The Dallas Cowboys, Green Bay Packers and Oakland Raiders will be among the popular preseason Super Bowl picks this summer. There is good reason for that -- they all have excellent offenses led by superior play by their quarterbacks. But they could also struggle considerably when it comes to defending the middle of the field, at least compared to some of the more complete teams around the league like the New England Patriots.
This week, we are ranking the "interior defense" for all 32 teams, meaning defensive tackles, nose tackles and inside linebackers. Let's see who is rock solid up the middle.
*Indicates rookie status
1. Los Angeles Rams -- Aaron Donald, Michael Brockers, Alec Ogletree, Mark Barron, Tanzel Smart*, Cory Littleton
The Rams may be lucky to even get to "7-9 bulls--t" next season, but they won't be held back by the interior of their defense, which is the best in the NFL. Donald is one of the top 10 players anywhere, Ogletree was a second-team All-Pro, while Brockers and Barron get overshadowed a bit, but possess exceptional talent that made them top-15 picks. Los Angeles was first in the league last season in "Stuffed Rank," meaning that they held backs to zero or negative yards on 29 percent of run plays.
2. Carolina Panthers -- Kawann Short, Luke Kuechly, Star Lotulelei, Vernon Butler, David Mayo, Ben Jacobs, Kyle Love
As if it weren't enough that the Panthers have Short, who just signed a five-year, $80.5 million contract, and Kuechly, a three-time All-Pro and one-time Defensive Player of the Year, and Lotulelei, 2013's first round pick in a contract year, they also have Butler waiting in the wings for his opportunity. Last year's first round pick, Butler will probably replace Lotulelei in a year, but for now Carolina gets to see what it looks like when they have all of these players (hopefully) healthy at the same time.
3. Baltimore Ravens -- Brandon Williams, C.J. Mosley, Kamalei Correa, Michael Pierce, Patrick Onwuasor, Brennen Beyer
We found out how highly teams value Williams, an elite run-stopper, when he signed a five-year, $52.5 million contract to remain in Baltimore. Only Brockers has a higher APY as a nose tackle, but Williams got a record guarantee ($24.5 million) for the position. Mosley has made two Pro Bowls and two All-Pro rosters in three years.
4. Seattle Seahawks -- Bobby Wagner, Jarran Reed, Malik McDowell*, Ahtyba Rubin, Naz Jones*, Quinton Jefferson, Michael Wilhoite
Seattle ranked first in the NFL in YPC allowed and second in run defense DVOA, thanks in large part to another elite season by Wagner, who is ever-so-close to a Defensive Player of the Year award. Reed is on his way to becoming one of the top run-stoppers in the game, while Pete Carroll is hoping that McDowell becomes his pass rushing specialist from the inside.
5. New York Giants -- Damon Harrison, Dalvin Tomlinson*, Keenan Robinson, Jay Bromley, Robert Thomas, Mark Herzlich, B.J. Goodson
The Giants finished second in YPC allowed, third in run defense DVOA, and third in rushing yards allowed mainly thanks to Harrison, maybe the best run-stopper on any defensive line on any team. They lost Johnathan Hankins, but added Tomlinson in the second round.
6. New England Patriots -- Dont'a Hightower, Alan Branch, Malcom Brown, Kyle Van Noy, Vincent Valentine
Another unit that the Pats are quite comfortable with. Hightower signed a four-year deal to remain in New England because of course he did, as he helped Bill Belichick's defense allow an NFL-low six rushing touchdowns. Brown has flown under the radar, but could be one of the position's top-paid players very soon.
7. Tampa Bay Buccaneers -- Gerald McCoy, Kwon Alexander, Chris Baker, Clinton McDonald, Sealver Siliga, Stevie T'Ikolovatu, Kendell Beckwith*
Tampa struggled against the run (22nd in YPC allowed), but the talent with McCoy and Alexander is obvious and the defense improved as the season wore on. Things should only get better in Mike Smith's second season as defensive coordinator. Some have called Baker the "steal of free agency."
8. San Francisco 49ers -- DeForest Buckner, NaVorro Bowman, Earl Mitchell, Quinton Dial, D.J. Jones*, Brock Coyle
While the Niners could be headed toward another season with double-digit losses, the middle of their defense should be a strength. Switching from a 3-4 defense to a 4-3, Bowman must adjust to some new tasks, but he's proven to be a top-five linebacker when healthy. Buckner had 77 tackles and six sacks as a rookie and has Donald-like potential. If Bowman goes down for any reason, San Francisco has some interesting depth with rookie Reuben Foster, if necessary.
9. Philadelphia Eagles -- Fletcher Cox, Timmy Jernigan, Jordan Hicks, Beau Allen, Elijah Qualls*, Joe Walker
Cox is undeniable, but Hicks improved immensely last season and the addition of Jernigan could prove huge.
