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10 best NFL defensive players, including T.J. Watt and Myles Garrett

Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin made some news recently by concluding that T.J. Watt isn’t just one of the best NFL defensive players in the game, but that he stands above the rest.

It has created a ton of debate around the football world. Sure, Watt earned the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award back in 2021. But he joins other edge rushers in being among the best on that side of the ball in the NFL. Stars for the Cleveland Browns, Dallas Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers might take issue with Tomlin’s stance.

Meanwhile, there are two legitimate shutdown cornerbacks in the league today. Where do they stand? What about the game’s best inside linebacker?

Below, we rank the 10 best NFL defensive players in the game today. Keep in mind that this is based on entire body of work, not just the 2023 season.

Related: Top NFL Defensive Player of the Year candidates

10 best NFL defensive players

10. Aaron Donald, DT, Los Angeles Rams

best nfl defensive players: aaron donald
Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Donald, 32, is still going strong this season with 18 QB hits, 12 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks in 11 games. The future Hall of Famer might not be as dominant as he was earlier in his career when he racked up three NFL Defensive Player of the Year awards within a four-year span.

  • Aaron Donald stats (2017-20): 120 QB hits, 74 tackles for loss, 57.5 sacks, 15 forced fumbles

That was among the most-dominant four-year stretches for a defender in NFL history. Even then, Donald still has a lot to offer. The question here is whether it will be with the Rams moving forward. Donald has been mired in speculation about potential retirement or being traded to a contending team.

9. Patrick Surtain, CB, Miami Dolphins

best nfl defensive players, patrick surtain
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Still only 23 years old, Surtain is already among the only true lockdown cornerbacks in the NFL. According to Pro Football Focus, the Alabama product yielded 25 yards or less in 12 of his 17 outings as a sophomore in 2022.

Teams had called Denver about acquiring Surtain ahead of the NFL trade deadline. But the team rightfully turned away those offers. He has yet to give up a completion percentage in the 60s since entering the league in 2021 and is yielding a mere six yards per target throughout his career. The sky is the limit here.

Related: Ranking NFL defenses in 2023

8. Fred Warner, LB, San Francisco 49ers (best NFL linebacker)

best nfl defensive players, fred warner
Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

How good has Warner been since San Francisco made him a mere third-round pick back in 2018? He’s earned two Pro Bowl and two First-Team All-Pro honors, each coming over the past three seasons. Last year alone, Warner recorded 130 tackles, 10 passes defended and an interception.

What makes Warner one of the best NFL Defensive Players is both his sideline-to-sideline tackling ability and dominance in coverage. He was also the only linebacker in the league last season with both an 80-plus grade in coverage and against the run, according to Pro Football Focus metrics. Thus far this season, Warner has recorded eight passes defended with three interceptions while giving up a mere 74.0 QB rating when targeted. That seems good.

7. Maxx Crosby, EDGE, Las Vegas Raiders

best nfl defensive players, maxx crosby
Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

An argument could be made that Crosby belongs higher on this list. The 2019 fourth-round pick has already registered 18 QB hits, 15 tackles for loss and 11.5 sacks this season. If he were playing for a better team, Crosby would be considered a top-end NFL Defensive Player of the Year candidate.

But what makes Crosby even better is his consistency within an organization without it. He has not put up fewer than seven sacks in any of his first five NFL seasons. Add in the fact that he has not missed a single tackle in 2023, and we’re talking about a dude who brings it in every game.

6. Chris Jones, DT, Kansas City Chiefs (best NFL defensive tackle)

best nfl defensive players, chris jones
Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

An NFL Defensive Player of the Year finalist a season ago, Jones held out into training camp for a new contract. For good reason. The defensive tackle continues to show he’s simply one of the best all-around players in the NFL. The numbers back that up big time.

