The defensive tackle position has been having something of a renaissance in recent years. It started in with the 2010 draft class, 6 of whom appear on this list. As the game moved towards a pass-first offense the big, slow defensive tackles began to disappear and be replaced by smaller (in NFL terms) and more nimble players. From who is at the top of the lists you’ll be able to see that getting to the quarterback, even from defensive tackle, is valued more highly than stopping the run. The important thing to remember when seeing these gaudy numbers is that most players won’t make the full amount shown. NFL contracts are not fully guaranteed, some of the money included are bonuses that are unlikely to be met. About 60% of a contract might be fully guaranteed so when you see a player you don’t think is good and they are said to be making $10 million a year you can knock that down a bit in your head. Note: The positions and contract totals are from spotrac.com. Some players may have played a 3-4 DE role rather than traditional DT one but have still been included as spotrac.com labels them DT’s.
Ndamukong Suh, Miami Dolphins: $114,375,000
No surprise to see Suh at the top of this list. He hit free agency last year after Detroit couldn’t afford to franchise tag him, never mind re-sign him. There were a lot of bidders for Suh’s signature and in the end the Dolphins won out. In 2015 the general narrative was that Suh was playing lazy. He wasn’t chasing plays or performing at the level he had in Detroit. In reality Suh played a massive 85% of Miami’s defensive snaps, his highest since 2012. That takes its toll on play-to-play performance. He still finished with 6 sacks and 17 tackles for loss while absorbing more attention from offensive lines than ever due to a less than stellar supporting cast. Suh will struggle to out-perform his contract, but he’s still a superb player who deserves every cent.
Marcell Dareus, Buffalo Bills: $96, 574,118
You know what I said about smaller, lighter DT’s being the prevailing trend? Well Dareus bucks that. Drafted 3rd overall in 2011 at 331lbs, Dareus no doubt plays heavier than that now, but he is still an absolute force in the trenches. Dareus signed his extension in September 2015 after a career-year in 2014 that featured 10 sacks. The change to Rex Ryan’s defense was always going to take away from Dareus on the stat sheet but that doesn’t mean he’s been any less impressive on the field. His power and stoutness demand double teams but he can still stuff inside runs and push the top of the pocket. He is, quite simply, a beast.
Gerald McCoy, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: $95,200,000
Like Suh McCoy was a top pick in 2010. However unlike the Lions, Tampa Bay had enough cap space to offer McCoy a huge extension and in October 2014 they locked him down for 7 years at what was then the largest contract ever for a Defensive Tackle. McCoy isn’t quite the pass rusher Suh is, and he has had more injuries so far, but he’s arguably a better run defender than Suh and he’s hit 8.5 sacks in each of the last 3 seasons. McCoy is well deserving of this contract, he has been one of the few players keeping Tampa Bay from true awfulness for the last few seasons. That alone would be enough to deserve a hefty pay packet but his on-field production is off the charts and he doesn’t look like slowing down any time soon.
Geno Atkins, Cincinnati Bengals: $53,327,000
Atkins may be getting far less than the top 3 on this list but don’t let that fool you, Atkins is comfortably in their level of ability on the field. He wasn’t a top draft choice, falling to the 4th round in 2010 before the Bengals snatched him up. He started just 1 game as a rookie but by 2011 had won himself a starting job. In 2012 he truly broke out, setting a franchise record with 12.5 sacks and signed his $53 million contract in September 2013. Unfortunately just 6 weeks later Atkins tore his ACL, costing him the rest of the 2013 season and really most of the 2014 season too. While he played all 16 games he was a shadow of the 2012 Atkins that wowed the league. However he returned to form spectacularly in 2015, finishing with 11 sacks and leading the team with 17 tackles for loss and is set to out-perform the rest of his contract. There are few reasons for Atkins being on much less than the top 3. Timing is one issue. It’s older than the others, and set the market for elite defensive tackles rather than reacted to it. But he also suffered from being a low draft pick. As a 4th round selection he earned peanuts compared to Suh, Dareus and McCoy on his rookie contract. The pay rise he got was similar to the other 3, he was just starting from $40,000,000 behind.
