Interior pressure is becoming more of a priority and less of a novelty. The NFL interior defensive linemen free agency rankings become all the more important with a weak EDGE class. But there is far more nuance in regard to interior play, so it wouldn’t have been fair to simply line up a bunch of pass rushers who can’t defend the run from 1-15.
2023 IDL Free Agency Rankings
The top players in the free agency class can do a bit of everything. While it wouldn’t be fair to call most of them elite run defenders, they’re certainly not liabilities against the run. The true run defenders come later in the rankings with the likes of Greg Gaines, Poona Ford, Linval Joseph, and Shy Tuttle.
Check out PFN’s Top 100 Free Agents to see where each player ranks.
1) Daron Payne
Nobody will mistake Daron Payne for being one of the best run defenders in the NFL. If you ask your interior defenders to two-gap to allow linebackers to flow freely, you’re not using Payne correctly. He’s not a consistent run defender, but he is a disruptive one.
Only Christian Wilkins and DeForest Buckner had more defensive stops than Payne in 2022. He was fourth in tackles for loss and seventh in average tackle depth. However, being a consistent pass rusher and run defender is difficult when you’re a 300-plus-pound DT playing nearly 90% of the defensive snaps in each game.
Payne won’t be a fit for every defense. He’ll need to be signed by an even front team that likes their defensive interior to be disruptors in a single gap. While he has the frame and power to play a different style, disruption is in Payne’s nature.
2) Javon Hargrave
Speaking of having a disruptive nature. Few interior defenders have been more disruptive than Javon Hargrave over the past two seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles. He finished fourth in defensive pressures in 2022 and tied for sixth the season before.
Like Payne, Hargrave’s not known for his ability as a run defender. But unlike Payne, who at least flashes as a disruptor in the run game with some impressive consistency, we don’t see that same presence with Hargrave. At times, Hargrave hurt the Eagles with his inability to remain gap-sound in the run game.
MORE: Running Back Free Agency Rankings 2023
Hargrave is also five years older than Payne, who will be only 26 entering his sixth NFL season. If both players are going to cost around the same coin, why wouldn’t a team prefer the younger Payne, who might be persuaded into a longer-term length, which could help with the receiving team’s salary cap space over the next several seasons.
3) Dalvin Tomlinson
If Payne and Hargrave are lightning, Dlavin Tomlinson is thunder. The 6-foot-3, 330-pounder isn’t the gap-slicing 3-technique DT that gets paid extortionate amounts of money. However, there are few better at being the best of both worlds than Tomlinson, who provides value as a pass rusher and run defender.
Tomlinson spent most of his time in New York splitting between the A and B gaps, but played far more snaps with an outside shade to the guard in Minnesota, because the Vikings had a few other hosses on the interior to plug the A gap.
4) David Onyemata
Although David Onyemata is technically a free agent, it doesn’t make much sense for the New Orleans Saints not to figure out a long-term deal with the defensive tackle. No matter what, he’ll cost the Saints over $10 million against the cap in 2023. That’s a big chunk of change for a defensive tackle who won’t play a snap for your football team.
At 31, Onyemata still has some great football left in him. Tuttle and Marcus Davenport are free agents, so the team cannot afford to lose three of their top five defensive linemen.
Onyemata can still rush the passer at a high level, and he’s been a very strong run defender over the past few seasons. Everyone on the Saints’ defensive line had a down season in 2022, and Onyemata was not immune to that. Even if New Orleans needs to give Onyemata fewer snaps to maximize his value, it would serve them well, because he has a fantastic pass-rush plan when pinning his ears back.
5) Fletcher Cox
Fletcher Cox and the Eagles are in a weird position heading into 2023. The veteran defensive tackle made $14 million on his one-year deal with Philadelphia, who tacked on a few void years to spread out his cap hit. With so many defensive mouths to feed in free agency, the 33-year-old may find himself in a new uniform for the first time since 2011, when he was playing college ball at Mississippi State.
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Cox is still an outstanding athlete for the position, but he’s not able to maintain a high level of play against both pass and run anymore, at least at a high snap count. But he still played over 64% of the defensive snaps for the Eagles, who could lose both Cox and Hargrave in the offseason if they’re not careful.
Rest of IDL Free Agency Rankings
6) Sheldon Rankins
7) Greg Gaines
8) Dre’Mont Jones
9) Poona Ford
10) Linval Joseph
11) Larry Ogunjobi
12) Shy Tuttle
13) Matt Ioannidis
14) Morgan Fox
15) Teair Tart
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