Now that the NFL regular season is over, it’s time to hand out the Defensive Line All-Stars' end-of-year awards, as we highlight the best defensive linemen in football this season.
To the surprise of no one, Aaron Donald is the runaway winner of this year’s Defensive Lineman of the Year award.
Despite offenses consistently game-planning to slow him down (because stopping him is nearly impossible), Donald was the most dominant player in football, regardless of position. He finished the season with 59 tackles (25 for loss), 41 quarterback hits, 20.5 sacks, four forced fumbles, and a pass deflection.
At 6-foot-1 and 280 pounds, Donald is considered an undersized defensive tackle by NFL standards, but there's nothing undersized to his game. He possesses immense power that he uses to batter and bludgeon blockers.
Donald’s power is a perfect complement to his quickness and lateral agility, which he uses consistently to penetrate against the run and apply pressure against the pass. He is the rare defensive tackle who can corner and bend around the edge like a defensive end, demonstrating rare flexibility and fluidness as he turns the corner to flatten to the quarterback. This sack against Green Bay was a perfect example:
Donald is aligned as the three-technique defensive tackle with an outside shade over Green Bay’s left guard. Once the ball is snapped, Donald veers outside in an attempt to run a T-E stunt with Ndamukong Suh.
However, because Packers left tackle David Bakhtiari uses a quick set, it eliminates Donald’s ability to pick him off so that Suh can loop around and apply pressure on Aaron Rodgers. With the stunt ruined, Donald seamlessly converts his rush upfield, does his best Von Miller impression to drop his pad level and turn a tight corner as Rodgers reaches the apex of his drop.
Notice how Donald’s stride length and frequency allow him to maintain his balance and momentum through contact, allowing him to flatten to the pocket and bring down Rodgers for the sack.
Defensive tackles simply aren’t supposed to move like that. In a league of physical and athletic freaks, Donald may be the freakiest one of them all for his size and position.
Outside of his physical talents, Donald's also one of the smartest and most technically refined players in the NFL; he's an expert at identifying and attacking weaknesses in an opposing team’s blocking scheme. He also has the deepest repertoire of pass rush moves and footwork in the league, using a deep array of cross chops, two-hand swipes, fork lifts, and spin moves to beat opposing blockers.
While he didn't break the single-season sack record, Donald was able to show why he’s the best defensive lineman of this generation, and the best defensive tackle in NFL history.
In a season that was chock full of examples of quality pass rush moves, Jadeveon Clowney’s rip-pull down move stood out above the rest. Here's a perfect demonstration of the move from a sack in Jacksonville:
Clowney's aligned with an outside shade over Jacksonville left tackle Josh Walker. Once the ball's snapped, Clowney fires out of his stance and pushes vertical. When he gets within striking distance, known as the "combat zone," Clowney places his outside hand on Walker’s outside elbow before sliding it to his wrist as his inside hand comes underneath to grab Walker’s outside triceps.
Instead of lifting his inside arm to the sky as you would see on a typical rip move, Clowney pulls down on Walker’s outside arm with his inside hand, putting a ton of pressure on Walker’s outside wrist, which forces the Jacksonville left tackle to lose his balance and grip. From there, Clowney is able to flatten to the pocket to bring down the QB.
The move resembles a wrestling arm drag more than anything typically used on a football field, a big reason why offensive tackles were unprepared to stop it this season, as it’s a move unique to Clowney.
Clowney's is a unique twist on a common move that nearly every defensive lineman has in his repertoire, making it the best pass rush move of the season.
While the NFL is now geared primarily toward the pass, it's still important to be able to stop the run, and Damon "Snacks" Harrison is the most dominant run defender in the league.
At 6-foot-3 and 355 pounds, Harrison's already difficult enough to move off his spot, but combine his size with outstanding hand technique and body positioning and he's virtually impossible to displace up front.
While a majority of defensive tackles make most of their plays - if not all - between the A-gaps, Harrison possesses the lateral mobility and awareness to make plays in the B-gaps and beyond.
Harrison often makes defending the run as an interior defender look way too easy, as he's able to stack and shed blocks from 300-plus pounders without much stress. This play is a great example:
Harrison's the nose tackle aligned head up on Bears center Cody Whitehair. After the ball's snapped, Harrison mirrors the initial movement of Whitehair while attaining superior hand placement at the point of attack.
Even though Whitehair has the leverage advantage with better pad level, he’s unable to displace or even budge Harrison off his spot, which shows how strong and difficult "Snacks" is to move.
Harrison can get eyes on the running back and identify his path. Once the running back decides to hit the A-gap, Harrison's able to easily come off his block and make the tackle at the line of scrimmage.
It's best to measure Harrison's impact against the run by looking at how Detroit fared with and without him.
Without Harrison, Detroit allowed 5.5 yards per carry and a 49.1 percent run success rate. With Harrison, Detroit allowed 3.03 yards per carry and a 37.9 percent run success rate, according to The Quant Edge. Allowing 5.5 yards per carry would rank last in the NFL this season, while allowing 3.03 yards per carry would rank first, meaning Detroit boasts the NFL's worst run defense by YPC without Harrison and the best with him.
Harrison's truly one of the best interior defenders in the NFL, despite being snubbed from the Pro Bowl, largely because of his ability to play the run. Regardless of competition, location, or the talent surrounding him, Harrison will always defend the run at a high level, and that's why he's the winner of the Run Defender of the Year award.
Many will say Chris Jones of the Kansas City Chiefs deserves this honor after being snubbed from the Pro Bowl, but he's likely to make an All-Pro team, making it difficult to argue he’s the NFL's most underrated defensive lineman this season.
Despite a lack of accolades, Flowers was outstanding this season, accumulating 57 tackles, nine for loss, 20 quarterback hits, 7.5 sacks, three forced fumbles, and two pass deflections. He plays all over New England’s defensive line, and the Patriots love to use him as a mismatch weapon up front.
Even though Flowers wasn’t blessed with great athletic traits, he's one of the most refined defensive linemen in the league and possesses impressive power at the point of attack. On top of that, his timing allows him to be an effective hand fighter when rushing the passer. Here’s a great example:
Flowers is aligned as the three-technique defensive tackle with an outside shade over Packers left guard Lane Taylor. After the ball is snapped, Flowers steps toward the midline of the guard before expanding outside and executing a perfectly timed two-hand swipe to beat Taylor’s hands.
Notice how Flowers uses his left hand to cover Taylor’s outside hand as he moves by the Packers' left guard. That makes it nearly impossible for Taylor to re-leverage his hands, leaving Taylor unable to recover, which allows Flowers to get into the backfield to help bring down Rodgers for the sack.
Flowers’ timing and technique are the foundation of his skill set, and are the main reasons why he’s so effective. Fans didn't send him to the Pro Bowl and writers may not make him an All-Pro, but that doesn’t change the fact Flowers is still one of the most effective defensive linemen in the NFL, making him the best choice to win the (highly coveted) Most Underrated Defensive Lineman of the Year award.
John Owning is a football writer at theScore. He has written for Bleacher Report and Football Insiders. He was also the lead NFL content editor at FanRag Sports. John provides analysis on the Dallas Cowboys for the Dallas Morning News and edits for The Quant Edge. Find him on Twitter @JohnOwning.