In the NFL, where the saying “bigger is better” often holds sway, there’s a unique story to be told about the players who defy this norm. Among the nearly 250 defensive linemen reviewed from the 2023 Week 1 rosters, a select few stand out not for towering over others, but for their shorter stature.
These are the 6 shortest defensive linemen in the league.
In this article, we turn the spotlight on these exceptional athletes and examine how they turn what some might see as a disadvantage into a formidable tool on the field. We’ll explore the distinctive challenges they face due to their height, and more importantly, the unique advantages they leverage to excel in the defensive line.
Shortest NFL Defensive Linemen
While the average height for NFL defensive linemen hovers around 6’3 3/4″, the athletes highlighted in our table set a different kind of standard.
It’s quite rare to find defensive linemen who excel at heights 6 feet and under. These players bring a unique dynamic to the game that can catch opponents off guard.
These players demonstrate that agility, leverage, and technique are just as crucial as height. They challenge the traditional perception of a defensive lineman’s build, proving that skill and determination can defy the norms and lead to success on the field.
- Height: 5’11”
- Team: Kansas City Chiefs
Poona Ford, at 5’11”, is a notable exception in the defensive tackle position for the Kansas City Chiefs. An undrafted free agent out of the University of Texas in 2018, Ford quickly established himself as a key contributor.
Known for his impressive strength and leverage, Ford excels in run defense and has a knack for penetrating the backfield. Despite his shorter stature, he compensates with exceptional lower-body strength and agility, making him a disruptive force against both the run and pass.
- Height: 6’0″
- Team: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Calijah Kancey was a standout at the University of Pittsburgh. In 2022, as a junior, he played in 11 games and contributed significantly with 19 tackles, 4 assists, and an impressive 8 sacks. His overall impact included 47 total pressures, comprising 30 quarterback hurries and 9 quarterback hits.
Kancey’s college career was marked by numerous accolades, including being a finalist for the Bronko Nagurski Trophy and the Outland Trophy, and winning the ACC Defensive Player of the Year in 2022. His strengths lie in his productivity as a one-gap defensive tackle, excellent body control, and leveraging his stature to create leverage.
Drafted 19th overall in the first round of the 2023 NFL Draft by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Kancey’s speed, technique, and instincts have drawn comparisons to Aaron Donald, despite his smaller size for the position.
- Height: 6’0″
- Team: Philadelphia Eagles
Michael Pierce, also 6’0″, is a defensive tackle for the Philadelphia Eagles. Originally signing as an undrafted free agent with the Baltimore Ravens in 2016 out of Samford University, Pierce quickly made a name for himself as a formidable run-stopper.
He has a reputation for being a powerful force in the interior line, using his size to his advantage in gaining leverage against bigger offensive linemen. His strength and ability to disrupt the running game have been key assets throughout his career, showcasing that size isn’t the only measure of effectiveness in the trenches.
- Height: 6’0″
- Team: Carolina Panthers
Grady Jarrett plays for the Carolina Panthers. Drafted in the fifth round of the 2015 NFL Draft by the Atlanta Falcons out of Clemson University, Jarrett has become one of the NFL’s top interior defensive linemen.
Known for his explosive first step and ability to disrupt the pocket, Jarrett has earned multiple Pro Bowl selections throughout his career. His playmaking ability, particularly in key moments, along with his consistent performance against both the run and pass, highlight his capability to overcome his lack of typical height for his position.
- Height: 6’0″
- Team: Chicago Bears
D.J. Jones is a defensive tackle for the Chicago Bears. Drafted in the sixth round of the 2017 NFL Draft by the San Francisco 49ers out of the University of Mississippi, Jones has carved out a reputation as a powerful run stopper.
Known for his exceptional strength and quickness off the snap, he excels in clogging running lanes and has shown the ability to pressure quarterbacks.
Jones’s performance, characterized by his high motor and effective use of leverage, makes him a significant contributor on the defensive line despite his shorter stature.
- Height: 6’0″
- Team: Cleveland Browns
Khalen Saunders plays defensive tackle for the Cleveland Browns. Drafted in the third round of the 2019 NFL Draft by the Kansas City Chiefs from Western Illinois University, Saunders is noted for his athleticism and agility, rare for a player of his position.
In college, he impressed with his ability to disrupt plays and versatility, even occasionally playing on offense. Saunders’s combination of speed, strength, and athletic ability allows him to be a versatile player on the Browns’ defensive front.
These six defensive linemen, each standing at 6 feet or below, demonstrate that height is not the sole defining factor for success in the trenches of the NFL.
Players like Poona Ford, Calijah Kancey, and Grady Jarrett have showcased that with exceptional technique, agility, and strength, a defensive tackle can be highly effective, regardless of their stature.
These players not only hold their own but excel in a position traditionally dominated by larger athletes, proving that in the NFL, talent and perseverance can defy physical limitations.