As the decade comes to a close, we’re creating some Top 10 lists for 2010 to 2019. Up next, our Top 10 defensive linemen.
1. J.J. Watt: This week’s attempted heroics aside, Watt has been the dominant lineman in the game, with three defensive player of the year honors. The 11th overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, Watt also earned five All-Pro honors, and for a guy with his run of injuries lately, that’s even more impressive. Despite missing 33 games the last four seasons because of injury, his 96 sacks are tied for the most of any player this decade. Trying to come back from a torn pectoral muscle to play in the postseason would just add some polish to a resume that doesn’t need it.
2. Julius Peppers: There might have been other players more impactful by the end of the decade, but how many of them were All-Decade players in the 2000s? Peppers had 78.5 of his 159.5 career sacks this decade, a decade that started with the Bears (and included plays like this), and included a stop in Green Bay before returning home to Carolina. He could have probably played in the NBA because of his extreme athleticism for a man his size, but was simply better at football, and will be a future Hall of Famer.
3. Aaron Donald: The Rams defensive tackle has changed the way people look at the game, becoming an impact pass-rusher from the inside. That shortest-distance-between-two-points-is-a-straight-line style has allowed him to post 72.0 sacks in six seasons, including his 20.5 in 2018. He’s earned a pair of defensive player of the year awards, and has redefined the position, as everyone now wants to find undersized interior pass-rushers.
4. Calais Campbell: Campbell has played for a couple of almost-good teams in Arizona and Jacksonville, but has done most of his good work for bad organizations. Through it all, he’s been a productive player (81.0 sacks this decade) and is known as a leader in locker rooms. He’s the kind of player who you wish could play for a regular contender, as he deserves better than some of what he’s endured (though he willingly took the Jaguars’ money).
5. Cameron Wake: One of the all-time underdog stories in NFL history, Wake entered the league as an undrafted rookie in Giants camp in 2005, and needed two years in the CFL (where he posted 39 sacks) to get the league’s attention again. He landed in Miami and made an immediate impact there. In the last decade, only Watt and Cardinals outside linebacker Chandler Jones have more sacks than his 95.0.
6. Cameron Jordan: The Saints defensive end was not an overnight sensation, but has gradually improved to become one of the top players at his position at the age of 30. He had 29.0 sacks in his first four seasons, but has 39.5 the last three. He’s also a very good player against the run, and has accomplished something which previously seemed impossible — he has helped the Saints become good at defense.
7. Ndamukong Suh: His greatest skill might be getting paid, but he keeps getting that money for a reason. The former No. 2 overall pick by the Lions earned rookie of the year honors, before leaving to become the highest-paid defensive player in the league when he skipped to Miami. While his hired-gun routine might turn some people off, he keeps getting signed because he’s still capable of changing games.
8. Geno Atkins: If not for Donald and the fact he has labored in football obscurity in Cincinnati, Atkins would get even more recognition from the general football watching public. He deserves it. He has 75.5 sacks this decade. Unlike a lot of the players on this list, he was drafted in the fourth round, and has built himself into one of the best. And again, he’s done it for the Bengals, where .500 seems like an accomplishment, and one which is eluding them now.
9. Cam Heyward: Heyward’s position in the Steelers’ 3-4 does not lend itself to big numbers, but sacks alone can’t define his impact there (though he did have 12.0 in 2018). He’s become the foundation of a Steelers defense that has rolled a number of pass-rush options in behind him, and remains their leader.
10. Haloti Ngata: He was caught between decades (drafted in the first round in 2006), but his work as one of the best run-stuffers in football deserves recognition. Ngata was traded to the Lions in 2015, but he was the foundation of the Ravens defense, allowing the guys behind him to run free and make plays.