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NFL Podium Awards: Justin Smith headlines interior DL stars

Greg Trott/Associated Press
Justin Smith is a menace as both a run defender and pass rusher, earning first-team All-Pro honors in 2011.

Former NFL scout Daniel Jeremiah is getting into the Olympic mindset early this summer, handing out NFL Podium Awards for the top three players at each position group. Remember, this list is based on where these players are ranked heading into the 2012 season. Today, he takes on interior defensive linemen.

NFL Podium Awards

Daniel Jeremiah gets into the Olympic mindset and recognizes the top three players at each position.

Quarterback: Rodgers edges Brady, Brees
Running back: McCoy atop hierarchy
Wide receiver: Megatron snags top spot
Tight end: Gronkowski grabs gold
Offensive line: Evans headlines o-line
Defensive line: Smith atop interior DL
Pass rushers: Ware sets standard on the edge
Linebacker: 49ers duo rules position
Defensive back: Revis reigns supreme
Special teams: Hester no-brainer for gold

In the NFL, the flashy edge rushers get all of the attention, but there are several interior defensive linemen who can be just as dominant. Baseball analysts always point out that it's important to have a strong defense up the middle and the same holds true for football. There were plenty of quality candidates for the podium, but these three players are the best of the best.

Gold: Justin Smith, San Francisco 49ers

Smith tops the list of interior defenders because of his ability to dominate as both a run defender and pass rusher. Against the run, he is too physically strong to move off the line of scrimmage and quick enough to shoot gaps and wreak havoc in the backfield. As a pass rusher, he might have the best bull rush of any defensive lineman in the league. He constantly pushes the pocket and forces the QB off his spot. He was always a solid player in Cincinnati, but he has taken his game to new heights in San Francisco. In four years with the 49ers, he's compiled 29 sacks and made each of the last three Pro Bowls.

Silver: Haloti Ngata, Baltimore Ravens

I was the West Area Scout for the Ravens when we drafted Ngata out of the University of Oregon in the 2006 NFL Draft. In scouting, there are some players that take a long time to figure out. That wasn't the case with Ngata. As dominant as he was on defense, it was his play on special teams that I will always remember. Against the University of Arizona, he blocked a punt and then pursued the punter after he had scooped up the ball. Ngata eventually caught up to the punter, tackled him in the open field and broke the punter's leg. That's when I realized this was a unique talent. During his six seasons in Baltimore, he's been both consistent and dominant. The 330-pounder is impossible to move against the run and he's developed into a solid pass rusher, as evidenced by his 10.5 sacks over the last two years. With the injury to Terrell Suggs, the Ravens will rely on him more than ever in 2012.

Bronze: Calais Campbell, Arizona Cardinals

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There were several legitimate contenders for this spot, but Campbell is one of the NFL's budding superstars. He doesn't garner much national attention because he plays in Arizona, but every NFL team knows this is a very special talent. He had a phenomenal year in 2011, recording 72 tackles, eight sacks, 10 pass knockdowns and three blocked field goals. Over the last three seasons, he's tallied 21 sacks. He does all of this damage while playing in a three-man front where his first responsibility is to stop the run. The Cardinals made a smart business move and locked him up earlier this month with a five-year, $55 million deal. At only 25 years old, he should maintain his spot on this list for the next several seasons.

Others considered: Ahtyba Rubin, Cleveland Browns; Geno Atkins, Cincinnati Bengals; Richard Seymour, Oakland Raiders; Cullen Jenkins, Philadelphia Eagles; B.J. Raji, Green Bay Packers; Jay Ratliff, Dallas Cowboys; Vince Wilfork, New England Patriots; Ndamukong Suh, Detroit Lions; J.J. Watt, Houston Texans; Darnell Dockett, Arizona Cardinals; Tommy Kelly, Oakland Raiders; Kevin Williams, Minnesota Vikings.

Follow Daniel Jeremiah on Twitter @MoveTheSticks.

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