.5 defense grade from Pro Football Focus.
3Micah Parsons, edge, Cowboys
After a historic first two seasons, Parsons, 24, is pushing for the Cowboys to change his position on the roster because he’ll be eligible after his third season to negotiate a contract extension that could possibly make him the highest-paid nonquarterback in the league. Parsons, a two-time first-team All-Pro, has 26.5 career sacks, becoming only the third player in league history to start a career with back-to-back seasons of 12-plus sacks. What gives Parsons an edge over others on this list is his versatility in coverage and against the run, which is why he entered the league as a linebacker before moving to edge rusher during his second career game. The position change initially was temporary due to injuries on the defensive line, but the No. 12 pick in the 2021 draft hasn’t looked back.
2Aaron Donald, IDL, Rams
Donald’s coming off a down season after missing the final six games of the 2022 season with an injury. Donald, who’s entering his 10th season, had never missed a game due to injury before last season. But the three-time Defensive Player of the Year still dominated in those 11 games, often commanding the attention of multiple defenders. The 32-year-old Donald received a defensive grade of 90.5 from Pro Football Focus—he’s never ended a season with a grade under 90. Donald is another versatile defender who can be listed under multiple positions, including every defensive line technique found in the Football 101 glossary. Donald is an all-time great as a nine-time Pro Bowler and seven-time first-team All-Pro, but his injury-riddled ’22 season opened the door for another defensive lineman to sit atop the rankings.
1Nick Bosa, edge, 49ers
To summarize Bosa’s greatness, the 49ers likely wouldn’t have advanced to three NFC championship games and a Super Bowl appearance had they passed on him at No. 2 in the 2019 draft. The Cardinals probably regret taking Kyler Murray over Bosa, or at least Steve Keim does judging from the former GM’s recent comments. It’s no coincidence that the 49ers missed the postseason the year Bosa tore his ACL, which occurred during the second game in ’20. But the dominant force picked up where he left off after his memorable rookie season, delivering back-to-back Pro Bowl seasons and winning Defensive Player of the Year last season. Bosa, who’s known for his strength and speed off the line, recorded 18.5 sacks and an eye-popping 48 quarterback hits in ’22. Bosa, 25, is expected to reset the market for edge rushers once he strikes a new deal with the 49ers, likely before training camp.