Ranking the 10 best defensive linemen in the NFL this season

Vita Vea
Vita Vea has a ring and a place among the best defensive linemen. Photo from USA Today.

It’s common for quarterbacks and skill players in the NFL to get most of the attention. However, we all know that games are won and lost in the trenches. That makes defensive linemen some of the most important players in the NFL, which is why it’s a good idea to take a closer look at the best defensive linemen in 2021.

Best Defensive Linemen in 2021

Of course, the competition is fierce among the best defensive linemen this season.

Every year, there seems to be a new group of players in the league who are as strong as anyone and can move far better than players of that size should. Admittedly, there is plenty of room for argument, but here is our list of the best defensive linemen in 2021 before the season gets underway.

10. Grady Jarrett, Falcons

It’s still amazing to think that Grady Jarrett wasn’t drafted until the fifth round. He’s more than lived up to that selection, even on an Atlanta defense that’s been subpar in recent years.

Jarrett has done his job, racking up 17.5 sacks over the last three seasons and being named to back-to-back Pro Bowls despite a lack of help around him.

9. Vita Vea, Buccaneers

There’s nothing like winning a Super Bowl to help put you on a list of the best defensive linemen in the NFL. Despite only playing in five games during the regular season, Vea was able to play in the Super Bowl and help Tampa’s defense.

When he’s healthy, Vita Vea is one of the best athletes imaginable who just happens to be in the neighborhood of 350 pounds. We expect his star to continue to rise in 2021 and beyond.

8. Kenny Clark, Packers

As a nose tackle, Kenny Clark does so much dirty work that gets overlooked. That makes his six sacks in both 2018 and 2019 all the more impressive, ultimately earning him a massive extension from the Packers.


Even if the numbers aren’t there, there’s no question that Clark is making an impact on games.

7. Fletcher Cox, Eagles

Fletcher Cox is no spring chicken anymore, but he still has a run of six consecutive Pro Bowl invitations. On top of that, he was named to the NFL’s All-Decade Team.

He may never be able to match the 10.5 sacks he had in 2018. But his 6.5 sacks in 2020 from an interior position are still better than most players at his position could ever hope to get. We should also mention that Cox rarely misses a game, so he’s still going strong and is one of the most dependable linemen in the league. 

6. Jonathan Allen, Washington

The Washington defensive line has become one of the best in the NFL with Jonathan Allen being a big part of that.

It’s why he received a big extension from Washington this past summer.

The sack numbers aren’t always there because he plays an interior position. But Allen has the strength and athleticism to create havoc along with his teammates, making it clear to anyone watching that’s he’s among the best linemen in the league.

5. Stephon Tuitt, Steelers

Stephon Tuitt is coming off a tough season in which he was limited to just six games. Unfortunately, playing a full season is something he hasn’t accomplished since his rookie season.

But when he’s healthy enough to be on the field, there’s no mistaking the impact that he makes. In those six games last season, Tuitt managed to collect 3.5 sacks, which would have put him on pace for a new career-high. If he’s healthy in 2021 and can play close to a full season, Tuitt could have one of the best years of his career.

4. Chris Jones, Chiefs

Chris Jones announced himself as an elite pass rusher in 2018 when he racked up 15.5 sacks. While his production has dropped off since then, it’s primarily because teams have become more afraid of him and game plan around Jones.

His back-to-back invitations to the Pro Bowl are proof of that and there’s no reason to think that he won’t continue to be an elite pass-rushing threat in 2021.

3. Cameron Heyward, Steelers

After 10 years in the NFL, Cameron Heyward is still playing at a high level, being selected to the last four Pro Bowls.

While he plays on a talented defensive line in Pittsburgh, Heyward is usually getting most of the attention. He’s frequently rated among the best players in the league regardless of position. Even at age 32, we’re still not seeing much of a drop-off from Heyward

2. DeForest Buckner, Colts

A move to the Colts in 2020 had no impact on DeForest Buckner, who’s taken himself into the elite class of linemen over the last three seasons.

His 12 sacks as an interior lineman in 2018 put him in rarefied air. He’s combined for 17 over the past two seasons since then, making it clear that season wasn’t a fluke. In fact, it’s not out of the question that the best is yet to come from Buckner.

1. Aaron Donald, Rams

As if there was any doubt who the best lineman in the NFL is in 2021. Aaron Donald has been the Defensive Player of the Year three times in the last four years and a First-Team All-Pro selection in six straight years.

Despite being listed as undersized coming out of college, he’s become a superstar. The guy is on another level compared to the other linemen in the league. For his career, Donald is averaging over 12 sacks and almost 19 tackles for loss per season, which are mind-blowing to think about and unmatched by any other player.

Find the rest of our 2021 NFL position rankings here.

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About Bryan Zarpentine 63 Articles
Bryan Zarpentine is a freelance writer and editor with most of his work focusing on the world of sports. He is a 2008 graduate of Syracuse University and still resides in upstate New York.

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