Top 10 edge rushers and interior linemen for 2021: Aaron Donald reigns, plus a pair of AFC North stars


It is once again top 10 week here at CBSSports.com. Last week, my colleague Cody Benjamin walked through the top 10 quarterbacks for the 2021 season, Patrik Walker unveiled the top 10 running backs, Jordan Dajani ranked the top 10 tight ends, Tyler Sullivan picked the top 10 tackles and interior offensive linemen, and I handled the top 10 wide receivers. 

Already this week, Sullivan went back and got to the top 10 safeties and Walker came through with the top 10 corners. In the space below, I’ll reveal our top 10 edge rushers and interior defensive linemen for the 2021 season. 

Edge

Hunter is coming off an injury, but you have to feel pretty good about his getting back to full strength. He got his money, so he’s in camp. He’s still just 26 years old, and he has three double-digit sack seasons under his belt already, including back-to-back seasons with 14.5 in 2018 and 2019. Mike Zimmer always puts his guys up front in position to succeed, and he’s entering his physical prime. He should be back at or near the top of his game. 

Young’s rookie season went just about the way everybody expected it to, and he should continue his progression this year. He is a physical marvel with a refined set of moves and counters, and he plays on the best defensive front in the league, with Montez Sweat, Jonathan Allen, Da’Ron Payne, and Matt Ioannidis helping him push the pocket up front. It shouldn’t take Young too much longer to put everything together. If and when he does, the sky is the limit. 

Jones only played five games last season and recorded just one sack and seven quarterback hits. That was extremely out of character for him, given that he had previously played 64 of 64 possible games since arriving in Arizona, totaling 60 sacks and 98 QB hits. It’s unlikely that he actually holds out into the season, and he should benefit from rushing alongside and/or across from J.J. Watt, by far the best player with whom he will have played up front. 

Smith is the rare former sub-package Ravens edge rusher who has been able to maintain his pace and production on a different team and in an expanded role. Since the Packers gave him a four-year, $66 million deal prior to the 2019 season, Smith has played 84 percent of defensive snaps and collected 26 sacks and 60 quarterback hits. He is versatile enough to come off the edge or rush from the interior, and he’s solid against the run. Just a really good, complete player. 

This is admittedly a bit of a projection, but I can’t help it. This dude is so uniquely skilled. He has the fastest pass-rush get-off in the league, per NFL.com’s Next Gen Stats, and he’s already been really productive (16.5 sacks, 37 hits, eight tackles for loss) despite playing just 43 and 71 percent of snaps in his first two NFL seasons. Now that the Panthers have added some more talent up front to take some of the pressure off, Burns should have even more room to operate. He should continue playing a larger and larger share of snaps. The 15 to 20-sack season is coming soon. This year could be it. 

Barrett might be the best value bet for Defensive Player of the Year. The Bucs defense is going to be one of the best in the league. He is going to collect a lot of sacks and a lot of hits, and due to his age, he is less likely than Jason Pierre-Paul to have his snaps managed throughout the year. He’s one of the rare free agents that probably actually did take less money to stay with the team of his choice, which shows that he realizes how good he has it playing alongside JPP and the rest of that defensive front. You know Todd Bowles is going to send him after QBs early and often, and those QBs will pay dearly for it. 

The Bosa brothers are so, so good, and also still somehow underrated. Joey has had injury issues during his career but when he is on the field, he is just outrageously productive. Last season, he led all edge rushers in Weighted Overall Win Rating (WOW Rtg), which measures how often a player makes plays in the backfield in comparison to the average player at his position. Nick showed in 2019 that he might be even more talented than his older brother, but we were robbed of his second NFL season when he went down in Week 2 with an ACL tear. This is still a guy who had nine sacks and 25 hits as a rookie, and there’s little reason to expect he won’t be able to get back to peak form, given the recent history of ACL comebacks for NFL players. 