10. Minnesota Vikings -- Linval Joseph, Eric Kendricks, Jaleel Johnson*, Ben Gedeon*, Sharrif Floyd (inj)
The time for denying Joseph his place among the current greats may be over. He was a first-time Pro Bowler in 2016, registering 77 tackles, four sacks and three forced fumbles. Kendricks is a fine middle linebacker, and the team added two more interior players in the fourth round.
11. Tennessee Titans -- Jurrell Casey, Sylvester Williams, Austin Johnson, Wesley Woodyard, Avery Williamson
Another reason to believe the Titans may run away with the AFC South. Tennessee was second in rushing yards allowed and first in Power Success rate, shutting down third or fourth-and-short on an NFL-best 55% of attempts. Casey is one of the best interior pass rushers in football, Williamson a fast-rising linebacker, and Williams was a first round pick by Denver in 2013 who may still have his best football ahead of him.
12. Buffalo Bills -- Marcell Dareus, Kyle Williams, Preston Brown, Gerald Hodges, Adolphus Washington, Jerel Worthy
Like the Bucs, the Bills also had a bad run defense despite talent on the inside. New defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier looks to change that this year and with Dareus, Williams and Brown, he's got more to work with than most new coaches.
13. New Orleans Saints -- Nick Fairley, Sheldon Rankins, Manti Te'o, Tyeler Davison, David Onyemata, A.J. Klein, Stephone Anthony
Te'o is more name than performance, but the interior of the defensive line in New Orleans could be among the most disruptive duos in the league. Fairley and Rankins combined for 10.5 sacks last season despite Rankins missing seven games. Anthony is a first-round bust, but perhaps the potential will be realized one day.
14. Atlanta Falcons -- Deion Jones, Dontari Poe, Grady Jarrett, Ra'Shede Hageman, Joe Vellano, LaRoy Reynolds
If the Falcons get back to the Super Bowl next season, it will most likely be because of a huge step forwards on defense, because they're certainly going to take a step back on offense. The good news is that Dan Quinn's D has some really exciting young players, beginning with Jones. The linebacker led the NFL with 165 interception return yards and two pick-sixes as a rookie. Poe had some excellent years in Kansas City and could be the bargain of free agency after signing a one-year deal.
15. Cincinnati Bengals -- Geno Atkins, Andrew Billings, Kevin Minter, Ryan Glasgow*, Pat Sims, Vincent Rey
This pretty much all boils down to Atkins. Somehow it feels like he's being overlooked (that can happen when playing for the Bengals) despite another stellar season, adding nine more sacks to his resume from the DT position. Billings won Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year in 2015 and then missed all of his rookie season with a torn meniscus.
16. Miami Dolphins -- Ndamukong Suh, Lawrence Timmons, Jordan Phillips, Davon Godchaux*, Vincent Taylor*, Mike Hull
It's hard to get excited about a team that was so bad at run defense (NFL-high 4.8 YPC allowed) but Suh is still an elite player and Timmons was a good pickup from Pittsburgh, albeit as a guy who could be nearing the end of his career.
17. Washington -- Zach Brown, Mason Foster, Stacy McGee, Ziggy Hood, Matthew Ioannidis, Martrell Spaight
Washington may have done the most to revamp this part of the defense over the offseason, adding Brown and McGee via free agent deals, plus signing Terrell McClain and drafting Jonathan Allen, both of whom will play end but could also play inside. Brown played one year in Buffalo and was named as a Pro Bowler and second-team All-Pro. He pairs with Foster, who had just five missed or broken tackles against 80 solo tackles, one of the best rates in the NFL.
18. Houston Texans -- Benardrick McKinney, D.J. Reader, Brian Cushing, Carlos Watkins, Sio Moore
McKinney was second-team All-Pro after registering 129 tackles and five sacks. Cushing's best years are probably behind him, but he's still capable. Houston could use better production at nose tackle, but Reader was a rookie and may be headed towards better things.
19. Jacksonville Jaguars -- Malik Jackson, Myles Jack, Abry Jones, Sheldon Day, Stefan Charles, Audie Cole, Blair Brown*
It was risky to give Jackson $85.5 million, but his first year was a success. He was disruptive in the middle, finishing with 6.5 sacks, a new career-high, and 27 pressures. Per PFF, only Donald and Atkins made impact plays at a higher rate for interior defenders.
They need to see more from Jack and their other interior players, however.
20. Pittsburgh Steelers -- Ryan Shazier, Vince Williams, Javon Hargrave, Daniel McCullers, Steven Johnson, L.J. Fort
Shazier had a career season and seems on the way to being another great Steelers linebacker, but he still has a problem with missed or broken tackles (FootballOutsiders counted 20 such plays against him). Hargrave showed some nice things as a rookie and Pittsburgh could look for ways to keep him on the field. The loss of Timmons after 10 seasons should be felt and it's too soon to say if Williams is up to the task to be more than a two-down linebacker.
