Ranking the top 40 defensive linemen entering the 2022 season (25 edge/15 interior)
Using years of film study, numbers and discussions with several Pro Bowl & All-Pro offensive linemen to rank the game's best defensive linemen
Each year I put together scouting profiles and video libraries breaking down the top 10 or so edge and interior pass-rushers in the NFL for the annual OL Masterminds event. The goal is to provide a snapshot of how each player has success, what moves they are using, from what alignment and then show what that looks like with film cut-ups.
As I’m studying every game of the season focused primarily on the offensive line, I take notes on what I see from their opponents across the line of scrimmage and have cataloged my findings over the last six or so years. This all works together to maintain a knowledge-base on which players are the best, knowing how they win (pass-rush plan, run-defense, etc.) and tracking development in their game along the way.
This list is aimed at expanding the top 10 at each position (edge/interior) to dive deeper into my notes and share a more detailed look at the landscape of defensive linemen in the NFL as we enter the 2022 season.
I am a big fan of using ‘tiers’ to separate good from great (or elite from very good, good and solid) while the actual rankings within the tiers are more subjective based on what flavor or style the evaluator prefers.
To learn more about my grading scale and how I arrive at these conclusions, check out my recent article where I ranked the top 15 OL at each position (top 75) entering the season here.
Since the impact on the passing game and quarterback is paramount for the defensive side of the ball, I am weighing their skill-set rushing the passer over defending the run.
Side note: As you work your way through these rankings, you’ll notice that there are more top-tier rushers than offensive linemen. This has pretty much been the case since I started studying and chronicling the trenches in 2014. There is just more talent along the defensive than offensive line on a yearly basis. There are a few reasons for this that stem from the early stages of playing the game. Defensive linemen accumulate stats, rely more on raw physical talent and obtain much more notoriety than offensive linemen. This is inherently understood at the youth and high school levels and it carries over to higher levels. There’s also a stigma behind playing offensive line. It is often seen as a ‘last resort’ type of position that carries a negative connotation of the player not being athletic enough to make it at other more glamorous positions. It’s also deeply misunderstood by most fans and observers of the game, even those playing other positions.
This quote from recently retired LT Alejandro Villanueva sums it up well.
Tier 1 - Elite
Tier 2 - Very good
Tier 3 - Good/Above average
Tier 4 - Solid with traits and flashes of more
*All stats via TruMedia
2022 Edge-rusher Rankings
Tier 1 - Elite
1. Myles Garrett
Garrett is coming off back-to-back First-Team All-Pro selections. He set career highs in tackles (51), sacks (16, nine of them high-quality), and tackles for loss (17), plus the former first overall pick posted double-digit sacks for the fourth year in a row. There is no more physically imposing or gifted edge-rusher in football than Garrett, who wins with equal effectiveness from either side of the formation, reduced inside and using elite power or speed. Garrett is still astonishingly only 26 years old and has several years of peak play left.
2. Joey Bosa
Over the last several seasons, I haven’t seen a more skilled edge-rusher than Joey Bosa. The numbers don’t completely justify this praise (although those are good too), but the film (especially against premier competition) and anecdotes from those tasked with blocking him make a pretty persuasive argument.
Bosa is capable of winning with as deep of a repertoire of moves as any rusher in the NFL and can identify, exploit and capitalize on the slightest of openings. That’s why offensive linemen and coordinators fear him.
On third and fourth downs last season, Bosa was tied for fifth in pressures at 29 with Aaron Donald and Rashan Gary and tied for third in sacks in the same situations with Cameron Jordan and his brother Nick Bosa. Over the last three seasons, the older Bosa ranks second overall in sacks on third and fourth downs with 18.5, trailing only Jordan who has 21 (T.J. Watt is third with 15.5). Over the last four seasons, Bosa ranks second overall in pressure percentage on all downs at 15.9%, trailing only Shaquil Barrett at 16.0%. During those same four seasons, no rusher in football has a better pressure percentage on third and fourth downs than Bosa (22.6%). No other rusher cracks 20%.
When I asked former Chiefs four-time All-Pro RT Mitchell Schwartz to summarize what makes Bosa so special, he replied, “He’s got elite physical traits, elite skill, and an elite mental game. So he doesn’t rely on just athleticism, or just good moves, or just out-thinking you. He can do any and all of those so it’s the most difficult situation as a blocker. He can win inside, outside, or with power. Can beat you quick or with a 2nd or 3rd move. Takes advantage of anything you give him in your set. And because he can do all that there isn’t one specific thing he relies on more than anything else you can really take away.”
3. Nick Bosa
There is a case to be made that the younger Bosa brother is the best edge-rusher in football from a pure talent and skill perspective. The numbers are also there as he finished fourth in sacks (15.5) and fifth in pressures (67) last season. He also was third in sack score and tied for second with Myles Garrett in ‘high-quality sacks’ in 2021 with nine (Robert Quinn was first with 11).
Bosa is a game-wrecker that can win with dominating power or throw an array of moves to slip by blockers in a flash. Similarly to his brother, Nick can adapt on the fly using extraordinary fluidity to take advantage of whatever the blocker presents him with. He is also a stud run-defender that plays all over the line of scrimmage.
I asked former Rams legendary LT Andrew Whitworth to give me a quick breakdown of the younger Bosa. “A James Harrison and Terrell Suggs type of guy in their primes,” Whitworth told me. “His legs are always churning and it allows him to consistently take the shortest path to the QB because of his power.”
4. T.J. Watt
Watt won his first Defensive Player of the Year award in 2021, leading the NFL in sacks (22.5), and he leads all rushers over the last four seasons in sacks with 60 (second is Aaron Donald with 59). Watt is also tied for first with Joey Bosa over the last two seasons in pressure percentage at 16.2%. The numbers show Watt’s impact is undeniable. His get-off is as good as any rusher in the game and it allows him to ‘edge’ tackles almost at will. This means that he can get the ‘half-man’ relationship on the vast majority of competition consistently, allowing him to capture the corner with a dip-rip, swipe, ghost or cross-chop move while having an effective long-arm technique to work inside if tackles open their hips prematurely.
The one slight knock on Watt is that he is much more siloed to playing on the left side of the defense, meaning he gets to face right tackles more than Garrett and the Bosa brothers, who impact the game on a comparable level from more alignments.
2021 LDE (over the RT) - RDE (over the LT) splits:
Watt - 702/21
Garrett - 121/756
J. Bosa - 622/228
N. Bosa - 486/366
Given that right tackle is a much weaker position top to bottom than left tackle, Watt is able to feast on lesser competition more often compared to the other players mentioned above him.
Separating these two tiers was extremely difficult. You can easily extend Tier 1 a few spots to include older rushers that can play at an elite-level in high-leverage moments, although their down-to-down consistency at this point in their careers is more of a question than those mentioned above.
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