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Ranking NFL’s Best On-Ball Run Defenders

Graphic featuring cut-out images of, from left to right, Cameron Jordan, Nick Bosa, and Jeffrey Simmons

Friendly disclaimer: As we know by now, good players get left off of lists like these – especially on something such as run defense, where different people are going to value different things.

I am upset this list does not include Cameron Heyward, Quinnen Williams, Chris Jones, Dexter Lawrence and T.J. Watt, among others. With that in mind, let’s discuss and debate the league’s best frontline run defenders.

Top Frontline Run Defenders

9. DT Jonathan Allen, Commanders

There is a lot to Jonathan Allen’s game, but let’s spotlight one item: his ability to disengage from 1-on-1 run blocks. The seventh-year veteran has quick, strong and violent hands, which he uses as proficiently (and consistently) as anyone.

8. DT Jeffery Simmons, Titans

From a purely physical standpoint, no player exerts more power than the fifth-year star. He is the spearhead of a Tennessee Titans run defense that quietly dominated in 2022, holding opponents to a league-best 3.4 yards per carry. The 49ers also matched this mark. After that, no other defense kept runners under 3.9 yards per carry.

Besides plain old grown-man strength, Jeffery Simmons has uncommon initial quickness for his build, which he consistently accesses without compromising his leverage. Even when a blocker does handle Simmons’ quickness, that blocker still has to deal with Simmons’ technique and gradual strength, which are elite. Simply put: Simmons is hard to sustain blocks against.

7. DE DeMarcus Lawrence, Cowboys

DeMarcus Lawrence’s run-defending numbers might not be quite elite, but good run defense often results in numbers for other guys. Perhaps no one — save for maybe a healthy Jadeveon Clowney — is as destructive when crashing inside from off the edge.

It’s a skill that takes not just old-fashioned strength and toughness but also quickness and pliability. Crashing against the run is only viable if you maintain your gap integrity. The Cowboys also ask a lot of Lawrence in this sense. They stunted on an NFL-high 29 percent of situationally neutral 1st and 2nd down snaps last season, stunts that crash Lawrence inside and allow linebackers to play fast outside.

Miami Dolphins Christian Watson Zach Sieler
Christian Wilkins (94) and Zach Sieler (92)

6. DL Christian Wilkins, DT Zach Sieler, Dolphins

Meet the NFL’s two most underrated defensive linemen. As we wrote when spotlighting these guys as the Miami Dolphins’ X factors: Against the run, Christian Wilkins not only clogs gaps, he also sheds blocks to make stops, both play-side and back-side.

Zach Sieler is a premier anchoring defensive tackle, but that doesn’t mean he can’t win with movement. His initial quickness, including laterally, can surprise. These are two critical pieces in Miami’s new Vic Fangio scheme, where, often, both safeties align back and defensive linemen must defend a “gap-and-a-half.”

5. DT Grover Stewart, Colts

The 1-technique (aka the “nose shade”) in a classic 4-3 defense might be the most overlooked player in football. His job is to essentially two-gap in a scheme where everyone else plays one gap. If done well, the two-gap clogger generally goes unnoticed while his fellow defensive linemen shoot gaps and linebackers fly around. But Grover Stewart is the exception.

Though far from a household name, he is a high-end gap-clogger and one of the game’s most productive run-stopping playmakers. His 23 TFL+run stuffs in the last two seasons ranks fourth in the league (behind Maxx Crosby, Aaron Donald and Wilkins) and is five better than the next-highest nose shades’ (Carolina’s Derrick Brown and the Jets’ Al Woods).

Stewart does it with phenomenal initial movement skills that, while not quite those of a penetrator, routinely put him at uniquely advantageous angles as a run anchor. This isn’t to say that Stewart can’t make stops strictly off those movement skills. He has the lateral agility to collect ball carriers after anchoring and disengaging. Simply put: When it comes to defending interior gaps at the point of attack, he’s a genuine A, if not an A+.

4. DT Aaron Donald, Rams

You hear offensive and defensive line coaches always say, “The low man wins.” No one exhibits that more plainly than Los Angeles’ 6-foot-1, future first-ballot Hall of Famer 3-technique. The explosive penetration that makes Aaron Donald the most unblockable interior pass rusher — perhaps — of all time also lends itself to the run game.

Kudos to Los Angeles Rams coaches — both past and present — for giving Donald the freedom to, as he calls it, “go back door” against zone run blocks. That brand of high-risk, high-reward run defense is rarely preferable. Donald, more often than not, reaps rewards. But it’s not just the plays he makes in the backfield. Donald also has the strength and low center of gravity to anchor when the situation demands.

3. DE Nick Bosa, 49ers

You know about his 34 sacks in the past two years, which leads the NFL. But, by Pro Football Reference’s count, Nick Bosa has also been involved in a league-high 40 TFLs (some his, some collective). Masterful technique paired with consistent athletic leverage will yield such results. So will playing in a predominantly one-gap system that allows him to be of an attacking mindset on nearly every snap.

Las Vegas Raiders Maxx Crosby

2. DE Maxx Crosby, Raiders

Perhaps no defensive player has improved as drastically and steadily as the 2019 fourth-round pick from Eastern Michigan. Maxx Crosby’s 1,085 snaps last season were a staggering 127 more than the second-highest defensive lineman’s total (Detroit’s Aidan Hutchinson). Exactly 1,085 of Crosby’s snaps were at full speed.

Playing with this kind of energy is impossible without efficient mechanics, which is where we see Crosby’s steady improvement. Crosby can win with movement off the snap, disengage from contact and redirect late in the down, which is why, in the last two years, he has led the league with 31 individual TFLs/run stuffs.

1. DE Cameron Jordan, Saints

Cameron Jordan will be a fascinating Hall of Fame debate one day. His sack totals — 115.5 and counting, currently 23rd most all-time — will likely be enough to get him in. But if not, the following argument would be his involvement in 150 TFLs — 10th most all-time.

Too bad there’s not a good simple stat that reflects setting the edge because Jordan would be among the all-time leaders of that, too. Athletic talent plus technique make him a superb play-side run defender. And that talent plus effort make him an equally superb back-side run defender, as many of Jordan’s TFLs have derived from him chasing down ball carriers from behind.

Andy Benoit worked for Sean McVay and the Los Angeles Rams coaching staff from 2020 through 2022. Before that, he was a football analyst, writer and content producer for Peter King’s MMQB at Sports Illustrated, as well as at CBS Sports and The New York Times. You can follow him on Twitter @Andy_Benoit.