Corey Liuget, San Diego Chargers: $51,250,000
With Liuget we hit the first really questionable contract. As the 18th pick in 2011 Liuget came in with a lot of expectations but he hasn’t lived up to them. The best that could be said about him during his rookie contract was that he was reliable. Liuget missed one game his rookie season and played every game up until this year when he missed time. But he’s never really stood out as an above average contributor. He averages just over 4 sacks a year which is nothing special and can go missing against the run. There is still some potential there but when the Chargers handed him a 5-year, $51 million extension before last season everyone was surprised and it’s doubtful he really lives up to that price tag.
Tyrone Crawford, Dallas Cowboys: $45,000,000
Crawford has moved around the defense a lot in his few years in the NFL. He started as a 3-4 DE, then became a 4-3 DE before eventually finding a home as s 4-3 DT. That shifting of position, scheme and role have stunted his development somewhat, as did missing the whole 2013 season with a torn achilles. Crawford has been developing well as a 4-3 DT, no doubt thanks to Rod Marinelli’s presence as the defensive line coach, but he’s not nearly as productive as some of the others on less money than him.
Arthur Jones, Indianapolis Colts: $33,000,000
Jones was drafted by Baltimore in 2010 as run stopping 3-4 DE but signed a 5 year, $33 million deal with Indianapolis as a free agent in March 2014. It’s difficult to say whether or not Jones has been worth the investment made in him since he’s been struck down with injuries for most of his Colts career. In 2014 ankle issues, stemming from trying to play through a high ankle sprain, limited him to just 9 games through the regular season and for most of it he was not playing at anything close to 100%. Then in the 2015 pre-season another ankle injury shelved him for the whole season. Jones proved his effectiveness as a run defender with the Ravens, but after trimming down roughly 20lbs to try and prevent future ankle issues it’s unclear if he will be the same force when he returns in 2016.
Linval Joseph, Minnesota Vikings: $31,250,000
As we get further down the list we reach more and more run stuffing DT’s. Joseph is another 2010 draft pick, taken in the 2nd round by The Giants to shore up their interior. He did just that but left as a free agent and signed a 5 year deal with the Vikings in March 2014. Since then Joseph seems to have stepped his game up and in 2015 he was one of the best run stoppers in the league. His impact as a pass rusher is minimal, he will usually be on the sideline for 3rd downs but more than earns his money when he’s eating up double teams and making life easier for everyone around him.
Dan Williams, Oakland Raiders: $25,000,000
Like the last few names, Dan Williams has recently moved home. Drafted 26th overall by Arizona in 2010 (there’s that year again) Williams was an important player for the Cardinals from day 1 as the nose tackle in their 3-4 defense. As a nose tackle his stat lines never looked impressive but his job was to make others look good, and he did that. With the move to Oakland for the 2015 season Williams had a bit more freedom to get involved with the ball carrier as well as double teams, finishing with a career high 48 tackles. Williams still has room to improve but he’ll never be that good a pass rusher. Like Joseph he makes way on 3rd downs regularly.
Kyle Williams, Buffalo Bills: $22,300,000
Williams is a different beast to the others. The 3 year, $22.3 million deal he signed in 2015 was a restructure of his existing deal that he signed before the 2011 season – and a 1 year extension, paying him a little more now for flexibility later. He is also the oldest player on this list by far, drafted in the 5th round in 2006 Williams will be 33 when he next takes the field. Williams has long been a productive and destructive player for Buffalo, moving around as the defensive fronts shifted but never looking out of place. As strong as an ox and surprisingly quick Williams gets good pressure on passers as well as demanding attention against the run. Unlike Dan Williams & Linval Joseph he doesn’t need to be replaced on 3rd & long situations. He has 3 seasons with 5 or more sacks, including an outstanding 10.5 sack campaign in 2013. A knee injury ended his 2015 season early, and maybe will limit him going forward but Williams has been a loyal servant of the Bills and well deserving of his pay check. So there you have it, the top 10 earners at the defensive tackle position. It’s no surprise that the most money was obtained by Suh on the free market over the extensions handed to Dareus and McCoy, and yet that figure would be dwarfed if Aaron Donald were to hit free agency when it opens this year….