21. Denver Broncos -- Brandon Marshall, Todd Davis, Domata Peko, Zach Kerr, Billy Winn, Corey Nelson, Zaire Anderson
Denver's defense was elite again, finishing first in DVOA. Davis, a former UDFA, quietly led the team with 97 tackles and had only three missed tackles. Injuries ate up some of Marshall's time. Peko, a steady 11-year veteran, replaces Sylvester Williams and he may or may not be an upgrade, as no interior player for the Broncos seems to be on his way to elite status; luckily, they have great defenders almost everywhere else.
22. Cleveland Browns -- Danny Shelton, Larry Ogunjobi, Christian Kirksey, Jamie Meder, Caleb Brantley*, Gabe Wright, Tank Carder
Shelton and Kirksey are two of the best young players on the team. It's really a matter of continuing to get better, which I think most of us are always hesitant about expecting when it comes to the Browns.
23. New York Jets -- Darron Lee, Demario Davis, Steve McLendon, Mike Pennel, Bruce Carter
The Jets could have the best run defense in the NFL again, but most of that comes from the edges. That's where their star players play. Lee is fun a player to watch, but some question his ability to bang inside with the big boys. McLendon could add 3-4 sacks from the inside and Davis returns after one season in Cleveland.
24. Kansas City Chiefs -- Bennie Logan, Derrick Johnson, Ramik Wilson, T.J. Barnes, Justin March-Lillard, Terrance Smith
K.C. pretty much flipped Poe for Logan, which seems like a parallel move. Johnson chugs on for another season, but is recovering from a torn Achilles. The Chiefs' strengths on defense may not be on the inside.
25. Arizona Cardinals -- Deone Bucannon, Karlos Dansby, Corey Peters, Zaviar Gooden, Scooby Wright, Xavier Williams
The Cards were second in YPC allowed and excellent up the middle on defense, so what changed? This is all about the loss of Calais Campbell. Bucannon is a really nice player, but arguably not a star as a pure middle linebacker. Dansby and Peters serve as experienced veterans, but overall this could become a major weakness in Arizona.
26. Chicago Bears -- Eddie Goldman, Danny Trevathan, Jerrell Freeman, John Jenkins, Nick Kwiatkoski
As strong as the Bears are in the interior of their offensive line, they could perhaps be that weak on the defensive side. Goldman seems good, but has been hurt throughout his career, including an ankle injury that cost him 10 games last season. Trevathan missed seven games and is questionable for the start of the season. Freeman is a tackling machine but his extraordinarily high grade from PFF is more of a sign that PFF's grading system is inherently flawed than anything else. He's sure-handed, good in coverage, but not the best linebacker in the league.
27. Detroit Lions -- Haloti Ngata, A'Shawn Robinson, Jarrad Davis*, Akeem Spence, Jordan Hill, Nick Bellore
The Lions interior feels like it's stuck in the nexus between what could have been great and what could be great. Instead, it just feels mediocre. Ngata is past his prime, Robinson may or may not exceed his second round draft status of a year ago, Davis seems like a very good pick but is only a rookie.
28. Los Angeles Chargers -- Brandon Mebane, Corey Liuget, Denzel Perryman, Joshua Perry, Korey Toomer, Ryan Carrethers, Tenny Palepoi
The Chargers held opponents to 3.8 YPC, but allowed 20 rushing touchdowns. Mebane is 32 and while Liuget had 26 hurries, he finished with zero sacks. Is Perryman ready to step up and become a feared middle linebacker in Gus Bradley's 4-3 defense? Too many question marks here for L.A. to feel very comfortable in this area despite okay depth at linebacker.
29. Indianapolis Colts -- Johnathan Hankins, Edwin Jackson, Sean Spence, Antonio Morrison, Anthony Walker Jr*, T.Y. McGill, Grover Stewart*, Al Woods
New defensive tackle Hankins said that he thinks the Colts have the best defense in the AFC. That'd be a shock given that they were 30th in yards allowed, 29th in DVOA and 32nd in run defense DVOA. Hankins is gonna help, but when facts are faced, it's clear that the defense will again struggle. They just need to show any progress at this point.
30. Green Bay Packers -- Montravius Adams*, Blake Martinez, Jake Ryan, Christian Ringo, Letroy Guion (susp), Joe Thomas
I'm not sure any of these three inside starters -- Adams (third round rookie), Martinez, or Ryan -- could start on many defenses. Not with where they are at in their careers right now. Guion faces his second suspension in three years for off-field incidents, this time it's for four games.
31. Dallas Cowboys -- Cedric Thornton, Maliek Collins, Anthony Hitchens, James Morris, Stephen Paea, Joey Ivie*, Jordan Carrell*
The Cowboys have an incredible offense and they're going to need all of it. This unit may be too unbearable to watch for Dallas fans and could give up considerable leads unless they go way above what most think they're capable of.
32. Oakland Raiders -- Jihad Ward, Justin Ellis, Cory James, Ben Heeney, Eddie Vanderdoes*, Trevon Hester*
Oakland and Dallas basically find themselves in the same position in that regard. This seems like a really weak unit that won't provide much pressure on the QB or stop the run, so keep attacking the Raiders up the middle and opposing offenses may at least give fans high-scoring games, if that's your thing.