  • Chris Jones stats (2022): 29 QB hits, 20 pressures, 17 tackles for loss, 15.5 sacks, 2 forced fumbles

Just look at those numbers and tell us that Jones doesn’t bring it. Even after missing training camp and the Chiefs’ season opener, he’s been elite again in 2023 (15 QB hits, 7.5 sacks). Still only 29, look for Jones to get the Brinks Truck in free agency this coming March.

Related: Ranking the top-100 NFL players of 2023-24

5. Sauce Gardner, CB, New York Jets (best NFL cornerback)

best nfl defensive players: sauce gardner
Danielle Parhizkaran / USA TODAY NETWORK

Not only did Gardner earn Defensive Rookie of the Year honors last season, he was a legitimate candidate for the DPOY award. We’re talking about an historical performance in which Sauce gave up a mere 53.5% completion and 62.7 QB rating when targeted. Signal callers also averaged 5.3 yards when targeting the Cincinnati product.

Sure, Gardner has seen a downtick in production this season (65.9% completion, 97.0 QB rating). But this doesn’t change what he did as a rookie. We’re willing to bet that the first 10 games of the 2023 season is more of an exception to the rule for this lockdown cornerback.

4. Nick Bosa, EDGE, San Francisco 49ers

best nfl defensive players: nick bosa
Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

Much like Chris Jones, Bosa held out throughout training camp. Unlike Jones, it has impacted his raw numbers this season in comparison to Bosa’s DPOY performance in 2022. He’s recorded eight sacks in 11 games. Though, Bosa has picked up five over the past three games alone.

  • Nick Bosa stats (2022): 56 pressures, 48 QB hits, 19 tackles for loss, 18.5 sacks

While Bosa will not repeat the same otherworldly numbers we just referenced, he’s going to continue dominating moving forward this season. It’s not a coincidence that this three-game span came after San Francisco acquired fellow EDGE rusher Chase Young from the Washington Commanders ahead of the NFL trade deadline.

3. Micah Parsons, EDGE, Dallas Cowboys

best nfl defensive players: micah parsons
Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

EDGE rusher. Linebacker. Cornerback. Safety. Parsons has played all four of these positions since Dallas made the Penn State product a first-round pick in the 2021 NFL Draft. His ability to make an impact in every aspect of the game is nearly unmatched.

Consider this. Parsons has been named a First-Team All-Pro in each of his first two seasons. Last season alone, he finished No. 8 in the NFL MVP voting. Yeah, you read that right. There’s also very good reason for this. In 44 career games, Parsons has registered 189 tackles, 118 pressures, 79 QB hits, 46 tackles for loss, 38 sacks and eight forced fumbles. He’s on a Hall of Fame trajectory.

Related: 2023 NFL sack leaders

2. Myles Garrett, EDGE, Cleveland Browns

best nfl defensive players: myles garrett
Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

There is a reason why Garrett was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft. Through a mere 95 career games, the Texas A&M product has racked up 87.5 sacks. At 27, he’s already tied for 67th on the official all-time NFL sack list.

Garrett has put up double-digit sacks in six consecutive seasons. He’s currently on pace for what would be a career-high 20. What makes Garrett so special outside of his ability to get to the quarterback is the fact that he’s missed all of 13 tackles in over 5,000 career snaps on the defensive side of the ball. Just insane stuff.

1. T.J. Watt, EDGE, Pittsburgh Steelers (best NFL defensive player)

best nfl defensive players: t.j. watt
Kareem Elgazzar/The Enquirer / USA TODAY NETWORK

We don’t disagree with Mike Tomlin. With all due respect to everyone else on this list, Watt is unquestionably the best NFL defensive player. In just 98 career games, he’s the quickest player in league history to 90 sacks (91). Back in 2021, he tied Michael Strahan for the most sacks in single-season history with 22.5.

Watt has not stopped there. He currently leads the league with 13.5 QB take downs. He’s also put up 35 pressures, 25 QB hits and 12 tackles for loss. Did we mention that he’s also recorded six career interceptions? The dude is an absolute beast. It’s that simple.

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