|Young players Terrance Knighton, Sedrick Ellis, Kendall Langford and Ndamukong Suh made Pat Kirwan's list.|
Ranking the interior defensive linemen in the NFL required me to break the players into four distinct groups just to do justice to the different assignments asked of them in various schemes around the league.
A 3-4 nose tackle is asked to command double teams and prevent guards and centers from getting to second-tier blocking at the linebacker level. A 4-3 nose tackle is required to penetrate the inside "A" gap and often loop around and be responsible for containing the "C" gap. Then there are 3-4 defensive ends who really aren't ends, but instead work down into the "B" gap to defending power running plays. Then there is the hard-to-find, 4-3 three-technique tackle who is asked to penetrate and be disruptive.
With four distinct assignments for defensive tackles, I differentiated the groups and ranked the top five players within each category. As always, the players will be presented in alphabetical order.
There are certainly more quality 3-4 nose tackles than 4-3 nose tackles. If Pat Williams retires, for example, I don't believe any of the top five 4-3 nose tackles would make a list of the top ten overall of the position. Conversely, there are more 4-3 three-technique tackles than 3-4 defensive ends who meet the criteria for evaluation as interior defensive linemen. Keep in mind most 4-3 teams are using high draft picks on the three-technique tackles, not nose tackles. But both play an important role in the defense.
3-4 NOSE TACKLES
Casey Hampton, Steelers: He's manned the nose tackle spot in Pittsburgh for 10 seasons and usually gives up his body to force double-teams to free the Steelers' great inside linebackers to make tackles. Hampton only got credit for 10 solo tackles last season, and has nine sacks in his career. Forget the stats -- Hampton does his job on a championship defense.
Sione Pouha, Jets: Maybe the most underrated nose tackle in the NFL. Pouha originally got on the field because Kris Jenkins was always injured, but proved he deserves the job. In two seasons as the starter he has 74 tackles, two sacks and three forced fumbles.
Jay Ratliff, Cowboys: The premiere nose tackle in the NFL and always a Pro Bowl player who gets it done despite being undersized at the position. While most 3-4 nose tackles are around 350 pounds, Ratliff plays at closer to 300. He has 17 sacks in the last three seasons and six forced fumbles over the last two.
Vince Wilfork, Patriots: A mountain of a man on the inside for the Patriots who simply clogs the middle of the line. But don't let Wilfork's big body fool you -- he can move well and usually delivers about 40 tackles and two sacks per season.
Kyle Williams, Bills: A rising star after being a fifth-round pick in 2006. Williams is undersized at 6-foot-1 and 305 pounds, but plays with great leverage and quickness. As one offensive line coach said, "If he was somewhere besides Buffalo, everyone would look at him like Jay Ratliff." Williams has 95 solo tackles and 9.5 sacks the last two seasons.
4-3 NOSE TACKLES
Terrance Knighton, Jaguars: A little-known player out of Temple in 2009 sets up perfect next to last year's first-round pick, DT Tyson Alualu. Knighton was in on 34 tackles and managed four sacks while also collapsing the pocket.
Domata Peko, Cincinnati: You can't miss Peko's long hair flying out the back of his helmet, or his quickness on the Bengals' front. His production doesn't show up in big numbers, but Peko is a disruptive force inside as well as working down the line of scrimmage.
Roy Miller, Buccaneers: Is solid in the Tampa-2 defense. Brian Price was drafted last year to play the nose position, but struggled to beat out the little known Miller before going down with an injury. Ask coaches about Miller and you will find out they really respect him. Has 80 tackles and three sacks in two NFL seasons.
Fred Robbins, Rams: An underrated pass rusher who has a terrific combination of power and quickness for a big man. Robbins followed Coach Spagnuolo from the Giants to the Rams and had six sacks this last season and even had eight passes defended. Robbins has been in the league 10 seasons but has recorded 25 sacks in the last five seasons.
Pat Williams, Vikings: An inside force who made up half of the "Williams Wall" along with Kevin Williams. He's been talking retirement, but we'll see when the lockout is lifted. Pat Williams has been an NFL starter for 14 seasons and plays more like a 3-4 nose tackle clogging up the middle. If he decides to play but doesn't return to the Vikings, 3-4 teams could be very interested in his services.
4-3 DEFENSIVE TACKLE (3 TECHNIQUE)
Sedrick Ellis, Saints: A thick, quick, fire plug who can penetrate. Ellis is the least productive of this group of five, and guys like Mike Patterson (Eagles) and Jonathan Babineaux (Falcons) got strong consideration for this spot.
Jason Jones, Titans: Jones might be the "new" guy for lists like these, but too many coaches and offensive linemen mentioned him when I asked about defensive tackles. Jones had 35 tackles and 3.5 sacks in his first full year as a starter.
Richard Seymour, Raiders: A top defensive lineman in the league for 10 seasons who can play in any scheme and virtually any position. In 29 games with the Raiders over the last two seasons, he has 95 total tackles and 9.5 sacks. Seymour has become a team leader and has brought out the best in DT Tommie Kelly.
Ndamukong Suh, Lions: Suh is already the best inside player in the NFL no matter what scheme is being used. He has the whole package of speed, power, quickness and a nasty streak. Suh led all inside defensive linemen with 10 sacks as a rookie and was in on 66 total tackles.
Kevin Williams, Vikings: A perennial Pro Bowl tackle and five-time first-team All Pro selection. His production fell off drastically last season with one sack and 27 total tackles. Another year like that and Williams won't make this list in 2012.
3-4 DEFENSIVE ENDS
Cullen Jenkins, Packers: We all saw what Jenkins is capable of in the Packers' run to the Super Bowl. He's a free agent right and will get a lot of interest. Jenkins had seven sacks in 11 games last season and probably would have closed in on Suh if he played all 16 games.
Kendall Langford, Dolphins: It took some time for this young player from Hampton to develop, but in his first full season as a starter he produced 47 total tackles, three sacks and six tackles for a loss.
Haloti Ngata, Ravens: Might be the second-best interior defensive lineman in the NFL after Suh. Ngata is an absolute force against the run and is improving as a pass rusher. He runs like a guy half his size and the Ravens move him all over their defensive front.
Justin Smith, 49ers: Smith made the Pro Bowl as a defensive tackle even though he's a 3-4 defensive end. He was involved in 70 total tackles and recorded 8.5 sacks in 2010 and plays with a big time motor.
Finally, you'll notice that no where on this list did you find Albert Haynesworth, Kris Jenkins, Shaun Rogers, Ty Warren or Jamal Williams. Those players were under consideration, but simply have to reinvent their game or in some cases get healthy.