The 2023 NFL season will be here before you know it. Along with the quest for the Lombardi Trophy kicking off in earnest, debates over the best players in the NFL will begin anew.
As training camps open and the Detroit Lions vs. Kansas City Chiefs opening night matchup gets closer by the day, Heavy is taking a deep dive into every position in an ongoing series ranking the top five players in the NFL, by position, for the upcoming 2023 campaign.
Next up: Defensive Tackles.
1. Dexter Lawrence, New York Giants
People who have followed the Giants closely since New York drafted Lawrence in the first round of the 2019 NFL draft saw what the rest of the league and casual observers came to know during the 2022 season; very few humans on earth are as quick and explosive as Lawrence is at 6-foot-4 and 342 pounds.
Lawrence became a Second-Team All-Pro for the first time last season, and very possibly could be on track to First-Team honors if he can replicate his dominance during the 2023 campaign. Only Fred Jones produced a higher overall grade from Pro Football Focus than Lawrence’s 91.6, in 2022.
Playing a second season in defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale’s hyper-aggressive blitz-driven scheme just might give Lawrence the opportunity to build on his 9.0 sack and 63 pressure campaign from a year ago. If he does, Lawrence will claim his spot as the game’s premier interior defender.
2. Chris Jones, Kansas City Chiefs
While it’s true there is only one Patrick Mahomes, there might not be a single player on the Chiefs‘ roster who approaches the star quarterback’s value to the team’s success any closer than Chris Jones has proven to.
Jones led all interior linemen in sacks last season, with 15.5, ranking third in the NFL in the crucial category. But, sacks only tell part of the story of Jones’ transcendent dominance. Over the past two seasons, Jones has logged 142 quarterback pressures along with 25 tackles for loss.
Entering the final year of his contract, expect the Chiefs’ financial commitment to Jones to be colossal, matching his impact on the franchise’s run to a pair of Super Bowl rings over the past five seasons.
3. Aaron Donald, Los Angeles Rams
Aaron Donald is the standard by which NFL defensive line play is judged, and the Los Angeles Rams‘ star remains one of the most dominant players at his position.
Donald, a seven-time First-Team All-Pro, and three-time Defensive Player of The Year, suffered a season-ending high-ankle sprain in Week 11 of the 2022 campaign but still finished with 5.0 sacks and 40 pressures.
Despite his season being cut short by an injury, Pro Football Focus still awarded Donald a 90.5 overall grade and 90.7 pass-rush mark last season. Donald’s freakish athleticism, explosiveness, and veteran savviness as an interior pass-rusher make him a nightmare for opposing offensive linemen and the kind of player coordinators and quarterbacks alike must identify before every snap.
4. Quinnen Williams, New York Jets
After arguably the finest statistical season of his career, Quinnen Williams remains not just an ascending talent at the position but a major source of optimism that the Jets‘ defense is ready to reach greater heights in 2023.
Williams produced a career-high 12.0 sacks, doubling his 2021 output, during a stellar 2022 campaign. Opposing offensive lines had their hands full with Williams, who also led the Jets with 31 total pressures.
Quinton Jefferson’s arrival alongside Williams on the defensive line might make it more difficult for teams to straight-up double-team the former first-round pick, and could create even more opportunities for Williams to wreak havoc.
5. Cameron Heyward, Pittsburgh Steelers
Even at age 33, Cameron Heyward remains an elite defensive lineman and one of the Steelers‘ stalwart leaders.
Heyward’s 12.0 sacks last season prove that he can still play at the highest of levels, and his 78.2 run-defense grade from Pro Football Focus underscores his versatility in how he can disrupt opposing offenses.
Playing alongside T.J. Watt certainly helps create opportunities for Heyward, and second-round rookie Keeanu Benton’s arrival should draw some attention away from the veteran, as well.