Five Years of PFF Grades: Top 10 Interior Defenders

Khaled Elsayed continues our look back at the best performers in the NFL over the past five years by turning his attention to the defensive line.

| 4 years ago

Five Years of PFF Grades: Top 10 Interior Defenders

It’s been five seasons since PFF opened its door and tackled the subject of performance-based evaluation in the NFL.

We’ve seen many breathtaking performances, whether it be over a year or in an individual game, but we’ve never really looked back on things in a longer sense. So consider that something we’re rectifying, adding up the grades each player has got and then normalizing their performance on every snap based on the position they played.

We’ve shown the Edge Rushers, the Wide Receivers, the Cornerbacks, and the Linebackers… Now we move onto the 3-4 defensive ends and defensive tackles.

(*Players had to have participated in at least three seasons to qualify, so there’ll be no J.J. Watt this year)

Overall Defensive Interior

1. Justin Smith, San Francisco 49ers (+158.3)

He’s been some player since the 49ers lured Smith away from Cincinnati. Getting better and better each year, the former first-round pick has proved near unblockable during his 49ers tenure, culminating in him leading our 3-4 defensive end rankings in 2009, 2010 and 2011.

It was that 2011 season that earned Smith the praise he so duly deserved, as his dominance could’nt be hidden any longer. Finishing second in our list of NFL players for the season, he combined fearsome pass rush with dominant run defense. So what if his 2012 season was a step off that, Smith is still the top player at his spot by some distance.

2. Geno Atkins, Cincinnati Bengals (+130.4)

The scary thing for all the future challengers here is that Atkins made it to second spot despite playing in only three seasons. Imagine where he’d be (first) and by how much (a lot) if he came into the league two years earlier?

After an encouraging rookie year that highlighted his potential, Atkins would go onto finish second overall in our defensive tackle rankings in his second campaign. But that was just a tip of the iceberg compared to his 2012 season where he didn’t just top our rankings, but had a grade over twice as good as the next best defensive tackle. At the moment Atkins isn’t just the best defensive tackle in football, he’s a candidate for the best player out there.

3. Kevin Williams, Minnesota Vikings (+112.8)

We’re no longer in the heyday of Kevin Williams’ career, but don’t think he’s not still a productive player, as evidenced by still finishing in the Top 10 of our defensive tackle grades the past two years.

However, the reason Williams is so high is primarily down to his work between 2008 and 2010. As one half of the “Williams Wall” he finished in the Top 3 of his positional rankings each year, with his 2008 season being something truly special  — as evidenced by his league-leading Pass Rushing Productivity score.

4. Calais Campbell, Arizona Cardinals (+84.3)

The former second-round pick started out slowly in Arizona, rarely seeing the field as a rookie in 2008. However, when Antonio Smith left town and a starting spot opened up Campbell showed exactly why the Cardinals had so much faith in him.

His early seasons showed Campbell primarily a potent pass rusher, finishing in the Top 3 of 3-4 defensive ends in this category between 2009 and 2011. That alone would justify his draft status and then some, but if 2012 showed anything it was that Campbell was becoming a more complete player, as he finished third overall in his positional rankings. He’s getting better.

5. Kyle Williams, Buffalo Bills (+71.4)

While playing in Buffalo doesn’t lend itself to national fame and recognition, the consistently excellent performances of Williams haven’t gone unnoticed by ourselves.

Outside of a mildly disappointing 2009, and missing most of the 2011 season, Williams has been the standout Bill on either side of the ball. His big year, 2010, was truly something to behold as he picked up a defensive-tackle leading 40 defensive stops in the run game and the second highest Pass Rushing Productivity score of his peers. At just 30 years of age, there’s still a lot of gas left in the Williams tank.

6. Richard Seymour, NE & OAK (+67.7)

There aren’t many defensive tackles penalized as much as the ultra aggressive Seymour, but it’s something you learn to live with given what he brings when he is on the field.

Capable of blowing up running plays and simply too explosive for interior linemen when rushing the passer, Seymour was a star in New England and delivered on a disappointing Raiders team. A unique athlete capable of lining up anywhere along the defensive line, it’s something of a shame we may have seen the last of him.

