In preparation for NFL training camps kicking off, we at Full Press Coverage will preview 10 of the most notable players at each position around the league. In these groupings, we will examine the three best (The Now), four who are ready for the next step (The Next) and three who have to show some sign of life in 2019 (The Needy). Next up, interior defenders.
1. Aaron Donald, Rams
This one can stay short. Donald is the twice-defending Defensive Player of the Year with pressure and sack numbers unparalleled among interior defenders in the past 20 years. Donald is arguably the best player in the league, regardless of position, period.
2. Fletcher Cox, Eagles
Cox is the Rafael Nadal to Aaron Donald’s Roger Federer. Were it not for another player reaching unseen heights at his position, Cox would be talked about as one of the greats to ever do it. This past season, Cox posted a whopping 95 pressures per PFF and 80.5 hurries/knockdowns per STATS. Those numbers dwarf every interior defender ranked third or lower. The problem is that Cox’s insane production is relatively tame compared to Donald’s. Cox ranks second at his position in virtually every pass rushing category, and many of his numbers are matched in recent league history by only Donald. Simply put, Cox is a special talent the likes of which few in the NFL have ever equaled. It is frankly a shame that his immense talent is overshadowed.
3. J.J. Watt, Texans
Watt versus Chris Jones was the ultimate choice to make for this list. Ultimately, Watt’s historically great run since 2012 gives him the edge over Jones here. His bounce-back 2018 was especially impressive, given the potentially debilitating nature of his back issues. It is frankly astonishing that Watt was back to form, if not quite up to the MVP candidate we saw him at not long ago.
Watt has been and remains the quintessential defensive lineman. He can move up and down the line, though he primarily sticks inside as a 3-4 end. He rushes the passer with the best of them and holds the line to stuff the run or chase down from the backside. Some may be turned off by his age and the recent injury history. But the truth is that if anyone can overcome that and stick with the elite of the elite, it is Watt. He has earned the benefit of the doubt.
Honorable Mentions: Chris Jones, Damon Harrison, Geno Atkins, Akiem Hicks, Calais Campbell
1. Michael Pierce, Ravens
Big, space-occupying noses still hold their place, even as the NFL shifts to pass rush specialization on the defensive line. And Pierce fits the mold of the next Damon Harrison. He took a pretty substantial step already in his first three years, becoming a stout run defender after going undrafted in 2016. In fact, PFF had Pierce second behind only Harrison in run-stop percentage last season. That much of his game is elite already. Where Pierce has lots of room to grow is in his pass rush. In 2018, STATS ranked Pierce 72nd among defensive tackles in hurries/knockdowns with only 9.5.
Now, as a run-stuffing nose, Pierce is not called upon to get pressure at a high rate. But other run-centric tackles have amassed much better pressure numbers, including Harrison who recorded 16 hurries/knockdowns last year. This year, it looks like Pierce is making more of a commitment in that area. After showing up to minicamp out of shape, The Baltimore Sun’s Mike Preston reported that Pierce looked slimmer and quicker this week at camp, down 20 or 30 pounds. If he can add a stronger pass rush element to his game, Baltimore will have their anchor in the middle for years to come.
2. Jonathan Allen, Washington
Injury troubles behind him, Allen became the player his first-round talent would suggest in 2018. He ranked 19th among all defensive tackles with 33 hurries/knockdowns, per STATS, and recorded eight sacks. More importantly, he proved he could stay on the field by starting all 16 games and logging almost 800 snaps in year two. Whenever he has been healthy, Allen has proven a multi-dimensional talent with dominant potential. His pass rushing ability is already in the upper tier of the NFL, and his run defense is not far behind. With him and fellow Alabama alum Daron Payne manning the middle, Washington has an excellent young core up front.
3. Larry Ogunjobi, Browns
Ogunjobi was an iron man for the Browns last season. For a player his age to play the number of snaps he did on the inside is nothing short of commendable. And it was not just quantity; Ogunjobi gave the Browns a lot of quality play in his second year in the NFL. His 33 defensive stops ranked eighth among all interior defenders. The next step for Ogunjobi is to translate his elite combination of size and athleticism into some consistent pass rush ability. Do not be mistaken: he certainly has a high motor and can finish plays, as evidenced by his 5.5 sacks last year. But as far as one-on-one pass rushing, Ogunjobi has further development to do. Perhaps with fewer snaps, better wind and a freer system, year three can be a true breakthrough for Ogunjobi.
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4. Eddie Goldman, Bears
Goldman’s ascent in the Bears’ defense was a slow burn, to be sure. He was a solid rotational piece his first few years in the NFL and an average starter on an average defense. But then last season, something clicked and suddenly, Goldman was a well rounded machine and a huge part of Chicago’s leap in the standings. He set career highs in pressures and run stops and was a strong complement to Akiem Hicks and Bilal Nichols inside. It was a big year for Goldman, as he had just signed a sizable extension in the offseason. But he showed enough to prove he deserved the pay raise. His next step would be continued development in his good-not-great pass rushing, while also maintaining the elite level of his run defense.
1. Robert Nkemdiche, Free Agent
Nkemdiche was number one on this list before the news of his cut hit the airwaves. Now teamless, Nkemdiche’s career is in jeopardy. His reputation for coasting has followed him since high school. He was a candidate to be the first overall pick in 2016, but a windfall of reports and circumstances dropped him into the back end of the first. Arizona took a flyer on him. And if he had played up to his immense talent, it would have been a steal for an already talented defense. But Nkemdiche lived up to none of it and Arizona decided they wanted nothing more of him after he came back from ACL recovery out of shape.
It is possible Nkemdiche does not land on a team this year. After all, not only did the defending worst team in football decide they did not have room for him, but he is coming off a knee injury in December. If he does end up somewhere else, Nkemdiche will have one chance to prove that he can bring his professionalism up to the level of his talent.
2. Solomon Thomas, 49ers
Drafted as a classic 4-3 end, Thomas’ role in San Francisco has moved him inside primarily as a pass rusher. In base defense, he still gets his run as an end, but a good chunk of the time, he will rush from three- or four-technique. By most indications, that has played better to Thomas’ strengths thus far. Now, whether or not that is his ultimate role is not totally clear. What is clear is that Thomas has not approached the potential his third-overall selection would suggest. Just four career sacks, a modest-at-best pressure rate and a swath of incoming pass rush talent mean that Thomas is fighting for his life in the 49ers’ rotation.
As it stands, he will not see snaps ahead of Nick Bosa or Dee Ford, so interior pass rusher may be his position from here on out. If he can prove himself valuable in that area, perhaps he can find a nice second contract.
3. Vernon Butler, Panthers
Here we are, three years into his career and former first-rounder Butler has yet to become more than a rotational piece. Per PFF, Butler has not eclipsed 330 snaps in any season. Compare that with Ogunjobi, who amassed nearly 1,000 in 2018. Granted, Carolina has a bit more in front of Butler with Kawann Short. But first-round picks should become starters at some point, and ideally high-end starters. When Butler has played, he has flashed his potential from time to time. He has size and athleticism for days, but simply has not yet figured out how to put it all together. And accordingly, Carolina has only used him in limited runs. With the Panthers’ defense far from the elite group they were a few years ago, they will be desperate to see something resembling first-round talent from Butler in 2018.
–Sam Smith is the Managing Editor for Full Press Coverage Vikings and Deputy Editor for Full Press NFL. Like and Follow @samc_smith.
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