Knowing the quality of the edge rush in each week's opponent is a key to understanding how the matchup can affect passing production from the quarterback all the way down to the third down running back. It's also the key to team defense fantasy value. There are clear differences between the best and worst units and factors that can improve or detract from a unit's quality. Let's take a closer look.
32: New York Jets
This list starts off with an unsurprising team. At the moment, the perception of the New York Jets is that the franchise is tanking. Their edge defender situation isn’t helping the optics of that one bit. According to Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the Jets, the Atlanta Falcons, and the Indianapolis Colts were the major players in the free agency of Nick Perry, the Green Bay Packers outside linebacker who was considered to be the top pass-rusher to hit the open market before he re-signed with the team.
Atlanta fell short but drafted UCLA’s Takkarist McKinley in the first round of the draft in April. Indianapolis fell short but signed former New England Patriot Jabaal Sheard and former Houston Texan John Simon to three-year deals worth $39 million combined. The most significant 3-4 outside linebacker that the Jets brought in after missing out on Perry was Dylan Donahue, a fifth-round rookie from Division II’s West Georgia.
Last year, the Jets recorded just a 4.74% sack percentage on the defensive side of the ball, which ranks 57th among 64 teams over the last two years. They needed to add talent at outside linebacker. Even if the team does move around the perceived headache of Sheldon Richardson around the line of scrimmage, that only gives the team Richardson and Jordan Jenkins, who combined for four sacks last season, as significant outside linebackers.
New York is a uniquely blitz-heavy team, so their pass-rushers don’t mean as much to their defensive scheme, relative to their defensive back unit and defensive schemes across the league, but every team needs a baseline level of competent edge defenders.
31: Dallas Cowboys
According to Football Outsiders, the Dallas Cowboys played five defensive ends (Tyrone Crawford, Jack Crawford, David Irving, Ben Mayowa and DeMarcus Lawrence) more than 30% of their defensive snaps last season. To put that into perspective, their in-division rival New York Giants only played two defensive ends more than 30% of their defensive snaps.
Dallas was trying to work out pass-rushing issues on the fly last year. They missed on the signing of free agent Greg Hardy the year before. 2015 second-round pick Randy Gregory can’t get out of the league’s substance abuse program. Demarcus Lawrence had his own suspension to deal with in the third year of his career. Fourth-round pick Charles Tapper didn’t play a single snap for the Cowboys, as he was placed on injured reserve with a back injury. Even now, Irvin, who had a great end to his 2016 campaign, is going to start the season suspended. Irvin was undrafted when he entered the league, as he was kicked out of Iowa State.
Considering Irvin’s past, it’s hard to count on he or Gregory moving forward. That leaves you with the hope that Lawrence, who had eight sacks in 2015 but just one in 2016, bounces back and that Taco Charlton, the team’s first-round pick, makes an impact early. Charlton, who ran a 4.91-second 40-yard dash time, would be fighting a lot of data that says pass-rushing is an athleticism-based skill.
30: Detroit Lions
The Detroit Lions were 30th in the NFL in sack percentage last year. If their top pairing of defensive ends ever saw the field at the same time while totally healthy, it could be one of the best units in the sport.
In 2015, Ansah, a former first-round pick, recorded 14.5 sacks, vaulting him to the top tier of power rushers in the NFL. A high-ankle sprain derailed his 2016 campaign, which ended in just three sacks on the season.
One of the players who had to step up in the defensive end rotation when Ansah was ruled out was Hyder, a college defensive tackle who went undrafted out of Texas Tech in 2014. Going into Week 4 of the preseason last year, his third NFL preseason, Hyder had never recorded an NFL sack, either preseason or regular season. He had never even played in an NFL regular season game.
The then 25-year-old had a breakout game in that last week when he was fighting for a roster spot, as he pulled down Buffalo Bills quarterbacks three times, securing his roster spot. Coming off the bench as a hybrid end-tackle, Hyder recorded five sacks in the first four weeks of the season, pushing his sack total to eight sacks in his first year of NFL playing time.
There are plenty of pass-rushers who record an eight-sack season and fade away. As someone who watched every one of Hyder’s games last year, he’s legit. If anyone is looking for “the next Michael Bennett,” Hyder is as close as it’s going to get, down to the undrafted status and the state they played college football in. Think of Hyder’s 2016 like Bennett’s 2012, his last year with the Buccaneers when he recorded nine sacks before hitting the free agency market.
The Lions also signed Cornelius Washington this offseason, who came over from the in-division rival Chicago Bears. Washington was one of the better rotational 3-4 defensive ends in the NFL in terms of pass-rush generation, so a 4-3 transition should go over smoothly.
The issue is that Washington is now going to have to be a starter with Hyder on injured reserve for an Achilles injury. We might have to wait until 2018 for Ansah and Hyder to see the field while totally healthy. Until then, the Lions' top returning sack artist in Detroit is Armonty Bryant, who had three sacks last season. Bryant will serve out at least three suspensions between the 2016 and 2017 regular seasons. Detroit's in a bad spot with the Hyder injury.