7. Albert Haynesworth, TEN, WAS, NE & TB (+64.9)

We look back on the career of Haynesworth and wonder what could have been. Not because he was a failure when he was on the field, but because he seemed capable of so much more. At times simply unplayable, his career in Tennessee was marred with some controversy (as it was elsewhere) but also some stellar play where he was a wrecking ball that one lineman wasn’t enough to stop. His seventh place spot, despite hardly playing over the past three years, should highlight just how good he was.

8. Haloti Ngata, Baltimore Ravens (+64.8)

The past two years haven’t been the best for Ngata, as injuries have left him become somewhat less consistent. But on any given Sunday, and on any given play, Ngata still has that unique level of athleticism that causes all sorts of problems wherever he lines up. That’s why he’s graded positively over the past five years and a betting man would bank on that continuing for the foreseeable future.

9. Sione Pouha, New York Jets (+61.7)

Let’s be honest. Pouha hasn’t made this list because he’s a proficient pass rusher.

No, Pouha has made this list because when it comes to stuffing the run, there hasn’t been another like him. A wrecking machine who can handle two-gapping, shed blocks as if they’re not there, and make plays on the ball carrier, it’s amazing to think that he came to prominence only in 2009 when Kris Jenkins went down for the year.

Since then he’s finished in the Top 5 of our run defense rankings in three of the past four years (missing only in 2012 when he was out hurt). Players like Pouha don’t grab the headlines, but that doesn’t mean they are not doing a heck of a job.

10. Broderick Bunkley, PHI, DEN & NO (+61.5)

Much like Pouha, Bunkley isn’t one to make life hard on the quarterback. Unlike Pouha he’s a different breed of destructive force in the run game.

Lined up over the center he isn’t preoccupied with playing two gaps. Instead, he’s a wrecking ball that wants to get into the backfield, redirecting plays or hammering running backs as he blows up offenses. That doesn’t always lead to big numbers (though Bunkley dominated our Run Stop Percentage signature stat in 2011), but it does lead to the opposition having a much harder time running the ball.


Top 10 Overall: Run Defense

1. Sione Pouha (+74.4)

2. Brodrick Bunkley (+67.2)

3. Vince Wilfork (+65.2)

4. Haloti Ngata (+60.4)

5. Kyle Williams (+59.0)

6. Justin Smith (+58.6)

7. Aubrayo Franklin (+57.5)

8. Mike Devito (+56.4)

9. Kevin Williams (+50.7)

10. Justin Bannan (+42.3)


Top 10 Overall: Pass Rushing

1. Geno Atkins (+88.9)

2. Justin Smith (+87.9)

3. Antonio Smith (+84.9)

4. Kevin Williams (+71.4)

5. Calais Campbell (+66.9)

6. Cullen Jenkins (+64.4)

7. Richard Seymour (+50.7)

8. Shaun Rogers (+41.8)

9. Ndamukong Suh (+41.7)

10. Jay Ratliff (+40.0)


Follow Khaled on Twitter: @PFF_Khaled


  • Kevin

    Love this feature and love this list. One question though. Doesn’t the grading system favor 3-4 DEs and 4-3 DTs over NTs? While a guy like Atkins, Smith or Williams can get credit for their run stopping ways and getting pressure on the QB, the same doesn’t really make sense for a NT. A player like Haloti Ngata or Vince Wilfork grades out very well in run defense but not in pass rushing. The reason being though is because the NT’s primary role in that type of sequence is to make multiple guys block them and free up others on the defense to attack the QB. Nothing shows up on the pass rushing stat sheet there for the NT, but they played an important role in getting pressure on the QB. So, I just had that one question. I know 3-4 DEs and 4-3 DTs may also face this double teaming (See: Justin Smith), but not nearly to the extent of NTs. Your pass rushing productivity device may indeed account for that, but I don’t know it well enough to be sure. Just want to know if this difference was accounted for or not.

    • Cptjesus

      Very few players, even nose tackles, exclusively line up as a 0 technique nose, particularly in pass rush situations. If you have a guy athletic enough in pursuit to make a difference (like Ngata), then he gets moved along the line, if not in position then at least in gap assignment

  • JaTerrance Dwayne Young

    Especially 2 down NTs who don’t pass rush @Kevin