We’re really splitting hairs at No. 1 and No. 2, which is why I’m grouping them together here. Like his older brother, Watt has developed into a full-fledged force who causes all kinds of ridiculous problems for defenses. He led the NFL with 15 sacks and 23 tackles for loss last season, added a career-high 41 QB hits, and checked in fourth in the aforementioned WOW Rtg (third among players with 30-plus snaps per game). Garrett, so far, has been almost but maybe not quite as impactful a player as Watt. He’s missed some time with injuries, carried a lower snap rate. It feels like there is still meat left on the bone for him, room for him to reach an even higher level than he’s already at. Putting him at No. 1 is a bet on that upside.  

Interior 10. Jonathan Allen, Washington

Allen’s sack production dipped a bit lass season, but he was no less impactful a player. Even with the dip in sacks, he checked in 19th among interior defenders (out of 137 who played 25-plus snaps per game) in WOW Rtg. He and Payne form one of the league’s best interior defensive line duos, and they benefit greatly from having Young and Sweat rushing from either side of them. Going into his age-26 season, Allen should be in line for his best year yet. 

The Titans defense leaves a lot to be desired. Last year, they simply could not generate any pressure off the edge. This year, there is not a lot in the way of defensive back talent. But Simmons has made them look quite smart for nabbing him in the middle of the first round back in 2019, when it wasn’t clear that he’d be able to play at all during his rookie season. Now full-strength and having a full offseason for the first time, he should be able to tap into his considerable skill set and make an even greater impact. 

Clark spends most of his time playing nose tackle, so he doesn’t get a lot of publicity. That’s a shame, because he’s not your average nose tackle. He can get up the field and move a quarterback off his spot, which is beneficial even if he’s not the one that collects the sack. (It’s usually Za’Darius Smith.) He does a terrific job of balancing occupying blockers and casually discarding them as he attempts to make a play in the backfield on his own. Just a really good, really smart, really underrated player. 

Jarrett’s sack numbers dipped last season (he had four after collecting 13.5 in the previous two seasons) but he established a new career high with 21 quarterback hits. He made a play in the backfield 29 percent more often than the average interior lineman, and was named to his second straight Pro Bowl. Heading into his age-28 season, Jarrett is right in his prime and should continue to play at a high level. 

The Steelers had three interior linemen who could have made this list, given how Tyson Alualu played last year. But Heyward and Tuitt are the lynchpins of that defense, due to the havoc they can wreak as 3-4 defensive ends. They ranked fourth (Tuitt) and eighth (Heyward) in WOW Rtg last season, and they each carried snap loads in excess of 50 per game. The Steelers’ depth will be tested this year as they have let contributors leave for salary-cap reasons, but they have nothing to worry about with their starters. These guys are studs. 

Vea was in the midst of a breakout season (and perhaps the most impactful game of his career) when he was sidelined with a nasty-looking leg injury in Week 5 against the Bears last season. He was able to return for the NFC title game and Super Bowl and played a role in helping the Bucs get their championship, but he wasn’t at the peak of his powers. He should be able to get on the field for even more snaps in Year 3, and he has the benefit of playing alongside Barrett, Pierre-Paul, Ndamukong Suh, and Steve McLendon, with Todd Bowles putting them all in position to succeed. He’s going to have great success. 

If you want to put Jones ahead of Buckner, I’m not going to argue that hard against it. He’s really good. These guys are absurdly close, which makes sense given their similarity as players and the way they make their respective impacts both on their own defenses and the opposing offense. Both are huge (Buckner is 6-7, 300 pounds and Jones is 6-6, 310 pounds), unfairly quick, and capable of single-handedly wrecking the middle of the opposing offensive line due to their fast get-off and ability to knife through blockers on their way to the quarterback or running back. Buckner is just on the field more often, as a percentage of snaps, which allows him to make a slightly greater impact. 

The easiest part of any top 10 list was placing this guy in this spot. He is the best defensive player in the NFL, and arguably its best player overall. He is a monster who cannot be stopped, and until further notice should be considered the Defensive Player of the Year favorite every year. 



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