It might be a golden age in defensive tackle play across the NFL. The Los Angeles Rams’ Aaron Donald might be the greatest defensive tackle of all time. The San Francisco 49ers got to the Super Bowl last year riding their great defensive tackles, only to eventually fall to the Kansas City Chiefs due to the play of their own defensive tackle, Chris Jones.
Knowing that makes this list feel a bit underwhelming. There is so much defensive tackle talent around the league and seemingly none of it ended up in the NFC North. While there are a few standout talents towards the top of the list, there were slim pickings for players on this list of the best defensive tackles in the division.
5. Dean Lowry (Green Bay Packers)
Dean Lowry technically is not a defensive tackle, but he might as well be. He is listed as a defensive end, but he primarily plays as a 3-tech in a Packers defense that moves everyone everywhere.
Lowry is not a name that is known very well around the league, there probably are not many outside of Packers fans who know who he is. The defensive lineman jumps out on film though, and is clearly the best interior lineman on the team.
He set a career high with 47 combined tackles in 2019. He did not register a sack, though, as he does not provide much as a pass rusher. He is a great run defender, though, who can hold his gap as well as anyone.
4. Eddie Goldman (Chicago Bears)
Eddie Goldman is another primarily run stuffing defensive tackle that does not bring much to the table in terms of pass rushing. He took a step back in 2019, but still showed that he can do some work as an interior run stuffer.
Unlike Lowry, Goldman takes a lot of snaps at nose tackle. He is not a very disruptive pass rusher, but can generate a bit of pressure due to his intense strength as a bull rusher. The defensive tackle is immovable as a run defender, though, and is great at setting up his teammates for tackles.
At 6-foot-3, 318 pounds, the defender really just has to eat space in the middle to be a great player, and he does exactly that. He does not do much more than that, though.
3. Da’Shawn Hand (Detroit Lions)
It feels like the Detroit Lions desperately need Da’Shawn Hand back in the lineup. The defensive tackle suffered a serious elbow injury towards the start of training camp in 2019 and did not return until late in the regular season. While he was great in the limited time he did play, it is hard to really judge a player with only three limited snap games worth of film to go off of.
Hand was great before 2019, though. The defensive tackle was a standout in his rookie year after being selected on the final day of the 2018 NFL draft. He notched three sacks and 27 combined tackles, and was the only interior defender the Lions had that could reliably pass rush.
If Hand returns to his rookie form, he could one day be a top defensive tackle in the league. For now, though, Lions fans will just have to hope that injuries will not derail a promising career. Detroit’s defensive line was supposed to be among the best in 2019, yet it suffered greatly. Much of their failure can be credited to not having their ace defensive tackle.
2. Michael Pierce (Minnesota Vikings)
Former undrafted free agent Michael Pierce got his first NFL payday this offseason when he inked a three-year deal worth $27 million with the Minnesota Vikings. The Samford product made a name for himself with the Baltimore Ravens as a top-tier run stopper.
Pierce is remarkably similar to former Detroit Lions defensive tackle Damon Harrison Sr. While he is a little smaller, the defender is an unmovable nose tackle on the interior. He eats up so much space, and takes multiple offensive lineman to budge him an inch. His tackle numbers are not very high, notching only 19 combined tackles in 14 games last year, but he primarily plays as a set up man for the guys behind him.
The defensive tackle is not spectacular, but he is consistent. He does not show up on any highlight reels, and you would be forgiven for not even knowing his name. Similar to Harrison in Detroit, though, having a guy like him in the middle can entirely change your defense. It is likely the Vikings saw what happened when the Lions made a deal for Harrison midseason 2018, and decided to emulate that success themselves.
1. Akiem Hicks (Chicago Bears)
Akiem Hicks fell out of the spotlight in 2019 after an injury-riddled season limited him to only five games. If he returns to form in 2020, though, then he could once again be one of the league’s premier 3-tech pass rushers.
The defensive tackle broke out in 2016 after signing with the Chicago Bears from the New England Patriots. Over a three-year span between 2016 to 2018, he notched 23 sacks and 116 combined tackles. Hicks was also key to the 2018 Bears defense that led the team to a surprise NFC North title.
Hicks will turn 31 during the 2020 season, meaning that there is not a guarantee he continues play at that level for long. This is the age where you would expect that he regresses soon, and 2019 may be a sign that his body can no longer keep up. For now, though, it is hard to bet against him as the top defensive tackle in the North, especially in such a shallow group.