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NFL: Top 10 Interior Defensive Linemen

27 Jul 2011, 09:00 IST

Although not ranked number one, Darth Suh is on a mission for supremacy. Will you go to the dark side?

Ah, the big men. (More specifically, interior defensive linemen.)

If you are looking for stats, highlights, and recognition from football players, today’s list is not for you. But those who know the game best can appreciate a great defensive tackle’s skill set: immense size, herculean strength, and, despite his large frame, cat-like quickness. For those who refuse to be impressed with players like Haloti Hgata and Ndamukong Suh, do me a favor. Wear a body vest that makes you weigh 320 pounds (So if you’re 180 pounds, wear a 140 pound body vest.) and then try to run anything near a sub-5.0 in the 40 yard dash. Oh, and bench press 600 pounds.

With the perpetual evolution of athletes, it makes me wonder what defensive tackles will look and run like in fifty years. Will we see a 400 pound nose tackle running a 5.0 forty or a 300 pound defensive end running a 4.6? Will I have to tell my grandkids, “I remember when 300 pounders only ran a 5.0”? With improvements in training, therapy, diets, equipment, and other legal performance enhancing methods; I would not be shocked by this revelation. Bigger, stronger, faster; that is where we are headed. So this is to all the future moms: Do not let your kid become a quarterback or running back. Think golf.

As I mentioned before, these guys do not fill up the stat sheets on Sundays because that is not their primary job. Their primary job is to consistently beat the guy across from them, control their assigned gap, and occupy blockers in order to free up the linebackers. If the big dudes happen to get a sack or a tackle for loss, then that’s great. The elite guys, (the ones on my list) often do, but that is not necessarily their job.  This concept applies especially to tackles in a 3-4 defensive scheme, whose job is largely to free up elite pass rushers like DeMarcus Ware and James Harrison.

Speaking of 3-4 defensive linemen, I decided to include 3-4 defensive ends (think Richard Semeyor in New England) in my list of defensive tackles, and make it a list of interior linemen.  This is because their job is essentially the same as defensive tackles: clog the run and control your gap.  It also is unfair to put them on the same list as defensive ends, who compile many more stats.

This was not an easy list to compile because some of these players’ impact on the game cannot be measured with stats. Additionally, I had to compare players anywhere from nose tackle (parallel with the center) to ones playing the 5 technique (outside the tackle), which presented a wide spectrum in evaluation.

I tried to judge these players purely based on how well they did their job and how big their impact on the game was.

Here is the list:

10. Darnell Dockett A defensive end in Arizona’s 3-4 scheme, he was, along with Larry Fitzgerald, one of the few bright spots on a 5-11 team last year. He wears his opponents down with great leverage and an unrelenting motor. It shows too. Dockett has had 210 tackles and 25 sacks over the past four seasons.

This is one of the cleaner photos that you’ll find when you Goggle Image search Darnell Dockett.

This is one of the cleaner photos that you'll find when you Goggle Image search Darnell Dockett.

9. Casey Hampton 1,12,1,3,3,3,2,3,1 – Those are the Steelers’ rush defense ranks since 2002. Other than the one outlier, 2003, the Steelers have ranked top 3 in rush defense in the past eight seasons, a feat that cannot be understated. Hampton’s ability to anchor and clog the middle, forcing running backs to bounce outside, has been integral to this success.

8. Kyle Williams Not a lot of casual fans are familiar with Williams, but they should be.  The guy has ascended as one of the best nose tackles in football. He had a breakout season last year, compiling 77 tackles and 5.5 sacks. These numbers are incredible for a 3-4 nose tackle. I suspect that if he were not trapped in Buffalo, Williams would get similar notoriety to that of the Ratliff, Hampton, and Raji.

7. Justin Smith He epitomizes the “blue collar, work horse, selfless” defensive line attitude that is becoming increasingly rare in today’s NFL. He has ideal size for his position (6’4, 285 lbs.) and always plays with a high motor and great instinct. He quietly had 135 tackles and 14.5 sacks over the last two years, very impressive for a player at his position.

Fat, drunk, and stupid is no way to go through life, son. (Unless you’re a nose tackle making 7 million dollars per year.)

Fat, drunk, and stupid is no way to go through life, son. (Unless you're a nose tackle making 7 million dollars per year.)

6. BJ Raji Green Bay drafted Raji 9thoverall in 2009, hoping that he would be the dominant, franchise nose tackle that is so vital to the 3-4 defense, which the Packers were at the time in the process of converting to. After a lackluster rookie campaign, Raji vindicated the Packers’ hopes by having a stellar 2010 season. His size alone doesn’t get him to sixth on my list. He plays with awesome leverage and explosion and excels at using his hands to shed blockers.

5. Jay Ratliff Physically, he isn’t your prototypical nose tackle (6-4, 303 lb) but he compensates for his smaller stature with quickness and athleticism, which fits perfectly into Dallas’ aggressive blitzing scheme. It seems like he faded down the stretch last season but then again, so did the entire Dallas team.

4. Kevin Williams He is five time All-Pro, was selected to the all decade team, and has been an elite defensive tackle since he entered the league in . He possesses incredible athleticism and quickness for 31 years old. However, Williams’ production dipped last season (39 tackles, 1 sack), but I wouldn’t bet against a big bounce back year in 11.

3. Vince Wilfork Big, enormous, a mountain of a man – any other hyperbole you want to use, Wilfork is a straight space eater. It is, however, not his size alone that makes him elite. Wilfork has the most athleticism and lateral quickness of any 350-pounder you will find. He is so dominant against the run that Bill Belicheck uses him as a defensive end at times, forcing the opponent to run to the opposite side of  Wilfork and thus become predictable.

2. Ndamukong Suh What else can be said? He is absolute beast, has a flawless game, and is the most impressive defensive lineman specimen since Reggie White. The scariest aspect of Suh’s 2010 season was that most of his success was purely predicated off of his athletic ability, meaning that once he becomes more familiar with the tendencies of offensive linemen and overall more seasoned, he is only going to improve.

More importantly, the most encouraging thing about Suh as a player is not his stats or physical prowess, but that he is a grounded kid who gets it. He keeps an even keel, is always working and never satisfied, and wants to build an atmosphere of winning in Detroit.

He is not my number one simply because he has only been this successful for one season, and the guy ahead of him has a larger body of work. As the years go on and he continues to develop, look for Suh to not only top this list, but to also establish his place in history as one of the best ever.

1. Haloti Ngata Ngata has every thing you want in a defensive linemen: size, strength to bully offensive linemen, quickness off the ball, positional versatility, the ability to stuff the run, and the ability to collapse the passing pocket. Despite his elite status and full arsenal, Ngata felt the need to improve his game by shedding his weight down from 345 to a sleeker 325. Gosh that’s weird; the best player is the one busting his butt to reinvent himself in the off-season.

Biggest Snubs

Jason Babineaux He was one of the biggest reasons for the Falcon’s fifth ranked defense last season. He has ideal quickness in order to penetrate gaps, get into the backfield, and disrupt the offense.

Richard Seymour Seymour had to convert from a 3-4 defensive end to a 4-3 defensive tackle (not as simplistic as it seems) when Bill Belicheck and the Patriots mercilessly shipped him to Oakland. Seymour has nonetheless been productive. He is one of the toughest to block in the league, a consummate pro, and helping young Raiders (like Tommy Kelly) in their development.

Pow right in the kisser!

Pow right in the kisser!

Aaron Smith It killed me, but I couldn’t put Smith on this list after he missed 25 games in the past two seasons. Before those injuries, however, Smith was viewed by scouts as one of the most underrated players in football, and, other than immortal Troy Polamalu, the most integral player on the Steelers defense. Despite consistently beating the man across from him, game after game, year after year, Aaron Smith has NEVER made a single Pro Bowl. I’m embarrassed for American sports fans. Richard Semyour has made 6. (Hell, even his teammate whom he helped groom, Brent Kiesl, has made one Pro Bowl.) Seymour was and is not 6 pro bowls better than Aaron Smith; just another classic case of the media influencing perceptions of players (What’s up Carson Palmer?!). Smith was one of the elite interior linemen in the NFL and deserved well earned notoriety

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